Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 26 November 2010

Honouring Chazal

In the current battle between the rationalist and anti-rationalist groups within Torah observant Judaism, one argument continues to be raised by the anti-rationalist side that the rationalists seem not to have effectively rebutted.  The anti-rationalists contend that by casting doubt on Chazal's wisdom regarding science and other non-halachic matters, the rationalists are engaging in heresy.  Since the anti-rationalist view is that Chazal, in addition to their superior knowledge of halacha, also had ruach hakodesh in all other areas of knowledge and therefore their statements on anything are authoritative and considered must-believe for Jews, rationalists are outside the pale of proper Jewish belief by doubting the accuracy of Chazal's knowledge in this area.
The rationalists have not helped their cause by allowing the anti-rationalists to frame the terms of the debate.  The argument inevitably starts with the anti-rationalist side declaring that Chazal are infallible.  This forces the rationalist side to respond that, in fact, Chazal were fallible, leaving itself open to shouts of "kefirah!" After all, it's a slippery slope, isn't it?  If one thinks that Chazal were fallible in matters of science, then it's quite plausible to accuse one of thinking that their grasp of halacha was imperfect.  In addition, the anti-rationalist side has worked hard to create the impression that a literal reading of certain parts of the Torah which simply cannot be understood in that simplistic fashion is in fact the only way to read that part of the Torah and that such a method is a principle of the faith. 
All of this is a shame since most of the anti-rationalist positions are either indefensible or laughable, as these two short videos demonstrate.  When anti-rationalist positions are challenges head on using valid Torah sources, the only rebuttal seems to be "Well that's not what the Gedolim said so you're a kofer!"  Personally, I stopped using arguments like that around grade 6.
The solution to this problem for the rationalists is to aggressively reframe the debate.  Both sides agree that Chazal were great men who had a supreme knowledge of Torah that we can study and analyze but not improve upon.  We cannot know more Torah than them and they limits they set remain valid for our halachic analysis to this day.  However, the anti-rationalists have created a new image for Chazal, one is which they have become omniscient demigods with magical powers to turn people into piles of bones at will.  They believe that this is the best way to honour Chazal.
Therefore the rationalist position must be to challenge this head on.  Were Chazal supernatural beings, or were they great men with a desire to know God's will within the parameters of intellectual truth?  In short, if they were confronted with the fact that lice do not spontaneously generate from sweat but hatch from eggs like every other known insect on the planet, would they obfuscate with terutzim like "Well, nishtaneh hatevah" or "scientists are all liars" or would they re-examine the issue and learn about the new knowledge that postdated them?
When it comes to halacha, there can be no questioning of Chazal's authority.  When it comes to science, one must apply the standard that holds true in that field today, one of intellectual truth.  A real scientist, when confronted with evidence that opposes a theory or hypothesis of his, either tries to prove to contradictory facts wrong or adjusts his theory in light of the new information.  It should be the rationalist position that Chazal were men for whom truth, the seal of God Himself, was the overriding factor in their investigations of the natural world.  What they recorded in the Talmud was a reflection of the scientific truth of their day.  Had they been aware of other facts, like the size of the universe, the age of the planet, etc. they would have altered their views since truth is the overriding objective they were searching for.
For the anti-rationalists, Chazal are like global warming advocates who pick and choose the "facts" that fit their predetermined thesis.  The rationalists must oppose this on the basis that Chazal wanted honesty and facts as best known at any given time.  Thus a statement of Chazal that seems scientifically absurd today does not mean they are fallible.  Given the information available at the time they came to the most honest conclusions possible.  With the advancement of knowledge of the natural world and the development of the scientific method, we honour Chazal best by learning honestly about the universe around it and seeing how the Torah reflects itself in it since both are creations of God.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kosovo Redux?

