Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Magic Bullets

One of the most frustrating things to deal with as a physician is the unrealistic expectation.  Some people have their heads screwed on straight.  They know that good health and well-being require daily effort through proper diet and exercise.  Others believe they have an inalienable right to eat and drink what they want, spend their spare time on the couch, and maybe smoke or drink in excess but still maintain a good physique and state of mind.  When I tell them that the cost of their lack of maintenance efforts is the long list of complaints they keep seeing me with and that the foundation of any therapy for their diabetes/arthritis/heart diease/etc. is a good diet and regular physical activity they invariably ask "But Lord Ironheart, isn't there just a pill I could take?"
No, there's no pill that gives one flat abs, good sleep, lots of energy and a well-functioning car.
Now there's no shortage of suckers out there willing to believe such a pill exists.  Heck, that's the foundation of the alternative health care" industry: miracle cures without side effects for whatever ails ya.
When it comes to the spiritual it seems that many folks are no different.  As first noted on the JewishWorker blog (scroll down until you see the picture of the rigns) and then picked up on over at Rationalist Judaism, one of the latest scams is the segulah ring.  Promising health and happiness it seems packed with spiritual powers to grant its owners their greatest needs or desires.  The only catch is you can't wear it but have to keep it under wraps at all times.
(As an aside, that requirement reminds me of the comic book issue in which Superman was killed by Doomsday.  The prized first edition came wrapped in black plastic shrink wrap with a white Superman insignia on it.  It was very clear that if you broke the wrapping all future value of the issue to collectors would be lost.  At the time I asked a friend who had camped out at the comic store to get one: how can you be sure they didn't just throw in an Archie comic?)
I've never liked the idea of segulos.  I'm not dismissing the mystical side of Judaism, mind you.  It is very clear from our sacred literature that, to paraphrase Shakspeare, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are realized by our physical senses. All throughout Tanach there are hints towards the parts of creation we cannot physically interact with and Chazal and the Zohar both deal with the subject (the latter exhaustively, of course).  I would never disrespect the subject simply due to my ignorance of it.
However, things like these segulah rings are ridiculous.  From what I can tell of them they are the equivalent of the magical homeopathic cure for physical illness.  Spiritual fitness is, in some ways, similar to physical fitness.  Specifically you have to work at it through limud Torah and kiyum hamitzvos.  There are no short cuts.  Nowhere in Chumash does God say "Thou shalt learn this Torah and keep My mitzvos but if you're short on time and dedication there are shortcuts you can use instead to achieve My favour." (I've checked)  Closeness to God is earned through hard work and dedication to His ideals, not through a double wrapped silver ring or other fancy object endorsed (supposedly) by a Gadol HaDor.
I think it was for reasons like this that my father has never gotten into chasidus despite coming from such a background, and why he was always careful to guide me away from those circles.  The idea that a person or object can influence your connection to God is anathema to him.  As Rav JH Hertz notes in his commentary to the Shema in his Chumash, the point of krias Shema is to declare that there is only one true power in the universe and that God, in addition to running everything, is able to maintain an individual connection to each and every one of us at all times.  If I need to speak to Him, He can hear me.  God is not a medical specialist with a secretary, deaf to the calls of His children unless they have an appointment or an agent to get them through His office door.
There are no shortcuts.  There are no easy ways out.  Dveikus with God is achievable for anyone but only through great and ongoing efforts that lead to the Divine reward in Olam Haba.  Trying to bypass this process in the hopes of skipping out on an arduous journey can only lead to disappointment.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Of Synagogue and State

Historically there are two things Jews as a nation don't seem to be able to handle: money and power.  Unfortunately both of those seem to have coalesced within the State of Israel to create an ongoing crisis for religious Jewry.
As Assaf Wohl notes in this article, there is a good reason so many secular Israelis revile their religious brethren.
Firstly, the Rabbinate has become the “military wing” of the haredi community. Through it, the haredim abuse the rest of the population. Through the Rabbinate they force Israel’s citizens to get married, divorce, convert and set their clocks the haredi way. And as we know, depriving human beings of freedom provokes fury. Hence, one needs great chutzpa to force people to behave in ways they don’t wish to adopt.
Will a religious person agree to eat pork of desecrate the Shabbat? Heaven forbid. Then why would the religious community force others to adopt customs that others view as a big no-no?
Secondly, the Rabbinate is perceived as a corrupt body that produces nothing but jobs for its close associates. In fact, it is a sort of closed off elite that mostly takes care of the people it cares about; a body meant to feed only one sector – the haredim. The best proof of this is that the haredi rabbis and kashrut supervisors who took the Rabbinate hostage don’t even recognize the kosher certificates they issue. It’s only an income source for them. 
The National-Religious Jews are kept out. Reform Jews are out, Conservative Jews are out, and anyone who doesn’t have the beard and hat required by the clique is out. And what about women? Don’t even mention that.
What kind of theocracy has been created within our democracy? Where else will you find a job that is paid by the public and is good for life, like the city rabbi position? And why do we need two chief rabbis, at an exorbitant cost?
Thirdly, there’s the issue of the economic situation and market conditions. After all, social workers, doctors and police officers are employed under disgraceful terms, yet their jobs are perceived as much more vital than the abstract, spiritual work done by the rabbis. What will happen if the rabbis strike tomorrow? The sun won’t shine? Now let’s try to imagine a day without doctors.
Now, some of Wohl's arguments are weak.  His example of forcing a religious Jew to eat pork, for example, is one of the common but irrelevant arguments against frum "coercion".  We often hear similar arguments from Reformers like "I won't pray in a separate-seated service" and the like.  However this fallacious for one simple reason: for Torah observant Jews there is a strict rule against eating pork.  For secular Jews there is no contrasting requirement.  Being forbidden to eat treife if you're religious is not the same as consuming it if you're not.
Secondly, complaining that there are two chief rabbis is also a red herring.  One of the sad consequences of our long golus is that two parallel halachic systems have been in play for centuries now, Ashkenazi and Sephardi.  There are a few important differences between them (can you say kitniyos?) and neither group is about to drop the traditions of their fathers in the name of national unity, chas v'shalom.  As a result if you're going to have a chief rabbinate, you need two chief rabbis.
But then there's the underlying question: do you need a chief rabbinate?
One could argue that such an institution is essential for Israel.  After all, Israel has always had an existential choice to make as to its nature.  Is it a Jewish state or is it a secular state that happens to have a Jewish majority?  This is not a simple matter.  If it is the latter then Israel's right to exist comes into question.  After all, the so-called Palestinians are fond of their fictional history and claims to our Land.  The only truly legitimate counter-claim we can make is that this Land belongs to us by virtue of our history.  We are the continuation of the same Jewish nation that build two commonwealths here and never abandoned a presence in Israel.  If the State becomes a secular "Manhattan by the sea" with little more than a lip service connection to proper Torah Judaism and Jewish history then why couldn't the Arabs claim that such a state could be created anywhere in the world?  Why take their land?
Therefore it is essential that Israel have an enforceable Jewish element to it.  The problem then becomes: how much?  Not being Shlomo HaMelech I don't feel qualified to answer that question.  Certainly as we are only at the aschalta d'geulah state of matters I can't expect anyone to step forward and propose a completely halachic state.  However one could easily make the argument that in a Jewish state important life cycle events need to be Jewish.  Food needs to be Jewish.  Holidays need to be Jewish.
The problem therefore isn't the existence of a chief rabbinate but its behaviour.  Let's use Wohl's example about doctors.  Yes, you need doctors (most of you more than you realize) but spiritual health is as important as physical health.  We need rabbonim too.  But just as arrogant doctors (I think there's a couple out there, possibly in the NY area) can present a bad face to the field of medicine and leave people resentful of the profession as a whole, corrupt rabbonim can easily do the same thing and with far worse effect because when one becomes physically ill one eventually has to go to the local ER no matter how much one hates doctors.  When one becomes spiritually ill the same cannnot be said about presenting to your local shul
Therefore just as competence is not the sole criteria by which a doctor must practice, so too it cannot be the same criteria for rabbonim. 
The leaders of the religious community, whether they want to know it or not, hold the very image of Judaism for the masses in their hands.  They have a chance to lead the people back to Torah through gentle, positive behaviour or to create enemies of religion through medieval and corrupt beahviour. 
The challenge, as I started this post off with, is to overcome the Jewish inability to handle money and power by learning to use both positively in the public service of God.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

