Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

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.