Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Just Like Everyone Else

Hat Tip: The Rebbitzen's Husband

Sometimes things happen that just make you wonder: what was this guy thinking?  As a follow up to the previous post, I would like to discuss this article from The Forward which deals with another Morethodox rabbi who, caught between doing "the right thing" and following halacha chose to do the former.
What was once an auspicious future leading Maine’s Jewish community became an uncertain world filled with passions almost entirely and forever out of reach. But then a hand reached out from the blurry abyss. Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, of Portland’s Modern Orthodox synagogue Shaarey Tphiloh, straddled the denominational aisle and invited Goldfinger to help him lead Friday night services and say Kaddish for her mother, who died when Goldfinger was 15.
The nine-mile drive to Shaarey Tphiloh from Goldfinger’s home is too far for her to make on her own, so we rode together — past Portland’s tree-lined streets and New England-style homes. Herzfeld greeted us at the synagogue, with open arms and fresh pita made by a local Iraqi refugee. Then he led us inside to talk.
“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to be a female Reform rabbi. I thought, what if I were her and she was me? I would want him to ask me to lead services,” said Herzfeld, 34, who joined Shaarey Tphiloh, Maine’s oldest synagogue, five years ago. He spoke effortlessly, almost motionlessly, his red hair and pale skin standing out against stained-glass windows behind him. Goldfinger sat nearby, listening to the man who helped guide her spiritual ship of state.
Once again, it is quite clear that Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is not trying to rebel against God, rule against halacha or give the finger to anyone.  I'm willing to bet, in fact, that he's the kind of guy who will let everyone else rush the post-Yom Kippur food table while he stands back so as not to get in anyone's way.  This is therefore not meant to be a personal criticism of him.
There is so much in this story it's hard to know where to begin but it's easy to know where to end.
One of the things that bothers non-Orthodox folks about the frum world is our lack of acceptance of non-Orthodox practices as being genuinely Jewish.  We are not like Chrisians who, while they spread across dozens of denominations, don't deny that other groups are legitimately Chrisian as well.  We Orthodox do.  We don't think that non-Orthodox rabbis are real rabbis.  We don't think it's okay to have mixed seating at services and we don't think that driving to shul is more important than keeping Shabbos properly.  It's not that we don't do such things.  We think it's wrong for other Jews to do it, especially when they create a hyphenated Judaism for themselves and say that in their version of Judaism it's okay.
And this lack of acceptance is one of the hallmark features of Orthodoxy.  You don't want to keep kosher?  That's between you and God but don't tell me and expect my response to be "Well that's perfectly fine". 
It seems to me that this is where Morthodoxy diverges from Orthodoxy.  Reading this story one gets the feeling that Rabbi Herzfield, while personally committed  to halacha in his own life, does not see that Orthodoxy does demand a certain judgementalism, that he can tolerate different "streams" of Judaism without having to accept their legitimacy.  For him there is Jewish moral relativism.  A rabbi is a rabbi is a rabbi in his worldview so he would have little problem, his meagre protestations in the article notwithstanding, treating her as "one of the crowd".  It would be no different, one imagines, if a Conservative rabbi visited a Reform temple or vice versa.  Herzfield, in a dealous effort to be empathic and kind, has reinterpreted Orthodoxy to allow in those for whom the Torah is a nice book but certainly not authentic or authoritative.
One can be welcoming and tolerant, after all, without going too far.  A kind welcome, a mention that there was a distinguished visitor, letting the visitor say kaddish, all this could have been done but despite Herzfield saying he was going out of his comfort zone in letting Alice Goldfinger lead services one gets the feeling that the opposite was happening.  This was a chance to be progressive, inclusive, to make a positive impression on someone non-Orthodox and he was going to grab the opportunity.
That no one in his congregation complained is hardly a surprise either.  If this is how he practices his rabbinical position the folks who care about proper Orthodoxy probably decamped to the Chabad shul a while ago.
It seems therefore that we finally have a definition of Morthodoxy that pushes them out of genuine Orthodoxy.  The moral relativism that places halachic Jewish observance on the same level as make-it-up-as-you-go Judaism would be the breaking point.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Obsession Continues

Every Jewish group these days seems to have its own obsession, its own focus which defines how it achieves its self-imagined holiness and dveikus.  For some in the Torah world it's a never-ending fascination with emulating the Taliban and creating a society in which women are invisible, voiceless beings good only for popping out babies once a year or so.  For others it's a desire to create an Orthodoxy that is academic and won't be laughed at by the atheoskeptics.
But for the Morethodox it's all about women and gays.  More specifically, it's about figuring out ways for open lesbians to have aliyos while leading Kabbalas Shabbos.  Thus the latest post by Rabbi Haym Shafner and his earnest and never-ending attempts to bring open homosexuality into Orthodoxy.
Now on one hand there is no question that Rabbi Shafner's obsession with egalitarianism and alternative lifestyle equality is born of a sense of decency and fairness.  He is not trying to rebel against God, Torah and halacha.  Far from it.  He is simply trying to reconcile the strong secular liberal values he holds when it comes to these areas with a Torah-approach that is hostile.  He does not wish to jettison either so he has to choose to adjust one of them and it's quite clear that he will choose adjusting halacha before anything else.
Certainly he engages in a lot of self-delusion when he tries to create the impression that halacha is only minimally opposed to homosexual practices.  His refusal to recognize that incest and homosexuality are pretty much both condemned by the Torah for being very wrong is only the most egregious of the many errors he makes in order to avoid getting answers he doesn't want to deal with.
And one has to ask: what's his endgame?  What is he hoping to accomplish?
Is it to create a shul environment in which an openly homosexual congregant can come in, sit down and interact with others in a respectful fashion?  Well one would hope that this would already be the case although reality shows us that certain prejudices run deep and negative treatment of folks enamoured of certain sexual preferences rarely get treated the way other folks, like mechalelei Shabbos do. 
Rabbi Shafner tries to make the argument that there are other congregants guilty of major sins, financial or ritual, that still receive respectful treatment and get kibudim in Orthodox shuls.  This is certainly true but on the other hand a guy who drove to shul on Shabbos rarely waves his car keys over his head as he walks down to the bimah to get his aliyah. The guy who stopped at MacDonalds on the way to services doesn't walk into the sanctuary dropping restaurant napkins everywhere or saying "Egg McMuffin!  Smell my breath!" to the guy sitting next to him.
So if a homosexual male or female, dressed in appropriate attire for shul walks in and sits down exactly how does his sexual proclivity come into play?  If he's acting like everyone else in the crowd then why is his bedroom preference relevant? 
What's more, if he's really an intelligent and committed Jew then where does he sit in shul?  This comes up every time we hear about a gay Orthodox Shabbaton or other prayer program.  The purpose of the mechitzah, after all, is to keep men from looking at women in a lascivious fashion.  Now you have this guy who has the same type of attraction but to men.  Should he be sitting in the men's section?  Isn't that forbidden to him as much as it is for a heterosexual male to sit on the women's side?  And if he avoids this issue and just quietly sits in the men's section then how serious is his commitment to being frum? Isn't he simply just going through the motions?
The love that once dared not speak its name has, in recent decades with the support of secular liberals, become the love that has to scream about it out loud day and night and shove it in the face of everyone who disagrees with it.  Creating a "gay and Orthodox" Jewish movement runs the risk of bringing that dysfunctional dynamic into the Torah community.  What purpose would it serve other than to create a group whose primary demand would be "Change the Torah to accomodate us!"?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Majority Rules?

