Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday 31 January 2016

The Force Might As Well Have Stayed Asleep

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Unless you live under a rock or in Meah Shearim you know that the Star Wars movie franchise recently returned to the big screen with its seventh installment, The Force Awakens.  Set some 30-35 years after the events of the sixth (well, really third) film, Return Of The Jedi, the movie gives us a look at what has become of the galaxy in the wake of the destruction of the evil Emperor Palpatine and his Galactic Empire.
For some fans, this was an opportunity worth salivating over.  After all, it's been a whole ten years since the third (well, really sixth) film, Revenge Of The Sith, graced the screens of the local googleplex.  In that long, dark decade all we fans have had to tide us over has been one season of the traditionally animated Clone Wars, five seasons (and one movie-length pilot) of the computer-animated Clone Wars and one and a half seasons of Star Wars Rebels.  Really, it's been a total famine and there's no wonder fans were eagerly lining up for tickets and merchandise.
As viewers of The Phantom Menace, the first (well, really fourth) film in the series found up, there is no way to satisfy expectations of this magnitude.  George Lucas took a western in space and turned it into a semi-documentary on an anxient religious order and the trade regulations of a fictional galactic republic.  It was only momentum and clever advertising that enabled the film to become one of the top grossing movies of all time.
Now the franchise is owned by Disney, a company known for making safe, predictable family entertainment.  Director JJ Abrams was tasked with bringing Episode 7 to the big screen and was faced with two choices.  He could immerse himself in the burgeoning Star Wars culture community, read up on the major novels and comics that have detailed the history of the galaxy since Return Of The Jedi and built a movie that brought some of those great stories to life, or he could simply remake the seventh (well, first really) film, A New Hope with new characters.
He chose the latter.
What was the basic plot of A New Hope?  A plucky band of rebels, striking from a secret base, wage a guerrilla war against a much more powerful bag Empire led by a mysterious dark figure and his not-so-mysterious major domo, a tall guy who wears a black outfit complete with matching cape and mask.  The rebels obtain secret plans to the Empire's secret weapon, a cannon so big it can destroy an entire planet.  In order to hide those plans and get those plans to their secret base they hide them in a cute droid that beeps in a way no one can understand except a select few.  This droid is helped by a youth who discovers his connection to the Force and starts to build on it, a swashbuckling pilot and his pet Wookie, and an elder from the last generation who guides them towards their goal until being tragically killed by the black caped major domo. Eventually the plans are delivered, a squadron of X-wing fighters attack the Empire's super weapon and, with a lucky shot, destroy it.
There were some great scenes we will never forget.  Plucky rebel defenders lining a corridor as storm troopers blow their way onto their ship only to get cut down by the Empire's superior weapons.  The black clad figure striding onto the scene to check out the carnage and then interrogate the rebel ship captain who dies rather than reveal where the plans are, the wonder the youth feels as he learns how to use the Force and fight with a light sabre, all great memories.
Well I've pretty much just described The Force Awakens for you as well with one crucial difference - it's nowhere near as good.
Instead of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo we get Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron.  Yes, in this bold new galaxy last names are in short supply.  As opposed to Luke who struggled with how to engage the Force and master it, Rey simply discovers her abilities one day and a few scenes later she's dueling with Kylo Ren, the new major domo who has been practicing for years and beating him!  Instead of Princess Leia with her simultaneous need to lead conflicting with her relative vulnerability to attack we get Finn who covers his inability to do anything other than storm troop with bluster so transparent that a blind Denebian sludge bat could see through it.  Finally instead of Han Solo, a character carefully introduced and built up until you can't help but love the scoundrel we get Poe Dameron, a guy with some quick lines who abandons Finn after their TIE fighter crashes and then inexplicably shows up flying an X-wing fighter halfway across the galaxy.  Seriously, Finn was knocked out in that crash and Poe just leaves him to die in the heat.  How did he get off planet?  We never find out.
Then there's the new bad guy, Kylo Ren, or Ben Skywalker to his parents.  Points for effort on this one.  Anakin Skywalker was a good guy always in danger of being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.  Kylo/Ben (or Bylo for short, at least for me) is a bad guy always in danger of being seduced by the Good Side.  Darth Vader had son issues and the Emperor feared that Luke would transition him away from the Dark Side where he really didn't belong.  Bylo has daddy issues and Han almost seduces him back to the Good Side but fails because frankly, Bylo is a loser whose only shot at glory is through the easy way the Dark Side provides him with another power to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air, except for the one that Chewie almost takes him out with shot from halfway across a stadium-sized room.
Finally we have Supreme Leader Snoke, a name I giggle at every time I say it.  I mean, really!  Before we had The Emperor.  Yeah, his name was Palpatine but once he was in charge he really didn't need it anymore.  He was dark, his acting had gravity and he had a great presence.  And Snoke(giggle)?  Well let's be blunt: it's Gollum.  Played by Andy Serkis, we find out that Gollum is running the Empire and, with a galaxy full of force-enabled individuals the best major domo he can find is a dumb-ass kid who wants to go to the Dark Side so he can show his parents what's what.
And did I mention the introduction of a 1000 year old short alien with weird eyes and a knowledge of things like the Force that no one else has?  Except this time it isn't the voice of Grover powering it.
There is only one word to describe this movie: underwhelming.  It lacks originality, suspense or compelling characters.  I didn't see Poe as anything other than a minor secondary character even though he's the guy who fires the shot that destroys the new Death Star (they called it something else but I can't bother to remember).  BB8 is R2D2 with more marketing ability.  The "mysterious Captain Phasma" is a loser who, when forced to turn off the shields to her Death Star, actually does so instead of saying "I'd rather die than betray the Emp... First Order" or something meaningful like that.  And Rey and Finn?  It's been done.
All this proves to me that the JJ in JJ Abrams stands for Jar Jar.  It's the only explanation for how he's managed to ruin both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchise.

