Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 28 March 2011

When Hatred Triumphs Wisdom

For such a small country, Israel has never had trouble producing excellent literature, both fictional and otherwise.  Like other Western countries, however, the literary gliterati are often given over to feelings of loathing for the society that gave them the opportunity to become well-known and successful.  Just as one can find plenty of writers in Western Europe and North America who despise capitalism, freedom of speech and traditional liberal values, one can easily learn that Israel has its own share of writers that hate the Jewish state's existence and see making common cause with the enemy as a standard of personal virtue.
The major difference, of course, is that in North America the enemy is not at the border waiting for a chance to come across and destroy the country.  In Israel, this is the daily reality which the post-Zionist crowd prefers to ignore.
When I was in high school, a friend of my parents gave me a book to read on the Zionist history of Israel by Amos Oz.  Raised in a home in which the State of Israel was often presented in an almost mythical fashion and with a father who was well educated as to the truth of the so-called Palestinian hoax, it was quite a shock to come across left-wing Zionist literature.  Mind you, in those days post-Zionist self-loathing was much more muted.  Stuff like the trash that comes out of Israel nowadays about the false origins of the Jewish people or narrative histories that show only the inaccurate Arab side of events weren't yet acceptable in those days.  Despite the limitations of the times, Oz still managed to convey his view that Zionism had been a mostly negative event.  The usual canards were all present, such as the early settlers not knowing about the indigenous population or not caring, the explusions of locals and all the other lies that the Arab propaganda machine has inserted into history since then.  It was quite a sobering view for a formerly naive Zionist and had I not already received a decent history education from my father I might have not stayed a firm Zionist much longer after that.
Time has passed and as with all things, the situation has clarified itself from its previous mannered murkiness.  Israeli "intellectuals" now no longer bother wrapping themselves in the flag before criticizing their country for crimes imagined and invented.  Nowadays they straight out stomp all over it.  In their assimilated desire to show they are good members of the Western liberal secular crowd they rush to be more Jew-hating than their non-Jewish counterparts.  In their desperation to be welcomed into the salons of those who despite us, they in turn do what they can to strengthen the will of our enemies.  And what better example of this than good ol' Amos Oz?
Israeli authors have never been shy. They have always commented on their governments and always speak about politics in their novels. But the best-selling Israeli writers are now captives of a dangerous syndrome. One can legitimately criticize Israeli governments, their errors and deafness. But a dark malaise is now driving these authors to toe the line with the worst emotions of global public opinion. 
This is the same public opinion that in essence boycotted the tragic news about a large, beautiful and caring Jewish family destroyed in a minute, when terrorists burst into their home in Itamar with one aim in mind: To murder as many Israelis as possible.
There is now a deep chasm between the pretension of the "good conscience" of these writers and the crude realism of history. This is even sander and more significant because we are not talking about writers who hate Israel or novelists who pontificate against the Jewish State from abroad, but rather, about locals.
Amos Oz and David Grossman, Israel’s most popular authors, have a track record of genuine Zionist endeavor. But Oz just got in touch with Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian terrorist leader convicted of murdering five Israelis and planning several terrorist attacks. The Israel Prize recipient sent the Palestinian prisoner one of his books with a personal inscription wishing him a speedy release from prison: “This story is our story. I hope you read it and understand us better, as we attempt to understand you. Hoping to meet soon in peace and freedom.”
Sometimes intellectuals, convinced of their personal superiority, are the stupidest people in room.  In this case, they are also dangerous.  It is one thing to criticize Israel on legitimate grounds, quite another to lionize those whose careers are built on the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel.  Oz and his ilk cannot be part of Zionist project any longer and the sooner Israeli society rejects them for the Jew-haters they are, the better.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Another Bad Idea