One of the arguments raised by Rav Tzadok, may he remain healthy and successful, against legitimizing indirect metzitzah b'peh was that the vast majority of poskim oppose anything other than direct MBP and that all contemporary poskim oppose it.
Now leave aside that this isn't true. A significant number of poskim, several of them leaders of their generations, approved of indirect MBP.   There are also numerous poskim in both North America and Europe who approve of indirect MBP especially in light of the frequency of herpes transmission as well as a growing fear of governments outlawing ritual circumcision if indirect MBP isn't used.
Here's the biggest question, one born of cynicism and a knowledge of the history of the last 150 years: since the ending of the Sanhedrin around 2000 years ago (may it be speedily reconvened) has Judaism become a democracy in which majority votes rule?  Did someone create a parliament?  Which rabbonim get to sit in it and who chooses them?
Let's look at the controversy surrounding the definition of death, especially when it comes to organ transplants.  There are large numbers of important poskim on both sides of the issue (although just like with metztizah b'peh you'll often hear a proponent for the cardiac death side saying "all the poskim agree with me") but if you expand the eligibility definition I am quite certain you'll find that the definition of death as being brain stem death has far more supporters than the cardiac definition.  Should majority rule?  Should we tell the poskim on the cardiac death side that their opinion no longer has any authority and that their views are invalid al pi halacha?
Well I'm not going to go and tell them.  Any volunteers?
What's more, let's consider one particular issue in which the majority of great poskim were on one side and a minority on the other: fleeing Europe when the Nazis, y"sh, threatened Europe's Jews.  Never forget that most European rabbis opposed Zionism and any attempts by their followers to run away either to Israel or America.  How many people stayed put on the advice of their well-meaning posek who insisted that prayer, faith and submission to the Germans would save their lives?  How many of them actually lived?  Majority rule?  Doesn't always work.
What's more, we're all well aware of the mishnah in Eduyos that explains why Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi recorded minority and divergent opinions for posterity, because times might arise in which they would be needed to be relied upon.  So even if something is a minority position and not accepted halacha the situation might arise that makes it so. Might I be so bold as to suggest that the rise of sexually transmitted diseases present during metzitzah b'peh be worthy of consideration, especially when we're not talking about abolishing MBP but simply adjusting it a little to make it safer while maintaining the fundamental elements of the procedure?
Finally, there is something called Daas Hedyot, as noted a couple of years ago by Rav Harry Maryles.  In short, it is the common sense of ours, the unwashed masses.  The post noted several instances over the last century where the common sense of the masses turned out to be smarter than the official Daas Torah position.  We also know Daas Hedyot has some validity from the Gemara in which Hillel, stumped by his colleagues for how to handle a situation of carrying when erev Pesach fell on Shabbos decided to see what the people coming to the Temple with their sacrifices did.  The shomer mitzvos community, when left to its own devices, can often come up with acceptable solutions and this helped Hillel solve the problem.
Well let's use common sense.  Ask any reasonable parent whether, given two options both supported by numerous poskim, he'd prefer the one that gives his child a chance at catching an incurable virus that might leave the infant very ill or the method that avoids it while maintaining the requirements of the mitzvah.  What do you think he or she will say if not pressured by the local askanim?
And really, that's what it comes down to for us on the indirect MBP side.  We are saying we want a safe MBP.  They are saying they want to endanger our children for the sake of tradition.  Which side does common sense lie on?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Fundamental Jewish Value