One of the most pathetic wars of the 1990's was NATO's attack on Serbia to liberate Kosovo from the clutches of Slobodan Milosevic.  It was a conflict that made no sense in that no one's national interests were being helped or harmed by the ongoing civil war in Kosovo.  It was illegal in that NATO's charter allows for the alliance to use force against an enemy after one of its members has been attacked, the famous "An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us" rule.  It led to nothing constructive as Kosovo remains a thug and drug infested backwater to this day while Serbia has yet to reecover from the pounding it took.  Finally it led to deterioration in the state of relations between the West and Russia.  Serbia, after all, is a Russian ally and NATO's unopposed pounding emphasized the former Soviet Union's impotence to protect its traditional friends.
However, at the time I noted to anyone who would listen (both of them) that there was another purpose to the Kosovo raid.  Simply put, NATO was seeing if they could get away with attacking a state which was of no threat to them in defiance of their own charter and international law.  Why would they want to determine if they could?
1) The Kosovans are ethnic Albanians who moved to the area while it was under Turkish rule, displacing the Serbs who had previously lived there.
2) Despite enjoying a certain level of autonomy, their leadership, composed of terrorists and drug lords, started demanding independence in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia.
3) Their cause was quickly taken up by the West even though there is no record of an independent Kosovo in history while the Serbs do have an established connection to the province.
Does this sound familiar?  Let me spell it out:
1) The so-called Palestinians are ethnic Arabs who moved to the area while it was under Muslim rule, displacing the Jews who had previously lived there.
2) Despite enjoying a certain level of autonomy, their leadership, composed of terrorists and drug lords, started demanding independence in the wake of the Oslo Discord.
3) Their cause was quickly taken up by the West even though there is no record of an independent Palestine in history while the Jews do have an established connection to Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza.
At the time my concerns were scoffed at.  America, in particular, would never allow NATO to attack Israel.  The thought that the alliance would invade a country with which many of its members have important military and economic ties was thought to be too far fetched.
And now Haaretz has this small piece which made the hairs on the back of my neck (unlike followers, I have plenty o' those) stand on end:
 NATO will play an integral role in enforcing a Middle East peace deal, but will not play a direct role in reaching that agreement, the alliance's secretary general told Haaretz this weekend. "If a Middle East peace agreement is reached, an international military force will be needed to monitor and implement it," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
At a press briefing in the Portuguese capital, the secretary general said that unlike its member states, NATO as an organization is not involved in the peace process, but expressed support for the efforts of the United States and the other members of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators to reach a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
NATO has no business showing interest in MiddleEastern affairs.  Israel is not a threat to any NATO member, including Turkey, although the Turks seem to wish otherwise nowadays.  So why the sudden interest in enforcing the peace?
NATO has not managed to subdue the Taliban despite trying for almost 10 years.  They have never successfully fought a war anywhere except against Serbia which was outmatched by any one of the member states, never mind their combined might.  The UN maintains peacekeeping forces.  Why would NATO suddenly show an interest?
But imagine the possible scenario.  The Arabs have already threatened to go to the UN Security Council and get authorization to unilaterally declare statehood in Yehuda and Shomron.  The current negotiations between Israel and the United States of Obama regarding an extension of the construction freeze have raised the issue of the US vetoing any such move for 1 year.  Is it so crazy to imagine that after that time period Obama will support an unilateral declaration of independence?
And when Mahmood Abbas announces that he is inviting NATO troops to remove Israeli "aggressors" from his land, what happens next?  When the Turks announce their willingness to help their Arab brethren out under the banner of NATO and demand Israel let them come ashore, what happens in NATO headquarters?  Would a pushback against the Turks be considered an attack on NATO?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Never Failing to Disappoint

Rav Ovadiah Yosef, shlit"a, is without question an exceptional Talmid Chacham and a Gadol HaDor.  His works on medical halacha are required reading for physicians and his influence in the Jewish legal world is felt everywhere.
Unfortunately he's also a source of unwitting entertainment when it comes to the airing of his political views.  For years he has given speeches on Saturday nights and the presence of recording microphones in front of him has never made his shy away from speaking his mind.  Unfortunately what his mind speaks is sometimes difficult for others to hear and, unlike Ashkenazic leaders who rarely speak in public and who are often misrepresented by their askanim, he is quite willing to go on the record publicly.
His most recent statement, for example, grates at the nerves:
There are those who speak about yeshivot, as though they were created solely for great Torah scholars who will become rabbis and rabbinical judges, and if that doesn't suit the person, he should go to work,” Yosef said of Amsalem's doctrine, without naming him.
“These are not the voices of Torah, but against it; Torah learners sustain the world,” Yosef said.
“Whoever tells yeshiva boys to go to work is lacking faith in our Torah,” he said later in the talk.
This opinion seems surprising considering that in Sephardic culture there is a tremendous appreciation for the importance of labour.  The "learn don't earn" attitude is thought to be mostly confined to the Ashkenazim, especially the Litvish crowd.  However, it seems that along with black hats and suits, many amongst the Sephardim have imported this belief as well.
Does Torah study support the continued existence of the world?  Without a doubt, as Chazal tell us from a verse in Yirmiyahu that if Torah study did not constantly go on the world would be returned to tohu v'bohu
But working stiffs support the continued existence of Torah study, or so is the impression I get from the endless parade of learners who consider me God's agent (after all, God provides for their needs so as the guy who actually cuts the cheque, that makes me His agent, right?).  The Torah itself speaks about the value of labour while the Talmud reminds us that almost all of the great Sages of yore had day jobs.  Can Rav Ovadiah really had meant that a person who chooses the path of Zevulun is lacking faith in Torah?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Whither Modern Orthodoxy (Again)

