Tuesday, 24 November 2015

On The Way Out Of Orthodoxy

As if world Jewry didn't have enough to worry about, apparently amidst the general turmoil in the Middle East, the ongoing low scale intifada, concerns about economic disparity and the worries about ties with the United States there is actually a real crisis occuring - the advent of Open Orthodoxy and the need to determine whether or not it's actually Orthodox.
For those late to the party, here is my biased summary.  Rabbi Avi Weiss, a YU grad and student of the Rav, zt"l, has started his own religious movement.  Calling it Open Orthodoxy he and his colleagues advocates for women clergy, more egalitarian rituals and consideration of acceptance of homosexual marriage in Jewish law.  His insistence on making these the identifying features of his movement while calling it Orthodox have raised the ire of the more traditional leaders of the Orthodox community, both the Agudah and the Rabbinical Council of America.  In recent weeks both groups have issues statements condemning Open Orthodoxy and labelling it as non-Orthodox.
Me?  I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.
Does Open Orthodoxy defy the traditional definitions of Torah observance and obedience?  Despite repeated claims by its leadership council to the contrary, the answer is clearly affirmative.  Their number one posek openly writes about his view that the Torah is not a Divine document and that the historical events and people detailed within it are all fictional.  That, in itself, takes Open Orthodoxy out of Orthodoxy in general.
But here's where it gets murkier.  Does Open Orthodoxy pose a threat to the Torah observant community?  I would venture that it doesn't since the population it's reaching out to is not one that fits into the more right wing Orthodox population.  The OO leadership isn't concealing its aims and beliefs.  Rabbi Asher Lopatin is open about his opinion that Jewish Israel should be replaced by a binational Jewish-Arab state.  Others write about changing the siddur and litury to bring it into line with secular liberal values.  Unless one is not paying attention when the chazzanit starts chanting the Kabbalas Shabbos service one is not likely to miss that there is something very different about this form of "Orthodoxy".
The concern is often raised that small town shuls looking for an Orthodox Rav might instead hire an OO rabbi.  I can, in response, point out that most small shuls might have an Orthodox set up but don't have an Orthodox laity.  Yes, giving women aliyos is beyond the pale of acceptable ritual behaviour in the Torah observance community but if most of the congregation drives home after Mussaf on Shabbos morning, is that really such a big deal?  And if the incoming Rabbi asks if her husband can also use the local mikveh that should be obvious enough what kind of clergy the place is getting.
Missing in all this is the underlying concern.  Social movements, as I've written before, always arise in response to a need.  OO is one such movement and given its slow growth in size one must ask: what are its adherents looking for that they're not getting from the traditionally Torah observant?
On the negative side it's probably a big of selfishness.  We live in a society where rights and entitlements define a person's needs.  "I want" and "I need" become equivalent and JFK's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" becomes "I ask what my country can do for me and my country better not ask for anything in return".  The moves of OO to become more egalitarian serve the segment of the community that says "Unless you adjust Orthodoxy to my wants/needs, I'll leave and go fulfill them elsewhere". 
On the positive side, that same desire can be seen in a positive light.  A few generations ago Jewish life was much simpler.  It's not so longer ago, relatively speaking, that women weren't even given a primary education or taught to read on more than a basic level if at all.  Now women are educated as much as men and have shown what anyone paying attention could have expected: they are just as accomplished and capable as men.  This leads to women wanting greater participation in the ritual life of Torah observance.  It also begs the question: if a woman studies the same semicha curriculum as a man and passes the same exam as a man, how is it conceivably fair that he is granted a degree and title while she gets nothing?  This is, in my opinion, a valid question.
So where did Orthodoxy go wrong fo this to occur?
I would suggest the following: the four basic foundational areas of Torah observant Judaism are kashrus, Shabbos, taharas mishpacha and chesed.  One can live in a small town and be an observant Jew just fine without a shul but not without Shabbos, kosher food or a mikvehChesed is a defining principle of Orthodoxy as well since imitatio Dei is an important value for us and we achieve this by acting kindly to others and spreading that kindness around.  Most importantly, all of these are home-based mitzvos where the family is the centre and responsible together for maintaining their proper observance.
But if you look at the Torah observant community today, where does the emphasis lie?  On ritual, ritual and more ritual.  As I noted in my acclaimed (at least by me) series, Ritual Ubber Alles, Orthodoxy today is completely defined by the superficial.  We have created a community system whose centre is the beis medrash/beis knesses, not the home.  The family is pushed to the side and the centre of authority, the parents in the traditional model, is replaced by the Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva or "Gadol".
Observers have long understood the rush towards egalitarianism taken first by the Reformers and then the Conservatives.  Having dumped most personal observances from their list of "Thou shalts" all that's really left to them is what goes on in their synagogues and temples.  If that is pretty much their entirety of their religion then it's not shocking that women would want to play an equal part in what goes on there.  Orthodoxy, in contrast, used to emphasize that Jewish life is rich and multifaceted with shul and ritual only a small part of the whole which mean that women were valued and important contributors.  By drifting towards the Reformative position and empahsizing ritual over everything else we fell into the same trap. 
There is also the matter of authority.  Here's something that should not be a shock to anyone with knowledge of the subject: Rabbis today don't have any real authority.
No, really.  The position of Rav holding authority in a binding fashion ended when genuine semicha died 1600 years ago.  Yes we still grant the title to those who pass their exams and yes, since we respect and honour Torah knowledge, we defer to those who have demonstrated a superior mastery of it but at the root of it the system is voluntary.  All the titles are just that, titles without a direct connection to Sinai which is where real authority is derived from.
As a result we do submit to the authority of our rabbinic leaders but there is an element of consensus and agreement to be led amongst the masses that underlies this.  A person with the title Rav simply cannot show up in town and issue orders simply because he has the title.
And yet that's exactly what's happening.  Whether it's the Moetzes of the Agudah styling itself as the central legal authority of the Jewish people in North America or the ranks of the "Gedolim" in Israel issuing psaks even without be asked the shailos first, we are incresingly being ruled and without our ongoing consent.  How else to explain that I need to know what Rav Eliashiv's, zt"l, last psak was on an issue?  He wasn't my Rav and I never asked him a shailoh.  Yet his askanim insisted he paskened for the entire Jewish people.  Did I miss the election for Jewish Pope?
Perhaps understanding this also helps us understanding where Open Orthodoxy came from.  In a shul-dominated culture women are excluded and shoved to the periphery.  In an autocratic leadership system people who are educated and used to having a say in how their lives are run will feel resentment.  Both these factors have led to Open Orthodoxy and until the traditionally Torah observant leadership understands this and addresses these needs in a proper halachic fashion, OO's appeal will continue to grow.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Pitiless and Pathetic

The recent terrorists attacks in Paris have led to quite a reaction in the Western world.  The death of a few hundred French have raised a stir that the deaths of tens of thousands of Arabs failed to accomplish.  Until recently the ongoing turmoil caused by the Islamic State in the Middle East was a limited news story, something happening to "them" that didn't very much involve "us".  The notion that the IS can strike in the heart of a Western capital with great success has changed that belief.  Speaking shortly after the attacks, French president Francois Hollande made his intentions very clear.  France would wage open war with the IS and they would be "pitiless".
One would like to be encouraged by this development.  Until recently the IS was operating freely with only token opposition by the US to slow it down.  Despite posing a threat to multiple countries and despite the presences of armed forces in the region like the Kurdish Peshmerga willing to strike back if given the right arms and support, the West seemed strangely disinterested in attacking the IS.  President Obama, with his usual cluelessness, referred to them as a junion varsity team and, quite naively on the morning before the Paris attacks, implied in an interview that their most effective days were behind them.  But now the combination of bombing a Russian airliner and attacking Paris has seemingly awoken the fury of both the French and Russian militaries, something no ragtag group of thugs might want to do.
So why am I not worried for the IS?  Well so far both Russia and France have limited their "pitiless" total war to bombing raids on the IS capital.  Sounds impressive until you open the history books and look for the list of wars won by airpower without an accompanying land invasion.  In fact, there is only one: NATO's illegal attack on Serbia in the late 1990's. 
Serbia is not the IS.  It's a second world country with a developed economy and a participatory electorate.  Bombing its army and industries had a definite effect on the populace and its government leading to a succesful conclusion to that campaign.
In contrast, the IS is not a country but rather a large terrorist group that controls territory.  All it cares about are the oil wells it has because of the money they bring the group.  Russia and the West could raze every city it controls to the ground without slowing them down. 
As Conrad Black pithily notes in his latest column in the National Post, there is a factor of Western malaise here that will prevent the West from actually defeating the IS in any meaningful way.  As he writes:
What ensued was a desultory effort to train the battered hulk of Iraq’s Sunni military and a Western air campaign in the tradition of the Yugoslav Wars: bombing from such high altitudes it was a war worth killing for but not worth dying for.

