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.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Depserately Needed OutReach

That Jewish society evolves over time should not come as a shock to anyone.  Israeli society, as a part of the greater Jewish nation, is no different.  Today on Yom Ha'atzmaut it would be a good idea to reflect on how Israeli society has changed, from the ealy days of the first Aliyos to today.
The changes currently occuring are worth paying attention to and, for the Religious Zionist movement, responding to with a new initiative.  Secular Zionism, written off in the surge of post-Zionism after the first Oslo Discord was signed, has started to stage a comeback due to the efforts of its two current champions, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni.  Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, its religious members not withstanding, is about creating a secular israeli movement with cultural trappings of Judaism as long as they don't interfere with secular liberal values.  Much like the original Labour Zionists, Lapid wants to remold Israeli society in a secular Western one with cultural hints of its religious origins.  Tzipi Livni is even more direct as her ongoing opposition to Bibi Netanyahu's efforts to ensure Israel is recognized as a Jewish state indicate.  Having failed to sell out Israel to its enemies through negotiation she is open about her desire for the state to commit cultural suicide and give up its principle Jewish nature.
Against this we have the Chareidi community which, more than ever, wishes to monopolize Judaism to itself, leaving everyone else, regardless of level of identification or observance, on the outside.  For their leadership Israel is a piggybank to be raided whenever desired and then spit on after the withdrawal is made.  Yes there is a large and powerful Chareidi outreach industry but it is not interested in greater Jewisih nationhood, only in bringing people into whatever branch of the Chareidi community the particular organization represents while presenting that branch as the totality of Judaism.
It is therfore imperative that Religious Zionism, still feeling some sense of confidence with the presence and success of Bayit Yehudi, to get into the outreach game.
Religious Zionist outreach should not follow the Chareidi model.  It is not in anyone's interest to hire people to preach to the unattached about the benefits of wearing a kippah serugah and singing loudly on Yom Ha'atzmaut.  Rahter, this outreach should follow the model created by the early Zionists if it wishes to make a real difference.
For those who don't remember, Secular Zionism's early modus operandi was to speak of the "New Jew".  Now, this Jew had very little to do with Judaism and, in fact, defined himself by opposing many Jewish values.  Zionists spoke of the downtrodden, defeatist golus Jews and how the New Jew, unlike his predecessor, would stand upright, be equal with members of other nations and embrace world culture in its fullest.  He would embrace work, culture and enlightenment and these New Jews would show the world that our nation, far from being a different, isolated culture, represented the best of what the family of nations had to offer.
The advantage of this model was that it was global.  It appealed to the non-religious European socialist Jew, the one who already had a foot out the door due to assimilation and the allure of non-Jewish philosophies.  It also appealed to the religous Jew, sick of his ghetto existence, overbearing rabbinic leaders and a life of poverty and wordly ignorance.  The promise of a new Jewish society, even if there was nothing really Jewish about it except the ethnic background of its members, held great appeal.
The main failing of Secular Zionism was that it was geared towards nation building.  One the country was built and running it lost a lot of its appeal.  It's one thing to appeal to a person to become a pioneer and drain the swamp.  The pioneer who becomes a career person and lives in the apartment building where the swamp once stood isn't always as full of idealism. 
The other failing is that its underlying motto, "Let's show all the peoples of the world that we can do whatever they do!" isn't really that inspiring.  Okay, you've built a secular socialist democracy.  So what?  It's been done.
Here is where Religious Zionism must come in.  Like the secular counterpart, Religious Zionism calls out for the creating of a "New Jew".  This model, however, is vastly different from the secular one.  First we must examine what the Old Jew is.  One type of Old Jew is one that practices a Judaism bereft of any national element.  He has a life of common ritual, perhaps even a specific outfit he wears every day like a uniform, but outside of the personal element there is no real application of his Judaism.  Because he doesn't understand the priorities of a nation he cannot fully comprehend certain issues.  The same Jew who will only touch a jug of milk with four hechsherim doesn't feel repelled by cheating on his taxes.  He can understand how tefillin are made, not so much how societies function on a macro level because it's simply not part of his Judaism.  Despite this he sees other Jews, religious and non-religious, and wonders about his connection to them.  He hears the Chareidi propaganda on how evil the State of Israel is but can't udnerstand it because it contradicts the reality of Israel he has seen with his own eyes.
The other type is one that sees being Jewish as an ethnic identity.  Being Jewish means a special type of cuisine, certain holidays, perhaps an appearance from time to time in the local "temple" as a show of cultural awareness.  He might not even been aware of the national concept of Judaism, seeing himself as a Canadian of Jewish background, a Jewish Canadian rather than a Canadian Jew.  Yet when the annual JNF appeal envelope arrives in his mailbox or the newcaster on the radio starts a sentence with "In Israel today..." something stirs within him, a sense that there is a connection to other Jews he has nothing in common with even though he doesn't understand why that connection exists.
(Before anyone starts screaming, I'm not suggesting all Jews other than Religious Zionists fit into one of these two categories.  I'm identifying two specific groups within the Jewish community that I believe are relevant to my point)
Religious Zionist outreach needs to develop a system that reaches out to these two groups.  For the Chareidi the message must be a simple one of completeness.  A Chareidi, by definition, wants to be the best Jew he can be, to worship God in as full a fashion as possible.  Almost two thousand yeaers of exile has caused us, including "the Gedolim", to become convinced that Judaism minus the national component, is a complete package but even a cursory perusal of the classic sources like, oh say, the Tanach and Talmud shows that this is not the case.  Adding the national component to his observance would enhance the Chareidi Jewish practice by reintroducing those long-dormant elements.  Now the Chareidi learns Nezikin and about whose ox gores whose before falling into a pit someone else left in the public thoroughfare.  Imagine approaching these teachings from a perspective of modern concepts in damage.  Imagine that being the mandatory way of learning those gemaras because they are now relevant in daily societal life.
In addition there is a concept of greater Jewish nationhood that Religious Zionism offers.  As opposed to the parochial "Us first and only" ghetto model of Judaism espoused by many Chareidi leaders Religious Zionism offers the Chareidi a chance to be part of a growing, dynamic nation.  Imagine Chareidim in the workplace serving as positive models of strict Torah observance in both personal and public arenae, just like their Religious Zionist counterparts.  Imagine Chareidi soldiers infused with a sense that they are not simply doing their civic duty but performing the mitzvah of protecting other Jewish lives every moment they're awake.
For the non-religious Old Jew Religious Zionism offers the ultimate cultural identity.  For many non-religious Jews our nation is irrelevant because it doesn't seem to offer what modern society does.  Religious Zionism, with its mission to create and run a modern state al pi halacha as much as possible, provides an alternative model.  You can be a modern person, you can be a member of a society, all while expressing Jewish values and behaviours.  If one is looking for a complete cultural identity along with a sense of purpose, Judaism can offer this and, along the way, these folks can learn that through Torah observances one leads a more complete life, feels a greater sense of identity with the Jewish nation and helps move history forward to the completion of the Final Redemption.
In other words, I'm not suggest Religious Zionist equivalents of Chabad Houses or Aish HaTorah seminars.  Yes there are elements of those models that need to be imitated if this outreach initiative is going to succeed but as opposed to how the Chareidi model works, waiting for the non-religious guy to come to them, Religios Zionism needs to go to the people, in both the Chareidi and non-religious communities and show, through example, through vigorous challenge and debate, the value of the complete national approach to Judaism and how it is the future model of our nation.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Of Rebbe Stories