Years ago, then-chief rav Meir Lau was asked about his view on the different "streams" in Judaism.  The questioner meant Conservativism and Reform. Rav lau answerd something like "What, like Ashkenazi and Sephardi?"
Within the Torah-observant segment of the Jewish nation, it has always been well understood that there may be different expressions of Judaism but any religious groups that do not a fortiori based themselves on the acceptance of Matan Torahi and the authority of Chazal and the subsequent law codes are not legitimate religious groups.  You cannot create a movement in which such core principles of Judaism are abandoned and then turn around and call yourself a religious expression of that Judaism.
Needless to say, those in the so-called streams don't see it that way.  While I may compeltely disagree with them I can understand that they have a point of view based on their having redfined Judaism to remove those core principles.  We say you can't be a good Jew without Sinai.  They say that you can.
The fly in the ointment in this situation is the State of Israel.  Whereas almost everywhere else in the world there are no central Jewish authorities that have official jurisdiction over one's Jewish life, in Israel the Rabbanut does have such power.  If you want to get married or divorced, you have to go through them.  In recent years the difficulty with such a situation has become obvious as Chareidi elements have taken over most of the power positions within the organization and brought their particular standards with them. 
Were this to be a beis din somewhere in New York, such a thing wouldn't matter much.  In Israel it affects the religious life of every Jew.  And when intolerance to the umpteenth degree becomes one those particular Chareidi standards, the situation only worsens.
This is why I am opposed to Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi's recent statement that non-Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel should be outlawed:
When in 2008 it was reestablished under its current title, some of the responsibilities returned to the ministry, while others remained where they had been assigned. The rabbinic courts, for example, remain part of the Justice Ministry.
But a more dominant factor in threatening the rabbinate’s status are “the extra-parliamentary bodies,” Margi said, such as “the women’s groups who made their struggle with the rabbinate and rabbinic courts their agenda, in order to weaken them as much as possible. These were joined by the Reform and Conservative movements, and recently rabbinic organizations that criticize the rabbinate, and act from outside it.”
The modern Orthodox Tzohar rabbinical group, for example, offers the public a variety of services, including marriage registration and conducting wedding ceremonies in some locales.
Margi also slammed the conduct of “some of the rabbinates in the country that cut themselves off from the public discourse in Israel, and challenged decisions of the Chief Rabbinic Council.”
The minister might have been referring to the four marriage registrars who refused to recognize conversions approved by the Chief Rabbinate – Rabbi Haim Blau of Ashkelon, Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook of Rehovot, Rabbi Yehuda Dov Wolpe of Rishon Lezion and Rabbi Yosef Sheinin of Ashdod.
The rabbinate has decided to allow them to remain in their positions, but refer converts to other marriage registrars instead.
To strengthen its status, Margi called for legislation making the Chief Rabbinate the supreme rabbinical institution in Israel and the world, and wants to move the rabbinate under the ministerial authority of the Religious Services Ministry instead of the Prime Minister’s Office.
He wants to give more weight to adjudications of the chief rabbis regarding legislation pertaining to religious affairs, and empower the rabbinate to reform its internal management, to include online national marriage registration, unifying and strengthening its kashrut supervision, and increasing outreach and the availability of information on Jewish identity.
In addition, Margi called, “to determine by law that there are no streams in Judaism, only one that has been passed down to us from generation to generation.”
Look, on one hand I can appreciate the idea that there should be one Jewish standard in Israel.  Certainly under a halachic government non-observant forms of worship would be prohibited.  However, that kind of government will likely only ever come into existence after God and His Moshiach bring forth our Final Redemption.  The re-appearance of God in history and His confirmation of the truth of Torah would be enough to justify such a halachic stand at that time.  Until then we cannot force non-observant Jews to keep those rulese they refuse to.  Such enforcement only brings resentment and hatred towards Torah observance and those who live in that community.  It does nothing to advance the presence of God and His halacha in this world.
And how would such a law be enforced?  Could anyone seriously believe that the police would have the time and resources to go around to every Conservative and Reform temple in Israel (all two dozen of 'em) and put up "Closed!" notices and locks on the door?  Are there going to be raids on furtive hidden mixed services?  If a woman calls herself a rabbi in public, will she be taken to court?  Seriously, how does Margi expect to enforce such a law?
It's one thing to publicly wish that the Final Redemption were here and that under God's guidance we were living according to His law in Israel, quite another to muse about outlawing freedom of thought and practice when such a move would only lead to an incredible amount of chilul HaShem.  Hopefully this idea won't progress any further than its current state as the subject of a small newspaper ad.

Fighting the Inevitable

Years ago the Reform movement came up with a great advertising idea: it's hard to be Reform.  According to this concept, it's easy to be Orthodox - you just follow all the rules.  It's also easy to be Conservative because there were still lots of rules.  But with Reform, it was really quite difficult to be a dedicated Jew because there were no rules.  One pretty much had to make up one's own and stick by them which is a lot more difficult that following a guide.
A few years later, the Conservatives released their own version.  The Orthodox position was the same - just follow the rules.  Being Reform was also easy because you just made everything up as you went along.  Ah, but to be Conservative was difficult because you had to find the right balance of tradition and innovation.  That was hard.
Orthodoxy never came out with its own view on this subject for a couple of reasons.  For one, there is no central authority in the Torah-observant community like there is in Reform and Conservatism.  For another, we know that the hardest way to be is observant.  Yes, we just follow all the rules but have you ever looked into how many there are of them?!
Flash forward a couple of decades and the results of these views is now apparent.  Of the three dominant so-called streams of North American Judaism, it is the Conservatives that are in the most trouble.
In truth, it's quite easy to be a Reformer.  Heck, you don't even have to be Jewish to belong which is how the movement props up its numbers.  Easy conversions, patrilieal descent, prayers only twice a year and near-complete flexibility in belief and practice sustain the Reformers even as assimilation chips away at their existence.
Orthodoxy is also doing quite well despite the lack of success every other Jewish group wishes it.  Despite a steady stream of folks leaving, more are being born or joining voluntarily into it.  And as non-religious participation in Jewish community life decreases, Orthodox influence grows.
But the Conservatives?  They have a problem.  It was one thing in the post-war years when society was repulsed by the nationalist and extremist feelings that had powered fascism only a few years before.   Conservatism was the perfect movement for the time since it eschewed both near-complete assimilation as well as complete religious dedication.  One could be a good ritual Jew but live a thoroughly North American life as well.
Society has changed since then.  Extremism is, for better or worse, back in fashion.  You either stand for something or you stand for nothing and few want the anonymity a lack of firm beliefs in something provides.  This has created a flight to the edges with people either completely dropping out from Jewish life or becoming baalei teshuvah and embracing the observant lifestyle.  The compromise that Conservatism used to represent isn't in fashion so much anymore.
The other problem is how Conservatism has reacted to this change.  Instead of firming up an identity of its own, the movement seems to have determined that the best way to maintain its numbers is to move to the left, to out-Reform the Reform if possible.  This has led to multiple initiatives over the last few decades like women rabbis, egalitarian services and homosexual marriage.  Yes, the veneer of the approval of the Rabbinical Assembly and its so-called halachic process is still there but the process itself is a farce as vote after vote leads to an endorsement of positions the Reformers have held for a long time.
The membership isn't fooled either.  Why hang around in a pseudo-Reform movement when the real thing is next door?  Why pretend to be ritually observant when the Temple down the street dispenses with much of that archaic formality but tells you you're still a good Jew?
Yes, there are those who will deny the problems, as this article from JTA demonstrates.  One can always point to buildings opening up and new initiatives as signs of success.  However, the facts on the ground as far back as 2003 and more recently show a different picture.  People are leaving.  The uncommitted are either moving left or dropping out.  Those with a serious interest in Torah and Judaism are moving into Orthodoxy.  There is little interest left in a movement which promises mediocrity of both extremes when folks are only interested in excellence in one.
Will Conservatism disappear in the short term?  Of course not.  There are still too many institutions, too many folks with too much invested for anyone to talk about rolling up the carpet but within a century or two it is likely folks will talk about the Conservatives the way we talk about the Karaites - a blip in history that folks thought was a good idea at the time.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Missing Promise of Religious Zionism

