Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Abdicating Their Role

It's not often that I agree with Rav Avi Shafran but, the law of averages being what it must be, sometimes it does happen.  One of those incidents is his latest piece commenting on a recent initiative by the Polish government to make calling Auschwitz and other death and concentration camps from World War II "Polish" a crime.
As Rav Shafran notes, there is a point to their concern with the infamous camps being labelled as "Polish".  Building them wasn't a Polish idea.  What was carried out in them wasn't planned by the Poles.  They weren't in charge of running them either.  But as he cogently notes:
But the justice minister does truth an injustice. In implementing their genocidal program, German forces drew upon all-too-eager-to-help Polish police forces and railroad personnel, who guarded ghettos and helped deport Jews to the killing centers. Individual Poles often pitched in, identifying and hunting down Jews in hiding and then actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.
In his book “The Coming of the Holocaust: From Antisemitism to Genocide,” University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Peter Kenez described Poles of German ethnicity as “welcome[ing] the [Nazi] conquerors with enthusiasm.”
Nor were ethnic Poles unhappy at the prospect of helping the invaders rid their country of Jews.
History Professor Jan T. Gross, who was born in Poland to a Polish mother and Jewish father, published “Neighbors” in 2001, in which he documented that atrocities long blamed on Nazi officials were in fact carried out by local Polish civilians.
Like the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne in July 1941. Mere weeks after Nazi forces gained control of the town, its Polish mayor, Marian Karolak, and local Nazi officials gave orders to round up the town’s Jews – both long-term residents as well as Jews who were sheltering there. Some Jews were hunted down and gleefully killed by the town’s residents with clubs, axes and knives. Most were herded into a barn, emptied out for the purpose and set afire, killing all inside
I find the selective amnesia of Europeans, especially those from the eastern half, interesting.  On one hand, the most horrific crimes committed against our nation since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) occurred in Eastern Europe.  Until the full extent of the Holocaust was made known to the world there was great cultural pride in how Jews had been subjugated amongst the locals.  It was only when the enormity of the Holocaust became infamous that there was suddenly a shock and sense of embarrassment.  Sure they had hated us and taken great pleasure in persecuting us but mass murder?  That they weren't so proud of.
And so a certain sense of denial has taken hold of that culture.  The willingness of Germany to take responsibility for its crimes allowed other countries that had eagerly joined in the Nazi effort to implement the Final Solution to stand back, point and say "It was them!"  Austria, Poland, the Balkans, Ukraine and the rest to this day profess great offense if any suggestion is made that they played a role in the Holocaust.  They vigorously point out all their Righteous Gentiles, hoping we won't remember that there were 100 non-righteous ones for every 1 that endangered his or her life for us.  They point out various interwar initiatives to encourage Jewish emancipation and how great they were at encouraging and protecting Jewish communities in the face of testimonies from all the survivors about how such measures were window dressing and nothing more.
I can understand the need for this amnesia.  As recent history has shown, the core Jew hatred endemic in European culture, currently manifesting as anti-Israel'ism, has not abated despite the fires of the Holocaust.  It simply went underground for a while.  Europe may have been shocked by what happened on its territory but it is most without regret and would like very much to shed a tear over another one, this time in the Middle East.
Yes, the Holocaust was a German initiative and run by them but with willing and necessary help from local populations in western and eastern Europe.  This is a fact that we must not allow to be forgotten, lest the false piety of the children of our oppressors comes back to stab us again.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Conservatism and Judaism

Having discussed conservatism and some ideas to make it a relevant player in the political arena in North America, I would like to now turn to Israel and discuss the role it could play there.
The first thing to understand is that in Israel, right wing and left wing when applied to different political parties has a far different meaning than it does for North America.  In Israel, the labelled seem to be applied almost exclusively based on the party's position on the Jewish-Arab conflict.  Parties that look to accommodate Israel's enemies even at the expense of Israel's security are left wing.  Parties that seek to prioritize Israel's needs are right wing.  For example, let's say that tomorrow the Likud decides to embrace a command economy, increase the size of the civil service by 50% and increase taxes to match but at the same time finally rules out any two-state solution.  Despite the economic platform they would still be called a right wing party.  Labour, on the other hand, has moved far from its origins as a European socialist state that ran the country in its early years in a soft communist style.  Yes, it still coddles the Histadrut and embraces far more state control than the Likud does but why do we see it as a left wing party?  Because of its foreign policy.  Period.
This would suggest that conservatism has ample potential for parties linked to both the left and the right in Israel.  Based on the guiding principle I have been working with, responsibility before rights, both sides of the political spectrum could embrace conservatism.
Consider the idea that the state of Israel is not a country like all others.  Now, this seems obvious given the ample news coverage and the amazing history of the State.  However, what does one do with this fact?  Israel stands for something, although getting two Jews to agree on what that something is might prove difficult.  Is Israel a lifeboat for world Jewry?  Is it the first flowering of our redemption?  Is it the beacon of democracy in the dark Middle East?
Conservatism must step in and state that Israel, being a Jewish state, must identify with Jewish values.  The fundamental Jewish value is that of responsibility over rights, just as I've been saying about conservatism in general until now.  Anyone who learns Torah in a serious way knows that God expects obedience as a result of giving us life and limb.  We are rarely in a position to talk back to Him or question His ways and means.  Our job ultimately is to live according to the mitzvos and even when we hope for a reward, s'char b'hai alma leika.  We have no right to demand recompense for being good in this world.
That's not to say that there's no real payoff for being a good Jew.  A society that runs along genuine Jewish principles, including ones that frum Jews often ignore like chesed, tzedakah and gemilus chasadim, would be a fine one to live in indeed.
This is what conservatism in Israel should be encouraging.  We know that any pressure to morph Israel into a state run al pi halacha would fail.  There would be strong pushback from the secular crowd.  The Chareidi community would refuse to cooperate unless their "Gedolim" were in charge. (Even then, if it wasn't one segment's "Gadol" they'd still refuse to take part)  The animosity that such a push would create would be a chilul haShem.
However, who's to say that a partial push wouldn't be more productive?  Demanding people keep Shabbos will lead to a fight.  Demanding that they give tzedakah would be greeted differently.  A responsible Jewish citizen recognizes his part in society and contributes to it.  The Gemara famously tells us that fortune is cyclical, one generations wealthy may have descendants in the poorhouse.  Responsibility strongly suggests that by contributing to charity a person ensures security for himself and his descendants.  The same argument can be made for gemilus chasadim.  Imagine pushing school children and young adults to find time to perform acts of kindness.  Volunteering in hospitals, working at food banks and gemachs, all of these can be promoted for their Jewish content without any risk of coercion.
What's more, a target of this push could be the wealthy of the State.  It's well known that the gap between  the wealthy and not in Israel is one of the highest in the First World.  A society that cared about improving the lot of its less fortunate through providing economic opportunity as opposed to just tossing out welfare cheques might prove more successful.
Conservatism in Israel could therefore increase the Jewishness of the State in small increments without causing hostility.  This would have the potential to fundamentally change Jewish society in a positive way and serve as a good example for others.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

The New Conservatism II

In the last post I discussed why the Right is on the defensive and losing ground in today's society.  I also noted that challenging the Left's underlying assumption for so much of its ideology, that government is a competent controller of society, needs to be challenged and debunked if the Right is to reverse that trend.
In this post I would like to discuss a further idea that the Right needs to build on in order to re-establish its influence in society and, oddly enough, it's a idea usually associated with the Left.
Modern liberalism, through the pervasive presence of the nanny state, emphasizes the idea of communal responsibility.  Certainly when it comes to taxing the successful members of society this concept is invoked: the rich have the responsibility to look after the poor.
The Right needs to co-opt this idea which I feel is surprising available for the taking.  While the Left talks about the community its encouragement of a culture of entitlements and rights actually promotes the community's fragmentation.  If all I really care about, as a citizen, is what's coming to me without concern for the consequences, then I develop a lack of global vision.  I want my benefits and I don't care if it means my neighbour will suffer.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.
In response, conservatives need to push a society vision which includes all citizens.  What is the goal of the society we live in?  What is the common purpose of our country?  What is the justification for its existence?  Why does the world need it around and how to we contribute to it?
Here's an example: US President Calvin Coolige famously said that the business of America is business.  As the centre of the capitalist world, America is about building capital, both personal and national wealth.  This idea, the complement to the slogan about being the land of opportunity, is lost when the Left's culture of entitlements and rights above responsibilities becomes dominant.  In a Leftist culture the predominant behaviour is the consumption of capital without thought as to how to produce it in the first place.  This is the antithesis of the worldview that led to the dominance of the Western world.
It sounds almost communist but the Right needs to start discussing the responsibility of the individual citizen towards sustainable productivity.  This responsibility can be promoted in ways that make it attractive to the greater society.
Using these ideas, the Right can challenge the Left on a host of social, financial and political issues.
Consider the health care system.  The idea that the state should fund and control a good chunk of healthcare is accepted by populations in the West.  Should government coverage be unlimited and free to all citizens like in Canada or targeted to the poor and elderly with the rest being privately covered like in the US?  Is the best model the European system of parallel public and private systems?  A conservative answer would be based on the idea that it is in society's interest to ensure that those who genuinely cannot afford healthcare are covered in order to promote public health.  It is also in society's interest to ensure coverage for healthcare for all citizens for common and serious conditions.  In the interest of encouraging responsibility in addition to rights, as mentioned in the last post, the conservative health care system may demand co-payments or a restricted access to resources for those people who engage in injurious behaviours.   This could take the form of special health taxes on those foods universally recognized to be unhealthy or access fees to the system for smokers when they have smoking related ailments.
Consider the welfare system.  Social assistance for the downtrodden of society is in the interest of the greater good.  Endless welfare payments for folks who have adjusted to the welfare lifestyle and have no intention of returning to work in any form is not.  Thus conservatives should support a welfare system that demands and funds retraining for the unemployed in order to return them to the workforce.
What about higher education?  In Canada there are two major post-secondary systems - university and college.  Universities are for higher education and the homes of professional schools such as medicine and accounting.  Colleges are trade schools teaching practical occupations.  There is no question that a college graduate is far more likely to find employment upon completing his degree than a university graduate is.   It would therefore be in the conservative interest for governments to fund colleges to the point that tuition levels would be affordable to the majority of the population while allowing university tuition to rise in order to discourage the vast numbers of students who are attending to get their BA in post-medieval English lit with a minor in basket weaving.
How this applies to Israel will be dealt with next.

