Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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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.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

One Objective First

There is an old story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who was challenged to show God's power in this world.  To do so he asked his servant to bring something the local ruler had declared as contraband.  After insisting on it the servant went out and eventually returned with the item.  After that he asked the servant to bring him some bread from a Jewish home, the caveat being that this occurred during Pesach.  Again the servant needed some pushing but eventually went out.  This time he came back empty handed.  Reb Levi Yitzchak triumphantly pointed out that a human rule with police and courts couldn't get people to follow his laws but God in Heaven could count on his nation to be obedient without anything to enforce His law.
Nowadays, of course, the story wouldn't have ended the same.  The servant would easily have found bread, nebich, and returned with it to his master.  We therefore have to look at this story and draw a different conclusion.
Before we can demand obedience to the Creator, we have to restore His position as our ruler.  Despite how obvious that seems, it's not a simple task at all.  Both within the frum community and without, God takes a back seat when it comes to our priorities.  We mumble about Him in our prayers, say Baruch HaShem instinctively and all that but when was the last time most of us were moved to talk privately with Him, or to mention Him without it being in some official context.  We struggle with "Gadol worship" and chassidish venerations of their Rebbe as a conduit between them and the Creator.  The extra level dulls our connection.
Outside the Torah observant world the situation is no better.  There God is an impotent, all-approving figure whose job is to reward us for our good deeds (and we'll subjectively decide on what those are) and refrain from judging us when we fail to meet His standard. 
Is this any surprise though?  In a famous story in the Midrash similar to the one above, one of our Chachamim tries the same thing with a Roman emperor, this time the challenge being for the emperor to ban all fires in the city.  At the end of the day the two stand on the roof of the palace, survey the city and see a single pillar of smoke in the distance.  Nowadays there would be dozens of such pillars and everyone would have an excuse as to why the law doesn't apply to them.  We live in a society when the cardinal rule for lawfulness is "It's only illegal if you don't get caught".  We are not so isolated as to be immune from this attitude.  Outside the frum world you can find lots of bread on Pesach.  Inside the ranks of the pious you can find crimes just as bad, just as easily.
If there is therefore to be a change within the Jewish nation, especially within Israel itself, we must ask ourselves what one simple change we can make to turn ourselves towards God and His expectations for us.  Bullying people into keeping Shabbos whether they want to or not, telling them how to use the mikveh or not, isn't doing it.  What would?
Perhaps all parts of the Jewish community need to be reminded that God is our King.  Stop, period, nothing more.  Until now we have failed to do that because of the implications that come with it.  If God is King, then how dare any of us tolerate disobedience, either within ourselves or from our brethren? 
I would suggest that the same way we see infractions of law from our fellow citizens wherever we live, citizens who nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of the government they live under and who, if forced, will therefore obey its laws, we approach ourselves in the same manner.
You can't force a person to keep kosher without his accepting that there is an Authority who demands it of him yet that is precisely what so often happens.  You can't expect a person to abandon secret sins if he is convinces that the all-seeing Eye in the Sky isn't watching him at certain times.
Before we worry about the little things, or frankly even the big ones, we have to work on re-establishing His authority.  Once all Jews recognize that, despite their level of observance or non-observance, there is a God in Heaven that we are all governed by then we can talk about bringing people around to a more proper form of behaviour.  Accept the government, then push the laws.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Get Serious Or Stop Complaining

