Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday 27 December 2012

Yosef's Second Dream

One of the frequently asked questions about the previous few parshiyos is: Why didn't Yosef HaTzadik write home?
Recall that Yosef's time in Egypt was not spent in altogether bad conditions.  Other than a few years in prison he actually lived quite well.  For the first few years he served as major domo for an important Egyptian official, Potiphar.  After being released from prison he served as major domo to Pharoah himself.  During his time in both positions he would have had ample opportunity to send a message to his father as to his whereabouts but there is no record in the Torah that he did.
Now there is the classic answer from the Midrash, that the brothers made him swear he wouldn't but (and perhaps I'm succumbing to personal bias here) I always thought that such an oath would probably be disregarded once he was out of danger.  On the other hand, the suggestion that he didn't send word because doing so would have ripped the family apart when Yaakov Avinu figured out what had happened does sound plausible.
I would like to suggest two further possibilities.
One is quite practical.  Let's say that Yosef, now a servant of Potiphar, sent a message to Yaakov Avinu.  He could have been discrete, saying that while on his way to his brothers he was kidnapped and taken down to Egypt.  This way he could explain his current situation without implying that his brothers had been complicit in the process.
But what would the outcome have been?  Without a doubt Yaakov Avinu would have sent down some or all of the brothers (sans Binyamin) to either buy his freedom or rescue him in some other fashions; the same brothers who - unknownst to their father - sent him there in the first place.  Could we really believe that Yosef, having been freed by Potiphar and handed over to his brothers, would happily walk off into the empty, lonely Sinai with the same brothers he had such bad memories of?  There's a matter of trust to consider.  So perhaps that might explain why he didn't send a letter.  There was no practical way to get home.
But here's another consideration.  Yosef, we are told, subjected his brothers to the torments they suffered from his accusations because he wanted to bring his dream of the 11 of them bowing down to him to fruition.  The only way to do that was to convince them that he was powerful and to get them to bring Binyamin down to Egypt.  As we see from recent parshiyos he was successful.  The 11 brothers all bowed down in sincerity to him.  Fine.
But recall that Yosef had a second dream, one in which his brothers bowed down to him along with his father and mother.  After all the effort he put into making the first dream come true we find no record of the second dream coming to pass.  Or do we?
Chazal tell us one of the suspicions Yosef had when the brothers promised to bring Binyamin to him was that they would grab some no-name from the Egyptian market place and present him as the youngest brother.  This was certainly a fair concern.  Yosef had left home when Binyamin was still quite young and frankly, if the brothers couldn't recognize him because he was older and bearded, how could he be sure that he'd recognize Binyamin after all this time?
The answer might be from something Yaakov Avinu repeatedly says throughout the narrative.  Binyamin is especially precious to him, remember, because he's the last child from Rachel Imeinu, his favourite wife, now that Yosef is gone.  Chazal tell us at the beginning of VaYeshev that Yosef's face was similar to Yaakov Avinu's.  Could it be that Binyamin strongly resembled Rachel Imeinu?  That would serve two purposes in this story.  The first is that his presence would be a constant reminder to Yaakov Avinu of Rachel Imeinu.  The second is to allow Yosef to recognize Binyamin.  He would certainly remember what his mother looked like, after all.
The final peace in the puzzle in Yaakov Avinu's blessing to his sons when they take Binyamin down to Egypt.  At this point the narrative depicts him as a broken man.  When he was about to meet Eisav years earlier we saw a very different Yaakov Avinu.  He prepared for that confrontation through prayer, gifting and preparation for battle.  Here he simply asks God to have the unknown Egyptian rule show rachamim, basic mercy, to the brothers.  No demands, no threats of bringing down Divine wrath if Shimon is not released or Binyamin doesn't come back.  Just simple mercy.
This therefore would seem to be the fulfillment of the second dream.  When all eleven brothers bow down before Yosef, Rachel Imeinu is present through Binyamin acting as a reminder of her and Yaakov Avinu is essentially bowing down through his request for mercy.  Thus the second dream also comes true.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

How To Study Tanach

As a follow-up to my previous post I would like to elaborate on what I think is the best way to learn Tanach.  I noted in that post that I think that learning Tanach (and again, I really mean Nach because learning Torah in-depth goes without saying and is already part of everyone's standard curriculum, I hope) would address a huge moral lacuna that is currently afflicting Orthodox Judaism.  Learning Talmud gives one a legalistic understanding of Judaism but to appreciate the big picture, to gain a real appreciation of the moral imperatives God wants of us one must learn Tanach.
Now the first stumbling block people usually point to when folks talk about learning Tanach is the idea that the text is so deep that without a really strong reliance on understanding how Chazal read the text there is a real danger of reading the Bible and coming to false conclusions and developing heretical understandings.  There is a legitimate concern that people will bring their own automatic assumptions to the table and read the text with those biases.  And I would agree this is a legitimate concern.
After all, modern readers suffer from this innate bias of assuming that our current secular moral system is the pinnacle of human civilization against which all other moral systems, Torah included, must be judged.  Many people also automatically assume that what they take for granted in terms of understandings of the universe and how it works were known to people living centuries or millenia ago.  Either that or they think that these people were simplistic idiots because of their lack of "modern" knowledge.  Reading the Bible without removing these biases can certainly lead to the wrong conclusions.
I'll illustrate with a famous and often-misunderstood narrative from the Bible - the incident of David HaMelech and BatSheva.  For those who haven't read the original, it goes like this.  One day David HaMelech sees BatSheva, a beautiful woman, bathing and decides that he wants her.  He summons her to the palace and they are intimate together.  There's only two problems - she's married to one of David HaMelech's soldiers, and the king got her pregnant.  So David HaMelech summons her husband, one Uriah, back from the battlefield ostensibly for an update on the military situation and then tells him to go home and spend the night with his wife.  Uriah, out of sense of duty to his comrades (and perhaps because he's a wee bit suspicious) refuses and goes back to the battlefield.  David HaMelech instructs his senior general, Yoav, to leave Uriah exposed on the battlefield whereupon the poor soldier is killed leaving David HaMelech to marry BatSheva.
To say that this scenario is problematic is an understatement.  The Gemara clearly wrestled with this and came up with various explanations to try and bring a less negative light to the story.  We are told, for example, that all of David HaMelech's soldiers left a get with their wives in case they didn't come home to avoid any agunah problems.  We are told that Uriah deserved death because he refused David HaMelech's order to go home to his wife.  And while some of these explanations raise an almost "Oh come on!" reaction a close reading of the text actually does support some of them.  A good peirush will point out that while David HaMelech faces God's wrath for his sins, when those sins are listed in detail adultery is not amongst them.  The text is otherwise complete in listing the misdeeds so why not, unless the Gemara's point about the get is correct?
One thing is clear: reading the text unaided or without a non-expect commentary will lead to superficial and incorrect understandings of the text, something we should always avoid.
However, a different problem develops when one goes too far in the other direction.  Trying to read Tanach only through the lens of Chazal and relying completely on their understanding while ignoring the pshat of the text is dangerous as well.  Yes we need to read Chazal's explanations but the pshat has value as well.  Without Chazal we run the danger of transposing our feelings and thoughts into the Tanach's narratives.  To use my example, we might see David HaMelech as an ancient Bill Clinton and not as the supremely important and pious figure that he is to us.  On the other hand we might see him dressed as a Satmar chasid, long curly peyos swaying as he shockles over his gemara while composing Tehillim and speaking in Yiddish to his courtiers.  Using either approach we would completely miss out on the brilliant, complex personality that produced a king favoured by God who was a scholar, warrior and poet whose exploits and writings would be unmatched in history.
But what of the fear that we will see him as all too human?  While this is often raised I would like to point out that Chazal might just have wanted us to appreciate that aspect of the characters in Tanach.  Recall that the Bible we have today did not evolve by chance but was extensively edited by Chazal.  If we have the text of Yechezkel's prophecies, for example, it is because Chazal decided not to hide them away for all time because of the controversial parts in them.  If we have Koheles' musings on life and death which seem problematic from an emunah point of view it's because Chazal felt we could, with proper study, understand them without devolving into kefirah.  If we know the story of David HaMelech and Batsheva it's because they wanted us to know about it in all its unseemly details.  Were Chazal worried we'd lose our appreciation of David HaMelech's holiness by reading that story then it likely would not have made the finally cut.
Chazal, you see, were far more understanding of how to transmit our history and moral lessons than their most pious defenders give them credit for.  David HaMelech's slip with Batsheva, for example, does not diminish his holiness and greatness.  He erred, as all humans do, but remains on a supremely high level because of everything else he did.  The world is not black and white.  A great man can sin but remain a great man nonetheless.  Chazal knew this, they appreciated that our ancestors were humans, great and holy but human nonetheless and did not try to shield us from this reality by censoring our history.
Therefore it's important to approach the study of Tanach carefully but from this realistic position.  Two basic commentaries can be recommended for introduction to the text.  In English, Judaica Press has a fantastic Nach series (they were 2/5 of the way through Chumash when the Artscroll Stoned Chumash came out and ended their plans) and in Hebrew Mossad HaRav Kook has produced a fantastic commentary, Daat Mikra. 
We are reading the stories of and the words of great people, people to whom God Himself spoke and relayed His messages to mankind.  We learn from their deeds and from their mistakes and even more importantly from how they responded to their mistakes.  We seek out the overarching moral priorities to better learn how to be more moral Jews and human beings.  Used in this way, the study of Tanach becomes essential to understanding how Judaism should work.

