Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday 30 December 2011

Modern Orthodoxy - The Solution Part 2

A guest post by Dr. Michael Schweitzer

On the centrality of learning

Traditional Jewish practice divides into two even components - doing and learning, na'aseh v'nishma.  While the comments on those two words are legion, the basic principle is simple: we do not simply practice what our fathers told us to.  Ours is not a religion of mindless observance but rather we are expected to understand what we do, learn its reasons and sources and make that knowledge part of our practice.  The idea of learning about Judaism for its own sake and no practical purpose, is the highest value we can aspire to and one only rarely truly achieved.  Whereas in any practical discipline like science or accounting the learning serves as an aid to practice, for us learning is part of the practice and, according to the Chazal, of enough value to be equal to all the rest of the mitzvos.
It is therefore important that Modern Orthodoxy add to its definition an acknowledgement that the centrality of learning is what defines Judaism now and always.  It is admirable to never cease learning and to always seek to expand one's horizons.  What's more, this knowledge cannot be seen on par with other fields.  A well-educated doctor is a good professional but a well-educated Jew is a holy person.  As a result, a person's commitment to Orthodoxy, in addition to daily practice, must be measured with the level of his commitment to learning.  A person who does all the right things when it comes to keeping kosher, Shabbos and davening but who does not see having a time set aside each day exclusively for Torah study, who does not set learning goals for himself, who is not constantly trying to increase his knowledge of Torah Judaism may be a sincere and decent person but is not behaving in a genuinely Orthodox fashion.
However, the slogan "Learning Torah is important" is merly that, a slogan with all the emptiness the term implies.  While we recognize that learning Torah lishmah is of supreme importance it is also important to realize that Torah study should change a person into something better.  One who spends his days commited to learning but has no problem behaving like a boor in public to those he does not identify with is a naval b'rhus ha Torah.  His learning has not changed him.  Like the difference between hearing and listening, he may have studied Torah but he hasn't learned any.  This is not an idle thought considering the events that are even now convlusing Jewish society in parts of Israel.
Therefore Modern Orthodoxy needs to further define proper learning as the kind which creates a better Jews, not simply a more educated one.  Does the learning lead to the formation of a kinder person?  Is a person inspired by his learning to be a better member of society?  Does he take both the legal and the moral lessons of the Gemara in front of him away from the Beis Medrash or does he, as the old Israeli saying goes, divide and say Zot hadat aval zeh haesek?
It is therefore important for Modern Orthodox institutions format the education experience of their students along these lines.  Which is more important: to produce Jewish children who can know Bava Metzia off by heart but who don't appreciate the moral importance of the material therein or those who understand that we are to be a positive example to the world through our behaviour and that knowledge of the Gemara is a means to that end? Who is the better student: the one who can recite the entire chapter of Eilu Metzios along with Rashi but never realizes how it applies to him or the one who goes above and beyond to return lost objects even when the halacha doesn't strictly demand it because he feels to do otherwise would be wrong and not in consonance with what God and Chazal would want of him?
It is also important to teach children that Torah study is an ongoing process of inquiry, of discussion and of increasing depth.  Simple answers, dogmatic phrases and the like are things they should be taught to be wary of.  And more than anything else they should be encouraged to challenge teachers with the simple question: Why?  As opposed to systems in which deference and limitation of thinking is encouraged to avoid challenges to a pre-determined ideology, Modern Orthodoxy's "dogma" should be one of exploring Torah to its fullest depth since the greater the understanding, the greater the reward.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Rejecting A Version of the "Torah Lifestyle"

Even as condemnation of the zealotry in Israel grows, so too does the sideways justification by some of elements of this rabble.  After months of accelerating hatred, violence and public chilul HaShem, the leaders of the Chareidi world and their PR bagmen, a group that can never be accused of indecent haste when it comes to noting deficits in their own community, have finally started to speak out on behalf of their followers and against the fascist mobs that would seek to refine Judiams as Talibanism with peyos
Taken superficially their words are quiet heartening.  Consider Rav Yitzchok Aderlstein's recently published piece which brims with anger against those who would distort the Torah lifestyle he clearly and passionately sees as a force for good into one of unadulterated hate:
To anyone not familiar with the history and dynamics of the charedi communities of Israel – and the century-and-a-half-long kulturkampf that created it, there is nothing in the pictures coming from Israel to differentiate the mobs in Beit Shemesh from those in Pakistan or Iraq. No amount of casuistry will put a dent in the plain truth: the behavior of many people who are seen as frum is a massive chilul Hashem of epic proportions.
Rabbinic and communal organizations are readying statements denouncing the barbarians at the gates of Beit Shemesh. This is necessary and good. It is probably not good enough. The extremists are not the equivalent of the poor, semi-literate unwashed masses in the Muslim suburbs of Paris. They were the recipients of many years of Torah chinuch. They studied, to some degree, the same seforim as the rest of us.
Even after we protest, the world will want to know what makes us more authentic than them. Why are they not the “real” Jews, and we are the reformers? How do we demonstrate that they are the imposters, that their understanding of Yiddishkeit is foreign to its genuine spirit? It is simply insufficient to say that we are right and they are wrong, or that our rabbis and leaders are greater than theirs. We dare not leave the very definition of Yiddishkeit to a he says, she says competition.
It is not enough to unequivocally denounce them. We must explain to the world – and fully and confidently to ourselves – why the extremists are a foreign, sickly weed, not another shitah among many. Where do we find within our mesorah the confidence to see these people as outside of it? We must be able to point not just to a collection of their terrible actions, but to fundamental themes in their lifestyle that make them different – and that we can package simply and reinforce in our children and students.
For those who were offended by the strident tone of  his recent piece condemning Morthodoxy this article is a definite wake-up call.  While he was certainly emotional when it came to describing what he didn't like about "Open Orthodoxy" he was careful to emphasize the good intentions of those involved in that community despite his strong disagreement with their twisting of the halachic process.  He is not so generous here with the chayos who are rampaging across the sacred ground of Israel and pretending to be its most fervent defenders.
There are, of course, some small problems with the article.  Using the term "Chareidi Spring" in the title in one example.  The Arab Spring started when ordinary citizens in Arab countries, tired of their permanent states of emergency and dictatorship, rose up in protest with the intention of changing their entire society. 
By contrast, there is no Chareidi spring.  There are no Chareidi leaders or writers who will publicly admit that the community is totally on the wrong track, that the leaders are heading the community bus to the edge of a cliff and that massive change is necessary.
In fact, as if to prove this point, a statement attributed to Rav Eliashiv, shlit"a, seems to have been timed to come out at the exact moment that it will cause the most provocation.
Far from stating that perhaps some Chareidi elements have gone too far in their rejection of the surrounding society, or from mentioning that spitting on people who are considered "less religious" is a real aveirah , the statement (and I do keep in mind that it is entirely possible Rav Eliashiv had nothing to do with it and that this was published by some fanatics in his name on the mere assumption he would agree with its contents) rejects any "Arab Spring" coming from within the Chareidi community.  Any push from the real world is hatred for Torah, hatred for Torah Jews, etc.
According to Elyashiv, "The secret and foundation of the existence of the world of Torah and a fearful public is in a life of Torah and awe, out of complete segregation from the life and concepts of the secular world of those rebelling against the Torah."
Referring to Israel's academic institutions, the Lithuanian public's leader noted, "We know how just how much the greatest sages of Israel fought against any 'haredi educational institution' intended for such studies and denounced it, especially when they openly declare that the goal of all these courses is to change the spirit and essence of the haredi public and work to instill all kinds of other aspirations, national and educational, which our forefathers never dreamed of." 
Haredi journalist Shlomo Kook, an associate of the Elyashiv family, explained the letter: "The wild incitement in recent days against the haredi public emphasizes and deepens the need to strengthen our home, remind the world of Torah that in every generation one rises up to destroy us – sometimes from the outside and recently, unfortunately, from the inside too, from within the Jewish people.
"The great sages of Israel seek to support us and remind us that the secret of our existence is guard the pure can of oil.
"The fact that people have to make a living and engage in academic studies for livelihood purposes is one thing, and most rabbis allow it in times of need, but in recent years there is a trend of people trying to create a 'revolution'.
"Some people have made it their goal – out of hatred toward Torah – to integrate tens of thousands of yeshiva students in the academy and army in order to disconnect them from the Talmud. Rabbi Elyashiv sees the need to protest this phenomenon."