On Sinai

There are many ways of looking at the truth of Sinai.  What follows is some random thoughts of mine on the subject.  Please don't expect anything profound as I am simply typing as fast as I can between patients (as usual).
The first question is: is there a God?  Well of course there is.  Most atheists also don't realize it but they accept there is.  The minute you say that there was a Big Bang you admit there must have been a First Cause that created it.  Yes I know that important and otherwise clever scientists like Stephen Hawking refuse to admit that this is so and instead hypothesize about prior universes and the spontaneous generation of matter but - and this is an important bit - for people who really on science to provide actually facts (more on that later) their basing their denial of God's existence on unprovable hypothesis for which there is not a shred of evidence outside of the musings of theoretical physicists who have nothing better to do with their time is mere apologetics.
So there is a First Cause and if you look at the classic Jewish philosophical forces, that is the one fundamental definition of God.  If you believe in the Big Bang, you believe in God.  Done.
What's more, one can then look at the question: Did God stay involved in the formation of the universe once it was created?  There is an old argument which, despite its age, remains quite cogent at this point.  It is well known that life as we know it today is the results of a lot of coincidences, freak chances and planets being at just the right distance from the Sun that they have to be.  The chance of a spontaneously evolving universe developing life is so incredibly against the odds.  Yes, the counter argument is "Well here we are arguing about it so, as improbably as it might be, it obviously happened" and yes, one could sit back and enjoy a cold iced tea after saying it (or even not, iced tea is good no matter what's going on) but on whom is the burden of proof?  The person who points out an orderly, consistent universe and says it's part of an intelligent Deity's plan or the person who says it's the result of chance?  The latter, every time.
The next thing to consider is tradition.  Now, I realize that in academic circles and especially amongst scientists this means nothing.  As a physician I can appreciate that.  After all, in scholarly circles what matters is hard evidence.  Can a point be proven positively as opposed through assumptions and beliefs?
However, when it comes to religion this point does not apply in the same way.  The main reason is that religion, by definition, is based on faith and faith, in turn, is based on something which cannot be rationally proven.  As a result, any method which demands completely rationalization and hard evidence as criteria for acceptance cannot properly assess religion.
Having said this, one might wonder why science and religion clash since they deal with completely separate subjects?  The reason for this is not because of science but because of Scientism, a religious approach to science in which the "facts" as well as the approach become the new dogma.  Like any religion, there is an inherent bias when it comes to Scientism.  For example, science cannot tell us whether global warming is happening or not.  All it can do is measure data and present impressions on whether the world is getting hotter overall.  However, Scientism does presume to give us an answer to the question and it does so through a selective approach to the available information (An Inconvenient Truth) that highlights only supportive data while ignoring anything deviating from that combined with a "get the heretics" approach to scientific authorities that disagree with the predetermined conclusion that global warming is indeed happening (East Anglia scandal).
This approach also affects most scholarly activities whether the academics in question are prepared to admit it or not.  From the questions a PhD candidate chooses to address to the sources his supervisor considers credible, there is a bias which determines the eventual outcome.  Rare is the academic who will admit "I've already decided what the answer is so I'll massage my footnotes to reach that answer and make it look good" but the process is there.  In contrast to pure academic inquiry, this has reached pseudo-religious status as well.  We could call it Academism.
The other reason that science clashes with religion is due to an overly dogmatic approach to religion that has as its basis a lack of distinction between science and Scientism.  It is quite right, for example, for Jewish authorities to fight back against Scientism and Academism is very important.  The proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis are, in many cases, not so interested in finding an honest answer to the question of Who really wrote the Torah but in discrediting religion.  Arguments that demolish their positions or point out suitable counter-answers to their assertions are immediately dismissed as irrelevant because they have already decided that the DH theory is the only true answer (even though there are some dozen versions of this theory out there so which is it?).  It is therefore important for us to have answers to the Critical school's challenges as well as to make it obvious that their beliefs and process are flawed.
When it comes to approach real science and academics, however, these same Jewish authorities need to differentiate and appreciate that modern scientific and academic methods have some merit when properly utilized and their data assessed.  It is this wholesale rejection of science and academia raised to the level of the 13 ikkarim that form the basis for the whole rationalist/anti-rationalist conflict today.
So back to tradition.  Tradition forms the backbone of all classical religions as well it should.  Again, if faith is the belief in something that cannot be objectively proven by scholarly inquiry then it must be part of the definition of religion.
That's not to say they're limits to faith.  Something which can definitively be disproven by dispassionate scholarly inquiry is no longer an article of faith.  It's one thing to believe the sky is green after living one's entire life in a cave, for instance, quite another to go outside, look up and still maintain that it's not blue (assuming it's a clear day, mind you).  Proponents of scientism and academism hold that religious folk are still in the cave while they have been outside and looked up.  If all we were to do was to walk outside the cave and do so, we would quickly agree the sky is indeed blue.
But is it that simple?  Imagine a slight adjustment to the science.  One of the assumptions I noted was that it was a clear day outside the cave.  What if it's cloudy?
At one point tradition was all a religion needed to get by.  The words of our fathers, received from their fathers and so on, was enough.  With the birth of archeology and the development of the modern scientific method all this changed.  Beliefs we had always accepted as "fact" could now be tested.  Religion X holds that there was a battle that killed millions of people on a certain site.  Is there any evidence in the ground of such a battle?  Science and archeology have become weapons in the hands of proponents of Scientism and Academism in their ongoing battle against classical religion mostly because classical religion, Judaism in the case of this post, have either not chosen to understand how to use them to prove their own points or decided to lump pure science and academia together with Scientism and Academism and reject them wholesale.
Consider the archeological perspective.  The default position of the academic community is that there is no evidence for many of the events detailed in the Tanach, especially those in the Torah.  They base this on the absence of archeological findings to date that correlate with the Biblical narrative.
If one is approaching the subject from a strictly academic perspective then their position has merit.  However, as I noted earlier, when it comes to religion tradition plays a tremendous role.  For example, tradition tells us that David HaMelech, a"h, was king in Yerushalayim over all twelve tribes of Israel as well as ruler of a mini-empire that covered much of modern day Israel, Jordan and Syria.  For a long time academics dismissed this based on a lack of any mention of David in archeological findings from the time Tanach says he ruled.  The problem with their stand is that there is now evidence of David's existence.  In addition his mini-empire flourished at exactly the same time multiple other mini-empires sprung up in the region, something that was unique to that time period and not later when massive empires predominated.
The same thing happened with Avraham Avinu.  The Torah tells us he used camels.  Ah ha! said the scholars. Camels weren't used as transport in the MiddleEast until centuries later, clear proof that the story had been written a long time after Avraham Avinu lived, assuming he existed at all.  Except that then archeology discovered that camels were used during Avraham Avinu's time period.  Oops.
In short, there is an emerging wealth of information being dug up in the MiddleEast about eras gone past.  None of it to date has contradicted the Tanach's account of history and many findings have actually gone on to corroborate nicely with it.  Thus tradition has, in the face of scholarly hostility, been proven correct whenever objective evidence has presented itself.  If that's the case, on what basis would I reject tradition?
This brings me to the final point.  Having discussed God's existence, His continued involvement in running the universe and how tradition has been supported by modern scholarship, we come to the most important question: Did Sinai happen?
One can approach this from a logical perspective.  We have a candidate pharaoh (Amonhotep II) who started his reign with a strong military approach around the time of the Exodus according to our dating and then, for unknown reasons, stopped it.  A short time after we have a population explosion in Biblical Canaan along with the introduction of pottery and other remnants showing a decidedly non-Caananite origin.  Thus there is support for an event which military damaged Egypt, something the Torah tells us the Exodus did, and a sudden arrival in Canaan of a foreign population from over the Jordan River, again as detailed in Yehoshua.  There is no evidence that Matan Torah did not happen and our tradition tells us that just as we left Egypt and entered Canaan so too along the way we picked up the Torah.  On what rational basis (not emotion, not so-called intellectual) would I have to reject this part of the record?