Monday 24 December 2012

Putting Tanach Back Into The Curriculum

Rav Shimon Eidensohn over at the venerable Daas Torah blog has a post containing a statement by Rav Sternbuch, senior honcho in the Eida Chareidis, on whether or not learning Tanach is something people should do nowadays.  Not surprisingly he comes out against such study although he does give some advice for those intent on doing it as to which mephorshim to use in order to better understand the text.  However I believe that by trying to keep the study of Tanach out of the basic Jewish curriculum he accidentally highlights one of the reasons for the current levels of trouble in the frum community.
His statement, "The reason for avoiding teaching Tanach is it tends to give a less spiritual understanding – G‑d forbid –  of G‑d’s relationship with us" seems to say it all.  Yes, he does clarify his position to an extent and in a way that I agree with.  It is axiomatic that one cannot understand Tanach by simply reading the text without a proper commentary accompanying it.  The good book (and to be precise, any reference from here on to Tanach is to the Nach part) is simply incomprehensible without it.  There are incomplete narratives, varying statements, contradictions and other such problems with various parts.  Furthermore, most of the prophecies deal with complex and deep subjects and what they're actually referring to is a matter of debate amongst the commentators.  To simply read the Tanach and decide for oneself what a part of the text means is unacceptable from a Jewish point of view.
But the statement that learning Tanach gives us less of a spiritual understanding of the Divine is, in my humble and poorly-learned opinion, the reverse of what the case really is.
My father always noted that the Tanach, as opposed to the Talmud, cut through complex ethical and social issues to provide unmistakable positions on them.  The Tanach isn't a legalistic text.  It does not contain records of debates between the Sages of the First Temple period.  It doesn't deal with civil or criminal laws in any great depths and even common things like Shabbos and kashrus are barely mentioned.  What it does do, over and over again, is return to the point that the practice of Torah observance should be an end towards great moral behaviour and appreciation of the Divine.
This is, unfortunately, the opposite of much Talmud study nowadays.  As a Rav I once heard speak noted, one can learn multiple pages of Gemara and never mention God once.  Much of the Talmud is devoted to pain-staking and hair-splitting analysis of Jewish law, the intent behind the mitzvos and the optimal way to practice them.  This is important, there is no questioning that.
But the moral point behind why it is important to excel in mitzvah observance often gets lost in this.  Go into the average Jewish bookstore and look at the shelves.  How many volumes are dedicated to the analysis of this section or that in Jewish law, civil, criminal or ritual?  How many are dedicated to ethical and moral behaviour?
This is where Tanach comes in and where it becomes a threat to the current frum status quo.
Consider all the repeated scandals plaguing the Torah observant community.  One has to wonder how people who claim such a high level of devoutness, people like Nechemya Weberman who belongs to a Lubavitch-offshoot that has the hagaavah to call itself Molochim, can commit the crimes they do while aspiring to the highest level of mitzvah observance when it comes to other areas of their life like kashrus and Shabbos.  What are they thinking?  How do they justify themselves?
It's tempting to suggest that these folks know they're commiting a fraud and are keeping up the "kosher" appearance in their lives just because they don't want to lose the position in their social circles.  Some may be psychopaths in the classic, not axe-wielding, defintion of completely lacking a conscience.  While this might be true for some, it's clearly not the case for most.  From what we know of these people they sincerely do not believe they have commited any sins when they are found out.  Statements about from rabbinic authorities downplaying their misdeeds or finding some kind of halachic loophole to justify them.  They harbour no regrets.  When they say vidui on Yom Kippur these crimes aren't part of their personal cheshbon.
But Rav Sternbuch's statement, on the other hand, might go a long way towards explaining many things, from the most gross crimes commited by otherwise observant Jews to the petty harrassing of yeshivah students by their rebbes leading them to go OTD as a result. 
An education in in-depth Talmud nowadays does not seem to provide any kind of a moral underpinning for the Torah observant lifestyle.  Instead it provides one with minutiae, obscure facts and a belief that the halachic system is like any other legal system.  It contains rules and it contains exceptions to those rules and knowing that can provide one with a solid basis for commiting most any crime one wants to.
Where is the fear of God?  Well it wasn't mentioned in the relevant sugya.  After spending 10 pages reading the Chachamim debating on a particular point, the Talmud does not conclude with "And thou shalt remember to fear the Lord always".  Sure the Torah repeatedly reminds us "v'yareisa meHaShem Elokecha" but like the rule on not eating falcons or eagles it doesn't reach a level of personal relevance for many. 
The Tanach is dangerous to the system because it does the opposite.  It asks the questions that so many wish to avoid: If you're a SOB, what worth do you think performing the mitzvos has?  Where did you get the idea that you can sin and then offer a sin offering l'hatchilah?  Why do you think God wants any part of your finagling and mangling of His Law? 
The great nevi'im did not argue about whose cow injured whose and whose responsibility it is to pay for the whole thing?  They spoke to grand moral issues and of God's designs for us, His requests for our behaviour.  A good chapter of Yishiyahu or Yechezkel slaps down the folks who justify yeshiva rebbe pedophiles while demanding women sit at the back of the bus.  Yirmiyahu reminds us of the consequence of simplistic piety being used to cover a rotten moral system. 
In short, the Tanach reminds us that while other people might be fooled, while we might even successfully delude ourselves, God is above all that and sees through the crap to the truth of the matter even when we desperately want to deny it.
Perhaps that's the root of Rav Sternbuch's concern.  So much of what passes for policy in the Orthodox community is at odds with the basic moral system as presents clearly and unambiguously in Tanach.  The only way to avoid dealing with the contradiction is to announce that the Tanach is way too complicated to understand (even those it's clear that many parts come straight out and say what they mean) and therefore should simply be avoided.  Problem solved!
No, no it's not.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Heard In The Office

So I'm sitting with a patient, a young Muslim woman of Pakistani extraction who is in to talk about the depressed feelings she's had since breaking up with her boyfriend of seven years.  Seems he had emotionally moved on and she's been heartbroken ever since.  In addition she belongs to a fairly small Muslim sect so shidduch possibilities aren't the greatest. Despite being in her very early twenties and a nice looking girl she's genuinely worried that she'll be single for the rest of her life.
I ask her how she deals with her fears and she says that her religion gives her strength.  Then she pauses.
"I don't know if you'd understand."
I ask her why.
"Well, um, I don't want you to think I'm being offensive but..." (long pause) "do you believe in God?"
Now it's my turn to pause for an instant.  Then I point to my kippah.
"I'm Jewish. We came up with the idea of Him in first place."
"Oh," she says, "I didn't know that. Wow.  Anyway..." and on she goes.

                     *                                                    *                                                  *
In one of the ER's I work in there is an older lady who is an African nun.  She's also a good ER doc and she's always interested in talking with me when our shifts overlap.  I think she's looking for another religious person to talk to and there aren't that many in this ER (or any others I've worked in, come to think of it).
So the other night I come in to replace her for the overnight shift and she stops me and says: "Lord Ironheart,  there are Jewish Chrisians, right?"
I pause because my first answer has at least two offensive words in it and she's a nice lady who clearly didn't mean anything insulting so it wouldn't be fair to unleash them on her.  So I rephrase as best as I can and say "Um no, none at all."
"But why?"
"Well," I say knowing that I have to tread carefully, "you know all that stuff about God in a body, dying for our sins and the Trinity?"  She nods vigorously.  "Yeah, well we don't believe in any of that.  In fact, it's against our faith to think of God doing anything like that."
She looks stunned.  "You don't believe in J----s?"
I shake my head.  "Nope."
"That's incredible!  I never knew that!"