The Western refusal to actual insert a decent number of special forces into IS controlled territory means that all the sabre rattling from Paris and Moscow is merely that.  The fighters of IS are willing to get down, dirty and dead to win their war.  The French don't want so much as a spot of grease on their shiny uniforms. 
(I won't even mention that the list of important French military victories over the last 300 years is about the same length as the list of wars won by airpower)
In the end all that being said about attacking and destroying the IS is bluster. Bombs will be dropped.  Claims of degrading the IS' military power will be made.  Congratulations will be crowed.  And the IS will go right on killing and conquering left and right while the West returns to its habit of condemning Israel for every attempt it makes to defend itself against terrorists just as ruthless but much closer to home.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

More Flawed Definitions of Modern Orthodoxy

One of the side effects of Open Orthodoxy's slow but definite exit from Torah Judaism is its effect on the remainder of the Modern Orthodox community.  Modern Orthodoxy has been loathe to define itself in firm terms but Open Orthodoxy, by raising issues and producing defining statements on them, is forcing Modern Orthodoxy to begin seeing if it can develop is own terms of existence as a movement.
Into this fray comes a recent article that purports to provide twelve defining principles of Modern Orthodoxy.  While clearly well meant and heartfelt, it is my opinion that these definitions fall victim to the same flaws other attempts have made to define the movement.
To wit:

1. HalakhahWhile anchored in the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic tradition, Halakhah is shaped by, and responds to historical and cultural circumstances.
I am reminded of the classic comedy scene in which a runner spends time preparing, stretching, getting mentally ready and when the starting gun is fired he trips over an untied shoelace and falls flat on his face.  The statement on what shapes halacha is such a stumble.  It is exactly how the Conservative movement justifies all its violations of Torah.  Women rabbis?  Get with the times.  Homosexual rabbis?  Get with the times.  Totally egalitarianism?  Get with the times.  This is a dangerous attitude, one that has removed YCT from the bounds of proper Orthodoxy. Perhaps instead one could state that halacha is eternal, founded on certain immovable principles and is shaped to each generation's needs by the greatest poskim who are able to balance the immutable mesorah of Sinai with circumstances that urgently require addressing.  As opposed to the Open Orthodoxy and the Reformatives who allow secular liberalism to guide their acceptance of Jewish law Modern Orthodoxy should view any issues through the lens of Torah with all other values coming second.  As opposed to the Chareidim, the community should embrace the pattern of guided change that has characterized halacha over the millenia instead of pretending that what we do today is exactly what our ancestors did as little as a few centuries ago.
2. EthicsHalakhah demands adherence to the highest moral standards. Proper behavior is dictated by traditional Jewish values and modern ethical norms.
This one starts out better but again betrays a liberal bias.  What are modern ethical norms?  Let's look at medical ethics, for a start.  Consider the example of abortion.  Modern ethical norm dictate that a woman has a right to choose the fate of her unborn foetus.  Never mind the partner who contributed half the DNA, the decision is hers and hers alone.  This conflicts strongly with halacha in which a person has no true autonomy over their body and where medical needs are dictated by Torah law.  Yes, halacha demands we practice the highest moral standards but the moral standards encourage by Torah often conflict with what's trendy in surrounding society and there can be no question which gets pushed aside in case of a conflict between the two.
3. Torah StudyTorah study is a primary Jewish value. Such study should almost always be pursued in conjunction with self-sustaining employment. Full-time Torah students are not automatically entitled to financial support by the Jewish community.
There is much to agree with but again, a few changes are necessary.  Torah study isn't a primary Jewish value, it is the primary Jewish value.  The ideal Jewish, as I will mention again below, is to be able to sit and learn all day long.  The material needs that come with living in this physical world make that lifestyle unattainable for the majority but that doesn't change its status as the true ideal.
4. WorkWork is an ennobling pursuit. Work should not be viewed as a necessary evil whose purpose is limited to earning a living.
This is another point of strong disagreement.  Does work have value?  Yes, as Chazal tell us that any Torah without accompanying labour goes bad.  The Gemara abounds with examples of our Chazal extolling working for a living.  And yes, it's not a necessary evil but one most ask what it is if not that.  Work in and of itself for the sake of work is also worthless.  We were not put in this world to labour for a pay cheque.  The answer is to remember that the Torah is full of laws regarding the worker and how to conduct himself in his occupation.  Work is an expression of the application of Torah values.  Work has worth inasmuch as the Torah Jew brings Torah laws to his occupation.  Therefore we can say that work is a chance to apply the laws that God gave us in a practical and material sense.  It is there that work has its true value and a strong rejoinder to those who see it as a necessary evil.
5. Secular Knowledge and CultureThe best of secular learning and culture has inherent value beyond any economic benefit.
The only knowledge and culture that has true and eternal value is Torah-based culture.  Shakespeare in isolation, da Vinci in isolation, Star Trek in isolation, have no real value.  Secular knowledge and culture can benefit Torah knowledge and culture but it is always a supplement, not an independent entity for us.
6. Science, Creation, EvolutionThe earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. The account of creation in the Book of Genesis is religious, rather than scientific. Since the Torah is not a scientific work, scientific fact and theory neither conflict with nor confirm the Torah.
This is one of the things that bothers me.  I hate simplistic reactivity.  The Chareidim say we have to read Bereshis literally and believe that the world is 5776 years old.  This means, for the author, that a fundamental principle of Modern Orthodoxy is that we must believe it's not?  We must look beyond the simple argument and see the bigger conflict: the current official Chareidi position on understanding the first chapter of the Torah is that it must be read and understood literally.  We must believe that all true Jewish authorities over the centuries all the way back to Chazal held this to be an important ikkar emunah and if we find authorities who differ then we invoke the Eliashiv principle: They could say it, we can't. In other words, the current Chareidi position is to read the Torah through a len of dogma and ignore its true depth in order to maintain an ideological uniformity.  That's what Modern Orthodoxy should be fighting again.  It's not about how old the Earth really is, it's about how to read Torah and understand it.
7. TheodicyTheological justifications of evil — e.g., the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation — are wrong and offensive.
When the Second Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt) one in three Jews were killed and the entire land of Israel was laid waste.  Yet a few centuries later Chazal were able, in their wisdom, to explain the moral failings of our ancestors that led to this tragedy.  One day we will be able to understand why the Holocaust happened but right now it's too soon.  It may turn out that it was because of assimilation, Zionism, anti-Zionism, Chareidism etc.  We cannot say at this time but we know that the good and evil both come from Above.  ts just we are still too soon after the horrors of the Shoah to discuss it.
8. Zionism and IsraelBoth secular and religious Zionism are legitimate ideologies. The State of Israel is the fulfillment of religious and secular aspirations for an independent Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.
I must be very clear on this point: Secular Zionism was a tool in the hands of the Creator to initiate the first flowering of our redemption.  Any Jewish ideology that lacks obedience to Torah and halacha at its core can be useful but not legitimate.  The legacy of Secular Zionism, a state in which the majority of the Jewish citizens are ignorant of the amazing nature of their heritage, is not a pretty one to behold.  The opposite ideology, Chareidism, begs us to ignore God's intervening hand in history and pretend that the greatest things to happen to our nation since the destruction of our Temple is a coincidence or worse, a maaseh haSatan.  It is therefore Religious Zionism that emerges as the proper ideology with which to appreciate the State of Israel, influence its citizens and encourage its progression to a Torah-run state that can properly receive Moshiach tzidkeinu, speedily in our days.
9. Non-JewsAll human beings are created equally in the image of God. The Jewish community must work in fellowship with its non-Jewish neighbors towards the betterment of society.
I think this point needs more emphasis.  With the triumph of the Chasidim in influence Chareidi society we are seeing more and more a focus on the difference between "us" and "them".  "They" are all savages, hate us and have no spiritual worth.  We can lie to "them", cheat "them" and steal from "them" with impunity.  This must be opposed.  The Modern Orthodox Jew sees all humans as a creation of God with intrinsic worth and our moral behaviour must be extended to them as much as to our own brethren.
10. Non-Orthodox JewsThere is one Jewish people. We share a common destiny and many religious values with non-Orthodox denominations and we must cooperate on issues of mutual interest.
This is once again a fundamental value position that I think is being mis-stated.  Yes, there is one Jewish people but there is also only one Torah and one set of rules for interpreting it.  One sine qua non of Judaism is that God appeared at Sinai and commanded His Torah to us.  That is the basis for the authority of halacha.  Ultimately we do what we do not because it's a good idea or sounds nice but because God said so.  Thus a Jew who visits someone in hospital because it's nice to do so is not demonstrating the same set of religious values as a Jew who wants to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim.  A rabbi who keeps a strictly kosher and shomer Shabbos home but who believes that humans wrote the Torah centuries after the events it depicts is deviating from the fundamentals of Torah Judaism.  He may act just like a Torah Jew but he isn't because the root reason for his performance is not the command of Sinai.  Yes, we must treat the non-Orthodox with respect and kindness and certainly cooperation with them in areas of communal need is critical.  What's more, we have an obligation to act with the highest Torah ethical standards in order to refute the contention that being observant interferes with one's ability to participate properly in modern society.  But we cannot share religious values unless those values are based on Sinai.
11. DressDress is a matter of individual taste, within the bounds of propriety determined by local custom.
Chazal tell us to know God in all ways that we think and act.  I have written before that one of the neatest things about Chareidism is their concept of a uniform since that means even when they dress they are performing a religious service.  Modern Orthodoxy has reacted to this by developing a sad trend towards emphasizing modern, non-Jewish dress and pushing the boundaries (crossing them sometimes to) of what is appropriately Jewish wear and what isn't.  We would do well to learn from the Chareidim that "the clothes make the man" and bring our dressing choices into the realm of obedience to and awareness of God.
12. WomenWomen are free to pursue careers of their choice. They may attain the highest levels of Torah scholarship and assume leadership roles within the Jewish community.
In one position statement the author shows what is concerning about the YCT way of adjusting halacha to accord with secular liberalism.  The first part of the statement, about pursuing careers of their choice, is fine as is the second.  One of the defining features of Modern Orthodoxy is that women study at the same levels as men as per the instructions of the authorities of the movement back the Rav, zt"l.  It is the final point that slips in and ruins the position.  The idea that women can assume leadership roles  within the Jewish community is terrible vague.  It could mean that women are allowed to lead female study groups or work as Yoatzot.  Alternatively it could mean giving them the title "Rabba" or "Maharet" and handing them their own congregations.  It is something that would have to be clarified and certainly the pre-existing bounds of halacha must be the basis for that clarification.