 The only real protests against the dysfunctional elements of Chareidism are coming from the outside.  The Chareidim, perceived as a monolithic group by outsiders, are the dictatorship demanding a permanent state of emergency.  Tellingly, the young girl who became the symbol of Chareidi hatred for "the other", Na'ama Margolis, is Dati Leumi, not Chareidi.  It is obvious that had she been Chareidi she would have been told by her parents and community leaders to keep quiet and become more tznius so as not to provoke the holy men of Ramat Beit Shemesh. 
However, not everyone seems to have gotten the memo that it's time to stop pretending that the whackjobs in Beit Shemesh and Meah Shearim are simply frum Jews whose love of Torah and mitzvos has so overwhelmed them that they can't help but act like they do in defence of their so-called values.  After an article in which he correctly notes the danger of kana'us, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum then tries to downplay how serious this ongoing phenomenon is to Jews in general, religious Jews in particular, and Chareidi Jews in specific.  First,
he justifies the evolution of Chareidi culture that has led to all this:
THE MORE FREQUENT MANIFESTATIONS of kana'us in Israel has less to do with the spiritual elevation of Eretz Yisrael than with certain historical and sociological factors. Most of the kana'us comes from the community centered in Meah Shearim, which has been waging a hundred year war with Zionism and is in perpetual battle mode.From the pre-State days, Israeli society has been marked by a certain strain of lawlessness and an admiration of those who establish facts on the ground without undue attention to legalities. Violence has often proven effective in various political struggles, and that success has encouraged further resort to violence.Finally, as the Brisker Rav once pointed out to Rabbi Amram Blau, even the fiercest anti-Zionists often act as if they were living in a Jewish state, in which they need not worry about harsh responses such as they would receive in chutz l'aretz. Satmar Chassidim in Williamsburg do not try to impose their standards of modesty on the gentiles with whom they share elevators in high-rise apartment buildings because doing so could prove life-threatening.

He then follows up with another article, this time openly downplaying another facet of this scandal, the growing obsession with banning all public interaction between men and women in as many places in Israel as possible:
THE ISSUE of separate seating on public buses is an unfortunate example of extreme elements, who answer to no rabbinic authority, once again kidnapping the public agenda of the haredi community. There is no place for attempts to impose haredi mores on others.
Yet even here the magnitude of the issue has been grossly exaggerated. With a little more foresight the bus issue could have been avoided entirely. The government should have allowed those who seek a strict separation to run their own private bus lines between haredi neighborhoods. The refusal to countenance private bus services led to the current mess.

Not to be outdone, the two greatest apologists for everything that is wrong in Agudah-land have also weighed in.  Rav Avi Shafran, playing to his strength, does his best to draw attention away from the issue by listing a whole bunch of things that he thinks are the real problems facing the Chareidi community.
Among the spiritual threats facing us are things like the coarsening of the surrounding culture, which is practically unavoidable, and its new invasion-vehicle called the Internet.
Other challenges pound at the door to our souls, too, like the astonishing sea-change in how society has come to view the idea of a marital relationship, capitulating in mere years to a movement that proudly and loudly rejects one of the fundamental merits of human society. This mindset, which has spread even to some ostensibly Orthodox Jews must be countered by each of us individually, as well as communally.
Then there’s what calls itself the “Animal Rights” movement, whose true danger isn’t limited to the threat it poses to legal shechita, but lies in its very credo, the idea that animals have rights. We have obligations toward animals, to be sure. But assigning them “rights” leads to obscenities like a book, “Eternal Treblinka,” that compares factory farming to Nazi concentration camps.
The perverse overvaluing of animal lives swings in tandem with the devaluing of human life, both at its beginning and at its end. Standing firm on the issue of the value of every moment of human life is imperative.
There are other issues, too, I noted, that Torah-conscious Jews must confront, like the subtle redefinition of kashrus being attempted by the Conservative movement, cheered on by mendacious media; and the promotion of atheism under the banner of science.
These are not so much mere issues as they are full-fledged “ism”s, of a sort with those idolatries Rav Elchonon Wasserman fingered decades ago: Communism, Secular Zionism, and Nationalism. Today we add Scientism, AnimalRights-ism, a Woman’sRighttoChoose-ism, QualityofLife-ism.
Not to mention isms that have already infected the Orthodox world, like rampant Materialism, Feminism, and anti-Gedolim-ism.

Finally Rav Yaakov Menken weighs in, giving great weight to a belated statement by the Agudah that can only be described as mealty-mouthed:
Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement today:Separate seating on buses or other public places, increasingly restrictive dress codes that culminate in burka babes and self-appointed modesty crowds shrieking prutzah and shiksa have nothing to do with Torah. These folks may have been raised in a "pure Torah environment", they may have learned Torah "on a high level", they may call themselves pious people whose love for God and Torah overrides everything else, but they are not Torah Jews.  They are barely human in how they make a mockery of those of us who insist that a Torah lifestyle leads to greater civility, not less.
But since they are unlikely to listen to our protests, perhaps it is time to change targets.  Perhaps it is time to target the vast majority of Chareidim who either quietly watch what is going on with silent resignation or will only speak out anonymously.  If they will not confront, they are complicit.  If they will socialize with these people, they are one with them.  If they pledge fealty to leaders who will not condemn these barbarians they might as well be at the protest.  Perhaps with enough of a push they will rise up and reclaim their society before it becomes truly indistinguishable from the one in Afghanistan that it is shamelessly copying.I always find it interesting that certain Chareidi slogans break down when they meet the real world.  For example, their vaunted rejection of all elements of modern society would seem to have withered, Rav Rosenblum intimates, from its close exposure to Zionist anarchism.  The same anarchism that built a state in record time and allowed it to survived incredible economic, cultural and military hostility, of course.  Yes, they're totally unlike the Zionist and reject everything about them, except their perceived tactics?

Reports of recent events in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh are deeply disturbing.
Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.
Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended. It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.
Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty.
Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.
In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.
It would be tragic were the acts of violence to lead Jews to, G-d forbid, reject the culture of tzenius that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish nation, to regard Jewish modesty as something connected to violence and anger, rather than to refinement and holiness.
In summary: these zealots are right in their minds but wrong in their methods.  What they're fighing for, a society obsessed with a definition of tznius that in no way matches what the classical sources describe it as, is laudatory but because they're going about it the wrong way it might cause more harm than good.  A world in which there is total separation of men and women everywhere outside the bedroom (and every there when it's not mikvah night) is a praiseworthy goal and hopefully we'll get there the right way.
That's a condemnation?
Not zealots and thugs screaming insults at 7 years old girls.  Not mafia-type gangs harrassing businesses and preventing them from making a living.  Not pedophile rebbes praying on students.  Those are not problems facing the Charedi world that need to be deal with.  Nothing to see here folks.
While I agree that foresight would have avoided the bus issue, I disagree with his solution.  My version of foresight would have been the placing of two Israeli police, one preferably female, on every bus that runs through one of the neighbourhoods where locals demand separate seating.  Their job would be to forcibly remove any man or woman from the bus who insists that separate seating, something that has no basis in halacha, take place against the will of any passenger.
Nevertheless what Rav Rosenblum either doesn't or won't see is that the bus segregation is intimately tied to the violence in Ramat Beit Shemesh and elsewhere.  It is indeed controlled by an extremist fringe of the Chareidi community but prospers and grows with the quiet consent of the docile majority which, over 3 generations, has been taught to never think for itself but always defer to authority.  The same attitude which allows people to stand on public buses and tell people where they can and can't sit and then verbally or physically abuse them when said people refuse to comply is what is on display outside Na'ama Margolis' home.  It's the attitude of the bully who, unless pushed back, himself pushes ever forward until the victim either falls and decides to stand his ground.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Modern Orthodoxy - The Solution