The problem with any revolution or movement based on novel idea or single principle is that with time dedication to that position overshadows a commitment to the greater values that lead to its development.
How many mass movements have become the victim of success and single-mindedness?  How many revolutions ended with the victors becoming as tyranical as the dictator they replaced?
In the last 300 years two major movements came to dominate Ashkenazic Jewry - the Yeshivish philosophy of the Vilna Gaon, ztk"l and his primary student, Reb Chaim Volozhiner, ztk"l, and the Chasiddic ideology of the Baal Shem Tov, ztk"l.
The Misnagdim of the Yeshivish community believed in the importance of Torah learning. Closeness to God, as defined by Reb Chaim Volozhiner, came through intense learning of Torah Lishmah.  The Chassidim, on the other hand, sought out dveikus through ectasy (the emotion, not the drug), happiness and celebrating one's relationship with the Creator.
While there is a great validity to both approaches the limitations are quite evident in today's Orthodox community.  On the Yeshivish side the original learning of Torah Lishmah has been slowly corrupted into learning for the sake of avoiding the real world's obligations.  Look at the responses from the Yeshivish community when the perceived right to sit and learn on the State of Israel's shekel is challenged.
On the Chassidic side the strong emotional tendencies of the movement have changed from joy and celebration into anger and xenophobia.  Consider the violent outbursts from communities in response to challenges from the outside world or even just a woman in  a tank top who wandered into the wrong neighbourhood.
Yes, there are many adherents to both movements who remain committed to the original ideals of their respective founders but the public face of both groups has changed and not for the positive.  Like any mass movement, a particular value came to represent everything and the original reasons for that value have been forgotten.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, ztk"l, made attempts to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of the Yeshivah community and Chassidus through his philosophy and his writings.  A product of both worlds, he wrote ina way that was a synthesis of the best values of each.    But it is clear, a century or so later, that much of what he hoped for was lost on the masses.  Both the Yeshivish and the Chassidim have ignored him and the Religious Zionist community, for the most part, has concentrated more on his Zionist thinking than on the meta-issue of religious philosophy.
Perhaps it's time for another try.  I'm not suggesting I'm interested in starting a mass movement.  I'm no revolutionary and besides, I have a day job that pays really well.  But I do think it's time to suggest something and get people thinking about it.
Consider: Gratitude.
Over the millenia we have had great Jewish thinkers present many rationales for keeping the mitzvos.  We have had many ideas presented as to how to motivate the Jewish public and bring about achdus.  As our current miserable situation in golus proves, none of them have taken off.
Think about all the books on middos improvement from the Rishonim and Acharonim.  Consider all the sifrei mussar out there.  They were written by brilliant and pious men, they are logically presented and widely read but how many of them really had a mass impact?
I often listen to shiurim while I'm driving in the car and am struck with the disconnect older rebbeim have with their students.  A mature adult understands the value of Torah lishmah and appreciates the opportunity to learn in such a manner.  A 14 year old boy often doesn't.  This is understandable.  What's not understandable is the rebbe saying "I don't see why you're not as excited about this as I am!  What's wrong with you?  Why would you rather look out the window or play baseball than figure out the Ritv"a on this blatt?"  I wonder how many OTD's there are out there because of rebbeim who think that the best way to motivate a teenager or even a younger kid is to tell him there's something wrong if he doesn't find in-depth Gemara learning or davening an amazing and inspiring experience.
How then to motivate?  Again consider: gratitude.
One of the biggest causes of depression that I run across in my daily work is ingratitude.  Not that people are consciously being that way, mind you, but in our modern society it seems to be standard for many folks to always focus on what they don't have instead of what they do have.
I have one patient, for example, that suffers terribly from this.  She lives in a beautiful apartment, is financially secure, has a daughter married to a successful plumber and a handful of healthy, well-behaved grandchildren.  But if you met her you'd think she was living a life of misery... because of the arthritis in her knee.  Not both knees, just one but it's all she cares about.  Everything else in her life means nothing because her knee hurts.  She could just die!  Life's not worth living!  There's nothing good out there!
So again: gratitude.
You could tell a 14 year old boy who doesn't like getting up in the early morning to daven that there's something wrong with him.  You could shout at him that he's not motiovated or that he's going to be committing an aveirah by missing z'man krias shema
But perhaps another approach would work.  You could remind him of all that he has, like his family, his pesonal possessions, his health, his living in a peaceful society where the rule of law usually runs things and that the root cause, the ultimate reason for all this is the chesed of the Ribono shel Olam
When it comes to Torah study it could also be applied.  Imagine telling a young man that his reason to learn is because the Ribono shel Olam gives him so much and all He asks in return is for him to learn about Him and His works in the Torah and Talmud.  He's not learning Torah because he must, because he has no choice, because it's what everyone is doing, because of what the neighbours will say, but because he recognizes what He has done for him and it's only right to give a little back.
You can argue with someone about the importance of keeping kosher or Shabbos until you're blue in the face and it won't work.  Might the approach of reminding him that it's pretty much universally recognized that giving back to someone who has given you something is a positive trait have a better effect?
This also could go beyond such narrow interests.  Look at the surrounding Jewish community.  Too often our Orthodoxy builds walls between us and our non-observant brethren.  We see what divides us and miss all we have in common.  Yet it cannot be ignored that without them we would not exist.  What kind of amazing, growing and prosperous Chareidi would there be in Israel without the hard work of the secular Israeli taxpayers and soldiers?  What kind of Jewish community would exist in North America without the money and organizations run by the secular Jews here?  No, we don't have to agree with their definitions of Judaism but we can recognize that we have much in common with them and focus on that.
Imagine what would happen in Israeli society tomorrow if yeshivos were to start preaching to their students that they much acknowledge all the good Israel as a country and a society has done for them without harping on the bad.  What would that do for the average secular Jew's perception of Torah Judaism?  How would that change the inner nature and character of the Chareidi Jew?
What kind of changes would we see in an education system in which motivation to learn and pray is through wanting to thank God instead of living up to the expectations of others?  How would that enhance the individual's feeling of self and desire to be part of Torah society?
It's not as intense as Torah Lishmah and lacks the pizazz of dveikus but perhaps Hakaras HaTov as a fundamental philosophy is something we need to start thinking about.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Liar, Liar, Shtreiml On Fire