The two big changes being contemplated in the religious status quo in Israel these days are the building of an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and the fight over who gets to control the mikveh experience at State controlled ritualariams across the country. 
With the former there seems to be little worry that the current situation will change, less with every passing day in fact.  For one thing, the Chareidi parties in the government are threatening to bolt the coalition if the changes go through.  For another, the women you'd think would be thrilled with the new layout are not excited since giving them a section to daven away from the Ultraorthodox they thrive on antagonizing fails to help them achieve their primary goal, making the newscasts.
With the latter situation the Chareidi parties area once again using their position in the narrow majority government to push through a bill that will ensure Chareidi control and standards in State mikva'os.  On one hand that's frustrating since it's well understood that the Chareidi position is that only their understanding of ritual practice is acceptable.  That means fully observant Torah positions in non-Chareidi communities are as illegitimate as those in the Reformative group and that many frum women will be forced to abide by interpretations of laws that might be at odds with their own practice and custom.
On the other hand, I can't take the complaining from the Reformative group terribly seriously.  Yes they are correctly anticipating that their women will receive second class treatment, if they're lucky.  Yes, there will be humiliations and many women who are sincere, if unaware of their Torah obligations, will be taught to hate Torah Judaism by the treatment they receive.  And no, no women showing up to immerse in the mikveh anywhere should be treated with anything less than dignity and respect regardless of her religious standards or lack thereof.
If that's the case then why am I less than sympathetic?  Mostly because once you push away all the fluff about pluralism, these women are coming to the mikveh because they want to and not out of a sense of obligation.  While that sounds nice it's important to remember that Jewish law respects the person who fulfills an obligation more than the one who does the same action voluntarily.  There are reasons for this, primarily the one that the person fulfilling the obligation is fighting their yetzer which adds a higher level to the action.  The bottom line, however, is that if these women decide one day that another ritual is what they need to connect to their spirituality they will drop the mikveh like an old Kleenex.  The frum women, on the other hand, will keep coming no matter what.
Thus it seems to me that all this fuss is similar to the one the Women of the Wall kept making, at least until they got what they wanted.  One solution is to try kiruv on these women, treat them with respect while encouraging them to accept hilchos taharas mishphacha as an obligation rather than a fad.  The other might be to simply start opening Reformative mikva'os which would, like Robinson's Arch, prove whether or not these women are as serious as they say they are.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Dear Aaron, Please Shut Up

I don't know if we truly appreciate how many wasted words we encounter on a daily basis.  Never mind the forests of trees that go to print things which are predictable, repetitious or useless but also the waste of time taken in listening to stuff you can predict will be said is something to consider.
For example, consider sports interviews.  The reporter approaches the star athlete and asks his opinion of his team's chances in the upcoming game.  What is the athlete going to say?  "Yeah, I think we'll get trashed today because frankly we were out partying late last night and we're just not in shape"?  No, it's the usual bromides about getting pumping, taking the opposition seriously and giving it one's all.
Or maybe the politician being interviewed about potential government corruption.  You know the standard answers will just flow through, from denial to accusation of the opposition politicians.  Just once it would be nice to hear someone say, "Yes, you caught us, we're thieves and we'll do it again next chance we get."
Frankly, Donald Trump's stump speeches could be shorter to.  All he really needs to do is stand up and say someone outrageous like "All Mexicans suck!" or "All women are sluts!" and then leave the stage.  His longer addresses are just variations on that.
Finally there's the example given by the Satmar Rebbes, the latest one being Aaron during a visit to Israel.  As usual he had only complaints for his hosts while accusing them of all sorts of crimes and plots against religious life in the State.  Settlers are bad.  The army is bad.  The State is evil and a rebellion against God.  Honestly, does he not have anything original to say?
In the lead up to Purim you'd think a religious leader of his stature would try something new.  How about kindness to your fellow Jew regardless of his religious position or lack of one?  Is that not in the Satmar playbook?  How about reaching out to the hated Zionists and trying to influence them positively?  Did his predecessor not leave him instructions on how to do that?  How about something other than the predictable broadsides against people who, frankly, don't give a damn about what he has to say (and not just because they don't speak Yiddish)?
When we get to the end of the Purim story there is a little clue thrown into it as to how Mordechai's success sat with his confreres.  It says that he was popular with rov echav, most of his brethren.  Chazal tell us that this means there were those Jews who thought, even after all that had happened, that Mordechai had handled things poorly, that had he just sat and prayed and learned hard enough things would have worked out.  We know the value of their opinion since we don't remember their names when it comes to this holiday but it does go to show that there have always been those who think that they have some kind of unique connection or ruach hakodesh that makes them smarter than everyone else and therefore entitled to criticize their perceived inferiors.  This Satmar seems to be one of those.
But just as Mordechai's critics were lost to history, so too unconstructive critics of the State will probably disappear into the mists of time.  Best not to pay too much attention to them now either.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Holocaust Fatigue