A guest post by Dr. Michael Schweitzer

As time passes since the publication of my landmark article on Modern Orthodox (generously hosted at this blog by Lord Ironheart), I've come to realize there are some areas in it that should be expanded upon.  I plan at some point in the next while to add a section on the Rav and his role in the development of Modern Orthodoxy but at this point I want to add something to what I think is the weakest section of the piece: the solutions for the problems facing Modern Orthodoxy.
As I wrote in the original article, there is a great need for Modern Orthodoxy to define itself in some fashion as opposed to the current default "We're Orthodox but not Chareidi" that seems to be the only common factor uniting an otherwise disparate community of people.  Despite noting that personal autonomy seemed to be about the only defining factor there is a strong need for the community to come up with some parameters, especially in light of the recent rise of a group, Open Orthodoxy or Morethodoxy, which has come to see its mission as pushing the leftward boundaries of Orthodoxy as far as possible to bring that edge in sync with modern secuular norms.
This is not to say that Ultraorthodoxy is also not desperately in need of developing a similar parameter for its rightward edge.  As events over the last few years have shown us repeatedly there are many in the Chareidi community whose authentic Jewish values begin and end at the clothing they wear as a uniform.  Ultraorthodoxy certainly needs to do a chesbon hanefesh to decide how frum is "too frum".  However, that is not the purpose of this post.
Therefore, the first suggestion I would make would be to define the nature of the relationship between the average layperson and his/her Rav.  This is an area where, for many Modern Orthodox, there is a great deal of work to be done.  This is due to a combination of factors.  In the Modern Orthodox community the Rav is often a pulpit one, more an employee of one's shul than one's spiritual guide or influence.  As a result people see the Rav as a source of sermons or shiurim but not necessarily someone positioned to answer important personal questions or those with halachic significance. 
In addition, there is the amazing plethora of seforim which now exist on all manners of topics, many of them halachic.  Publishers such as Artscroll have brought classics such as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch within the reach of even that part of the Modern Orthodox community that knows little Hebrew.  Beyond these are the books detailing the proper observance of Shabbos, kashrus and niddah.  With resources like these available there is certainly a trend to pasken "by the book".
Finally there is the era we live in, that of the Gedolim.  Unlike generations past many people have instant access to some of the most important halachic minds on the planet.  The result has been a delegitmization of the local community Rav.  Why ask him if the pot is kosher if you have Rav Eliashiv's home phone number?
For Modern Orthodoxy, therefore, the answer to these problems is to stress that people within a congregation have a tie to their Rav that goes beyond simply showing up for shul to hear the Shabbos morning speech.  The Rav, in turn, has an obligation to develop that relationship as well.
One thing that the Conservatives have done, for example, is include training in counselling and advice giving as part of their rabbinical curriculum.  This is an important thing to consider in an age where people are looking not just for answers to shailos but also for advice, help in their personal life or a source of comfort.  All the training in Shulchan Aruch in the world will not prepare a Rav to do a good job counselling a grieving congregant and ham-handed methods reinforced by little more than ancedotes from the Tanach or Chazal will not aid the situation.  Therefore it is imperative that Modern Orthodox rabbonim recognize that this is an important part of their role in their community.  If they are training in counselling already, so much the better.  If not, such professional development should be strongly encouraged.
In addition, there is a need for Modern Orthodox laypeople to recognize the concept of the shailoh.  As noted above, books and a certain "I can figure this out myself" spirit have caused the practice of asking the Rav important questions to almost fall by the wayside.  Other times the yetzer gives us a difference answer like "Oh I'm sure it's okay" or "I can't believe that this would be an issue".  A close tie with a Rav is, as Lord Ironheart himself has noted, as essential to a Jew as a relationship with a primary care physician is to the average person.  A person who refused to consuult a physician, looking up answers to his problems on the internet or in self-help books instead would surely be dismissed as a fool by thinking people.  If our physical health is so important that a relationship with a personal physician who is familiar with us is essential, how much more so a relationship with a trained Rav who is familiar for us when it comes to our spiritual health.
There is a need to emphasize this personal relationship, to make the Rav a part of one's live when it comes to important spirirtual and halachic issues.  Rabbonim need to work with sensitivity and professionalism in accepting this role but nevetheless the role must be embraced by the Modern Orthodox community.
Forget the "Gadol" in Israel or New York you've never met.  Your questions can be handled by someone who knows you and who know his limitations when it comes time to handle difficult situations.  This needs to become a defining feature of Modern Orthodox.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Book Review: Understanding Genesis

Understanding Genesis by prof Nahum Sarna is an interesting read I recently completed.  While not an Orthodox book by any stretch of the imagination, it is a fascinating and in-depth look at the first book of the Torah from the position of an interested and sympathetic academic, one more interested in trying to understand the message the stories of our ancestors teach us than in trying to tear down the text in an attempt to delegitimize it.
The book generally follows the narrative of Genesis starting with the creation of the universe and ending with Yaakov Avinu and his sons arriving in Egypt.  Most of the chapters corresponded to a particular narrative and hence parsha but some are short enough to encompass only part of one. 
In each chapter the narrative is summarized and then analyzed for moral lessons.  The text itself is also compared to contemporary non-Jewish sources to look for common features and literary styles.  For example, Sarna contrasts the Babylonian/Akkadian version of creation with ours, showing how the non-Jewish version is essentially just a mythical story with nothing deeper to recommend it while moral lessons abound in the Biblical text, clearly the intent of the Author. 
In the chapter on the Mabul, for another example, Sarna again contrasts various flood stories from the region with ours and again shows that what we are supposed to take away from the narrative is not the technical details of what happened but the moral lessons that occur to Noach and other characters.  This is obviously a repeated theme throughout the book: the Torah is not a history text or dry religious tract but a book of moral instruction even when analyzed through a secular lens.
In fact, the one limitation of the book is the obvious: Sarna concludes (as any academic must) that the Torah itself is a multi-author work although many of the proofs he brings are incredibly weak or full of supposition and conjecture.  Where he differs from other academics is in showing that the literary style of Genesis, the various legal phrases in the narratives and the descriptions of life in the time of our Avos are authentic products of the time, not later invention from the time of Ezra HaSofer or later.  One example is Yaakov Avinu's final argument with Lavan in which Yaakov pretty much quotes his rights from the dominant code of Hammurabi which was the law of the land at the time, something that would have been unknown to another author centuries later.
In fact, that was the one frustration I felt when finishing the book.  According to Sarna, the narratives in Genesis can be ascribed to the time period they claim to be from but is a multi-author book.  According to Umberto Cassuto, the Torah is a unitary text but the product of a later human author.  How annoying.  Why can't they each reach the obvious conclusion that each of their analyses reach together: that the text is a unitary entity written at the time it claims to have been?

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Questions Aren't Fatal, But Stupid Answers Are

Sometimes I wonder if the bagmen the Agudah employs, like Rav Avi Shafran, actually believe the falsehoods and distortions they print or if somewhere deep down they realize they're just presenting the company line because they're being paid to, not because it's what they actually hold by.
And sometimes one gets a clear message that, in fact, they have bought the company line hook and sinker.  They really do believe in the alternative reality the leadership of the Agudah would love us to believe is the true one, not the solid one around us that we actually live in.
Case in point is Rav Shafran's latest piece in which he tries a different tactic to reach out to the unbelieving (that is, anyone not with the Agudah's line of thinking) crowd.  Instead of being condescending or dismissive as is his usual wont, he instead starts off by making what he must believe is an amazing concession to the "Sliffkin side" of things:

Young (and not so young) Jews will always have questions about our religious tradition, or mesorah; and asking questions is the only way to ascertain and internalize truth. Some claim that teachers of Torah today don’t allow certain issues to be raised. If that is true (and I hope it’s not), it is lamentable. Because no question, honestly asked, is a bad question. And if a teacher doesn’t feel adequate to the task of correctly answering one, that’s also fine. In such cases, both teacher and student can—and should—go to someone more knowledgeable to learn more.
This approach is a not-so-subtle swipe at the introduction to the book that shall go unnamed because it's been banned for violating "the mesorah" and its view of creation.  In that introduction, the author that shall go unnamed notes the old Yiddish saying: You don't die from a question.  It's a great saying and makes an important point: there are some things about the universe and everything God has put in it that we can never know about.  Human brains are only so big.  We can conceive of only so much.  There will always be those things that are beyond human ken.  
Now when the book that shall go unnamed was published, the vociferous response from its opponents was that one is not allowed to ask questions, especially of "Daas Torah".  By asking questions one was perceived to be lacking faith and this was assur.
Now in all fairness, it wasn't all questions that were banned.  Asking something like "Well how did the Rashba answer the Ramban on such and such?" was perfectly fine.  Asking something like "Do you really expect me to believe that dinosaur bones were planted deep in the ground by God just to test my faith?" was not.
So along comes Rav Shafran with a third approach - you can ask your question but you have to ask the right person and then accept the answer, modifying your worldview if necessary to make it acceptable.  In his case, it was the idea that there was this ancient code of law, the Code of Hammurabi, that contained many laws that were similar to Torah legislation on current matters of the day. It was also clear that the Code predated the giving of the Torah and was probably more current with the Avos, especially Avraham Avinu.  For Rav Shafran this raised a question:

Elements of the code, instituted by a king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, bear clear similarities to various of the Torah’s laws. What, I asked myself, were laws that would only be given to the Jewish People at Sinai doing inscribed on tall stones centuries earlier?
Had I been drinking coffee when I read this, I probably would be off at the store right now buying a new screen and keyboard as I would have sprayed said coffee all over them.  Instead I sat back and tried to wrap my head around the realization I'd just come to: Rav Avi Shafran honestly believes that no history other than that detailed in the Torah ever happened.  
I mean, I'd heard it before.  For example, I once heard someone describe the war between the four and five kings in Lech Lecha as "the first world war" or "the first war in history" because, after all, the Torah hadn't mentioned any others until now but I always figured (hoped?) that people were speaking figuratively.  After all, there were civilizations scattered across the world at this point.  Surely it was obvious that other wars had been fought and that the one in Lech Lecha was mentioned because it was relevant to the life story of Avraham Avinu, right?
Apparently not.
Then there is the line "laws that would only be given to the Jewish people at Sinai".  Again, one has to ask: does Rav Shafran really believe that there were no other societies that had developed laws for dealing with damages, slaves, marriage, etc.?  Does he really believe that the social, civil and criminal legislation given to us at Sinai was the first such system in history simply because the Torah mentions no others?
From the answer his esteemed rebbe gave him, it seems he's not the only one:

So naturally, I brought my question, like countless others about science, history and other things, to my rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He just looked at me in his inimitable, sympathetic way, and posed a question of his own. “And Avi,” he said with deliberation, “just what do you think Avraham Ovinu spent his entire life doing?”
My question, I immediately realized, wasn’t much of one. A fundamental datum about Avraham, I knew but didn’t consider, is that he spent his days tirelessly spreading the word about the Creator of all, and sharing elements of His Torah (whose laws, the Midrash teaches us, were known to, and studied by, our forefathers).
Did I really think, Rabbi Weinberg was saying to me, that Avraham’s efforts had had no effect on the society of his day, or on laws enacted by leaders of the time?
Now without meaning any disrespect to such a great Talmid Chacham as Rav Weinberg, z"l, I feel compelled to ask: what were they smoking?!  Am I really expected to believe that the Code of Hammurabi was influenced by Avraham Avinu, that it was his keeping of the "whole Torah" and "all the mitzvos" that influenced the Mesopotamanian society of the time to create its own code of laws?  
What we know of Avraham Avinu's life is, after all, amazingly little.  Entire decades of it pass without any mention being made of his activities but one thing is clear: he had no contact with the great world leaders of the day and certainly no influence in their courts.  He was a righteous man, he spoke with God, he received His understanding of how the world was to run and how a person is expected to conduct himself in a divine fashion, but he never sat down with Hammurabi one sunny afternoon to dictate to him how to write a code of law for his country.
Want to know how I'm certain?  Because the Torah never says so!
Well shouldn't that be a good enough answer?  After all, if the four vs five kings is the first war in history because the Torah mentions no other, then one must also conclude that Avraham Avinu never wrote or influence a code of law for the local nations as that same Torah does not mention it either!  Yet I'm supposed to believe that his schedule consisted of a Daf Yomi shiur for the local Philistine nobility in the morning, an expounding session on Seder Nezikin for the Babylonian royalty in the afternoon and a Pirkei Avos shiur outside his tent every Shabbos afternoon?
No doubt Rav Shafran would also insist, after being given this great insight, that accepting that the Hammurabi code was influenced by our Avos and developed from the Torah they taught the masses is an indispensable part of our mesorah, the rejection of which is basically kefirah.
But just because he and his bosses are shelling out the Kool-aid does not mean I have to drink it.
What is so threatening about accepting that Avraham Avinu and the rest of the Avos were good citizens of the era they lived in, that there were developed societies and legal codes that pre-dated the Torah because governments needed a way to organize things for their subjects?  No, none of those systems were divinely ordained like our Torah is but they still existed.  And how hard is it to believe that there would be similarities between those systems and the Torah just like legal systems today across the world share common features despite different histories and civilizational developments?
No, one doesn't die from a question but a stupid answer?  If it causes you to choke on your coffee, well that's fatal!

Monday 19 December 2011

Restaurant Review - Shangri La

Travelling is not something I enjoy doing.  I mean, there are some places I like going but that's mostly because I know there will be kosher restaurants while I'm there ensuring I don't go hungry.  I don't like to go hungry and I don't like packing tons of snack bars and veggie burgers to survive on while other folks around me get to dine out.  As a result I like to research new destinations before I decide on them.
On my recent trip to San Francisco I had the pleasure of trying out some of the kosher eateries in the city and came up with one very pleasant surprise - the vegetarian Chinese restaurant called Shangri-La.
Now most of us are used to a certain style of kosher Chinese food - fat, middle-aged mashgiach out front in a white shirt and black pants, busy Filipino cooks in the back frying up the stereotypical assortment of things like wantons, sweet and sour soup, eggrolls and the like. 
Shangri-La was not like this at all.  Located in a quiet west end neighbourhood and easily reached by the city's rapid transit system, it has a small but inviting dining room and is staffed by - get this! - real Chinese people. 
I know!  Who'd have thought?
The menu is expansive and consisted of dishes I'd never heard of before, along with various listings of Chinese ingredients whose identities were similarly unknown to me.  The one that really stuck out was "Chinese Miracle B" which even the owner of the place couldn't tell me much about.
However the food was amazing.  We had the herbal teas to start, followed by some exotic salads, fake shrimp and then fake ribs on a bed of herbs and lettuce.  Everything was full of flavours I found different from the usual stock stuff served in kosher Chinese restaurants elsewhere.  The service was quick and friendly.  Best of all, the prices were incredibly reasonable.  Should I find myself in San Francisco again I wouldn't hesitate to take in dinner there.  I therefore recommend it to any kosher travellers who find themselves in the bay area.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Where Do I Get a Patent From?

As I'm written on numerous occasions, there's no patent on the term "Orthodox Judaism".  Until now we have relied on non-Orthodox people being honest and not trying to represent themselves as Orthodox but in recent years that tactic has been sorely tested.  First the Conservatives tried to model themselves as "the authentic movement of traditional Judaism".  Then there's Morethodoxy which is trying to create a Conservative Judaism with a mechitzah.  And now, presenting Steve Greenberg.
Now, for those who don't know, Greenberg is a homosexual man who has an Orthodox ordination (and I'm sure the guy who gave it to him is still kicking himself over that one) and who has used his title to promote the idea that one can be a practising homosexual and not be in conflict with Torah Judaism.
It seems that some amongst the organized homosexual community have developed an obsession with Orthodox Judaism's stubborn refusal to accept anal intercouse between two men as an acceptable form of love-making.  Yes the Torah say it's forbidden but can't we just get past that already?  FriarYid wrote recently about attending a gay congregation on Yom Kippur where the verse was omitted from the Minchah leining.  I once heard from a JTS "rabbinical" student that many in the JTS understand the verse as referring to non-consensual intercourse meaning the Torah prohibits not only heterosexual but also homosexual rape and this means that it thinks that both, when consensual, are okay. 
All the twisting and turning does not change the prohibition's existence and parameters.  While it is imperative to stress that the ban on homosexual intercourse does not imply permission to treat those who yearn for it in an insulting or demeaning manner, it is also important to note that there are limits to acceptance of such people and their desires.  We must treat them respectfully, not discriminate against them and avoid anything that might justifiably antagonize them but we still cannot say that their form of intercourse is acceptable in our value system.  This is an especially heartwrenching concept for those homosexuals who wish to be properly Torah observant.  It means a life of denial of their most important physical desire.  Who can deny the difficulty associated with such a decision?
But is it a decision that must be made honestly and Steve Greenberg and his ilk are intent on subverting that honesty by creating the false impression that one can eat one's cake and have it too.  Hence his decision to officiate at an "Orthodox" wedding of two men which recently caught people's attention.
There are lots of things that could be said about this stunt, and for those who know Jewish law and tradition this is a stunt, not a wedding.  Yes, American civil law may recognize the legal union between these two men but Jewish law does not, no more than it does the state of marriage between a Jew and a Gentile.
Add to that the healthy state of self-delusion the participants are under:
"We were encouraged by the legislation of same-sex marriage in our home ‘state’ of Washington, D.C.,” Bock and Kaplan wrote in a guide to the ceremony, according to Ruttenberg. “At the same time, both of us wanted a ceremony that would be meaningful halachically (in terms of religious Jewish law) and create a set of Jewish legal obligations between us."
It is to laugh.  There is no halachic meaning to a ceremony forbidden by halacha.  There are no newe legal obligations between these two men that didn't exist before.  If two non-Jews had decided to have a wedding and use a Jewish motif because they thought the chuppah was pretty and they wanted to jump on a glass and shout mazel tov at the end for kicks it would have been just as effective.  Any attempt to state that this conformed with Orthodox Jewish law is due either to delusion or ignorance.  One can shout that one is Orthodox all one wants but then, one can wash and say HaMotzi over the ham and cheese sandwich at the local kosher-style deli too.  Going through the motions doesn't mean one has done something of legal significance.
In summary, Greenerg's "ceremony" raises only one important question: which one of them is going to wear a sheitl and go to the mikvah?