In summary the author has started a discussion and Modern Orthodoxy would certainly benefit from that but we must move beyond "We do this" and "We do that" to look at the underlying principles that motivate us.  If that happens then worthwhile advances will happen.

Monday, 17 August 2015

What Guides Us

Its an old and tricky philosophical question - when personal moral feelings and religion conflict, which is the correct path to follow?  In Judaism we hold that God, being perfect, gave us our value system through the Torah and therefore any difference between secular and Torah positions means the secular one is wrong.
The problem with this is that it requires a high amount of faith and also a tremendous amount of resistance to the seduction that the surrounding general culture uses on us to pull our souls away from Torah values.  For many the conflict is very real and there is a genuine desire to try and accommodate both positions, to be a loyal Torah-observant Jew and a good secular member of society.
We see it with gay marriage, for example.  In the non-Orthodox community this is a no-brainer.  Almost by definition, Reformatism today sets its moral compass by the values of secular liberalism and then adds in traditional Jewish values only when they don't conflict.  On the Chareidi side of the community there is also little debate.  The Torah's values rule all and if one has mixed feelings then one is lacking in proper faith.
For those slightly to the left of Chareidism however the picture is not so simple.  Exposed to the world in ways that Chareidim often aren't, the perspective on the outside changes.  Living amongst Gentiles we quickly learn that most of them are quite decent folk.  Many have good senses of propriety, decent and honesty even if their core values diverge from Torah ones.  What's more, in many cases it seems their values are superior to ours, for example when it comes to child abuse and protection from pedophiles and abusive husbands.  Seeing this can really tug at a person and make him wonder if our system really is the best system.
There are other reasons a person can come to doubt whether halacha and received Jewish values are indeed so perfect.  A friend of mine owns an Artscroll book called "What If?"  A translation of several teshuvos by Rav Yitchok Zilberstein, it presents various scenarios from daily life in which two Jews come into conflict and need Beis Din to solve it.  The format of the book is simple.  First the scenario is presented and then the answer.  My friend likes to read the scenario and then ask people what they think the right course of action is.  Then he reads the official answer, what Rav Zilberstein (or rather, what Rav Eliashiv, zt"l) thinks. What worries me is how many times my answer is diametrically opposed to the official answer.
Why is that?  Well, not having an encyclopedic knowledge of Torah my first instinct is to answer the question along the lines of "What would common decency suggest?" or "What would be the best compromise?"    This is almost never the right answer, at least according to this book.
All this is my way of explaining why I think that Rabbi Yissachar Katz of YCT wrote his recent post in Times of Israel claiming that our personal moral sense must trump our religious guide.  On the surface of it, his thesis is antithetical to Judaism.  Our personal moral sense is flawed.  Common sense also seems to be in short supply.  Who is any of us to put that up against the timeless Divine wisdom of the Torah?
On the other hand, as a prominent Israeli rab recently noted, we live in a strange world where a non-religious teenager expresses more basic Jewish values and behaviour than a Chareidi in full garb, especially when the teenager is trying to express a form of chesed and the Chareidi is lunging at people with a knife trying to kill them in cold blood.
But the situation isn't that simple.  The young lady who was murdered at the parade in Yerushalyim might have been demonstrating chesed and was probably everything the glowing eulogies described her as.  Her sympathy for her fellow Jew was laudable, her support for a cause that goes against Torah values not as much.  A truly decent person who, according to secular standards, was doing a noble deed when she was struck down by a psychotic man.
The murderer, on the other hand, was upholding what he believed were Jewish values.  His disapproval of alternative lifestyles, mixed in with his schizophrenia, created a monster with monstrous outcomes.  Was he wrong in disapproving of such a parade on the holy streets of Yerushalyim?  I don't think many observant Jews, if asked privately for their opinion of such an event, would say that they wish it would happen elsewhere if at all.  But to go from that opinion to what he actually did requires a breakdown of all moral sense.  In this regard, he was a mirror image of his victim.
Allowing one's moral sense to dictate our religious sensibilities is dangerous.  The best example of this is Shaul Hamelech who, as the prequel story to Purim tells us, chose to ignore God's command to totally wipe out the local Amalekite tribes and instead spared the cattle for sacrifice and Agag their king for a separate fate.  As the Tanach tells us, he was convinced he was doing the right thing, improving even on God's commands.  The result was his downfall into insanity and the loss of his kingship leading Chazal to remind us that those who are kind when God seems to be ordering cruelty will become cruel themselves even when God advises kindness.  Therefore Torah must be the compass that guides our moral sense.
If that is the case, then, we must be careful as to how we learn and promulgate that Torah.  Being kind doesn't mean accepting things that the Torah forbids or describes in negative terms but it does mean keeping a level head when dealing with proponents of those things, treating them as fellow human beings and Jews with all the respect that warrants.  Hate the sin, not the sinner as the Gemara tells us.  It means disagreeing and holding to the proper position without rudeness or self-righteousness.  It is most difficult since emotions can often cloud proper judgement or lead one onto a dark path that is illuminated by an illusory light.  It the difficulty that comes with following a true Torah path but the one that brings us closer to the Creator.  Ultimately it does demand that we mold, or at least subordinate, our moral sense to the Torah through proper understanding that learning should bring.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Not Crossing That Line