Monday 13 June 2011

The Message and the Masses

One of the great historical ironies of "Conservative Judaism" is that it initially started off as a reaction to "Reform Judaism".  Solomon Shechter and friends felt that the Reformers of their day had gone way too far in their rejection of traditional Jewish values and norms and sought to create a movement that would combine the best of secular values of the day with those traditional norms.  The irony, of course, is that today Conservatism is little more than a ritual-heavy version of Reform and continues to move ever left in its attempt to blur the distinction between the two groups.
A great example of this is one Rachel Isaacs, the first openly homosexual graduate of the Conservative rabbi school, the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Now, it is no surprise that the first homosexual graduate of JTS would be female.  After all, Conservatism officially still does lip-servce when it comes to accepting the authority of the Written Torah even though the Oral Torah is either discarded or modified to avoid conflict with post-20th century liberal values.  It is in that very Written Torah that homosexual intercourse between males is forbidden which means that just as JTS would be uncomfortable graduating a person who shouted to the world "I eat ham and eggs for breakfast every morning!" so too a male homosexual graduate might still be considered too controversial.
Now I'm sure Ms. Isaacs is a very nice person, studied very hard and knows her requisite material quite well.  Just because I disagree with her theologically doesn't mean I have any right to villify her as a person.  However, her "ordination" has revealed a great deal about how many people in her camp view Judaism.  Selected excerpts follow.  In response to this rather bland and non-controversial statement:
I'm not trying to minimize how difficult it would be to live without giving in to one's sexual desires, but the Conservative movement, if they're writing off certain commandments, has got to be intellectually honest and stop claiming that they're a halachic movement.
we get the expected:
That’s just the type of thinking that sends us into the dark ages. The fact that there are people who use the bible and religion to suggest that sexuality is a choice and if you don’t make the right choice you cannot be considered a certain kind of Jew.
Talking about picking and choosing, my dear man everyone, no matter what affiliation or sexual orientation picks and chooses on some level. It’s not the same as deciding to pick this law over that law because it suits you, it’s a matter of living in a way that is genuine and congruent to who you are, and when you do that you most certainly are living the life of a halachic Jew or any other kind of Jew one wishes to be.
Not living as your genuine self goes against what G-d wants from us, and G-d makes everyone in his image that includes, gays, lesbians, transgenders, and every other combination that you can think of. He loves diversity, otherwise we would all look and act like robots.
I applaud anyone who lives their true lives and doing it within the Jewish community will only bring marginalized Jews closer to their Jewish selves and isn’t that more important than judging which laws are being so called followed and which laws are not.
In other words, as I noted in a recent post, "real" Judaism is a make-it-up as you go religion in which whatever makes you happy is automatically what God wants because, after all, God wants you to be happy.  And if you protest that Judaism should have standards?
Newsflash: You haven't the slightest clue as to what God wants. You need to cling to your security blanket, and you're perfectly willing to condemn others to lives of loneliness and despair in order to have it.
Belief in God is only a security blanket.  Judaism could do just fine without Him.  Not exactly the Jewish values that have sustained us for 3000 years.  Are these Ms. Isaac's supporters?  Is this her "Judaism"?  All the blintzes, none of the berachos?
Interestingly enough it seems that there is a disconnect between this crowd and the dwindling masses of Conservatism.  It seems, from this article, that when it comes to practising what their leaders preach, Conservative congregations aren't so eager to dump the few remaining Torah values they still have in favour of enlightened secular thinking:
Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, director of placement at the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,600 Conservative rabbis, was equally bewildered.
“I wish I knew what’s happening,” he said. “Women have had a harder time this year than last year, and we are very frustrated and surprised.”
Others suggested that a host of factors might have been involved this year: the number of women in the class — only eight out of a class of 26 — was relatively small; the number of Conservative congregations has dwindled over the years to about 650 today; fewer congregations were looking for rabbis, and not all of the women wanted a pulpit. In addition, several observers suggested that gender bias may have played a key role.
Given the Conservative movement’s unique position in the American Jewish landscape — perched between tradition and modernity — it is perhaps not surprising that some synagogues would favor male rabbinical candidates. The movements to its left — Reform and Reconstructionist — report little or no gender bias in hiring. To its right, the Orthodox do not have women rabbis at all, although a handful of liberal Orthodox institutions, such as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, are allowing women — most notably Rabba Sara Hurwitz — to take on many spiritual, pastoral and educational responsibilities traditionally handled by rabbis.
A 2004 study of women rabbis in the Conservative movement concluded that there was gender bias in employment and salaries.
Rabbi Schoenberg said that since then the outlook for women rabbis seeking pulpits had improved.
In 2005, about one-fourth of the women graduates landed pulpits, a figure that rose to 50 percent in 2009. “We had a track record of women being a success,” he said. “That’s why the conversation this year is about how disappointed we are … and we don’t know why it’s happened or what congregations are thinking.”
One of the typical arrogances of the liberal left is that it becomes perplexed when the unenlightened masses fail to live up to the values they preach.  I am sure that the Conservative leadership, ensconced in its progressive offices in New York, has no idea what's happening in the hinterland or why anyone would think differently than them, just like Canadian Liberals still have no clue why 60% of the country voted against them in the last general election.  After all, isn't their brilliance and encultured appearance enough to convince you to follow them obediently?
Perhaps there is still a little real Judaism left in the souls of some Conservative congregations.  It would be interesting to see if any outreach from the Modern Orthodox community might not fan those sparks into a legitimate flame and return those people to proper Torah Judaism.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Happy Holyday

I would like to wish a happy, healthy and meaningful Shavous to everyone out there.  Happy learning tonight!

