Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 18 November 2013

Remembering Who's Really Worst

Mayor Rob Ford has made the news around the world for the last few weeks.  The cicumferentially-challenged chief officer of Toronto has become famous for being caught abusing crack with known felons, then lying about it, then getting caught, then sharing vulgar thoughts on his marital life with the press.  With each passing day the city's embarrassment grows as Ford continues to refuse to step aside and go gently into that good night.  The left, which was outraged by his even winning the election a couple of years ago is now nearly apopleptic at his insistence on remaining in his position.  What's the point of gleeful jubilation if the target refuses to quietly accept his downfall?
But after all the articles have been written and all the pundits have had their say there is something more to consider.  Let's remind ourselves of the former premier of the province of Ontario, one Dalton McGuinty.  During his 10 year tenure McGuinty expanded the size and cost of government to record levels.  During his first term at premier he broke almost every single pledge he made during the election campaign.  He treated the citizens of Ontario the way one might treat a developmentally challenged child by  constantly introducing new safety regulations that gave the impression that Ontarians are clutzy morons that have to be protected by the nanny state lest a sense of personal initiative lead to some form of harm.
Worst of all are the financial scandals he left behind.  Just to name a few: one billion dollars blown at eHealthOntario, the government's initiative to increase electronic medical practice.  Tens of millions of dollars spent with little to no oversight at the provincial air ambulance agency.  Another 1.2 billion dollars to move two gas plants because not moving them might have cost him a couple of ridings in the last election.  When news of that scandal hit the papers he shut down the provincial parliament, then retired and announced that he had nothing to answer for because he was no longer premier.
In short, he was patronizing, incompetent and corrupt.  But who's getting the front page treatment?
Now, I'm not excusing Rob Ford's behaviour.  As a now-former supporter of his I also wish he'd just go away and leave the spotlight to someone lest demonstrably vile.  He's made a mockery of the mayor's office, which is quite an achievement for an office previously inhabited by Mel Lastman.  He's disappointed and disillusioned Ford Nation, his rapid cadre of supporters.  He's a complete letdown.
But when he came to work he worked hard.  His foibles didn't affect his citizens.  He wrestled with costs and always tried to let the beset interests of Toronto guide his agenda.  He might have been a stoned and drunk boor after work but while on duty he was all business.
Dalton McGuinty, on the other hand, probably doesn't have a single personal vice to his name.  He probably drinks in extreme moderation, if at all and is probably a loving father and husband who would rather die than embarrass his loved ones.  And he's also a corrupt politician and a liar with a disdain for democracy.  If Ontario is a financially precarious situation, something that affects almost 10 million people it's definitely his fault but there's no sign he's prepared to take an iota of responsibility.
So who's really the worse person here?

Sunday 10 November 2013

Of Glass Houses and Stones

Rav Yaakov Mencken of Cross Currents is, as we all know, not the most sophisticated writer on the block.  He seems quite easy to outrage and is always read with a biased screed against his perceived enemies.  His latest piece, once again attacking the Women of the Wall and giving them attention they don't deserve, raises an interesting point on his thinking.
In short, he notes the emerging awareness that Women of the Wall is connected to leftists groups, some of whom are anti-Israel.  I certainly agree with him that these kinds of things should be noted.  If the WoW's are taking aid and succour from groups that would like to see the Wall on the Arab side of the barbed wire fence then people should be made aware of this.  After all, I doubt most people who are sympathetic to the WoW's would agree with losign the Wall to Judaism entirely.
But take a step back and wonder.  Rav Mencken is, no doubt, an upstanding UltraOrthodox Jew.  He wears the outfit, speaks the Yeshivish and likely sways beautifully when davening.  I'm also willing to bet that he loves hanging out with UltraOrthodox Jews of all types, including Chasidim. Including Satmar Chasidim.
Now let's remind ourself of the official position of the Satmar Chasidim when it comes to Israel.  They are, to put it gently, rapidly anti-Israel.  They have no problem with so-called Palestinian maps that show a 23rd Arab state run by unrepentant Jew-killing terrorits instead of Israel.  They have no problem calling for the end of Israel and reminding people that "real Orthodox Jews" (i.e. them) are anti-Zionists.  Does Rav Mencken have the same problem with them as he does with the anti-Israel groups that the WoW's hang around with?
In short, with whom would he rather associate?  Zionist Riverdale or Israel-hating Williamsburg?  And if it's the latter, who is he to criticize the WoW's?