Thursday 15 December 2011

When Self-Reflection Hurts

Israel was criticzed recently for running a ham-handed advertising campaign that was meant to encourage yordim in the United States to consider returning home.  While the intent was noble, the final product was classic Israel - blunt.  The message was simple: Stay in America and your kid will wind up celebrating Chrismas with your shiksa spouse.  Return to Israel if you want to stay Jewish.
The reaction from the American Jewish community was understandable.  It was a histrionic cry of "How dare you portray American Jewish life like that!?"  Despite efforts to assure the American community that Israel does not think poorly of them, feathers on this side of the Atlantic are still ruffled.
Here's the problem: American Jewry needs to take a good look at itself because the caricatures in the ad campaign aren't far off the mark.
What is the rate of intermarriage amongst non-Orthodox Jews?  For how many years has it been far more likely that a Jewish young adult would married out than in?  What is the average level of Jewish knowledge amongst American Jews?  I'm not talking about all the cultural pap that gets served up in the non-Orthodox Jewish day school system.  How many know more Torah than just Uncle Yankel's Bible Stories?  How many can name the various components of a page of Talmud, much less read and understand them?
In truth the state of American Jewry is perilously pathetic.  Intermarriage is rife, ignorance of basic Judaism is pandemic.  What's more, consider the effect assimilation is having on the community.  Not thirty years ago there were six million Jews in the US.  Not forty years ago there were Jews in New York than in Israel.  According to the most recent population data we're down to four million Jews in the US and that's with an expansive definition that includes people who enjoy knishes and latkes but otherwise have no actual connection to the Jewish nation.  What's the real number?  Three and a half million?  Three?  And where did the rest go?
Yes, a chiloni lifestyle in Israel isn't the ideal Jewish one but it is very much better than a secular lifestyle in America.  The most disconnected Jew in Israel speaks Hebrew.  If the urge suddenly overcomes him tomorrow he can sit down and read the texts of his ancestors in the original.  He knows that life slows down on Friday night and Saturday, not Sundays.  His yearly rhythm is tied to the Jewish cycle of holidays, not the Chrisian one.  In short, he is ready to return while his American brother might not even know that there is something to return to.
So while the campaign was admitted offensive to Americans in that it engaged in the usual lack of subtlety that Israelis are famous for, its basic message was not incorrect.  The longer we remain in golus the weaker our connection with God and Torah grows even if we don't want to admit it.  This is something we should all definitely self-reflect on instead of dismissing what feels inconvenient to know.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Why Newt Is Right

By now news of the controversial statement made by Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has spread around the world raising the kind of discussion and criticism its originator probably hoped it would.  For those late to the party, here's what he said:
. In fact, Gingrich is completely right.  Desepite attempts to rewrite history, there was never a state called Palestine.  There was never a Palestinian people before 1920 either.  Up until then the Arab residents in of the Ottoman Empire living in Israel were considered Syrians and part of that province.  It was really only in 1920 when the new French and British mandates in the area split the Syrian Arab population between French Lebanon and Syria and British Israel and Transjordan that a new national entity suddenly sprung into existence.  Cut off from their Syrian brethren and resigned to never reuniting with them, the Arabs in Israel suddenly became Palestinian.
The Arab population of Israel subsequently swelling through unrestricted immigration even as the British, may their island sink, sealed the borders of our land to us.  Most of the immigrants came looking for jobs but all they had to do was establish a mailing address and they became Palestinian from time immemorial.
This situation developed further after the 1948 War of Independence.  Despite the Arabs abandoning their supposedly ancestral homeland in large numbers, they created a new fiction - there had been a greaet and prosperous nation of Palestine which the Zionists had destroyed and replaced with the new Israeli state.  Curiously, the borders back then were what are now called pre-1967 Israel.  In 1964 the PLO was founded and given bases of operations in 'Aza and Yehuda/Shomron which, again quite curiously, were not part of ancestral Palestine - the Egyptians and Jordanians were having none of that - so that they could liberate ancestral Palestine, again: pre-1967 Israel.
It was only with Israel's stunning and miraculous victory in the Six Day War that the borders of this mysterious country of Palestine shifted and suddenly encompassed Yesha, along with pre-1967 Israel.  What kind of a country can't decide where its borders were?
Golda Meir famously said there was no such thing as the Palestinian people.  She was half-right.  There never was such a thing as the Palestinian people.  They are indeed a creation of the Arab propaganda machine, designed as part of the war to delegitimize and ultimately destroy Israel.  But they exists now.  The question is: does that matter?
What made Ronald Reagan the greatest president of the United States in the second half of the 20th century was his willingness to question what everyone considered conventional wisdom.  When he entered the Oval Office it was taken for granted that we lived in a world with two dominant superpowers and that every other country essentially had to pick a side, that the Cold War would last forever, that balance between the USA and USSR was part of the natural order of things.
Reagan refused to accept this.  The USSR wasn't a second superpower to him.  He was quite prepared to call it what it was: the Evil Empire, source of death and destruction and a powerful threat to freedom across the globe.  Its existence did not have to be tolerated.  It did not have to be a balance to the USA.  As a result he set out to end the existence of the USSR and within a decade he had done so, providing the US with its greatest chance to end much of the oppression in the world. (Not my fault they didn't).
What Gingrich's has done is thrown down the gauntlet to those that wish to defend Israel against its enemies.  By accepting the idea that there is such a thing as a Palestinian people with legitimate nationalistic aspirations one has already lost the argument over Israel's legitimacy since the whole essence of the so-called Palestinian narrative is: We were here first.  Gingrich takes the argument back to fairer ground: The Jews can prove they have been in the land for 3500 years.  What proof do you have that your existence as a people stretches back past 1920 other than invented histories and stories?
In effect, Gingrich's statement forces secular liberal Jews to take a position: either you accept the truth or you accept your enemy's version of history.  It's not someting many of them are ready to do.

The US Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has declared that the Palestinians are an "invented" people who want to destroy Israel.
The Jewish Channel, a cable TV station, posted online its interview with the former US House speaker, who has risen to the top of Republican nomination candidates to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
Gingrich differed from official US policy that respects the Palestinians as a people deserving of their own state based on negotiations with Israel. "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire" until the early 20th century, Gingrich said.
"I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it's tragic," he said.

For liberal Jews in North America this outright rejection of over 60 years of Arab propaganda is quite disconcerting. For reasons of ethnic feelings of attachment many of them want to be pro-Israel. On the other hand, their secular post-nationalist sentiments demand that they feel sympathy for the perceived underdog in the ongoing clash in Israel, the Arabs. They want to proudly wave the blue and white but at the same time express, with all due seriousness, their desire for the creation of a new terrorist state, Palestine, because the so-called Palestinians deserve it as a matter of social justice or some other such nonsensical term. The outright rejection of the legitimacy of a so-called Palestinian people is beyond their conception and makes them very uncomfortable

Monday 21 November 2011

Everything New Is Forbidden (Unless We Pretend It's Not New) !

We all have this romantic image of the shtetl, that mythical place in eastern Europe where for centuries our ancestors lived and worked while random violinists sat on their roofs and played songs that would make Shlomo Carlebach's estate green with envy.  The food may have been bad, the schnorrers insistent and yes, there was always the threat of those Cossacks in the next valley over launching a pogrom but on Shabbos everyone put on his shtreiml and davened like Moshiach was on his way while on Pesach you couldn't find a bite of chometz for miles around.
Reality, of course, was quite different.  The shtetl, along with much of Jewish life in eastern Europe, was quite miserable.  People did what they had to in order to survive.  They clung to the faith of our ancestors with a passion we cannot understand but the waysthey expressed this passion were quite diverse. Their culture was rich and deep but it occured in the shadow of hatred and darkness.  No Virginia, we don't all come from people who look like the denizens of Meah Shearim.  They were never the gold standard.
Yet for some folks there is value in rewriting history to pretend that this was in fact the case, that a religious Jew has always been identified by specific garb, practices and mannerism virtually indistinguishable from what the Chareidi community today claims is the only authentic expression of Orthodoxy.  They would have you believe that if you were to go back in time 100, 200 or 1500 years you would find observant Jews wearing black clothing, black hats and black striped tallis kotons.  They would be speaking Yiddish, working only a little if at all and be consumed with their learning almost to the exclusion of all else.  And, of course, there would be a separation between men and women in all spheres of life that we could only dream of today.
All this would be a lie.
In truth, Jewish life is and has been more complex than we could ever truly comprehend.  Recollections of life in Europe focus on those aspects we want to remember or are distinctly Jewish, jettisoning those parts that are inconvenient.  Roman Vishniac's famous work, A Vanished World has been criticized (unjustly in my opinion) for presented a slanted view of Polish Jew life just before the war yet it is clear that he could only photograph a small part of that gigantic culture.  How many Chasidim have read the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and seen how he, as a former member of their community, portrays his memories of that world?
The odd thing about this is how this innovation of rewriting history, intentional or not, is juxtaposed with a stated commitment to avoid change at all costs.  The people who want you to believe that what they're doing nowadays is exactly what their ancestors in the Pale of Settlement did centuries ago are changing history.  they are innovating to hide innovation.
Every so often I point out that Modern Orthodoxy has an opportunity to grab some area of Judaism and make a meaningful contribution to it.  I believe this is another such area.
Consider: it is quite clear that there is tremendous continuity between ourselves and our ancestors.  In many ways it can be easily demonstrated that we are following in the direction they led and upholding the banner of God they uplifted at Sinai.  Yet if we were to go back in time 500, 1500 or 2500 years we would find them practicing a very different form of Judaism than we do today.  Acknowledging this is stating the truth, not kefirah
Consider one of the few nigh-universal rituals that Jews of all backgrounds engage in: the Pesach seder.  Reading historical accounts, heck, reading the Talmud's account of how a seder went one sees that what we do is highly different from what they did.  Yet across history Jews have, from time immemorial, sat down to remember the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim and praise God for taking us out of Egypt on the 14th of Nissan. 
Understanding how the seder has changed over time is crucial for two reasons.  One is that we can learn a great deal about the thinking of our ancestors over the ages as we investigate the changes.  Another is that we can understand how to counter the changes of those who say that the seder must change nowadays to reflect modern sensitivities.  If we know how and why change is mandated, we can better understand how to ensure it is done correctly.  Standing back and saying "It can't change and it's always been this way" is not truth and therefore not compatible with Torah which is truth.
As some in the Chareidi community continue, in their fervent Taliban-envy, to rewrite the requirements of traditional Torah Judaism and then pretend that it's always been this way it is essential that an opposing force demands honesty in understanding and respecting our history and presenting that history in an enriching way that helps us understand Torah better.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Conditional Love and Consumptions