One of Religious Zionism's biggest problems is that the movement is often mistaken by others for being something that it isn't.  (Frankly too many within the community make this mistake but that's another story)
On one side, many believe that Religious Zionism is merely the Israeli equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy.  While there is some overlap between the two movements, they are certainly not the same thing.  The religious centre of Religious Zionism sits to the right of Modern Orthodoxy as it currently is constituted.  In addition, the raison d'etre of the two movements is entirely different.  While Modern Orthodoxy is about reconciling the demands of the outside world with the living of a Torah-true lifestyle, Religious Zionism is about acting on the belief that God has moved history to a point where a rebuilding of the Jewish state in the Jewish land is now a religious imperative.  In religious terms, being Dati Leumi gives one more in common with the Chareidi community than with the Modern Orthodox one.
On the other side there are those who believe that Religious Zionists are just the frum version of secular Zionists.  This is also a mistake.  The purpose of Secular Zionism, al pi Theodore Herzl and his followers, was to create a secular socialist European-style state somewhere in the world, preferably in Israel, where the population would be Jewish in order to show to the Western world that Jews were just as capable of creating an enlightened modern liberal society as the gentiles were.  As noted above, Religious Zionism is a diametric opposite of this.  The purpose of the Dati Leumi movement is to create a Jewish State on Jewish land.  Anything else is a deviation from this goal.
It is therefore interesting to read a decent article from Azure magazine in which the missing promise of Religious Zionism is examined, albeit not in those terms.  The article starts off noting something that I have written about before:
In one of the Talmud’s most famous stories, the invading Romans are readying their final blow to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, realizing that defeat is imminent, sneaks out of the city and escapes to the tent of the Roman general Vespasian, who he announces will soon be appointed emperor. When the prophecy comes true shortly thereafter, Vespasian grants ben Zakkai a boon. Yet instead of asking the emperor to spare Jerusalem and its Temple, as might be expected, ben Zakkai pleads for a seemingly marginal coastal town: “Give me Yavneh and its sages!”1 Less known, however, is what many scholars consider an earlier version of this story, found in Lamentations Rabba. In this telling, ben Zakkai does ask for Jerusalem. And when Vespasian refuses, but lets him try again, ben Zakkai still does not ask for Yavneh and its sages; rather, he asks that one of Jerusalem’s gates be left unguarded for several hours, thus enabling the sages of Jerusalem to escape.
The difference between these two versions reflects the wrenching change that Judaism underwent following the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. and the Jews’ subsequent exile from the Land of Israel. For more than 1,200 years, a Hebrew commonwealth had existed in that land, interrupted only by the relatively brief Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.). For the last 1,000 of those years, Jerusalem had served as the Jews’ political capital, and the Temple as the center of their religious life. Moreover, the Torah was clearly intended for a sovereign people in its own territory: Numerous commandments, such as those connected to the Temple service or agriculture, can be performed only in the Land of Israel. Many others, on issues ranging from commerce to the courts to a prototypical welfare system, are the type of regulation only applicable to, and enforceable by, a sovereign state. Understandably, then, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction, the idea of Judaism’s surviving without sovereignty would have been almost inconceivable. It was likely hard for the author of the version in Lamentations Rabba to imagine a Jewish leader of that time making anything but the requests he cited: first, the survival of Jerusalem, the Jews’ capital city, and second, the survival of the Jews’ politicalleadership. (The sages of Jerusalem for whom ben Zakkai pleaded included the members of the Sanhedrin, a combination legislature/supreme court.)
As time passed, however, it became clear that the Jews faced a lengthy exile. Their rabbinic leaders therefore began a centuries-long project of converting Judaism into a form capable of surviving outside its land. The Temple service was replaced by prayer. Holidays were reinterpreted. A fixed calendar was instituted. Torah study became the supreme value, compensating for all the commandments that could no longer be performed. And the importance of sovereignty was downplayed: For the sake of Jewish survival, the message had to be that sovereignty was not essential so long as rabbinic leadership—“Yavneh and its sages”—remained.
In short, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai's brilliant move was to adjust Judaism from being nationalist and Temple centred to a more religious movement that would accomodate the new Jewish fact of the diaspora.  One can draw an important conclusion from this based on the writings of Rav Kook who, for purposes of this discussion, is the Anti-Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai.  Given that history has moved to a point where the ingathering of the exiles has begun along with the first glimpses of the final redemption, it is time for the Jewish rabbinic leadership to begin the reverse of what RYBZ did and restore the nationalistic version of Judaism, in effect replacing the golus-based version that we are currently working with.
This task is no less tremendous than RYBZ's 1800 years ago and, unlike during his time, we lack the towering figures of halachic leadership who can call upon the loyalty of the entire Jewish world instead of their parochial sub-communities.  This does not mean the task is any less essential and its lack of completion is a serious problem within Jewish life today.  Essentially we have before us a Jewish state in which the religious model is entirely diaspora-based and therefore ill-fitting for a role in national life.
Consider, for example, the role religion plays in marriage in national life.  Officially the State of Israel is a secular state but try telling that to a Jewish couple that wants to get married or divorced.  It would be one thing if the constitution of the State was the Torah and the law was based on halacha but neither is true.  Yet we expect non-religious couples with no connection to Judaism save by birth to adhere to halacha out of the blue at this important time of their life.  How many times does this insistence cause resentment or just plain hatred of Judaism?  One could go on from there to talk about the Shabbos laws and other Jewish legal parts to the state that cause more friction than positive benefit.
There is also the issue of vested interest.  Too many leaders in the Jewish world, especially within the Chareidi community, have added an additional value to RYBZ's model of diaspora-based Judaism: the idea that this model cannot change save by direction Divine intervention.  Short of that, any thought of change no matter how obvious the need is rejected.  Thus we have people fighting to maintain a model of Judaism that is no longer viable at so many national levels simply because the principle "Thou shalt allow nothing new" is more important than Jewish survival.
To be sure there are some weakness with the Azure article.  It is clearly written from a left-wing Modern Orthodox perspective and after some insightful historical background enters into the usual "We have to change halacha and the Torah if necessary" type of arguments which weakens its otherwise overall excellent point. 
It is into this gap that it is the responsibility that Religious Zionism must step.  The transition from diapora-based Judaism to Israel-based Judaism is needed.  There are certainly enough luminaries within the community who can analyze nationalist issues and answer the questions they raise from a perspective of halacha without any need to concede to secular liberal values that LWMO treasures.  But instead of rising to this challenge Religious Zionism has receded to become yet another sector group within the State.
It is imperative that Religious Zionism break out of this turpor and resume a position of national and religious leadership within Israel and the Jewish world.  There is too much of the Jewish future at stake to allow those who either do not care about Judaism or those who only care about their own specific brand to lead us atray much longer.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Purim Thought