Calculating the Tip

It's a simple procedure, it causes minimal blood loss and has potential health benefits.  Despite all these features, male infant circumcision continues to be a controversial practice amongst many and the efforts to stamp it out in all but medically necessary cases have a strength that bely the relative insignificance of the issue.
As Jeff Jacoby notes, the latest battleground between pro and anti-circumcision forces is taking place in San Francisco:
The circumcising of newborn boys is perhaps the most familiar type of surgery in the United States. According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, US hospitals perform the procedure more than 1.2 million times each year. While there are wide variations by ethnicity and region, and while circumcision rates have declined in recent years, the great majority of American men are circumcised. And in nearly every case, the decision was made for them in their infancy by their parents -- just like the decision to breastfeed or bottle-feed, or to use cloth or disposable diapers. Even in the most childless major city in America, it's hard to see voters approving what would be an egregious infringement on parental rights.

The health benefits of circumcision are clear, if modest. The Mayo Clinic website reflects the medical consensus, noting that circumcised men and boys generally have a lower risk of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and sexually transmitted diseases; and that circumcision makes genital hygiene easier. At the same time, Mayo endorses the view of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which doesn't consider the advantages of circumcision compelling enough to recommend that infant boys be circumcised as a matter of routine. The academy's bottom line is commonsensical: "Because circumcision is not essential to a child's health, parents should choose what is best for their child by looking at the benefits and risks."
In short, circumcision is something about which reasonable people can and do disagree. But there is nothing reasonable about the fanatics trying to make it a crime.
Jacoby then points out that the current tactic by the anti-circumcision crowd is to lable the procedure Male Genital Mutilation, as if circumcision and genuine female genital mutilation had anything in common.  One has a mostly neutral outcome, the other leads to a life of pain and sexual dysfunction.  Trying to compare the two is laughable except for those whose mental faculties are so twisted by hate.
"Twisted by hate" is the only way to explain the proponents of this campaign.  As one example, several years ago a Montreal pediatrician published a study in which he claimed that circumcised boys were more timid and risk-averse than uncircumcised boys.  His methods?  Casual observation of boys in his waiting room.  He noticed that, on average, circumcised boys were less active and chance-taknig when playing.  He used no objective measures, no standardized scales and no actual protocol, yet his paper was published and since then has been quoted as authoritative.  How bizarre is that?
It is interesting to note that when the outside world wants to attack the Jewish nation, it doesn't waste time banning bagels and lox.  It goes right to the guy and attacks circumcision.  Perhaps this is because, consciously or not, it knows that circumcision sits at the centre of a man's identity as a Jew.  Time and time again this central feature of our nation's religious life has been attacked, so often that even when positive attempts are made to improve the process, like doing indirect metzitzah b'peh to reduce the transmission of herpes virus, are suggested there is a vociferous pushback.
As Jacoby notes, this measure will probably fail but it does serve as a reminder that there is movement out there that has, as its target, our identity as Jews and our ability to practice the central tenets of our faith.  We are best to remain wary of such attempts to pervert our oldest covenant.

Monday 6 June 2011

The Limits Of Rationalism

During Pesach recently passed I was asked by a wise Rav if I really agree with everything Rav Natan Slifkin, the founder of the nascent movement of Rationalist Judaism, writes.  My response was that it wasn't so much a matter of agreeing or disagreeing as it was of understanding Rav Slifkin's important role in the current evolution of the Torah observant community.
(Ooooooh, I said the "E" word!)
In any functioning system of thought or beliefs there is usually a middle ground balanced by two opposite extremes.  It is the dialetic between those extremes that inevitably provides the middle ground with its substance.  An absence of one of those extremes inevitably leads to an imbalance with the middle ground sliding in belief and opinion toward the remaining side.
Look at the evolution of Torah Judaism over the last sixty years or so and one can see this dynamic at work.  In the wake of the Shoah the Chareidi community, the right side of the Torah observant spectrum, did a remarkable job of rebuilding itself.  As Modern Orthodoxy muddled along, content with having one major yeshivah (YU) and one marquee name (the Rav), Chareidism went beyond rebuilding and grew into entirely new dimensions far eclipsing what had existed before World War 2.  Along with that progress came efforts to brand their version of Judaism as the Torah Judaism that had always existed through media efforts, historical revisionism and outreach including within the non-Chareidi Orthodox community.  Agree with it or not, like it or not, they have been extremely successful in this regard.
The problem is that much of modern Chareidi hashkafah is based on a suprisingly simplistic view of Judaism.  The same community that can explain the most difficult Rashbas and Ritvas six ways to last Shabbos Nachamu also insists that the Torah's narrative of the creation of the world is to be understood literally, that Chazal were demigods who had a perfect knowledge of science, more so than today's most advanced scientists, and that all legitimate Torah authorities across the ages held these believes to be basic Jewish doctrine so that any deviation from the party line is automatically heresy.
In the absence of an effective counterweigh from the Modern Orthodox side, Chareidism has quite simply started to become the norm when one thinks of what religious Judaism should be.  As I've written many times before, put a guy in a blue shirt and khakhi pants next to a guy in a black hat, suit and white shirt and who gets labelled as being more religious ten times out of ten?  How many people assume that Yiddish, far from once being the vernacular of the Eastern European Jewish population regardless of religious affiliation, has always been a secret code language for frummies?  How many people honestly believe that in order to be a faithful Jew you must understand Genesis and Noach on a completely literal level?
It is in his role as uber-rationalist then that Rav Slifkin performs his most valuable work.  With his commanding knowledge of Torah combined with his natural genius (I want to see the family's DNA, apparently they're all like him) he is able to point out all the flaws in the philosophy of Chareidism.  He can note, for example, that the idea that all important Rishonim and Acharonim agree with the current Chareidi understanding of Genesis or the halachic process is preposterous.  There are dozens of major authorities that don't tow the line and a knowledgeable Jew is more concerned that today's Chareidi Gedolim are condemning major authorities in their attempt to preserve the fictional purity of the faith.  He is, in short, the counterweight that Modern Orthodoxy should have been.
So if that's the case, why don't I have a membership card in his club?
The Gemara in Chullin 105B is one big reason.  The text in question relates a bunch of statements by Abaye.  Each of them discusses something he customarily did and starts "At first I thought..." and concludes "but now my master (Rabbah) tells me..."  In each case Abaye first relates the reason he performed the behaviour and then concludes that Rabbah told him what the real reason was.  The pattern is very clear - the first reason is rational, the second definitely not.  For example:
At first I thought that the reason why one should not eat vegetables from the bunch which was tied up by the gardener was because it had the appearance of gluttony.  But now my master has told me it is because one lays oneself open thereby to the dangers of magic."  (From the PDF linked to here)
Judaism cannot be completely explained on a rational basis.  It would be nice if we could convincingly link the narrative in Genesis to what we know of the national evolution (that word again!) of the universe.  Certainly some have tried but it is quite clear that the sequence of what was created does not match what we know to be the facts of natural history.  Furthermore when we look at the story of Noach there are even more questions to be asked, such as how such a small boat held so many lifeforms and weathered a flood that dissolved the rest of civilization.  How about the ten plagues?  What I am to make of Yehoshua making the sun stand still?  When God intervenes in history we cannot hope to understand how the phenomena occured even if we think we know so much about science and natural history.  For some things there are no rational answers and attempts to devise them fall short. Even Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim admits that many of his interpretations are just that, his interpretations and probably not the real meaning of things.
On the other hand, using irrational or magical answers for all the important questions about Judaism is also unacceptable.  Yes, the spiritual aspect of our selves is supposed to be dominant but we are also physical beings.  As much as the kabbalists would like us to see the physical world as the illusion and the spiritual world as the hidden but true one, we are trapped within this reality and relate to it through our five senses.  We have rocks on this planet that are billions of years old.  We see starts in the sky whose light took billions of years to reach us, a gigantic universe that spreads out across unimaginable distances.  We cannot be happy with the simplistic geocentric explanation that was traditionally once all we had.  We need real answers to real questions, especially when it seems that Torah and science conflict with one another.
There is the niglah and there is the nistar.  One without the other provides an incomplete view of Creation and existence as we participate in it.  The radical Chareidi fringe provides one extreme, Rav Slifkin provides the other and for most of us the challenge in our Judaism is finding the proper balance between the two, knowing what questions rationalism answers and when to use irrationalism instead.  Sometimes we pasken like the Shulchan Aruch, sometimes we are told to follow the Zohar even those the Shulchan Aruch rules differently.
This is not an easy task.  God knows we need His help and a dose of His wisdom in order to navigate between the two extremes properly.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Evil In Pious Garb