Monday 10 December 2012

The Holiday Of Intolerance

Intolerance is a dirty word in today's liberal culture.  Live and let live, everything's okay as long as it doesn't hurt someone, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, you name it and there's a movement demanding tolerance in it.  This is generally touted by secular culture as humanity's moral pinnacle - the creature of a society in which no one is offended and everyone is prepared to see things from the other guy's point of view without allowing for personal bias and thoughts of superiority.
It sounds great on paper but when examined carefully it is quite a dangerous philosophy.  For one thing, it doesn't exactly generate a lot of creative or constructive energy.  If everything's groovy then there's nothing much to strive for.  For another thing, it leaves people enamored by such thoughts in a very vulnerable position.  Another philosophy, one that is aggressive and judgemental, could easily sweep in and take over as it pushes the milquetoast liberalism aside.  We are witnessing this in parts of Europe as a vibrant and very opinionated Islam makes steady progress in intimidating the essentially valueless atheistic culture that replaced Chrisian and fascist nationalism after World War 2.
In fact, if you wonder why some atheist groups are so militant it is exactly for this reason.  They are well aware of the saying in the Gemara (somewhere): "don't be too sweet lest you be eaten up".  They know that only by assuming an aggressive posture of their own can they survive against people who actually have a core dogma.  Thus they have created one of their own out of the framework provided by political correctness and begun to inflict it on general society.  Clearly they are still working on their self-confidence as to date the most the atheist liberal lobby has managed to accomplish is a sustained attack on the sclerotic remnants of Chrisian culture while deftly ignoring any real threats under the rubric of multi-culturalism.  However, there is no reason to believe they won't increase their assertiveness in coming years as it becomes clear that a new culture has come to town and intends to replace secular liberal norms with its own.
Where do we as Jews fit in?
On one hand, the culture of open tolerance has been good to us.  Judaism is a rich national philosophy and as such it is automatically a threat to any other such dogma.  That is one reason for the long and miserable history we have had in Chrisian and Muslim lands.  One can trace the rise of Jews in Western societies directly to the decline Chrisianity has suffered in the last 70 years or so and it is not hard to see that the lowly dhimmi position of Jews in Muslim countries has not changed because public religion remains very strong there.
On the other hand there is a dangerous seductiveness to secular liberalism.  Read through the lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine and it's all right there.  It's much easier to believe in nothing than to actively hold a serious of views that are contested by the world around you.  It's easier to say "live and let live" than to take a stand on an issue and maintain that one view is right and one is wrong.  Perhaps that's one reason for the decline of public religion in the West.  Laziness and selfishness are essential human traits, the principle tools of the yetzer hara.  To have values takes energy and often requires confrontation.  It demands sacrifice and personal deprivation at times.  It sometimes insists that reward for proper behaviour is deferred and it intimates that bad things sometimes happen to good people for reasons we cannot understand.  Better to stand for nothing.  It takes less time and effort.  A random universe in which things just happen doesn't have to be justified, just survived.  Party now because there's nothing after.
Despite heterodox views to the contrary, Chanukah is not a holiday celebrating religious freedom.  It is a commemoration of a war between two cultures, one the forerunner of today's "Pleasure first and second" society and the other our ancestors who were trying to uphold the laws of our Holy Torah.  The Greeks saw no value in self-abnegation.  For them the physical was everything and the idea that a culture would hold that unlimited enjoyment of the physical world was wrong was incomprehensible to them.  For us it is the opposite.  We are special creations of God, the ultimate purpose of all He made and we cannot be like animals that have no greater goal than survival, the next meal and procreation.  Being human means restrictions and being Godly means lots of them but that is the highest goal.  The Greek system was not only different, it was wrong.  It was incompatible.  One could not be a good Greek and a good Jew.  A choice had to be made.
Nowadays we are quietly faced with the same struggle.  Secular views constantly wash up against our Torah bulwarks and sometimes drops splash over.  The new fashionable struggle to find a way to somehow create the openly gay Orthodox Jew, for example, is one such drop.  Another is the effort to create egalitarian worship in a culture that values and emphasizes the uniqueness of each gender and its contributions to the whole of the Jewish nation.  Worst are the values known as "It's only illegal if you get caught" and its innovative cousin "It's only illegal if there's a statement b'feirush in the Shulcan Aruch".  The idea that one can cheat on taxes, cheat on someone from a different cultural group, and it's okay to lie and cover it up, is one that has come in from society and been turned in some quarters into a Torah value.  All of these are examples of how the mityavnim have resurfaced in our day and age to pervert our Judaism slowly, a bit at a time.  The goal of mutual tolerance is not something we see as positive.  We know what is right and what isn't and have to stand up for those ideals.
Therefore as Chanukah descends on us and our arteries slowly sclerose from the unending barrage of oil goodness we are about to consume we should take a step back and ask ourselves if our daily behaviour is as pure as we like to think it is or have we incorporated a practice or two without even realizing it that doesn't belong there?  If there is a time of year for such introspection this would be it.  The light of the flame from the Menorah in the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) was pure and unadulterated.  That purity is our goal.
May we all have a meaningful and fattening holiday.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

The Smartest Isn't Always The Best

It's no secret that we value Torah learning and knowledge.  A person's value in the eyes of many is tied less to his mitzvah observance than it is to his level of knowledge.  The shakdan, the man who never leaves his seforim for anything else sits at the highest level of virtue.
There is good reason for this attitude.  As the old platitude goes, more than the Jews have kept the Torah, the Torah has kept the Jews.  Forget matzah balls and tikun olam in the form of environmentalism.  It's the learning and observing of Torah that makes us unique amongst the nations of the world.  It therefore makes sense that the more one possesses of Torah knowledge the greater one is.  No argument here.
But there is a necessary follow-up question: does being knowledgeable automatically grant one the necessary skills for leadership?  Is the smartest guy in the room the best leader?
I would suggest that this is not the case.  Leadership is a special task requiring skills all its own.  Yes, knowledge is important but there are other factors.  Knowing how to delegate, knowing how to run a team and trust its members to work in proper coordination, knowing the needs of the group being led are all important and such skills don't come with intensive book learning.  There is also a need to know the limitations that the real world puts on ideals and goals so that they can be adjusted and implemented successfully.  These skills can sometimes be intuitive and at other times they can be taught but they do not correlate with the basic accumulation of knowledge.
The current leadership structure of the Chareidi community, on the other hand, would seem to completely disagree with the preceding paragraph.  Under the rubric of "Daas Torah" many in that community feels that the intense learning of Torah is the only thing needed to develop a great leader.  With high level of knowledge comes some form of ruach hakodesh and this spirit is what guides the Gadol towards making the correct decision each and every time.
I was thinking about this as I recently read Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's early obituary for HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, zt"l.  I say early because I don't doubt there is already an Artscroll hagiography in process to be published soon, one that will emphasize all the "right" midos HaRav Eliashiv possessed as well as a sanitized version of his life so that we shouldn't think, chas v'shalom, that he ever left his learning for an instant, even to go to the bathroom or something like that.
Actually I'm surprised it hasn't come out yet.  Hagiographies for Rebbitzen Kanievsky, zt"l, and HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel came out seemingly within hours of the funerals but it's been several months now and nothing on HaRav Eliashiv?
Rav Rosenblum's piece hits all the right notes, of course.  HaRav Eliashiv was a non-stop learner which, combined with his God-given genius level of intelligence and startling lack of need for sleep, resulted in his premier status as posek hador for the Chareidi community.
There are, of course, inaccuracies in the piece.  The first is an outright contraction.  At one point, we are told:
 For ninety years, he sat alone in the same small shul learning almost all day, except for the hours he answered halachic questions or gave his daily Talmud class, open to all.
But then Rav Rosenblum admits that HaRav Eliashiv did have a job at one point, working for the Zionists no less:
He served for 22 years as a dayan (religious court judge) on the Bais Din HaGadol of the Chief Rabbinate, until he resigned in protest over Rabbi Shlomo Goren's ruling in the Langermamzerut case. Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog assigned him the task of preparing the protocols for the Chief Rabbinate's batei din, which protocols are still in force today.
But this is a minor quibble.  Far more egregious is something that is an outright lie:
Even after resigning, he remained ever a dayan in his conduct, refusing, for instance, to hear one party in a dispute unless the other party was also present. He possessed the great dayan'sability to quickly separate out the extraneous and cut to the core of any issue
Yeah, just ask Rav Natan Slifkin about how truthful that statement is.
What struck me most was this set of ancedotes:
That was Rav Elyashiv. He thought in halachic categories and his responses were determined by those categories. Informed of the birth of a new great great-grandchild, he would respond "kasher l'eidus" (permitted to be a witness) – i.e., the proscription on close relatives giving testimony with respect to one another does not apply to a great great-grandchildren. (An only child himself, Rabbi Elyashiv left behind over 1,500 descendants at the time of his passing, extending into the sixth generation.) His first question whenever someone came to urge a particular course of action was always: What does the Shulchan Aruch say?
The same straightness could be seen in everything he did. One time, he needed an electrician to fix something in the one-bedroom apartment, in which he and his wife -- primarily his wife -- raised ten children. (She was the daughter of Rabbi Aryeh Levine, portrayed by Simcha Raz in A Tzaddik in Our Time.) He refused to take the electrician who prayed in the same minyan he did until the man agreed to charge the full price. While the man was doing the repair, Rabbi Elyashiv was informed that one of his daughters had passed away. He sat down and reviewed the laws of mourning. Then he paid the electrician. Only when the debt was taken care of did he leave for the funeral.
The picture painted here is quite frightening, if you think about it.  We who are fans of Star Trek, for example, enjoy the portrait of Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan raised in a culture where emotions are forbidden and his constant struggle to understand them while maintained absolute control over his own.  But here was a man who truly was Vulcan.  Yes, it's quite admirable to draw an immediate halachic conclusion when being told about the first of a great-great-grandchild but is it normal?  Is it healthy?  There is a famous anecdote about Rebbitzen Kanievsky, his daughter, in which she tells her husband, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit"a, that he is not as intensive a learner as her father because unlike her father, HaRav Chaim knows the names of all his grandchildren!
If the only way HaRav Eliashiv could relate to such an joyous family event was to retreat into a legal structure, what does it say about his understanding of real, live human beings?  If his grandchildren couldn't have a personal relationship with him, what does that say about his understanding of the needs of strangers?
Yes, HaRav Eliashiv was uncompromising in his approach to and implementation of halacha but really one have has to consider: when was he ever forced to do otherwise?  When did any negative consequences of a psak he gave come back to haunt him?  He could be an ivory tower purist because of his position and power but did that make him a great leader?
There is no question that the Torah world is poorer for his passing and the loss of his holiness and knowledge but is the Chareidi community in as health a position as they might have been had a more pragmatic leader, using the guidance of HaRav Eliashiv, been in charge the last few decades?

