Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Control Of Torah

As a follow up to my last post I want to offer a further thought.
There is a not-so-well-known midrash which tells the story of a king living at the time of Matan Torah.  Having heard about the event and of Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, he sent one of his greatest artists to our ancestors' camp.  The mission was to meet Moshe Rabeinu and bring back a picture of him since the king wanted to see what a man who spoke to God looked like.
The artist arrived in the camp, completed his mission and returned home but the king wasn't happy with the results.  He thought that Moshe Rabeinu looked like a horrible, angry man.  Why would God speak with such a person?
The artist said that he had asked the same question of Moshe Rabeinu and the answer was "Indeed I am that kind of a person but because God demands of me to be different, so I am."
Along the line of this midrash, the Torah gives us certain clues as to the true nature of our Avos.  Avraham Avinu, a"h might have had issues with faith as his repeated requests for the assurances about the future might suggest.  Yitchak Avinu, a"h, wanted to be liked.  Yaakov Avinu, a"h, might have had a shemetz of cocky and dishonest.  Yet with the awareness of God and being in His constant service they were all able to overcome these limitations to such a degree that all the Torah can do is hint at who they really were.  With God and Torah Avraham Avinu became so full of faith he let himself be thrown into the furnace of Ur haKasdim.  Yitzchak Avinu saw through Avimelech's flattery after the Philistines stole his wells and confronted him, refuting the king's claims of good treatment of him.  Yaakov Avinu rose to become the paradigm of truth, titen emes l'Yaakov.  It is this way that we remember them because they didn't hide behind the excuse that they could not rise about their base characteristics.
In short, it's not that they were born demigod-like and therefore naturally became who they were?  They reached for holiness, achieved it and became the merkavah of the Shechinah.
Perhaps this is what is missing from modern Torah observance.  FinkOrSwim recently posted a couple of good pieces on why people remain Orthodox which seemed to conclude that Orthodox is in fact a tool, not a guide for many frum people.  The thesis was that we do what we do because it gives us something and I would suggest that if Rabbi Fink is correct then Orthodoxy, Chareidi, Zionist and Modern, are all in big trouble.
The reason I think that is because of context.  We often forget that the current living situation for most observant Jews these days is the best in history since the heyday of the Second Commonwealth over two thousand years ago.  Lack of official Jew-hatred in most of the countries we live in (excluding university campuses), the affluence of many of our communities, the availability of Jewish resources, kosher food, and the like is unparalleled in last two millenia.  For lots of us being Orthodox is feasible and preferable because it's not that hard.  What would happen if the situation suddenly changed and being Orthodox once again became a burden when it came to acquiring food, work or social success?
As unsexy as it sounds, Orthodoxy from left to right has to reintroduce the concept of obligation.  We are frum because, as Jews, we are bound by our bris at Har Sinai to be observant, not because we get anything out of it.  We have to emphasize the bound with the Creator above the earthly pleasures being religious causes.  Otherwise we get a religious practice that might be strict in some areas but, in the absence of genuine fear of God, has gaping holes when it comes to other behaviours.
In short, like Moshe Rabeinu and our holy Avos, we need to let the Torah guide us instead of treating it as a corner store.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Tool Or Guide

Rabbi Barry Freundel is a famous figure in the news right now for all the wrong reasons.  I'm not going to list all of them.  The man has had enough public humiliation without me having to pile on.
What I want to do is ask: what went wrong?
A quick look at Rabbi Freundel's CV clearly shows a discrepancy.  He is a major talmid chacham.  He is politically influential within the Modern Orthodox community.  He is a well-known author.  His personal level of religious practice is known to be on the stringent side and, unlike very recently, his reputation was impeccable.  None of these achievements came without tremendous amounts of effort, study and work.  How is it possible that someone who so dedicated his life to Torah and kedushah was, in his spare time, involved in such despicable acts both known and unknown to his victims?
I would like to suggest the following: it's all how you see your religious practice.
For some, religious practice is a guide.  One sees the rules as leading towards greater spirituality, character development and closeness to God.  One practices in public and private in the same way because the guide is always present and relevant no matter what the situation.
For others, religious practice is a tool.  It's a job, it's a way to community prominence, it's a bludgeon to hit others over the head with or some such.  It's not about the inner content but the outer routine and those public and private practice vary quite a great deal.  It's all about who's watching.
Recall the gemara in which a dying Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai tells his students to be as careful in their fear of God as their fear of man.  To their response "Not more?" he remind them that when a person sins he always checks to make sure no one saw him but God sees everything and that doesn't seem to register with the sinner.
North American culture is very much about the superficial.  It's about what you wear, how you talk, what you own.  Personal qualities such as humility, honesty and decency very often count for little. "What's in it for me?" might as well be on everyone's licence plate.
Is it any wonder then that prominent religious figures keep finding themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons?  A person might be exemplary when it comes to some areas of religious belief while completely negligent in others and the justification, conscious or not, is that he enjoys the former and gets something out of it while the latter are not as important and can therefore be ignored.
Perhaps this is the trap that Rabbi Freundel fell into.  Clearly an intelligent and ambitious man, in those areas where his intelligence and ambition were useful and gave him a sense of satisfaction he was able to rise to the top and perform at a very high level.  In those areas where restraint or sensitivity might have been called for he perhaps did not get much satisfaction or use for his intelligence and ambition.  Maybe this is the reason for the huge discrepancy in his behaviour.
When I was in grade 7 my school teacher gave me the secret to academic success.  Anyone can succeed in something they like, he told me.  The people who get the furthest in life are the ones who succeed at the stuff they don't like.  If they can excel in those areas then the stuff they enjoy comes easy.
Our religious practice needs to incorporate this philosophy.  Yes, there are areas of halacha that a person might not much care out: theft, honest, peritzus, etc.  It might be easy for a person to restrict himself to triple mehadrin meat while holding back from the internet might be inconceivable to him.  But he must recognize that it is the latter where he must excel and the former will simply follow.
Otherwise we are just picking and choosing and that's not real dveikus with the Creator of the universe.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Does He Care?