One of the fun things to do is watch the difference in post-mortems after an election between the Left and the Right.  The Right inevitably draws out the knives and starts stabbing their own.  The leader, or his assistants, or that guy who brought us the coffee at that last rally, someone has to be to blame.  We're awful.  If we weren't awful we'd have won.  And so on.
In contrast, the Left adopts an attitude of bewilderment, follow by denial and ending in arrogance.  At first there is disbelief that they didn't win the election.  How could that be?  They were clearly the obvious choice for voters except those who were too stupid to understand that so how could they have lost?  Then there is a denial that the correct procedure was followed.  Perhaps the results are wrong, or perhaps the right people didn't get out in time to vote.  We did get the majority of votes but our stupid electoral system denied us the prize.  Had things gone properly they'd have won, goshdarnit.  Finally the true fact of the Left comes out: the people made a mistake.  They didn't vote for us and that was wrong.  Therefore the results don't count, we're really the winners and if the actual new government doesn't do as we say then they're bad, bad people for ignoring what the people really did vote for.
How else to explain Ms.Brigette DePape's idiotic protest during the new Conservative government's throne speech a couple of days ago?  Other than a refusal to accept the results of the recent election because they didn't go according to her lefists views, what else is there to explain it?
Now, a brief primer for our America readers who might not be that familiar with parliamentary democracy.  (Both of you pay attention!) In Canada we have a multi-party system dominated by four main parties (well one used to me, now it's awfully minor) and dozens of small, single-issue parties or others with grand dreams.  When we vote in a general election we don't vote for a leader or a party but for candidates for the parties in our riding.  There may be as many as a dozen people running for the riding's seat in parliament and the rule is simple: most votes wins. 
Now there is an obviously problem with this system, called "first past the post".  In a competitive riding a person could win the seat with only 30% of the popular vote.  Nationally it takes 38-40% of the popular vote to get enough seats for a majority.  In this last election the Conservative party under Stephen Harper achieved just that.  What it means is that even though there is a majority government, it was elected by a minority of voters.
Now it is quite obvious to thinking people that this phenomenon will happen to both Left and Right.  in 1990 the socialist New Democrats won the provincial Ontario election with 38% of the popular vote, for example.  Jean Chretien's Liberals ruled Canada with a majority for 10 years but never cracked the 40% mark.
However, for the Left (remember I said "thinking people" so they're automatically excluded) there is quite a difference between when their side wins with 40% and when the Right does the same thing.
For example, during the dark days of Bob Rae's NDP government in Ontario protests against his fiscally and socially insane policies were dismissed with the statement "We're a majority government, we're doing what the people want".  When Mike Harris and his Conservatives reduced the NDP to rump status in their 1995 electoral drubbing by getting 40% of the vote (2% more than the NDP had achieved), those same Leftists set out to deny legitimacy to the new government by insisting that since 60% of people hadn't voted for them they had no right to implement their agenda!
Ms. DePape, who if she hasn't experimented with hallucinogenic drugs should save her money since she's already in such a state, is clearly cut from this cloth.  Look at the contents of her "press release", timed to come out during her protest:
Even as she was in custody, Ms. DePape immediately issued a press release, referring to herself as Brigette Marcelle, in which she said she had realized that working in Parliament wouldn't help her "stop Harper's agenda."
"This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring," she wrote, "a flowering of popular movements that demonstrate that real power to change things lies not with Harper but in the hands of the people, when we act together in our streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces."
In a brief phone interview with the National Post after she was released from Hill security, Ms. DePape said she planned the protest because "I think that youth need to engage in creative acts of civil disobedience." She said she objected to the Conservative government's policies and that Canada needs "green jobs and a transition to a green economy."
Our version of an Arab spring?  Of course, since Stephen Harper is ruling against the wishes of 60% of Canadians so he is clearly an unelected dictator willing to shoot his own people to maintain his place in power.  That's why civil disobedience is necessary, obviously.  As this piece notes:
DePape called for a “Canadian version of an Arab Spring.” That’s right, we should all take to the streets and demand free and fair elections — you know, like the one we had on May 2. Now you’d think that a college student would know that we enjoy the freedom and system of government that thousands of Arabs are fighting, and dying, to achieve. But she somehow thinks that our first-past-the-post system invalidates the entire democratic process. I suppose we should expect contradictions like this from someone who professes to support democracy, but took a job in the unelected Senate.
“Harper’s agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation,” reads a press release issued shortly after the incident. “We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.”
Her press release claims that the Harper government is wasting money on the military. Now there’s certainly a case to be made that a country like the United States is spending way too much on its military and that these unnecessary wars and expenditures are costing lives and bankrupting the country. But the left has done a terrible job of importing this argument into Canada. We need to maintain a military force that is sufficient to protect our borders and fulfil our international obligations.
Ms. DePape is also against corporate tax cuts. Corporations don’t pay taxes, people do. When corporations have to pay more taxes, they offset the cost in one of two ways: Either by raising the price of the goods and service they sell (you know, the stuff we buy), or by reducing expenses. And reducing expenses is usually accomplished by moving jobs to jurisdictions that are more competitive.
But I don’t want to misrepresent her, as she’s not against jobs altogether. She wants everybody to have a “green job.” Do you think she knows what a green job is? It’s a code word for jobs that are created, and supported, by the government, rather than the market. Private jobs are created when companies provide goods and services that people actually want. The government steps in to create jobs when companies are producing things that people don’t want.
DePape’s future is one where our military cannot defend our borders, there are fewer jobs, and a massive debt to pay off. Her idea of democracy discounts any result that is contrary to her viewpoint. Does she think that’s what Arabs are fighting and dying for?
Ms. Depape, and those who think like her, deserve to be held in the highest contempt.  People like her believe strongly in the "One vote, one person, one time and we'll fix the ballot box to make sure the correct results comes out" theory of democracy.  They're all for freedom of expression as long as you express what they're thinking; freedom of belief as long as you believe what they do and they're the first to bring out the police in jackboots if you disagree with them.
The only thing more pathetic that Ms. DePape's little display (which helps those of us who think that the voting age is already way too low and that it's actually a good thing that most people under 25 don't show up on election day) is the milquetoast response of the Senators.  Instead of strongly condemning this affront to the democratic system they supposedly support the best they could come out with was "But she's really a very nice young woman!"
Again, oh please.
Democracy is served best when the losing side recognizes that it is out of sync with the will of "the people" and decides to adjust its platform to better appeal to the masses, not when it arrogantly assumes the people should do what it says and treats the winning side like some of the worst scum humanity has to offer.  In such a case the losing side, like Ms. DePape should look in the mirror: they look just like that scum.