Tuesday 27 November 2012

The Failure Of Their Philosophy

How deep the rot goes in Chareidi religious philosophy has been exposed in the last few weeks during the crisis in 'Aza.
Now let's get something straight.  There are many Chareidim who are sincere learners, who really do care about their fellow Jews, Chareidi and non-Chareidi, and how really feel that the performance of mitzvos and their learning benefits klal Yisrael.  I am not speaking about those folks.  I'm speaking about the ones who ran.
We saw this during Lebanon II and what is now being called the First Gaza War and we saw it over the last few weeks.  When trouble starts with Hamas, two things fly: rockets and Chareidim, the former over the fence from 'Aza and the latter to Bene Beraq and parts eleswhere.
Why should this matter? Well, as is famously known one of the biggest reasons Chareidim use to justify their ongoing refusal to serve in the Israeli army is that their learning is the true protection of the State of Israel.  Never mind that the Chareidi community officially has no praise for the State or even a trace of hakaras hatov for all the State has done for it.  Ask any Chareidi PR man and he'll tell you that the shteiging that goes on in their world is the real Iron Dome over Israel. 
But unfortunately their public behaviour in times of crisis belies this belief.  No one is asking Chareidim to line up around the fence with 'Aza, gemaras in hand, to prevent Hamas and its subgroups from lobbing missles into Israel.  But if the contents of Chareidi yeshivos are, collectively, what is the real protection from danger in Israel, should they at least not stay put where they are, continue their heiliger lives as usual like the klei kodesh they styles themselves as?
In truth I think most Chareidim don't believe for a second that they are contributing to the protection of the State, especially as most of them have been raised to hate that very State or at the least to view it with contempt.  They don't believe they are immune to incoming rockets just because they learn intensely all day.  They run because they rationally realize they are in danger and feel no sense of responsibility to the community around them.
It is selfish, yes, but unfortunately some elements of that communitty revel in that very middah
But here I think is an even more unfortunately corrolary.  Consider the logical conclusion to this.  The average Chareidi kolleleit sits and learns all day.  He says cannot stop doing this to serve in the army because his learning is the real protection for Israel but he doesn't believe that at all.  Either it's something he simply says out of habit like Baruch Hashem! or he consciously knows he's lying.  There's little nafka mina there but the implication is staggering.  All his learning, much of his mitzvah observance, is based on a lie.  He is lying so he can learn.  How different is this from stealing one's fellow lulav because it's really nice and one wants to maximize one's hidur mitzvah
If this is true then what other time-worn Chareidi bromides are there which are similarly discredited?  They claim fealty to their "Gedolim".  Is this true or is the relationship the other way around?  Are the "Gedolim' really hostages to their populations, afraid to pasken in any other way than what the people want for fear of losing their "Gadol" status if they breach the party line?
In fact, how much of Chareidi philosophy is really true and how much a convenient dogma to serve a narrow, selfish agenda that has little to do with true love of the Divine and His Torah but rather to preserve an insular community that simply sees no ties to others around it?

Sunday 25 November 2012

What YCT Does Right

It's often easy to criticize the Morethodoxy crowd.  Whether its blurring the line between Orthodoxy and heterodoxy or just the annoying naivete, the YCT gang always seems to come up with something that makes one slap oneself on the forehead.
It's a lot more important, then, to note what Morethodoxy does right.  It's especially important since they are embracing a fundamental Jewish principle that much of mainstream Orthodoxy, Modern, Zionist and Ultra have all seem to have forgotten about - common decency.
We are told that the Torah's ways are those of pleasantness.  Heck, we sing it every time we put a sefer Torah back into the aron kodesh four times a week.  But does anyone else notice that these days the Torah isn't so much a source of pleasantness but rather a hammer used to bludgeon people over the head with?
It seems not a week goes by without a new chumrah appearing or a new statement on behalf of "the Gedolim" that alienates a segment of the Jewish nation from the rest.  How much violence have we seen in the last few years in the name of Torah and purity?  How much anger does the public propagation of Torah have accompanying it nowadays?  Am I the only one wondering if there's a contest out there to see how unbearable Jewish observant life can be made before everyone except a select cabal somewhere in
Meah Shearim or Bene Beraq goes OTD?
This is where Morethodoxy shows its strength, albeit with the wrong tactics.  Instead of exclusion they preach inclusion.  Instead of disenfranchising they preach participation.  Yes, they do it without considering the boundaries that halacha has in place, not extremist opinions but mainstream ones, but their underlying motive, their genuine sincerity is refreshing and necessary.
Consider their concern not just for other Jews but for humanity as a whole.  While we are a separate nation by virtue of our closeness to God, that closeness itself demands a certain ethical leadership from us.  Cloistering ourselves away from general society reduces the danger of contamination from its excesses, sure, but it also reduces our chance to spread knowledge of God and His kindness to humanity which is something we are charged with.  
There is also the issue of inclusion of women in Jewish life.  The approach Morethodoxy uses is certainly controversial as they seem intent on creating an egalitarian form of Orthodoxy, something which is an unfixable contradcition but the idea that women should not be treated as objects to be shoved to the back of the bus but should be seen as important parts of Jewish life, in fact as the bedrock of what the Jewish family and nation rests on and treated with commensurate respect is a valid one many of us would do well to implement.
Now sincerity only counts for so much.  Rav Yonasan Rosenblum wrotes years ago of meeting a group of Reform rabbis and being impressed with their friendliness and kindness.  Despite that he couldn't simply say that they were good rabbonim.  Afer all, they didn't keep kosher, didn't observe Shabbos, etc.  You can be the nicest person but still fall far from the ideal Torah miSinai demands of us.  But that's the point - the balancing of bein Adam l'Makom with bein Adam l'chaveiro.  As we well know, the guy who keeps only mehadrin min mehadrin min mehadrin kosher but cheats and steals in his business dealings is little different than the Reformer who is scrupulous in his personal dealings but enjoys a BLT while driving to shul on Shabbos morning.  Maybe the former is worse, in fact, because his chilul haShem potential is much higher.
The Midrash tells us that one reason Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, was chosen to be the leader of klal Yisrael is because of the kindness he showed the flock of sheep he was tending.  Imagine how such leadership would manifest today.  Instead of carrying a weary sheep to water, the leader would berate it for stepping out of line and kick it back into the sheep pen.  How far from the example Chazal wanted us to emulate are we?
There are limits, of course.  The halacha must ultimately guide us as to what is acceptable and what is simply beyond the pale.  The danger of good intentions is that they ultimate replace objective standards.  We want so much to be nice to others we push aside the rules that distinguish and define us.  The other concern is replacing our subjective feelings with those values the Torah objectively demands.  Shaul haMelech is our guide in this case.  All who know their Tanach understand that what finally cost him his kingship was his desire to please his people after their battle with Amalek, forcing him to reinterpret God's command in that matter in order to accomodate them.  We certainly cannot forget that being nice is not an end unto itself.  It is a tool in the implementation of Torah, not a replacement for it.
In conclusion we must look to what Morethodoxy does right and inject some of that into mainstream Orthodox practice.  Their enthusiasm and general sense of decency is something that should be examined and brought into the fold under the guidance of halacha to enhance what we do and how we do it.

Monday 19 November 2012

Committing to Lack of Commitment

One of the major differences between Orthodoxy and Reformativism is the emphasis on responsibilities vs rights.  For the Orthodox everything is about responsiblities, all 613 of them.  From the moment we wake up until the moment we sit on the edges of our beds before going to sleep there are duties to perform.  Almost no activity during the day is free of some aspect of a mitzvah or two.
For the Reformatives it much more open.  Choice is the buzz word when it comes to Jewish practice.  Personal feelings and desires decide which mitzvos are relevant or authoritative and when with preferences changing in tune with the ongoing shift of norms within the surrounding secular liberal culture.
In short, for Orthodoxy it's about commitment and for Reformativism it's about a lack of one.  And here's the problem for them: how do you build a strong feeling of commitment to a philosophy based on a lack of one?
Years ago I heard a prominent Conservative speak about how he was jealous of Chasidim, of their passion and dedication to their version of Judaism.  He wanted to develop the same passion in students at the JTS.  He wanted to see "Conservative Chasidim".  It was a joke for those of us paying attention.  Agree with their belief system or not, there is no questioning the strength of attachment Chasidim feel towards Torah and worship of the Ribono shel Olam.  Their fanatical level of practice is a reflection of their desire to put God into everything they do all day long.  You cannot replicate that feeling within Modern Orthodoxy, let along the non-religious Jewish groups because a level of passion that strong demands a sense of duty equally as firm.  One cannot be commited strongly to being non-commited.
So it's no wonder that the Reformatives find themselves drifting as Orthodoxy continues to grow in size and strength around them.  Reform may claim to have 1.5 million members but if one attempts to raise a minyan, what percentage of that horde will show up?  How many are dedicated to the prinicples of Reform and how many are counted because they have a paid membership in a Reform temple somewhere?  Ditto for Conservatism which is fading even faster as people search for authenticity, either on the liberal or traditional sides of practice.
How can they gain strength?  A movement that makes any actual Jewish practice optional can't expect to raise large numbers for a rally.  No one is going to pack a stadium with a crowd shouting "We want to do whatever we want and still be considered good Jews!"  Yes, there will always be candidates for their so-called rabbinic programs but how many dedicated pro-feminist and pro-gay people who also have a liking for Bible studies are there out there?  And how can they connect to congregations that see a lack of connection as part of their Jewish identity?
Ultimately, the most slef-defeating bromide is this belief:
The American Jewish community as a whole cannot survive if there is no non-Orthodox movement to which American Jews can belong; in other words, survival depends on a strong Reform movement
No it doesn't.  Judaism did not need Reform or Conservative for centuries just like it didn't need the Karaites to survive.  The American Jewish community shrinkage in absolute numbers, its growing disconnect from Israel, its unacceptable pathetic level of general Jewish education, is entirely driven by the Reformatives who have replaced Torah values with secular liberal ethics wrapped in a rayon tallis.  Reform needs Orthodoxy (we supply them with all those OTD's) but the American Jewish community does not need inauthenticity.  It needs an open admission that a lack of interest in proper Judaism is not in itself a genuine form of Judaism and to stand up and create real standards that define them.  Until such time, why would anyone take their crisis seriously?