This is a big question that often comes up when people who don't like religion are speaking with people who do, especially the small details.  The religious person will point out that a kiddush cup must be held in the right hand and the non-religious person will snort and say something like "As if God's paying attention" or "Do you really think God cares about such nitpicking things?"  Sometimes it's more dismissively vague as in "All God cares about is that you be a good person".
Now many times that's really just the person saying "I don't care about the details and I can't imagine a god that doesn't think exactly like me, therefore that god doesn't care either".  On the other hand, it does tempt the religious person to introspect.  To what extent is God a micro-manager?  If my tefillin is off-centre by a few millimetres does He really say "No check mark today" for my mitzvah performance?  If I only wait 5:59 after meat before drinking milk, am I really committing a horrible sin?
I think that in order to answer that question satisfactorily, an exploration of the halachic system and its foundation is in order.  The foundation part is easy.  God appeared to our ancestors at Sinai, presented the Torah, both Written and Oral, and left it with us to guide our lives.  What's more, He left it in a hands-off fashion as the famous gemara in Bava Metzia about the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer makes clear: Lo b'shamayim hi!  Once given over to us, the Torah and its ongoing development as a tool of study and practice belong to us.  Yes, God gave us a set of rules by which to interpret the Written and Oral Laws but using those rules, responding to new situations and guiding ourselves through history is our task.
But if the Torah is ours then what is left of our relationship with God?  For many people, whether they realize it or not, there is very little left.  Yes they'll pray to Him three times a day but it's by rote, an obligation to be fulfilled.  For those folks the details are part of the routine.  You do what you do because that's what you do or because the book says.  It makes for efficient halachic practice but isn't very emotionally satisfying.  I would be surprised that any OTD's from this crowd leave the path because something more emotionally interactive and meaningful comes along.  People want an emotional connection to important things in their lives and if their Judaism is just a series of actions without fulfillment then why stick with it when something better comes along?
For some it's a very strict relationship.  God is a mean old schoolmaster up in the sky constantly scanning the schoolyard and hoping for the children to misbehave so that He can write down their misdemeanours in His book and, if He's feeling especially luck, mete out punishment.  No question as to why these guys go OTD from time to time.  Other than through fear or ignorance of the outside world why would anyone choose to live in such a system?  The only question is why it doesn't happen more often.
For others however there is a more nuanced relationship based on what God has actually told us.  Yes, He is the Creator and He is the King of Life, the Universe and Everything but it doesn't end there.  He is our Father.  He did not choose us as the Am haNivchar because there was no one better around or because He was stuck with what He had promised Avraham Avinu at some point.  He did it because He loves us like a parent loves a child.
This is a completely different way of understanding how the complexities of Judaism matter.  God, having given us a system and one overarching instruction - excel at this system I have given you - expects us to do our best without the structure we have ourselves constructed.  He wants us to succeed at His charge and, if it is possible to say such, is pleased when we strive for excellence in Torah practice.
No, he probably didn't specifically tell Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, at Sinai that one must hold one's kiddush cup in the right hand but using the foundation of the Oral and Written Torah along with all the mystical principles that accompanied them Chazal and the later decisors decided that doing that was the optimal way to fulfill the mitzvah.  When I specifically choose to hold the kiddush cup in my right hand I am trying my hardest to follow Chazal's lead.  This is what God is looking for.  And if I lazily hold the kiddush cup in my left hand then it's not davka that I used the left hand that costs me mitzvah points but that I could have done better and chose not to.
And why bother?  Because just as my Father has given me life, health and the tools to fufil His will so I as His son have a reciprocal obligation to show my gratitude and to try and please Him.  I want to excel because I appreciate what He has done for me and can only pay Him back in that way.  The details aren't nitpicking, they're showing love for the Creator of the Universe.  It's about trying as hard for Him as He does for us.
Perhaps we need to choose this system more often to practice our details with as opposed to the other two.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Keep Things In Proportion

Yesterday a Canadian convert to Islam attacked the National War Memorial and the Parliament Building in Ottawa up here in snowy (well okay, not yet) Canada.  He initially killed a soldier guarding the memorial.  Due to the quick thinking and high level of training of a parliament security guard he was shot before any more innocent people could die.
Maybe I'm just used to terrorism stories from Israel.  Maybe it was the near simultaneous terrorist attack in Yerushalayim in which an infant was cruelly killed and dozens wounded but when I started reading opinion pieces in the newspaper today about the event I had to roll my eyes.
I know journalists make their money on sensationalism but there was still something irritating about reading things like "Canada fought back!", "We won't be cowed by terror!" and "Terrorism strikes home!"
I mean really, one guy who by all accounts was an unstable nut job without any formal terrorist group alliances (perhaps he thought he was auditioning for ISIS?), only one death (fortunately) and the press made it sound like Al Qaeda itself had flown over and tried to blow up the entire Ottawa downtown.
Yes, Canada is a boring country that often has to invent problems so the local news operations will have something to report.  Yes, Canada is far away from the real crisis zones in the world which is probably why when anything, however limited, happens here we get all excited.
But let's keep this clear: Canada was no in real danger at any time here.  The security team around Parliament along with the police sprung into immediate action.  The government members were immediately in hiding or taken to safety.  There were no bombings.  This was the act of a single lunatic acting out his religious fantasies of killing the infidel, nothing more.
We up here need to be grateful that this is all that happened, that Canada is working on the side of good in this conflict and to recognize that in the bigger picture there is indeed a struggle between Western civilization and Islamofascism that is at play here.  Freaking out over minor incidents and acting as if something truly calamitous has occurred obscures that.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Real Theodicy

