Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Relationship

Sometimes the obvious things are taken for granted.  Sometimes taking the obvious things for granted leads to trouble.
Consider what Torah-observant Jewish education takes for granted, for instance.  We simply assume God exists, that He's involved with the universe, that He presented His Torah to us 3327 years ago and that He still cares about us and is moving history forward towards a Final Redemption for our nation.
I've previously written about all those points but I find it interesting that when it comes to basic education most of those things are taken for granted.  The Chovos HaLevavos, for example, begins his masterful work with an extensive discussion proving God as we understand Him (for all we can understanding Him, of course) but this chapter is often skipped in major yeshivos.  Instead the educational process focuses on the acquisition of information, in many ways just like any other program.  It's not about inculcating emunah, it's about how much Talmud can you stuff into these kids and hope they don't ask any big questions.
Perhaps that's the reason not just for the OTD crisis but for the constant parade of frum Jews in the news for all the worst reasons, Jews who should know better.  For the OTD's it's knowledge without a point, rituals without a deeper meaning.  For those who remain on the derech it's knowledge for the sake of knowing minutiae and ritual by rote.  Where is the deeper ethic?  Where is the why behind the what?
The first thing should be an understanding of our relationship with God.  Without that, there is little point to what we are doing.  Keeping kosher just for the sake of keeping kosher is meaningless.  Keeping kosher as part of my relationship with God changes the spiritual universe in countless ways.  Which is better?
So let me make a suggestion of where to start: God is our Father. 
Now I know this sounds simple and I think it's one of those things that's so simple we know it by reflex but without thinking about it, like people who shout "Dear Lord!" out of habit, not a desire to invoke the name of the Creator.  When we say Avinu Malkeinu over the 10 Days of Penitence, are we really thinking of a father figure or just saying the words?
So I say again: God is our Father.  What does this mean?  It means He loves us.  What is love?  A desire to give to another to ensure that other's well-being.
Anyone with children knows that this is the secret of good parenting.  It's that unconditional love that overcomes the sleepless nights and endless frustrations because the child is always worth it.  It's also knowing that saying "No" is the way to show that love even if the child doesn't understand.
Too often we relate to God in an infantile way.  We want Him to help us when we need something but to stay out of our way when we want something He disapproves of, as if He's some giant cash machine in the sky.  This isn't surprising since, in Western culture, this is how children of all ages from young through to adult relate to their parents.  Gimme a roof, free laundy and food but who do you think you are to tell me when my curfew should be?  The idea that the child is dependent in any way on the parents and owes them something grates at the narcissistic nerves.   And like a loving parent who quietly grits his or her teeth, God sits up in Heaven watching and waiting for us to clue in to how things really work.
A truly positive relationship between a parent and child occurs when the child finally realizes that the most important thing in his life is the parent just as the parent has always known that the child is the centre of his life.  This is the level we should be striving for when it comes to relating to God.  Am I working hard enough to please my Father?  Am I doing enough to make the endless gifts He's giving me meaningful? 
Another benefit of seeing the relationship in this light is the closeness that it can provide.  Seeing God as a strict authoritarian, or as an angry old man up in the sky with a notebook keeping careful track of all our mistakes and waiting for us to screw up so he can add to our punishment doesn't create a healthy, functional Jew but a dystopian parody of one.  I can talk to my father whenever I need to and he will listen.  I can also talk to my Father and I know He's listening as well.  Yes, Chazal talk about the iron wall between our prayers and Heaven but God is omnipotent and omnipresent.  Open your heart, speak your peace and He will hear.  It's something we all need to try more often.
Thus a relationship based on a love and an acknowledgement of dependency which doesn't diminish but rather intensifies that love is what can tie a Jew's neshama closer to the Creator.  Teaching this would probably accomplish more than lots of what does get taught in yeshivos nowadays.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Keep Quiet and Change