Sunday 28 August 2016

The New Conservatism

Being conservative isn't easy right now.  On the Canadian side of the border people seem to be in thrall to the boy king, Justin Trudeau and his shirtless adventures.  Despite surviving the last election in better than expected condition, the Conservative party of Canada seems to become more irrelevant every day, its once talented benches now filled with boring, faceless members.  People are in love with Justin's meaningless bromides and laugh at his every joke even as he systematically dismantles every initiative from the previous Conservative government for the sole reason that it was an initiative by the Conservative government.
South of the border the situation is even worse.  Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican party and brought in legions of the worst sort, Neo-nazis and similar ilk in his attempts to destroy the party and throw the election to ensure Hillary Clinton wins despite her abysmal personal ratings.  Calling yourself conservative in the US seems to get you associated with these slack-jawed yokels and their despicable leader.
What is needed is a crushing defeat for the Republicans in November and some real soul-searching for the Conservatives in Canada in order to rebuild the parties along new lines.  Conservativism in the last couple of decades has morphed from a classical political movement into a reactionary ideology with limited ideas and a minimal vision.  True conservatives have to retake centre stage, oust the ideologues and reassert a proper program for the electorate to consider before they can court true electoral success and societal influence again.
What should this new conservativism look like?  Any movement needs an overall vision, something simple upon which to base all the various ideas and initiatives that will come after.  I propose the following: the current battle between Left and Right is a battle between rights and responsibilities.  The Left has been promoting an agenda for decades based on rights, on the individual taking from society without any need to pay back.  People are told they have rights and entitlements and are encouraged to line up and demand them at every opportunity.  As a result we have a society in perpetual debt.  People have lost the ability to budget, to self-constrain, to say no to themselves (although they retain a surprisingly strong ability to say it to others).  As a physician I see this all the time.  I want to prescribe a medication that is appropriate and the patient immediately inquires as to whether his drug plan will cover it, making it very clear that if it isn't he won't since he doesn't have the finances.  He smokes, drinks on a regular basis, has a cell phone and hi speed internet but doesn't have the money for medications and doesn't think he should because society has taught him to believe he is entitled to anything he needs medically.  Corporate North America has bought into this as well.  Once upon a time we had to wait until December 27 to begin Boxing Day shopping.  Now the internet allows people to begin their post-holiday shopping on the December 25 holiday itself.  Easy credit, don't pay for 12-18 months, put yourself into debt and with interest rates so low you never have to worry about digging yourself out of it.  You are entitled to that, says the Left.
The first difficulty of the Right is combating this attitude.  Obviously a head on confrontation is not appropriate.  Imagine a parent offering unlimited candy and no need to do any chores facing off against a parent who wants beds made, vegetables eaten and homework done on time.  We all know the latter parent is the better one and that following her advice will lead to better outcomes in the long term but if we've been raised as spoiled brats with no sense of self-denial we will side with the candy-toting parent every time.  A Right political party preaching about less government services, more self-reliance and the like will get pummelled in a general election by an electorate that is used to the two sides competing to see who can offer more free goodies.  Telling people to be responsible for themselves when they are already used to the gentle caress of the nanny state will lead nowhere.
Instead the Right needs to offer a different emphasis.  The first is to hammer home a simple message: government is not a better solution to anything.  We are often told by the Left as it seeks to expand government control over our lives that the nanny state is better at handling certain matters.  Obama's famous "You didn't build it" statement is the classic motto.  The assumption is that my business is successful because I use roads the government built, programs the government paid for, seek protection under government laws, and so on.  At every point the Left attempts to convince folks that the reason for their increasing encroachment is because of the rapacious nature of the private sector.  Yet time and time again we see examples of government corruption that dwarf any crimes the private sector could commit.  A look at Hillary Clinton's recent e-mail scandal in which the FBI admitted that she had committed criminal offences but that they weren't going to charge her (after her husband coincidentally met with the Attorney General, hmmmmmm) proves that.  The private sectors cuts services to maximize profit?  The government blows billions in kickbacks and diversions which leads to more national and provincial debt while becoming more incompetent at providing the basic services that it says only it can truly provide.
The first emphasis of the Right is to combat this myth aggressively.  When people talk about how great the nanny state is, there needs to be a pushback pointing out its waste, corruption and lack of ability to deliver on its promises.  Success stories from the private industry need to be put up against government graft and cronyism and people need to be told that their assumptions are lies they believe simply because they've been told them for so long.
With this first push the Right can get back into the conversation instead of playing defence while losing market share.
More to come....

Thursday 4 August 2016

The Fist Behind The Smile

If there's a strong force within Orthodoxy today, it's Chabad-Lubavitch.  A few decades ago they were a small chasidic clan with a deep and esoteric Jewish philosophy.  Today many consider them the de facto face of Torah Judaism.  Under the leadership of their last Rebbe, z"l, they expanded to become a worldwide kiruv empire dedicated to spreading their brand of Judaism to any Jews they could find while attempting to bring as many of our brethren back to Judaism as they could.  It's rare to find a mid-size town or university without a Chabad House next to it, never mind in the bigger centres.  There are countless stories about shluchim and their families, about the efforts they'll make to reach out to disaffected and disconnected Jews and, through warmth and kindness, bring them closer to Judaism.
It's all such a well-woven tale that sometimes we forget that, in many ways, Chabad Lubavtich is actually Lubavitch Inc., a billion dollar company.  And just as not employee at Canadian Tire or Best Buy is a helpful salesperson, so too not everyone within Lubavitch is a genuinely outgoing shliach.
A reminder of this has been in the news lately.  The story, in a nutshell, seems simple enough.  A large Modern Orthodox congregation in Crown Heights, the home neighbourhood of Lubavitchers everywhere, recently erected an eiruv in its part of town to accomodate its growing population of young families with young children who get around in strollers.  The alternative to an eiruv is forcing mothers to stay at home all Shabbos long with their children because of the prohibitions on carrying in the absence of an eiruv.  Since its erection the Lubavitchers in the neighbourhood have openly stated their opposition to its existence leading to tension between the two communities.
The reasons for the Lubavitcher opposition are well known.  First of all, due to their fetish for any chumros they kind find in "seforim" they will not hold by anyone else's standards than their own.  This includes eiruvim.  They didn't put it up so it's not good enough for them.  Secondly, and more importantly, the Rebbe apparently decided that a major highway going through Crown Heights has the status of a reshus harabim which means no eiruv can be set up if it crosses that road.  This has led to a Lubavitch position that Crown Heights cannot have a public eiruv.
In a reasonable world, the outcome of this situation would be simple.  The Lubavitchers would announce that they don't consider the eiruv valid and advise their members not to carry on Shabbos just as they've always not carried.  The Modern Orthodox community would announce that they consider the eiruv valid and that anyone who holds by it can carry within its boundaries on Shabbos.
As we know so well, we do not live in a perfect world.  The authorities in Lubavitch have indeed announced that they consider the eiruv invalid but in addition to advising their own community not to abide by it they have gone further and demanded that the Modern Orthodox in Crown Heights also renounce it and not use it to carry on Shabbos.  Why?  Because their Rebbe said Crown Heights can't have an eiruv so therefore no one, even non-Lubavitchers, can have one there.
Here's where the hidden fist behind the smile comes in.  Yes, Lubavitch spreads Judaism around the globe but it's their brand of Judaism, based on twin pillars of Chabad philosophy and Rebbe-as-Moshiach ideology.  They are uncompromising in their approach to the point of relegated other Chareidi philosophies as second best and non-Chareidi Orthodox positions as invalid or illegitimate.  While they get along well enough with other Chasidim and with some Yeshivish folks, they harbor a strong disregard for non-Chareidi Orthodoxy because such practice demonstrates a version of Torah Judaism from their own at the same time that they are trying to convince folks that their version of Torah Judaism is the only real one.
 One might suppose that this is what is happening here.  For a very long time Crown Heights' Jewish community has been synonymous with Lubavitch.  It has now grown beyond that but perhaps the powers that be in 770 want Lubavitch rules to still be the system that governs everyone living there.  As a result they have dropped the friendly mask in a bid to enforce their version of the rules on those who aren't even part of their community.
Folks following the news on Lubavitch out of Australia know the troubles they're in down there with the ongoing revelations of child abuse and pedophlia in their yeshivos.  It's interesting, others have noted, that Lubavitch seems more outraged with other folks using an eiruv than with their own people committing terrible crimes.
It also should cast a new light on your local shaliach the next time he approaches you for a donation or to tell you about his latest farbrengen.  What exactly is hiding behind his smile?

