Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 17 August 2015

What Guides Us

Its an old and tricky philosophical question - when personal moral feelings and religion conflict, which is the correct path to follow?  In Judaism we hold that God, being perfect, gave us our value system through the Torah and therefore any difference between secular and Torah positions means the secular one is wrong.
The problem with this is that it requires a high amount of faith and also a tremendous amount of resistance to the seduction that the surrounding general culture uses on us to pull our souls away from Torah values.  For many the conflict is very real and there is a genuine desire to try and accommodate both positions, to be a loyal Torah-observant Jew and a good secular member of society.
We see it with gay marriage, for example.  In the non-Orthodox community this is a no-brainer.  Almost by definition, Reformatism today sets its moral compass by the values of secular liberalism and then adds in traditional Jewish values only when they don't conflict.  On the Chareidi side of the community there is also little debate.  The Torah's values rule all and if one has mixed feelings then one is lacking in proper faith.
For those slightly to the left of Chareidism however the picture is not so simple.  Exposed to the world in ways that Chareidim often aren't, the perspective on the outside changes.  Living amongst Gentiles we quickly learn that most of them are quite decent folk.  Many have good senses of propriety, decent and honesty even if their core values diverge from Torah ones.  What's more, in many cases it seems their values are superior to ours, for example when it comes to child abuse and protection from pedophiles and abusive husbands.  Seeing this can really tug at a person and make him wonder if our system really is the best system.
There are other reasons a person can come to doubt whether halacha and received Jewish values are indeed so perfect.  A friend of mine owns an Artscroll book called "What If?"  A translation of several teshuvos by Rav Yitchok Zilberstein, it presents various scenarios from daily life in which two Jews come into conflict and need Beis Din to solve it.  The format of the book is simple.  First the scenario is presented and then the answer.  My friend likes to read the scenario and then ask people what they think the right course of action is.  Then he reads the official answer, what Rav Zilberstein (or rather, what Rav Eliashiv, zt"l) thinks. What worries me is how many times my answer is diametrically opposed to the official answer.
Why is that?  Well, not having an encyclopedic knowledge of Torah my first instinct is to answer the question along the lines of "What would common decency suggest?" or "What would be the best compromise?"    This is almost never the right answer, at least according to this book.
All this is my way of explaining why I think that Rabbi Yissachar Katz of YCT wrote his recent post in Times of Israel claiming that our personal moral sense must trump our religious guide.  On the surface of it, his thesis is antithetical to Judaism.  Our personal moral sense is flawed.  Common sense also seems to be in short supply.  Who is any of us to put that up against the timeless Divine wisdom of the Torah?
On the other hand, as a prominent Israeli rab recently noted, we live in a strange world where a non-religious teenager expresses more basic Jewish values and behaviour than a Chareidi in full garb, especially when the teenager is trying to express a form of chesed and the Chareidi is lunging at people with a knife trying to kill them in cold blood.
But the situation isn't that simple.  The young lady who was murdered at the parade in Yerushalyim might have been demonstrating chesed and was probably everything the glowing eulogies described her as.  Her sympathy for her fellow Jew was laudable, her support for a cause that goes against Torah values not as much.  A truly decent person who, according to secular standards, was doing a noble deed when she was struck down by a psychotic man.
The murderer, on the other hand, was upholding what he believed were Jewish values.  His disapproval of alternative lifestyles, mixed in with his schizophrenia, created a monster with monstrous outcomes.  Was he wrong in disapproving of such a parade on the holy streets of Yerushalyim?  I don't think many observant Jews, if asked privately for their opinion of such an event, would say that they wish it would happen elsewhere if at all.  But to go from that opinion to what he actually did requires a breakdown of all moral sense.  In this regard, he was a mirror image of his victim.
Allowing one's moral sense to dictate our religious sensibilities is dangerous.  The best example of this is Shaul Hamelech who, as the prequel story to Purim tells us, chose to ignore God's command to totally wipe out the local Amalekite tribes and instead spared the cattle for sacrifice and Agag their king for a separate fate.  As the Tanach tells us, he was convinced he was doing the right thing, improving even on God's commands.  The result was his downfall into insanity and the loss of his kingship leading Chazal to remind us that those who are kind when God seems to be ordering cruelty will become cruel themselves even when God advises kindness.  Therefore Torah must be the compass that guides our moral sense.
If that is the case, then, we must be careful as to how we learn and promulgate that Torah.  Being kind doesn't mean accepting things that the Torah forbids or describes in negative terms but it does mean keeping a level head when dealing with proponents of those things, treating them as fellow human beings and Jews with all the respect that warrants.  Hate the sin, not the sinner as the Gemara tells us.  It means disagreeing and holding to the proper position without rudeness or self-righteousness.  It is most difficult since emotions can often cloud proper judgement or lead one onto a dark path that is illuminated by an illusory light.  It the difficulty that comes with following a true Torah path but the one that brings us closer to the Creator.  Ultimately it does demand that we mold, or at least subordinate, our moral sense to the Torah through proper understanding that learning should bring.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Not Crossing That Line