Friday 16 November 2012

Lunch With Goebels

Liberals in the West are a particularly annoying bunch in many ways but one of the most prominent is their level of naivete.  In a dangerous world full of real enemies they remain blissfully unaware of true threats while focusing their energies on unimportant targets.  For example, the gay lobby seems to not realize that certain growing religions consider homosexuality a capital crime but instead focuses on demonizing Israel as an "apartheid" state.
The recent appointment of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the new head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah reminded me how dangerous and idiotic this naivete can be.  Rabbi Lopatin is certainly a genuinely decent person who desire world peace and health, happiness and equal opportunity for all and one certainly cannot criticize him for desiring such things.  But there is a difference between desiring a happy utopia in this world and realizing that such a thing is a pipe dream.  I'm not sure Rabbi Lopatin knows that.
In the past, for example, he has written of his desire to turn Israel into a binational state.  Despite the endless statements on record from our enemies, he seems to believe that turning Israel into "Israstine" will lead to an outbreak of happiness and civility in the MiddleEast.  No need to worry about the Arabs subsequently arranging a mass influx of so-called refugees and turning the Jews into a minority which will quickly become a persecuted one.  Rabbi Lopatin has no hatred in his heart, may God bless him and keep him this way, and he cannot understanding that other people do.  The idea that our enemies would use his idea to initiate a second Holocaust, chalilah, simply does not occur to him.
That's probably why he broke bread with some of the most dedicated enemies our nation as, amongst them one Hanan Ashrawi.
Now for those of you who don't know, Ms. Ashrawi is a fanatical hater of the Jewish people but, unlike the frothing terrorists who scream "God is a mouse!" and wave guns around, she is charming and eloquent.  She could explain the "truth" of how we use non-Jewish children's blood for our matzah every year and the average person would probably be convinced by her style and the reasonable tone of her voice.  She has spent more than two decades going everywhere in the world she can to spread lies about Jews and Israel.  We have few foes more dangerous that her.
And Rabbi Lopatin had no trouble sharing a meal with her and listening to her spew.
For me this is more than just naivete.  This is a dangerous idiocy, the kind that villains like Lenin and Stalin, y"sh (both of 'em) exploited to undermine the efforts of the West to resist the spread of communism.  It speaks of an inability to see evil when it is staring one in the face which is very dangerous in a world where Jew hatred is rapidly becoming fashionable again.  It is certainly not a good quality for a man who would be a leader of a faction of Orthodoxy (for now).

Wednesday 14 November 2012

When Only The Mechitzah Is Left

One way to effect change in a system that doesn't want or need to be changed is to assert that there is a problem and that a solution to it is urgently needed.  State this often enough and it seems to take on some fact-based existence.
Such is the case when it comes to women's "rights" within Torah Judaism.  The system, such that it is, openly recognizes a lack of equality between men and women and always has.  Inequality does not denote a superiority/inferiority relationship within Judaism but it does seem to within secular liberalism.  For those Orthodox Jews who are enamoured by secular ethics and wish to practice a Judaism that is both traditional but also in consonance with the latest faddish beliefs in the West there is therefore a problem when it comes to how women are treated within Orthodoxy.
The latest missive in this ongoing attempt to create a tempest where there is not even a teapot comes from Rabbi Zev Farber.  The essay starts off in predictable fashion:
In the average Orthodox synagogue, there is not one thing that women do which is part of synagogue performance. Their presence is not felt and their voices are not heard. The paradigm for women’s ritual participation in the Modern Orthodox world must change.
See?  There's a problem and it needs a solution.
Now, when it comes to Conservatism and Reform I can appreciate such a statement.  The very vast majority of those two groups have no religion outside of their temples.  When one removes Shabbos, kashrus, taharas misphachah and in-depth learning from one's life there is aught left except for public worship.  If a Reform or Conservative synagogue insist on being non-egalitarian then it is quite clear that they are excluding women from pretty much all of what they define as Jewish practice.  For them it makes sense to be egalitarian.
But within Orthodoxy?  Let us remember the proper role of the shul in our lives.  It's a place to pray.  Stop,  End paragraph.  Finito.  It is not the centre of our social lives.  It is not the centre of our practice.  Both of those centres are found within the Jewish home which is where Torah lives are most fully lived.  Do women participate in shuli rituals?  Well no, they don't because al pi halacha they have no obligations there.  They do not have to show up for minyan and they don't have to hear krias haTorah (most of the time).  Judaism recognizes that there are some public rituals we perform but these are incumbent on men only.  By starting his essay with a demand to change the paradigm for women's ritual participation, Rabbi Farber seems to be stating his position in a very Reformative fashion: the shul is the centre of our lives.  The home does not seem to matter to him.
Then there is the obvious question to the last statement in the paragraph: Why?  Why must it change?  Why must we look at the secular world and say "Well, they're egalitarian so we need to be to!"?  Since when has that ever been the impetus for a change in our moral and ritual values?
He then goes on to raise another non-issue:
Why is it that the synagogue automatically assumes that the baseline should be no participation and that women need to put themselves out there, at a real risk of humiliation and disappointment, before even the smallest action will be taken on her/their behalf?

This one is easy to answer, as I already noted above.  The synagogue automatically assumes non-participation because it functions al pi halacha, not al pi feminist egalitarianism.  By ignoring this point and presenting the current situation as one of inertia or baseless tradition, Rabbi Farber almost dishonestly presents his point in order to better make it.  In fact, Rabbi Farber's next point is not that he is ignoring halacha but rather, that he finds some parts of it irrelevant.
I would argue that the reason the impetus for change has fallen so squarely on the shoulders of women stems from the fact that we are still living under an antiquated and obsolete paradigm. Although there are a number of Talmudic pericopae (sugyot) that discuss technical questions surrounding differences between men’s and women’s obligations in prayer and related halakhot, this does not really explain the stark difference between the place of men and women in the synagogue. The larger issue, I believe, is sociological in nature.

This is so completely wrong I don't know where to begin.  Is Rabbi Farber not aware of the large corpus of halacha that has developed since the closing of the Talmud that deals with these issues?  Is he not aware of the vast investigations by the poskim over the centuriese into the various roles of men and women in public worship?  Ultimately, Rabbi Farber shows his hand.  It isn't Torah values that guide his traditionalism but modern feminist values.
The sociological realities nowadays are entirely different.
Yes, a society in which women are treated as objects useful only for sex and having babies.  A society in which the killing of unborn babies is treated as a "right" and men and women procreate without creating a stable family unit within which to raise the children.  A society that is debating whether or not mind-altering drugs should be legal because apparently reality is too boring for too many people.  It is those socialogical realities that guide Rabbi Farber's moral compass, not halacha.
To break out of this vicious cycle, we need to shift the paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of saying that since women have never historically participated in public ritual, so each shul and each rabbi will—upon request—think about creative ways to allow women to participate ritually in things that are permitted, we should be saying that all Jews, men and women, can do or participate in any meaningful ritual unless it is clear that halakha expressly forbids this. How to define what halakha forbids will be a question every shul and rabbi will need to answer, but the inertia factor and the women-don’t-do-these-kinds-of-things factor will have to be taken off the table.

A vicious cycle?  Yes, following the tradition and the halacha as developed by our poskim is just that, a vicious cycle because it offends secular sensibilities, just like telling young women to pay for their own birth control if they're going to work for a Catholic institution does.  The difference between secularism and Judaism is one of rights vs responsibilities.  Rabbi Farber is very concerned about the rights of women but when it comes to responsibilities he's somewhat more silent.
Women do not want to read from the Torah because men do; women and men both want to be called to the Torah because participating in the reading of the Torah is considered an honor (kavod) due to the great respect all Jews have for the Torah and the Torah scroll.
Sorry but this is not something I'm buying.  I recall years ago the Conservative synagogue in my hometown held a rancorous vote on whether or not to go egalitarian.  After the feminists carried the vote many of them were asked what days they'd be coming out for the early morning davening.  They all snorted and said that they had no interest in actually coming out to daven, they just wanted to know that they had the same rights as the men in case they did decide to come out.  Feminism was initially about equality and dignity for women, true, but the movement long ago morphed into a philosophy based on socialist bovine feces and endless jealousy of imagined "male privilege". 
It is totally unfair to create a society in which access to the Torah is considered the greatest honor, bar women from it, and then turn around and ask what their problem is.