Despite being an important secondary character in a great fantasy fiction trilogy, I'm not exactly a story person.  To qualify, I love fictional stories about fictional characters but am less thrilled when presented fictional stories about real people and expected to believe they're true.
Maybe it's also my dislike of naturohomeopaths.  Have you ever noticed that, for all their hocus-pocus talk, they don't really have cures for anything that matters?  Oh they'll whip up something for that trick knee or persistent cough but when it comes to something real and substantial like, say, a heart attack or end-stage cancer they're all talk and it's up to real physicians to save the day.
As a result I've never been a fan of "rebbe stories".  You know the ones I mean.  The am ha'aretz goes to the Rebbe, needs a miracle and so the Rebbe prays for him and the miracle happens, usually in a way that confers a moral lesson.
Again, as a story they're cute.  It's when people say "And you know, it really happened that way!" that I get annoyed.
Sometimes it's a little different.  There's the story I once heard from the local Lubavitcher about how one of their Rebbes needs to be exhumed long after his burial.  Despite the prohibition of doing it, some of the handlers opened the casket because they wanted to see the state of the body.  After all, the Gemara tells us that the perfectly righteous do not decompose in the grave and their Rebbe had been perfectly righteous.  Naturally, as the story goes, his body looked exactly as it had on the day of his death, confirming the literal truth of the Gemara.
I pointed out to him that this story was clearly rigged.  Imagine, I told him, that you're one of the handlers.  You crack open the coffin convinced you're going to see a pristine body.  Instead you see some bones and leftover, mummified pieces of flesh.  What are you going to tell people?  That the Gemara is wrong?  That the Rebbe wasn't perfectly righteous?
What bothers me about the stories is that the miracles are never anything significant.  The poor guy gets an unexpected challah from Shabbos, an infertile woman conceives, all fell-good but small time events.  Why are there no stories about the local Polish overlord calling off a massive pogrom once it was underway?  Why nothing about relieving the massive widespread poverty of eastern Europe's Jews?  Why no Moshiach being summoned to bring our final revelation?
I thought about this even more when I recently read Joe Bobker's excellent book excerpt on the response of various rabbinic leaders to the Holocaust.  Now, there's a lot of people out there who believe they know two things about rabbonim and the Holocaust.  One, that many leaders told their flocks to stay put which led to increased slaughter.  Two, that some leaders took off and abandoned their flocks.
As Bobker cogently notes, we cannot judge since we have the benefit of hindsight and a lack of understand of the situation as it was for those rabbonim.  For example, many leaders thought that World War II would be a repeat of World War I, a few years of hellish fighting and then the resumption of regular society.  Staying put or fleeing a short distance was what worked from 1914-1918 so there was good reason to think it would help again.
Additionally we have to remember that, despite the bellicose threats of total extermination by Adolph Hitler, y"sh, few people took him seriously.  They expected oppression, pogroms and small scale murder but not the industrialized massacre that was being planned.  Even the Nazis, y"sh, didn't openly admit to their Jewish victims what they were doing.  Jews being deported to death camps were told they were being relocated, often told to bring belongings and provisions for the journey.  It is unfair for us to say "Well those rabbonim knew what were going to happen!"  No one knew, including them.
What caught my attention in the article, however, were two items I'd not heard before.  One was that the Chofetz Chayim, zt"l, was asked to curse Hitler and didn't on the assumption that what was happening as the Nazis came to power was God's will and couldn't be trifled with.  The other was that the Belzer Rebbe, zt"l, was asked to petition God to stop the Holocaust and also refused for the same reason.
On the surface it seems like both leaders were extremely cold and uncaring.  Jews were being slaughtered en masse and the answer is "Well God wants it that way so what do you expect from me?"
However, as I noted above this seems to put the "rebbe stories into their proper perspective.  Like the Lubavitchers opening the casket there's only so much one could expect.  Imagine the Belzer Rebbe, in full regalia with all his followers watching.  He lights the right candles, says the right words in Yiddish and Aramaic, and then... nothing.  The Nazis are still outside, the crematoria are still running.  What does he do next?  He's the tzaddik, the guy who says "jump!" and God asks "How high?"
Imagine the Chafetz Chayyim publicly cursing Hitler and his monsters using all the right incantations.  What does he do when nothing happens?
Perhaps these two saintly men knew this, that the stories are just stories.  Perhaps they knew that, if they were pushed into performing an actual miracle they would fail and that this would cause a loss of faith in their followers who had been educated and conditioned to believe that these men had God's ear and obedience, k'b'yachol.
Perhaps that's what I don't like the stories.  They are the result of a cultural need for simplicity and understandable connection to the Divine in a religion that simply doesn't work that way.  Is is so hard to get past such simple linear thinking?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Nightmarish Ideal

One of the recurring words that come from the PR hacks in the UltraOrthodox world is "mesorah". Mesorah is trotted out time and time again to explain inflexible positions on certain issues or opposition to innovative ideas or suggestions on controversial subjects.  We are assured that the mesorah has already spoken on such things and that there is one position, one only, that is the correct one.
Did you ever wonder what the ultimate incarnation of the mesorah would be according to these guys?  Their fantasy Jewish society in which everything happens by the book, their book?
Two recent articles in two major Chareidi magazines might be giving us a strong hint of that that dream is and if you're a thinking person it should scare you silly. 
The first is a recent article in Mishpachah Magazine, usually touted as a moderate Chareidi publication as it admis the existence of non-Chareidi rabbonim without automatically denigrating them.  As detailed by JewishWorker it contains a description of life in the American Chasidic village of New Square:
The piece emphasized the total conformity in New Square in every aspect of life. Here are some example:


1.There are no restaurants, bakeries, prepared food stores in all of New Square. The only supermarket sells only basic items, no prepared food, no national brands. Everyone eats the same few staples

2.Everyone eats the exact same food on Shabbos. For example, the menu in every family in New Square for the Friday night meal without exception is

1.Gefilte fish

2.Chicken Soup

3.Chicken

4.Fruit compote for desert

3.There are no individual simchas. Every Shabbos there are approximately 10 aufrufs and ten bar mitzvas, they only throw candy at the end for everyone and there is 1 small kiddush after davening

4.There is only 1 shul with only 1 minyan. On Shabbos morning at 8AM they start saying Tehilim for 3 hours, at 11AM they start Shacharis which takes over 3 hours

5.There are 3 tishes every Shabbos which everyone must attend

6.All the men dress exactly the same down to the boots that they all wear.