Monday 25 July 2016

Again With The Wall

There's something viscerally annoying about Reformative Jews who, having reformatted Judaism into a secular liberal creed, then presume to tell Orthodox Jews about Torah.  This is something the Women of the Wall and their supporters seem to do on a regular basis.  Having jettisoned 95% of Jewish law, they grab at the little that doesn't offend their sensibilities and use it as a flag of superiority to parade in front of the genuinely Torah observant.
Granted that the behaviour of Orthodox Jews at the Wall when the WoW show up isn't exemplary, it's still annoying when the Reformatives play at innocence and genuine intent.  After all, this is a group that, far from praying for the rebuilding of the Temple, has eliminated any mention of the Temple from their liturgy and would be horrified at the sight of an all-male crew of priests slaughtering animals in the name of God.  For the Orthodox Jew it's not the Wall but the Temple that used to stand above it that is the holiest place in our world.  For the Reformatives it's just the Wall but without any mention of why that Wall matters in the first place.
What's even more annoying though is the picking and choosing.  Yes, we in the Torah observant community are just as guilty a lot of the time.  The description of the hooligans in this article from Times of Israel shows that.  But there is a difference.  While we pick and choose, when we do perform a mitzvah it is done with kavannah and an understanding that we do it because the Creator wishes us to.  The other consideration is that other than career criminals like the Rubashkins and Nechemiah Weberman types, we admit when we fall short of our standards.
The same cannot be said of the Reformatives.  The approach in that community is a "it's feels good so I'll do it" one.  Those mitzvos that don't "feel good" are quickly discarded or declared archaic and non-applicable.
And here's where the annoying part comes in.  The Reformatives luxuriate in the stereotype that the Orthodox are obsessed with ritual while they are fulfilling their "Judaism" through deeds of kindness.  Yes, there is something to that stereotype.  The Chareidi masses, for example, do go crazy with certain aspects of bein adam l'Makom as they interpret them.  Witness the uniformity of clothing, pickiness over the perfect esrog or separate seating on buses.  But a tone such as this article betrays a complete lack of awareness of the full spectrum of the Chareidi community.
No, I haven’t studied Shulchan Aruch. This is the answer I didn’t give. My refusal made the young man’s questioning more persistent. Finally I said: “I’ll answer your question, if you answer mine. Have you helped someone say a deathbed Vidui?”The Vidui is a confessional prayer. Typically recited during the High Holy Days, there are two deathbed versions: one for someone capable of prayer, one for someone incapacitated, like my wife, who seven years ago was slowly dying of brain trauma. A Reform rabbi came to the hospital that Shabbat HaGadol to recite it on her behalf.
So consumed with judging my Judaism and all of liberal Judaism based on the ability to recite halachot — laws concerning religious practice — the young man forgot some core tenants of our covenant.
Justice and righteousness are practiced in the streets, in hospitals and other people’s homes. We visit the sick. We fill the mourner’s fridge and freezer with food. We sit with the elderly, play with children, advocate for the disabled, free the captive and clothe the stranger.
Oooooh, he visited a hospital.  He helped out at a food bank.  Is the author of the post completely unaware that the Chareidi community has entire networks devoted to all of these needs and more?  And compared to the Reformative community there is no question that they do it on a far larger scale and more effectively.  How many Chareidi-run gemachim are there in Israel?  How many Reformative?  How many medical assistance organizations?  Resources for the poor?  We are so happy to bash on the Chareidim because of a few bad apples in their midst, to focus on the negatives, that we forget all that is positive and because, perhaps, we don't want to admit all the good that they do.  After all, if all you have is your hospital visits and food bank service, the only way to live with your abandonment of 3500 years of law and tradition is to convince yourself that you do the kindness thing better than the religious Jews.  If you don't, then what's your justification?
The author concludes with a great quote from Isaiah.  Unfortunately it's hard to take him seriously when he tosses the rest of the Prophets' materials into the trash when it doesn't fit his secular views.
The Wall might belong to the entire Jewish people but not without qualification.  Showing up with an invented religion and insisting that the Wall accommodate you is not a demand you can legitimately make.

Thursday 7 July 2016

The New Priorities

The Hartman family in Israel is a fascinating entity.  First there was Rabbi David Hartman who was Open Orthodox way before Rabbi Avi Weiss ever coined the term.  Despite professing fealty to Orthodox Judaism, which is presumably synonymous with Torah observance, he advanced many ideas that, like the later ones of the YCT gang, were non-Orthodox while pretending that he wasn't actually crossing any lines.  At one point he ran a rabbinical school open to all, including women who were Reform converts.  He may have advertised himself as Orthodox but no one actually Orthodox actually considered him to be.
On the other side of the coin, however, there is his massive record of kindness and humanitarianism to be reckoned with.  How many stories of his decency are out there for the telling?  How can one ignore that?
It is with that legacy in mind that his son, Donniel, also professing to be an Orthodox rabbi like the YCT folks do, has put out a new book that has raised ire in Orthodox circles.  In Putting God Second Hartman seems to argue that doing just that is what's needed to save Orthodoxy from itself and make it a relevant force in the world today.  As he notes, our obsession with God is harming our performance as decent human beings.  Modern religion almost seems to force the choice on us: be a God-fearing person or be a good one.  Faced with that dichotomy, Hartman chooses the latter.
And you know, I'm not sure if he's wrong.
In the article, for example, he waxes about making Israel a more Jewish state not in legal values but in ethical ones.  This is an amazing concept.  Imagine an Israel where Shabbos is not an official day of rest and where politicians keep their promises, the police and army have no corruption in their ranks and tzedakah and chesed are national values uniting all citizens.  Imagine a Western Wall plaza with mixed groups praying together instead of angry mobs of men throwing dirty diapers and chairs while screaming obscenities at their ideological opponents.  In short, imagine a state where the first priority of each citizen was the well-being of his fellow citizens, not pushing people out of line in order to beat the rush for the most mehudar esrog.
There is also a precedent in Jewish lore for Hartman's position.  Chazal tell us that derech eretz preceded Torah by thousands of generations.  Perhaps that's because while Torah is relatively laid out in terms of obligations, derech eretz is far more nebulous and complex in its implementation.  There's a tractate on property laws in the Talmud, none on treating one's fellow decently.  No book could have enough pages.
The words of the Navi, noting that given a choice between a quarrelsome but God-aware society and one in which idols are worshipped but people get along with one another, the Creator prefers the latter. What did the Talmud say was the reason Achav haMelech always won his wars again?
That's what makes Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's pompous criticism of Hartman's book so grating.  While he reminds us that God must be the centre of our lives he too easily dismisses Hartman's position on religious ethics as the base for behaviour.  He brings a list of failed attempts as a weak proof that there's no point to an ethics-centred religion.  He misuses the verse "I have put God before me always" to make his point.  However, he correctly notes that the main problem with Hartman's idea is that his derech eretz is informed not by the Torah but by secular liberal values.  But the core idea gets thrown out with the ill-founded corollaries.
What both men get wrong is that they accept the dichotomy - either fear of God or human decency.  Hartman is comfortable with an abandonment of halacha in the name of decency.  Adlerstein's definition of decency is almost strictly God-based.  What neither seem to intuit is that the dichotomy is forced.
It is easy to see, from looking around, that God-based Judaism is having its problems.  There is a scandal right now across the Jewish blogosphere involving a prolific maggid shiur with a website containing a revolutionary new way of learning Talmud and 1000's of his lectures on-line.  The scandal is in his abusive relationships with young women under his tutelage over the years.  How is such a thing possible?  No one is questioning that the man is a talmid chacham.  In all his learning, how is it that he could lapse so egregiously in ethical behaviour?
A while back I published an acclaimed series entitled "Ritual Uber Alles".  In that series of posts I detailed various scandals du jour and how their occurrence carried a single theme: they were carried out by men intoxicated with bein adam l'Makom while totally in disregard of bein adam l'Chaveiro.
Accepting the dichotomy, Hartman makes what I think is the logical choice.  Would one rather live among decent, honest people or amongst duplicitous thieving halachic Jews?  An honest reading of the sources would suggest God Himself would rather that we live in peace and quiet even if it meant we weren't constantly thinking of Him.
The real answer lies in a synthesis of the two positions and challenges us to maintain a delicate balance.  "I have put God before me always" should inform our interactions with Him and our fellow man but putting God before us means using the common sense He did gift us with.  One limitation with bringing God into inter-personal relationships is that it sometimes makes us see the other person as an object with utility in our mitzvah observance.  For example, I'm not visiting you in hospital because you're sick and lonely and it's the decent thing to do because God said so.  I'm visiting you because I want to score the mitzvah point!  This is a failure of the concept, simply moving Ritual Uber Alles into a new area.
Instead we must remember that we are capable of ethical behaviour within the bounds of halacha.  We can set limits without being abusive of those.  We can be godly through following God's examples.  We can, as Hartman wants, create a decent and ethical society without, as Adlerstein insists, setting halacha as a secondary priority to secular values.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Moral Oppression