One of the big complaints against God is when bad things happen to good people.  I don't mean like a nice guy getting a parking ticket because he was late getting to his car.  I mean really bad things and really good people like kids getting cancer or elderly widows getting robbed and beaten.  The usual refrain is "How could God let this happen?" followed by some conclusion that He must not be out there, chalilah or otherwise uncaring or impotent when it comes to daily affairs.
Does anyone else out there get the impression that this kind of statement betrays an infantile understand of God and His role in the big scheme of things?
It seems to me that there are two main kinds of bad events - those that are caused by other people and those that seem to occur at random.  Let me first discuss the former.
Consider first the Jewish principle of free will.  As we all know it is an underlying foundation of our faith.  It's what makes our behaviours and the observance of mitzvos so valuable.  Without free will we are automatons who do what we're supposed to but there's really no point to it all.  If I keep kosher despite my lusting for a good meal at McDonald's it's a lot different than if I keep kosher simply because I know of no other way to eat because a treif meal has never occurred to me.  Free will is essential.
So should there be limits on that free will?  If the thug about the home invade the little old lady's condo knows for certain that lightning will strike him the minute he goes to kick in the door will he still attempt the robbery?  Or has he lost a bit of his free will because he decides he'd rather not be a sizzling pile of goo on the floor?  If free will is an absolute value how could God decide to abrogate it in this case?  If He does then where is His red line?
After all it's easy to pick up the extreme cases but after those it gets trickier.  Yes, fry all the home invaders because they're about to commit violence and theft, two things God abhors.  Well according to the Torah God abhors lots of other things.  Most of Wall Street and every Pride Parade would also be legitimate targets if Heavenly fire was a regular occurrence.  While the atheoskeptic crowd might applaud the untimely and spectacular demise of the Lehman brothers they would be enraged when the queer crowd gets zapped.
Consider it in even more banal terms.  You're a Jew about to eat a cheeseburger at McDonalds and a large spectral hand comes down and flicks your Happy Meal into the garbage.  Might that not annoy you?  Might not "Mind Your own business!" flick through your head?
In short, when it comes to person-on-person injustice we're okay with God interfering when we feel He should and outraged when we feel He shouldn't.  We are quite ready to sacrifice someone else's free will when it suits us, but only when it suits us.
But let's move on to the second category because the implications here are a bit deeper.
A 2 year old presents to the local emergency room with intractable vomiting.  After various investigations an MRI is done which shows a brain tumour.  Despite excellent medical care part of the tumour survives the operation.  Another one can't be done without causing significant brain damage which means the child is slowly doomed to death as the cancer regrows.
Who wouldn't be heartbroken by such a scenario?  Who wouldn't be moved to tears and want to move Heaven and Earth to help this child and its familiy?  Who wouldn't ask "Why God?  Why did You let this happen?"  All that is understandable.
Now take a second look at the scenario.  Look at the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  In many ways this is one of the evils the ecofascist crowd has committed with its obsession with climate change.  Most global warming deniers will readily agree there is way too much pollution in our environment and that it is posing risks to humanity but the ecofascists only want to talk about it if the conclusion has something to do with climate change.  As a result we miss other things.
Did this child's family live not so far from a chemical plant that was caught last year illegally disposing of waste into the local river which serves as the city's source of drinking water?  What about all the chemical preservatives in all the food we exposed it to?  What about the ever increasing types of radio waves and radiation we shoot through our environment?  Did mom smoke during pregnancy?  Did she do drugs?  Seriously, do you know how toxic it is out there?
In short, what are the odds that humanity and the push for modern society caused this tumour?
From my vantage point and professional experience, 95% of what ails people in North America is self-inflicted.  Heart attacks, strokes, cancers, emphysema, arthritis, chronic pain, you name it and without much effort you can trace each sufferer's complain back to his lifestyle.  We eat too much prepared food and fruits coated in pesticide.  We don't exercise enough.  We breathe polluted air, smoke and drink to excess.  Why does anyone wonder why our hospitals are all so full?
In short we need to look at ourselves.  Everything we do to ourselves and our environment is done by our free will.  To save any of us from the consequences of this poisoning, God would either have to change the rules of nature, something He said He would never do, or perform outright miracles, something we know He's not inclined towards.  We cannot create a toxic environment and then blame God when the weakest among us suffer as a result.
A child is hit by a drunk driver.  A woman is assaulted walking home from work at night.  God's not at fault and if He prevented the driver from hitting the child  or stopped the rapist He would have interfered with free will.  God's not at fault, the drunk driver and the rapist (and possibly the parole board that gave him early release from his previous jail stint) are.  And as I noted above, once He does that there's no real red line.  Suddenly that same God we cheered for saving the little boy would interfere elsewhere and we'd cry foul because we didn't agree.
To conclude, we have to think deeper than the superficial "Something bad happened and God didn't prevent it so He's either bad or just not there,chalilah."  Thinking like that leads nowhere because it absolves us of any responsibility for dealing with the probem.  Such deeper consideration would certainly allow us to see the responsibility for our own suffering and lead to constructive approaches to alleviating it.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Holy Stupidity

I've written before about how it seems that the sole criteria for tzidkus in the Chareidi community are the amount of Torah you know, how machmir you are whenever given the chance and how black your hat is. Personal characteristics, personal decency and the like are nice add-on's but irrelevant in the end.
The latest example of this short-sighted approach to righteousness is Rav Yitzchok Aderlstein's essay in support of Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky.
Rav Kamenetzky, as folks throughout the Jewish blogosphere already are aware, holds the incorrect opinion that vaccinations are not helpful and also possibly harmful.  He shares this stolid opinion with his wife who is an open anti-vaccination public and therefore a menace to the public.  In fact, one can surmise that she is the source of his opinion on the matter as vaccination is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch which means that Rav Kamenetzky knows nothing about it.  He is naive, she is dangerous.
What I'm writing might seem harsh but I think it's necessary for two reasons.  One is the source of the misinformation.  Apologists for Rav Kamenetzky have pointed out that he is not offering a p'sak but rather just an opinion.  People who wish to vaccinate their children aren't doing anything wrong by ignoring his statement.  The problem is that for too many in the Chareidi community any statement by a "Gadol" is taken as halacha (as long as the person actually agrees with it, otherwise he'll tell you "that's not what he really meant") which means those kooks out there who already are hesitant about doing the right thing for their children will take this as legal support for their refusal.  "Rav Kamenetzsky thinks so" will morph into "Rav Kamenetzsky says so which means it's Daas Torah not to vaccinate".
A second reason for the harshness is the far-reaching effect of this belief in vaccination non-efficacy.  Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who published the fraudulent study on MMR in The Lancet is directly responsible for all harm and death caused by parents who didn't vaccinate their children based on his so-called advice.  Not vaccinating one's children isn't simply an act of omission but one of commission.  By refusing vaccines one exposes one's children to harmful and deadly diseases that might have tragic consequences and one brings those diseases into one's community which threatens harm to other children.
It's interesting to note that one of Rav Kamenetzky's stated reasons for not supporting vaccination is because many children don't get vaccinates and behold!  They don't contract polio either.  Rav Kamentzky is clearly unaware of herd immunity (again, not a surprise) in which people who are unvaccinated benefit from mass vaccination of the rest of the population which prevents the disease from entering the community.  This is a parasitic relationship and the irony of a Chareidi "Gadol" advocating such a thing should not be lost on anyone.
Consider the following: one meets a "Gadol" who is world-famous for his erudition and acts of saintliness.  In a quiet and candid moment he tells you that he knows that the world is really a flat disk and all the stuff about a spherical earth and heliocentric solar system is a bunch of apikorsus invented by atheist scientists to draw Jews away from Torah.  Is he still a great "Gadol" or just a foolish man who happens to know a lot?  And this is an opinion that causes no harm to anyone!
What's more, consider one of Rav Adlerstein's concluding points:

While I have never met a chosid who actually thought his rebbe infallible, the possibility of error looms even larger in the (old) Litvishe approach with which I am comfortable. 
Concerning the first half of the sentence one must ask: has Rav Adlerstein never met a real chosid or has he just never met an honest one?  Concerning the second half one must ask: Is Rav Adlerstein unaware of the modern day use of the term Daas Torah to denote the infallibility of "the Gedolim" or is he also lying, just like Rav Kamenetzky's wife?

Vaccinate your children and ignore foolish PR bag men who think knowing the Talmud really well means covering up idiotic opinions.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Chickens Are For Eating

As a follow up to my last post and being it's only a few days after Yom Kippur I'd like to bring another pertinent example regarding being machmir and meikel at the same time.  That example is the time-honoured pre-Day of Atonement ritual called kapparos.
A detailed description of the ritual and some of its history can be found here and here.  It's important to note that many major authorities opposed the ritual as it was performed while others wholeheartedly supported it.  It's also noteworthy that the ritual can be performed with money but even if one uses a chicken one is supposed to be an humane as possible.
That's what makes the modern incarnation of the ritual so problematic.  It's one thing to gently take a chicken by its body and wave it over one's head three times.  It's another to yank it around by its wings or legs, definitely causing the chicken pain and distress and also possibly fracturing its bones.  Of course this is above and beyond all the reported cases of inhame transporting conditions that wind up killing the birds en route to their holy destinations.
This is all part of something I've written about recently - the obsession with ritual to the exclusion of all other considerations even if it means transgressing actual mitzvos.  After all, tza'ar ba'alei chayim is a mitzvah d'oraisa while kapparos is, at best, an establishing custom which isn't even truly obligatory.  Really, does anyone believe that the Master of the Universe will refuse to forgive one's sins if one takes the chicken straight to the dinner table?  Yet ask anyone who performs the ritual to forgo the bird and use money and they look at you as if you had just told them to skip Yom Kippur altogether.
This is troubling for me as well because it exemplifies the extent to which the mystical part of Judaism, something which should be reserved for the highest level learners and practitioners of halacha, has seeped into common every day Judaism without bringing along the requisite safeguards it should have.
In short, we would be made to believe that there is an irreplacable spiritual outcome to performing kapparos while no good explanation is offered as to how that happens when active transgressing might be obviously accompanying it.
As I noted in the last post, one must sometimes evaluate halachic actions like one evaluates a difficult chess move.  Note the obvious, immediately outcome but also sit back and consider all future possibilities, positive and negative.  Which outweighs which?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Stringencies and Leniencies

Rav Shimon Eider, z"l, is a well-known author to the English speaking frum community.  Before Shemirath Shabbath was released in English his Halachos of Shabbos was the standard for learning about the 39 melachos.  His Halachos of Niddah is still an important introductory work along with all his others although other than his Halachos of Pesach they're all getting harder to find.
In the introduction to his Halachos of Niddah he notes an interesting way of looking at the trend towards stringency when one is uncertain of one's halachic options.  He notes that some people aren't that familiar with checking post-menstrual stains to determine if they are tahor or not and often, instead of asking a shailoh they simply decide to be stringent and put off mikvah night.  He saliently points out that while the couple might think they're being stringent, mikvah night at the right time is a very important mitzvah that should not be wrongly delayed.  By being stringent and thinking they're being careful the young couple is delaying the mitzvah which is a big problem in its own right.  By being machmir they're really also being meikel, something they surely think they're avoiding.
This idea has a far broader application to almost every area of daily life.  Being machmir is the big buzzword these days.  It's certainly the trend du jour in the Chareidi community where everyone always seems to be looking for the chumrah of the week.  Even in the Modern Orthodox community people are abandoning family customs and community standards when the occasion to be stringent comes up, just so as not to look less religious.  However, this can backfire and often does.
For instance, everyone following the Jewish news has read the story of the anonymous Chareidi man on a recent El Al flight who refused to take his assigned seat because it meant sitting next to a woman.  Now, put aside that other than those who were there we are all dealing with second hand accounts of what happened and that one self-centred nutjob does not represent his entire kehillah.  Let's assume, for a moment, that the story is accurate.
What was this guy thinking?  Again, the trend within Chareidism today is towards stringencies wherever possible, especially when it comes to man-woman interactions.  Clearly this guy doesn't want to be left behind.  He probably only rides on mehadrin buses too.  Fine, that's his decision and with the state of education in his community being "What we do is right and other ways are just wrong" it's no wonder there was no reasoning with him.  For him it's an aveirah to sit next to a woman.
However, that does not justify the behaviour he apparently exhibited.  Yes, he was machmir about arayos (remember the days when arayos meant actually sleeping with your sister's wife as opposed to saying "hello" to her in passing) but he was definitely meikel about chilul haShem.  I doubt any of the non-Chareidi passengers (and maybe even a few of the Chareidi ones) were impressed with his actions and more than one probably thought: "If this is Judaism, count me out".  At any point did he realize that?  Did he even care?
As a religious Jew I long ago learned that I live a more limited life than my non-Jewish friends.  They can go to movies I can't watch.  They can go out on Friday nights when I can't.  They can eat whatever food they want wherever and whenever they want to.  I know I can never run for prime minister because I can't campaign on Shabbos or eat at community barbeques.  I could complain but I recognize that this is the price of being Torah observant.  As Rabbi Eliezer famously said, what can I do?  The will of God is upon me.
I recall once eating with two non-religious friends in med school.  I paused to make a beracha and one of them looked nervously at me and asked: "Do you expect us to do that?"  I told him that what he chose to do was up to him.  Yes, I could have said "Absolutely, you're a Jew and a Jew makes a beracha before he eats" but I knew that such an answer would not have gone over well.  I would have accomplished nothing by my missionizing except possibly to alienate him from his already weak connection to Judaism.
Perhaps someone needs to have whispered something similar in this Chareidi gentleman's ear.  Something to the effect of pointing out that his insistence on remaining on the flight while refusing to take his assigned seat and making his female neighbour feel less than human was a bigger chilul haShem than the kiddush haShem he thought he was accomplishing by demonstrating his public commitment to gender segregation.
Had he asked quietly for a different seat, had he responded to a refusal for such an accomodation by saying that he wanted to leave the plane the negative response to his actions would have been far more limited, especially as such actions would have not created a news story at all, along with the all the requisiting Chareidi-bashing that accomplished those stories.
As the new year beings let's all realize that our knee-jerk desires to be machmir must, like chess moves, be well thought out less unintended consequences result.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Real Achdus