7.There is complete separation between men and women

1.separate sidewalks, one side men one side women, married couples aren't allowed to walk together
2.separate waiting rooms at the doctor
3.mechitza buses
4..women leave shul after kedusha so that when the men leave there isn't a woman around

Another aspect mentioned in the article is the fact that the Rebbe is in total control of the town. The mayor, city councilmen, city workers are all appointed by the Rebbe and nothing happens without his say so. Since, the Rebbe is the absolute focus of the town, before anyone does anything they consult the Rebbe. Consulting the Rebbe is not cheap, first you have to pay the Kvitel writer, then there is a Gabbai in charge of the door to the Rebbe's room, you have to pay him as well. Last but not least you need to leave money for the Rebbe himself when you finally meet him
Charming, yes?  And lest you think this is a one off phenomenon, Ami Magazine recently features a piece on those lovable Canadian misfits, the Lev Tahor cult.  As detailed by the Bray of Fundie and Rav Harry Maryles the writers did not come so much to critically assess the cultists as to defend them.  Other than opining that the burka probably isn't a great idea there was apparently little in the article about the midn control, malnutritions, health issues and child abuse that are the defining features of this group. 
What the two articles seem to have in common is this: both want to present communities in which there is no freedom of information, no freedom of thought, no freedom of movement, no freedom of education, and complete dictatorial control by a single man who thinks he's God's personal representative on Earth as "nice Jewish communities".
Is this the true face of the mesorah the Agudah would like us to believe in?  Is living a Stalinist life of complete conformity the ideal Jewish experience?  Check your brains at the door and just say "Baruch HaShem" when you're told to?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Amalek, Amalek, Amalek

Last night one of the recurring shnorrers who come to my neighbourhood stopped by for a visit.  Despite being a Satmar chasid we've always gotten along quite well.  I'm not a fool to think that the cheques I give him aren't a fundamental reason for that but his visits have come to be more than just a quick drop-in.  He's always eager to exchange divrei Torah, enjoys reading my Rav Kook seforim (naturally his own shul doesn't carry those) and understands why I'm not interested in having a copy of Vayoel Moshe on my bookshelf.
During his visit last night he asked me my opinion of the ongoing draft controversy in Israel.  Of course he had been told by his community leaders all the standard lies the Chareidi leadership is spreading, about how the draft is part of the secular plot to destroy Torah in Israel and the like.
So I countered back that the draft would, if anything, enhance the position of the Torah community in Israel if the Chareidim would cooperate properly with it.  This would seem to go contrary to the assertion of the Chareidi leadership that this attempt to draft their young 'uns is equivalent to the worst anti-Jewish atrocities in history.  I pointed out that a life of poverty is a terrible thing to inflict on an entire community.  I also noted that at its height the kollelim of Europe had a few hundred men learning full-time and that full-time full-community kollel is a post-war innovation whose time seems to have come and gone.
He himself noted that in Europe you had to be an ilui to get into the system, that an average person showing up and announcing that he wanted to learn full-time would have been laughed at and told to find a job.  He also noted that the level of mesirus nefesh of those European learners far exceeds that of those nowadays who, despite the privations of their undesirable financial status still have living standards that far exceed those of our ancestors.
Then I mentioned that the army has bent over backwards to accomodate the Chareidim it will draft in terms of men-only environments, a mix of army duty and learning, a shortened service period, ultra-kosher food on the bases, etc.  I pointed out that with all the verbal abuse and threats coming out of the Chareidi community's representatives it is a testament to the innate kindness of the secular population that there hasn't been an attempt to mass-deport the Chareidim from the country.  What kind of people get called Nazis, Russians, animals and the like, get compared to the worst villians in Jewish history, get told they are trash after giving over billions of dollars for nothing in return and don't react strongly but instead try to find further ways to compromise?  In short, if Chazal believed that compromise in dispute was a noble goal, who's acting more observant?
My acquaintance seemed to understand that point.  He asked what interest the Dati Leumi had in all of this, if they were religious why were they supporting the draft?  I told him that there is no reason a religious Jew can't serve in the army and that the presence of so many religious Jews might just have a profound effect on the non-religious boys they come in contact with.  They have so much potentials to produce a huge kiddush HaShem how could they not jump at the opportunity?
Finally I pointed out that even many Chareidi authorities (although it is generally denied now) lauded the creation of the State of Israel as a show of kindness from the Ribono shel Olam, a great demonstration of His chesed after the horrors of the Holocaust.  To stand up as a community and say that they want no part in this divine gift, that they don't even recognize God's hand in it and what's more they will vigorouly fight against its ongoing success and refuse to contribute to it is an incredible show of ingratitude and a rejection of God Himself, no matter how much they want to delude themselves that they are the real upholders of His Will in this world.
This guy listened.  Unfortunately there are others out there who still have their heads in the sand.  Rav Yaakov Mencken, once again, exemplifies all those who give the rest of the Jewish world the impression that Chareidim are rude ingrates who have no appreciation or respect for "the other".  It is hard to decide what part of his article is most insulting.  Is it the part where he lionizes the yeshivah boy arrested for refusing to be drafted who then acts like he's really showed those nassssssty secular Israelis the true power of Torah?  Is it his praise of Rav Shmuel Auerbach who, until yesterday (it seems) was in the Chareidi doghouse for daring to defy the political opinions of Rav Shteinman and Rav Kaneivsky?  Suddenly he's a darling in the Chareidi community for his role in promulgating the "right" behaviour.
Maybe it's his use of the word "racism" in the title, one which betrays a complete lack of understanding of the word's meaning and cheapens it through its inappropriate use.  Perhaps its his conclusion in which he essentially calls anyone who disagrees with him "Amalek", a charge he then denies in the comments section as if we're idiots who can't read and need him to interpret his own simplistic scrawlings for us.
The best response to this dribble is from a post at Rationalist Judaism in which the guest author, one Rav Moshe Gold points out the obvious:
 In fact, I can't think of a single area in which you participate with the rest of Klal Yisrael. In one of my more aggressive moments I asserted that since the State and the IDF have been doing so well for 66 years without your prayers, let's better leave it that way. We don't want to rock the boat, you know.
Yes indeed.  One of the reasons this argument has gone on for so long is because we see the Chareidim as members of the Jewish family.  They aren't co-citizens or co-religionists. They are our brothers, our family dating back to Yaakov Avinu, a"h.  People are prepared to spend a lot more emotion and effort to help family than neighbours or strangers.  But there are limits, especially when that family treats you like trash and compares you to the worst scum of history.
Perhaps it is time to point out that we really don't need this abuse.  We've accomplished a great deal as a people in the last 60 years deespite the Chareidim, not because of them.  Maybe we should wait for them to come to us?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Olive Me