The ongoing debate over the medical safety and halachic necessity of metzitzah b'peh (MBP) in the Jewish world is not showing signs of abating any time soon.  Every time another report of an infant infected with herpes on his male organ most likely as the result of contact with an infection mohel's mouth reaches the news the flames of controversy swirl up again.
It is important to take a step back and clarify terms.  As people with a fanatical devotion to any religious position will ensure happens, terms of reference often get muddied up, the better to accuse opponents of crimes they have no intention of committing and thereby avoiding serious debate on the subject.
Therefore let me be up front with my definitions.  I have no interest in abolishing MBP.  I am not stating that it is a halachically recommended part of the bris milah process.  Clear?
I also would like to point out there are four options when it comes to MBP.  First, there is the option of not doing it.  This is not as outrageous as some would like to portray it.  First of all, the Gemara makes it clear that it holds metzitzah to not be an essential part of the circumcision process which it ends with p'riah, the retraction of the membrane over the glans.  The purpose of metzitzah is one of hygeine and health safety following the procedure.  The Gemara also recommends, for example, putting cumin powder on the incision which is not something we do anymore and no one suggests it is an inviolable part of the bris milah.  Throughout history there have been poskim who have suggested not doing metzizah for various reasons.  They are not in the majority but their authority does carry some weight.
A second option is to do it through pressure, for example placing a sponge on the incision and using that to suction blood.  This follows the letter of the requirement precisely.  According to the Gemara it is the removal of blood from the incision that creates the health benefit and the sponge does it.
The third option is do to the time-honoured act of direct MBP which involves lip-to-penis contact and the use of inhalatory suction to pull the blood out.  The final one is to do the same thing but with an intervening sterile device like a syringe barrel or pipette.
The problem is that the importance of metzitzah and how it's performed does not end with the Gemara.  In the Zohar and other Kabbalistic literature metzitzah takes on a whole new importance and becomes an essential part of the bris milah procedure.  And not just any old way but direct MBP and nothing else aligns the sefiros and brings forth the heavenly shefa that the baby needs.
As a result nowadays we are often presented with the position that direct MBP is not only the oldest form of metzitzah but that it's an unqualified fact that it's the only way to properly do it.
This is not true.  When one investigates the halachic literature one finds multiple poskim, many of whom post-date the "appearance" of the Zohar, that hold like the Gemara and do not see it as essential.  Others hold it is necessary but that it can be done with the sponge or pipette techniques and still be valid.  Again, these authorities are more than balanced by those demanding direct MBP but they are still impressive in number and count among themselves many important Torah leaders.  In other words it is not heretical to hold that indirect MBP is permissible.
Enter the herpes virus.
Herpes simplex is a nasty little virus.  It comes in two basic flavours.  Traditionally type 1 was associated with cold sores and type 2 with genital lesions.  However, due to people putting their lips in places they don't belong over the last couple of centuries there is now plenty of overlap between the two.  Most importantly, herpes is transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact and can shed from one person to another in the absence of a visible cold sore or blistering rash.  In other words, a mohel who, on Thursday will develop a cold sore on his lower lip will be contagious at the bris he performs on Monday.  After a suitable incubation period the infant will develop a herpes lesion at the site of contact and it will be 100% the mohel's fault.
So now the halachic debate begins.  If the purpose of MBP is to prevent health complications but it itself has to potential to harm the infant then how can it be performed?  If MBP is an essential part of the bris milah for mystical reasons then is the risk of herpes transmission acceptable in order to do the circumcision correctly?
There is ample support in our legal literature for the direct MBP position.  What is truly a shame and what shows the weakness of direct MBP's supporters is their refusal to deal with the problem of herpes.  Like historical revisionists who repaint history to support a pre-determined "We were all Chareidi until those blasted Reformers showed up" version the supporters of MBP resort to scientific revisionism in order to avoid the nasty implications their position implies.  Hence we have Rav Avi Shafran's latest piece in which we find the following statement.
Yes, New York Mayor (a.k.a. “Nanny-in-Chief”) Michael Bloomberg, with the assistance of the New York Board of Health, has waged war on metzitza bipeh, claiming that it has been the cause of infections of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (the cold sore virus, carried by most of the population but which can be dangerous in babies). That fact was the extent of Mr. Savage’s research of the issue. But it has been compellingly asserted by objective scientists that the mayor and health board’s claims are without basis in fact
Now I generally try not to be (too) insulting when I disagree with someone on my blog.  In this case I do not think it disrespectful to say this: Avi Shafran is a bold-faced liar.  Period.
First of all, Mayor Bloomberg's "war" on MBP has consisted of asking mohels to get a signed consent from the parents of the infant before direct MBP has been performed.  Secondly, the claims he dismisses as being without basis in fact are actually true.  Shafran is lying, pure and simple.  There is no question as to how herpes simplex is transmitted.  There is no question about its contagiousness in the absence of a visible skin lesion.  To say otherwise is to either be willfully informed or a liar.
Nor is Shafran's bolstering claim of any worth:

New York Westchester Hospital Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Daniel S. Berman, Beth Israel Hospital director of epidemiologic research Dr. Brenda Breuer and Columbia University Professor Awi Federgruen, an expert in quantitative methodology, have all publicly called into serious question the claim that metzitza bipeh represents any quantifiable danger to babies
When challenged by folks about their belief that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that the sun revolves around it instead of the other way around, contrary to the understanding of modern science, Chabadniks often mention a scientist named Velvel Greene.  According to Chabad mythology Greene started off by dismissing the claims of the Rebbe, z"l, about a geocentric universe and other misconceptions based on 2000 year old scientific understandings and ended up believing as the Rebbe did.  Therefore, they conclude, not all scientists believe in a heliocentric universe.  There is authentic support for the Rebbe's position.
Yes, one scientist who, by the way, is not an astronomer.
If Stephen Hawking were to claim tomorrow that he has come to realize that gravity is a fiction or that it's not oxygen that keeps us alive but rather nitrogen his achievements and recognition would not matter.  He would be dismissed for denying scientific fact.  Shafran can find any number of Agudah toadies with medical degrees who are willing to lie or misrepresent scientific facts but that does just change those facts no more than Peter Duesberg was wrong when he claimed that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.
The proponents of direct MBP are probably not comfortable being told that insistence on their position in this day and age exposes defenseless infants to a virus that can cause life-threatening infections.  Unable to refute this opposition rationally they become irrational and deny science.  It does their side no favours to be exposed as liars and revisionists since it also draws into question the process they used in analyzing the halachici literature to come to their staunch direct-MBP-only position.
The saddest part is that the compromise position, indirect MBP, fulfills everything that metzitzah is supposed to accomplish.  There is oral suction, there is drawing of blood from the wound and if the mohel really wants, he can then smear that blood on his lips without ever exposing the baby to any danger.  But what kind of people refuse such an obvious accommodation while threatening harm to an infant and lying about that very danger?