Over the summer, starting with the kidnapping and murder of the three yeshivah boys (may God avenge their blood) and continuing on with the campaign in 'Aza a tremendous thing happened in Israel.  Something writers on various sides of the cultural/religious divide have been writing about for some time happened - a form of achdus.  Despite the religious lifestyles of the kidnapped boys the secular population responded with concern and sympathy.  They weren't three frum kids but "our boys".  When their fate was discovered the whole country mourned together, religious and non-religious.
Once the operation against 'Aza started the sense of community continued.  The secular population rallied around the soldiers with incredible energy.  The stories of people who worked to assist the soldiers with food and supplies, the billboards around the country on public and private buildings exclaiming support and gratitude for these klei kodesh were met with gestures from the Chareidi community where vacation was cancelled.  We may not accept the line "Our learning is the real protection" but their leaders believe it and kept their masmidim in their studies to help protect the soldiers.
Various writers have therefore starting asking: How do we keep this fledgling form of achdus alive?
Here's my simple suggestion: seek out the positive
Look, I think the whole achdus idea is overblown the way its usually defined.  We are a people constituted of various communities.  We can varying standards, customs and behaviours.  Worse, we invest each of those things with religious fervour.  You cannot expect a Litvack to abandon his black hat in the name of achdus any more than you can expect a Dati Leumi to stop saying the prayer for the State of Israel.  That kind of achdus isn`t going to happen.
Looking at the positive sounds simple but it`s not, despite it being what I think is the obvious solution.  It requires a sea change in the thinking of various Jewish groups.  The current "What I do is right which makes what you do wrong" paradigm has to change into "What I do is right but it's not the only right way to do it".
It's difficult because the former paradigm is easy to adopt.  It doesn't require a lot of thinking which is a common thing these days.  It's easy to see the world in black and white and reduces the amount of questioning one does of one's own self.  The latter opens up a can of complexities, not something people often want to do.
It's also difficult because we all love standards and chas v'shalom should anyone think I'm approving of abolishing those.  There are always limits to saying that what other people do is right.  I'm not saying, for instance, that I should be thinking that I keep Shabbos and that's okay while Fishel down the street doesn't keep Shabbos and that's okay too.  It's not okay not to keep Shabbos.
On the other hand I'm a jerk when it comes to interacting with other folks and Fishel happens to be the nicest guy who makes everyone he meets feel at ease and respected.  What he does is right and what I do is wrong in this case.
Here's another practical example.  It's easy to note that during the recent operation in 'Aza there were lots of reasons to criticize the Chareidi community.  They refused to say any prayers for the soldiers (a press release from the Agudah in America went as far as expressing gratitude for the US Army and its contributions to Iron Dome but not a word about Tzahal), they refused to send their boys to fight, etc.
Now look at the other side.  Yes, for those of us out here it seems like a little thing to cancel vacation and sit and learn instead but if you understand the Chareidi mentality this was a big move.  The same community that only a few months ago couldn't find enough curses for the Israeli government and the army was suddenly acknowledging a feeling of community with it, a need to contribute to the ongoing crisis.
One could note that those Chareidim that helped out with volunteer efforts to supply needed items to soldiers on the front lines were most Americans and baalei teshuvah but that doesn't diminish their Chareidi status.  They still helped out as best they could despite being part of that community and in many cases it was because they thought their community should be helping.
Look at the secular soldiers who, despite their lack of ritual observance, selflessly put their lives on the line over and over again because of their desire to protect their fellow Jews.  Is this such a small thing?  Do we only see the chilul Shabbos or do we also see this too?
Achdus isn't about a forced conformity but about looking for the positive, for shared values and a feeling of family.  We have to look beyond the flaws that we all display to others, beyond the negative we automatically seek out, and see those positive things.  This doesn't mean accepting those values we find inimical to our own but moving past them and building on those we have in common.
We are a large family surrounded by so many enemies.  We owe it to ourselves to at least try.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Too Much Love