It's no secret that the gulf between the political right and left in Western society is a gaping chasm filled with piranha.  The level of virulence in the debate between the two sides rarely reaches levels of calm, reasoned discourse and inevitably any serious interaction between them ends in a rancorous exchange.
It should be no wonder then that the fight over the recent British referendum on whether or not the UK should leave the EU was characterized by loud arguments, physical violence and one political assassination.  The increased level of fighting since then has only continued the pre-vote trend.
On the surface, it should have been a no-brainer for the Stay side to win. They had almost every important card in their hand, including economic, politican and trade stability.  The Leave side, on the other hand, focused its campaign on the ugly side of matters: immigration and xenophobia.  Why did the English and Welsh vote decisively (which is was when you take the Scots and Irish out of the numbers) to leave a system which has served them well for decades?
To understand why this happened you have to look at the tactics used by the right and left in political debates.  On the right there is no shortage of vulgarity.  One need only look o'er the pond at Donald Trump for the stereotypical approach.  The right does not mince words but proceeds to insults, especially those that question their opponents' intelligence.  Don't look for complex put downs either.  "You're a stupid head" is pretty basic fare in this camp.
On the left, however, the approach is quite different.  For the left, disagreement isn't a simple matter of someone not being smart enough to agree with, like it is with the right, although it is part of the system.  Instead there is an approach based on morality.  You're not stupid if you disagree with them, you are evil.  They have many words for evil such as homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and so on but at the base of it they treat their opponents not just as intellectual inferiors but as moral ones as well with themselves being the arbiters of what is true and righteous in the universe.
We saw this in Canada with the recent Jian Ghomeshi scandal in which a well-known radio broadcaster in Toronto was accused of sexually assaulting several women.  The justice system eventually determined that, at least with three of the principle victims, the charges were unwarranted and he was acquitted.  The social justice system, on the other hand, had declared him completely guilty as soon as the story broke and then went on to vilify the judge who let him off, the proectuing lawyer for not getting the conviction, the defence lawyer who had dared to defend him despite his "obvious" guilt and any others who questioned whether or not he was guilty.  Such people were quickly labelled as women haters and enablers of rapists.
In Britain the referendum campaign ran pretty much along the same lines.  For those on the Leave side, people wanting to stay were simpering fools who preferred to have their lives controlled by the bureaucrats in Brussels.  There were idiots who didn't want Britain to return to its former glory.  But the Stay side?  Their opponents were labelled as xenophobes, racists, neo-fascists and the like.  It wasn't about seeing things differently or not understanding how great the EU has been for the UK, it was a campaign to legitimize their opponent's right to a differing opinion.  What's more, it didn't matter how mild the concerns were on the Leave side.  If you weren't on Stay you were Sauron's handmaiden.
That is what ultimately backfired on the Stay side.  Yes, there is a hard core of the British population that is living in denial.  This group really believes that Britain has mattered as a world power since the end of the Second World War when it really hasn't.  They really believe that, unfettered by EU constraints, Great Britain shall be great again.  They want all them yucky foreign types out so there's no competition for jobs.  Britain for the British, eh guv'nor?
There is also a large, more moderate population that has legitimate concerns with the current arrangements Britain has with the EU.  They worry that uncontrolled immigration will cause economic upheaval.  They worry about the increasing role Brussels has in regulating their lives.  They wonder why un-elected Europeans seem to have more and more control over the government that they actually vote for.
But when they express these concerns, the Left responds in monolithic fashion.  "I want all 'em grubby types out!" and "I'm worry about a sudden expansion of the population and how our economy will handle it" are met with equally vehement cries of "Racist!"  So resentment builds and then, given the chance, it expresses itself as it did in the referendum.
The response of the left to the results is also instructive as to its condescension for its opponents.  One smarmy left wing talk show host after another has gone on record condemning the results.  Never mind that in democracy the golden rule is that the electorate never makes a mistake.  For the left, the electorate only gets it right when they win.  Otherwise the people are indeed wrong.  Don't think that large numbers of folks in the moderate middle weren't thinking this in the ballot booth.
In short, the left's delusions of moral superiority have pushed the UK to the edge of an abyss and, in their lack of insight, they now stand poised to push it off the cliff.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Wall For All Jews, Not All "Judaisms"

One of the recurrent sources of conflict at the Western Wall is between the Ultraorthodox community and the non-religious egalitarian activities, the Women of the Wall.  The Ultraorthodox position is that prayers at the Wall should be conduct in as Chareidi a fashion as possible.  The WoW's want to turn a chunk of the Plaza into a Reform "temple".  The irony of a "temple" beside where the real Temple once stood (may it be speedily rebuilt) should not be lost on us.
An argument frequently mentioned by the WoW's and their supporters is that before 1948 when the Old City fell into Jordanian hands, there was no mechitza at the Wall.  Therefore there is a precedent for mixed prayers and, if the mechitza today can't be removed, a section should be set aside at the Plaza for mixed services.  What's more, government attempts to find a compromise by renovating a separate section of the Wall, Robinson's Arch, are unacceptable since it isolates the WoW's from the main plaza and is therefore unfair.
Let's deconstruct these arguments to reveal how shallow they are.
Firstly, it is true that there was no mechitza at the Wall before 1948.  There is ample film and photo evidence of that.  However, there is a simple reason: the Wall was not a site of organized prayer.  This was forbidden under the British and before them, the Turks due to the fear of agitating the Arabs perched on the har haBayis above.  Jews could approach the Wall in small groups and pray individually and for that no mechitza is needed.  After 1967 the Plaza quickly turned into an outdoor synagogue.  In order to accommodate all Jewish worshippers it needed a mechitza.  After all, there is no law in Reformative "Judaism" that prayers must be mixed, just a strong preference while in Torah Judaism there is a law against mixed prayers.  A mixed plaza would exclude the Orthodox.  How ironic that those who claim to be excluded are the ones pushing for it.
Secondly, despite its commercial success we must recall that the section of the Wall overlooking the main plaza is just that: a section.  The section overlooking Robinson's Arch is just as genuine a part of the Wall.  Why don't the WoW's accept that?  Could it be that they're more interested in garnering attention to themselves and infuriating the Chareidim in the Main Plaza than really wanting to pour out their hearts to God?
The official rebuttal to these weak claims is simple.  The Wall is open to all Jews but not all "Judaisms".  A Judaism in which God approves of lifestyles His Torah declares to be forbidden, a God who approves of all secular liberal principles while frowning on those that have been the hallmark of Judaism for millennia, a God who thinks that the outside world encouraging equality for men and women along with the blurring of the distinction between the genders means He has to change His Torah, that Judaism is not welcome at the Wall.  Prayer at the Wall is not about pushing an agenda but approaching the Creator with humility within the parameters of halacha.
Once you drop the authority of Torah, once you change Judaism to fit your views, the holiness of the Temple departs and the Wall becomes just a wall.  If that's the case, they can pray anywhere else.  Why cause a fuss for us?