One of the problems with a movement that prides itself on giving its members autonomy is that it is very difficult to define the parameters of that movement.  Chareidism has it relatively simple with very specific criteria that tell one how to be a good member.  With Modern Orthodoxy it's not so simple, especially as recent events regarding Rabbi Avi Weiss have demonstrated.
Perhaps another reason Modern Orthodoxy has trouble defining itself is the name the movement has chosen.  The English equivalent of Chareidism is Ultra-Orthodoxy which pretty much tells you what the public image of that community is - you find the chumra and they'll take it on.  What does Modern mean?  Does it refer to the style of dress, an acceptance of television and movies as an acceptable part of life, or an approach to halacha that differs from the Ultra-Orthodox?
For many, there is an impression that while the Chareidim are stuck in the Dark Ages and unwilling to change anything about halacha, the Modern Orthodox are willing to be flexible, almost to a fault, at ensuring that Jewish law changes to keep up with developing needs in the community as well as expectations from the surrounding secular culture.
However, neither of these impressions is actually true, despite what some might think as this article about Rav Daniel Sperber, demonstrates:
The Orthodox world has dealt with the “uncertainty” and “perplexity” brought on by these changes in two ways, Sperber says. One is to “retreat behind the walls,” condemning all change as a threat to “the nostalgic picture of what Judaism was.” The haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, and “the so-called right wing of modern Orthodoxy,” take their cue from the 18th- and 19th-century Talmudist and teacher known as the Chatam Sofer, who ruled that “chadash assur min ha-Torah,” or, “Innovation is forbidden by the Torah.” That began, Sperber says, as a technical point about the laws of the harvest; was applied “out of context” to Orthodoxy’s conflict with the new Reform movement in Germany and Hungary (and even among the Orthodox, Sperber says, it was considered “a very extreme statement”) and finally became a universal rule.
Sperber gave two examples of from the Hungarian town of Mattersdorf (now Mattersburg in Austria). The synagogue had never been heated, and during the winter the synagogue officials had to pay people to come to be sure of having 10 adult men for prayers. But when someone proposed installing a fireplace, Sperber said, the reaction was, “Our forefathers didn’t have it, and chadash assur min ha-Torah.”
Synagogues had never had benches, either, only upright reading desks known in Yiddish as shtenders. That made for a lot of discomfort during the long High Holiday services, but the idea of bringing in benches met the same fate: “Our forefathers didn’t have them …” (“Did he say he’s bringing in examples,” a bystander whispered, “from Mattersdorf or from Chelm?” -- the legendary Jewish town of fools.)
The problem with this analysis is obvious: does anyone know a Chareidi today who won't use electricity, a chair or even toilet paper, all innovations since the Chasam Sofer's famous proclamation?  Do Chareidim hand-sew all their clothes?  Do they insist on books that are printed on old-fashioned presses without any assistance from computers?  What Rav Sperber is describing is of historical interest but hardly applicable to the Chareidi community today.
Many in the Modern Orthodox community don't like being labelled as "less frum" than their Chareidi brethren but if you take a moment to look at those areas that Modern Orthodoxy claims it is more involved in, it becomes very clear that Chareidim are there too - doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock brokers, computers, engineering and many more professions.  It's true that a smaller proportion of that community is engaged in such fields but that is usually because of a greater commitment to the idea that full-time learning is as acceptable a profession as gainful employment.  Perhaps the greatest difference is the idea that Chareidim use those professions for their purposes (making money to support the local yeshivah, for example) while the Modern Orthodox are more likely to immerse themselves in the culture of the profession itself.
If this is so, then how does Modern Orthodoxy distinguish itself?  It's interesting to observe that more many, the main focus of attention is the same as that of the Chareidi community in recent years: gender separation and sexuality.  While the Charedi leadership in recent years has attempted to emulate Talibanistic standards in terms of definitions of tznius as separation of men and women in public, those on the left fringe of Modern Orthodoxy have gone the other way, trying to push the limits of what halacha will allow in terms of minimizing feminine-specific clothing, gender separation and even roles in prayer.  This focus, to the exclusion of an approach to the greater problems facing the Jewish nation, is beneficial for neither group.
It must be recommended that Modern Orthodoxy stop worrying about the stereotypes of Chareidim we have all allowed ourselves to become hypnotized with.  Instead of reacting, Modern Orthodoxy needs to start defining itself and building its strengths along the lines of those definitions.  It means looking that the halachic literature and analyzing it with proper methodology to determine what behaviours and beliefs are considered properly Orthodox instead of looking to secular culture for answers and then trying to find supports within the poskim.  Modern Orthodoxy, in short, should be about Orthodoxy, not Modernity.