Thursday 7 November 2013

Keeping Obligations Straight

One of the things that bugs me about some portions of UltraOrthodoxy, especially Chassidus, is how customs, innovations (gasp!) and minor rules are sometimes elevated to a point where they become emphasized more than actual halacha.  Rav Harry Maryles, in his latest post, point this out by referring to the story of a woman who is an ex-Satmar chasid because of her disagreement with head shaving.  As Rav Maryles notes in his post:
Mrs. Goldberger is a former member of Satmar. She says that she left Satmar five years ago based on this issue. The custom (perhaps even the Halacah as they see it) is for a married woman to shave her head. They feel so strongly that a married woman’s hair is Erva, that they do not want to take the chance that a single strand of hair will even be exposed. The safest (and according to Satmar the only) way to assure that is by a woman shaving her head. This is what Mrs. Goldberger did. At first without giving it much thought since that is what all married Satmar women did. This is what the Satmar Rebbe required. Here is how Mrs. Goldberger put it:
The Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, famously gave emotional, tear-jerking speeches against married women growing their own hair. “Jewish daughters, our mothers and fathers gave up their lives to our Father in Heaven for the sanctity of His name, but you, their daughters, don’t want to give up even a few hairs?” he asked in a speech on Yom Kippur eve in 1951, according to “The Rebbe,” a 2010 biography by Dovid Meisels. “What does Hashem Yisbarach (God) ask of us? A few hairs! Because of a few hairs you are making yourselves lose both worlds. Jewish daughters, shave your hair and give honor to the Torah.”
I am in no position to argue Halacha with the Satmar Rebbe. His Torah knowledge dwarfed that of even many great Rabbonim. It certainly dwarfs mine by a lot. But he is not the only Posek in the Jewish world. Most Poskim do not see it his way. I therefore strongly disagree with him.

These few paragraphs encapsulate for me what is wrong with the frum system today.  No, Rav Maryles is nowhere near the calibre of the Satmar Rebbe, z"l, when it comes to halacha. (As for me, al achas kamah v'kamah).  However, the Talmud is certainly a few notches higher than him and nowhere does it say a woman must cover her hair, much less that she should treat this "obligation" as something God obsesses over in Heaven.  The Shulchan Aruch, which is also a few notches higher than the Satmar, also does not endorse hair shaving in the married woman and actually contains negative opinions about the practice.  The Satmar, based on mystical sources, has gone and trumped the foundational books of halacha and created a requirement for his married female followers that is entirely a later invention, something the Torah, Talmud and major codes of law do not require.  And to top it all off he presented it as something God specifically wants.
We all know what that means.  It means a frum woman who is otherwise scrupulous in her observance of mitzvos including covering her hair but who doesn't shave her scalp is a sinner, defying God's wishes and not making the necessary sacrifice the Satmar believes He requires.  It means that normative halacha is not really what an observant Jew should be following because, despite the endorsement of such minor authorities as the Rambam, the Tur, Rav Yosef Karo and the Rema, it isn't really what God wants!
The problem with fighting against this attitude is the automatic association in Jewish culture between learning and righteousness.  As I've written before, we have a simple formula: extensive learning = righteousness.  After all, if a particular authority wasn't such a big tzadik he wouldn't have been such a knowledgeable man.  And since we wish to follow the righteous then the big learner is automatically an authority figure.
But then we reach the critical difficulty.  It's one thing for an authority to stand up and say "From my learning I believe the following practice is important and those who wish to follow in my system should also do it."  Clearly the Satmar was obsessed with women's appearances, especially the dresses, stockings and hair.  Fine, that was what he believed was a priority to be addressed amongst his followers.  But can we not see a little bit of presumption in stating with such certainty "This is what God wants!" when nowhere in the official literature does it say that?
As observant Jews we sacrifice quite a bit in our daily lives.  It is one thing to insist we hold firmly to our love of God, strength in learning and fealty in mitzvos performance.  It is quite another to invent new requirements and treat them like they're the new minimal baseline for proper Jewish behaviour.  As the Talmud itself asks, "613 mitzvos aren't enough, you have to go and invent more?"
We best fulfill God's will by doing what He asked of us as detailed in our holy books and remembering that basic halacha isn't something to keep us unwashed masses busy while the "real" Jews engage in mystical laws and behaviours.  The basic halacha is what God wants of us and Chazal weren't simply sopping us with the Talmud while keeping the Zohar for the special ones.  It's hard enough to live a decent halachic life, after all and as Rav Maryles' post concludes pushing too hard for things that aren't necessary to the faith winds up causing the opposite problem.