Mishloach manos is one of the basic mitzvos of Purim.  Although there is no specific way to deliver the items, usually people either do it themselves or send a friend to do it for them.  It is said that Rav Avika Eiger, zt"l, once mentioned to his son-in-law the Chasam Sofer, zt"l that he was uncertain if a non-Jew could deliver mishloach manos or not.  After all, we have a rule that a shaliach is like the person himself and therefore has to have the same legal status.  A non-Jew would not fit into that category and therefore cannot be a shaliach for a Jew.
But does mishloach manos even require a shaliach in the first place?  It would seem not but if that's the case, why isn't it called Netinas manos
The Chasam Sofer apparently answered that since a shaliach is not a legal requirement, then anyone can deliver the items for you, hence a non-Jew could be a shaliachi in this case.  But that leaves the second question, the one about the name of the mitzvah unanswered.
However, another authority (I don't remember his name, I don't have my sefer in front of me right now) points out that Chazal hold that a person who receives a gift from another often has trouble subsequently looking that person in the face.  As a result, it is much more honourable for a person to receive the gift indirectly, hence the mishloach instead of netinas.  After all, if the important part of the sending of gifts is to increase achdus then doing it in a sensitive fashion is far more likely to achieve that goal.

Friday 18 March 2011

No Honour Amongst Rabbonim

Elior Chen is an evil man.  He is a manipulative child abuse responsible for repeated episodes of suffering, misery and life-long damage.  The secular justice system did what the halachicsystem in Israel would not and punished him for his horrible deeds.  He is going to jail for a long time and good riddance.
In a way, Rav Yaakov Menken's recent piece on this toad of a man is refreshing.  Instead of the usual Shafranesque approach at Cross Currents in which the misdeeds of a Chareidi criminal are either denied or minimized, Rav Menken does neither.  He fully admits the terrible things that Chen did but then reaches a suprised conclusion: Elior Chen isn't Chareidi so therefore the newspapers that call him that are actually falsely picking on him and his brethren!
In what must surely qualify as the dumbest stuff that Menken has ever written, he completely redefines what being Chareidi is in such a way as to disqualify Chen from membership:
What motivates this posting is the headline in HaAretz: “Haredi ‘Rabbi’ Elior Chen sentenced …” Haredi? Because he has a black yarmulke and a long beard? By what logic does HaAretz put quotation marks around the word “Rabbi” (other news reports call him “self-ordained”) while declaring him to be truly “Haredi”?
Chen was not connected to any Charedi leader or to the fabric of Charedi life, despite living in a charedi settlement. Basically, he’s Charedi like Sun Myung Moon is “Christian,” but no one would write the headline that “Christian ‘Reverend’ Sun Myung Moon …” did anything at all. Similarly, no one referred to “Reform Rabbi Fred Neulander” when he hired two hit men to murder his wife in 1994. Articles only called his congregation Reform, if at all, as was appropriate.
Where to begin?  Where to begin?
"Because he has a black yarmulke and a long beard?"  Well add to that a pale complexion and long curly peyos and yes, Rav Menken, you are exactly describing the uniform that the Chareidi world subscribes to.  Let's be honest: a man could sit and learn 20 hours a day, subscribe to multiple chumros, speak in perfect Yeshivish but if he showed up in your yeshiva in a blue shirt and casual pants topped off by a knitted kippah, he'd never be considered Chareidi.  Sorry, it just wouldn't happen.  Membership in the Chareidi community starts (and too often stops) at the clothing and external appearance of the person, nothing deeper.
"Chen was not connected to any Chareidi leader"  Really?  And the letters written on his behalf by Menken's beloved "Gedolim" attesting to his status as atzadik and insisting on his innocence?  Ignored or downplayed in the comments section of Menken's post.  Why let the truth inconvenience historical revision, after all?  
Chen lived in a Chareidi neighbourhood, worked exclusively within the Chareidi community and used Chareidi-type logic to commit his misdeeds.  Only a purposefully blind fool would consider stating that he had no connection to Chareidism.
One might further ask: what is Rav Menken's opinion of rioting Neturei Karta or of the Satmar Rebbe who said that the boys murdered at Mercaz Harav a few years ago had it coming to them because they were Zionist?  Would he say that these folks are not real Chareidim either?
Finally there is his analogy to Fred Neulander which is obviously preposterous.  Neulander may have been a Reform rabbi but his crimes were carried out not in consonance with his position but despite it.  In contrast, Chen used his position as a rav and spiritual leader within the Chareidi communty to commit his crimes.  There is no comparison between the two.
They say there is no honour amongst thieves.  Apparently this applies to Chareidi rabbobnim as well.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Our Legacy, Not Theirs