Friday, 12 November 2010

A Man for All Ages

One of the problems Jewish education has had for the last 1500 years or so is a lack of priority in studying the Bible.  The Torah gets memorized, to be sure, but once Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, ascends Har Nevo for the last time interest quickly falls off.  Some books have reamined popular, like the five megillos and Tehillim, while other parts are familiar because they are found in a haftarah somewhere.  But huge chunks of the Bible never get read, other than as disjointed verses which appear to prove a legal point or two in the Talmud. 
This is a terrible shame since, as my father loves to say repeatedly, you can learn how to do Judaism from the Talmud but you have to read the Bible to know how God wants you to be a Jew. 
One of the main books that prove this point is the book of Yirmiyahu, Jeremiah.  If there's one book that warns us in the modern day of the dangers of complacency and false piety, it's Yirmiyahu.  From warnings against political disunity to a reminder that God's protection is not unconditional and that we have to earn His respect and guidance, Yirmiyahu hammers away at misconceptions that still plague us today.  As this article notes:
From this it is easy enough to discern where Lau locates Jeremiah's contemporary relevance. The state of Israel is weighed down today by serious social problems, from the status of foreign workers to forced prostitution—problems often pushed aside by the need to focus on the country's strategic situation. Among some, there is also a kind of insouciance about the country's supposed indestructibility, an attitude no less superstitious than the ancient dependence on the Temple. As Lau notes toward the end of his book:
There are still false prophets in Jerusalem proclaiming, "We have a tradition from our forefathers that the third commonwealth [i.e., the state] won't be destroyed." Their function is to put us to sleep and make us forget our weighty responsibility: to be deserving of this house.
Lau's Jeremiah is thus a rabbi's warning against national and/or religious self-confidence divorced from a social conscience and the commitment to moral excellence. In one sense, it may be said (though Lau doesn't say it) that his warning goes to the heart of the modern project itself, and to the war waged by hard-boiled thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes to emancipate politics from theology. Reversing the trajectory, Lau's Jeremiah reconnects the two by implying that their disconnection was what doomed the Jewish state in the first place. In this sense, his warning is pertinent to contemporary situations, and dilemmas, well beyond the state of Israel.
More specifically, though, Jeremiah constitutes a challenge to Zionist and religious-Zionist pieties. Among secular Israelis, interest in the Bible has waned with the passing of the heroic phase of the Zionist revolution. Meanwhile, within the religious-Zionist camp, a battle has been waged between those who would read the Bible "at eye-level"—meaning, on its own terms and without the mediating presence of traditional commentaries, and those who consider it forbidden to read the text without the aid of those commentaries.
Yirmiyahu reminds us that it is not enough to go through the motions of doing Jewish.  He repeatedly informs us that the first Jewish state was not destroyed because women wore denim skirts, the children watched television, or that people didn't wait long enough between meat and milk.  The state was destroyed because of theft, violence, murder and marital immorality.  It was destroyed because people saw God the way a child sees Him - give Him a gift and He has to give you what you want.  It's okay to sin.  Just remember to bring a sacrifice to Him afterwards and He has to forgive you.  The Torah says so!
Is that so different from many in the religious community today who countenance theft, pedophilia and political corruption but turn around and shout about their piety when it comes to tznius and avoiding the temptations of secular culture?  What would Yirmiyahu say to them today?  How would they respond?  With the same dismissiveness and violence that our ancestors treated him with?
There is no question that every single mitzvah in the Torah is of inestimable value and that a Judaism that bypasses some in order to emphasize others is incomplete and improper.  The Reform Jew who works hard at giving charity and what he thinks is tikun olam while not keeping Shabbos or kashrus is not doing well.  The religious Jew who only eats mehadrin food and waits two hours extra for havdala but cheats his employees and on his wife is no different.
But if we are to emphasize what is absolutely necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, then some things do rise to the surface.  Decency, honesty, respect for our difference and for one another.  An acceptance that while the halacha is binding it is deep and multi-faceted so that there is rarely only one answer to an important question.  But most importantly, a constant remembering that God is above us, watching our actions and hoping for us to do well.  Like children desiring to please a parent, we too muc always remember that what we do is for our good and to please Him, not the guy watching us through the blinds across the street.  This is the message of Yirmiyahu and one that needs to be preached again in our day.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Passive Aggressive