Sunday 5 June 2016

The City's Not For Sharing

Today is Yom Yerushalayim, the 49th one since the miraculous day that the Master of the Universe smiled on our brave soldiers in 1967 and gave us the Old City which had been in enemy hands for almost twenty years.  It has become a tradition to publicly celebrate this momentous event in Jewish history and some of the events include a march through the entire Old City by Jews intent on reminding all its inhabitants that they live now and forever under Jewish sovereignty.
Naturally there are some people who are upset by that.  Of course  it's all in the good spirit of post-Zionist, Western-culture-hatred that these concerns are raised.  The same people who were barred from their holy sites for 19 years despite signed treaties guaranteeing them otherwise are not allowed to enjoy the fruits of their success.  This is intolerable, and of course, racist.
Now remember that the Left is actual quite racist but they cloak it under the guise of political correctness.  For Jews to talk about Jewish Israel is wrong.  For benighted Arabs to talk about an Judenrein state of Palestine is fine, a natural reaction to "the occupation".  So thus we have the Temple Mount, the Har haBayis, the site of the binding of our father, Yitzchak Avinu, a"h, but for them it's only one thing: the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site.  Jews need not visit.  It'll just upset "the natives".  And beyond that we have Yerushalayim, the centre of the Jewish world for 3500 years but hey, don't say that out loud.  It'll just upset "the natives".  We can't talk about how the Temple Mount is the centre of our nation but they can shout about their exclusive rights on all their loudspeakers and that's okay.
The linked article is especially weak, though, since its title implies there are two legal Jewish arguments against Jews demonstrating that Yerushalayim is a Jewish city, Old City and all, and nothing else.  The first is taken from the Nevi'im and claims that the reason Babylon was punished for destroying Judah was because in addition to conquering our ancestors they humiliated us.  From this the author learns the classic liberal lesson: you can win a war but don't you dare act like it.  On most other days of the year there are multiple neighbourhoods in the Old City that Jews dare not tarry in or even enter.  On Yom Yerushalayim, one day out of 365, we do and this is too much for the liberal mind.  Sure we won a great victory, let's go somewhere else to celebrate.  We don't want to remind "the natives" they lost or interrupt any of their "Soon we will slaughter the Jews!" speeches.
The second argument is even weaker, based on a statement that makes no sense.  The author claims that the only time the word "degel" appears in Tanach is in Shir HaShirim.  Unless her use of the word "Tanach" specially excludes Torah, she clearly hasn't read the first few sections of Bemidbar in which the word repeatedly appears.  In that case the Degel is entirely about nationalistic identification since each tribe is assigned one so that everyone knows exactly where in the camp they are entitled to live.  The degel, in fact, proves the opposite of her point.  It is the degel of the State of Israel, the Jewish state of Israel, that flies over Yerushalayim.  We should make no apologies for that and the locals should know exactly what the implications of it are.
All this goes without reminding folks that Islamic claims of Yerushalayim as a holy city are based on rumour and myth.  The greatest proof is that even those that pray on the Temple Mount turn to face Saudi Arabia, the centre of their religion.  They love the Temple Mount because it's important to us, not them.
We must understand, of course, that our Final Redemption is only in its earliest stages and that during this time we have to expect a certain level of imperfection in our Land.  We are not at the point where we can simply expel all non-Jews who refuse to acknowledge Jewish sovereignty and enforce halacha as the law of the Land.  Only the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu can help us achieve that and frankly, he's nowhere on the horizon right now.  However, we can realize the this is the reason we share Yerushalayim with others, amongst them our enemies, not because it's a nice liberal politically correct, pro-diversity thing to do.  The march is a reminder that although we cannot have our ideal situation we are still in a position to remind the others that God has given us through His kindness control of our Holy City.

Tuesday 31 May 2016

Why Does Anyone Still Care?

When I first got into blogging back in 2007 it was an exciting time.  In the glory days of the Jewish blogosphere there were flames shooting back and forth between the pro-theist and a-theist gangs of bloggers who were eager and willing to share their opinion on the subject of God (He exists, by the way) and Judaism.  New blogs appeared on a weekly basis, people commented with enthusiasm, it was all kinds of fun.
Times have changed, of course.  As our society's attention span continues to shrink many blog essays have been replaced by the mental farts that pass for Facebook posts.  Most of the atheist blogs, having made their one point repeatedly about God and the Documentary Hypothesis (it's wrong, by the way) eventually dried up and shut down.
One of the few blogs that kept this flame alive is Rav Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism blog.  Over the years his interest in Biblical flora and fauna, along with his safari trips and interesting insights into the rational side of Jewish legal history, have kept people tuning into his thoughts.
Along with his ongoing efforts, however, there has been the dark side.  These are a cadre of bloggers who are obsessed in a negative way with Rav Slifkin.  While FKManiac has managed to find other targets to attack over the years, The Slifkin Challenge still seems to have nothing better to do with his life than misrepresent what Rav Slifkin writes about and then challenge it.
And then there's Rav Moshe Meiselman who has written a large opus on the subject of Torah and science in an effort to refute the opinions expressed in Rav Slifkin's now classic The Challenge of Creation.   Rav Slifkin in turn published a series of posts on his blog showing the holes in Rav Meiselman's thesis.  Rav Mencken, over at Cross Currents, recently attempted to bring Rav Meiselman's book back to life with a glowing review only to discover that Rav Slifkin was quite happy to take that apart too.  Since then attacks between Ravs Slifkin and Mencken have gone back and forth and I presume there are quiet phone calls between Mencky and Rav Meiselman in the background on the subject of how to deal with Rav Slifkin's cogent criticisms.
Watching all this from afar, I think the atheists were the smart ones for giving up on blogging and getting on with life.
I mean, seriously, what's the point of all this arguing?  Anyone who agrees with Rav Slifkin is not going to read Rav Meiselman's book and suddenly come to a totally new conclusion on Torah and science.  People who live in Rav Meiselman's magical universe full of unicorns and fire-breathing Chazal will not even touch Rav Slifkin's book no matter how well he presents his arguments.  Those in the middle, for the most part, simply don't care.
What's the argument even over?  Whether the Rambam thought Pi to be an irrational number and whether he learned this from Chazal and their supernatural knowledge of everything?  Really, who cares?
Consider it this way: I'm not a student of Rav Meiselman's and unlikely every to be.  I don't work for him, I don't rent from him and no close relatives of mine are likely to wind up as potential marital partners of his children's or grandchildren's.  The chance of us ever crossing paths is remote and even if it did happen, it would likely be uneventful, just like the time I crossed paths with Rav Leib Tropper (yes I did).
I am also reasonably certain that Rav Slifkin is in a similar situation vis a vis Rav Meiselman.  Yes, Rav Meiselman and his cadre seem overly interested in attacking Rav Slifkin but in the internet age these kinds of attacks have little punch.  Did they put his book in cherem?  Didn't hurt its sales and turned him from a well-known internet personality into an extremely well-known internet personality.  Are scores of yirei Shamayim suddenly going off the derech because of The Challenge of Creation?  To quote the immortal Al Bundy, "Uh, no Peg."
It all seems so petty to realize that this meaningless fight which leads nowhere and changes no one's mind is still going on.  Do they really not have anything better to do?

Sunday 29 May 2016

The Coming Dictatorship

One of the recurring themes in Hollywood movies about political dystopias is how the nightmare future is dominated by an extreme right-wing government.  Based on the world's experience with fascism in the 20th century, we are treated to repeated examples of right-wing groups, sometimes neo-Nazis, sometimes religious fanatics, taking over the world and forcing their views and ideology on everyone.
Truth is that while fascism had a brief run in the sun between 1933 and 1945, it is the extreme form of left wing thinking, communism, that outlasted, out-controlled and out-murdered any other system in the history of civilization.  The same people who think that communism wasn't such a bad idea are usually in favour of movies that tell us the right wing is an imminent threat to our freedoms, usually as they advocate for a diminishing of those freedoms in the name of political correctness.
In short, they try to distract us with nightmares of a right-wing takeover while the worse left-wing one is in process.
In Canada this has recently taken a large step forward and I do believe that most Canadians don't realize what has happened.
Several months ago we elected a new government up here in the Great White North.  After 11 years in power the Conservatives were relegated to Official Opposition status while the Liberals under Justin Trudeau swept into power.
Who is Justin Trudeau?  He is the faithful son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1983.  PET was a closet communist who admired the worst mass-murderer of the 20th century, Mao Zedong, as a great thinker and philosopher.  He made common cause with Fidel Castro, a ruthless thug who turned prosperous Cuba into an impoverish outdoor political prison.  He looked down on the United States with contempt and only admired those parts of Europe that shared his socialist vision.  Through the introduction of official bilingualism in the government and civil service he worked towards achieving his goal of a Canada run by Quebec since most Quebecois are functionally bilingual while the vast majority of non-Quebec Canadians are not.  He ran up huge deficits annually to support his vast socialist projects as well.
And Justin?  Well he's on record as saying that a Canada run by the Conservatives is not a Canada he feels part of and that if Canadians continued to support a Conservative government despite being offered the opportunity of having him as leader he would support Quebec separating from Canada.  He is also on record as feeling that the Chinese government is the best in the world, specifically because its authoritarian nature allows it to do whatever it wants with Chinese society without having to worry about things like elections and popular opposition.
During the election campaign one of the big issues he hit upon was electoral reform.  Canada currently has a Westminster-style parliament with the country divided into something like 338 ridings.  Each party runs a candidate in each riding and the candidate that gets the most votes in that riding, even if it's less than 50%, winds up getting that riding's seat in Ottawa.  Given that there are three major parties and one minor one across the country, that means a party that gets 40% of the overall popular vote can easily get a majority of 55-60% of the seats in Ottawa.  Whether or not that's good depends on who's in power.  When the Liberals are in opposition they tend to remind people that the Conservatives didn't really win a majority.  When they're in power they like to point out that they have a majority of seats so who cares about the popular vote.
Now they want to change that system on the excuse that they want a new one which will ensure that any government got into power by getting more than 50% of the vote, a true majority.  They are proposing a ranked ballot in which votes choose their number 1 and 2 choices.  If someone gets 50% of the votes in the riding, great.  If not, the top two candidates make it to the second round.  The electoral officer then counts the 2nd choices of the ballots of the rest of the candidates and applies them to the remaining candidates meaning someone will eventually get 50%. 
This all sounds nice until you realize one important thing: the Liberals know from their polls that amongst socialist and conservative voters they are almost always the second choice.  Now do the math.  Say in a given riding the Conservative gets 40% of the vote, the Liberal gets 35% and the NDP (that's our Socialist party) gets the last 25%.  The Conservative and Liberal go to the second round and the NDP candidate's ballots are counted to tally up the second choices.  Given that almost all the NDP voters will choice the Liberal as their second choice the Liberal candidate will now jump to 60% and take the riding. 
The math works the same if the NDP gets 40% and the Conservative gets 25%.  The Liberal wins again.
What this means is that other than a handful of dedicated ridings where the Conservative or NDP candidates usually get more than 50% of the vote, the Liberals will take pretty much every other riding in the country.  Short of a massive flub, like say the Liberal Prime Minister having sex with a donkey on the evening news, opinion won't shift significantly enough to change this.  As a result we will have a system where every  4 years we have what amounts to a token election guaranteed to put Justin and company back into power.  Remember his comment about the Chinese government system now?
Justin has already announced that there will be no popular referendum on this.  He will force whatever he wants through Parliament using his current majority.  Naturally there is a 10 member committee in Parliament studying this and naturally 6 of them are Liberals.  Any thoughts on their conclusions?
My only question is why most Canadians don't even seem to care.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Happy Holiday