It's not been a good couple of weeks to identify as a frum Jew.  It started, annoyingly enough, with an Orthodox Jew delaying a Port Airline flight in Toronto after he discovered that his seat mate was a woman.  As the stories in the newspapers described, he did his machmirest to convince someone, anyone, to switch seats so he wouldn't have to sit next to her, all the while scrupulously avoiding directly acknowledging her existence.
It continued with a paranoid schizophrenic in Chareidi garb attacking merrygoers at the Yerushalayim to'evah parade with one of the victims tragically succumbing to her injuries a few days later.
And if that wasn't enough, an Arab home in Yesha was firebombed resulting in the death of one of the adults inside along with an infant.  The attackers are presumed to be Jewish because of graffiti left on the scene.
But as I write this their identity has not yet been confirmed.  Too many people have concluded that this terrible attack was perpetrated by radical Jewish activists in Yesha and certainly they would make logical suspects but remember that for years it was common wisdom that Mohammed al-Dura had been killed by Israeli snipers, only it turned out that he had been murdered by his fellow Arabs.  It may still turn out that this was a revenge attack from within the Arab community with the murderers clever enough to leave Hebrew graffiti knowing that the press would jump to that conclusion all too willingly. And certainly if it turns out that Jews were responsible for this attack then they must be punished to the full extent of the law.
Who are these radicals then, these children of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a"h?  According to different sources they are a small, disorganized group.  Others say they are a growing movement working at setting up their own governing system to run in parallel with the State's since they find Israel too tolerant of its Arab population and want to do something to fix that.  Some of them are messianists all too happy to work towards igniting the Gog of Magog war so that a halachic state of Israel can be created on the ashes of the secular one, ruled by Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
In short, they are the Neturei Karta of the Dati Leumi community, extremist nutbars who have taken a general philosophy and dragged it to an extreme conclusion.
Unlike the Neturei Karta these activists are not harmless nuts who are best avoided.  Their tactics are disgusting and the effect they threaten to have on Jewish society is terrible.
Look, my feelings towards how Israel should run and what its population should be composed of is no secret.  I think Israel should be a Jewish state with a very small Gentile minority so as to keep the vending machines and electrical grid running safely on Shabbos.  If the Arab population of Israel, including Yesha, were to announce tomorrow that it is moving to Jordan and setting up shop there I'd be amongst the first to donate towards their moving costs.  I would like to see a State where people kept Shabbos and no chometz could be found for the entire duration of Pesach.  And I have no scruples when it comes to war.  Smash the enemy, then set the terms for peace.  No one cares how you won, only that you did.
I also recognize that forcing these changes before their proper time, before we have guidance from the Ribono shel Olam, could be disastrous.  As it says in this weeks parsha, we have not yet come to the resting place where we are meant to be.  Therefore we have to walk a fine line between disliking the situation we find ourselves in and changing it through methods that blur the distinction between us and our enemies.
From a moral standpoint this is easy to understand.  If we abandon the moral high ground that we have struggled to hold throughout this long struggle we lose any internal justification for our insistence on Israel's survival.  If we are no better than the enemy then we have no more rights to the land than the enemy.  That alone is reason to reject the growing extremism in our midst.
But even more that there is the practical.  Let's say that the extremists are, their nutso beliefs aside, correct in their approach.  Negotiations haven't work.  Co-existence, like the kibbutzim, is only practical in small areas with willing communities.  This is one land for one people - us - and they have to go.  Let's terrorize them into leaving.
Let's say that tactic leads to success.  The so-called Palestinian Authority along with Hamas realize they are outmatched and there is a mass migration to Jordan or elsewhere.  Then what?
Then we will discover that the savagery we brought upon ourselves during this war will remain with us after the war.  The crazies out there, the ones with the big knitted kippot serugot and flying peyos will still be crazy.  They will still espouse a simplistic "Us against the world" attitude and any Jews who disagree, who want to establish a democratic state will become the new enemy.  Is that what we want?
Those who remember Rabbi Kahane favourably because he spoke the truth about our ability to share Israel with the Arabs usually forget that the Arabs weren't his only ideological enemies.  He also had enough venom for Jews who disagreed with him.  First he'd clean out the Arabs, he told us, and then he'd go after the internal enemies, those Jews that disagreed with his demagogic vision of Israel.
That's the society that these extremists are pushing us to, step by step.  They envision a fascist country with a mythical leader and an ideological unity where a defined enemy of the people is joined by dissenters from the majority population.  That description should sound eerily familiar and scary in the extreme.
That is the even better reason  to forcefully reject what these extremists offer.  We are God's people and we cannot deviate from that standard.  We lose what made us special for Him to choose us and that ends our meaningful existence.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Senator vs The Colonel

South of the border the battle for the Democratic nomination for the 2016 federal election has become far more interesting than many thought it would.  Initially it was expected to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton with a bunch of also-rans falling to the side.  Enter Bernie Sanders, former socialist senator and suddenly the new and possibly viable challenge to her majesty, Hillary I.
In fact, attention on the entire race for the next president has shifted because of Sanders' ascension.  I was worried that the Democrats would quickly crown Hillary while the Republicans, led by The Donald, would alienate all but their most devout supporters after months of eviscerating one another.  Instead attention has started to focus on Clinton and it hasn't been at all flattering, causing her poll numbers to dive while Sanders, a socialist, has played to the Obama-enhanced culture of entitlement that has casts its ennui over the United States.
Should we be happy about this?  Let's take a look at Sanders and see.  He's held a variety of public posts at various levels of government (which is more than the current president can say) and that's probably a good thing.  However, he remains a socialist which is a bad thing.  Not just that but he's an old time socialist.  Remember that before American Jews began marching against the Soviet Union in the late 1960's and 70's in support of Russian Jewry, they were marching for the USSR because of its perceived facade of being a workers' paradise.  Sanders seems to be from that type of American Jewish socialist, the kind that still think that Lenin and Stalin were on to something positive even if the tens of millions they murdered were a regrettable but necessary sacrifice in the name of international communism's success.  He believes in bigger government, more regulation and higher taxes, especially for the rich where he advocates confiscatory rates of 90% on the highest incomes.  I guess he looked at Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal and felt that since democratic socialist produced such amazing economic outcomes there it would be prudent to attempt similar things in the United States.
It seems to me that another Sanders has been overlooked in this nomination race and he might make a very attractive candidate.  This Sanders isn't a Senator, nor has he ever held public office to my knowledge.  He does however hold the military rank of Colonel which is a significant achievement in its own right.
But it's more than that.  Unlike Senator Sanders, Colonel Sanders provides people with stuff they can palpably enjoy, that mouth-watering chicken coated in a fatty batter and eleven herbs & spices which is then deep-fried to destroy any possible health benefits.  There's also the tasty fries, let us not forget.  Finally, unlike Bernie Sanders who wants to create high youth unemployment by raising the minimum wage to uneconomic levels, Colonel Sanders happily employs many youth at the current minimum wage, teaching them important life skills like the ability to ask the question "You want cole slaw with that?"  (No one does, by the way)
Therefore, if the Democrats are smart they'll dump both Clinton and Bernie Sanders and put forward the Colonel as their 2016 candidate.  He comes with his own catering and the smell from the hall at the national convention will be irresistible to hesitant voters.  A chicken in every pot indeed!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Surrounding Perspective