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the holy bible of Psychiatry.  While most other diagnoses in medicine require a certain standardized approach in terms of things which rule a condition in or out, Psychiatry lives and dies by the fixed criteria contained in the DSM.  One could be crying uncontrollably for 13 days but you have to be despondent for 14 to be diagnosed with major depression, for example.
To its credit, the DSM does change over time to reflect new understandings in mental illness.  Conditions appear and disappear depending (usually) on new research and discoveries.  Sometimes these changes are controversial (homosexuality was removed by open vote at an annual APA meeting, for example) and sometimes they are just odd.
For example, the DSM III contained a personality disorder called "Passive Aggressive".  Now, we all know folks like this.  They whinge and whinge for help but throw up roadblacks the minute any is offered.  They prefer to be in a state of misery, finding it familiar and comfortable.  They are clearly the most frustrating folks to treat.
Yet the DSM IV removed Passive Aggressive.  It was felt by the researchers at the APA that most of the features were similar enough to the Dependent personality disorder and therefore Passive Aggressives could be subsumed into that category.  Me, I disagreed but who am I to know better than the APA?
If there is one example of Passive Aggressive in the Jewish world, it is definitely the Israeli Chareidi community.  One need only look at the statements of its leaders and PR bagmen to see how the criteria play out.  The most recent article in the Israeli press regarding Chareidim and army service is just another example.  As usual, the author puts the blame on the secular population.  It's not that the Ultra-Orthodox don't want to servce.  The Chareidim, it seems, are just not wanted in the army because they're too different:
I will never forget the experience of going through my IDF tests as an adolescent. The slang that was used along with the cursing was more than I heard since the day I was born to that day. Indeed, those who boldly stand up and speak out bluntly are right: The haredim aren’t really fit for military service.
I have no doubt that fans of cheap populism will speak out now and slam these words, which many good people know are true. Meanwhile, some politicians will continue to utter hateful words, because this hatred motivates their actions and they won’t let the facts confuse them. They shall continue to stick to their theories, just like they will continue to demand that the haredim head out to work, without checking how many are already working and how many want to work but can’t, because they did not serve in the IDF or because their studies are not recognized as an academic degree.
The Israeli army has, since the founding of the State, proved that no one is unwanted when it comes to military service.  Where the Russians who came en masse 20 years ago so similar to Israelis that integrating them wasn't an issue?  Did the Ethiopians just blend in when their turn came?  Somehow the IDF has absorbed disparate populations, as much variety as the UN claims to have, but the Chareidim are the exception to the rule?
Over twenty years ago I recall reading an article in The Jerusalem Post about a failed effort to create a new Chareidi unit.  All efforts were made to ensure there would be no problems.  No training on Shabbos, only male instructors, time for learning, etc.  And why did the program fail?  The recruits wanted mehadrin min mehadrin food and the stuff supplied was only mehadrin!  A shande!  How could such an insensitive thing happen?
The idea that somehow it's the secular popuation that is making the army inhospitable to the Chareidi community is an insult to both the Chilonim who have bent over backwards to create as Jewish an army as possible and to the Chareidim who actually do serve in the army and show that these pretend obstacles can be overcome, that it is possible to protect the State and being fully yiras Shamayim at the same time.  No amount of passive aggressive whinging by an author who admits that he was too fat for army service anyway will change that.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Beyond The End Of One's Nose