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Second "W" Isn't For Wrestling"

Years ago I met a Reform convert who told me that she liked putting on tefillin every day because it made her feel closer to God while praying.  Shortly after I had the opportunity to see her in her gear and made some observations.  For one thing she wore the head tefillin nice and low on her forehead.  When I pointed out the mistaken position she assured me she was doing it correctly because the Torah said it should be "between your eyes" and the Rabbis came along later and changed it so she was doing what God really wanted.  She had also wrapped her arm strap eight times instead of the customary seven as she didn't feel the first loop, which in her view only served to stabilize the others, counted.
(She also enjoyed bringing her guitar to her synagogue on Shabbos so she could lead people in the group prayers, but I think my point was made).
Tzedek-tzedek, over at his blog, recently put up a post describing his feelings when he sees pictures of the Women of the Wall in their attempts to be manly in their prayers.  Clearly this post evoked a great deal of negative reaction because he's now taken it down and replaced it with an apology.
On one hand, having read the post, I did find it quite strong.  On the other hand I can understand why Tzedek-tzedek had such a response.  One need not look exclusively into the world of traditional religion to see that people with strong beliefs can have strong responses when things they care about are challenged.  Consider the screaming that occurs when anyone in Canada dares say words like "limits on abortion" or "private health care".  How about the insults that begin to fly when someone in a university setting starts a sentence with "I disagree that global warming is occuring..."?  Is it therefore so unexpected that someone who takes his religious faith seriously and with great passion would be deeply offended when he sees a group of people who are, in his eyes, mocking it for their own selfish purposes?
On the other hand I did disagree with his description of the negative emotions seeing the WoW's brings out in him.  I don't think the WoW's should be looked at with hatred, disgust or other derogatory feelings.  Allowing oneself to feel those things does nothing to build up personal character but, more importantly, that's exactly what the WoW's want.
We should stop pretending that this group is about religious freedom.  The recent Sharansky plan for the Kotel in which the main plaza would remain al pi halacha while the Robinson's Arch area would be renovated and egalitarian showed this clearly.  That the frum response would be that no area of the Wall should be non-halachic is not surprising.  The response from the WoW's, that they would take the Robinson's Arch suggestion but still had plans to show up and disrupt prayers at the main plaza, showed what their true intentions have been all along.
There is a fundamental difference between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy when is comes to accepting the legitimacy of other views.  Non-orthodoxy is famously tolerant while Orthodoxy is the diametric opposite.  No Reformative Jew out there I am aware of looks at an Orthodox shul and feels that its form of worship is illegitimate.  They may disagree with separation of the sexes during worship and the limitation of public honours to men but they don't say it's not Judaism.
Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has a relatively rigid system in which right and wrong are defined with precision.  Eating kosher is right.  Eating non-kosher is wrong.  Observing Shabbos as defined by the Shulchan Aruch and subsequent decisors is right.  Driving to shul on Shabbos is wrong.
It is this difference that seems to rankle the feelings of the non-Orthodox and this is understandable.  No sincere person wants to be looked at by a comrade who is doing things differently and be told "You're not doing it right so it doesn't count".  Unfortunately for the non-Orthodox this is exactly what a rejection of Torah observance and the authority of halacha has led to.  You cannot expect to walk up to someone Orthodox, say that you intermarried, eat pork on Mondays and bread on Pesach and get him to say "Well fine, your Judaism is just as real as mine."  It simply will not happen.
It is this resentment that seems to be driving the WoW's.  Their whole presentation is not about religious freedom but about interfering with Orthodoxy.  It's not that they want egalitarian Judaism for themselves.  They can't stand that the Orthodox over on the other side of the mechitzah will not recognize that their religious expression is just as legitimate in the eyes of God as the expression of the shomrei mitzvos.
That is why they have grabbed what Sharansky offered them but without giving up on the reason he had to be called in to broker an agreement in the first place for.
We should feel pity for the Women of the Wall, not anger or hatred.  Here are a group of intelligent, well-meaning women who are looking for a genuine connection with the Ribono shel Olam that have been diverted onto a path in which self-worship and the need to disrupt the prayers of others while hurting their feelings have become principles of faith.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Are There No Real Good Guys Left?