We are all very familiar with the story of the Akeidas Yitzchak.  It is the climax of Avraham Avinu's life, the greatest test he undergoes to demonstrate his belief in God and an example of self-negation that we can only yearn to emulate in our own lives.
Yet it is important to remember that there are two versions of the Akeidah floating around there.  There is ours and their is theirs.  In ours it is Yitzchak Avinu that is laid down on the altar on Mount Moriah.  In theirs it is Yishmael.  In both the father is about to sacrifice the son when God prevents him.  In both, the son becomes the founder of the future nation.
There's a billion of them and only a few million of us.  How do we know our version is correct?  After all, there are no corroborating accounts.  Avraham Avinu and his son stood alone on the mountain on that day.  Whose version is true?
The Akeidah is often presented as an example of a test which Avraham had to undergo but what we often forget is that Yitzchak Avinu was tested just as much.  As the Chazal and commentators remind us, Avraham was already an old man at the time while Yitzchak was still in his physical prime.  Had the son wished to prevent the father from fulfilling God's command he easily could have done so. But in the story there is not even a hint of a disagreement.  Yitzchak accepts what God has seemingly preordained for him and lies down on the altar.
Honestly, could one imagine Yishmael doing the same thing?  This is the man decribed by the Torah as pere adam, a wild ass of a man who would perpetually live in conflict with all his neighbours.  Could one imagine Yishmael meekly following Avraham Avinu's instructions and lying down on the altar without so much as a squack?
The answer might be: well since the story is there and they claim it's about Yishmael, then obviously he did.  But by remembering that the second test of the Akeidah was on the son, one can now easily rebut this.
The purpose of Yitzchak Avinu's quiet surrender to God's will was to instill a trait into our nation.  We have always been a people willing to end our lives to sanctify God's divine and holy name.  We have far too often, most recently last week in Itamar, demonstrated this.
Look at them now. They too have a trait instilled in them, it seems, quite similar to ours.  They have always been a people willing to end our lives to sanctify God's name.  This is not a nation that ever had the lesson of the Akeidah instilled within in.  There is no trace of the bravery of Yitzchak and the kindness of Avraham Avinu in them.
The Akeidah and its awe-inspiring lessons are our legacy and ours alone.  No amount of lies will ever change that or diminish the greatness of those kedoshim who have endured their own version of that event.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Fundamental Flaw

It seems I've been picking on the Cross Currents gang a lot recently.  Oh well.
This piece by Rav Adlerstein seems to prove an unintended point: a good rebbe can make a drasha out of anything and just because he did doesn't mean there's an actual deep Jewish point there.
Specifically the drasha in this article on the Jewish mystical meanings of chess:
The Chess Game

There is one king. All of the other pieces revolve around him and their entire mission is to protect and serve him. G-d is the King, all else was created by Him, given the opportunity to connect to His truth and to serve Him.
The queen represents the feminine manifestation of the divine, known as the “shechinah,” intimately involved with every aspect of creation, granting vitality and substance to every existence. The queen is the most practically affective piece, often sent into the lines of fire, even placed in danger. Likewise, G-d risks His own dignity, as it were, by investing Himself in every creature and existence, subjecting Himself to the vicissitudes of the human condition.
Then there are bishops, rooks, and knights. They are swift, free, not limited by the squares immediately surrounding them; they can “fly” around freely, without constraints. These are symbolic of the angels-in their three mystical categories we discuss in the daily morning services, “seraphim,” “chayos” and “ofanim,” represented by the bishops, rooks, and knights.
In order for there to be free choice in the world, there are two teams, the white and the black. One team representing G-dliness and holiness; the other team representing everything antithetical to G-dliness and holiness. The teams are engaged in fierce battle. And for the confrontation to be meaningful each team contains, at least on the surface, all the properties contained in the opposite team. Both teams pretend to have a king, queen, bishops, rooks and knights.
Finally, there are the pawns. They are very limited in their travel, moving only one step at a time, only in a singular direction, and they constantly get “knocked off.” But… when they fight through the “board,” arriving at their destination, they can be promoted even to the rank of the queen, something that the bishop, rook or knight can never achieve.
The Pawn represents the human being living down here on earth. We humans take very small steps, and we are so limited in every aspect of our journey and our growth. We also constantly make mistakes and get “knocked down.” But when man perseveres, and overcomes the angst and despair of his or her own failings and mortality, when we fight the fight to subdue darkness and to reveal the presence of the “king” within our own bodies, our own psyches and the world around us-the human being surpasses even angels; the pawn is transformed into a queen! The human life reunites with its source above, the queen, the Shechinah, experiencing the deepest intimacy with the King Himself.
The bishops, rooks, and knights, though spiritually powerful and angelic, are predictable, and limited by their role. There is no room for real promotion, no substantive growth, no radical progression. Yes, they fly around, but only within their own orbit. The angels on high, as well as the soul alone on high, before entering the body, are powerful yet confined by their own spiritual standing. It is the limitations of the human person that stimulate his or her deepest growth. The limits of our existence create friction, causing us to strain against the trials and disappointments of life.
Quite a nice piece and I'm sure there are even Lubavitchers out there who, having read this, will begin telling folks that Chazal, or at least Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, invented chess to prove all these hidden mystical secrets.
There's only one problem.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that the king represents God.  Fine, except in chess there are two kings.  Did I miss something?

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Don't Change The Subject!

As I noted a few days ago, it must be frustrating for Jew haters, both Jewish and gentile, these days.  Despite 24 hours attempts to villify Israel and, by extension, any Jew that does hate his heritage and homeland, world events seem to conspire to keep them off the front page.  In their mind, there is only one story: Israel is slaughtering the so-called Palestinians and stealing their land.  Darfur?  Don't want to talk about it.  Tibet?  Where's that?  Japan?   Don't want to talk about it.  Don't you understand, they shreik.  Only attacking Israel matters!
As a result, as hundreds of thousands still languish homeless and on the verge of starvation in southern Sudan, as the Japanese face the very real prospect of an unprecedented radioactive disaster on top of thousands dead and tens of thousands of lives ruined, on top of North Korea's ongoing provocation of South Korea and all the outrages being perpetrated throughout south Asia and the Middle East, this lobby always wants to bring the focus back to Israel, and only Israel.
How else to explain that, as the world struggles to cope with the disaster in Japan, the UN is obsessed with showing an anti-Israel film that would have made the Nazis proud?