One of the recurring themes I notice when I survey non-Orthodox Jewish blogs is how upset Heterodox Jews generally are with Orthodox Jewry's refusal to recognize their versions of Judaism as legitimate expressions of the religion.  One recent post (I forget where) even emphasized that Orthodox is itself a recent invention so it should have no pretensions to greater legitimacy than, say, Reform.
I think a big reason for this is the influence of surrounding society.  No sector of Judaism is immune to this.  In fact, I'd be willing to wager that almost all sectors of Judaism fall prey to this influence.  On the Heterodox side assimilationist tendencies and a desire to be religious "correct" mean allowing surrounding society's value to set the values of what they call Judaism.  On the Orthodox side there is an increasing tendency to set Judaism's values davka in opposition to prevailing secular ones even when some of those secular ones (honesty in business, for example) are quite commendable.
If that's the case, why doe Orthodoxy set itself apart from the other so-called streams of Judaism?
It seems that this is based on the response to secular society's influence as described above.
Consider that in North America we live in a Chrisian-majority society.  Now, how would one define Chrisianity?  Well to keep it simple, it's a religion composed of multiple groups all of whom sharing one belief in common, that God sent Yeshu haNotzri to save us from our sins and then died for us.  Other than that, when one looks at the spectrum of groups within Chrisianity one sees really very little in common other than that.
The Heterodox understanding of what Judaism is has been influenced by this.  When one looks at the various groups in Jewish society one might conclude that Judaism is also a religion composed of multiple groups all of whom sharing one belief in common, that God did not send Yeshu haNotzri to save us from our sins, etc.  How else to describe Reform's rejection of Jews for Jesus when many adherents to the latter are far more ritually observant than the vast majority of the former?  When one looks at Humanist Judaism in one corner and Satmar Judaism in the other, there is really nothing else that the two have in common Jewishly.  Like Chrisianisty, this is a minimalist position.
In contrast to this, the Orthodox position rejects the idea that Judaism is a religion like Chrisianity.  The Orthodox definition of Judaism demands a belief in God, acceptance of the divinity, antiquity and unity of the Torah and the revelation at Sinai.  Any set of beliefs that is missing one of those points is not authentic Judaism.  In contrast to the Heterodox position, this is a maximalist position.
This is perhaps why Open Orthodoxy, despite its continued claims of fealty to authentic tradition, has been perceived as crossing the red line into Heterodoxy.  One of its major decisors openly admits he doesn't believe that any of the history of the Torah is true.  Other leaders extol the desirability of halacha being altered to accept homosexual marriage even if they haven't found a way to do it yet.  Even its greatest rabbinic proponent, an internationally renowned posek in his own right, revealed an unseemly secular influence when he recently proclaimed that it was time to ordain women as rabbis because he wanted to accomplish it before he retired.
Keeping the concept of the surrounding perspective is important for the Torah observant community as well.  The rise of "Taliban Judaism" in Judaism with Burka Babes and segregated buses is linked to the appearance of, well, the Taliban on the world and religious scene as well as a reaction to the increased lewdness and promiscuity of secular society.  But just as the Open Orthodox are wrong to try and redefine Judaism along the lines of secular liberalism, we in the Torah observant community should avoid limiting Judaism to those chumros which oppose society's mores simple because we want to oppose society.  Torah is not a shield from arayos, it is a way of living that serves as an example to mankind and as a result it should lead, not follow even in opposition.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Back To Munich

An Israeli satirist in the 1960's and 70's, one of Ephraim Kishon's best pieces was an essay that start off as a historical retelling of the events leading to the infamous Munich agreement in which Britain and France, desperate to prevent a major European war with the Nazis, y"sh, agreed to split the northeastern half of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, and give it to Germany.  Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, returned home in triumph waving the agreement above his head and announced that he had arranged "peace in our time!"  Winston Churchill, the dour old codger that he was, replied "You could have chosen war over disgrace.  You chose disgrace and soon you shall have war."  And everyone told him to shut up and stop war mongering.
Peace in our time lasted about a year.
Now while it is easy to criticize the British and French for their absolute stupidity in negotiating with Adolph Hitler, y"sh, we have to remember the historical context of the agreement.  World War I, the Great War as it was still called, had ended only twenty years earlier after devastating large parts of French and slaughtering millions of soldiers and civilians.  Not lost on many people was the absolute uselessness of the war.  It started because a Serbian shot an Austro-Hungarian prince.  It ended with society-shattering effects and caused the rise of the Soviet Union.  Europeans, with the exception of the Germans, were still war weary.  If cutting Czechoslovakia in half meant avoiding a war they were all far it and Chamberlain said as much in the lead up to the agreement.
But back to Kishon.  In his piece he starts off by telling the story of how negotiations began and proceeded but as it goes on he slowly starts changing the names of the politicians involved.  British and French politicians become American and UN ones from the early 1970's.  The German names turn into Arabic ones.  Naturally the Czech names become Israeli.  By the end it's a story about the Western powers along with Russia discussing the dismemberment of Israel with the Arab League while the Israelis sit in the hall, uninvited to the negotiations that will determine their fate.
Sound familiar?
The deal signed between the major nuclear powers and Iran has all the hallmarks of being a repeat of the Munich agreement.  Naive leaders from Western democracies sit across the table from ruthless terrorist thugs.  The Western leaders make it very clear that they either will do anything to get a deal (America, Britian and France) or have no interest in making the terrorist thugs accountable for any deal that gets signs (Russia, China).  The terrorist thugs (Iran) who are in a bit of a predicament due to international sanctions and the low price of oil quickly realize that despite their overwhelming advantage, their opponents are playing to lose.  They drag out negotiations, all while continuing research towards weaponized nuclear technology, continue to openly vilify the Western leaders who can't seem to fawn over them enough and then sign a deal which is possibly worse for the West than Munich was.
What's truly pathetic is watching the President of the United States now stumping for that deal and growing ever more frustrated as people refuse to see it as the greatest deal of the century.  First we are given the false dichotomy - it was this or war.  Well no it wasn't.  It was this or continuing crippling sanctions and an end to negotiating for the enemy against your own country.  It's not surprising that Obama doesn't mention this option as he has worked for years against levelling sanctions against Iran.
When someone brings up North Korea breaking a remarkably similar agreement only a few years ago they get yelled at.  When someone brings up the American political prisoners in Iran and how this deal ignores them, they get yelled at.  When someone brings up Israel's fears of a nuclear Iran they get told that Israel is the actual aggressor in this situation.  Yes, the world is that bizarre.
For Israel this deal, and the eagerness of the nuclear powers to drop sanctions, invest in Iran and suck up to its leaders is bewildering.  Agreement or not, it is generally known that Iran subsidizes proxy armies like Hezbollah in multiple countries throughout the Middle East.  It's generally known that Iran is also a major sponsor of worldwide terrorism and is keen on building up its military capability despite having no current aggressive enemies (other than Israel, of course).  Why is this all being ignored?  Why are terrorist thugs who have an established track record of lying being taken seriously when it comes to their signatures on this wretched document?
I hope and pray that we have not witnessed this century's Munich agreement but when all its supporters can say is "Well it's better than no deal" or angrily attack detractors it's hard not to think so.
What can we as Jews do?  We must remember our Father in Heaven who didn't bring us back to our Land and help us re-establish its sovereignty just to have a bunch of Persian nutjobs wipe it out.  We must pray and learn in the hope that our merit will protect us and give our defenders the strength to preserve Jewish life and society.  We must not take this silently but must plead with Heaven for mercy.  Perhaps we will be heard.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Socialism Is Infantalism