Lord Rav Jonathan Sacks has become a darling figure within Modern Orthodoxy over the last several years for many good reasons.  One is his obvious charisma combined with a deep love of Torah.  The second is his ability to balance a strictly observant life with the demands of modern society.  In many ways he exemplifies the ideal Modern Orthodox Jew, able to live uncompromisingly within the boundaries of halacha while also being able to hobnob with lords and queens (the royal kind).  He even has his own prayer books now which have been received with great ethusiasm by the MO crowd.
Every so often, however, there is a reminder that the love and adoration of masses can be a fickle things.  A few years ago, for example, Rav Sacks was criticized for allowing his beis din to make a decision regarding the status of certain types of converts when it came to attending Jewish schools.  As opposed to making an enlightened decision that would have accepted any standard, the beis din held its ground and disqualified non-Orthodox candidates.  The reaction from Rav Sack's followers at the time followed one of two threads.  Some were supportive and blamed his Chareidi beis din for forcing him into the exclusionary position.  Others simply turned on him the minute he deviated from their image of him as an inclusive, tolerant, non-judgemental yet Orthodox rav.
Rav Sacks has now done it again, giving a recent speech in which he attacked Steve Jobs as emblematic of the morally empty consumer culture we find ourselves swamped in.
Speaking at an interfaith reception attended by the Queen this week, Lord Sacks said, "People are looking for values other than the values of a consumer society. The values of a consumer society really aren't ones you can live by for terribly long.

"The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.
"When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i', you don't do terribly well."
He went on: "What does a consumer ethic do? It makes you aware all the time of the things you don't have instead of thanking God for all the things you do have.
"If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you've got an iPhone but you haven't got a fourth-generation one, the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness."
Although religious leaders have in recent years used increasingly strong language to condemn banks and politicians over the financial crisis and the gap between rich and poor, few have directly criticized ordinary people for their materialism.
While many of us are not terribly good at it, we still must acknowledge that Judaism is a culture in which giving is considered one of the highest values.  The parasha from just this past week shows how fundamentally rooted that trait should be in each of us from Rivkah Imeinu.  The opposite value, taking, is the signpost of Western secular culture.
How many of the supposedly poor and oppressed 99% protesting in the "Occupy" movement have iPads and iPhones?  If their financial situation is so dire, why are they carrying top-of-the-line electronic goods?  Wouldn't a simple cell phone be cheaper and more sensible?  And at the root of it, what is the "Occupy" movement about if not the resentment that others have money that these 99% don't have and they want to take a piece of it without having to earn it?
But is Orthodox Judaism immune to this consumerism?  In the words of the immortal Al Bundy, "Uh, no Peg."
Take a look at how our culture has become obsesssed with material goods. How many of us live in huge homes that we cannot truly afford but still manage to fill them with useless tzatchkes that we insist we cannot live without?  Look around you in shul or even at your own neck.  How much did that ornative tallis band cost?  In the last year I invested in a set of tefillin for my son and was told that the starting price for a set that I could be reasonably assured was kosher and met everyone's standards - the starting price! - was $1300 and that to remove all doubts I was looking at close to $2000. 
How much do we spend on bar mitzvah celebrations and weddings when a table with a keg at one end and a hot, steaming plate of wings at the other is all you really need?  How much do we spend on shteitls, suits and Borsalino hats to ensure we look just right when we go to shul?
Let's bring Steve Jobs into this.  How many of us have an iPad with all the latest Jewish app's because shlepping a Gemara around is so 1990's?
In short, how much of our Orthodox life is necessary and how much of it is there only because we've deluded ourselves and want to keep up with the Jonesteins?
I am certain that there are those who will attack Rav Sacks but in my opinion he's spot on.  We are some of us ugly but don't want to accept the image we see in the mirror, therefore we resent the person who points it out.  However, if Rav Sacks was right about the stuff we want to hear, we cannot dismiss him when he tells us what we don't want to hear.
Therein lies the irony, by the way.  One of the ongoing criticisms of the Chareidi community is that their "Gedolim" are trapped by their culture.  A Gadol, Daas Torah and Ruach HaKodesh aside, cannot pasken as he wants because if he comes up with a decision that doesn't fit the "holier than thou" cultural ethic put in place by his askanim he is in danger of losing his "Gadol" status.  Yet within Modern Orthodoxy there may be the same kind of ethic.  You're a leader and an inspiration as long you parrot the themes of tolerance and inclusion but the minute you draw a red line, well you're betraying the followers who made you great and are therefore no longer worthy of that greatness.  The two communities, one trapped by a model of Gadol worship, one by the secular values that have snuck into its Judaism, aren't so different after all.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

What Happened To The Family Minhag

The recent passing of Rav Nosson Tzi Finkel, z"l, has left a large hole in the heart of the Torah world.  A genuine gadol and a wonderful teacher, his ascent to Gan Eden will be felt by many.
However, there is one aspect of the ongoing tributes across the Torah observant community that is troubling me.  It is no secret that Rav Finkel came from a Modern Orthodox background but wound up the Rosh Yeshivah of the very Chareidi Mir Yeshivah system.  The MO blogs seem to be emphasizing his origins, many of them posting his graduating yearbook picture in which he appears as a clean-cut, all-American young man.  They emphasize the "one of us done good!" angle and "See?  A guy from a Modern Orthodox background can become a great Jewish leader".
On the other hand, the Chareidi websites seem to be ignoring or erasing his "humble beginnings".  One does not find statements like "Rav Finkel came from a family dedicated to Torah and determined to provide him with a good education in it" but rather something along the lines of "And isn't it amazing that a guy who came from nothing rose so far?".  It seems that for them one can be raised in a strictly observant home but if that home wasn't one of "ours" it might as well have been Reformative. 
But in both these approaches there is something missing: the role of family and community minhag.
Minhag is something that gets mentioned a lot but its true ramifications are never really explored.  Joe waits three hours between meat and milk because that's what his father does.  Sheldon won't eat cabbage on Pesach because his family comes from that village in eastern Europe where the local rebbe outlawed it. 
People make a big deal of how long they wait after meat to have milk, or whether or not they eat gebrokhts. Family minhag isn't just limited to small issues like this but also reaches areas of hashkafah. A person who grows up in a specific type of home and then goes and chooses another hashkafah and set of minhagim is stating that his family origins are not good enough for him, that he feels no allegiance to him, that he's evolved beyond them, else why would he have changed?
Imagine a boy who comes home to his 3 hour father and announces that he now waits 6 hours like his rosh yeshivah. Is that respectful? Heck, is it even permitted? How about the boy who comes from a Modern Orthodox home and announces that YU's leading authorities aren't anything compared to "the gedolim"?  Or one who announces he's no longer a Zionist to his Dati Leumi family? 
Here's the rub:  We're not talking about a case where the boy comes from a non-religious home and has to acquire some standard but one who comes from a standard and then discards it.  Imagine a Lubavitcher coming home and announcing that he doesn't see the Rebbe, a"h, as the Moshiach or that the Tanya isn't the most important book ever written. 
Is Modern Orthodoxy a standard or just a place marker? Is the boy who grows up in the home where the MO father does X and Y free to change his minhag because they're not real minhagim like a Chosid or Litvak father might have?  Is it not okay for a Chareidi to discover the works of the Rav and choose to learn under his talmidim at YU but it's fine for a MO high school graduate to accept Mir's hashkafah despite its conflict with his familiy's ideology?  And if this is the case, is this not a tacit admission by Modern Orthodoxy that they aren't a different ideology than Chareidism but rather that they're simply religiously inferior?
By becoming Chareidi, was Rav Finkel rejecting his family origins and announcing that they're not frum enough?
One might answer this in the negative.  Rav Finkel had a burning desire to learn and disseminate as much Torah as he could.  He therefore wound up at Mir where those goals could be achieved.
And the next question right back would be: couldn't he have found something like this in a hashkafah closer to "home"?  Are there no giants at YU to learn under?  Is the Dati Leumi  world bereft of high level rabbonim and yeshivos?
Thus the two approaches to eulogizing Rav Finkel dovetail nicely.  From the MO perspective he is seen with the same pride as a junior team watching its star player get promoted to the big leagues.  From the Chareidi perspective they are the big leagues and the existence of any junior team is inconsequential and irrelevant.
Modern Orthodoxy might be asking itself a question: why did Rav Finkel have to go to Mir to get what he wanted?  And when the next future gadol graduates from a MO high school somewhere, will he also see going Chareidi as the only way to reach the top of the Torah world?