Myself, I live in a society where access to the Torah is through learning and daily practice.  It is no further away than the nearest sefer.  The greatest honour is raising a Jewish family faithful to the teachings of that Torah.  Should I not be suspicious when someone says that they will only feel a connection to their culture if if is altered to meet their personal specification? 
Ultimately, Rabbi Farber's essay reads like something someone from the JTS or HUC could have written after a visit to an Orthodox shul and an exposure to authentic Orthodox tradition.  The "Judaism" he is looking for is more consonant with the UTJ than it is with Orthodoxy.  Perhaps he should stop trying to straddle the fence and, having admitted his preferences, join the group that meets his secular aspirations instead of continuing to pretend that he is contributing to genuine Orthodoxy.

Monday 12 November 2012

How Old Was Rivkah?

One of the less talked about parts of Chumash is child marriage.  For example, an unmarried Kohen Gadol must take a young virgin in marriage.  Imagine the optics - a 60 something year old man in full priestly regalia under the chuppah with a 10 year old.  Not something I'd want to see on CNN.
Another one comes up in this parsha.  At the beginning of Toldos we are told that Yitchak Avinu, a"h, was 40 years old when he married Rivkah Imeinu, a"h.  Rashi, based on Seder Olam, does the math for us.  Yitchak Avinu was 37 at the time of the Akeidah, based on the assumption that Sarah Imeinu died right after from the shock of hearing about it.  At that point, Avraham Avinu, a"h, learns that his cousin Rivkah has been born.  Therefore, concludes Rashi, Rivkah is three when she marries Yitzchak.  The Torah then tells us that Yitzchak Avinu was 60 when the twins were born which means he and Rivkah tried for 20 years.  Rashi, in order to remain consistent with the halacha that a man should divorce his wife if she hasn't gotten pregnant after 10 years of trying, tells us that from age 3-13 we wouldn't have expected Rivkah to get pregnant and therefore it was only 10 years of real infertility that counted until Eisav HaRasha and Yaakov Avinu, a"h, were born.
Bottom line: 40 year old Yitzchak Avinu married 3 year old Rivkah Imeinu.  It sounds creepy until you factor in that this 3 year old could draw water for camels and ride them all by herself.
Although there is no debating Rashi's central importance in understanding Chumash, it is sometimes forgotten that while he is the first voice, there are many others to be heard after his.  This is an example of where that's important. 
There are, in fact, many commentators who don't accept Rashi's version of the chronology.  Amongst the reasons brought are (1) there's no reason to believe that Avraham Avinu received the news of Rivkah's birth immediately.  She could have been much older by the time the family telegram reached him. (2) Yes, people matured faster back in the days before permanent adolescence meant not growing up until you turned 35 but three year olds have always been three years olds.  They can't go out and draw water by themselves, they're not strong enough to fill a trough for camels and there certainly can't ride them by themselves.  Rivkah Imeinu could not have been 3 years old for this story to have happened the way the Torah tells us.
Rav Michael Hattin, formerly of Yeshivat Har Etzion, notes his and brings a great explanation of what led Rashi to comment on the story and I would like to share it with you.
He starts by noting that Rashi was no fool.  He knew that taking Seder Olam literally meant insisting that a three year old could perform all sorts of tasks that were clearly beyond her.  He goes a step further and asks about Yitzchak Avinu's age at the Akeidah.  Although again Rashi uses traditional sources to determine that he was 37, Rav Hattin again shows that this was not likely.  After all, if Yitzchak Avinu was an adult at the height of his strength, then the Akeidah wasn't just a test for Avraham Avinu but for him as well.  The Torah, however, never portrays the Akeidah as a big test for Yitzchak Avinu, just his father.  In all likelihood he was much younger, probably still just a child.
If that's the case, why does Rashi insist that Yitzchak Avinu was 37 and Rivkah Imeinu was only 3?  This can be tied into Rashi's comment from the Midrash about the wording around Sarah Imeinu's age at the time of her death. Famously, Rashi notes the importance of each appearance of the word "year" in that verse.  This concept gets extended further.  Yitchak Avinu, despite being a young boy, acted with the maturity of a 37 year old when it came time to lie on the altar for his father and submit to being sacrified.  A normal boy would have run screaming into the woods or called the Canaan Child Protection Services on his cell phone.  Not Yitzchak Avinu.  Despite his age, he understood the importance of what was going on and acted appropriately.
Similarly for Rivkah Imeinu, one needs to note that the marriages of our forebears were not simple shidduchim but a joining of mammoth spiritual personalities.  A normal girl of marriageable age might have been influenced to marry Yitzchak Avinu for the promise of the wealth he possessed.  Instead, Rivkah Imeinu looked at the situation with a level of honesty found only in young children.  For her, it was Yitzchak Avinu's godlus that sealed the deal, not a sense of personal interest. 
Thus Rashi, by bringing these midrashim and making statements that superficially seem untenable was actually giving us a deep insight into the greatness of both Yitchak Avinu and Rivkah Imeinu.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Avraham Avinu's Torah

One of the more controversial statements made by Chazal is "Our holy fathers all kept the entire Torah".  We are told, for example, that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah and all rabbinic enactments right down to eruv tavshilin.  Many people take these statements literally.  Far too many.
The objections to the statement range from the obvious to the subtle.  For the obvious, how could the Avos observe the Torah when it hadn't been given yet?  How could they celebrate going out of Egypt from slavery to freedom if they were never slaves?  How could Avraham Avinu, a"h, serve the angels who visited him milk and meat?  How could Yaakov Avinu, a"h, marry two sisters?  It's a mitzvah in the Torah to put a parapet around one's roof.  Our Avos lived in tents.  Did they build sukkos every autumn?
I believe that to best understand Chazal's statement one must understand what "Torah" is.  We are so used to using Hebrew words as labels in English that we forget they have real meanings.  For example, Torah means "teaching" or "instruction".  It is God's communication to us as to His expectations for us in this world. It is not simply the scroll we read from three times a week or the collected knowledge in all the seforim in the world.  As Chazal note, it is indescribably huge, greater than we can ever understand being the produce of the Divine intelligence.
Another support for this position can be found in the words of Chazal where they note that Torah preceded the Creation of the world.  As Chazal say, God looked into the Torah to create the world.  Now, unless one is simplistic enough to think that there was this one original scroll floating out there from the ether before the universe came into being, one must conclude that Torah is the blueprint for Creation, the framework for all existence, the answer to the question of Life, The Universe and Everything.
This helps to explain how our Avos "kept" the whole Torah.  The "whole Torah" doesn't mean performing the Taryag mitzvos but rather it means participating in the progression of history in total consonance with God's plans.  The Talmud tells us that history moves forward towards a purpose.  There will be a completion of the Final Redemption, there will be a Moshiach and there will be an Olam Haba in this reality.  For us, participating in this progression is accomplished by the performance of the mitzvos.  Through limud Torah and engaging in activities that sanctify God's name and fulfill His will we move reality forward towards its ultimate destination.
Our Avos worked on the same goal but it is important to remember that they were on a level so much higher than us that we cannot comprehend how they interacted with reality.  Every autumn, as the Torah reading cycle returns to their histories I see articles getting published about them that attempt to humanize them to a ridiculous degree, commenting on whether or not they existed, criticizing their parenting techniques, wondering about their connection to religions that have no real connection to them.  Take a step back and think about it: these men spoke with God.  They didn't just worship Him.  They weren't just highly aware of Him.  They had communication with Him.  How can we hope to understand men like that?
The Nefesh HaChaim notes that because of this heightened spirituality they were therefore able to guide all their actions in harmony with the will of God.  Avraham Avinu didn't simply feed the angels who visited him what he did because that's what was in the pantry that day.  Yaakov Avinu didn't marry two sisters because he had no Torah.  In all their actions they recognized what the right course was to take to move history forward and they took it.  These decisions, for whatever the reason was to the Divine will, were those that were necessary even if later on the halacha would forbid them.  For us, marrying two sisters is an abomination.  For Yaakov Avinu it was the step he had to take to bring forth the founders of our nation.
With this understanding we can now see how our Avos kept "the whole Torah" and it serves as a reminder to us that there is a purpose to our practice.  We are not simply to perform mitzvos out of rote or habit but to keep our minds on the bigger picture, on the grand purpose behind all our actions.  We must bring meaning into our actions and understanding how our Avos did it helps to serve as a guide.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Be A Man!

