Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

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.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

How Do You Combat Apathy?

There's no question that apathy is common in all parts of Western society today.  The vast majority of people live lives of quiet desperation, working to make money to pay the bills and not much more.  Greater causes, common goals, meaningful things to believe in, are far and few between.  This apathy has not ignored the Jewish nation, including the Orthodox portion.  How may yirei Shamayim approach davening with genuine fervour all the time, learn as if their lives and the world itself depend in it every day?  How many show up for davening and learning because it's part of the routine, something they just do?
In a small community the problem is even more acute.  On one hand it should be the opposite way around if you think about it.  When there aren't lots of folks on hand those that are have to try harder.  A minyan isn't guaranteed. If people don't step up, shiurim don't happen.  Yet in the small community I live in there seems to be an apathy that is getting worse over time.
Back in September, for example,  the local UJA sent out a mass e-mail with a list of classes the different synagogues were offering for the new Jewish year.  The Conservative synagogue had about ten, the Reform a similar number but the Orthodox shul?  Nothing.
The previous year we'd offered half a dozen, all of which died out by Chanukah.  Since then one rabbi continued offering his own shiurim which I guess the shul could claim since he held them there and a few other guys got together for regular chavrusa settings but in terms of organized, shul-specific classes, there was pretty much nothing.  The worse part was that no one seemed to notice except me.
Over time the crowds are getting smaller at the routine davenings.  Less and less of the Orthodox crowd, the folks who you'd think would reliably show up because, well, we're supposed to, come out.  I'm just as guilty, by the way.  I pretty much make it out for Shabbos Mincha and that's just because I have a chavrusa afterwards.  If he's away, I pretty much finish Shabbos at home.
Now from the other side one has to note that the shul in our community is partly to blame.  Over the last several years there has been a conscious effort to reach out to the non-religious and non-attached folks in town in order to grown the congregation's size.  There's a good reason for this: more members equals more dues equals more financial solvency for the place.  To achieve this the shul's Rav has done what he can to make the place more parve.  What was an Orthodox shul with a sign on the sanctuary door asking married women to wear a head covering during prayers is now a community shul with Orthodox-style prayers with a sign on the wall asking congregants to mute their cell phones during prayers.  Prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning aren't so much services as programs with exciting Carlebach style singing and the same chazzanus for Mussaf week after week after week. 
My own lack of attendance mostly arose from getting tired of finishing my silent Amidah after the chazzan had whipped past Kedushah or had finished Maariv.  Yes, over the years my davening might have slowed down slightly but not that much.  Given the choice of rushing or praying at home at a slow pace, I chose the latter and I'm guessing many others did too.
So now we sit in a situation where apathy reigns.  If the Rav were to try to draw us out with new shiurim that were above the basic let's-not-alienate-the-non-religious-folks level we'd roll our eyes and say "Let's see if it survives three or four weeks".  We have stopped caring which is going to eventually hurt the shul because the same people he's been so active in reaching out to are the same folks who will never show up during the week when you really need them to.  They come for the free food and bouncy castles and we don't have those at 7:15 am on Tuesday mornings.  So without them and us, what will he have?
(Please don't suggest: hey, have you tried talking to him?  Let's just say such a tactic would fail and leave it at that)
How does one combat such apathy?

Sunday 13 March 2016

Preaching A New Religion

I never cease to be amused by stories from the fringe.  You know the type, some "rabbi" decides that Judaism as it has been practised in one way or another for centuries and millennia decides that today's Jews aren't feeling connected.  The idea of sitting down and talking to God while using a prepared text doesn't appeal to them.  The opportunity to take one day in seven to avoid certain activities and turn one's thoughts to dveikus with the Creator is so alte heim.  They're proud to be Jewish, don't get them wrong, and they want to "do Judaism" but the Judaism that they do happens to simply be what they're already into in their personal lives, only now they're saying they're proudly Jewish as they do it.
Thus this latest offering from an "unconventional rabbi" in New York should not come as a shock.  And I get it.  He's got a congregation looking for Judaism but signing off on actual Judaism as a starting condition.
What always bothers me about this is how people like this "rabbi" think that Judaism is just a bunch of rituals.  If the rituals don't appeal to people, then they have to be changed.  That the rituals might have more than a symbolic meaning, that they might be part of a cohesive system where everything has its part, that doesn't seem to occur to them. 
Tefillah, for example, isn't simply about speaking to God.  It's also our attempt to maintain a connection to the Temple service (may it speedily restart) and modeled on it.  We daven three times a day because between the two daily offerings and the nightly consumption of the sacrificial offerings there were basically three services a day in the Temple.  Any new system of "prayer" that ignores this background cuts itself off from Judaism.  It's not a new form of Jewish behaviour, it simply isn't Jewish at all, even if Jews "proudly" proclaim it to be an expression of Judaism.
That's why all these programs eventually fail and burn out.  Yes, they attract people in the short term.  Imagine a jazz hipster discovering he can do his usual jazz routine on Friday night and be consider "observant" if he does it with other Jews.  Ultimately though these people realize, either consciously or not, that there is nothing Jewish about Jewish getting together to do non-Jewish activities.  So they drift back to where they came from.  As I told a Conservative rabbi decades ago when he asked why turnouts at his synagogue's USY were going down, "the goyim throw better parties".
Ultimately the only path towards sustainable Jewish living is - wait for it - Torah Judaism.  Everything else is a novelty that loses lustre.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Reaching Up Or Bringing Down