Hatred And the Natural Order

Chazal tell us that both love and hatred disturb the natural order of things.  As examples, we are shown both Avraham Avinu and Bilaam HaRasha.  Both were wealthy men who, when they went to perform a mission , saddled their own donkeys despite having plenty of servants to do it for them.  In both cases the normal protocol was disregarded because of enthusiasm.  The difference is that while Avraham Avinu was motivated by love of the Ribono shel Olam, Bilaam HaRasha was motivated by hatred of Bnei Yisrael, us.
Since then there have been plenty of examples demonstrated this principle but for some reason many in recent decades.  The most recent and blatant is covered in this article from The Jerusalem Post:
A graphic comic book distributed by the US group Male Genital Mutilation Bill, in an effort to drum up support for San Francisco's anti-circumcision measure, has been called "grotesque" and "anti-Semitic" by the ADL.
Monster Mohel, which is one of two titles in the group's Foreskin Man series, has taken the classic good versus evil storyline and substituted an identifiably Orthodox Jewish rabbi as the bad guy and a blond, buff superhero -- dubbed" Foreskin Man" -- as the force of good.
"Foreskin Man, with its grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes, reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive," said Nancy J. Appel, ADL Associate Regional Director, in a statement. "This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low ... It is one thing to debate [the issue], is another thing to degrade it."
For a long time, Jew-hating groups have taken great care to disguise the true nature of their vitriolic emotions.  The vigilantes who keep talking about breaking the Israeli blockade of 'Aza don't admit it's because they hate Jew but pontificate about the rights of the people of 'Aza and how those rights are supposedly being violated.  Academics in Britain who have recently voted to boycott Israel don't admit that they are merely carrying on a centuries old tradition of British Jew-hatred but talk in elevated terms about respect for the oppressed.  Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto also try to conceal their Jew hatred by talking about morality and showing brotherhood with the so-called Palestinians.
At least this latest effort is honest and finally lays bare what all these groups are trying to hide: they hate Jews.
Look at the imagery: the blond, well-muscled hero facing off against a kaftan and large-brimmed hat wearing villian complete with hook nose and long beard.  The evil Moyel is taking pleasure in harming a defenceless infant and looking forward to sucking the blood from his penis.  Blood libel anyone?
If Foreskin Man isn't pulled directly out of old nazi propaganda, I don't know what else it could be. 
It should be noted that the author of this evil stuff has, as is the custom of Jew haters, protested that his work isn't about Jew hatred but rather about protection innocent infants.  Right.  So why is that that he's chosen a Jew as the villian and decked him out in ways that would give Hitler, y"sh, and his fellows a wet dream?  After all, Muslims also circumcize their children.  Many Chrisian groups also do.  Why don't we see Evil Akbar, browned skinned and wearing a keffiyah, or something similar working in league with the Moyel?  Is the author really concerned about political correctness at the same time as he is busy villifying us?
Is it for the same reason that the Mavi Maramara  crowd has no interest in protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet or the ongoing slaughter of innocent civilians in Darfur?
Consider the proponents of the San Francisco attempt to ban circumcision.  Here's a city that is the antithesis of what Nazi Germany was aiming for.  It's multicultural, heavily homosexual and extremely liberal in its politics.  And yet whose imagery do these morons pick when they decide to go on a holy crusade of their own?  Those very same Nazis!
Yes it does make perfect sense.  As Chazal said, hatred disturbs the natural order. 