Such was the case Monday night when the U.N. played host to the U.S. premiere of director Julian Schnabel's new film "Miral," which follows a Palestinian girl's relationship with terrorism and Israel after the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The screening was met with protests from Israel's delegation to the U.N. as well as prominent U.S.-based Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which were outraged that the world body would open its doors to a film that even its Jewish American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, describes as "pro-Palestinian."
In a letter to the world body, AJC Executive Director David Harris said showing the film in the U.N. General Assembly hall would "only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the U.N." In particular, Jewish groups have objected to the film's portrayal of the Israeli army and what they say is a lack of context for some of the soldiers' more extreme actions.

Get it?  Even as dozens if not hundreds of crises demand its attention, even as Jews are being massacred in their homes by the enemy, the UN has one interest from which it will not be distracted.  One wonders what would happen if a member of the rebel army in Libya somehow made it to the UN's headquarters and demanded to address the General Assembly?  "Well unless you're going to blame Israel," he'd be told, "we don't have a interest in hearing what you have to say."
This, of course, is nothing now.  Other than liberals who have their heads in the sand there is no doubting that the social taboo that public Jew hatred acquired in the wake of the Holocaust has disappeared.  Not that the world ever stopped hating us but now it's fashionable to say it publicly again, as Caroline Glick notes.

Netanyahu directed most of his words to the hostile world. He spoke to the leaders who rush to condemn Israel at the UN Security Council every time we assert our right to this land by permitting Jews to build homes. He demanded that they condemn the murder of Jewish children with the same enthusiasm and speed.
He shouldn't have bothered.
The government released the photos on Saturday night. Within hours, the social activism website My Israel posted a short video of the photographs on YouTube along with the names and ages of the victims. Within two hours YouTube removed the video. What was Netanyahu thinking? Didn't he get the memo that photos of murdered Jewish children are unacceptable? If they're published, someone might start thinking about the nature of Palestinian society.

After all, the real outrage about Itamar is Israel announcing plans to expand "settlements" in Yehuda and Shomron.  How dare Israel date build homes for its people on land it controls?  Why, that would give it the same rights as every other country in the world and we can't have that!
We must be strong as a people in defending out land and our heritage from those who would try to steal the former and defame the later.

Monday 14 March 2011

We Are Not Like Them

In the wake of the atrocity in Israel too many do-gooder liberals have raised the inevitable "Well we're not any different from them" standard.  This is a line that has as much credibility as "The world is a flat disc carried through the cosmos on the back of a giant elephant named Syd".

We are not like them.
We have one Baruch Goldstein.  They have thousands.
We treat Baruch Goldstein as an example of how a Jew should not behave.  They treat theirs like heroes.
We teach our children to hate how he became.  They teach their children to be just like him.
We hang our heads in shame when we hear that a Jew has does something terrible to an innocent Arab.  They hold a street party when innocent Jews are killed.
We guard our children with our lives.  They strap bombs to the waists of theirs.
We value life.  They value death.
If they would stop firing, we would be at peace.  If we would stop firing, they would come and kill us all.
There is no comparison and anyone who thinks there is can only be called a sick Jew-hater.