There is no doubt that Chabad takes whatever it does to extremes.  There is no Jewish group more active in more far-flung places of the world than them.  Despite a lack of local resources that would drive out less-committed Yidden, Chabad emissaries live full Jewish lives in scattered places around the globe, providing a taste of Yiddishkeit to any of our brethren who happen to wander by.  Their dedication to kiruv is also unmatched and they work with great fervour to bring back lost Jews to Torah.
Unfortunately it is human nature to let extremism cut both ways.  While a moderate often refuses to take a defined stand on anything, an extremist will have a firm opinion about everything and a refusal to budge from it.  The problem with Chabad's extremism is that its desire to bring Jews back to Judaism is matched by a belief that their Judaism is the only real kind. 
As Rav Shmuely Boteach, former black sheep of the movement, notes in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post:
I knew then in theory what I just witnessed in practice: Chabad emissaries would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they pursued their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate people about their tradition, but Chabad sought to raise all Earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness, and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life.
The passionate dedication of the Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather, it coursed through their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of God and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of his or her character and personality.
WITNESSING THE fulfillment of that promise at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew in to attend the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad conference. If an Israeli prime minister wants to be part of the unfolding of modern Jewish history, he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach or grassroots impact. And it is growing exponentially.
They don't read newspapers and are unlikely to care about what Rav Boteach says but one can imagine going to the Rebbes of Ger, Belz and Satmar (both of them), all of them significantly larger in size than Lubavitch despite a total lack of outreach, and telling them: "Did you know that Chabad is Judaism?"
Indeed, Rav Boteach should know this.  All the shluchim should know that theirs is not the largest sect within Orthodox Judaism and that within the Chareidi community they are relegated to the fringe with the Bratzlovers, a kooky sect that might be scrupulous in the performance of some mitzvos but which endorse beliefs and worldviews unacceptable to the main group.
Then there's the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi who would also be shocked to know that they are not Judaism.  Never mind the pantheon of thinkers and towering figures they lay claim to.  Never mind all the learning and practice.  They aren't Judaism because they're not Chabad?
Yet there is the other side that Rav Boteach mentions and must be emphasized. As Rav David Berger notes in his book on the subject, Chabad is expanding within significant parts of the Jewish community through a clever strategy.  Just as leftists realized long ago that if one infiltrates the school system to ensure that children are raised with a socialist/politically correct philosophy so as to create a large group of support later on, Chabad realized long ago that going where no frum Jews could be found was like mining for gold.  There is a reason Chabad is found in isolated small Jewish communities that no one else pays attention to, why they show up on campuses even in cities with a large Torah-observant population and why they pay so much attention to Jewish communities and travellers in such places as Russia and India. 
Generally one does not find Chareidim in these places since they prefer large centres where they have resources, yeshivos and other such supports.  One doese not find Dati Leumi there either since the movement's focus is on Eretz Yisrael, not golus.  Asd a result, if you're a non-religious Jew living in a small town in the American mid-west, or a student venturing onto a university campus, or a villager someone in Siberia, chances are the only frum Jew you'll ever meet is a Chabad shaliach
The consequence of this is obvious - if all you ever want from the Chabadnik is chicken soup on Friday night and the occasional raucous Purim party, that's fine but if you want to learn more about Judaism you will be introduced to Torah observance but through the Chabad lens which is, in many ways exhaustively documented elsewhere, different from conventional Torah observance.  What's more, you will be taught that theirs is, like Rav Boteach say, the Judaism of our ancestors, the only real type, the kind that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, brought down from Har Sinai.
One might raise an objection by pointing out that Aish HaTorah and Ohr Sameach are hardly different in that approach to kiruv.  This is definitely true.  Ask an Aish or Ohr rav about the age of the Earth and you will be told the only legitimate answer is 5771 years.  They won't teach you about the Rav or Rav Kook either in those places. 
But the significant difference is that Aish and Ohr generally restrict themselves to large communties, as I noted above regarding Chareidim in general.  You won't find Aish in Woebegone, Minnesota.  You just might find Chabad.
Through their kiruv, Chabad is indeed working very hard to present a specific type of Torah Judaism to the non-religious masses who don't know about the depth and variety of Torah observance.  They are working hard to convince the multitudes that Nusach Ari is the only siddur God hears you pray and that a certain deceased rabbinical figure really is the Moshiach, that it is a fundamental principle of Judaism and an actual halacha to believe this, and that he is just waiting for the opportunity to reveal himself and bring the final salvation.
That Chabadniks don't realize that Judaism is far bigger than them and that their beliefs are not standard in the rest of the Torah community is regrettable.  That the rest of the Torah Jewish community is sitting back while they divert our non-religious brethren into their narrow camp isn't.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A Hidden Gem

Long-time readers of this blog know that when it comes to learning Talmud I prefer the Steinsaltz classic edition to the Artscroll.  There are a few reasons for this but my principle one is the different format.  With Artscroll, both in the Hebrew and English, the footnotes seem to form a constant disruption while reading the text.  You read a couple of words and bang!  You need to look at a footnote.  Then you return to the text, read a line or two and again, another footnote.  I find this way of reading quite disruptive.  It also doesn't help that half of the footnotes in the Artscroll are completely unnecessary and could have been interpolated into the text with a few words.  In the Steinsaltz edition, the notes at the bottom are more comprehensive and can be read after finishing the sugya in question which allows my learning to flow more easily.
However, one major limitation of the Steinsaltz edition is that it only has one volume of the Yerushalmi, Peah, with no plans for more.  If one wants to learn the Yerushalmi in addition to the Bavli, there is one popular effort, that of Artscroll's (surprise!)  Like the Bavli, the format involves the text above and copious footnotes below.  In addition, there are Hebrew and English versions in the works over the next few years.  Wishing to pick up some Yerushalmi over the next few years, I had resigned myself to relearning the Artscroll method and planned on picking up some volumes.
And then one night while surfing on the internet I came across the website of one Rav Yechiel Bar-Lev, shlita.  A quick look at Rav Bar-Lev's biographical information quickly reveals that (a) he is a very learned Talmid Chacham and (b) he clearly doesn't sleep, how else to explain the prodigious amount of work he has produced in the past few years.  He has produced two important works, one an edition of the Zohar with a readable Hebrew elucidation, and an entire set of the Yerushalmi.  One can view sample pages from both on line.  The Yerushalmi, in particular, grabbed my attention for his unique format.  Like the Artscroll he has the classic Talmud page and on the opposite side he has his interpretive Hebrew translation, copying Artscroll's fonts and style.  However, at the bottom of the page his footnotes read like the Steinsaltz Talmud's, more comprehensive and not requiring one to look up and down, up and down, like the Artscroll's.  A perfect synthesis.
Having ordered and received a set, I can say I have not been disappointed and look forward in the near future to starting a daf yomi with this edition to complement the Bavli one.  I encourage everyone to peruse Rav Bar-Lev's site and see the products for themselves.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Needed: Insight