As a second generation "survivor", writing about the Holocaust is something I always approach with trepidation.  On one hand it is the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).  On the other hand, because of the scope of the destruction it has come to dominate Jewish thought and practice three generations later with some very negative effects.
I would suggest that one reason the Holocaust retains its "popularity" as a factor in Jewish identity is the nature of non-religious Jewish culture in North America.  As I've written before, most non-Orthodox Jews believe that Judaism is essentially secular liberalism with an all-approving deity and latkes.  As a result, anything that is politically correct becomes Jewish to them, usually under the misused rubric of tikun olam
This is why the Holocaust penetrates and endures in non-religious Jewish culture.  It was morally easy.  We were the good guys and the Germans were the bad guys.  There was no "let's see it from their point of view" or "maybe we contributed to what happened".  A non-religious type can be proudly Jewish because of the Holocaust because it requires no moral effort, contradicts no secular liberal values.  As Charles Krauthammer has recently written, this leads to a serious distortion of their understanding of Judaism:
For example, it’s become a growing emphasis in Jewish pedagogy from the Sunday schools to Holocaust studies programs in the various universities. Additionally, Jewish organizations organize visits for young people to the concentration camps of Europe.
The memories created are indelible. And deeply valuable. Indeed, though my own family was largely spared, the Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.
I worry that a people with a 3,000-year history of creative genius, enriched by intimate relations with every culture from Paris to Patagonia, should be placing such weight on martyrdom — and indeed, for this generation, martyrdom once removed.
When Sanders identifies as a Jew he does it through the Holocaust.  This should not be a shock to people.  The vast majority of non-religious Jews do the same thing.  Why show Jewish pride?  The Holocaust.  Why support Israel?  The Holocaust.  When marry Jewish?  To deny Hitler, y"sh, a posthumous victory. (Thank you Emil Fackenheim)  
It goes further.  Why does Sanders identify with the Holocaust?  Because he can relate to it.  Not the Torah or Talmud.  Not Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam.  In the intellectually stunted worldview of socialism there are two kinds of people - the successful who are evil by virtue of their success and the unsuccessful who were exploited by the former group and are entitled to fruit of all their efforts.  Germans = successful.  Jews = unsuccessful.  With Jews who were innocent sheep led to the slaughter Sanders can relate.  With Jews who guard their borders, build their homes and thrive in the most violent place on Earth?  Not so much.
The big problem with using the Holocaust as the basis of Jewish identity is that it's time limited.  Just like 99% or so of non-religious Jews either don't know about the importance of our Holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) or don't care, just like 99% of Jews observant or not don't think much about the Chielmnicki pogroms, so too the national uniting trauma of the Holocaust will fade in a generation after the last survivor is gone.  With social media destroying our attention spans and ancient history being redefined as only 10 years ago how can it not?  What will the average Jew, without the Holocaust, hold on to as a lodestone?
The Holocaust is morally easy, the State of Israel and the tough task of survival in the viper pit that is the Middle East is a different story.  The same Jews who take pride in their forebears having gone through the black and white Holocaust suddenly become more reticent when faced with grey Israeli reality.  No wonder there's money for Holocaust memorials but when it comes time to fighting BDS on campus things get tighter.
We have to emphasize to people that Jewish history did not begin or end with the Holocaust.  We have seen our share of tragedy but we have also enriched the world through our Torah and our contributions to civilization.  What we're done must be emphasized, not what we've lost if we are to encourage people to see Judaism, especially Torah Judaism, as something to cleave to.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How Do You Combat Apathy?