There have been two Battlestar Galactica series on television.  The first ran in the late 1970's, the second in the early 2000's.  Both shared a basic premise in common - the twelve tribes of humanity lived somewhere out in space on twelve planets, each one named for one of the constellations we know of.  The Cylons then show up and destroy all twelve colonies.  Only one military vessel, the Galactica, survives and it leads a ragtag group of civilian ships in search of a legendary thirteenth colony of humanity living on the planet Earth.
The original series only lasted one season (Galactica 1980 did not happen, I repeat: did NOT happen) while the re-imagined series managed to complete the voyage and end the story.  But other than that and the obviously superior special effects used in the latter incarnation there were other significant differences between them.
The main one was in the moral quality of the characters.  In the original series the good guys were pretty much all good.  They were decent, honest, upright men and women dedicated to their jobs, families and loved ones.  If Commander Adama told you he would do something, he'd do it.  He wouldn't be shifty, use deceptive language or try to wheedle his way out of what he'd said.  The other characters were equally trustworthy white knights, the one exception being Starbuck who greatest moral sins included trying to juggle multiple girlfriends and smoking cigars.  Otherwise we were presented with a humanity that represented the best values we believe in fighting against the emotionless, murderous Cylon robot race.
The re-imagined series presented characters that were quite different.  As opposed to their morally pure predecessors these incarnations had plenty of flaws.  They were far more violent, ethically conflicted, likely to cheat on their spouses/partners and ready to backstab if necessary.  The Cylons, excluding their desire to massacre all humans, were far more decent.  They got along with one another, acted in a trustworthy fashion and portrayed a society that desires to progress in ways that would assure mutual benevolence to all its members.  Indeed, by the end of the middle part of the series I was finding myself rooting for the Cylons.  Compared to the humans they seemed far more worthy of victory.
Now in real life I realize that the second series is far more realistic than the first when it comes to describing human nature.  Today on Yom Ha'atzma'ut we remember the great event that the Ribono shel Olam granted us in restoring Jewish sovereignty to His people in His land.  We know from the historical record that those men and women chosen as His agents to bring about this incredible miracle were not the greatest of people when it came to personal ethics and behaviour.  In fact, my father often remarked that the establishment and endurance of the State of Israel is a clear and ongoing proof of God's desire to bring history forward towards the final redemption because if it were really up to the Zionist movement it would either never have happened or immediately collapsed amid all the infighting that was occuring.
I mention all this in response to the recent breaking story that a famous and important American Rav whose grasp of what truth is and what it isn't has recently be shown to be quite shaky.  In summary this Rav created a fictitious identity years ago and was using this identity to publish letters and blog comments in support of his real identity as well as to join the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a very left wing MO group, to follow along on its internal discussion.  When exposed the Rav issued a non-apology which, if taken at face value, shows he does not understand the moral importance of his actions.  He even went as far as to make the statement (assuming the article is accurate, it was in Haaretz after all) that while he knows he was engaging in an untruth he was simply doing what lots of folks do which meant there is nothing wrong with that.
Kind of like how if you cheat on spouse it's not a sin because most people in Western society also do?
One could take this Rav's professional life into account.  He is, in addition to being an important Rav and the head of the largest Beit Din in the United States, also a lawyer and it is well-known that "lawyer" is simply "liar" said with an Irish accent.  Thus this Rav may have been under the impression that his professional responsibilities included engaging in untruths as long as it led to a greater good.  However, I don't find that explanation satisfactory.
More likely is that this Rav fell for what so many in the Orthodox world have in the last while.  As I and others have noted before, the trend in Orthodoxy especially over the last few decades have been to emphasize ritual behaviour while giving lip service to ethical actions.  A person in the Orthodox world is judged by the hat he wears, not by the honesty of his business dealings.  In fact, one often believes that part of the ritual behaviour is justifying ethical weakness in the name of great ritual observance.  One is allowed to cheat on one's taxes just as long as the money goes as a donation to the local Jewish school system, for example.
One might even blame the non-Orthodox Jewish movements for this.  In the absence of ritual adherence the Reformatives have long emphasized moral behaviours, both Jewish and secular in their practice.  Much of Orthodoxy since the rise of Chareidism under the Chasam Sofer, zt"l, is defined by its reaction to the Reformatives.  It is quite possible to blame our ethical decline on this phenomenon.  Are they going to be honest and polite?  We'll show them!
What this Rav did was no different.  I don't doubt he had good intentions when he began his adventures in sockpuppeting but the ends did not justify the means, as the Mishnah in Avos points out.  As a result he has suffered a public humiliation and loss of esteem which is a shame considering his significant scholarship and actions on behalf of Torah Jewry in the United States.  His lack of remorse simply shows that he suffers the ritual-ethical disconnect prevalent in our community.  This must desperately be addressed.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Maybe If They Treated Seriously