It's no secret that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a staunch friend of Israel.  In contract to every other Western leader whose support of our State has other been mildly hostile, morally equivocable or present with reservations, Mr. Harper has time and time again demonstrated his unfailing support for Israel during its times of trouble.
The Israelis have noticed to.  During my recent trip to Israel I was told about Harper by all the Israelis I identified myself as a Canadian to.  Mind you, this didn't translate into a discount at the hotel but they were still glad I had chosen to stay there.
I'd like to suggest that this is actually a bad thing and that perhaps Mr. Harper should tone it down a little.
Granted some of it is the paranoid golus Jew in me, the "Sha, shtil" guy who just wants us to keep our collective heads down so no one notices us.  But part of me is worried about the fallout of Mr. Harper's principled and moral position, mostly because of what the future might hold.
For one thing the Canadian government's position on Israel hasn't been without consequences.  It cost Canada a seat on the UN Security Council, for example.  Now you and I know that the UN is a storage institution for bovine faeces and that the Security Council is a meaningless body within that pile of excrement but many Canadians still believe that the UN is worth something.  Losing out on a seat at the table with the "big boys" smarts for some and more than one columnist wondered if supporting Israel was worth taking that loss.
Then there are reports of Canadians having more trouble when travelling in the Arab parts of the MiddleEast because of the perception of Canada being an enthusiastic stooge to the Israeli "oppressor".  Canadians have long been smug about their international reputation and the urban legends of Americans putting Canadian flags on their luggage because they know they'll be greeted in a more friendly fashion.  Anything that tarnishes our "mostly harmless" reputation is frustrating.
Finally there is the next election to consider.  Stephen Harper will run against a socialist whose entire support base either wants him to pander to Quebec's sense of exceptionality or demands he perpetuate Marxist class warfare economics should he achieve power.  His other opponent will be a former school teacher who, prior to becoming the leader of his party, had no experience campaigning for office at any level, had achieved nothing exceptional in his life and whose entire celebrity status rested on his being the son of a former prime minister that our national broadcaster, the CBC, has spent decades convincing people that he wasn't the most hated Canadian leader in history when he retired (he was) but rather an enlightened philosopher king who presided over a golden age (he wasn't and didn't).  And guess who's leading in the polls?
If there's one thing you need to remember about Pierre Elliot Trudeau's foreign policy in the 1970's and early 80's it's that he never met a mass murdering Communist dictator he couldn't like and that he was disgusted with other Western leaders whom he saw as intellectually inferior to him, especially if they were American.  He also had little love for Israel and under his leadership Canada either abstained or voted in favour of anti-Israel motions at the UN.  From his few public statements on record so far, his son Justin seems to be cut from the same cloth.  He is on record as saying that dictatorship is a great form of government because when it comes to environmental protection initiatives it means not having to waste time with such things as the democratic process.  He has also expressed the classic Liberal support for Israel: sure we like Israel but we like its mortal enemies just as much and see no moral difference between the two sides.
This is where Mr. Harper's enthusiasm for Israel could eventually cause trouble. Imagine that in 2015 Justin Trudeau's Liberals win the federal election, chas v'shalom.  Imagine the first policy briefing where Justin is informed that Canada's biggest foreign policy problem is the perception that it is too pro-Israel and that this must be changed immediately?  How much of a swing would that entail?  How eager would Justin and his ilk be to demonstrate their "even handedness" as "fair brokers" in the MidEast "peace process"?  The more support Mr. Harper shows now, the harder Justin will have to work to convince some of the ugliest despots in the world that Canada is their drinking buddy too.  That might lead to tremendous damage to the Canada-Israel relationship and fallout for us, Israel's Canadian supporters.
Beauty, eh?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Ethnicity and Nationality

One of the weirdest phenomena among non-observant Jews is the idea of "Jewish pride".  You meet a Jewish guy or girl that is completely or mostly non-religious.  They might even be intermarried.  Suggest that they are anything other than a member of tribe in good standing and you get strong negative responses.  For a Torah observant Jew this often makes no sense.  It's the Wolowitz effect: he might be married to a Blonde Shiksa Goddess (same initials as his favourite TV show, BattleStar Galactica, am I the only one to notice that?), he might enjoy a good pork roast and have no trouble with going to the movies on Friday night but he is strongly proud of his jewish identity.  What gives?
It is important to remember that there are different understandings of what Judaism is out there in society.  For many of our non-observant brethren it is not a religious identity or a national one but rather simply one of ethnic belonging.  Vinnie is a good Italian even though he's married to a WASP, V. Stiviano is a good Polynesian even though she's hanging out with a racist Jew and Morris at the law firm is a great Jew even though he's got the firm's annual pool party to attend on Rosh HaShanah.  When it comes to ethnic identity it's the highlight of Western civilization: all entitlement, no obligations.
The reason I mention this is because much of modern kiruv is dedicated to appealing to just that ethnic identity.  Have you noticed?  Programs around holidays, fun events with alcohol and some kind of Jewish food, efforts to have Jewish boys meet Jewish girls to cut down on intermarriage, so much of the industry appeals to the ethnic Jew without a hint of the national aspect.
And I think this is very wrong.  It creates an impression that the real difference between a non-observant Jew and an observant one is in the amount of ethnic behaviours each engages in.  The Reformative Jew does Jewish things once in a while while the Orthodox one does them all the time but they're just behaviours.
In fact I think too many Orthodox Jews define their Orthodoxy this way.  It's not so much about beliefs and a feeling of connection with the Ribono shel Olam as it is about how much "doing Jewish" one can shove into one's life.  Behaviour without belief, is it any wonder that we see so many frum Jews in the news for the wrong reasons today?
I'm not saying that kiruv rechokim isn't important.  Frankly I think it's terribly important.  Too many of our brethren are cut off from their eternal heritage and their portion in Torah.  As observant Jews we have to feel a sense of crisis when 90% of us have forgotten or deny the Sinai experience.  However we have to ask: do we in the Orthodox community also need kiruv rechokim?  Do we need to correct those things we are doing wrong yet are treating as holy minhagim due to intellectual laziness and inertia?
We need to recall that we are not an ethnic group but a nation and as a nation we are defined by our connection to the Creator and His Torah, His expressed will for the way He wants the universe to run.  We need to put less emphasis on the ritual behaviours (although they remain important) and more on rebuilding each individuals sense of connection with God and our nation.  This means a kiruv system in which we openly identify ourselves as separate and different.  We don't want to attract unaffiliated brethren with humantaschen and klezmer music.  We want them to feel a part of the Jewish nation which includes identifying with our origins and having a desire to share our fate together as we stumble towards the Final Redemption.  Enough with lines like "If you keep taharas mishpacha you'll have a happier marriage" or "Keeping Shabbos keeps you happy".  Everyone knows that's a load. 
"If you keep taharas mishpachah you are fulfilling your obligation to God."  "We pray because we have an obligation to and a desire to speak to God."  It isn't as fun or sexy but it would create a better sense of commitment and understanding amongst new recruits and old ones as well.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Beast Reawakens