The Greek tragedy that is, well, um, Greece, continues to unfold before the eyes of an alternatively horrified and bemused world.  Grexit, the involuntary exit of Green from the EU end the Euro creeps closer sending financial markets into spasm of uncertainty.
What is most fascinating to watch is the behaviour of the guilty parties in this crisis, specifically the Greek government and their supporters in the public.  Greece didn't enter this position of bankruptcy overnight and without warning.  Rather the situation was created by multiple governments that paid steadily rising benefits to an increasingly less productive workforce.  It was assisted in this by a tremendous sense of entitlement on the part of the Greeks themselves.  They were quite happy to take the money their government didn't really have but when they were asked to cut back to alleviate the situation they weren't so generous.
At the national level the current government has been acting the same way with its creditors.  Sure we may owe hundreds of billions of dollars, they have told an annoyed Angela Merckel, but since we can't repay it you should just write it off and then loan us more!
The final laugh, if you will, was the referendum last weekend in which a majority of Greeks voted to refuse the austerity terms of a further financial buyout. The Greek government, bolstered by the result, insisted that Europe and especially Germany must acknowledge the democratic voice of the Greek people.  The German response was classic: well we also have a democratic voice and it has said that it wants its money back.
They say maturity occurs when a person realizes his parents were right to force him to eat his spinach when he was young.  In Greece it seems they're still having ice cream sundaes for breakfast, lunch and dinner while resenting any suggesting that they might benefit from fruits, vegetables and bran.
Now as Jews we have a long history with Greece and especially Greek culture.  There has been an entwining of theirs and ours for over two thousand years, ever Alexander the Great stopped over in Yerushalayim on his tour of the MiddleEast and south Asia.  Our Chazal held a special respect for the Greek language and a special loathing for its culture.
As opposed to Judaism which emphasized the spiritual and rejecting physical hedonism as a valuable goal, Greece seemed to philosophize its way into a culture in which physical perfection was everything.  A great example of this was Greek opposition to Jewish circumcision during Maccabean times.  For Jews circumcising is a final step towards perfecting the body that God left in our hands to perform.  For the Greeks it was simple mutilation.
This Greek philosophy seems to have found its way into the culture of its descendants.  Modern Greece as it collapses today is the final end run of a philosophy that demands physical gratification without consideration of its cost.  The Greeks have been happy to take hundreds of billions of Euros for their pensions but refused to believe that the tap would be turned off if they refused to be accountable.  Faced with the consequences of that idiocy they simply insist they should not have to be "punished" and demand more free candy from the story.
Why does this matter to us?  Because the Green attitude is contagious.  In any prosperous society there is a greedy tendency to demand entitlements from the government but resent any attempt by the government to receive the finances to pay for those entitlements.  We are instead subject to moronic statements like "Well just tax the rich more!" and "Tax the corporations!"  Tax anyone, just not us!  For the West Greece (and soon Spain, Portugal and Italy) is an advanced warning as to what happens when governments allow their populations to become spoiled brats who want a five star society while paying one star rates.  As citizens of the West we ignore this vivid warning at our peril.
But worse and perhaps very ironically, the Greek attitude has infected the part of the Torah observant community that styles itself as the true vanguard of the Jewish nation against assimilation and outside influence - the Chareidi community.
Take a look at the Chareidi community in Israel, especially that segment that sits and learns all day long while living on outside donations but more significantly, on Israeli government largess.  Look at the behaviour of their politicians, especially over the last few years when they were in opposition and forced to deal with cuts to their entitlements.  The resemblance to Greece couldn't be more obvious. Give us the money, they and their representatives shout, but don't expect anything back from us, not even a 'thank you'!  The degeneracy and immaturity of the socialist entitlement system has created a culture of dependency that is not to be ignored.
When the very community that imagines itself exemplifying the opposite views to Greece is itself displaying those values we need to seriously appreciate the power afflicting the Torah community and the battle that will be needed to overcome it.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Finding The Right Balance

One of the interesting facets of Judaism is the perceived divide between mitzvos bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'chaveiro.  Despite there being no real distance between the two categories since the latter are also part of the former, all mitzvos being done at the command of the Creator, common practice seems to suggest that people really do see them as mutually exclusive categories.
What's more, those people who do often seem to see Jewish practice as embracing one or the other.  Thus you find many folks on the left side, including the Reformative community, who seek to excel in bein adam l'Chaveiro through "tikun olam" efforts while disregarding what they perceive as the archaic ritualistic side of Judaism or seeking to make it egalitarian, again as part of "tikun olam".  On the right side you see a desire for mehadrin and chumra often at the expense of human decency.  The same guy who insists on four hechsherim for his jug of milk having no trouble cheating his fellow Jew blind, for example.
Why does this divide exist?
I would like to suggest that it's because we really don't build ourselves a relationship with the Creator like we should. 
Now on the surface that sounds silly.  On the right we have people who shout Baruch HaShem at every opportunity and on the left we repeatedly hear justifications for ignoring mitzvos starting with the words "Well, what I think God really wants is..."  But in both cases there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what that relationship is supposed to be.
Let me bring as an example the Carlebach-style kabbalas Shabbos services that are currently in vogue.  Full disclaimer up front: I can't stand them and haven't gone to Friday night services at my shul since the Rav made them a permanent feature.  Why?  I used to think it was because it took so long but I've davened at Sephardi and Ethiopian kabbalas Shabbos services that are just as long and didn't get annoyed or too hungry.  I think what bothered me most were many of the attendees who, during the singing parts, really got into things but when Maariv started and it was time to actually pray, shut their siddurim and started to have conversations which kept up straight through to kiddush at the end.  I mean, it's great that these folks come to shul to connect but at the end of the night when they get in their cars and drive home one has to ask: what did they connect to?  They didn't come to pray, to open their hearts and souls to God.  If the service had just been quiet, contemplative prayer they'd feel no reason to come out at all.  In short, they expect God to entertain them, to serve them instead of it being the other way around.
The disconnect is no different on the right side of the community either, mind you.  Every time you read about a frum Jew involved in a financial scam, a pedophilia incident or some other despicable act and see a black hat, bear and peyos staring out of the mugshot on the screen you are looking at someone who really wants to connect to God but only through certain actions.  He has compartmentalized God into a supervisor of rituals, not daily life, his protestations to the contrary.
And what can one say about a kollel culture in which performance of many public mitzvos is shunned because it would take away from learning?
Perhaps one of the biggest priorities of Jewish education, both elementary and adult, has to be the emphasis on the lack of divide between the two types of mitzvos and that attributing a perceived lesser importance to one is as Jewishly destructive as abandonment of both.  People who spend their lives helping the poor need to know that keeping Shabbos is just as important but people who do everything they can to ensure an enhanced Shabbos also have to know there is a world out there that needs Jews acting in consonance with the Torah to improve it.  In that way we can perhaps progress towards being the example to the nations that we are supposed to be.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Unending Insecurity