One of the common criticisms of Chareidi society nowadays is the emphasis on the "learn, don't earn" lifestyle expected of many of its adherents, especially in Israel.  It seems that their entire theology revolves around the idea that the only good use of time is learning Torah and that therefore every able bodied person with a functioning brain should be doing this exclusively.  Work is seen as, at best, an undesirable b'dieved to be performed by the unwashed masses who can't make it in the holy confines of their local yeshiva.
This attitude has spread amongst the womenfolk of the community as well with the ongoing efforts of seminaries to convince impressionable girls fresh out of high school that the only good man to marry is a kollel candidate.  Chas v'shalom should she hook up with a working stiff.  It would be a betrayal of the sacrifices of Jewish women from time immemorial.
So deep does this attitude run that I once read a story about a kollel guy who went off to work and was quizzed by his buddies: "So who gave you a heter to work?"  Recently I've noticed a trend in articles where kollel folk are now called k'lei kodesh.  Really?
I want to turn this on its head.  From my position, a man working for a living is not a last resort situation or one for losers but for the vast majority of Jewish men it is the ideal.
Now before I go on I will be clear.  This approach is not for every single Jewish man.  There are always those gifted and saintly individuals whose destiny is to ensure that the Torah is well understood and interpreted for our nation, who benefit us the most when they sit and learn full-time.  Most people who sit in yeshivah are not those people and I don't think it's hard to figure that out.  Once again, the ideal position for all but the select few is to work.
Don't believe me?  Take a look through Tanach.  Find me a prominent figure from Avraham Avinu, a"h, on down who eschewed work and lived off charity or his wife's family's money.  Who said "I'll sit and learn and she can work for a living while also looking after the kids"?
Scroll through the Talmud.  How many of our holy Sages deliberately threw off the yoke of labour to sit and learn all day?  And opposite them how many somehow managed to engage in various trades and professions to support themselves while they learned?
We also have the many statements of Chazal on the subject.  People in the kollel world love to quote the statement about the Tanna who announced that he would only teach his son Torah but again, opposite it how many statements extolling the value of labour, work and financial independence are there?  Does the Talmud emphasize living off tzedakah or contributing to it?
If the performance of mitzvos is the key to life in this and the Next world, then is sitting all day and learning Torah alone the best way to be or out there in the world engaging in the performance of mitzvos?  How many rules do we have about work and business?  How else can we perform them if not through engaging in trades and professions?  When it comes to bein adam l'makom we run to the slightest chumrah to show our love of the Ribono shel Olam and not running in such a fashion is seen as a lack of enthusiasm or faith.  How many opportunities to we have to fulfill His will when it comes to bein adam l'makom when we engage in practical business?  Why is running to perform them considered demeaning or less desirable?
Is there any greater activity than learning Torah?  Absolutely not and no one should question this but just because talmud Torah is the most important mitzvah it cannot be the only mitzvah.  The Ribono shel Olam gave us 613 mitzvos and I'm willing to bet it wasn't simply for theoretical study purposes but to live a complete life in this world according to His dictates and will.  How can we say that we want to live a lifestyle where we make the performance of those mitzvos impossible because we're focusing on a single one?
If one wants to be living the ideal life the Torah demands of us, then the highest level one can reach is one that balances Torah study and work.  Only in that way do we maximize both the obligations of lilmod and la'asot. There is no question that this is what our ancestors in Biblical times did.  There is no question that the vast majority of Chazal and most of the subsequent authorites prior to 1948 held this way as well.  By engaging in a life of Torah study and work we emulate them and show our desire to strive to reach spiritual heights in this world and the Next.
In our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) the k'lei kodesh didn't sit on the shelves looking pretty.  Their existence wasn't all that matters.  They had a job to do and they did it every day.  We who work, we have a claim to the title and it's time we demanded it.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Was He A Good Yishmael Or A Bad Yishmael?

"And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, who she had borne unto Avraham, making sport.  Wherefore she said unto Avraham: 'Cast out this bondwoman and her son for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Yitchak". (Bereshis 21:9-10)

Rashi on this verse brings a couple of midrashim to explain what Sarah Imeinu saw and what "making sport" means.  Briefly, the first midrash connects the word "sport" (metzachek) with the three cardinal sins in Judaism: idolatry, illicit nookie and murder and accuses Yishmael of being guilty of each.  The second midrash says that Yishmael took Yitzchak out on a play date but then tried to shoot him through with arrows while pretending that he was just playing a game with him.  In either case it's clear that Sarah Imeinu saw a clear and present danger to Yitzchak Avinu and felt she had to take definitive action to prevent future problems.
There is a difficult with this understanding.  While lost in the desert and dying of thirst, God gives a revelation to Hagar and promises to save Yishmael.  "And God heard the voice of the lad and the angel of God called out of Heaven and said unto her: 'What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not for God has heard the voice of the law where he is." (Bereshis 21:17)
On this verse Rashi once again brings a midrash in which the angels contest God's decision to save Yishmael from thirst by bringing up a well for him.  They note that in the future his descendants would mistreat our ancestors through thirst.  God is noted to reply that while this might be the case, in the here and now (or, I guess, the there and then) Yishmael was righteous and could not be punished for sins yet uncommitted.
It doesn't take much to see the contradiction here.  God declared Yishmael righteous even though the whole reason he was in the desert dying of thirst in the first place was because Sarah Imeinu was worried about how wicked he was.  Which is it?
Further, if Yishmael was guilty of murder, incest and idolatry, why did the angels not accuse him of them instead of going after the future sins of his descendants?
Rav Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, zt"l, takes issue with the use of the word "tzadik" in the midrash.  According to the standard understanding of the word God asks the angels: "Is he righteous right now or not?"  The angels are compelled to answer "Righteous".  However, Rav Sheinberg translates "tzadik" not as "righteous" but as "innocent", a less frequent but not rare use of the word.  Thus God was asking the angels "Has he actually killed anyone yet?  Is he guilty or innocent?" and the angels had to answer "Innocent".
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit"a, brings a different answer from a legal perspective.  He reminds us that while a man becomes an adult under halacha at the age of 13 he is only answerable to the court from the age of 20. Yishmael, depending on who you ask, was 15 or 17 at the time of this incident.  Therefore, despite being guilty of the three cardinal sins of Judaism he could not yet be punished for them.  That's why the angels didn't accuse him of those sin but instead mentioned future events.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Because It's A Duty

One of the things I don't like about kiruv is how it tries to emphasize the "fun" and "rewarding" parts of Judaism as reasons to become religious.  Look at the programs Aish and Ohr put on, the assurances they make about the benefits of a religious lifestyle.  Look at the parties Chabad loves to put on with alcohol flowing like water and endless singing and eating.  The assurance is all there: become a religious Jew and life gets better.  You connect with your heritage!  You get more spiritual!  And that's why you want to become religious!
Except that it's not true.  Life doesn't get better.  You don't necessarily connect with your heritage and spiritualism is hit and miss depending on what kind of a person you are.
Now the opposite isn't true either.  Life doesn't get worse, for example, when you're religious.  Maybe once upon a time it did but considering how well Jews have become integrated into modern society and the abundance of kosher food and other necessities for religious life it's really not that much of a burden to be frum nowadays, at least until the tuition bill for your child's cheder arrives.
So then why do it?  Why do I do it?
Because it's a duty and a sense of duty is what makes a person's life more meaningful.
I don't like modern kiruv tactics because they play into exactly what's wrong with Western civilization and why it's on the decline.  When it comes to rights and responsibilities the West has indulged itself in the former since the Enlightenment and tried to rub away any traces of the latter at the same time.  The United States has a Bill of Rights but no Bill of Responsibilities.  Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms but no corresponding document detailing Responsibilities and Obligations.
Why does this matter?  I would suggest that the emphasis on rights over responsibilities is one factor is why so much of Orthodoxy seems to be going in either no direction or the wrong one.
On the surface of it, that sounds absurd.  After all, isn't an Orthodox lifestyle one duty after another from dawn to night?  Don't we spend the entire day doing one routine or ritual after another?  From Modeh Ani to krias Shema at night, it's one thing after another.  How could I suggest we don't take duty seriously?
I think the answer is because we don't really see it as a duty.  We give lip service to the idea, of course, with every Baruch Hashem! we shout but how much of what we do is because we like the idea of what we're doing?  We show up in shul because we like the social aspect.  We wear big, fancy talleisim and $1500 sets of tefillin because we like how it looks.  We grab every last chumra we can find not because we're so worried about what God will think.  We're worried about the neighbours.  Will they think us deficient?  Do we want to outfrum the Jonesbergs? 
In a strange way, our affluence has negatively affected our Judaism.  It's one thing to live a happy, kosher life in a community where there's plenty of restaurants and well-stocked supermarkets, surrounded by people who don't particularly care about one's religious affiliation and in a society where one's religious rights are protected by law.  We start to take things for granted.  We start to assume we're entitled to certain things that previous generations saw as luxuries or unattainable.  And it spoils us.
There is a different reason to keep the mitzvos but it doesn't sound sexy like the Aish approach.  It's word which is dirty in our society: duty.  It's not fun and games that makes me walk to shul in the pouring rain on a cold November morning.  It's not the calorie content that makes me walk past the Pizza Pizza display in the mall without stopping.  And it's not a fear of gallstones that keeps me from having some ice cream a couple of hours after a steak dinner.
It sounds joyless and really, duty is joyless because it's not about personal satisfaction.  It's about maturity.  It's about saying that one's personal needs and desires need to be put aside because of more important responsibilities.  It's about saying "I want it but I can't have it right now and I accept that", not something society around us gives much value to.
Look around at our frum society and you'll see too much of it.  On the right, we have every increasing stringencies in all areas of life made possible only by our affluence.  Honestly, would the kollel culture be 1% of what it is without the generosity of the Israeli treasury or the welfare system here in North America?  How many people would insist on only cholov Yisroel and super-triple-mehadrin meat if it cost ten times the price it currently does?  And how many people would say you need a fluorescent light bug checker from Artscroll as a minimum for checking your vegetables if such a device was prohibitively expensive?  We have taken the really good times life has afforded us and used them to make a Torah lifestyle more and more difficult.  And why?  So we can pat ourselves on the back and say "Look how frum we are".
This is wrong.  This is not being frum.
Frum is wondering if one has given enough to charity each month.  It's showing up early at shul on the night of the blizzard because you want to be sure they got a minyan not because you need it but because the old guy who sits down the bench from you is saying kaddish and you know he'll make the effort.  Frum is looking around shul for someone who looks lonely and inviting him for Shabbos dinner.  It's taking the $30 000 you were going to spend on your kid's simcha and spending 2/3 of it on something your community needs so that the kid learns that giving to others is the best present to ask for.  Frum is being polite and modest and modest isn't about sleeve length.  It's about knowing one's true significance in the grand scheme of things and not trying to act like one is higher up than that.
None of that is sexy or spectacular and much of them it's not that personally satisfying.  But it is what Judaism demands of us.  The Prophets didn't rebuke our ancestors over their lack of black hats or not-quite-elbow length sleeves.  They reminded us of our responsibility to our fellows.  Being machmir in anticipating and meeting the needs of others without a concern of "what's in it for me" is the only really chumra we should be worrying about.
We need to step back and see the forest beyond the leaves and twigs we're all so conscientiously focused on.  We need to see the grander purpose and do a real chesbon hanefesh on how close to that purpose our daily activities bring us?  Are we living a live of faux-kedushah by rote or a real life of holiness through determined actions?
When we begin to do this, all the other stuff we learn and do will come to have meaning.  Until then, we are no different than the nations around us no matter how much we pretend to be.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Consumed By Work