Sunday 17 January 2016

And That's Their Red Line?

Non-religious and religious Jews in North America define Judaism quite differently.  For many of our non-religious brethren, Judaism is a religion like Chrisianity, something you practice rituals from when you attend "temple" on Saturdays and when holidays roll by but not a fundamental party of one's identity.  For others, it's an ethnic identity like Italians being Italian.
As a result North America has proven a fertile ground for groups such as Reform and Conservativism which present a Judaism that claims to allow a person to be a good Jew in the absence of binding obedience to Torah and halacha.  And then there's the Reconstructionists.
Like Humanist Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism can only really call it that because Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, did not take out a binding copyright on the word "Judaism" the day after bringing the Torah down from Sinai.  As anyone familiar with the movement knows, Reconstructionists reject pretty much about every fundamental belief that the Torah requires a Jew to have to be considered in good standing.  It really is a different religion with secular liberalism as its guiding role, not Jewish values.  As a result one should not be surprised to find their "rabbis" espousing values antithetical to Torah.
What I always find curious about groups like this is their red lines.  One you've dumped the Torah as an external, unyielding standard, why does the answer to any question have to "no"?  Why are there suddenly any limits other than those things forbidden by law in the surrounding society?
And that's why I was surprised to read this on line:
Seven rabbis have quit the Reconstructionist movement in the wake of an announced policy that allows rabbis to marry non-Jewish partners.
Several synagogues are also discussing potential responses to the new policy, the Forward reported over the weekend.
The policy was announced in September after the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted that having a non-Jewish partner would no longer bar qualified applicants from admission to the rabbinical college or from graduating as rabbis.
According to the Forward, one of the seven rabbis who has withdrawn from the movement is Rabbi Reba Carmel, who serves at a nondenominational synagogue in Warrington, Pennsylvania. She told the Forward that the policy allowing intermarried rabbis is “detrimental to the Jewish people in America.”
Really?  They've dumped Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpacha along with approving of lifestyles the Torah strictly disapproves of.  That's all okay for a Reconstructionist "rabbi" but to be intermarried is suddenly assur?  How does one justify this selectivity?  Encouraging assimilation is fine but living it to its logical conclusion isn't?
Perhaps this is another reason the Torah observant don't take the non-observant movements seriously.  When you have a"Let's make it up as we go along" method it's kind of hard to.