One of the biggest reasons for conflicts between different groups is a lack of insight on the part of leaders and followers on each side.  So busy are both sides in accusing one another of various crimes that neither steps back and asks: Are we part of the problem?  If we fix ourselves, might things improve?
Years ago my wife and I visited Israel together and spent time with both Chiloni and Chareidi friends.  While with the former we heard about all the evils of the ultra-Orthodox population.  While with our religious friends we heard about how degenerate secular cutlure was.  And it occured to me: both sides are right.  The Chareidim are guilty of what the Chilonim accuse them of, and vice versa.  Both groups have their strengths but also their shortcomings which their opponents constantly choose to focus on.
But when each group confronts the other from a position of righteousness - you are the evil ones, we are the victims! - then only bad consequences can emerge.  Such is the nature of the ongoing strife in Israel between the religious and non-religious populations.  A splendid example of a complete lack of insight into the situation can be found in this Ynet article:
We can understand those who disagree with people who value Torah studies over convenience and the good life. We did not ask anyone to laud these yeshiva students – but why humiliate them?

If you do not want minorities in the Israeli state, and if you are unwilling to live alongside those who are different than you, declare it openly and expel us: The Arabs to Lebanon and Egypt, us haredim to the United States, and leave the State of Tel Aviv intact. The scope of venom directed at us makes it appear as though we personify all the wickedness and corruption around here, yet none of these loud critics have the courage to stand up and say the same things about Israeli Arabs. When it comes to the Arabs, these critics support dialogue, patience, and affirmative action. But not with the haredim.

We, the haredim, do not need anyone’s kosher certificate for Israel’s right to exist in the Holy Land. This land is promised to its scholars and thinkers in the Book of Books. Without substantive attachment to the Bible, we have no place here, amidst the hundreds of millions of Muslims. Hence, despite the occasional waves of incitement, more and more people move closer to the Creator.
The problem with this cri de couer is that it completely ignores the reasons why the secular community has become so virulently anti-Chareidi.  In the last year we have been subjected to non-stop stories about Chareidi violence, Chareidi corruption, Chareidi chumros, Chareidi demands, and with the advent of the internet what the Chareidim are saying about non-Chareidim is now also publicly broadcast.  The image of the poor, innocent, suffering shtetl dweller who has done nothing to bring down the wrath of the Satan upon himself but endures nonetheless carries no weight outside those who would love to believe that image is true.
Is the average Chareidi an evil entity?  No, chas v'shalom we should think that the average Chareidi is anything other than decent, devoted and full of love of God and Am Yisrael.  But the public face of the community is not representative of this individual.  Whether its triumphalist bovine faeces at odds with reality, revisionist screeds lacking in facts, or just generally poor writing, the appearance is one of a community completely oblivious to its negative points and willing to smear any outsider in the name of God the all-merciful.  And it is this appearance that the Chilonim are rallying against.
Who is right?  Well, as I concluded during that visit years ago, both sides are.  The bottom line is that the secular community in Israel brings many important things to the country.  Their spirit, innovative spirits and willingness to work hard under pressure is what has allowed Israel to survive the hatred of its neighbours and much of the world since 1948.  They are the builders and sustained of the State and without them Israel would still be a malaria-infested swamp/desert.
But on the other hand, Israel is a nation unique in that its raison d'etre is constantly relevant.  No one questions Britain's place in Europe, or Luxembourg but the idea of a Jewish state in the MiddleEast is controversial enough, all the more so a secular European-style social democracy.  If not for the Jewish element, Israel would lose its relevance, its need to exist.  After all, there are lots of places in the world for secular socialists and capitalists to live but Jews have a special tie to a very specific tract of land in only one place in the world.  The Chareidim at their best provide much of that Jewish character and ensure that it endures.
In short, both sides need each other for Israel to endure as it has.  One must hope against hope that leaders will emerge on both sides that will realize this and announce to their followers that it is time to listen to the criticisms directed against them and respond constructively.  Perhaps the secular community could stand a little more Torah in their lives.  Certainly the Chareidim could go to work.  And that would be the ideal outcome.