Full disclosure off the top: I worked in an Israeli olive factory for a year when I was in high school.  One of the entry level jobs for rookies was "the olive line" where workers sat and watched the product roll past them on a conveyor belt.  The job entailed grabbing those olives that looked defective and removing them from the belt to ensure only nice looking olives made it into the cans and jars to be sold.  Even with headphones tuned to the rock radio station in Jordan it was mind-numbing work but it did teach me one thing: the size of an olive.
I mention this because, like clockwork, the issue of how much matzah to eat at the Seder next week, has once again surfaced in the Jewish blogsphere.  This amount is, al pi halacha, the amount of an olive's bulk of matzah, a k'zayis.  Naturally Jews have to argue about anything so when it comes to this issue the argument is: how big is an olive?
You'd think that it would easy to end this discussion.  Olives come in a few varieties so find the biggest one and say "That's how much matzah you have to eat".  This is the one solution that, to my knowledge isn't considered viable by most people.  Instead we have a notion, based more on opinion than any real historical fact, that olives shrunk significantly in size somewhere in the last 2000 years which means our current k'zayis is way below the minimum amount necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of achilas matzah.
Rav Natan Slifkin has already dealt with this issue at length and I have nothing to add to his scholarship on the matter.  There are definitely different opinions and those of the great poskim of the last 1000 years cannot simply be dismissed due to lack of historical agreement with their positions.  They are the gedolei Yisrael upon whose words we rely.  But when people distort their words or amplify them we are in a worse position.
For example, the recent article at Yeshiva World by Rav Yair Hoffman does exactly that.  Rav Hoffman starts by presenting an opinion, that of following the maximum number of authorities with divergent opinions when performing a specific ritual, as a near universal practice.  While this occurs quite frequently there are many other times when we pick one authority or a minority and go with them.  Sometimes who we side with changes depending on extenuating circumstance in different eras.  Yes, fulfilling as many opinions as possible is definitely desirable but not when it leads to bizarre behaviour or contortions in logic to justify itself.
It seems, according to Rav Hoffman, that not only do we have to conform to the ever-expanding definition of k'zayis (once the size of an olive, eventually some bright young posek somewhere will declare it to be half a canteloupe) but we have to eat twice as much of it and all in two minutes!
Add to all of that the fact that the burnt oversized crackers we eat are not really traditional matzah but a result of hard necessity a few centuries ago.  Soft pita I could see shoving into one's month at a reasonable rate but spit-absorbing crackers?  Won't happen.
Here's my suggestion: Rav Chaim Volozhiner, zt"l, is, in all other respects, an important posek and a huge Gadol in the chain of halachic transmission.  If he says that an olive is an olive then I think we can rely on his formidable knowledge in the matter.  After all, he and his mentor, the Vilna Gaon, ztk"l, are not known for a lenient and superficial approach to p'sak.
There is a further reason to take this position, one that is often forgotten by most folks in their zeal to do "the right thing".  The Torah tells us to rejoice on our holidays. Now I've heard it said that this only applies to Sukkos which is called "chag" by the Torah which means that we are allowed to make ourselves miserable on Pesach.  I'm not sure that's really the optimal understanding of the verse.  We are meant to enjoy Yom Tov, the better to appreciate the bounty the Ribono shel Olam has given us, the better to allow His splendour to interact with us.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Is The Real Modern Orthodoxy Standing Up?

One of the shows I've recently gotten into is The Newsroom.  No, not the Canadian version from 1996 but the current American version starring Jeff Daniels as an idealistic news anchor interested in educating and civilizing the American public through his televised programs.
Jeff Daniels' character, Will MacEvoy, is a classic example of the lack of imagination of liberal Hollywood writers.  Possibly in order to change things up from his previous hit series, The West Wing, creator Aaron Sorkin has cast MacEvoy as an admitted Republican.  However, he's a Republican that seems to be indistinguishable from any Democrats you might meet, sharing all their important values and worshipping the same political heroes as them.  Sorkin seems to believe that a Republican who actually believes in Republican values couldn't successfully be portrayed as a nice guy and heroic figure on television.
In a few ways this is the way some in the non-religious Jewish community want Orthodoxy to be portrayed.  They're okay with the idea of Orthodoxy, you understand.  The idea that people worship on a regular basis, keep a specific diet and don't watch television one day a week is something they can live with.  However, when it comes to the really important things like egalitarianism in religious practice, accepting homosexual marriage as normative or encouraging abortion as a form of birth control they become quite irritated when told that Orthodox Judaism does not accept any of these things, actually holds values opposed to them and no, there's no room for compromise or acceptance, thanks for asking.
In other words, they're okay with the Orthodox who aren't really Orthodox.  The ones who are can't be portrayed as nice guys or heroes.
We've seen lots of statements to this effect throughout the Jewish blogosphere since two Modern Orthodox schools decided to allow their female students to start wearing tefillin during prayer services.  The statements all basically follow the same format: if these girls want to wear tefillin not only should they be allowed but Orthodoxy should change to make this regular practice.  In other words, be Orthodox but don't let your Orthodoxy conflict with secular liberal values.
For those who are worried about what this will do to the Modern Orthodox community I would respond positively.  For decades Modern Orthodoxy has been drifting between two opposed forces.  Modern Orthodoxy is not Reformative, on one hand, and not Chareidi on the other.  Despite the various attempts mades by luminaries of the movement there has been little to define it any more than that.  I believe that the challenge of Morethodoxy and its ongoing attempts to introduce secular liberal values into its worship and belief system will change that.  It will force Modern Orthodoxy to define itself.
Now some of this definition will be based on a poor reasons: MO's don't want their Chareidi brethren openly laughing at them (quietly laughing at them behind their backs, on the other hand, seems to be fine).  Modern Orthodoxy's leaders will be pressed to better define what they stand for and what their expectations are from their laity if only to save face during interactions with their Chareidi counterparts. 
On the other hand, the actions of Morethodoxy will be defining because they will raise specific questions people will have to answer.  Questions like "Who is qualified to make a major change in Jewish tradition?"  The Morethodox answer seems to be "Anyone with a Bar Ilan USB stick" and the sincerest of intentions.  The more traditional answer, "highly qualified and experience poskim" will come to define Modern Orthodoxy. 
This will have another overall effect as well.  As noted above, Modern Orthodoxy has been defined as "Not here nor there".  With Morethodoxy working more and more towards breaking away from its Orthodox veneer this will leave the community left behind more homogenous.  Not homogenous as in the Chareidi definition of the word (I'm not going out to buy a black hat any time soon) but with a greater understanding of Rabbinic authority and its role in Jewish practice.  As Rav Avrohom Gordimer notes in his latest piece on Cross Currents, it's a Modern Orthodoxy that once again recognizes that the halachic decision making process is not one of anarchy but a well-structured approach that results in consistent leadership.
Unfortunately it will leave Modern Orthodoxy as a diminished community in size for certainly many bright and talented people will leave with Rabbi Avi Weiss and his band of merry men and maharats.  They will do so for the most genuine and sincerest of reasons, convinced they are truly doing God's will and are still Orthodox but they will leave behind a Modern Orthodoxy that at least has a better sense of what it is and what is stands for.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Global Bovine Faeces Part 2