Monday 7 November 2011

Chareidim and Chareidism

Rav Natan Slifkin's latest essay, a piece on the phenomenon of "Post-Chareidim" is currently making the rounds of the blogosphere.  As the gifted author notes, even those sites that you'd last expect, like Chareidi ones, are picking up on it.  He has even followed up with an interview with a fellow traveller who expresses in a succint manner his reason for leaving formal Chareidism.
The concept of post-chareidim is a fascinating one.  One of my best friends is a post-Chareidi although he has no ties to others of the same philosophy, nor does he label himself in this fashion.  In short, he loves being Chareidi, he just hates Chareidi society.
I think this is a differentiation that is important to understand.  For many Chareidim the two are intertwined and inseparable.  One cannot be a good Chareidi without accepting the authority of the Gedolim as transmitted by the Askanim and by accepting the receiving Torah MiMeah Shearim.  For others, there is an obvious difference.
Consider the following two people as an example:
Yaakov works at a basic job and spends very spare minute shteiging his Gemara and sifrei Shu"t.  He sways when he davens so much that people are worried he'll fall over.  He makes every Shabbos a day of elevated spirituality and no one outdances him on Simchas Torah.  However, he wears a knitted kippah and feels that Rav Kook was the premier Rav of the 20th century including in his Zionist philosophy.
Yankl doesn't have a job but he doesn't spend much time in the beis midrash either.  He does a minimum each day of learning but it's more by rote than anything else, like his davening.  He follows every last chumrah but mostly  because that's what everyone else around him does.  For fun he goes and stares at 8 year old girls in knee socks, calling them perutzah and shiksa while hiding the feelings of lust for them burning with him.  Oh, and he wears the requesite hat, shirt, socks and bekisher.
Which of these two men are truly chared l'davar HaShem?  And which of them is Chareidi?
This is an element I think is missing from Rav Slifkin's essay.  Today one can easily see that there are Chareidim and there is Chareidism.  Like the distinction between behavioural and intellectual Modern Orthodox Jews as described in Dr Michael Schweitzer's epic essay, there are also two types of Chareidi Jews.  One is the spiritual who loves the principles of being chared l'davar HaShem and the other is the behavioural who goes through the motions because he doesn't know anything else.  The former is Chareidi, the latter practices Chareidism.  The former is a religious form of Judaism, the latter is political and nothing much deeper.
There is another facet to note.  Chareidism as a form of Judaism is based on a contradiction.  On one hand a society based on the principle of "learn, don't earn" could only exist if there is a source of outside wealth to maintain it.  Until seventy years ago this outside source did not exist.  However, the combination of the rise of the State of Israel and the rapid increase in wealth in the North American and western European communities have created a situation in which large numbers of Chareidim can, with the appropriate amount of schnorring, live off of the earned money of others while simultaneously looking down on their donors because they aren't learning all day.  A society built on an official lack of respect for the providers of its sustenance cannot be a stable or rational one.
It is in addressing this inherent contradiction that I believe the post-Chareidim have great potential.  Bottom line: one can be chared l'davar HaShem without believes that the "Gedolim" have a magical Daas Torah that renders them infallible.  One can be chared while working for a living.  One can be chared without worrying that the Taliban have more chumros when it comes to separation of gender than we do.
In fact, post-Chareidim are a threat not to the system of Chareidism but more to Modern Orthodoxy.  Rav Harry Maryles often likes to write that it is his dream that part of the Chareidi community will eventuallty merge with right wing Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism to produce a functional, dynamic and definitive Orthodoxy.  The practitioners of Chareidism will never want to be part of this but perhaps as the numbers of post-Chareidim grow they will be able to contribute to such an endeavour.

Friday 4 November 2011

Intentionally Mangling History

Eli Valley is a Jew-hating Jew. A cartoonist for the Forward, he is especially talented when it comes to attacking Orthodox or Zionist Jews.  Perhaps it's the secular liberal in him.  Perhaps it's a naivete that has led him to believe all the lies about Torah and Israel.  Perhaps he's just a hateful person, but his latest piece goes beyond hatred and misrepresenation and into outright lies.
The comic, which can regretfully be enlarged by clicking on it, starts with a fictional scene in the far future in which Israel has already become Palestine and then goes back through "history" to show how that happened.  Naturally every step of the way Israel has an opportunity to prevent this from happening by creating a two-state solution and makes the wrong decision each and every time.
Consider his contention that by 2022 the population west of the Jordan river will have an Arab majority.  It has been well-documented elsewhere that most Arab census numbers generated by the so-called Palestinian Authority and various UN agencies are completely fictional and greatly inflated.  It is unlikely that Israel, even with the Arabs of Yesha included, is closed to an Arab majority. (Besides, isn't the current bogeyman of the secular Jew-hating-Jew left a Chareidi majority, not an Arab one?)
His 201 box shows Netanyahu refusing to consider a two-state solution as Mahmood Abbas presents the idea at the UN.  Never mind that many countries including the United States decried the move and worked to prevent it.  Nope, in Valley's world it's Israel that's guilty and Israel alone at missing the opportunity.
But his 2009 box is the most egregious when it comes to historical facts.  The statement "They've accepted almost everything we've demanded" is more than just an opinion.  It is a lie, pure and simple.  Israel, after all, has had simple basic demands in the so-called peace negotiations.  One is that the Arabs recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Another is no right-of-return for so-called Palestinian refugees.  When Ehud Olmert presented his peace plan to Abbas in 2008 the first of those two conditions was even waived.  It was Abbas that walked away from the table.  It has 100% of the time consistently been the Arabs who, when presented with a final status deal, scuttle the meeting.  Does Valley not realize this or has his hatred of his own people and Land twisted him so much?
I will go with the latter. His 2003, 1993 and 1975 boxes are straight out of the anti-Semitic press.  A German cartoonist circa 1937 could hardly have done better himself. 
Eli Valley and his ilk are not interested in a"just" solution to the Israel-Arab problem.  They are consumed by hatred of they own people and will do anything they can to harm them under the guise of being "enlightened".  We should shun them as the arses they are.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Always Moving In The Wrong Direction

For millenia Jews have been moving around the globe.  Our nation seems to have become permanently peripatetic since the destruction of the First Temple and certainly since the destruction of the Second (may they be speedily rebuilt as soon as the Leafs win the Cup or maybe sooner).  Whether due to hatred, violence or even just economic opportunity, Jewish communities have been rising, falling and relocating for a long time now.
What's changed in the last 60 years is that our Land of Israel has reopened as a destination for Jewish masses, a significant change from centuries past.  Unlike the various communities of European Jews 500 years ago who were exiled en masse from their homes, going to Israel is an option for brethren of ours who suddenly find themselves out of a home.
That a Jew would choose to go elsewhere during a time of exile is not surprising.  Yes, Israel is our Land but it is not an easy place to live.  In addition, family or cultural ties might lead a Jew elsewhere instead of home.  That's one reason I live in Canada, for example.  The idea of a Jew fleeing to North America instead of Israel is disappointing but understandable.
What I've never understood well is the idea that Jews want to go back to a place they've been kicked out of.  Yes, I know our history is replete with those kinds of examples as well.  Pretty much every western European country kicked out its Jews at one point or another and except for Spain those communities were eventually rebuilt.  But again, where else did they have to go at the time?
Seventy years ago the world watched as the Nazis, y"sh, and their allies destroyed Jewish life in central and eastern Europe.  In the aftermath of World War 2 there was little to nothing left of the established communities that had been there a few years earlier.  Yet even on this burnt soil a new crop grew.  Germany and Poland have two of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world and there is even a limited revival going on in Russia of all places. 
Yet even this I can comprehend to an extent.  Today's central and eastern Europe are different from 70 years ago.  Anti-semitism, while still prominent, is not at 1930's levels and the current wave of secular post-nationalism sweeping over the continent seems content to keep it where it is.  Germany and Poland were once lands of misery for us, now they are allies of Israel and sources of economic opportunity for Jews living there.
What I cannot understand is those folks who, having been exiled from their "home" countries insist on returning there when the situation on the ground vis a vis the local Jewish community has not changed:
Had this gentleman stayed in Italy, it would have made sense.  A move to Israel would have been preferable but going to New York or Montreal would also have been understandable.  Exactly what was he expecting in returning to Libya?
How many times in history does the same thing have to happen?  The Jew fights for his country, the Jew builds up his country, the Jew sacrifices for his country and then when victory is achieved he is still branded as "the other"?
There is only one Land where this does not happen, where the Jew is nto the outsider.  If Gerbi wasn't happy in Italy but wanted a Mediterranean climate, he should have moved east to Israel.  Perhaps he yet may.
After the ugly spectacle of the grisly execution of Gaddafi, the world cheered when Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, declared his country’s liberation on Sunday. But pro-democracy advocates of the Arab Spring were concerned at word that Islamic shariah law, not Western-style democracy, would serve as the “basic source” of legislation in the country.