The Achievement of a Lifetime

Although we are blessed to live in a time when the publishing of seforim is occuring at an unprecedented rate, there are still occasions when one particular sefer or set comes out which stands out from all the rest.  Such a set is the Steinsaltz Talmud, four decades in the making and finally officially complete as of November 7.
The project is one that has revolutionized learning.  Back in  the late 1960's when the Rav began his translation and elucidation of the Talmud, there was one English-Hebrew version of the Talmud available, the Soncino, which was a remarkable achievement but not the greatest to learn from given its awkward English style, limited footnotes and lack of correlation between the English and Hebrew pages.  In addition, there was nothing for the Hebrew-speaking market in Israel.  Unless you were raised in a yeshiva environment, the Talmud was a closed book for you.
Rav Steinsaltz, like Pinhas Kehati before him with the Mishnah, set out to make the Talmud intelligible for the masses.  He revolutionized the Vilna daf, creating a new format that left the text, Rashi and Tosafos on the page but added his own interpretive commentary which included Hebrew translations of the Aramaic parts of the text.  He also added additional notes that the bottom and sides of the page to add depth to one's learning both in traditional (bringing Rishonim and Acharonim) and innovative (bringing etymological and historical pieces) ways.
Naturally his efforts to bring Torah to the masses raised opposition from some corners.  There were those who claimed that the Vilna format that he had adjusted was supposed to be unchangeable and that he had shown great chutzpah in doing so.  What's more, his commentary occupied the column where Rashi's had traditionally been put.  I recall a personal anecdote from several years ago learning with this volume and asking a dedicated kollel-type a question on the daf.  Apparently the answer was in one of the Tosafos but after staring at the Steinsaltz page for a moment he rolled his eyes and groaned in frustration.  "I can't find Tosafos in this crazy format" he muttered.  I immediately point out where Tosafos was and helpfully pointed out "See?  It's labelled with the word: Tosafos".  He wasn't impressed.  I didn't care.
It also doesn't help that Rav Steinsaltz has raised controversy in other areas:
But as scholars and Jewish leaders herald his remarkable accomplishment, Steinsaltz himself has become a figure of controversy, criticized in some Orthodox circles for what many consider his unorthodox behavior. 

Five years ago he found himself outside the Orthodox consensus for accepting the post of nasi, or president, of a modern-day Sanhedrin, a re-creation of the ancient Jewish legal body that set ritual observance for the Jewish people. Steinsaltz’s decision a year later to hold Rosh Hashanah services in which the shofar was sounded on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah -- a practice banned centuries ago by the Jewish sages -- caused further controversy. 
Having had the zechus to meet the Rav it is easy to see why his behaviour might be seen as odd by others.  Simply put, if we the average folk are on the first floor in terms of intellectual ability, the Rav is on the 10th floor seeing and considering things that wouldn't occur to us.  For him the Torah is not a strait jacket limiting one's activities but a book of possibilities in how to approach God and feel a connection to him.
Of course, there haven't been speedbumps along the road towards the completion of the Talmud project.  While he was lauded at the time for releasing an English translation of the Talmud, in truth the project never had a chance of being successful in the way Artscroll's was.  After 22 volumes covering a handful of tractates, it became clear that a final project would be over 100 volumes and it was abandoned.  In addition, the product was so English  that the books opened left to right, not the traditional right to left.  Finally, Artscroll's masterpierce Schottenstein Talmud emerged (some say with the specific objective of wiping out the Steinsaltz English initiative).  Although there are rumours that the Rav is considering another attempt at an English-Hebrew Talmud which would more closely resemble the Artscroll effort, it's worth considering whether such an endeavour would be worthwhile, given Artscroll's lock on the market.
The other major disappointment for me was his Yerushalmi project.  Never mentioned now, the Rav initially planned to complete not only the entire Talmud Bavli but also those tractates in the Yerushalmi which lacked a corresponding Bavli.  When the size and scale of the project became obvious, this plan was quietly dropped.  The only memory of it is the lone volume of Peah that remains as a teaser of what might have been.
In summary, we are witnessing a tremendous achievement by a tremendous talmid chachami who has changed the face of Talmud learning in the Jewish world forever. Kol hakavod.