In my last post I noted reasons why I simply can't roll over and accept the position of the ecofascist lobby when it comes to climate change.  Truth be told, I do believe that some climate change is happening which is a difference from what I might have said a few years ago but I remain convinced that it is a natural piece of environmental evolution, that humanity isn't contributing significantly to it and that the best response to climate change is to adapt to it.
Despite all the evidence supporting this position the ecofascists are having none of it.  Over and over again they shout that mankind is the worst thing to ever happen to the planet and that radical changes to reduce carbon utilization are necessary to prevent a global catastrophe.  Self delusion might be one explanation but I think there's another that needs to be considered.
The history of the world is full of great powers that sought out domination over others.  Since the rise of Islam in 600 it has engaged in an ongoing international conflict with Chrisianity for religious and territorial domination, a conflict that subsided into the background during the 20th century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of international communism.  For those following events around the globe this conflict is slowly regaining predominance even if the Chrisian side doesn't realize or want to accept it yet.
During the 20th century the grand global conflict was between capitalism, as championed by the West, and communism as championed by the Soviet Union and China.  Communism was not a benign economic philosophy, not in the least.  It was and is a malignant poltical ideology that seeks, as its ideal, to place as much of the globe as possible under totalitarian rule with tools like thought control and other Orwellian devices to ensure the unwashed masses remain in line.  The West, and America especially with its believe in the free market, free press and free speech were the enemies of this ideology and had to be crushed.
Unfortunately for communism its representatives in the late 20th century weren't very good at propagating this aim.  Unlike the glory days until Stalin, y"sh, leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev were better at being petty totalitarians.  China's leaders today might call themselves communist but are robber baron capitalists in fact and deed.  Communism, for its devout adherents, is on life support.  Even the kibbutzim have mostly abandoned their Marxists origins and function today and profit-making collectives. 
In fact the only real drive left of communism is a vitriolic hatred of the West and capitalism.  The same folks who once believed the Soviet Union to be the ideal society for everyone still hate what America once stood much better for.  They may not wave the hammer and sickle anymore but their efforts to undermine freedom in the West continued unabated.
One of the places these miscreants have gathered to continue their war is in the ecofascist lobby.  One doesn't have to follow the news carefully to note that the ecofascists focus on only one part of the world when they talk about the coming ecological armageddon and who is responsible for it: the West.
Consider the Kyoto accord, for example.  Its protocols were designed to force industrialized countries to reduce their carbon output to certain levels in order to slow the pace of global warming.  The United States failed to fully ratify the protocols and was roundly criticized for that.  What ecofascists fail to note, however, is that almost no signatory to the accord accomplished what they pledged to do.  Everyone's carbon emissions went up significantly.  In fact the United States was the country that made the most progress in slowing the rise in emissions despite not being a signatory.  Despite that they continued to be criticized for not being part of the Kyoto accord.
Kyoto was also ridiculous for introducing the concept of carbon credits.  The idea was that an underdeveloped country in the middle of Africa would not reach the minimum carbon targets because its industrial lack of output kept it well below them.  It could sell this leeway to industrialized countries which then could apply the credits to their "progress report".  Hence Russia, with its oil wealth, bought multiple credits that obviated their need to do anything to reduce their carbon outputs!  If Kyoto was a serious process wouldn't they be interested in everyone reducing their carbon, not set up a trading process to allow continued carbon production?
Finally, China and India, two of the world's biggest polluters never bothered to join the Kyoto protocols.  Anyone familiar with those two countries can tell you that they are industrializing at a rapid pace with minimum control over the amount of smog they produce.  Yet it was Canada, which produces less than 3% of global carbon emissions, that got pilloried when it pulled out of the Kyoto accord after realizing it would never meet its obligations.
So a treaty that no signatory was compliant with, which gave mechanisms to avoid real change and which did not include two of the worst polluters on the planet, neither of which happen to be Western countries.  And who's the worst offender?  Well America and Canada (with our oil sands) of course!
One would think that with all the evidence that the industrialized world isn't going to cut its carbon emissions and that the the non-industrialized world is struggling to catch up the ecofascist lobby would consider a different approach, one in which humanity works to accomodate inevitable climate change.   But that's not the case.  We have Neil Young, for example, singing about the oil sands and comparing them to Hiroshima.  I wanted so hard to be his biggest fan after he announced he was going to play a concert in Israel and then this happened.  Hey Neil, how are you getting to Israel?  By canoe?
The eceofascist lobby's goal isn't to stop global warming.  It simply can't do it and besides, with the tactics that its using it's clearly not interested in achieving that.  The lobby instead is interested in eating into the freedoms that made the West prosperous and victorious over communism.  David Suzuki, for instance, believes that politicians (and presumable scientists and other influential folks) who don't accept his version of climate change ideology should be jailed.  How's that for the free exchange of ideas?  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who refuses to buy into the ecofascist lobby's ideology is constantly villified for his insistently on independent thought.
The ecofascists want a big government that will micromanage our affairs and control our thoughts and speech, all in the name of an overarching ideology that in practice will not lead anywhere.  Where have we seen this before?
As the Beatles sang, "Back in the USSR!"