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

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Preaching A New Religion

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

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Reaching Up Or Bringing Down

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

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Kind Face of Evil

It is an accomplishment of the leftist liberal media industry in North America and Europe that most people, when asked what political forces was the most murderous in history, will usually point to 20th century Fascism.  It's an accomplishment because while it is generally accepted, it's also untrue.
In fact, if you tally the numbers in terms of ruined lives and mass murders, communism and its softer face, socialism, far outperformed the Fascists in terms of scale of depravity and length of time as an influential force.  It is the never ending sympathy of the leftists who influence our cultural and historical awareness for those murderers that has created a society where the word "Nazi!" is an unforgiveable insult while "Soviet!" hardly raises a hair.
And so, enter Bernie Sanders.  The senator who would be president is an unrepentant socialist, full of ideas that have repeatedly sunk economies and ruined societies.  He swears allegiance to the political philosophy that, in its more extreme form, slaughtered tens of millions from the purges of the USSR to the Great Leap Forward in China and down to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.    And for those who think that comparing him to some of the worst murderers in history is a bit extreme, then take a step back and try to remember why Greece was in the news so much.  Hint, it wasn't over tourism.
What is Bernie's secret?  Well first there's the endless soft indoctrination of the media.  Donald Trump is being touted as a soft fascist and this angle is used to constantly vilify him.  Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is a soft communist and this makes him the people's hero.
There's also the legacy of the welfare state and its role in creating an entire underclass of people who think that they're entitled to a decent living simply by fact of having been born.  They have been raised on the "The rich are the source of all your problems" mantra and readily flock to anyone who promises them more entitlements.  Free college education!  Free healthcare!  Eat the rich to get the money for it!
And now Bernie, whose current religious affiliation is very much in question, is being called out for not being more "Jewish".  Despite being the first Jew in American politics to accomplish what he has, he isn't waving the tribe's flag and there are those who are getting concerned about this.
Well should this be a surprise?  After all, for the non-observant Judaism is very much an ethnic definition, possibly a religious one but not a national one by any means.  Bernie is an American first, and really an American socialist first.  His Jewishness might manifest in his eating borscht once or twice a year but not in a more meaningful way and if he is ever forced to mention it, it'll include some reference to social justice or another form of liberal bafflegab. 
All this is secondary to his open political antagonism to Israel.  Like a good liberal socialist, when given the choice between rooting for a democratic country where women and gays have full rights and a terrorist state where women are second class citizens and gays are illegal, he chooses the latter every time because according to socialists, you always support the perceived underdog even if that dog despises every liberal value you hold.
It should therefore not be a surprise that Bernie doesn't mention his Jewishness.  It's not a factor to him.  Only implementing the destruction of the American economy holds religious value for him.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Balancing Observance With Real Kindness

One of the ongoing criticisms of Torah observance is the pre-occupation many in the Orthodox community have with bein adam l'makom commandments which they perform often at the expense of proper observance of bein adam l'chaveiro.  The former Failed Messiah blog was able to provide daily examples of Jews who were otherwise exemplary in their upkeep of their relationship with the Creator while failing miserably with their fellow human beings.
One of ways used to approach these folks was to remind them that bein adam l'chaveiro has superiority because in addition to its main element there is also a part that is bein adam l'makom.  After all, God commanded it so by fulfilling it we're getting a twofer.
Interestingly, those who see it that way might be causing more problems that they realize, as this article eloquently points out:
I have Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary movements and noises called “tics.” My Tourette’s is relatively mild at this point, but I went through a turbulent adolescence when Tourette’s was the most defining thing about me. Between the constant movements and the loud, uncontrollable noises, it was incredibly disruptive.

I now work in the Jewish community as an inclusion advocate, as well as in youth engagement. So I have this cool opportunity to see the Jewish community both as someone with a disability and as one who is supporting congregations and communities in creating more inclusive spaces for all people.

Sometimes I hear people talking about how much of a “mitzvah” they are doing by opening their doors to people with special needs in their community. Maybe they allowed a child with autism in their youth group or religious school, or hosted an “inclusion” service.

But here is the thing: It is not a mitzvah to let me in the door. It’s not. Opening your door to those with disabilities is not enough. Because there is a critical difference between tolerance and full inclusion. If we are practicing full inclusion, our communities should be celebrating each person and what they bring to the community, not just what they demand of it.