I've written before about why many in the frum community don't observe Yom HaShoah in any serious fashion.  To be absolutely clear it's not because of any intent for disrespect for those who died or suffered but survived in that horrible, horrible time.  In fact, it's because many look at Yom HaShoah commemorations and are disappointed by what they see as an insufficient attempt to mark the tragedy that the day is disregarded.
I do not for an instant intend to justify the behaviour of certain menuvalim whose actions a couple of days ago brought much of the Chareidi community into disrespute.  The critical response from the Chareidi community itself, a group known very well for circling the wagons in even extreme situations, shows the depravity of this flock of scum and reminds us not to judge the majority based on the actions of an idiotic tiny minority.
But for many the current format of Yom HaShoah, especially in the golus is insufficient.  Perhaps its because the day wasn't picked by "the Gedolim" but rather by the secular Knesset.  This is a reason but not a great one.  How many MK's were there that were unaffected by the conflagration?  Was their desire to set aside a day of memorial any less important simply because they weren't observant?
Perhaps it's because the full name of the day, Yom HaShoah vehaGevurah, rankles those who remember secular Zionism's strong efforts to create a "new Jew", strong and independent, not like those shtetl losers who marched like sheep into the crematoria.  The Zionists couldn't identify with the rank and file Jew who, surrounded by mighty enemies and without any means of defense, surrendered to his fate.  They could only see common cause with the handful that had the opportunity to pick up arms and resist, even if its was futile. It carries the quiet implication that the real reason for the day wasn't so much the Holocaust as it was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  One can understand why that would be bothersome.
However, what's most disconcerting about the day is how empty of Jewish meaning it is.  In Israel there is a moment of silence and a series of ceremonies.  In golus there is a ceremony at the local temple or JCC that lasts about 90 minutes and consists of speeches and a children's choir singing Ani Ma'amin or something similar.  Five minutes after the proceedings have ended Yom HaShoah is effectively over for the participants.  Ninety minutes?  That's all they give the victims of the Holocaust?
Some folks (I used to be one) would like Yom HaShoah to disappear.  They make the argument that there is already a day set aside for commemorating the tragedies of Jewish history: Tisha b'Av.  While they are correct the rituals of Tisha b'Av focus on the destruction of the Temples (may it be speedily rebuilt).  The other massacres and destruction of Jewish history tend to be seen as secondary.  There are kinnos for the Holocaust on Tisha b'Av as well but only recent machzorim have them so they are not universally said.
Others claim that it is forbidden to create new days of mourning, that we simply don't have the authority to do so which means we're left with Tisha b'Av.  Unfortunately this isn't actually true.  The greatest example is the forgotten fast day of Sivan 13 which was instituted for the more than half a million victims of Bogdan Chielmnicki's Cossacks, y"sh.  Once upon a time it was observed by more than a few people and even had kinnos written for it.  The Chielmnick massacres, by the way, were the worst tragedy that befell European Jewry until the Holocaust.  So there is precedent.  If the gezeras tach v'tat were worthy of a special day surely the Holocaust is.
Now we have to be careful at this point.  One focus of Jewish commemorations of tragedies is on moral lessons that can be drawn from the original events.  Tisha b'Av is the best example of this.  We recall the destruction of the Temples but also on the reasons the Chazal bring as to why it happened.  Since the closing of the Talmud, however, we have become much poorer when it comes to explaining tragedies.  Instead of be able to come up with reasons like the Chazal did we are much more mute.  As the strong response to anyone who tries to say "And this is why the Holocaust happened..." indicates, we are simply not psychologically able to accept any reason.  The pain is still too great.
This does not mean we cannot recall the Holocaust in Jewish fashion.  Many religious Jews criticize the moment of silence in Israel as a non-Jewish method of reflection.  Well then why not introduce Jewish methods instead?
If we are truly committed to sanctifying the memory of the Six Million then we need to do it right.  Yom HaShoah needs to become a fast day.  Perhaps the best theme of the day would be silence, al pi Aharon HaKohen's response to God's instructions not to mourn the dead of his two sons in last week's parasha.  While we cannot dare to bring reasons for the Shoah we can acknowledge that the reason it could happen was because we had not yet been redeemed from our exile and we are only still in exile because of our intense hatred one for another.  Words.  We take the power of speech that God breathed into Adam HaRishon at the end of Creation and use it to keep ourselves in the spiritual gutter.
Instead of more kinnos perhaps we should create a day of silence where we are forced to avoid words and instead gather quietly to reflect on our loss.  No special prayers other than those associated with a public fast.  No long speeches about love and achdus that no one really takes seriously anyway.  Just a day where the theme is thinking about how far we have fallen, how much we have lost and from where we have to start to wonder how we ever climb back up.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

No, Rav Sternbuch, We Love Our Religion

Rav Moshe Sternbuch, leader of the staunchly anti-Israel Eidah Charedit, recently added his sagacious voice to the growing number of Chareidi leaders protesting the imminent implementation of the universal draft in Israel.  Some of what he said was predictable and repetitive, such as the boring comments about how Israel is trying to uproot Torah, the army is evil, we are all the tribe of Levi, etc. etc.
And some of it was just plain insulting.  Not insulting to the intelligence but insults not worthy of a man of his stature.  Let's look at the opening statement, for starters:
Concerning the terrible decree to conscript yeshiva students [bnai hayeshivos], it calls for Da’as Torah about the severity of the matter.
Now, whenever someone says "Daas Torah" these days it's a code for "My arguments wouldn't hold up in an open discussion on the subject so I'll prevent that by declaring 'Daas Torah" which means 'How dare you disagree with me?'"  On the Chareidi side it's impressive.  Outside that community it just contributes to rolling of the eyes.
But then he went a step further and if Koheles is correct that the words of the wise are heard when said gently then Rav Sternbuch either disagrees with Koheles or...
The Ra'avad [Rosh Av Beis Din] of the Eidah HaChareidis, the Gaon Rav Moshe Shternbuch, chose to speak out against the entire Religious Zionist [Mizrachi] sector: "The Mizrachnikim are haters of Judaism [sonei das]. Today they revealed their true faces." By way of distancing from the [Religious Zionist] entity he did not [even] agree to mention the name of [Naftali] Bennett [head of the HaBayit HaYehudi party]: "In holy places one does not mention such names."The Ra'avad did not leave it at that, but he [Rav Moshe Shternbuch] also chose to attack the entire Religious Zionist community: "For years we knew that the Mizrachnikim were haters of [our] faith [sonei das], but they were always careful to display themselves as "lovers" of [our Jewish] faith and that they themselves are "religious" [dati'im] and they came to preach [lidrosh] in synagogues, today they revealed their true [hypocritical double] faces because they have joined with the haters of the [Jewish] religion [sonei hadas].
Whenever there is an incident in Israel involving Chareidim attacking people who are mechalel Shabbos the usual apologists explain that the reason for the violence is because the passionate love these particular Chareidim have for Torah and Shabbos drives them crazy when they see a sinner desecrating the holy day.
Goose and gander, Rav Sternbuch.  You are wrong, sir.  We do not hate our religion.  We are not sonei das.  It is because we love our religion, because we love the Torah that we are so passionately angry at those who have twisted it almost beyond recognition into a fossilized remnant of itself and then announced that this remnant is the only true Torah Judaism there is.  We are angry at people like you.
I've seen it written that the Torah acts like a mirror, that what a person is like inside is what he thinks he sees in the Torah.  What kind of Torah does the Eidah Chareidit see?  An uncompromising one full of anger and punishment, written by a deity who has nothing better to do all day than try to trip us up and then chuckle gleefully as our sins get written up in the Heavenly register?  That's not our Torah.  That's not our Ribono shel Olam.
Once upon a time the task of a religious Jew was to make the name of Heaven beloved by all.  Tell me, sir, how many non-Eidah Chareidit types have you accomplished that with?  And how many have you turned off from any interest in Torah observance through your strident declarations that your way, the way of the xenophobic shtetl where every outsider was an evil demon waiting to rape and murder, is the only true way of Torah?
Once upon a time a religious Jew was a functioning member of society.  He stood up to the temptations of the outside world and insisted on bringing holiness into it.  His faith cowered before no outside philosophy.  He could learn math, science and history and bring it into the service of Torah to accomplish a more complete worship of the Ribono shel Olam.  Tell me, sir, when did the Torah become such a flimsy vessel that it has to be hidden behind ghetto walls for fear that its adherents will defect from it en masse?  When did even speaking a language with proper grammar become goyish?
We are angry because every time we try to make a suggestion to your community to improve relations between us we are insulted, belittled and patronized.  We are told that only your "gedolim" are real Torah scholars and only your way of practice is real Torah observance.  You insult us and then tell us we should be privileged that we have a chance to support your community.  Should we not be angry about that?
We are angry because everywhere we look we see the hand of God working to move history forward towards the final redemption and you disagree, refusing to give the Ribono shel Olam any credit for the miracles and kindness He has performed for us.  The Satmar once said that any time something bad happens to the Jews it's God punishing us but when some thing good happens it's just the Satan trying to trick us.  You've turned God into a dysfunction, abusive parent.  Should we not be angry about that?
We want to bring forward history to its Divine conclusion.  We want to increase the presence of God in the world.  We want to worship Him by living complete lives in his service, harnessing all we can of the world to bring us closer to Him.  You want to hide behind closed doors and high walls and pretend the Cossacks are at the gate while you debate who's ox is liable for that pit in the public domain.  Who really loves God and Torah?  Who really doesn't?
We are angry but we do not hate.  Unlike you we know we are all one big family.  We know that God's plan for history includes all of us.  We want to embrace you but when we try you shove us away and call us dirty and inferior.  We are angry like a brother is angry at a brother.  The language of hatred comes from your side, not ours.  Do you not understand that or has your self-righteousness completed clouded your faculties?
We want one nation, prospering and sanctified, engaging the real world and showing God's plans for it.  We want you to join us.  But if you don't, if you want to wallow in your hatred while calling it "Torah true" we can't stop that.
You are wrong but we don't hate you.  Pity?  Maybe, but hatred is not acceptable.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Doing It Without Hatred