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Global Bovine Faeces

Some people seem bewildered by the idea that Orthodox Jews might be skeptical of climate change or global warming.  As their limited reasoning goes, they figure that since we're dupes for believing in matan Torah and show no skepticism when dealing with the unity and antiquity of the Torah's text we'll fall for anything.  The idea that some of us might have used cirtical thinking, looked at the sources and concluded that the Torah is genuine and true is incomprehensible to them.  But skeptical I am of the claims of the climate change ecofascists that dominate the debate today.
I realize I'm treading into controversial waters by saying that.  When it comes to climate change one is either a true believer or an evil pawn of the oil companies, a friend to Mother Earth or an enemy plotting her demise.
As far as I can see there are three possible options as to what's happening in the world right now:
1) The climate is not changing and all this is made up for reasons I'll write about later.
2) The climate is changing but this is a natural process and humanity is not contributing to it.
3) The climate is changing as a result of humanity's activities.
Now, the ecofascist lobby is solidly behind (3), no question of that and no questioning of that.  According to them the climate across the planet is changing and humanity is directly responsible for it and only through massive changes in our behaviour can we avert global catastrophe.  Certainly they have scientific evidence to back up their claim and if it's true then we have reason to be worried.  Shouldn't that be enough?
As a person with some scientific training I have some reservations.  Here are the reasons:
1) "The science is settled".  This is one of the mantras of the ecofascist lobby.  It's four word sentence used to shut down debate.  For anyone who is both scientifically trained and intellectually honest it's a loaded statement that indicates the exact opposite and if multitudes of international scientists are muttering it today that tells you where intellectual honest is in today's science community.  The science is never settled, certainly not in complex areas like the environment.  The science may strongly indicate a trend, it may strongly suggest a conclusion but it cannot be settled.  There is always room for questioning and further testing of the data.  A scientist who tells you that "the science is settled" is saying that he is only interested in that data which supports his conclusion.  That's not real science.
2) "All credible scientists agree".  This is another slogan and one which is circular.  All credible scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by humanity's misbehaviour because to be labelled a credible scientist you must believe that climate change is real and caused by humanity's misbehaviour.  You could be an amazing scientist with dozens of publications to your name but the minute you say you doubt the ecofascist lobby's beliefs you are no longer credible. 
3) What's is called anyway?  When Al Gore began his lobbying efforts back in the 1990's the issue was called global warming.  Perhaps he did this to distinguish himself from those 1970's climate scientists who assured us that we were on the edge of a new ice age.  We were treated to Michael Mann's now-disproven hockey stock graph and told temperatures were about to shoot up across the planet.  The IPCC has recently had to admit that temperatures on average have not significantly risen across the planet in the last 15 years.  I'm right now living in what is the tail end of one of the worst winters in memory where I live.  It's almost the middle of March but we're still expecting subzero temperatures for another 1-2 weeks.  Normally we'd be well into the spring thaw by now.  To get around this annoying inconvenience the lobby changed terms, now calling it climate change.  This made their job far easier.  Was it a colder than normal winter?  Climate change!  A warmer than normal winter?  Climate change! 
4) Cilmate change is also a misnomer for the movement because climate change is a normal feature of life on Earth.  Ask any mastadon who survived the last ice age (okay, bad example).  The climate changes on Earth from time to time and has been doing so since time immemorial.  What's more we have recent Medieval Warming Period, an era in which the northern hemisphere became warm enough to support active colonization of Greenland, a desolate frozen wasteland today.  Given the small human population and low technological situation at the time one cannot blame humanity for the MWP.  This is an inconvenient bit for the ecofascists who either downplay the significance of the MWP or forget to mention it when sermonizing about climate change.
5) The hypocrisy of the leaders. Al Gore lives in a mansion that consumes more electricity than some small towns.  David Suzuki trots around Canada in a diesel powered bus.  Barack Obama flies everywhere in a jet.  The high priests of Green are some of the biggest individual consumers of carbon although this doesn't stop them from lecturing the rest of us on reducing our carbon footprint.
6) Shut up!  That's usually the response one gets from ecofascists when their orthodoxies are confronted with contradicting facts.  You don't get reasoned discussion.  You don't get an alternative explanation of those facts.  You get yelled at and insulted.  I recall David Suzuki appearing on a right wing readio show and storming off after the radio host began listing scientists who did not believe in global warming and had data to support their point.  A strong ideology does not respond to challenges that way, a weak one that knows it's a load of hooey does and that exactly describes the representatives of the eco-fascist movement.
If climate change is real why does the ecofascist movement act like it does?

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Exclusive Title Holders

Sometimes I like to think that under all the infighting there is a quiet undercurrent of unity in the Orthodox Jewish community.  We differ over a plethora of issues, many of them superficial and we fight vigorously at times but I like to think that beneath that conflict there is an understanding that we are all yirei Shamayim together.
Other times I think I'm deluded for believing that.
On my more cynical days I see Orthodox on Orthodox hatred everywhere.  The angry faces are the easiest to spot but even in the friendly faces I imagine seeing disgust hidden below the surface.  "Yeah we're friendly," the face says silently, "but you're not frum like us so you're scum".
Maybe I just read blogs too much.  However, this thought definitely  came to me after reading Rav Shafran's last piece on Cross Currents.  If he is truly stating what many in his community are thinking then I am deluded about the underlying unity I hope is there.
It's nothing new to note that Chareidim don't like being called Ultra-Orthodox.  I can think of two reasons for this.  First, many don't like to be thought of as extremist.  They see Chareidim as a normative form of Torah observance and nothing on the fringe.  Secondly, many (like Rav Shafran) like to think that UltraOrthodox is not only normative Orthodoxy but the only genuine Orthodoxy.  Consider these gems from his article:
He also accuses charedim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the charedi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”

Charedim, the professor pronounces, fear “the encounter with the world outside their own Jewish one,” unlike the true inheritors of the Jewish past, like himself, who “believe Judaism can meet and successfully encounter a culture outside itself and be strengthened rather than undermined by the contact.” They, he adds, “also have the right to be called Orthodox.”
If by “kosher water” Professor Heilman means filtering water in places where the supply contains visible organisms, that is something required by the Shulchan Aruch. Most cities’ tap water is free from such organisms, but New York’s, at least in some areas, is not. And applying codified halacha to contemporary realities is precisely what observant Jews, whatever their prefixes, do.
As to pre-war Chassidic rebbes’ visits to European hot springs spas, they were “taking the waters,” not attending the opera. (Contemporary charedi Jews, a sociologist should know, take vacations too.)
n this piece Rav Shafran works to reinforce the revisionist view of history that he and his comrades have worked so hard to create in the last few decades, a view that says that until the rise of Reform in Germany in the 1800's Orthodox Jews were universally identical to the Chareidim of today.
He pushes this point even more strongly right after:
What I wrote, rather, was that charedi attitudes and practices are those closest to the attitudes and practices of observant Jewish communities of centuries past. A familiarity with Jewish history and responsa literature readily evidences that fact.

In an “Editor’s Notebook” column, The Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, whom I have personally met and come to respect, defended the paper’s use of “ultra-Orthodox,” taking issue with my contention that it is pejorative. “[J]ust as often,” she contends, “it connotes something desirable, a positive extreme.” She cites “ultra thin” used to laud things like military ribbons and computer mouses. But people, of course, aren’t ribbons, and Ms. Eisner declines to address my citation of “ultra” as used in political discourse, the rather more pertinent comparison here.
I was surprised to read that someone as thoughtful as she would echo the professor’s peeve. To my contention that charedim today are most similar to observant Jews of the past she asserts: “[N]ot my grandparents, who were strictly observant Orthodox Jews, but did not dress, act, or think like the Jews of Boro Park and Crown Heights today.” The latter, she contends, refuse “to engage in the modern, secular world, to partake of its culture, acknowledge its obligations and respect its differences.” Charedim, she writes, do not practice “normative Judaism. Or even normative Orthodoxy.”
I didn’t know Ms. Eisner’s grandparents, but I am prepared to trust her memory. I’m pretty sure, though, that she didn’t know their grandparents, who I’m also pretty sure looked and lived much more like charedi Jews today than she might suspect.
The arrogance is breathtaking.  Apparently he knows someone else's family history better than that person herself.  Why?  Because they were Orthodox and since all Orthodox were always exactly like how the Agudah portrays Orthodoxy now he must be more correct than their own grandchildren.
Rav Shafran's citing of "history and facts" is duplicitous.  We have photo evidence of Jewish life in Europe stretching back to the late 19th century.  We know very well that observant Jews of that era did not dress like their Agudah counterparts today.  They did not wear black Borsellino hats as a matter of religious conviction, only if they were the predominant fashion.  Even the Chasidim did not wear the grand shtreimls that adorn their heads today but simpler fur hats.  The founding pictures of the Agudah show men in grey suits and hats, some of them clean shaven!  And yes, there are great rabbonim who were fans of the opera and weren't ashamed to attend a performance.
Rav Shafran would like the "Ultra" dropped from UltraOrthodoxy because he would like you to believe that his version (and presumably those versions to the right of him) are real Orthodoxy with everything else being a deviation from the genuine and therefore deserving of an adjective.  What he doesn't want you to realize, and perhaps he himself doesn't either, is that Chareidism is not genuine Orthodoxy any more than Religious Zionism or Modern Orthodoxy.  Torah observant Judaism has changed through the ages, slowly adjusting to predominant surrounding environments and cultures.  The Tannaim of 2000 years ago would stare in disbelief at the Yiddish-accented prayers and frenetic swaying that is a modern Chasidic prayer service.  The Rambam would like like an Arab standing next to modern poskim.  Not only that but when they came to compare their approaches to change and interactions with the surrounding society they would find today's Agudah crowd completely at odds with them in many ways.  That is the true fact that must be repeated lest the true history be swept under the rug in the name of false homogeneity.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Golus vs Geulah