Navel Gazing

One of the most important qualities a person can have is the ability to engage in honest introspection.  The talent for being able to look at one's flaws instead of automatically ignoring or justifying them is tremendously valuable, albeit often quite rare in people and communities.  A few of the recent writings by the Cross Currents gang seem to demonstrate that amongst the PR section of the Chareidi community, introspection is a word missing from the dictionary.
First there was this piece by Rav Adlerstein responding to the recent Religious Zionist psak against selling or renting to Arabs in Israel.  In an otherwise thoughtful article he adds this interesting paragraph:
R. Aharon Leib Steinman shlit’a took out much of the sting of the document because he is so high on the halachic ladder. He criticized the psak as needlessly provocative, and asked how such a document would be received if it appeared in another part of the world, banning rentals to Jews. (Many were puzzled by his assertion that haredi neighborhoods were different. His reasoning, I believe, is fairly apparent. Only haredim insist on living in closed enclaves, free of all other influences – whether from Jews or non-Jews. People who buy in those neighborhoods invest in the closed nature of their home as part of its value. Introducing any non-haredi element reduces the market value of the property. This is a legitimate, actionable monetary claim. Non-haredim do not live in such enclaves, and cannot make us therefore of the same argument.)
Get it?  It's wrong to be racist when it comes to renting or selling to folks in your neighbourhood... unless you're Chareidi in which case it's necessary and justifiable.  Other folks should be happy with a multi-cultural neighbourhood but it is accordance with the laws of the universe for Chareidim to do the opposite and be praised for it.  To paraphrase his understanding of Rav Steinman, only haredim have a right to be racist and exclusive while calling it a virtue.  No one else does.
Am I the only person to shake his head at such idiotic presumptuousness?
Unfortunately, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum added his own two bits to this discourse with his recent piece on how world events affect Chareidim.  Normally I enjoy his writing even when I find myself disagreeing with him.  I also understand that the crowd he's writing for on some occasions is the Chareidi community which means I'm reading his arguments and positions as an outsider.  However this latest article also showed a lack of introspection he'd hitherto seemed to avoid:
The recent turmoil in Egypt is one example. On its face, the shifting reins of power in Egypt would seem to have no direct connection to the chareidi community, other than to increase the peril to chareidi residents of Israel (as for every other Israeli citizen). But that is not necessarily true. For the last two decades at least, Israeli military planning has been predicated on the assumption that Israel faces no danger of a confrontation with the most populous and best-armed Arab state, i.e., Egypt. It has neither had to deploy a large number of troops against the threat of a possible attack from Egypt, via the Sinai, nor position large quantities of weapons in the south of the country. But that may change along with the regime in Egypt. Already Iran is exploiting the uncertainty in Egypt to stir up Sinai Beduins. And there are indications of an increase in arms smuggling into Gaza.
Over that same period of time, the chareidi community in Israel has been fairly confident that no government – even one without chareidim in the coalition – would push a full-scale confrontation with the chareidi community over army service because the IDF's manpower needs did not require chareidi soldiers. But just because that was once true does not mean it will remain so forever. Even before the ouster of Mubarak, and the attendant doubts over the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, it was possible to conceive of a situation in which Israeli soldiers were simultaneously fighting ground operations in three theatres – Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and possibly the West Bank as well. The instability in Egypt dramatically exacerbates that situation, and thereby increases the potential for a major confrontation over the issue of army service...
But with the disappearance of a clear left-right chasm between the two largest secular parties, the possibility that they will one day form a coalition between themselves grows. If that were to happen, chareidi political power would decline precipitously. There would be no chairmanships of the Knesset budget committee, for instance. The two largest parties might even find it in their mutual interests to form a temporary coalition prior to elections in order to "make seder (order)." (Such a theoretical possibility always existed, but the former ideological chasms made it unlikely ever to happen.)
That "seder" would certainly involve electoral reform, with single-member districts replacing proportional representation, at least in part. Such an electoral change would be popular with the public on any number of good government grounds, and offer the additional "benefit," in the eyes of the non-chareidi public, of lessening the number of chareidi representatives in the Knesset.
Nor would "making seder" necessarily stop there. It could include drastic cuts in state funding to schools that do not teach the mandated "core curriculum." Even if such cuts were directed only at the high school-age yeshivos (yeshivos ketanos in the Israeli parlance), they would wreak havoc in the chareidi community. Even today, most yeshivos ketanos, especially those without their own buildings, struggle financially. A large percentage of families are not able to pay anything close to full tuition. Without government funding, the survival of many yeshivos ketanos would become precarious.
Even without Knesset involvement, the danger of the Supreme Court mandating the severance of government funding to non-complying schools looms large. (The Court has already done so in theory, without yet fully enforcing its edicts in practice.)
Again, in  this article Rav Rosenblum is clearly writing for his constituency and ignoring the greater implications of some of the events he's describing.  For the insular Chareidim, trying to explain the true meaning of the changes going on the countries around Israel is a waste of time.  "How does it affect me" is the only question these folks ask and it's the question he's trying to answer.  However, the answers themselves reek of selfishness.
Egypt is changing governments and might become a military threat to Israel and the Chareidi question is: How do we continue to avoid military service?  As if the Egyptians, if they were to invade, would selectively avoid Chareidi neighbourhoods because they exempted themselves from serving the State?
Poverty is spreading at an alarming rate throughout the Chareidi community.  People are suffering, leaving the fold to survive and the official question is: How do we continue to avoid educating our children so they can be economically self-sufficient?
In summary: how do they continue to live off the largesse of the State while minimizing or avoiding any attempt to get them to contribute to that largesse?
If these are the questions the Chareidi community is asking, if they really believe that the rules of common decency that they preach don't actually apply to them, then a heavy dose of introspection would seem to be called for, as soon as possible.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Look at Us! Look at Us!

In a strange way, the terror attack this weekend in Israel was inevitable.  The global news focus over the last several weeks has been on anything but Israel.  Despite the attempts of the Arabs in Yehuda and Shomron to keep their villification campaign against Israel in the headlines, events such as uprising throughout the rest of the Arab world and the recent devastating tragedy in Japan have consipred to push them to page 15 of the front section, a spot the enfants terrible of the anti-Israel community are not used to occupying.
It was therefore to be expected that some outrage would be committed against the pioneers living in the heartland of Israel.  What better way to vault back to page one than to commit a vile crime against an innocent family and then scream about being victimized when the Tzahal began to hunt for the animals that perpetrated this deed.  Like the spoiled brat who, even as the family home burns down, screams "Look at me!  Pay attention to me!", oblivious to anyone's needs but his own, the Arabs in Yehuda and Shomron seem to have little interest in the events unfolding around the globe.
Earthquake in Japan?  Thousands potentially dead?  Hundreds of thousands homeless or otherwise harmed?  Who cares!  We have to make sure "Israel is evil" is the headline in the newspaper tomorrow.  Screw those loser Japanese.  They don't matter.
People fighting and dying across North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East?  Don't they know that the only reason there's any conflict at all in the entire world but especially in the Arab League is because of the existence of Israel?  Look at us!  Look at us!
With the help of Heaven the Tzahal will do a better job of hunting down the murderers than they did of preventing this atrocity but this will not be the last attempt.  Too much effort has been put into making the destruction of Israel a top priority for South America and Europe.  Allowing other happenings to replace that effort is simply not acceptable to the Jew haters and if a few atrocities allow them to scream that they're being oppressed, then it seems they're up to the job.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Another Nutjob Hates Us