As plans slowly move forward to implement a universal army draft in Israel it's interesting to watch two definitive sides form in response.
One side is that of the Chareidi leadership and its PR folks.  Their response has been vigorous, viscious and self-righteous in the extreme.  We are repeatedly reminded by them that it is the Torah study of the tens of thousands of kolleleit that is the true defense of the State and that we, their spiritual inferiors, should be grateful instead of sitting around in our dank and dark basements all day scheming on how to destroy the Torah world.  For this group there is one answer: no draft, no service, no acknowledgement of the importance of contributing to the State.
On the other side is an equally irrational group, one that would like to see Israeli police and soldiers transformed into Imperial storm troopers and tasked with the mission of dragging Chareidi men from their shtenders by their peyos and throwing them into a dungeon somewhere for daring to not want to be drafted.  For this group there is only one answer as well: a total, immediately draft of all eligible Chareidim and long prison sentences for those that resist.
These two extreme positions have come to dominate the public debate and this is a terrible shame since there is an obvious path of compromise, one which the government has been working on.  But, as is often the case when someone tries to accommodate a middle path, the folks attempting to solve the problem in this fashion are either ignored or set upon by both sides.
If one dares to suggest that setting up the universal draft will take time, maybe a few years, one is attacked by the Chareidi leadership for daring to suggest there should be a universal draft at all.  One is also attacked by the extreme secularists for choosing a plan that does not involve immediately implementation.  How dare we give those lazy bums any further time off?
Let us consider what is at stake.  First, there is the practical.  The Israeli army, far from intending to use a draft to wipe out the Jewishness of its Chareidi conscripts, is bending over backwards to help those Chareidim who have already enlisted, maintain an observant lifestyle when it comes to food, learning and mixed gender environments.  There is no question that, should the universal draft be implemented, they will continue to want to make these accommodations.  It will be hard enough to absorb the increased numbers of recruits without doing things that will bring their passive-aggressive nature to the fore.
But changes like this require time.  A large number of Chareidim, angry and resentful, entering the army at the same time and finding inadequate facilities appropriate to their spiritual needs, will create a disaster for the army.  Tzahal needs time to build the infrastructure it will need.  An immediate universal draft denies them this opportunity.
There is also Chareidi psychology to consider.  The Chareidi leadership, stuck as it is mentally in the 1920's, still really does see the secular Zionist community as consumed with hatred of Torah and nothing better to do with its time than attack Chareidim and try to spiritually destroy them.  This is the message that has been passed on to students within the Chareidi educational system for three generations now.  Is it any wonder that Chareidi kolleleit ignore the "share the burden" message and instead see a scheme to destroy their Yiddishkeit?  And since this is the case, is it any wonder that they vehemently resist the universal draft?
Now it should be acknowledged that there is a glimmer of hope, at least from the Chareidi side.  Rav Yonasan Rosenblum, one of the more eloquent Chareidi PR folks who also possesses a measure of insight lacking in many others in that group, has even recently written the unthinkable:

we might be approaching the end of a miraculous period in which the secular Israeli government became the prime supporter of Torah learning on a scale unprecedented in Jewish history
An excellent confession but one that sadly is decades overdue given the extensive time over which generations of Chareidi youth and baalei teshuvah have been taught that the secular Israeli government is the greatest threat to Torah learning since the Czar.  Rav Rosenblum may have realized that reality is the opposite of that Chareidi doctrine but he will have difficulty convinced his comrades.
In summary we must hope and pray that the folks in the government managing this transition in Israeli society and Tzahal have the patience and wisdom to ignore the extremists on both sides and create an environment in which Chareidi men can now contribute to Israeli society's security without having to compromise their level of observance.