On one hand, history has given us Jews enough reason to feel insecure in our identities.  We have enough expulsions, massacres, rapes and devastations to keep up from seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses.  Even now in the early 21st century in a place like North America, the insecurity continues.  Like the battered child who is rescued from years of abuse but can't get past jittery anxiety in a safe foster home because of the depth of the trauma, diaspora Jews as a population seem to believe that the good times we currently live in are a facade that will eventually disappear.
The problem is that coping mechanisms that have developed to handle this belief are both dysfunctional.  On the religious side we have many Torah-observant Jews who miss the old ghettos of Europe and have voluntarily rebuilt them her in Canada and America.  You know the type.  They dress like their grandparents did in the alte heim, they insist that Yiddish should be our first language and they continue to insist that the Gentiles around us are the same nasssssssty goyim as they were in Europe.  Can't beat 'em so avoid 'em.
The other group are the secular part of our brethren.  Like their predecesors in Western Europe they see assimilation and eventually abandonment of our heritage as the solution to the hatred hiding below the surface.  Can't beat 'em so join 'em.
However, both these approaches ignore the single most important positive Jewish event in Jewish history of the last two millenia - the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  This has created a third group of Jews, one which is aware of its insecure position in the world but sees its Jewishness like the British see their Britishness and the Chinese their Chineseness.  They are Jews, they have no jealousy of other groups and see no reason to either hate or suck up to them.  This third group is quite unsettling because neither the first nor second quite know how to handle it.
For the ultraOrthodox the idea of Jews confidenly living in this world with their Jewishness simply being part of it is difficult to comprehend.  Their philosophy is that Judaism is at odds with life in this world.  For the secular population which is happier being Jewish American or Canadian as opposed to being Canadian or American Jews the idea of a Jew without a hyphen on either side of the world is also bewildering.
This explains perhaps why Israeli jews are getting increasingly frustrated with their North American brothers.  Israel, despite all its successes, lives under the black cloud of hatred that covers the skies of the MiddleEast.  It knows that it is one whackjob with a bomb away from a mortal crisis.  It desperately wants to live in peace but isn't prepared to commit national suicide to achieve that peace.  But when it reaches its hand across the ocean for help or support what does it get in response?
From the ultraOrthodox it gets no hand back.  Like their cousins in Israel the Agudah community and those to the right of it are parochial.  They have little interest in the greater good of the Jewish nation.  Only those pan-communal causes that might affect its well-being draw its attention. 
From the secular community there is a hand back but its swatting the Israeli one away.  American Jews, or rather: Jewish Americans, long ago lost that family feeling that should bind all Jews one to another.  For them tikun olam is about recycling, not about bringing the Divine into this world.  Alternative marriages, abortion on demand, Obamacare and ecofasicm are their priorities, not their brothers in Israel who are on the wrong side of the politically correct debate since they're oppressing those supposedly poor so-called Palestinians.
It's a mindset I've always been curious about.  At one point in North American history Jews dealt with open hatred and exclusion from the majority population by building up their own communities and showing they could be as diverse and successful as their Gentile rivals.  Jewish hospitals, schools and universities are the legacy of that fierce desire to succeed with or without the approval of the Gentiles.
Something changed in the middle 20th century, it seems.  With the increasing acceptance of Jews into Gentile institutions like universities and country clubs the pride that demand that our fathers and mothers build their own society disappeared.  Suddenly the greatest Jewish goal was to be accepted as a member of the local WASP club or get into the local university.  Jewish success was measured by how assimilated you could be while still calling yourself a member of the tribe.
To this day that lack of Jewish self-respect haunts and harms us.  What is J Street other than a Judenrat desperate to seek the approval of the politically correct Jew-hating crowd?  Why does the ADL oppose Sheldon Adelson's latest initiatives to ensure Jewish continuity other than because it makes Jews stand out instead of making them seem like just another member of the American mosaic?
Israel is the future of our people.  Israel is the centre of our national life.  It is time we took a cue from the confident Israelis and recognized that we need no approval from society around us, that we don't need to tailor our views to their approval and that our destiny is decided by the Divine will, not that of the Western world.  We don't need their country clubs.  We need our Land, our Torah and our self-respect.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Questions Not Asked

With the recent news that Rabbi Avi Weiss has finally pulled the trigger and pulled out of mainstream Orthodoxy there is much discussion across the Torah observant community with how to interact with this new "denomination".  Is it a form of Torah observance, as its adherents claim?  Is it simply right wing Conservatism with a mechitzah as its detractors point out?
Based on what I can see from my lonely perch out here in the Jewish hinterlands, I think the entire discussion is missing a very important point.  Rav Avraham Gordimer's critique of this recent move on Rabbi Weiss' part exemplifies it perfectly.  He points out Rabbi Weiss' various innovations which are certainly openly to criticism for their lack of halachic fealty, for example.  No argument here.  Rabbi Weiss has made a career out of being controversial, sometimes for excellent reasons (his support of Israel and Soviet Jewry back in the day) and sometimes for politically correct ones (his obsession with creating women rabbis and somehow normalizing homosexuality within Torah observance).  All along he has acted with the authority reserved for a major posek or Gadol haDor, positions for which he is unqualified but which he has arrogated to himself.  Yet he seems completely mystified by the hostile response genuine Torah-observant leaders have given him and seems to have concluded that their approach is "ossified".
He certainly makes his goals sound laudable.  He wants to be more inclusive, he wants a greater spectrum of observance and these are all great things but the problem occurs when people announce that their Torah observance must accomodate their personal preferences, not the other way around.  A lax approach, a "customizable" denomination might attract more people but it is not proper Torah observance.
But all of this focusing on women's ordination and legitimizing "alternative lifestyles" misses the important point and here it is: can I still eat in Rabbi Weiss' house?
Not that I'm in danger of getting invited, you understand but the question stands.  Recall that the three pillars of Jewish life are kashrus, taharas mishpacha and Shabbos observance.  They are not shul, tikun olam and Carlebach-style services.  By focusing critique on these areas we fall into the trap of redefining the priorities of Judaism and change it from a national-religious system in which the home is the centre and preserve of the faith to a synagogue-based ritual system in which Judaism is practised in certain parts of one's life while being irrelevant in the others.
In all the writings of the YCT crowd that I've seen there is no mention of redefining Shabbos observance.  The Rabbi Kanefskies of the world who are so troubles with the blessing of Shelo Asani Ishah don't recommended that husbands and wives do mikveh trips together or any abrogation of niddah requirements.  There is no call to certify non-Jewish wine or cheese like the Conservatives did. 
So can we eat in their homes?  And should that not matter?  After all, the reason Torah-observant Jews feel cut off from Reformatives is because of their rejection of the authority of the Oral law.  Off the top that means that any claims they make to have "authentic" Jewish practice in things like food and Shabbos can be swiftly rejected. 
With the Open Orthodox this will be much trickier.  If someone insists that they accept the truth of Matan Torah and the authority of Chazal along with the Shulchan Aruch then I might strongly disagree with some of their decisions but I still have to accept that many of their practices have an authentic legtimacy.  If they don't but still act Orthodox in many areas of their lives is it still as acceptable?
For all I know, Rabbi Dov Farber keeps a strictly kosher home.  On the other hand he rejects the truth of Matan Torah which means that he lives a Jewish lifestyle not out of any sense of a binding legal obligation from God Himself but because he thinks it's just what the right thing is for Jews to do.  Is his kosher home a real kosher home?
By focusing on public roles and community rituals we obscure these more important questions.  It is entirely possible that Open Orthodoxy is a new "stream" of Judaism, a right wing Conservatism with a mechitzah.  if that's the case then they join the other Reformative groups and sit outside true Torah-observance.  But if they are still genuinely Orthodox in some way, are they not worth the effort to keep them within the fold?

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

What Do We Care?