Thursday 2 June 2011

Easy Morality

I've felt for a long time that one of the reasons that the Holocaust gets such constant play in the non-religious Jewish community is because it's easy to handle.  Not that dealing with the fact of six million innocents being butchered is easy but rather because of the morality of it all.  The moral angle of the Holocaust is easy.
How so?  There is a simple black and white approach to the Holocaust - "they" - the Nazis, y"sh - were evil.  "We" - their Jewish victims - were innocent.  We did nothing to deserve what they did to us.  They attacked us without reason and without pity.  We were good, they were bad.  See?  Easy.
That's why the Holocaust shows up so often, in education, in community programs, in writing.  It's easy to talk about how terrible the Nazis were, how horrible the suffering was.  Anyone who disputes such a position is automatically a nutcase and beyond reproach.  Even the Germans have, for over seventy years, been beating their chests with guilt over what they did.  Easy.
However, when it comes to other important Jewish issues the situation changes.  If you want to raise money for a Holocaust memorial, the donations come freely.  If you show up asking for money for the local day school, the flow slows.  If you come looking for support for the State of Israel, good ol' fashioned unabased support for our position vis a vis our enemies, the flow turns into a trickle.  Most of the people who happily opened their wallets and hearts to memorializing the dead aren't quite as enthusiastic as the living.
I believe this is because the State of Israel is morally far more difficult than the Holocaust.  Without meaning to trivialize the suffering of the martyrs of the Shoah I would posit that it is harder to stand up and say "I stand with Israel because it is Jewishly moral to do so" than to say "I remember the victims of the Holocaust because it is Jewishly moral to do so".  After all, as I already noted, no one credible can counter the "they were all bad, we were all good" narrative.  When it comes to Israel, however, the situation changes.
Consider the two recent Jewish films from Steven Spielberg: Schindler's List and Munich.  The former, as expected, paints a black and white picture of what happened to our fathers and mothers in the Holocaust.  My father, a survivor, told me that Spielberg had gone as far as he could when it came to showing the horrors of the Nazi persection.  Anything closer to what actually happened would have made the movie unwatchable.  The latter film, however, shows Jews in a far different light.  As various reviewers noted, in Munich the Israeli soliders commisioned with killing the Jew-killers of the 1972 Olympics are shown in an almost morally neutral light when compared to their targets.  We are not any better than them, the movie almost seems to tell us.  They kill but so do we.  Spielberg even went as far as to put a line into Golda Meir's mouth that she would never have said, one that implied that the Munich revenge mission was against Judaism and a compromise out of necessity.
Why was Spielberg so comfortable with Schindler's List in villifying the Nazis while in Munich he had to somehow drag Jews down to the level of their enemies?  Again I will suggest that it is the moral ease of the former situation and the moral difficulty of the later.
Put simply, it's easy to be the good guy when all you do is show up to be killed helplessly.  No one can side against you.  No one can support your enemy.  There is no moral conflict.  On the other hand, being a survivor in war can often be far trickier.  Wars aren't always won following Marquis of Queenbury rules.  There are times when deception, lies, spying, destruction of innocent lives and questionable tactics that break the "rules of war" are utilized in pursuit of the only goal that matters at that moment: victory.  It is far harder to stand up and say "I support my country" when you know that country has done things that others, maybe even you too, consider odious.  It is morally difficult and it is the position that the State of Israel finds itself in today.
Consider what Israel must do to survive and you can see why many folks in the Jewish community have trouble giving their unreserved love and support to the State.  In order to survive, the hostile enemy population in Yehuda and Shomron has to be limited in many ways, lest they unleash terrorist attacks and suicide bombers onto the Jewish population.  'Aza has to be surrounded and barricaded for many of the same reasons, because the alternative is death to our people.  This is not a great situation and can certainly be characterized as a "lesser of two evils" situation.  For many a realistic outlook reminds is that if our State is to survive, distasteful methods have to be used.  We would like it otherwise, we wish it were otherwise but if the choice is between aggresively defending ourselves and allowing ourselves to be slaughtered we'll take the former, thank you.
For others, however, the outlook is far less realistic.  For those people, there is an ideal Jewish people that is always moral.  Anything Jews do that does not fit this subjective view of morality is disdained.  For them a Jewish people that does not conform to this fictional moral image does not deserve to exist.  If the State of Israel must maintain its existence through force of arms against another so-called people, then that is too high a price to pay.  Give us the Holocaust, they say, because it's morally easy to be the perpetual victim.  The challenge of being the victor is not one we're up to.
As Daniel Gordis notes in this article from Commentary, this warped thinking is penetrating ever further into the liberal Jewish denominations.  Many North American rabbinical students and young clergy, having been born into a world in which the State of Israel is not a victim of powerful enemies surrounding it but is itself seen as the occupying and powerful enemy of world peace itself no longer identify with the State because it does not allow them to make easy moral choices.  Far easier to side with the victims, the enemies who would kill these same liberals without a second thought if given half a chance.  Far easier to ignore that reality and dissociate from the true challenge of supporting our people.
The heartbreaking point was this: in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate—the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first. Their instinct, instead, is to “engage.” But “engagement” is a value-free endeavor. It means setting instinctive dispositions utterly aside. And that is precisely what this emerging generation of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do.
Why, after all, would a genuine supporter of Israel ask students to think about Yom Ha-Zikaron in such a fashion? Probably because without such an accommodation, the dean might have had to deal with a small but vocal minority of students who would be incensed at the overly particularist, Zionist, nationalist nature of Yom Ha-Zikaron, at the narrowness of a day devoted to mourning our own dead and not the dead of our enemies.
This kavanah to rabbinical students was not my first brush with this worrisome phenomenon among those training to be the religious leadership of American Jews. In April, before I learned about this Yom Ha-Zikaron incident, I wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post pointing to the problem of rabbinical students who are increasingly distanced from Israel. I noted an example of an American rabbinical student who had elected to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, and another who was looking to buy a new prayer shawl and sent out an e-mail asking for advice about where to buy one—with the proviso that the tallith could not have been made in Israel. I said nothing about how widespread the phenomenon is, because we do not know. But it was time to acknowledge the situation, I argued, so that we might begin to address it.
Reaction was swift, and most of it consisted of variations on the theme that such troubling ideas “didn’t come from my part” of the Jewish world. Many people quickly wrote to say that the phenomenon I was describing must be limited to the Reform movement. But the truth was that not one of those particular examples had come from Hebrew Union College, the institution that ordains most Reform rabbis. Deans of various rabbinical schools from all walks of non-Orthodox Jewish life quickly circled their wagons in response to my column. Two sent an emissary to meet with me in Jerusalem, suggesting that I had exaggerated the problem and accusing me of making their fundraising challenges all the more difficult.
Another dean, who disagreed with my suggestion that the Jewish community provide financial and other support to rabbinical students who are publicly supportive of Israel, wrote, “I want to acknowledge that I am intimately acquainted with—and concerned by—the trend you are describing. But I have to take issue with some of the ways in which you’ve characterized the problem (and therefore the solution).” Still another wrote to students saying: “I am indignant about Gordis’s article, because I know you. I believe, with every fiber of my being, that each of you is capable of expressing your relationship to the state of Israel, however complicated and challenging it may be, in a thoughtful, nuanced and professional way”—as if the problem lay with a lack of articulate expression among the students and not with their positions. This last note essentially reassured students that as long as they expressed themselves articulately, what they actually said made no difference whatsoever.
But there was another reaction, too, and it came not from the deans, but from students at these schools, as well as from communal professionals and even rabbis out in the field. “I deeply appreciate this article,” one student wrote to me. “I know that in various e-mails and conversations [my school] is trying to deny the validity of your words as representative of them, but I wanted to express how wonderful it felt after…years of pain and struggle over this to read someone else capture the Israel environment on [my] campus.” A communal Jewish professional in the South wrote, “Just yesterday I had a conversation with a synagogue that is interviewing recent graduates of [two rabbinical schools from different movements]. Students from both these schools have expressed opinions that are nothing short of hostile to Israel.”
Then, a rabbi in the field wrote me:
Interesting column. Unfortunately, not an entirely new phenomenon. [Some years] ago, one of the rabbis of [a major New York synagogue] refused to shake my hand when I was introduced as a major in the IDF. And a few years back, [an] avowed Zionist [dean of one of the schools in question] told a group of rabbinical students that if he were around at the time, and had a say, he would have voted against the establishment of the State of Israel.
Students in Jerusalem and in the States asked to meet with me, and on almost every occasion, they spoke about how lonely it can be for an unapologetically pro-Israel student at some of today’s rabbinical schools. (This phenomenon is, not surprisingly, almost entirely absent on Orthodox campuses, although, alarmingly, it is becoming an issue on the left end of Orthodoxy, too.)
This is a bewildering phenomenon.  Is Israel a victim of its own success?  Do these clergy really think that an end to the State is preferable than survival as much as possible?  What does it say of their Judaism that they do not feel a strong link to Jewish history, Jewish endurance and the Jewish people of Israel?
If there is one thing we must do it is to stand up and announce that supporting Israel, warts and all, is the moral choice for a Jew to make.  Whether it's the open embrace of the land expounded by the Dati Leumi, the biosterous pro-Zionist boosting of the Modern Orthodox or even the quiet support of Israel (please don't mention it out load) from many in the Chareidi community, we as a community must make support of Israel, even as times grow darker around us, into a priority.  It is through Israel we can find some common ground as a people and this is the achdus that will carry us into our future.