It's not been a good couple of weeks to identify as a frum Jew.  It started, annoyingly enough, with an Orthodox Jew delaying a Port Airline flight in Toronto after he discovered that his seat mate was a woman.  As the stories in the newspapers described, he did his machmirest to convince someone, anyone, to switch seats so he wouldn't have to sit next to her, all the while scrupulously avoiding directly acknowledging her existence.
It continued with a paranoid schizophrenic in Chareidi garb attacking merrygoers at the Yerushalayim to'evah parade with one of the victims tragically succumbing to her injuries a few days later.
And if that wasn't enough, an Arab home in Yesha was firebombed resulting in the death of one of the adults inside along with an infant.  The attackers are presumed to be Jewish because of graffiti left on the scene.
But as I write this their identity has not yet been confirmed.  Too many people have concluded that this terrible attack was perpetrated by radical Jewish activists in Yesha and certainly they would make logical suspects but remember that for years it was common wisdom that Mohammed al-Dura had been killed by Israeli snipers, only it turned out that he had been murdered by his fellow Arabs.  It may still turn out that this was a revenge attack from within the Arab community with the murderers clever enough to leave Hebrew graffiti knowing that the press would jump to that conclusion all too willingly. And certainly if it turns out that Jews were responsible for this attack then they must be punished to the full extent of the law.
Who are these radicals then, these children of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a"h?  According to different sources they are a small, disorganized group.  Others say they are a growing movement working at setting up their own governing system to run in parallel with the State's since they find Israel too tolerant of its Arab population and want to do something to fix that.  Some of them are messianists all too happy to work towards igniting the Gog of Magog war so that a halachic state of Israel can be created on the ashes of the secular one, ruled by Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
In short, they are the Neturei Karta of the Dati Leumi community, extremist nutbars who have taken a general philosophy and dragged it to an extreme conclusion.
Unlike the Neturei Karta these activists are not harmless nuts who are best avoided.  Their tactics are disgusting and the effect they threaten to have on Jewish society is terrible.
Look, my feelings towards how Israel should run and what its population should be composed of is no secret.  I think Israel should be a Jewish state with a very small Gentile minority so as to keep the vending machines and electrical grid running safely on Shabbos.  If the Arab population of Israel, including Yesha, were to announce tomorrow that it is moving to Jordan and setting up shop there I'd be amongst the first to donate towards their moving costs.  I would like to see a State where people kept Shabbos and no chometz could be found for the entire duration of Pesach.  And I have no scruples when it comes to war.  Smash the enemy, then set the terms for peace.  No one cares how you won, only that you did.
I also recognize that forcing these changes before their proper time, before we have guidance from the Ribono shel Olam, could be disastrous.  As it says in this weeks parsha, we have not yet come to the resting place where we are meant to be.  Therefore we have to walk a fine line between disliking the situation we find ourselves in and changing it through methods that blur the distinction between us and our enemies.
From a moral standpoint this is easy to understand.  If we abandon the moral high ground that we have struggled to hold throughout this long struggle we lose any internal justification for our insistence on Israel's survival.  If we are no better than the enemy then we have no more rights to the land than the enemy.  That alone is reason to reject the growing extremism in our midst.
But even more that there is the practical.  Let's say that the extremists are, their nutso beliefs aside, correct in their approach.  Negotiations haven't work.  Co-existence, like the kibbutzim, is only practical in small areas with willing communities.  This is one land for one people - us - and they have to go.  Let's terrorize them into leaving.
Let's say that tactic leads to success.  The so-called Palestinian Authority along with Hamas realize they are outmatched and there is a mass migration to Jordan or elsewhere.  Then what?
Then we will discover that the savagery we brought upon ourselves during this war will remain with us after the war.  The crazies out there, the ones with the big knitted kippot serugot and flying peyos will still be crazy.  They will still espouse a simplistic "Us against the world" attitude and any Jews who disagree, who want to establish a democratic state will become the new enemy.  Is that what we want?
Those who remember Rabbi Kahane favourably because he spoke the truth about our ability to share Israel with the Arabs usually forget that the Arabs weren't his only ideological enemies.  He also had enough venom for Jews who disagreed with him.  First he'd clean out the Arabs, he told us, and then he'd go after the internal enemies, those Jews that disagreed with his demagogic vision of Israel.
That's the society that these extremists are pushing us to, step by step.  They envision a fascist country with a mythical leader and an ideological unity where a defined enemy of the people is joined by dissenters from the majority population.  That description should sound eerily familiar and scary in the extreme.
That is the even better reason  to forcefully reject what these extremists offer.  We are God's people and we cannot deviate from that standard.  We lose what made us special for Him to choose us and that ends our meaningful existence.