There's no escaping the recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States legalizing homosexual marriage across their country.  The media and the internet are saturated with coverage.  Even Facebook has gotten into the act with people overlying their profile photos with rainbow flags.  The number of people in the West who support heterosexual-only marriage continues to shrink rapidly and the issue becomes more of a liability for politicians than anything else.   The question I wish to ask today is: what does it matter to us Jews?
On the surface of it, not much.  The average homosexual, like the average heterosexual, isn't a rampaging crusader but rather just wants to lead a normal, quiet life.  Attendance at gay marriages is still optional, not compulsory.  Let them do their thing and leave us alone to do ours.
However, the threat to Judaism in the West isn't from the average heterosexual.  In all other ethnic, religious and cultural communities there is a minority which can't stand the idea that their views are not the standard views across society.
The homosexual community is no different.  That the state permits gay marriage isn't enough for this group.  The idea that there are other communities out there that dispute the "enlightened" ruling of the court and continue to believe it's forbidden is intolerable to them.  These are the people who look specifically for religious bakers and sue them in human right's court when they are refused a wedding cake.  For these people the ruling will not simply be about getting married.  They are in a state of cultural war with traditional religion because traditional religion opposes their important values and they can't tolerate that.
Look at it a different way.  In more savage parts of the world culture wars are conducted at the business end of an automatic rifle.  ISIL uses its military might to enforce it's version of Islamic law on its conquered subjects.  You can be sure that prohibiting gay marriage is part of that cachet.  In the West we don't fight that way.  Instead of rifles we have lawyers and instead of tanks we have judges.  The culture war is fought in a more civilized, genteel fashion, but the end result is the same: the winning side seeks to impose its values on the losing side and goes apoplectic when it fails.
The reason we need to care is because of this militant minority.  There have already been cases where businesses being run by religious Chrisians have been targeted and legally attacked for refusing service to a gay couple seeking to get married.  On one hand you can sympathize with the gay couple.  After all, if you read a story in the paper about a Black man being denied entry into a restaurant because the management only wanted White customers you'd be justifiably outraged.  On that level this is no different.
On the other hand, consider that in the cases involving gay couples the businesses made efforts to assist the couple by recommended alternative companies that would offer the same product at the same or an even better price.  The response by the couples was uniform: We don't just want a cake.  We want you to bake that cake.  Why?  If I went into a store and got the strong impression my patronage was not wanted because I'm Jewish I would take my money and recommendations elsewhere. I wouldn't double-down and insist that this business serve me.  Why would I want them to benefit in any way?  These couples did the opposite - they chose to punish the religious individuals financially and legally.
Small time, sure, but what happens one day when a gay couple walks into the local Orthodox shul and demands to rent the social hall for their wedding?  What happens when a gay groom demands an aufruf?
Assaults on religious freedom have been protected by law until now because of the idea of freedom of conscience.  Read the media now and the liberal lobby is already re-framing that argument.  It's no longer about freedom of religion but about freedom from discrimination.  You wouldn't tolerate an institution that forbid interracial dating so you soon won't have to tolerate a shul or church that forbids homosexual marriage.  Imagine the day when someone looks at an Orthodox Jew applying for a job and says "We don't want people who don't support gay marriage working here".
Seen that way we as Torah-observant Jews might be a more precarious position than we think.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Garnel Ironheart - The Book!

First, there was the book that brought me into existence, The Curse of Garnel Ironheart.  Then, after the conclusion of the three books of The Unending War trilogy there was the establishment of this blog which allowed me to share my thoughts with the world.  And now, as the next logical step in my process towards Jewish world domination, comes Navonim - Towards Intelligent Judaism, a collection of the finest essays on my Jewish ideology, Judaism and Jewish politics and thoughts on many parshiyos of the Torah.
One of the main reasons for my starting and maintaining this blog was and is to add my voice to the cacophony inundating the Jewish world today.  I certainly hoped I'd have more of an impact than I did but still feel great about all the views I could share and the occasional discussions that those views engendered.
So when I was recently contacted by Hadassa Word Press (the same company that contacted pretty much every Jewish blog they could find, I think) and asked if I'd be interested in publishing a book based on my blog posts I decided to take advantage and submitted a manuscript.
Navonim - Towards Intelligent Judaism consists of many of the posts I wrote on my Navon ideology along with my thoughts on Orthodoxy today and, as mentioned, some Torah thoughts in the third section.  It's a fine collection of essays sure to give the dedicated reader hours of enjoyment and insight.
At this time it's only available directly from Hadassa Word Press either as a download or as a pricey bound edition which will enhance the appearance of your book shelf and excite the comments of your friends and neighbours.  While you're there, pick up more copies of the books of The Unending War trilogy, the story that brought me to life!  However, if you wait I am told that it will eventually appear on Amazon as well.
And who knows?  If enough people buy the book, or should I say: sefer, and notoriety develops perhaps I too will merit to have it burned at Meron on Lag B'Omer.

Friday, 26 June 2015

An Accessory To Mitzvos

There's been a terrible tragedy in the community I live in.  A week ago during a party a 6 year old girl slipped under the surface of the swimming pool she was in and laid at the bottom for several minutes (no one really knows) until she was discovered.  She was hauled out of the water, had CPR done and was immediately taken by ambulance to the local emergency room.  From there she was transported to the nearest Pediatric ICU, the one in my town.  She is still there, intubated and ventilated with no improvement over time.  Investigations have shown that her brain and brainstem are completely gone.  No change is expected.  Tragedy.
The parents are in a difficult spot.  Their position on the Jewish definition of death is absence of heart beat.  Therefore as far as they are concerned their daughter is alive.  What's more, they see themselves as being machmir in having decided that if this little girl's heart should stop beating they want all resuscitative efforts to be made to restart it.  The hospital staff, approaching this from a secular ethics perspective have decided that she's dead and that taking her off the ventilator would be acceptable.  All they need is the parents' permission which, naturally, they're not getting.
So I went one evening to visit the family and offer them a refuah sheleimah even though my heart wasn't into it.  I mean, yes there is God in Heaven and He can perform whatever miracles He wants unhindered but we don't walk around on a daily basis assuming that those will happen simply because we need one or prayed really hard for it.  The patient has unfixable brain damage.  According to the brainstem position in halacha she's already dead.  I wished them a refuah sheleimah and hoped we'd see nissim v'nifla'ot but in my head I knew those weren't likely to happen.
It's the reaction to this tragedy that has me shaking my head though.  The parents belong to a sect of Judaism that loves to do kiruv.  In fact, other than other chasidim and stricter members of the Yeshivish community they even see other frum Jews as targets.  Kiruv is their life, what they were trained to do since they were kids and what they see as the highest activity in their day.  They constantly run campaigns to get women involved in Shabbos candle lighting and going to the mikveh.  Important thigns.
It still bothered me to see lots of piles of pamphlets piled around the waiting room where people had gathered to comfort the family.  The pamphlets detailed various mitzvos like lighting Shabbos candles and mikveh.  Two women related to the family made it clear that they expected people to take on various mitzvos with the kavannah that it should help convince God to bring the girl a speedy recovery.  In other words, this was another mitzvos campaign.
I tried to be understanding.  In their mind the mishnah in Avos, the one right at the beginning about being servants of God without expecting a reward, probably doesn't apply here.  Or perhaps there's a statement or two in that book they're always talking about, the one the first Rebbe of their movement wrote which they consider more important that any other Jewish book except (maybe) the Chumash.  Fine, I get it.  We do mitzvos and with the kavannah that the girl gets a refu'ah from Heaven.  Any parent desperate for their child to recovery would grab at something like this.  Who can blame them when the alternative is heartbreak for the rest of their lives?
What bugged me though was listening to the parents talk about this mitzvah campaign.  For them it isn't a maybe.  It's not that they're saying that they'll give it their beset shot and what happens, happens.  They fully expect that if enough people go to the mikveh or put on tefillin because of their efforts God will upend the natural laws of the world He established and ensures run with inviolability and heal this girl's dead brain.  And the girl?  She gets to lie in an ICU bed with a tube in her throat until that happens.  She gets to stop being a person and instead gets to be a symbol, an accessory to the latest mitzvah campaign and an opportunity to hand out pamphlets and push the group's agenda.  Should I be bothered that this will happen to her?