Not being a maven in the fast-moving ultra-chic world of international fashion, I'd never heard of John Galliano until today.  My personal tastes in fashion involve shopping at a relatively cheap men's clothing store and searching until I can find a suit that (sort of) fits for under $150.  I'm generally happy if my socks match.  Feathered boas, sheeer clothing that looks like it was made of firm toilet paper and anorexic cat walking waifs aren't really part of my social circle.
And then the world of fashion showed up in the headlines.  John Galliano, a gentleman whom, from the pictures I've seen, would be more at home in a freakshow than anywhere else, has announced his Jew-hatred to the world.  So shocking were his statements that Natalie Portman, Queen Amidala herself, was forced to speak out against him, helping seal his fate (he was fired by his company).
It's been a rough week for this, though.  Charlie Sheen, best known for his role of playing a drug-addled, whore-addicted loser in his real life, was also recently canned by his employers for making Jew-hating comments.  His hit show which earned him $1.8 million an episode also got cancelled as a result.
In a way, I feel sorry for these guys.  Both Sheen and Galliano seemed to have missed the essential rule that Jew-haters operate with.  Nowadays it is simply unacceptable for non-Jewish celebrities to openly express their hatred of Jews.  The reason isn't because religious Jews get upset about such statements.  For a Torah-observant Jew, the revelation that a Hollywood actor or metrosexual designer hates us should elicit a shrugging of the shoulders and a "So nu?  Eisav hates Yaakov.  What do you expect?"  No, the reason seems to be that liberal, nearly-completed assimilated Jews get greatly offended by such statements.  Having spent their lifetimes trying to fit into the dominant culture and leave the shtetl behind, they resent any reminders that no matter how much bacon they eat for breakfast they are still "dirty Jews" in the eyes of many around us.  Therefore any open expressions of how "they" really feel about "us" are forbidden.
After all, every good Jew hater knows that if you want to express yourself, you don't cry "Death to the Jews".  You cry "Death to Israel".  You don't shout "I hate Heeb's!"  You shout "I hate Zionists!"  The latter expressions, far from being forbidden, are considered acceptable social discourse by many of the same people, liberal assimilated Jews included, who  would otherwise bristle at the former ones.  It's just a shame for Galliano and Sheen that they weren't made aware of this.  Otherwise, instead of being fired, they'd be the bon enfants of the anti-Israel Jew hating circuit and would get good money to appear and say pretty much the same things they did.  Funny how that works.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Leading By Following

One of Judaism's main principles is that we must remain distinct from the nations and cultures around us.  This is mentioned several times in the Torah as well as the need to maintain a level of kedushah while doing so.  Taken to its limit, it means that Jews should be distinguishable from non-Jews even at a casual glance. Our dress, our style of walking, our speech and other facts of our public appearance should distinguish us as b'nai Yisrael.  Some legal codes go as far as demanding that we use a different colour of shoelace than the folks around us.
However, this principle does not exist in isolation.  There are additional factors to consider, such as not appearing ridiculous in public.  The halacha does not demand that we become laughingstocks to those around us.  If a particular thing Jews do draw ridicule then we need to cease from doing it in public.  We are the people of God and if we act in a way that draws mocking, then we are also drawing that mocking towards God.
Furthermore, we are not only supposed to be laughinstocks, we're not supposed to be stupid.  Once in a while, the non-Jewish world comes up with a great idea or two, one that improves comfort or health.  To avoid such ideas based on the need to be distinct is stupid.  Is there anyone out there, for example, who avoids toilet paper because gentiles use it?
Finally there are the parameters of the rules of being distinct.  From whom are we to distinguish ourselves?  Just anybody?  From general culture or from specific ones dedicated to idol worship?  If a particular type of clothing is worn in society simply because it's common and available, not because it represents a faith, creed or belief of any kind, is it still forbidden?
All these questions are dealt with in different ways by the various groups in the Torah-observant world.  At one end you have the left-wing Modern Orthodox (LWMO) who treat the need to be distinct with great leniency.  Outside of a postage stamp suede kippah and maybe a hamsa necklace, there is little to distinguish members of this community from the general public.  From one side this is a bad thing.  There is nothing specifically Jewish about their appearance.  On the other hand there is nothing specifically gentile either, just a non-specific appearance with no deeper religious meaning.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the ultra-Orthodox (UO) who seem to make the focus of their religious practice the need to stand out from those around them.  Their dress, style of walking and speech is specially tailored to be inclusive of only their community and to exclude everyone else.  A recent speech by an important Chasidic rebbe-to-be, as covered in this article, demonstrates this point:
Rabbi Hager said in his sermon that the students must "beware of the dangers hiding on the street." He added that, "a student who wishes to delve into Torah studies and observe mitzvot must detach himself from all nonsense and not let them infiltrate."
The rabbi called on students wearing modern metal glasses to remove them and move to anti-modern plastic glasses. Rabbi Hager also spoke out against yeshiva students wearing contact lenses.
According to a Hasidism source, metrosexual men and students of the modern Lithuanian yeshivot were the only ones wearing contact lenses.
"This is the reason why the rabbi called on the students not to wear them. We are well aware of the statement made by the former Vizhnitz rebbe, who said we must wear the exact opposite of what is worn in Paris."
The problem with such an extreme position is that it almost immediately begins to undermine itself when examined.  First of all, where does avoiding what the gentiles do end?  The gentiles use electricity and running water.  Should we avoid those?  The gentiles wear clothes made by machine.  Is it back to the loom for us?  The gentiles use toilet paper.  I'm not even going to go there!  It is quite clear from even a casual glance at the UO community that when it comes to bathroom hygeine one is indeed content to imitate what them gentiles are doing in Paris.
Furthermore, while one can certainly appreciate the idea that Jews should not ape the latest international fashions but should choose clothes based on Jewish principles of decency and modesty, one can also understand that dressing in just any long sleeved outfit isn't so easy to condone either.  Basing one's behaviour on doing the opposite is not much different than straight out imitation.  In both cases, one is following another example to decide one's own behaviour.
And for me this is the biggest problem with the extremist attitude expressed in the article.  Yes we must remain distinct from those cultures and ethnic groups that surround us.  However, by basing that distinctiveness on the principle "those shalt do the opposite of those around you" we are actually allowing non-Jewish culture to determine our behaviour.  There is enough positive in Jewish culture to allow us to conduct ourselves in a different fashion without having to worry that we're not "different enough" from the gentiles around us.  If we are to be an example to the nations, as the Torah tells us, it should be through such a positive expression of the faith instead of a reactionary "we'll do the opposite just to be different!".  The former is a true expression of Judaism while the latter is just a cop out designed to fulfill the injunction of distinctiveness without putting any real thought into what God might have meant by that.