Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

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.