In the ongoing debate over how orthodox Open Orthodoxy is there has been a lot of confusion when it comes to the definition of Orthodoxy itself.  Orthopraxy is easy; you just act frum without it affecting your thoughts, beliefs and moral positions.  Orthodoxy is trickier.  Why exactly do the Ultraorthodox and mainstream Modern Orthodox reject Open Orthodoxy's claim to membership in the group?
If it's a matter of core beliefs then one comes up short.  The official position of Open Orthodoxy, even if it's disputed by the contents of their writings, is that there is one God in Heaven, that He gave us the Torah and that we are bound by its rules, both the Written and Oral ones.  In all the accusations made against YCT no one has ever suggested that they permit chilul Shabbos, an abandonment of kashrus or permissibility in taharas misphachah.  They hold that Torah learning is a key Jewish value.  Yes, they have very secular liberal ideas about certain elements of the prayer service, such as removing certain berachos a modern woman might find offensive or stretching the bounds of egalitarianism past what is acceptable but even then they try to do so by claiming they are following their understanding of the mesorah.
Indeed, attending one of their services about the only thing out of place would be the women getting aliyos or leading psukei d'zimrah.  If you showed up during Mussaf you'd be hard pressed to know you weren't in another Modern Orthodox shul.  So why the repeated outrage from folks like Rav Gordimer over at Cross Currents?  How does one justify writing them out of Orthodoxy proper?
I would suggest that this be settled by a new definition for Orthodoxy.  Orthopraxy, as noted, is about behaviour.  Orthodoxy should be something different, a defining and united attitude.  And what is that?
Logic would dictate that there are two ways to draw closer to God, to create that elusive d'veikus that is considered an ultimate goal in Torah observance.  One is to raise oneself up towards Him, the other to bring Him down to us.  Herein lies the difference between real Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy.
For real Orthodoxy the ideal goal is to use worship of God and performance of His mitzvos to generate a closer connection.  I am supposed to improve, evolve (oh that word!) as a Jew and grow so that my connection with Him strengthens.  This, of necessity, requires change on my part.  It requires me to accept a locus of control of my life that is outside of me.  I must accept that my gut feelings, my natural moral instinct, may not be the ideal and that it must become subservient to the Torah's values as understood by Chazal and the subsequent authorities.
Open Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is about bringing God down towards Earth.  It postulates that one's inner feelings and moral sense along with that of the surrounding society are the ideal and that if Torah values contradict it then they have to change.  As opposed to an unchanging God and a malleable society we are presented with the opposite: society as director, God as follower.  It reminds one of Joan Osborne's What If God Was One Of Us.
Of course God isn`t one of us.  If He was, He wouldn`t be God and that`s possibly a good thing according to the secular liberal crowd.  After all, if He`s one of us then He can change.  All those inconvenient rules in the Torah and Talmud can be changed to reflect changing times and morals.  That is the essence of bringing God down.  It does create a d`veikus but it results in a malleable deity who is a reflection of the society that supposedly worships him.
Perhaps this is the criteria by which Open Orthodoxy is being judged and found wanting.  As we read this week`s parasha and next week`s as well we learn about our ancestors building the Mishkan.  Now a cursory reading would suggest that, in fact, the construction project was about drawing God down to Earth.  After all, we are told that the purpose was so that God could dwell amongst us.  This would seem to vindicate the Open Orthodox position that d`veikus is about God cleaving to us.
But reading deep we see that the opposite is true.  Rav Adin Steinsaltz, shlit"a, in his writings on these sections of the Torah notes that the plans for the Mishkan were not unlikely the plans that are used to make a highly complex piece of equipment like a satellite or space shuttle.  One small mistake in the programming code that runs the equipment, a single byte of misinformation, or possibly a tiny defect in one part of the structure and the whole thing fails to function.
The Mishkan was no different.  The details of its construction are mentioned over and over again to emphasize that it had to be made perfectly according to its details.  There was no element of "I think God would like this" involved and any deviation would have caused it to not become the dwelling place of the Shechinah.  The details of our observance of God's laws are dictated by God, not us.
Perhaps this is the reason that Open Orthodoxy continues to spin out of Orthodoxy's orbit.  Despite all the similarities there is a glaring difference between the fundamental d'veikus they seek and ours.