Thursday 14 January 2016

Here Comes Judah Maccabee, Here Comes Judah Maccabee

With our short historical memories, it's hard to understand the antipathy some Jews have for Chrisianity.  In a few cases it's based on personal memories of the alte heim.  For others it's a failed attempt by a missionary to show the "truth" of the so-called New Testament.  Finally, for the secular liberal Jew it's a simple dislike of anyone who pushes religion and a politically correct desire to live in a parve society free of religious coercion. (Save by a swarthy group of folks from a hot place in the world near Israel but I digress...)
Myself I recall as a child the habit some elderly Polish Jews had of spitting as they walked by a church while muttering "Sheketz teshaktzienu".  Growing up in a tolerant multi-cultural society replete with "holiday pageants" and no open religious persecution it was hard to understand the bitterness that still lingered in them.
That is, until you remember that the general acceptance of Jews into Western - read: Chrisian - society is only a couple of generations old and that before this change in attitude we were a disadvantaged minority suffering from different levels of persecution, often in the name of Chrisianity.  Fifty to sixty good years, yes, but stacked up against 1800 years of unremitting hatred, persecutions, pogroms, forced conversions and murder it doesn't amount to much time to cast off the old feelings.
It's also worth remembering that despite this cultural change and our general acceptance in Gentile society, that there are still lots of Chrisian groups out there that see it as their mission to convert us all into good J.C. lovers so that he can supposedly effect his second coming.  As anyone involved with Jews For Judaism will tell you, there's lots of money being spent on this effort.  Behind lots of smiles is an agenda that is pleasantly hostile to our continued existence as a nation.  As Chazal said, kabduhu v'chasduhu at the best of times.
Most importantly we must remember that Chrisianity as a religion is innately opposed to Judaism.  For all the talk from the Vatican and elsewhere about us being an "elder brother" religion we must remember a simple piece of logic: If J.C. was the son of God come to abolish the Torah and redeem us from our sins by dying for us, if only he who accepts J.C. as his personal saviour gets into Heaven then we are wrong by persisting in our observance of halacha and our refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his mission.
And if they're wrong, if J.C. was a prominent rabble rouser with messianic delusions, one amongst many in that era, if Saul of Tarsus, y"sh, invented the whole religion after suffering from an epileptic fit on the road to Damascus then it doesn't matter if there's a billion people who believe it, it's still false!
One question cannot have two diametrically opposed answers that are both correct.
This is why I was dismayed with several rabbis who identify themselves as Orthodox released a statement shortly before the holidays claiming an affinity for Chrisianity as well as granting it a measure of truth.  The idea of the document is amazing in so many ways but mostly for the groveling nature of its text which I am sure was not intended.  As just one example, consider this statement:
After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe… seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters
Mutual?  Really?  Perhaps that could be said of the first century or so of Jewish-Chrisian conflict before they took over the Roman Empire but ever since then the hostility has pretty much been one way: them on us.  The Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, all of these were not two way encounters.  If there is one side that suffered, one side that needs to be apologized to, one side that can safely sit back and wait for the extended hand of reconciliation, it ain't us!
After all is said and done, our response to both Chrisian and Islam can be summarized in one simple request: Could you just freakin' leave us alone already?!  Why do we have to beg for more?

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Dunkin' Dames

When it comes to the three basic laws of Jewish family life it is interesting to note that one of these pillars is often ignored.  People love to talk about kashrus and shemiras Shabbos and often when deciding whether or not a couple is frum enough to be trusted when it comes to a dinner invite those two factors are often raised for consideration.  When we in the Torah-observant community compare ourselves to our non-observant brethren it is these two areas that are talked about as well.  "They" don't keep properly kosher.  "They" don't keep Shabbos.  If we're going to mekarev "them" we need to discuss those things and when they adopt them we can consider them on their way.
But there is also the third pillar that needs to be mentioned: taharas hamishpacha.  This is often far more an Orthodox "thing" than kashrus and Shabbos.  Many non-observant Jews keep a modicum of kashrus in their lives, even if it's something minimal like avoiding bacon and ham on principle.  Many also light Shabbos candles and make sure to have at least one seudah over Shabbos.  A far smaller proportion keep a reasonable facsimile of the laws of taharas mishpacha and sadly, a large number don't even know they exist.
That's why, whenever we discover a non-observant person observing those laws, we should pile on the encouragement.  The penalty for eating non-kosher food is minimal compared to the penalty for a husband being with his wife when she is a niddah.  Why wouldn't we want to increase observance of this mitzvah, or even just an awareness and some minimal behavioural changes around it, if possible?
That's why, when I read about women being turned away from the mikveh in Israel I get quite annoyed. 
I was shocked by this whole exchange. I could not believe that a bride trying to immerse in a mikvahwould be turned away anywhere. Don’t we want women to be going to the mikvah? Such emphasis is put on this practice in the Orthodox world, and here they are pretty much guaranteeing that this young woman would never try to enter a mikvah again in her hometown of Jerusalem. Why would she? Everything beautiful and holy about that moment had been ruined. I had been looking forward to the thrill of visiting the mikvah in Jerusalem, but this also made me feel unwelcomed. I was no different than that bride, as I did not have a document from an Orthodox rabbi that said I was ‘fit’ to enter a mikvah.  I did not have a copy of my ketubah to show that I was a married woman.
Now one must keep in mind while reading the article that there is one big criticism that can be leveled against it: the women writing it never actually experienced being turned away from the mikveh.  She heard about it, she experienced it vicariously through a teacher of hers telling her about it, she shared in the frustration of a Chabad rebbitzen but she never actually got told "You can't come in here".
Nevertheless the experiences she describes are troubling.  One of the problem with Israel have an official religious policy is that those with a little power create a big set of problems.  Everyone knows of the kashrus authorities who deny certificates to institutions because of political considerations that have nothing to do with their food preparation procedures.  Now it seems we can add visiting the mikveh to the list.  If this article is accurate, we're discussing women who are prepared to show up at the right time, prepare themselves the right way and dunk according to halacha.  Yet because of other issues they are being denied to right to do so.
And what is the limit of the sin being caused?  Imagine a non-observant woman showing up at the mikveh before her wedding and being turned away because she's not Orthodox.  Instead she goes elsewhere and performs a tevilah that, al pi halacha, is not sufficient.  She goes and gets married and her husband is now guilty of intercourse with a niddah.  Tell me, on whose head does that sin actually go?
This is something that needs to be protested.  Behaviour is not changed through intimidation or insults.  It is changed through encouragement and positive examples, something we must insist on from our comrades.