Sometimes I feel bad for Yom Ha'atzma'ut.  Nobody gets upset about Pesach or Shavous and everyone looks forward to Purim but Yom Ha'atma'ut?  People either really love it or not.  There seems to be no in-between.
To me that seems proof of the importance of the establishing of the State.  After all, folks tend not to care too much about unimportant things.  When something holds a deep emotional meaning to folks they do tend to express their care and interest, sometimes extremely strongly.
For example, whenever a gentile politician announces something like "I support Israel's right to exist" or "I support Israel's right to defend itself" people don't bat an eye but does it ever occur to them how stupid either statement sounds?  I mean, when was the last time you heard, "I support Nigeria's right to exist" or "I support Pakistan's right to defend itself"?  It seems only when Israel is the subject that such things need to be stated because otherwise they might be in doubt.
Within the Jewish People we find the same problem.  Support is there for Israel but on condition or begrudgingly.  On the left we have Reformatives who support the State of Israel as long as it's a multicultural, religiously tolerant, semi-socialist, non-religious entity.  On the right we have the folks who refuse to admit any liking for the State or its institutions but who betray their happiness with its existence by accepting all the tax funds it shovels their way (but without them having to say "thank you", chas v'shalom).
So as usual it's left up to the centre, in this case the Religious Zionist community to get it right here's what that community has to say:
1) The State of Israel is not perfect but it is the start of the Final Redemption, a gift from God to give us an opportunity to move history forward to its eschatological conclusion.  (Did I use the word right?)
2) The Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.  We have no allies, partners, folks we can share with, and so on.
3) Therefore, when anyone challenges the legitimacy of the State and of Jewish society in Israel we have to respond simply, without convolutions or appeals to their understanding.  God gave us this land.  Through His generosity, it's ours.  Don't like it?  Find another place to live, please.
Let us hope that this Yom Ha'atzma'ut is the last in which we have to accept an imperfect state and government and that in the coming year history will once more move forward so that we will see all of Yerushalayim, including the entire Has haBayis in our possession under the rule of God's chosen Moshiach.  Until then let us realize that Israel is our connection to God, our proof of His intervention in history and not accept the opinions of anyone who thinks less.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Part 3: Emunah In General

So far I have discussed my approach to hasgachas pratis and revealed that I am of a semi-deterministic bent.  I then followed up with the idea that bakashos in prayer should be focused on people requesting the faith to accept what is happening to them and to ask for greater understanding of their situation, not a grab bag of requests from the celestial catalogue.
As a result of those two essays I now come to the final part of the question: what is my approach to emunah in general?
The first source for emunah that I want to reference is that of Avraham Avinu, a"h, specifically Bereshis 15: "And he believed in the Lord and He counted it to him for righteousness."  Avraham Avinu, as we know, was promised a son and a great inheritance in Israel at a time when there was no physical evidence that any of it would come true.  Sarah Imeinu, a"h, was infertile.  They were both elderly.  Yet Avraham Avinu never doubted God's promise.
The second source is from the 1st chapter of Pirkei Avos which we just read this past Shabbos.  In it we are told not to serve God as servants seeking a reward but to serve Him as servants not seeking a reward and to have the fear of Heaven upon us.
There is also a third and final source I want to reference, also from Avos, which tells us that all people and things in the world have their "fifteen minutes of fame" as it were.
Combining these three sources with the previous two essays I believe I can provide a simple answer to what emunah should be.  Emunah should be a simple concept because it has to serve as the foundation for all our beliefs, inclinations and interactions with the Creator and the universe He created.  As a foundation it should be someone obvious and comprehensive that can be a common factor in all those things.
Emunah is accepting that God knows what He's doing.
As Chazal says, b'chol derachecha, da'ehu.  In all your ways, know Him.  That is the basic expression of emunah.  Accept that you were created by God and that you therefore have infinite individual value.  On the other hand, so was that slug you were watching crawl across your driveway this morning.  At some point, it will also matter in some way in the grand scheme of things.  Yet you are not the same as the slug.  You are part of the pinnacle of creation, one of the self-aware that knows that God is the Creator and that you are fulfilling a purpose, not just mindlessly going through your day working towards that purpose.  If you feel the need to speak to Him on a personal level, you know you have nothing greater to do that acknowledge His perfection, His need (as it were) for you to play your role in Creation and to request a greater understanding of that role but that overall you are part of His bigger picture.  This is the example of Avraham Avinu who, even though he was offered something his understanding of the physical universe told him he'd never have, did not waver in his belief that he would eventually hold that something in his arms and give him a name.  That is the standard we aim for.  When we reach it we see that we are part of God's team (as it were) and therefore our service of Him isn't for brownie points but as part of a universal effort to bring history forward to its final conclusion, our redemption.
It seems simple but for each of us it's a challenge of a lifetime.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Does Prayer Matter?

The second topic mentioned for discussion is bakashos in tefillah

I think a great place to start when looking at prayer is the works of the Rav, zt"l, especially the recently published Worship Of The Heart.  In it he explains the concept of prayer, its universal access and how to achieve avodah shebalev
To follow up on the previous post, given that I endorse a semi-deterministic position when it comes to hashgacha pratis I think it's fair to ask if I think prayer is effective.  The answer, as is common, is "that depends".
There are three types of prayer to consider.  The first is prayer that praises the Creator for His greatness, His gifts to us, His guidance of the universe and so on.  This type of prayer was set down for us by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah because, as Chazal note, if we were to try and accurately praise God for His greatness we would be at a loss for words.  We simply cannot say enough praises about Him to fully describe His essence and falling short of that full description would be insulting to Him.  Therefore we are limited to what the early sages and last prophets ordained as appropriate and acceptable to Him.
The second type is that of showing gratitude.  Similar to the first category, most of them are set out for us although there is room for informal, spontaneous "thank God!" exclamations in this category.  Again, we have much to guide us from the earliest sages and last prophets in terms of where to focus our attention and how to properly express gratitude for His endless gifts to us.  So far, so good.
The third category is that of requests and like the second category there is both a formal and informal approach.  We have well known requests in our daily prayers both for our needs, our nation's needs and those of the world at large.  This category, however, lends itself to the most individualism.  This is where the sick prayer for healing with an intensity that those who are healthy do not.  This is where the lonely, the heartbroken or just the child wanting a new bicycle approach God with specific requests for help.  Not surprisingly, this is the category that leads to the most disappointment.
As mentioned, I endorse a semi-deterministic position.  God has, is and will see all that has, is and will occur.  He knows how the novel ends, as it were.  For Him there are no surprises.  We, trapped in the linear flow of the river of time, must accept the idea of a past we cannot return to, a present that is always slipping past and a future we cannot know until it becomes the present.  From our limited position we see ourselves as choosing and perceive that those choices determine our futures.  However, if the whole plan is already in existence from God's viewing point, is there really a point to individual request-based prayer?  Simply put, if the grand scheme calls for that child not to get a new bicycle for some reason, is his prayer useless or even a cruel joke?
In response to that I would like to reframe the question: is it appropriate to pray for the bicycle in the first place?
Near the end of Berachos we are told a statement of Hillel's.  He notes that if he enters his city and hears the sound of frantic shouting he is certain that it is not coming from his house.  Taken superficially the story seems to lend a sense of arrogance to him.  He's so sure nothing could go wrong at home that would cause distress?
I have heard it explained differently though.  Hillel's faith in God, and that of his family, was so strong that no matter what happened there was immediate acceptance that the events in question, great or terrible, were an expression of His will.  The house could catch on fire, someone could plummet to serious injury, and the response would be "That's what God wants, no point in screaming because He is perfect and therefore this is for the best".  
It's understandable that most of us are not on that level.  I certainly am not, nebich.  This does not change that such a level is something we should aspire towards.  As part of that process we therefore have to reconsider how we approach God with our requests.  After all, to think that God is going to upend history for someone, no matter how much pain or desperation they're in, smacks of hubris.
The child wants a bicycle.  The sick person wants healing.  The grieving wife wants her missing husband to come home.  To turn to God and request a fulfilment of the heart's request is certainly understandable but if the negative event, as painful as it is, is part of the overall plan towards the greater good of Creation, should it be negated?  Again simply put, if the sick person's healing comes at a future cost of dozens of lives from a serious of events set in motion by his convalescence, should be still be seeking out his recovery?
Bakashos in prayer should therefore be of a different type.  In the spirit of Hillel, we should still seek out God when we are needy, emotional or desperate but the theme of our prayer to Him should be "Do what's best, I trust You on that, but please let me see the reason this is happening so I can understand Your ways better."  Such a prayer would, instead of causing disappointment, lead to a greater sense of faith in God and remind us that we all are part of the greater community in Creation.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Divine Intervention