Many times throughout my life, I have felt like I was the mitzvah project of the week, like the community didn’t really want me there, but knew including me was what they were supposed to do. I always felt like we were one step away from my face being on the community bulletin with a story reading something like “We did it! We included somebody with special needs! Be proud everyone. Be real proud.”  OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But feeling like my presence was another’s mitzvah made me feel even more like an outsider.

One of the hardest things to do, it seems, is to balance performing a mitzvah which involves another persons with the need to do it with a kindness that conceals that motivation.  Imagine returning a lost object but making it absolutely clear to the owner that you're only doing it because the Torah says you have to.  Imagine visiting a lonely person in hospital and opening the visit with the line, "Henini muchan u'mezuman la'asos mitzvas bikkur cholim".  How do you think the other person is going to feel?  Have you really fulfilled the chaveiro portion of the mitzvah?
Interestingly, this is something that the non-observant Jewish movements also stumble on, as the article makes clear.  It is just as easy to turn a person into an object used to satisfy your need for observance if you are or aren't religious.
This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of Judaism, isn't it.  It's easy to sit and shteig a Talmud all day long.  Putting on tefillin, throwing a few coins in the pushka, no sweat at all.  But interacting with your fellow Jew without making it seem like you're doing your duty, not being a decent human concerned with his well-being?  That's a lot trickier.
For example, there's an essential decency in visiting the sick, for example but it does gain extra value when it's done with the kavannah that a mitzvah is being performed.  How does one balance the performance with the decency of human interaction so that the person does not become an object but a partner?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Another Step Towards Reform

Conservative Jews hate it when you point out that the movement today is essentially Reform with more ritual.  They try to point out that they observe a form of halacha, that they have principles and rules and are more than just fun-in-the-sun types and some of that might be true but not by much.
Once upon a time the Conservatives were actually a serious force within North American Judaism.  They combined a serious approach to tradition with what they felt were necessary compromises to secular culture in order to provide their members with a Jewish experience.  Over the decades, declining enthusiasm for that approach led to one compromise after another, one "adjustment" of the halacha after another, until today there is objectively little to distinguish them from the Reform other than with their commitment to some form of ritual.
One way to mark this descent is to observe the prayer books the movement has used over the years.  Back in the day it was the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, a decent siddur which, other than lacking the korbanos could actually function as a real siddur.  In the late 1980's it was replaced by Siddur Sim Shalom.  The prayer book began to openly reflect the movement's lack of interest in remembers our holy Temples (may they be speedily rebuilt).  The few mentions of the Temple were yanked out of the various parts of the liturgy they appeared in, including the "alternative" Mussaf service.  It did include the prayer for the State of Israel but only the first paragraph, reflecting the author's fears that a shortened attention span wouldn't last the entire recitation. 
Apparently this wasn't enough to entrance the movement's declining membership so now we have a new prayer book on offer, Lev Shalom.  As the linked article points out, the Conservatives are continuing to embrace the "we cater to you" form of secular religion prevalent in North America.  In addition to the usual confusion of claiming to be contemporary and traditional at the same time, there are additions to encourage those in relationships the Torah frowns upon or straight out prohibits to feel good about themselves.  And then there's this gem:
One of the most controversial additions was to include an optional line in the Sabbath service that seems to acknowledge mixed families by saying that Sabbath is a “gift for all,” not only a “gift for Jews,” said Feld. “There are people in our congregations who have not converted to Judaism. What does it mean to say: we haven’t given Shabbat to you?”