There is one principle when it comes to change and the Chareidi community - don't mention it.
Like any other ethnic or social group the Chareidim change over time.  The difference between them and other groups is that they don't admit it.  While Chareidim today are different in terms of dress, behaviour and politics from their forebears 100 years ago the official line from the PR hacks is that, in fact, the way they are today is the way they've always been.  They do not change, after all.
As both Rationalist Judaism and Jewish Worker have been noting recently, things aren't looking so good for Israeli Chareidim.  Despite all the billions of shekels they've received over the years from the Israeli government many of their number live in dire poverty or close to it.  Socially the strain is becoming unbearable.  The fairy tale society their "Gedolim" expect them to maintain has become increasingly unrealistic and the stress is showing.
The solution, accepting that Chareidism is a strong movement that has nothing to fear from the outside world and thereby starting to integrate into Israeli society, is not a serious option, as least not for the leadership.  Despite their surging numbers and growing social structure, Chareidism still needs a persecution complex and sense of victimization by the surrounding communities to define itself.  Chareidim aren't real Chareidim unless they believe that everyone else spends all day every day trying to figure out how to destroy them.
Certainly the recent efforts of the Israeli government to force change had the opposite effect.  It only served to entrench the dysfunctional defiance that characterizes the Chareidi leadership.  In other words, the goverment's proactive attempts have pushed the situation backwards.
We have to remember that forcing change will cause a major disaster.  Despite all the disparagement of their learning there is no doubt that it is a large part of what sustains us as a people.  It is not the only things, as they might claim, but a large part of our collective merit nonetheless.  Forcing an end to so much learning would not be without consequence spiritually to us but even more so, imagine how many people will be lost to Torah Judaism through forceful interventions.
What should be the proper approach?  As I have suggested before there should be two main ways to deal with this situation.  The first is through rejecting the role the Chareidi leadership would cast us in.  We are not Nazis, Cazrists, haters of Torah, etc. and we should have no shame in saying that loudly to them.  The "Gedolim" need their people to think that everyone on the outside sits around day and night thinking of nothing else but destroying the Chareidi community and, by extension, the Torah.  We must forcefully contest this assertion every time.
But beyond that we must remember that there is a personal role to be played in this area as well.  Just as I have written before about the kiruv power of proper public ethical behaviour when it comes to attracting the secular community to a Torah lifestyle, it is equally important to demonstrate that a decent, balanced yet thoroughly observant Torah lifestyle is possible and not a rejection of proper avodas HaShem.  This is done at "the street level", not through political interactions.  Perhaps through these two methods small changes can begin to be made that will lead to positive results.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Imminent Collapse Isn't So Imminent

Over the last few days Jewish Worker has been featuring pieces on the mess the Israeli Chareidi community finds itself in these days.  I myself have previously noted that what is starting to happen among them is predictable and inevitable.  To wit: the first generation after the war worked and accumulated capital because that's what Jews had always done.  The second generation drank the kosher Kool-aid and dropped out of productive society to follow the instructions of "the Gedolim" that Torah-true Jews "learn, don't earn".  After sharing the Kool-aid with their parents they found they were able to survive such a lifestyle choice by spending their parents' money.  The parents, for their part, believed they were doing a big mitzvah in encouraging their children to learn full-time. 
But here's where the problems started.  The second generation had the first's capital to live off of.  In  turn they produced nothing for their children to survive on but raised them to believe in "learn, don't earn".  Now we had a perfect collision of non-productive folks with no money to live on.  Is there any wonder a crisis is now starting to unfold?
Over at his blog, Rav Slifkin wants to know if this debacle will induce change.  The answer, from where I sit, is in the negative for a few reasons.
1) "Learn, don't earn" has been wildly successful for the Chareidim until now.  It has allowed them to build a society where Torah-true Jews live a Torah-true lifestyle of learning without such petty things as worrying about who will pay the bills.  God (meaning the parents, some gemach somewhere or the Israeli government) will provide!  As anyone who observes cultures of entitlement knows, such groups never expect the good times to end and when faced with a reality in which they do they immediately retreat into denial.  It's always been fine until now and therefore it will continue to remain fine.
2) The brainwashing in the Chareidi community has ensured that there are now two generations of adherents who not only have no employable skills but also no motivation for seeking employment.  It's hard to go from sitting in kollel and being told you and your Torah study are the reason the world was created to asking if you can sweep up at the local convenience store for a few dollars.
3) This entire dysfunctional system was created by "the Gedolim" who, in the Chareidi mindset, are infallible demigods.  When the Chazon Ish, zt"l, announced "learn, don't earn" as a new compulsory way of life he didn't set a time limit on it.  His laudable goal was to recreate the Torah-learning culture that had been destroyed by the Holocaust but now its become an end unto itself.  No "Gadol" could ever stand up and announce the end of the program and a return to sanity.  Being Chareidi is synonymous with sitting in kollel and those Chareidim that work are used to being relegated to being second class citizens in their community.
4) There is no insight.  If Israeli Chareidism falls apart the damage to the Torah world will be incalculable.  Because Chareidi leaders have portrayed their form of Orthodoxy as the only legitimate one those who leave the community as things degenerate will not stop at Modern Orthodoxy or Religious Zionism on the way out.  They will simply leave Torah observance all together.  This is something we must all be desperate to avoid but the lack of insight into how Chareidism will be the main cause of the sudden surge in the OTD community is lost on them.
5) Despite the warnings, the money's not all gone yet.  The State of Israel, despite being villified for daring to expect some minimal gratitude for all the money it puts out, is still handing out free cheques to the batlanim.  There is still a lot of Chareidi money in the US getting sent out to Israel as well.  No one, not the Israeli government and certainly not the American Chareidi community want to see the horrible outcome the collapse of the Israeli Chareidi community would cause.
As a result those who are waiting for the headlines of a sudden change are going to be disappointed.  This stumbling is going to go on for a while with all the misery the enforced poverty of such a lifestyle demands.  That's a pity.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