So, off camera I've been e-mailing back and forth with a reader who has been asking me some really interesting questions.  Until now I've not published any of that here.  I was enjoying the private conversation.  Some of his recent questions have been quite deep and I began thinking that the answers would make good blog posts.  So without further adieu, I am going to try and post a few of them along with my answers.
hashgacha pratis, bakashos in tefillah, and emunah in general.

Part 1: Hasgachas pratis

I think that the term hasgahas pratis has suffered the same fate in the Orthodox world that tikun olam has in the non-Orthodox one.  Just like the Reformative have appropriated the latter term to mean anything trendy and politically correct, we seem to have taken the former and turned it into a feel-good concept.  Look, I caught my bus and made it on time to davening today despite waking up late!  Hasgachas pratis!  I was supposed to be on that flight that hit the World Trade Centre but I missed it because of traffic.  Hasgachas pratis!
From what I've read and understand, this is completely not what the concept is about.
Let's set down some basic assumptions.  We live in a four dimensional universe but can only travel in three of them.  X, Y and Z are all available and controllable but not T, time.  (Unless you have a TARDIS which I don't... yet) One of our psychological limitations is our inability to truly comprehend any entity which does not require three physical dimensions and one temporal one.  Yes, we have Einstein's theory of relativity and timespace interaction but on a practical, daily basis we are stuck with what we see.  We cannot conceive of an independent entity that occupies only one or two dimensions or one that can travel through time like we do over a bridge.
Furthermore, we accept as axiomatic that God, as First Cause and Creator, exists outside all of these dimensions since, as Creator, He existed before them.  What does that mean?  Going back to the previous paragraph it becomes obvious: we have no clue.  We don't know what it's like to live in a reality independent of time or physical dimension.  We can say that He has all of existence in front of Him; all that was, is and will be from our perspective already "is" in front of Him.  Just like I can look at a Rubik's Cube on my desk and appreciate it in its entirety.  God does that with our universe.  Can you understand how?  I can't.
This raises some difficult questions.  For example, if He's looking at all of existence all at once then what I call the future has, in some way, already happened.  Predestination.  But what does that do for freedom of choice?  I think I'm making a decision but perhaps I'm only playing out my role as programmed.  To support that position we have the mysterious statement of Rabbi Akiva in Avos, that all is foreseen but permission to choose is granted.  It's self-contradictory.
And if everything has been written then how can there be hashgachas pratis?  After all, if my catching the bus this afternoon is a fixed part of the Divine plan then how is my saying Baruch haShem! after running to catch it a sign of Divine attention?
It seems to me that we have to instead see Hasgachas pratis as a different concept.
Consider the final chapters of the book of Iyov.  In the book, as is well known, God punished Iyov even though he hadn't done anything wrong.  Iyov responds by continuing to believe in God but deciding that He really doesn't do anything for us down here.  We're on our own as He sits in Heaven and watches the Sunday football game.  Into the picture come four friends who, in varying ways, tell Iyov that God works in a linear fashion.  You sin, you get punished.  Therefore despite his protestations to the contrary they are convinced that Iyov must have sinned and he's simply living in denial.
Finally, after a lot of back and forth God Himself makes an appearance.  He makes it clear He's not happy with the four friends and how they've been insisting Iyov is some kind of menuval.  But then He turns his attention to Iyov and things get really interesting.
In a nutshell He points out to Iyov that the universe is really large and really complicated.  There are a near infinite number of pieces that have to be kept in perfect order at all times and a simply human being can't comprehend the complexity of the entire system, much less understand how it works.  In short, life is a lot bigger than us and we have to accept there is a lot happening out there we don't understand.
Consider this the next time someone else grabs that taxicab and, as you stand on the sidewalk swearing you see it hit full on by the cross-town bus.  Hasgachas pratis!  If you'd have caught that taxi you'd be dead!  God is personally watching over you.  Or was the purpose of saving you not because of you but because of a great-grandchild you'll eventually have who fulfills some important destiny?   If something bad happens, is it a swipe at you or one of the chess pieces moving in the grand design to put another person into a position to act on something?
Hasgachas pratis isn't about looking at God in a linear fashion.  Something good happened to me.  Hasgachas pratis!  Something bad happened to me.  Hasgachas pratis!  Me, me, me.  It's about understanding that despite running this incredibly large universe, God has assigned a role for each and every one of us.  Again, to recall Avos, there is no person who doesn't have a role in Creation.  If something unexpected happens to you, good or bad, it is a reminder of that.  Coincidences, good or bad fortune, everything might be meant and there may be a bigger purpose at work than can be conceived but you were still an integral part of that purpose.  That's the way I think the concept should be understood.

Thursday 24 March 2016

One Objective First

There is an old story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who was challenged to show God's power in this world.  To do so he asked his servant to bring something the local ruler had declared as contraband.  After insisting on it the servant went out and eventually returned with the item.  After that he asked the servant to bring him some bread from a Jewish home, the caveat being that this occurred during Pesach.  Again the servant needed some pushing but eventually went out.  This time he came back empty handed.  Reb Levi Yitzchak triumphantly pointed out that a human rule with police and courts couldn't get people to follow his laws but God in Heaven could count on his nation to be obedient without anything to enforce His law.
Nowadays, of course, the story wouldn't have ended the same.  The servant would easily have found bread, nebich, and returned with it to his master.  We therefore have to look at this story and draw a different conclusion.
Before we can demand obedience to the Creator, we have to restore His position as our ruler.  Despite how obvious that seems, it's not a simple task at all.  Both within the frum community and without, God takes a back seat when it comes to our priorities.  We mumble about Him in our prayers, say Baruch HaShem instinctively and all that but when was the last time most of us were moved to talk privately with Him, or to mention Him without it being in some official context.  We struggle with "Gadol worship" and chassidish venerations of their Rebbe as a conduit between them and the Creator.  The extra level dulls our connection.
Outside the Torah observant world the situation is no better.  There God is an impotent, all-approving figure whose job is to reward us for our good deeds (and we'll subjectively decide on what those are) and refrain from judging us when we fail to meet His standard. 
Is this any surprise though?  In a famous story in the Midrash similar to the one above, one of our Chachamim tries the same thing with a Roman emperor, this time the challenge being for the emperor to ban all fires in the city.  At the end of the day the two stand on the roof of the palace, survey the city and see a single pillar of smoke in the distance.  Nowadays there would be dozens of such pillars and everyone would have an excuse as to why the law doesn't apply to them.  We live in a society when the cardinal rule for lawfulness is "It's only illegal if you don't get caught".  We are not so isolated as to be immune from this attitude.  Outside the frum world you can find lots of bread on Pesach.  Inside the ranks of the pious you can find crimes just as bad, just as easily.
If there is therefore to be a change within the Jewish nation, especially within Israel itself, we must ask ourselves what one simple change we can make to turn ourselves towards God and His expectations for us.  Bullying people into keeping Shabbos whether they want to or not, telling them how to use the mikveh or not, isn't doing it.  What would?
Perhaps all parts of the Jewish community need to be reminded that God is our King.  Stop, period, nothing more.  Until now we have failed to do that because of the implications that come with it.  If God is King, then how dare any of us tolerate disobedience, either within ourselves or from our brethren? 
I would suggest that the same way we see infractions of law from our fellow citizens wherever we live, citizens who nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of the government they live under and who, if forced, will therefore obey its laws, we approach ourselves in the same manner.
You can't force a person to keep kosher without his accepting that there is an Authority who demands it of him yet that is precisely what so often happens.  You can't expect a person to abandon secret sins if he is convinces that the all-seeing Eye in the Sky isn't watching him at certain times.
Before we worry about the little things, or frankly even the big ones, we have to work on re-establishing His authority.  Once all Jews recognize that, despite their level of observance or non-observance, there is a God in Heaven that we are all governed by then we can talk about bringing people around to a more proper form of behaviour.  Accept the government, then push the laws.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Get Serious Or Stop Complaining