Sunday 10 January 2016

The Dying Society

More and more jurisdictions across North America are embracing the latest nihilistic trend in medical decision making - euthanasia.  Multiple states, led by Oregon, have legalized it under specific circumstances and last year the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the federal law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide after deciding that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  
As the situation currently stands, the old law remains in place for another month or so.  The current government has asked the Court for an extension so it can craft a new law before the old one expires.  If the extension is not granted, or even if it is but the government can't pass a satisfactory new law, Canada will be without any law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide, much like it has lacked any law regulating abortion since the old one was struck down by the Supreme Court back in the 1980's.
The results of this development are either enlightening or frightening, depending on which side of the debate you sit.  For those who hold that God gives life and only He can take it away, this is a tragedy and another step towards civilized barbarism as Western society sinks into cultural decay.  For those who see nothing sacred in life this is a great step forward.  For decades we've been able to kill unborn babies without consequences (at least none that we're allowed to talk about).  Now we can proudly add the terminally ill to the list.
But will the list end there?  Already in Europe, the pioneering area in euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide has expanded to include children with disabilities, people with prolonged but not necessarily terminal illnesses and even the very depressed in some places.  In the absence of a law in Canada, will the initial "Only for the terminally ill and those with intractable pain" quickly expand to other indications?
Consider how the definition of death changed in Western society in the late 20th century and you'll see a reason to shudder.  The former definition was a strict one, quite close to one of the mainstream positions in Jewish law in requiring cessation of cardiorespiratory function.  Faced with a need for organ transplants and a lack of organs due to this definition, ethicists in the 1970's and 80's changed it to one requiring brain death only, not brain stem death or cessation of cardiac function.  This had the beneficial effect of allowing doctors to pronounce people dead even thought they would have previously been considered to be alive and thus increased the availability of organs for transplant.  
Currently Western society considers it a sign of mental illness to desire suicide.  We hospitalize people against their will when they try (and fail, of course).  Well, what happens when we change the definition?  Let me present the following one for your perusal: Suicide is wrong when attempted by a person with no physical or mental illness that might reasonably encourage him to want to kill himself.
Imagine that definition going into play.  It sounds nice in that it creates a category of people for whom suicide would be considered wrong but the minute someone tries to kill themselves it becomes evident that they have a mental illness that encourages them to want to kill themselves.  
Part of this drive takes place in the shadow of Western society's growing aversion to any kind of suffering.  We want to live without pain, without illness, without disability and see any of those three things as intolerable affronts to our pursuit of personal fulfillment.  A life not free of these things is not a life worth living, according to this popular way of thinking.
In typical decadent Western fashion, it won't be the patients ending their lives themselves.  No, they'll get their physicians to do it for them.  They don't want to suffer and they don't want to lift the syringe either.  They want to sit back and passively exit life without even taking the final responsibility for the moment it happens.  
And where are the red lines?  If people will end-stage cancer and ALS can request that their doctors kill them, why can't people with dementia, severe depression or just good old fashioned loneliness?  Any red lines would be arbitrary and ultimately moved to accommodate societal desires.
As an Orthodox physician I tremble at the thought of this coming to pass.  Engaged as we are in a low level culture war between religious and secular liberal forces, this will play out for me on a personal level.  Halacha is very clear on this issue: I am forbidden to participate in any way in physician-assisted suicide (even of socialists and communists, nebich).  That means that I cannot even refer a patient to  physician willing to kill them if I won't do it myself.  On the other hand, the political correct regulatory authority that issues my licence to practice medicine has, over vociferous protests and objections, announced that it expected physicians either to kill their patients on request or to make arranged to find a doctor who will.  Refusal to help kill patients would result in disciplinary action and possible loss of right to practice medicine.  What's a God fearing Jew to do?
Well the answer to that is evident, isn't it.  But it's the bigger picture here that should scare us all: a society that has no interest in living with adversity will eventually lose its will to live at all.