No, You're Not Charlie

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings there has been a spasm of support from the world of journalism and the faux-journalistic blogosphere.  We have been encouraged to post graphics from the magazine to show our defiance of the terrorists.  We are all up in arms about freedom of speech.  There must be the right to mock religions freely without fear that some religious nutjob will want to shoot us!  The outrage is palpable.
It's also completely hypocritical.
First, let's look at Charlie Hebdo.  This is a magazine that makes a living by mocking, and it doesn't mock with any subtlety.  It plays to sterotypes, it stoops to low levels, it plays to any negative stereotype it can find.  Such a publication is now the vanguard of Western civilization?  It's like claiming Jennifer Lopez's semi-stripper performances are the pinnacle of Western dance.  Oy lanu ki chatanu.
After all, anyone who knows comedy knows that it's easy to get a laugh from mocking.  What separates the excellent comedy and satire from the good versions is the desire to avoid insults and denigrations.  Any stand-up comedian can get a laugh by making fun of the Catholic Church or insulting trailer trash.  It's too easy and should be seen for the cop-out that it is.
Then there's the journalistic reponse.  As the eloquent Rex Murphy notes, here the hypocrisy goes through the roof:
Where was this “we” when a video critical of Islam was mendaciously identified as the “cause” of the terror attack on Benghazi? Where was “we” when Hillary Clinton went on Pakistani television to declaim against this “reprehensible” video and revile its maker, and at the Benghazi victims’ funerals said: “We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.” Where was “we” when the filmmaker was arrested, while to this day the butchers of Benghazi roam the Earth unmolested?

Where is this We of the Hash-tags when whole swathes of the press, and some political leaders, refuse to call acts that are plainly terroristic by their proper name? Can those who refuse to say the word “terrorism” after a terrorist act now claim they are Charlie Hebdo?
And where was We of the Hash-tags when President Obama made the inexplicable declaration at the United Nations that “the future does not belong to those who slander the Prophet?” More than anything else, that sounds like a fulsome statement of accord with those who denounce cartoons and videos and editorials about the “Prophet,” who riot after he is “traduced” by someone in the West. There is no “We are Charlie Hebdo” in that statement. There is surrender instead.
And what about our prophets, of the Enlightentment and democracy, who made free speech the core of our lives and politics? We are notoriously timid in defending them, and almost tumid with the desire to speak up for those who despise them. Why do we wallow in some shallow hollow of factitious guilt, moaning over our failings to “understand” after 9/11, after Mumbai, after London, after Ottawa, after Paris this week, rather than laying the guilt on the real perpetrators and the ideology that fires them?
Our universities bleat about inquiry and free speech, but they are feeble and craven, caving in to protestors and special interests, pleading “sensitivity” and the “wish not to offend” any time some topic or speaker threatens to “hurt” the professionally agitated on campus. Where was “we” when a band of fatuous progressives protested former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice giving a convocation address at Rutgers University? She worked for Bush, so free speech be dammed.
Where was We of the Hash-tags when Ann Coulter was pre-emptively cautioned about what she could or should say by officials at the University of Ottawa? Where was “we” when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was humiliated and an honourary degree invitation revoked after campus activists at Brandeis University — faculty and students — protested? Brandeis mounted a defence of free speech that would have Patrick Henry drooling with envy: “[Ali] is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights. … That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” A Presidential Medal of Freedom for that wonderful “that said.”
You want to show defiance on your blog?  Find a copy of one of the famous Danish cartoons and post it on your blog.  Note that the biggest defender of Muslim demands for supression of freedom of speech is the President of the United States and call him on it.  Ask why a poster of an actor playing Moshe Rebeinu, a"h, clad only in a bathrobe and getting out of a taxi with his genitals visible and an art exhibit offensive to Chrisians are expressions of freedom of speech but it's okay to quietly avoid anything similar when it comes to ol' Moe the supposed prophet?
But more than that, demand civility.  Yes, we should have the same right to mock Islam as we do other religions but beyond that we have to remember to rise above mockery in general.  Saying you're Charlie Hebdo is fine but can't we do better than that?