Those of us born in the West since the end of World War 2 live much different Jewish lives than our ancestors.  For millenia we have been discriminated again, persecuted, pillaged and murdered for the simple crime of being Jews.  The last three generations, on the other hand, have been almost the opposite.  We are now an integrated part of Western society, full mobile within it and possessed of the same rights as all other citizens of the countries in which we live.  Yes there have been occasional Jew-hating episodes here and there, and there's always the quiet Jew hatred of British civil society, but they have been aberrations, not the norm. 
In short, we have been on vacation and the vacation in ending.
It's not a terrible surprise to note that Europe is the vanguard in the resurgence of open and socially acceptable Jew hatred.  The influx of Muslims from poor and underdeveloped countries, with all their social prejudices and beliefs, along with a post-national multi-cultural death wish amongst the old stock Europeans which allowed these old world hatreds to fester and grow without any judgement against them, has brought out open Jew-hatred in Europe once again.  Simmering over the last 25 years, the pot is now on full boil with the onset of the latest Israel-'Aza war.
For years people warned of this and were dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists.  We were told about rule of law, about assimilation, about how "those days" were in the past.  Anyone reading the news these last couple of weeks knows that this is a lie.  Open calls for death to us, open calls for the destruction of Israel, open calls for boycotts of Jewish (not Israeli, pay attention, but specifically Jewish) shops and business, all the stuff of the early 1930's come back to life.  For years many of us warned that the situation in the West was growing eerily similar to the situation that brought Nazism to power and we were told we were overreacting.  When a Belgian doctor refuses to treat a Jewish pateitn, when shops in Europe post signs that say "Dogs are okay but no Jews allowed", are we still overreacting?
But surely the rule of law would still protect us.  Muslims may riot in the streets and attack synagogues but there are laws against those kinds of things.  Wouldn't the protests be controlled?  Wouldn't we be protected?
Let me share a cynical point: a law is only as effective as the will to uphold it.  If European or North American police are going to stand back and watch as a mob displays its bloodlust and attacks Jews or Jewish institutions then there is no security in knowing the law protects us.  As Europe's Jews have started to learn, the police have no interest in tangling with a large crowd of violence-happy Muslims intent on torching the local shul.  They'd rather not have to engage a crowd that size with all the implications such an encounter would engender and frankly most of them don't care as long as we're the target.
North America is still behind Europe in this latest trend.  Our immigrant Muslim populations are relatively smaller.  Our police forces are still not thrilled with the ideas of uncontained rioting.  But we in North America would be fools to think that in the next few years, certainly within the next decade or two, that the open and tolerated Jew hatred will find its way here.
During the Three Weeks we confront our dismal history and remember not only the destruction of our Temples (may it be speedily rebuilt) but also all the other tragedies that have occured to us over the centuries.  It is sad to think that on the horizon there are more waiting to happen after this prolonged period of peace and quiet but perhaps it is something we need to start adapting to.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Forgetting The Advice of Pirkei Avos

One of the common customs of the frum community between Pesach and Shavous is to read Pirkei Avos, one chapter a week.  Avos, as is well known, is not a halachic tract but full of ethical and practical advice from the fathers of the our nation, Chazal.
The problem with this custom is that, for many, the reading of Pirkei Avos becomes yet another ritual.  The person reads through the chapter of the week like he reads through davening instead of paying attention to the words and trying to internalize their deeper meanings.  Perhaps familiarity also plays a role and eventually people who can recite the entire tractate off by heart fail to realize when a situation they're in calls for the advice in one of the mishnayos there.
This seems to be the case of the recent outburst of the Novominsker Rebbe that is making the rounds in the Jewish blogsphere.  At an official Agudah dinner, with the mayor of New York in attendance, the Rebbe decided to unleash a diatribe against the Reformative and Open Orthodox forms of Jewish practice.  Despite revisionist attempts to tone down the remarks or limit their intended targets (do these people not realize we can watch the video and see for ourselves?) there is growing outrage against the Agudah for allowing this attack to happen as well as against the mayor of New York for sitting there and not responding to the hateful comments.
Now let's say that the apologists are correct: the Rebbe was attacking the practice of the target groups, not the practitioners themselves.  On one hand I can appreciate the Rebbe's concerns.  Demographically it has long been established that Reformativism is a path to assimilation and disappearance.  Frankly, if it weren't for the Agudah's community supplying all the OTD's who knows how many non-religious Jews would be left.  I can also appreciate his concerns with Open Orthodoxy.  I'm not going to be as generous as Rav Harry Maryles in this regard.  From the new head of YCT on down there are massive problems with OO's theology and they frequently cross the line into non-Orthodox territory.  It must therefore be very frustrating for a "Gadol" who believes that to be really Orthodox you have to look and dress and speak exactly like him to find a group totally offside with those ikkarim who insist on calling themselves Orthodox. 
Having said that,the mishnah from Avos comes to mind: "Sages, be careful with your words!"
Years ago the Chareidim in Israel held a massive pro-Shabbos rally in Tel Aviv, the highlight of which was Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt"l, quoting the posek: One who desecrates the Shabbos shall be surely put to death.  One of my chareidi friends told me how proud he was when Rav Ovadiah announced this.  That was telling 'em!
And then I questioned him: who was Rav Ovadiah speaking to?  Chareidim and other frum Jews don't need to be threatened with death to keep Shabbos.  We do it happily and willingly.  Non-religious Jews aren't interested in keeping Shabbos even at gunpoint.  So other than coming off as an ayatollah-like figure to the unaffiliated exactly what did he accomplish?
The Novominsker Rebbe needs to be asked this question.  All the people on that dais with him wearing the black hats don't see Reformativism as a legitimate expression of Jewish religious practice and have their doubts about Open Orthodoxy (assuming they've bothered to research the subject).  The mayor of New York probably doesn't understand the difference between Torah observant Judaism and the other "streams" and thinks them all equivalent, the way people don't judge between Catholics and Protestants.  The average Reformative Jews has never even heard of the Agudah, let along the Novominsker Rebbe and will see this story as yet another "Orthodox Jew says non-Orthodox Jews aren't real Jews".  Not a great achdus building moment. 
So like I asked my friend all those many years ago, who was the Novominsker Rebbe speaking to?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Dictator In Waiting