The Nazir and Flipping Out

A recent post from Rav Harry Maryles became controversial despite being of a rather mundane nature.  In it, Rav Maryles offered some observations on the well-known phenomonen of "Flipping Out" in which a young man or woman go to Israel for their post-high school year of learning and come back far more Chareidi than they left:
One of the most frustrating situations for Orthodox parents is what happens when their children go off to study in Israel for a year or two (or more) after high school. What parents send in does not come back the same way. Many call this ‘flipping out’. A parent will send to Israel a son or daughter who has absorbed by osmosis values instilled in the home and when they return find to their dismay that many of those values are gone – obliterated by the Yeshiva or seminary their child attended.
‘Flipping out’ was addressed a few years ago by authors of a book that studied the phenomenon and found that in most cases these young people did not in fact flip out, but just became more committed to Halacha. They observed that this was a good thing. If the story ended there, I would agree. Unfortunately it does not end there. This was highlighted again last week in a Jewish Press article by Cheryl Kupfer.
What seems to be happening is that the Rebbeim and teachers at these institutions fill these young minds full of mush with heavy doses of Charedi Hashkafa.
Nothing terribly earth shattering there.  Most of us have met one or more folks who left for Israel with a suede or small knitted kippah on their heads and came back in a black hat and suit speaking fluent Yeshivish.  It can be frustrating, especially if the parents are Modern Orthodox and Zionist to suddenly have a child who rejects the family hashkafah but what else could they have expected when they sent their child to be immersed in a specific environment with a specific outlook for an entire year?
However there was a surprising angry response to this post from Rav Yosef Gavriel Bechofer, a talmid chacham of first rate standing out of YU and universally recognized as a RSG (really smart guy):
am deeply disappointed by this post.
"Flipping out" is a derogatrory term (that I admit I use because of its prevalence) for any change for the better in Talmud Torah and/or Yiras Shomayim.
It is not intrinsically linked to Charedism, and its use is pernicious.
And, buying a hat when one returns, say, from one's first year in Sha'alvim is not a sign of a sea-change of any sort. I know, I did it.
If this post contributes to one bachur not "flipping out" lest he be termed "Charedi", ר"ל, its effect will have been horrific.
RHM, you should not be responsible for such a terrible outcome.
Take it down.
Rav Maryles responded to this with bewilderment.  He noted that he had not mean to be derogatory and had differentiated between the positive and negative aspects of getting frummer.  In the comment section Rav Bechofer accepted the clarifications and fortunately this means the conflict is (hopefully) over.
However, I think there is a perspective on this that ties in with this parasha and might explain better the reason Rav Maryles wrote what he did initially as well as Rav Bechofer's passionate response.
Chazal note that the Torah calls a Nazir both kadosh, holy, and a sinner.  On one hand, the nazir reaches a level of holiness shared only by the Kohen Gadol.  On the other hand he has to bring a sin offering at the conclusion of his nazir vow.  Well, which is it?
I think that it might very well be both.  The Sifri tells us a story of Shimon HaTzadik meeting a nazir and rejoicing in his completion meal because he was so impressed with the young man's dedication to holiness.  On the other hand, the same story tells us that Shimon HaTzadik assiduously avoided participating in nazir completion meals in other cases and that he clearly made an exception in this case.  Why?
It seems to me that there are two reasons a person would take on a vow of nezirus.  The first reason is to shore up one's religious commitment.  Chazal tell us the reason that the section on nezirus follows the section on the sotah is so that people seeing a sotah in all her gory disgrace would take a nezirus vow.  Perhaps they had suffered from improper thoughts or behaviour and the sight of the woman swelling up and exploding made them think that they needed to engage in some form of chizuk to shore up their yetzer hatov
However, it is easy to see that others might take on nezirus because of the perception that it made you "frummer".  Yes, you'd got your regular slate of mitzvos to perform each day but that can be so pedestrian when you've been doing the same thing for so long, just like everyone else.  How is a person to stand out from the crowd?  How is he to show he has a superior level of dedication to God and Torah?  Why not take on extra obligations so one can say "See, I'm that much more religious"?
People taking on nezirus for the first reason could be the ones the Torah refers to as holy.  Certainly the story of Shimon HaTzadik would reflect this as the young nazir in question had specifically vowed nezirus because of what he felt was a slipping personal level of holiness.  For him it wasn't about being superior or adding to one's religious performance but about maintaining one's level against the incitement of the yezter hara.
This would mean that the second reason is what the Torah is referring to when it implies that a nazir is a sinner.  Such a person is taking on these vows because the regular routine of Torah observance isn't enough for his ego.  He wants to be a "big shot", a super-frum and this is the way his desire has found expresion.  This misappropriation of God's mitzvah might be enough to justify the sin offering.
When children come back from Israel with a different look or attitude, one can also conjecture that one of these two reasons is at work.  A child may be looking for a deeper level of commitment, a more intense sense of a connection to God, and this desire may be the reason for the new outfit and garbled pidgin language.  It may be a sincere desire to be a better Jew.  This person corresponds to the first type of nazir.
But then there are those for whom how frum you are is based entirely on externalities.  One starts wearing a black hat not because one feels a stronger connection to Torah and mitzvos but because wearing one means you're genuinely religious, not like those losers in the knitted and suede yarmulkes.  One avoids watching television not because of a lack of interest in it but because watching television is a sign of a lower religious level.  One comes to see the observant community as the authentic (just like him) and unauthentic (the ones who don't conform to what his rebbe and rosh yeshiva told him is authentic).  This person is like the second type of nazir.  It's not about God and Torah, it's about "look at me and how holy I am".
From Rav Bechofer's description of his own experience, he is clearly in the former group.  Unfortunately Rav Maryles has met too many people in the latter group and it is those that most of us know and form the impression for the group which is why "flipping out" has the derogatory aspect to it that, while it doesn't reflect the entire cohort, does apply to a significant part of it.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Telling God What He Should Think

As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch points out in his commentary on Chumash, the Jewish conception of God is centred on the idea that He has completely free will.  He is not bound by the forces of nature that He created, nor does He have to follow our demands if He chooses not to.  With an intelligence we cannot comprehend and situated outside of both time and space as we understand it, God runs everything with perfection even if we cannot understand that given our limited view of the "big picture".
The modern conception of God, on the other hand, is quite different.  The modernist, unable to see beyond his own needs and possesed of an empathic sense that assumes that everyone is, underneath all the bluster, just like him, assumes that God is too.  Modern religious understand seems to be based on three principles that flow from this mindset:
1) God wants me to be happy.
2) X makes me happy
3) God is in favour of X
Search through all liberal religions or denominations of older conservative ones and this pattern repeats itself over and over.  God is in favour of egalitarianism, alternative lifestyles, even recycling.  And the proof?  Because "we" are and God happens to think exactly like us.
A recent article from The Jewish Week encapsulates this erroneous thinkly neatly:
One of Judaism’s most profound ideas is the notion that each year at Shavuot each of us stands at Mount Sinai, poised to receive the Torah as if for the first time. The holiday, in other words, is an annual renewal of the relationship we Jews as a people experience with God through Torah.
It is incumbent upon us at Shavuot, then, to consider to what we are renewing ourselves. As a proud Conservative Jew, standing again at Sinai, I commit myself to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian and traditional.
We might call the holiday Z'man Matan Torateinu but Rabbi Wernick makes it very clear that he is prepared to dictate to God what He should be giving us.  Wernick is passionate, involved and enthusiastic about celebrating the Torah, but his Torah is a cut-and-paste job that includes only those sections that don't offend his liberal sensibilities.  Anything that doesn't reflect his Western liberal values has been removed so as not to make any actual demands of him.
This is, of course, diametrically opposite to what real Judaism has always been.  Again, as Rav Hirsch notes, the Aron in the Mishkan was placed behind a curtain with access being limited to one day a year.  This was on purpose to show that the Torah is not just another ritual piece of Jewish life.  It is the word of God and that word is not for us to play with.  It stands independent of us, makes demands of us and insists that we submit to its values, not the other way around.  The real challenge of Sinai is looking into the Torah, seeing things we might be uncomfortable with and then demanding a change of ourselves so that we can embrace God's perfection more fully. 
Anything less is a mere imitation.  Accept only the genuine article please.