Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

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  As our society's attention span continues to shrink many blog essays have been replaced by the mental farts that pass for Facebook posts.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.