Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 21 November 2011

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

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

Sunday 20 November 2011

Conditional Love and Consumptions

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

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

Tuesday 15 November 2011

What Happened To The Family Minhag

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

Monday 7 November 2011

Chareidim and Chareidism

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

Friday 4 November 2011

Intentionally Mangling History

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

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Always Moving In The Wrong Direction

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

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