Smacking of Reconstructionism, it reminds one and all that the Conservative movement has forgotten the core values of Judaism in its rush to shore up its leftward flank as that bleeds into Reform.  After all, it's a basic tenet of Judaism that Shabbos is only for us, that non-Jews are actually forbidden to have a strict Sabbath of their own based on a pasuk in parashas Noach.  What does it mean to say we haven't given Shabbos to non-Jews who attend services?  That there is something special about Jews and their relationship to the Creator.  It's not the same as the other peoples of the world.  It has elements unique to it.  To blur those out in order to appeal not just to the non-religious but to non-Jews seems quiet radical for a movement that has members that still delude themselves into thinking they're practising a form of Torah Judaism.
Within the Conservative movement there are basically two kinds of people.  The small minority is the group that really believes Conservativism is a valid form of Jewish practice.  They are sincere, decent people who try to balance chesed with other commitments and religious values with secular ones.  The other group is the one that thinks that to be a Conservative Jew all you need to do is have a membership in one of their synagogues.  While the former group may represent the ideal of the movement, the latter has its essence nailed: to be a Conservative Jew, your dues cheque has to clear, nothing more. 
This has always been one of the essential differences between Orthodoxy and Conservativism that non-religious folks don't seem to get.  A person can join an Orthodox congregation but remain non-Orthodox if he drives on Shabbos or doesn't keep kosher.  A person who joins a Conservative congregation is now Conservative, no questions asked lest ye be judgemental.
The other essential difference is the religious focus. For Orthodoxy it's about making oneself relevant to God.  For Reform and Conservativism it's about making God relevant to oneself.  The reason for this new prayer book is obvious - as North American society, non-Orthodox Jews very much included, descends further into self-centred liberalism God is expected to cater that much more to whatever His "followers" want.
Perhaps it won't be many years before we see the first joint Reform-Conservative prayer book.  A pity for a movement that once promised so much but an inevitable end to one that wants to stand for everything while actually providing nothing.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Does He Even Listen To Himself?

The Kingdom of Jordan has always been a peculiar entity.  It's ruled by a tribe, the Hashemites, who hail from Arabia and moved up to Israel's neighbourhood after World War I.  It's population is 75% so-called Palestinian yet until recently that group had little to say in how the country was run.  That's all changed as the current queen is a so-called Palestinian, yet no one suggests that Jordan is actually Palestine.
More importantly, it's a nearly landlocked country with minimal resources and, since the British left the region, a mediocre army.  It faces perennial hostility to its north from Syria and the east from Iraq.  In fact, its one secure border since 1967 has been its western one with Israel.  Israel has even stepped up to ensure that Jordan's borders were not violated by its brother Arab states over the years.  All this means that you'd think Jordan would be a friendlier place vis a vis Israel.
But no.  The current king of Jordan, Abdullah II, seems content to remind us from time to time that he blames Israel for all the region's problem as well as his own.  At a recent conference, like many times before, he used his opportunity at the microphone not to promote friendly relations between Israel and Jordan but rather to regurgitate the old Arab propaganda.  Any problem in the Middle East or North Africa is Israel's fault because it won't commit national suicide in order to create a new terrorist state on its eastern side.
It's almost comical at times, both because he says it and because others listen seriously.  Years ago when I was in undergraduate studies in university I came across an outdoor protest put on by an anti-Israel group, Canadians Concerned for the Middle East.  Feeling bold I began challenging them.  When they told me that all problems in the Middle East were due to Israel's "illegal occupation" I asked if the then-civil war raging in Yemen was because of Israel's occupation of its own land.  Was Saddam Hussein's (yes, it was that long ago) campaign of gassing the Kurds in northern Iraq related to Israel?  After raising another half dozen ongoing regional conflicts one of the protesters said "Hey man, you can set up a booth for the Kurds when we're done here".  To that I responded, "I'm not claiming to be concerned about the Middle East, you are but you don't seem to care about most of the region.  What's up with that?"
No one can really believe that ISIL, ISIS or whatever it's being called this month, is due to the Israeli-Arab conflict.  The Assad regime may have used Israel as an excuse to oppress its citizens but the collapse of Syria is entirely that government's fault.  No one connects the disintegration of Iraq to the Israeli-Arab conflict either.  Remember how that one started: with Iraq invading Kuwait many, many years ago.  Hard to see how Israel was to blame for that one. Perhaps Saddam was worried that we'd scoop up the Kuwaiti old fields and outflank him?
For those who hate Jews, no lie is stupid enough to be laughed at.  Perhaps that's the best response to these outrageous claims: not rebuttals, not facts, just laughter.