Many Canadian voters don't seem to remember Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada from 1968-1983 (minus 9 months somewhere there in the late 1970's).  For those who don't it's worth recalling who the man was. 
PET, as he was unaffectionately known, was a very intelligent man.  Unfortunately he also had a good dose of narcissism and the belief that he was not only very smart but was the smartest man in the country.  He balanced this with a sense of comptent for all those who were less intelligent than him; his cabinet ministers, his caucus, and the great unwashed masses of voters who were, unfortunately in his eyes, necessary to ensure he remained prime minister because, after all, no one was as well qualified as him for the job.
Those of us who actually remember his rule and aren't dependent on the hagiographizing the CBC did after he left power and turned him into some kind of saint remember that his rule started with "Trudeaumania" and ended with corruption, binge government spending and a sinking of Canada's reputation in the world.
His was the government that introduced mandatory bilingualism into the civil service, thus ensuring French Quebecois dominance of that area.  He is remembered for effectively fighting the separatist forces in the 1980 Quebec referendum but, as author George Jonas as noted in The National Post on more than one occasion, that was because he was trying to deliver the whole country to the French, not just one province.
He was also morally corrupt, seeing virtue in mass murderers and autocratic thugs like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro which heaping disrespect on American presidents and the Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II.
And now, decades later, we in Canada are faced with the possibility of another Trudeau ascending "the throne", as it were.  PET's son Justin, the current leader of the Liberal party, is currently sitting pretty in the polls.  There is no federal election scheduled until next year but if the current numbers hold there is a good possibility of him becoming the next prime minister.
What do we know about Justin?
Well, unlike his father who had an actual long-term career before entering politics Justin really hasn't accomplished anything.  He taught here and there for short periods of time and.... well that's about it.  No prior history of leadership positions.  No real deep experience with national policy making. 
Then there's his beliefs, something he's very happy to share.  He has let us know, for example, that he admires the Chinese government because they can inflict their policy on the population without having to waste time with such annoyances as consulting that population.  He sees tremendous potential for this model when it comes to implementing environmental policies, for example.  Democracy, it would seem, is as much an annoyance for him as it was for his father.  It's silly to rely on the general voting public because they might not make the right decision, ie. the one he wants to make.
He's also very selective on who he thinks a real Canadian is.  He looks to Quebec and its famously permissive and moral simplistic culture and has opined, again publicly, that if the rest of the country develops a more conservative bent then Quebec would be justified in seceding from Canada so these liberal values of theirs aren't affected.  In other words, he's a loyal Canadian only as long as Canada reflects his values.
There was his publicity stunt in which he fired all Liberal senators from his party in order to show his seriousness on Senate reform.  Now, for my American reader(s), it is important to understand that the Canadian Senate is not equivalent to the American one.  It is a house of patronage, a place media celebrities and failed politicians go to retire and suck off the public teat until their turn 75.  It rarely does anything productive and if it disappeared into a giant sinkhole its absence would take weeks to be noticed. 
On the surface, then, Trudeau's stunt was a good one.  We don't like senators, so his party no longer has them.  Unfortunately he made this decision without telling any Liberal senators, some of them good party members since his father was prime minister.  Few of them agreed and they still call themselves Liberals and feel they're part of the party.  A great stunt that changed nothing.
Finally there's his most recent announcement.  Again, for my American reader(s) it's worth noting that Canada has not had any laws regulating abortion since the late 1980's when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the existing ones.  Any attempt to bring up the discussion of some kind of regulation or at least oversight brings out the usual crew of harpies who scream "You hate women!  You're all fascist arseholes" and the like.  In this regard I'm jealouse of the USA.  The discussion there may be heated but at least there's a discussion.  In Canada no one wants to bring up the subject because they don't want to deal with the histrionics.
And Trudeau is fine with that.  So fine, in fact, that he announced that anyone who is pro-life is persona non-grata within the Liberal party.  Yes, he clarified that he doesn't expect people to change their personal beliefs.  Pro-lifers can still join the party but once they are members they must publicly support abortion just like he, a good Roman Catholic, does.
All this before the man has achieved an ounce of power.  Can you imagine the demagogery he'll unleash once he actually does?

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Did He Say It Or Not

As first reported on Failed Messiah and other blogs (which have since removed the posts for reasons unknown), a Rav at the heiliger Mir Yeshivah recently gave a class in which he claimed Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shlit"a, called for an armed revolt against the Israeli government for its daring to consider drafting Chareidi boys into the army. 
The reaction to the speech was swift and fierce.  How could a "Gadol" say such a thing?  How could a maggid shiur repeat it with obvious approval?
And then it turned out not to be true.  Rav Shteinman never said such a thing, at least not to this Rav.  He had made pretty much the entire thing up and had to issue an apology.  Sorry, it's all a mistake, I shouldn't have done this, let's move on and why are you all still paying attention to me?  I said I was sorry.
There are a few reasons why the issue cannot simply be left alone.  Let's point them out:
1) Even if this Rav was simply sharing his feelings, why did he feel he needed to state them in the name of Rav Shteinman?  Did he feel that doing that would give a needed legitimacy to his statements?  Perhaps make them more acceptable to his students?
2) Did it occur to him that there is already a credibility issue when it comes to statements from "the Gedolim"?  As Rav Eliashiv, zt"l, noted years ago, "If you didn't hear it from my mouth, don't assume I said it."  Have we reached the point that, unless they're caught on video, any statement, any official teshuvah, can be safely ignored since we didn't hear it directly from "the Gadol" in question?
3) Did Rav Shteinman, in fact, say something to this effect?  Well it's not impossible.  Since the current government took power we have heard all sorts of name calling out of the Chareidi community.  Words which should be used with great caution, like "Nazi" and "Cossack", are tossed around like candies at a bar mitzvah.  Is it so hard to think that Rav Shteinman might have muttered something like "Well they're just like Amalek and I wish the same thing would happen to them!"?  And if he did then is this Rav actually doing us a service by letting us know?
It's almost getting to repetitive to write about this.  Yes, we all know the Chareidi community is upset about the draft.  We also all know that it's for all the wrong reasons, such as a fanatical aversion to any hakaras hatov to the State of Israel which has bankrolled their existence for 66 years and a distaste for any serious interactions with their fellow Jews in which they are not in control.  It is still upsetting to consider that men who claim to be serious learners, who spend days trying to understand all the implications of a single word in the Gemara, can carelessly throw out such insults and then be genuinely flummoxed when those insults invite an angry response.
At least the secular community has shown tremendous patience in response to the extended temper tantrum they've been witnessing.  Let us hope and pray that this patience doesn't run out soon.