In his historic speech Saturday in Benghazi, Jalil also urged Libyans to show “patience, honesty and tolerance” and shun hatred as Libyans look to the future.
He then knelt to offer a brief prayer of thanks. “This revolution was looked after by God to achieve victory,” he told the crowd.
And yet, for another native son, there is still no room in Libya for the prayers of the other sons of Abraham.
Dr. David Gerbi is a native of Tripoli, who, at the age of 12, was exiled, along with 38,000 other Jews, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Gerbi may have left Libya for Italy, but Libya never left David. During two live interviews with him, I learned about his herculean efforts over the years to reconnect Jewish exiles with their native land. This included an ill-fated trip to Tripoli during the Gaddafi regime, which led to his arrest.
After the outbreak of the uprising against Gaddafi, Gerbi hooked up with the rebel forces of the National Transitional Council, the group that earned critical NATO backing and key financial support from democracies with the promise of a moderate Muslim society that would respect the norms of human rights.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Dr. Gerbi decided to test the promise of religious tolerance by clearing the garbage surrounding Tripoli’s long-unused Dar Bishi Synagogue. “I cannot pray under the holy banner of ‘Shema Yisrael’ (Judaism’s most important declaration of faith) amidst the filth,” he said.
But when he returned the next morning, locals warned him about threats from extremists and urged him to flee. Instead of leaving, Gerbi remained at his hotel, hoping to convince the transitional government to allow him to restore the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery.
Last week we spoke again and David described a harrowing Yom Kippur, where the threatening chants of protesters outside his hotel 11 stories below echoed throughout the day. “No place for Jews or Zionists,” some declared. Eventually, a senior Italian diplomat convinced Gerbi to evacuate “liberated” Tripoli on an Italian military plane.
The outcome of David Gerbi’s quest for religious tolerance will go a long way to inform us just how different the new Libya will actually be from the dark days of the Gaddafi era. We hope Canadians will encourage Libya’s new leadership to go beyond words and walk the walk on the path towards true tolerance by symbolically restoring the respect for, and dignity of, their former Jewish neighbours.

Monday 31 October 2011

What Learning Should Be

For the last year or so I've been slowly going through the Michtav MiEliyahu, the great mussar tract of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, z"l.  A few parts are difficult, many are inspirational but at the end of the third volume amongst copies of some letters he wrote are parts that are very frustrating.
As a Chareidi icon, for example, it is no surprise that he decries any attempt at innovation in the religious eductional system in the harshest terms.  I was also slightly taken aback by one of his statements on corporal punishment.  Although I don't agree and am reupulsed by the ntion, I can understand how he would, based on ample statements from Chazal, encourage the beating of students by their rebbeim but his advice to beat even a child that is obedient as a prophylatic measure is simply bizarre.
But ultimately it's his condemnation of any use of modern techniques (modern being the 1940's) in the educating of children, the insistence that the way we did it back in Eastern Europe is the way we must do it today, is what I disagree with most.  Forget computers and the internet, he had a problem with blackboards!
The problem with a tradition-based religion/nationalisty is that sometimes the tradition becomes the religion and replaced the original idea.  Is learning about taking in as much of Torah as possible or is it about going through the motions, swaying in front of a yellowed, crumbling text in a dark room by candlelight?  Is it more important to understand the gemara or to understand how the tune recited while reading it goes?
A more fundamental question: is learning Torah supposed to be enjoyable or approached as one does any field of knowledge?
There is no debate that Jews approach the learning of their sacred materials differently from other religions, that we approach Torah as a body of knowledge different than other fields.  We are not only to learn Torah but to love it and the process of learning it as well.  We see value not just in the knowledge but in people who are steeped in it and even in the books that contain it.  A scientist learns facts to conduct experiments, a Jew learn Torah to complete his neshamah and earn his place in Olam Haba.  Quite different.
As Rav Levi Cooper notes in this article, the idea that there should be joy in the learning of Torah is fundamental to the undertaking.
But there is something deeper to this as well.  Unlike other fields of knowledge where a lack of love for the material precludes an interest in it, Torah demands learning despite a person's passion for the material or lack thereof.  A person might not be excited about Shabbos but still has to observe it.  A person may have a strong hankering for ham but still has to keep kosher.  A person might not care much about what happens to an egg born on Yom Tov but there is still an obligation to know.  And here is where I think the insistent on the traditional method of learning lets people down.
There is, after all, no obligation to make learning difficult ab initio.  If someone is doing well in Talmud and really getting enthusiastic about it, do we change him over to some obscure Aramaic text that he can't possible get into and demand he restrict himself to that?  And if someone benefits from a particular teaching style that might not have di rigeur back in the shtetl, do we tell him to buckle down and get used to flickering candlelight instead of trying to meet his needs?  Is not learning the material more important?
In the end it would seem to me that our responsiblity as Jews is, as Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l notes in his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, to ensure maximum dissemination of Torah knowledge.  If it is done is a way that reaches the most amount of people the goal is achieved.  There is value to some traditions but not if it stands in the way of the most important mitzvah to be performed, that of learning our holy Torah.
According to the Alexander rebbes, only someone who endures hardship to study Torah, toiling and sweating, perhaps barely understanding – only such a person should be lauded as having really studied Torah. Enjoyment when studying Torah could be considered a foreign body that contaminates the purity of the pursuit.

The Alexander Rebbe’s work Yismah Yisrael was published posthumously in Lodz in 1911-1912, but the material was presented publicly over the years, and it is entirely possible that the Avnei Nezer had heard about the position expounded by successive Alexander rebbes.
The Avnei Nezer was not impressed with the Alexander idea, declaring that this position was a “famous mistake” and claiming that the contrary was actually true: Torah study is most valuable when it is a joyful endeavor.
Only when a person takes pleasure in studying do the words of Torah become part of his lifeblood, coursing through his veins and providing him with spiritual nourishment.
To buttress his contention, the Avnei Nezer cited the Zohar, which says that both the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination grow through happiness.
The Evil Inclination is nourished by unworthy actions; the Good Inclination grows due to the enjoyment of Torah. Thus delighting in Torah study is a positive emotion, for it serves as a growth hormone for the Good Inclination.
The Avnei Nezer did, however, acknowledge a caveat: One who studies only for personal enjoyment – such as monetary gain or intellectual stimulation – and not because Torah is our Divine heritage is indeed learning for the wrong reason. Nevertheless, we are encouraged to fulfill God’s commandments even if we do not do so for the right reasons, in the hope that we will one day fulfill those commandments for the sake of Heaven (B. Pesahim 50b).
In sum, the Avnei Nezer concluded: One who studies both for the sake of Heaven and for any benefit that accrues from Torah study – such learning is for the sake of Heaven, and the person is entirely holy, for even the enjoyment can be considered the fulfillment of a commandment.
Who is correct? Should we ideally take pleasure in Torah study, or is our Torah study purer when it lacks any measure of enjoyment? Perhaps this is a question that need not be answered, and the two contradictory approaches should both be preserved and recalled at appropriate times.
On those days when we relish the encounter with Torah; when we can think of no better pursuit; when we enjoy poring over hallowed tomes and find it difficult to pull ourselves away; when every word seems to speak to our soul – on such days, the Avnei Nezer reminds us that real Torah study is supposed to be enjoyable, and at that time we are “entirely holy,” for the Torah is our lifeblood.
On those days when we regrettably find no joy in Torah; when we grapple with passages from old texts that seemingly have no relevance and no import for our daily lives; when we would prefer to be anywhere else but in front of a book of Torah – on such days the Alexander rebbes remind us that if we overcome the discomfort and study Torah, that Torah is truly pure and lofty.