Pity the poor Chareidi leadership.  Today was supposed to be their big day, their Million Man March (no women, of course!) in Yerushalayim to protest the demands of the nassssty Israeli government that their participate in their civil duty.  The warnings of mass chaos have been heeded, public transportation has been cancelled, hundreds of thousands of people have been inconvenienced.
And what happens?  Russia goes and invades the Crimea.  Really, who's going to pay attention to the screaming of the Jewish community's perpetual spoiled brats while real world events are happening?
One of the interesting things about the demonstration is that there are apparently certain Religious Zionist rabbonim, among them the important Rav Shlomo Aviner, who are intending to participate.  One might think this quite odd since Religious Zionism is very much for participating in Israel's national life including the army.  However, this is no contradiction and, in fact, highlights the area where Religious Zionism needs to act in order to bring unity and purpose back to the movement.
On one hand there is a problem with defining Religious Zionism.  It's more of a political definition and less of a religious one.  For example, both Shirah Chadashah with their partnership minyan and Rav Shlomo Aviner who is Chareidi in many ways except for his kippah can both be members since being a Religious Zionist is not about observance but about giving the State of Israel a religious significance.  Therefore there is no real contradiction to Rav Aviner showing up at the rally today.  On one hand he is very much a student of Rav Kook, zt"kl, in his belief that today's Shivas Tzion is heavenly ordained.  On the other hand he can appreciate the Chareidi community's angst and appreciate its claim that this government initiative is one that will wreak havoc amongst its members.
This is where I believe he might be missing an important point.  One of the overarching corrolaries of believing that we are now in the first stages of our final redemption is accepting that Judaism must undergo a metamorphosis, a reversal of the one that occured when the Second Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt).  What we have called Judaism for the last 1900 years is a truncated form of true Torah observance which, in addition to personal and community rituals along with a limited set of civil rules, lacks any truly national character.  True Judaism is based on such a character, one in which Jews are not coreligionists but fellow citizens participating in a joint national project.
What does this mean?  If one sees Judaism from the golus perspective things are easy.  There is a standard set of observances with no real "big areas" to deal with.  The shailos and teshuvos are all variations on a handful of themes. There is no real learning and chidushim are derived from smaller and smaller areas of halacha.  It is a familiar and comfortable model, the only one we've known for centuries and therefore, for those with strong intellects but little imagination, the only one that has ever been and must ever be.
If one sees Judaism from a geulah perspective things are quite different.  Suddenly there are all sorts of questions that need to be asked that either haven't been asked in 1900 years or have never been asked at all.  What is the Torah approach to a modern national economy?  How does shemitah get properly observed in today's agricultural scene?  What should the proper structure of the army be and what should the roles of men and women be within it?  What  is the Torah approach to foreign relations and international trades?  The environment?  Natural resource extraction?  For people with strong intellects and great imaginations this is an amazing area to bring the halacha into and see what the Torah has to say about the issues.  Such people, unfortunately, seem to be in short supply.
And this is what I believe Rav Aviner is missing.  The Chareidi protest in Yerushalayim today will hopefully proceed peacefully, make its point and end without undesirables incidents but the whole reason for the protest is what should separate the Chareidim from the Religious Zionists.  For us Judaism is about geulah and those who insist on limiting Judaism to its golus applications have to be confronted, peacefully of course.  Just as the Chareidim are passionate about maintaining Judaism the way they think it has been for centuries as a matter of religious principle Religious Zionism needs to see Judaism from its geulah perspective.  For us this rally promotes the wrong kind of Judaism and it avoids the obvious hand of God in history bringing us back to our home to rebuild our national life.  Leading Religious Zionist rabbonim need to be challenging their Chareidi counterparts to join in the endeavour.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Posek On A Stick

The recent controversy in the left wing Modern Orthodox community over women starting to wear tefillin during davening has generated a lot of responses from across the Torah-observant spectrum.  There are the expected weak justifications along with rebuttals to Rav Hershel Schacther's strong position against such practice. 
However what I've found most fascinating are the two blogs that have tried to respond to Rav Schachter from a most interesting position.  The position can be summarized as follows: I have a Bar Ilan USB stick and I know how to use it.
Years and years ago McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario created and championed a new method of approaching medical problems called Evidence Based Medicine (EBM).  The idea was to challenge medical dogma, things we had been doing because, well because we'd always been doing them.  Was there any evidence in the literature that certain physical maneouvres or treatments were of any value?  What did the literature really say about disease processes and prognoses?  Certainly a laudable initiative and it revolutionized the practice of medicine much for the better.
In fact the only problem I ever had was the slogan that one of its founders came up with: With a proper approach to searching and understanding medical literature a first year intern is as effective a clinician as a 50 year veteran!
Now if you thinking that the two men who came up with the idea of evidence-based medicine are soft-core communists who see merit, experience and achievement as evil dividers within society you'd be pretty much on the mark.  As an experienced pediatrician told me back during my internship, "I don't care how fast you are with Medline, there's still an art to medicine that only years of practice can give you."
With the rapid spread of the Bar Ilan CD/USB this "democratization" of knwoledge has come to the Torah world, or so it seems.  Yes, the USB stick is an amazing device.  It, or the Otzar HaSefarim drive, put yeshivos worth of books at your fingertips.  Searching the entire corpus of Jewish legal literature is as easy as a few keystrokes.  Thus someone who wants to find out about women and tefillin and whether there are or there are not permissive positions doesn't have to find the nearest Jewish library or yeshivah and spend days digging through the books there.  A few clicks and bang!  You've got your answer.
But to paraphrase that pediatrician, I don't care how fast DovBear or Rabbi Yuter are with Medline, there's still an art to paskening that only years of learning can give you.
See, this is what people don't understand, or perhaps just don't want to understand about the Jewish legal process.  There are big psaks and little psaks.  The little psaks are the kind every community Rav gets approached about, the ones about kashrus or whether something is muktzeh or not.  The big psaks are the kind reserved for those with more comprehensive experience with the halachic literature.  They are the novel situations for which there isn't an agreed upon answer or a quick b'di'eved to rely on.  The community Rav isn't going to touch those; he is going to ask a posek.
Now perhaps some of the blame for this current situation can be blamed on the "Gedolim".  Nowadays no one wants to rely on his community Rav, or so it seems.  If you have a phone number for a "Gadol" and a question, however basic, you're more likely to call the "Gadol" then your Rav.  After all, why not go to the top?  However I wonder if an unintended consequence of this has been to create the opposite phenomenon as well?  If we take every little psak to a "Gadol" why can't the big questions now go to rabbonim further down the food chain?
What Rav Schechter tried to get across in his essay was not a novel teshuvah, nor was it a missive as one description had it.  It was a reminder that a rabbi who was not near the top of his class cannot suddenly create a new "maharat" just because he thinks there's a need, or that a couple of high school principles can suddenly decide on their own to overturn centuries of tradition and let their female students wear tefillin just because the girls are sincere and really, really want to.
Just owning a Bar Ilan USB or knowing how to use it might give one unprecendented access to halacha but it doesn't make one a posek.  One might use it to ask better questions but unless one is at a level where one is qualified, the big psaks should be left to the big experts.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles Part 5 - The Hard Solution