The two big changes being contemplated in the religious status quo in Israel these days are the building of an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and the fight over who gets to control the mikveh experience at State controlled ritualariams across the country. 
With the former there seems to be little worry that the current situation will change, less with every passing day in fact.  For one thing, the Chareidi parties in the government are threatening to bolt the coalition if the changes go through.  For another, the women you'd think would be thrilled with the new layout are not excited since giving them a section to daven away from the Ultraorthodox they thrive on antagonizing fails to help them achieve their primary goal, making the newscasts.
With the latter situation the Chareidi parties area once again using their position in the narrow majority government to push through a bill that will ensure Chareidi control and standards in State mikva'os.  On one hand that's frustrating since it's well understood that the Chareidi position is that only their understanding of ritual practice is acceptable.  That means fully observant Torah positions in non-Chareidi communities are as illegitimate as those in the Reformative group and that many frum women will be forced to abide by interpretations of laws that might be at odds with their own practice and custom.
On the other hand, I can't take the complaining from the Reformative group terribly seriously.  Yes they are correctly anticipating that their women will receive second class treatment, if they're lucky.  Yes, there will be humiliations and many women who are sincere, if unaware of their Torah obligations, will be taught to hate Torah Judaism by the treatment they receive.  And no, no women showing up to immerse in the mikveh anywhere should be treated with anything less than dignity and respect regardless of her religious standards or lack thereof.
If that's the case then why am I less than sympathetic?  Mostly because once you push away all the fluff about pluralism, these women are coming to the mikveh because they want to and not out of a sense of obligation.  While that sounds nice it's important to remember that Jewish law respects the person who fulfills an obligation more than the one who does the same action voluntarily.  There are reasons for this, primarily the one that the person fulfilling the obligation is fighting their yetzer which adds a higher level to the action.  The bottom line, however, is that if these women decide one day that another ritual is what they need to connect to their spirituality they will drop the mikveh like an old Kleenex.  The frum women, on the other hand, will keep coming no matter what.
Thus it seems to me that all this fuss is similar to the one the Women of the Wall kept making, at least until they got what they wanted.  One solution is to try kiruv on these women, treat them with respect while encouraging them to accept hilchos taharas mishphacha as an obligation rather than a fad.  The other might be to simply start opening Reformative mikva'os which would, like Robinson's Arch, prove whether or not these women are as serious as they say they are.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Dear Aaron, Please Shut Up

I don't know if we truly appreciate how many wasted words we encounter on a daily basis.  Never mind the forests of trees that go to print things which are predictable, repetitious or useless but also the waste of time taken in listening to stuff you can predict will be said is something to consider.
For example, consider sports interviews.  The reporter approaches the star athlete and asks his opinion of his team's chances in the upcoming game.  What is the athlete going to say?  "Yeah, I think we'll get trashed today because frankly we were out partying late last night and we're just not in shape"?  No, it's the usual bromides about getting pumping, taking the opposition seriously and giving it one's all.
Or maybe the politician being interviewed about potential government corruption.  You know the standard answers will just flow through, from denial to accusation of the opposition politicians.  Just once it would be nice to hear someone say, "Yes, you caught us, we're thieves and we'll do it again next chance we get."
Frankly, Donald Trump's stump speeches could be shorter to.  All he really needs to do is stand up and say someone outrageous like "All Mexicans suck!" or "All women are sluts!" and then leave the stage.  His longer addresses are just variations on that.
Finally there's the example given by the Satmar Rebbes, the latest one being Aaron during a visit to Israel.  As usual he had only complaints for his hosts while accusing them of all sorts of crimes and plots against religious life in the State.  Settlers are bad.  The army is bad.  The State is evil and a rebellion against God.  Honestly, does he not have anything original to say?
In the lead up to Purim you'd think a religious leader of his stature would try something new.  How about kindness to your fellow Jew regardless of his religious position or lack of one?  Is that not in the Satmar playbook?  How about reaching out to the hated Zionists and trying to influence them positively?  Did his predecessor not leave him instructions on how to do that?  How about something other than the predictable broadsides against people who, frankly, don't give a damn about what he has to say (and not just because they don't speak Yiddish)?
When we get to the end of the Purim story there is a little clue thrown into it as to how Mordechai's success sat with his confreres.  It says that he was popular with rov echav, most of his brethren.  Chazal tell us that this means there were those Jews who thought, even after all that had happened, that Mordechai had handled things poorly, that had he just sat and prayed and learned hard enough things would have worked out.  We know the value of their opinion since we don't remember their names when it comes to this holiday but it does go to show that there have always been those who think that they have some kind of unique connection or ruach hakodesh that makes them smarter than everyone else and therefore entitled to criticize their perceived inferiors.  This Satmar seems to be one of those.
But just as Mordechai's critics were lost to history, so too unconstructive critics of the State will probably disappear into the mists of time.  Best not to pay too much attention to them now either.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Holocaust Fatigue

As a second generation "survivor", writing about the Holocaust is something I always approach with trepidation.  On one hand it is the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).  On the other hand, because of the scope of the destruction it has come to dominate Jewish thought and practice three generations later with some very negative effects.
I would suggest that one reason the Holocaust retains its "popularity" as a factor in Jewish identity is the nature of non-religious Jewish culture in North America.  As I've written before, most non-Orthodox Jews believe that Judaism is essentially secular liberalism with an all-approving deity and latkes.  As a result, anything that is politically correct becomes Jewish to them, usually under the misused rubric of tikun olam
This is why the Holocaust penetrates and endures in non-religious Jewish culture.  It was morally easy.  We were the good guys and the Germans were the bad guys.  There was no "let's see it from their point of view" or "maybe we contributed to what happened".  A non-religious type can be proudly Jewish because of the Holocaust because it requires no moral effort, contradicts no secular liberal values.  As Charles Krauthammer has recently written, this leads to a serious distortion of their understanding of Judaism:
For example, it’s become a growing emphasis in Jewish pedagogy from the Sunday schools to Holocaust studies programs in the various universities. Additionally, Jewish organizations organize visits for young people to the concentration camps of Europe.
The memories created are indelible. And deeply valuable. Indeed, though my own family was largely spared, the Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.
I worry that a people with a 3,000-year history of creative genius, enriched by intimate relations with every culture from Paris to Patagonia, should be placing such weight on martyrdom — and indeed, for this generation, martyrdom once removed.
When Sanders identifies as a Jew he does it through the Holocaust.  This should not be a shock to people.  The vast majority of non-religious Jews do the same thing.  Why show Jewish pride?  The Holocaust.  Why support Israel?  The Holocaust.  When marry Jewish?  To deny Hitler, y"sh, a posthumous victory. (Thank you Emil Fackenheim)  
It goes further.  Why does Sanders identify with the Holocaust?  Because he can relate to it.  Not the Torah or Talmud.  Not Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam.  In the intellectually stunted worldview of socialism there are two kinds of people - the successful who are evil by virtue of their success and the unsuccessful who were exploited by the former group and are entitled to fruit of all their efforts.  Germans = successful.  Jews = unsuccessful.  With Jews who were innocent sheep led to the slaughter Sanders can relate.  With Jews who guard their borders, build their homes and thrive in the most violent place on Earth?  Not so much.
The big problem with using the Holocaust as the basis of Jewish identity is that it's time limited.  Just like 99% or so of non-religious Jews either don't know about the importance of our Holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) or don't care, just like 99% of Jews observant or not don't think much about the Chielmnicki pogroms, so too the national uniting trauma of the Holocaust will fade in a generation after the last survivor is gone.  With social media destroying our attention spans and ancient history being redefined as only 10 years ago how can it not?  What will the average Jew, without the Holocaust, hold on to as a lodestone?
The Holocaust is morally easy, the State of Israel and the tough task of survival in the viper pit that is the Middle East is a different story.  The same Jews who take pride in their forebears having gone through the black and white Holocaust suddenly become more reticent when faced with grey Israeli reality.  No wonder there's money for Holocaust memorials but when it comes time to fighting BDS on campus things get tighter.
We have to emphasize to people that Jewish history did not begin or end with the Holocaust.  We have seen our share of tragedy but we have also enriched the world through our Torah and our contributions to civilization.  What we're done must be emphasized, not what we've lost if we are to encourage people to see Judaism, especially Torah Judaism, as something to cleave to.