I know, I know, I haven't posted in a while.
There's a few reasons.  One is that it's Elul.  I have lots of ideas but it seems this is just the wrong time of year to whinge and complain about things.  I wanted to write a piece on how metzizah b'peh is driving me crazy what with the hysterical response by the Agudah community to a minor suggestion by the city of New York to require signed consent before performing it.  I had some ideas for a piece on how the appointment of Rabbi Asher Lopatin to run Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is just another step in that community's eventual exit from Orthodoxy and into right-wing Conservatism.  And there's always stuff to comment on about what's going in Israel and the Middle East.
But it just doesn't seem to be the right time for it.
Maybe I've been overwhelmed with work and home responsiblities.  Maybe I'm just tired.  Maybe I'm just more worried about the next few days what with my neshamah about to be judged by the King of the Universe at all.  It's just that blogging doesn't seem to be a huge priority for me right now.
So keep checking once in a while and I will be back.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Knowledge Does Not Equal Piety

One of the common fallacies that most frum Jews believe in is that intense learning and deep knowledge of Torah are equivalent to piety.  One looks at many great Jewish leaders whose personal behaviour might have been less than exemplary in some fashion but concludes that they must have been pious because they are so learned.  This is some notion that has to be disabused.
For one thing, learning in and of itself is not a final value.  The purpose of learning is twofold.  First there is the need to know how to practically behave within the parameters of halacha.  The second is to develop a relationship with God.  We are told by the Torah that we must be kadosh because God Himself is kadosh.  Chazal tell us that the best way to engage in imitatio dei is to copy those things we call His middos.  He clothes the poor so we do.  He visits the sick so we do but the best way to come to any understanding of who He is, as if that were possible, is to learn His Torah.  Ultimately God is the most positive moral force in existence and therefore it is our duty to emulate Him and become positive moral forces ourselves.  The learning is to help us get there. Learning without progression in that direction would therefore seem to have far less value.
As a result, it should be obvious that there is no necessary connection between learning and piety.  The former is necessary for the latter to be developed in its fullness but the latter does not necessarily appear even after copious amounts of the former if the learning is not done to that end.
For another thing, consider that the word "pious" is quite malleable.  One example I like to recall appears in Solomon Grayzel's A History of the Jews in which he comments that for many centuries a Pope's piety was measured by how much he persecute the Jews of Chrisendom.
Take, for example, the Satmar Rebbe.  Here was a man who was undoubtedly a genius and one of the defining halachic authorities of his generation.  He was obsessed with reaching a level of perfection in his performance of mitzvos.  His attention to even the most minute details in a given situation is legendary.
He also abandoned all his followers in Hungary, running away to safety while leaving them to die with empty words of encouragement about how their learning and tefillos would protect them.  He saved his neck by using Zionist help and spent the rest of his life condemning those Zionists while building up a philosophy in which God never helps us but only sends us punishment which means that anything good that happens is a trick of the Satan, not a sign of His mercy.  His followers today openly side with enemies that seek to wipe out our State and even when signs of division will result in damage to the Jewish nation they continue to protest to show they're separate from us kofrim.
He was learned but was he really pious?  And if you say he was pious, what exactly is your definition?  Does he boil down to "Well he learned a lot and he was medakdek about all the mitzvos"?  Does the phrase "And he was a genuinely nice and loving guy to everyone" fit in there somewhere?
Learning must be done for a simple reason: to become a better person.  Not a more medakdek person, not a more obsessively precise about minutiae person, but to become a better, more decent and loving person.  All the learning in the world that does not lead to that end would seem to mean little since it failed to accomplished what it was meant to.

Thursday 9 August 2012

What Learning Has Value

With the recent completion of the Daf Yomi cycle we have all heard the expected shouts of "Kol hakavod!" which is not surprising considering the herculean task that completing the Talmud Bavli in seven and a half years.  Indeed, kol hakavod to everyone who has persisted through, many for the third and fourth times in their lives.
But mixed in with all the praise are some grumpy refrains. Statements like "Well learning the daf isn't really learning because it's too superficial" or "There's no real benefit to going through the English in the Artscroll" get bandied about here and there.  Is there any merit to these statements?
I would suggest that there is not.  I think people who state things like this have no clue what real learning is.  Let me enlighten you.
In his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, states that the goal of Jewish behaviour is the maximum dissemination of Torah.  The more Torah Jews know, the better.  Not the more Vilna Shas pages, not the more Rishonim in particular, but the more Torah.  This is in consonance with various statements from the Chazal about the obligation to learn Torah based on the pasuk in Yehoshua stating that we should be learning it day and night.  Someone who simply recites qrias Shema can, in the right circumstance, be said to have learned Torah; how much more so someone who sits and goes through a daf of Gemara every day.
I think one reason this idea is often forgotten is because of the access to information people have nowadays when it comes to learning.  Remember that this was before Artscroll and Feldheim made the English-Hebrew learning experience we have today so commonplace.  Go back only thirty years and what resources were available to a person who couldn't spend all day learning with an experienced Rav?  Or to someone who became chozer b'teshuvah?  When it came to Talmud there was only the Soncino edition which, while a huge accomplishment, isn't the most user-friendly way to start learning.  When it came to halacha there was the English translation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.  And there was a venerable English-Hebrew Chumash with Rashi.  Not much more.
As a result, those people who learned Talmud could proudly look around at the high level they were accomplishing.  Even just doing the daf yomi was an exceptional achievement in that environment.  But things have changed.  When it comes to English and Hebrew speakers there are multiple options available for the new learner.  New commentaries in Chumash, Talmud and halacha make once elite sources now accessible to everyone.  Is this perhaps why the bar has been raised?
Keep in mind the following: yes, we are all of us obliged to learn Torah to the best of our ability.  More than kashrus and other Jewish behaviours, a fixed routine of learning Torah is what defines us as frum Jews.  However, we are not all of us obliged to become poskim and sometimes I think people forget this especially as a result of the ease of access of important learning materials.
An average shlub like me, for example, does not need to know if the Rashba didn't like the Ritva's take on the Ramban's analysis of the Rif on an obscure subject in the back of Bava Metzia somewhere.  An average shlub like me needs to know how to behave properly al pi halacha on any given day and something about why we behave in that kind of way.  This is not meant to depreciate the importances of deeper learning, chas v'shalom.  The more the better, the more depth the greater, it goes without saying but the idea that one is not learning Gemara unless one spends three months on a single sugya is ludicrous.  For some folks, yes, anything less is not really learning but for many of us it doesn't enhance our limud Torah experience.
What do I recommend as a "real" learning schedule for the average shlub?  Do an aliyah of Chumash a day, starting with the first aliyah on Shabbos afternoon so you finish on Friday afternoon.  Do a daf a day of Mishnah Berurah or Aruch HaShulchan (I'm preferable to the latter but Feldheim has a Hebrew-English version out) and a daf of Gemara in any format that makes sense, either in Hebrew, Hebrew-English or even just plain English.
Don't let people think that you're not really learning because you don't do it the way "they" did it in the alte heim.  The goal is a person learning as much as he can in the short time he has in This World.  All that matters in that we give it our most honest effort.