A few years ago I was at a social gathering and someone commented that life must have been much easier for religious Jews back in the times of the Talmud and earlier.  After all, with all the chumros and minhagim that have developed in the last 2000 years or so that complicate everyone's practice of halacha it's no wonder people think it's too complicated to be Orthodox today.  Imagine what Shabbos was like before muktzeh and  shvus were invented.  So much easier!
One of the rabbonim at the gathering start laughing out loud.  Harder today?  We have no idea what it was like to be a fully observant Jew back then.  What about tumah and taharah, he asked.  Could you imagine living in a society where non-observant Jews weren't just snickered at quietly but considered untouchable before of the fear of picking up spiritual cooties from them?  Imagine not just caring about how kosher your neighbour keeps but also whether or not her pots are tahor enough for you.  And those poor kohanim with their constant need to keep pure because of terumah?  And that often wasn't enough, especially during those 2 weeks in the Temple and during the big holidays.  If you thought preparing for Pesach was a pain nowadays imagine what they went through to be ready to eat the Pesach korban in a proper ritual state!
I would go a step further.  Imagine a society in which going to beis din wasn't an option but an obligation.  Imagine all the institutions that keep secular society running.  Now consider what they'd look like if they were being run al pi halacha.  Simple banking transactions, your investment portfolio, your paycheque would all be affected.  What a different society it would be.
Now think about this: that's the society we as Orthodox Jews are supposed to be aiming for in Israel.  The ideal modern state of Israel is supposed to be one that is run al pi halacha.  If that is the case many questions arise.  Is the halacha as it is currently constituted capable of running a modern country?  Are current economics, politics and voting systems things that can be run by Torah?  Is contemporary law better suited for contemporary situations?
I'll give an example of the reason for concern in this area.  Years ago a Rav in our community wrote an article for a contemporary Jewish journal.  He posed the following scenario: Reuven sneaks onto Shimon's driveway at night and unplugs the oil pan in Shimon's car.  The oil drains out.  In the morning Shimon goes to start his car (and obviously doesn't see the oil puddle on the driveway).  The engine immediately overheats and breaks down.  What does Reuven owe Shimon?  Well, according to the basic understanding of Torah law Reuven owes Shimon one container of motor oil.  After all, that's the only direct loss he caused Shimon.  The engine break down might have been due to lack of oil but not due to Reuven directly.
Meanwhile over in contemporary law there would be potential financial penalties to cover the cost of the car repair and possible charges of trespassing since Reuven was on Shimon's property without permission.  One could make the argument that since there is a Judge and there is judgement Shimon shouldn't be upset with only get $10.99 for his loss.  If he has faith in God he'll accept this knowing that Reuven will get his.
Somehow I doubt Shimon is on that level.
I could get even more absurd.  A primary school rebbe is physically, or worse, abusing a student.  There are no witnesses and no warnings.  It's the student's word against the rebbe's and since the student is a minor he has no rights under halacha.  The parents can do nothing other than switch schools and if they do that they can be accused of maligning an innocent rebbe.  Of course he's innocent, no beis din has convicted him.
In the last few posts I've written about how ritual and the ritual approach to non-ritual areas still active in Judaism has corrupted our practice of the true faith.  In this post I would like to bring things to their annoying conclusion: if we wish to restore Judaism to its proper functioning state we need to start asking hard questions.  How does Torah law handle video cameras as testimony in court?  How about DNA evidence?  How does the Torah handle mutual funds and debentures?  How could a bank run al pi halacha and be successful without encountering ribis prohibitions?  What has to be done to get Reuven to pay Shimon for the full repairs to his car?
It is encouraging to note that the answers to many of these questions have already been dealt with by the poskim of the last few generations.  Unfortunately these kinds of teshuvos don't get the same press as the ones about how strawberries are all treif because of bugs no one can see.  What's more, we usually shrug in a resigned fashion.  Even if one comes up with a functional Torah-based banking system when will it see the light of day?
The answer is: in Israel it should.  The modern state of Israel presents the Orthodox community with both an opportunity and a challenge.  Neither has been dealt with effectively until now.  The opportunity is to introduce halacha into areas it has not been prominent in until now.
Consider the area of medical halacha.  Unlike other areas of non-ritual Jewish life medical halacha is a thoroughly modern, practical and effective legal and ethical system that is practiced by Orthodox physicians.  Yes, some of the principles are not concordant with secular liberal ones, for example birth control and abortion on demand, but they are developed, take into account the latest technologies and provide the modern practitioner with a ready guide to performing his medical duty while obeying the Torah.  Is there a good reason this can't occur in other fields like economics, finance and {gasp!} law?
It must therefore be the task of the Religious Zionist community to push halacha in this direction.  Over the last generation the former National Religious Party suffered from declining voter support.  Like the Chareidi parties with their narrow "Gimme money!" platforms the Mafdal focused on narrow issues of interest to the Dati Leumi public.  However, unlike Chareidim who have no sense of the bigger picture and will vote for their parties for parochial reasons no matter what, Religious Zionist voters have a broader view of the issues.  The average Chareidi doesn't care about foreign policy, the average religious Zionist does.  Ditto for economic policy, environmental initiatives and the like.  What the Mafdal learned too late was that they had to become a comprehensive full platform party in order to retain their sector.  With the recent electoral success of the HaBayit HaYehudi party this might change.
Naftali Bennett and his party, including their guiding rabbonim, need to see HaBayit HaYehudi as a governing altnerative, not another fringe party.  They need to be able to stand before the Israeli electorate with a full platform, one devised by poskim to be consistent with halachic requirements.  The more Torah gets into the legal area the more it will come to be seen as the comprehensive nation-running system that it is.  And if that happens there will be a return of ritual to its proper place in the grand scheme of things.
Therefore there must be encouragement from the Dati Leumi public to its leaders to begin pushing things in this direction, encouraging the developing of more Religious Zionist dayanim,  bankers and accountants.  In this way Torah Judaism ceases to be a ritualistic rote and becomes a proper way of life moving things forward towards the final redemption.