Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Wall For All Jews, Not All "Judaisms"

One of the recurrent sources of conflict at the Western Wall is between the Ultraorthodox community and the non-religious egalitarian activities, the Women of the Wall.  The Ultraorthodox position is that prayers at the Wall should be conduct in as Chareidi a fashion as possible.  The WoW's want to turn a chunk of the Plaza into a Reform "temple".  The irony of a "temple" beside where the real Temple once stood (may it be speedily rebuilt) should not be lost on us.
An argument frequently mentioned by the WoW's and their supporters is that before 1948 when the Old City fell into Jordanian hands, there was no mechitza at the Wall.  Therefore there is a precedent for mixed prayers and, if the mechitza today can't be removed, a section should be set aside at the Plaza for mixed services.  What's more, government attempts to find a compromise by renovating a separate section of the Wall, Robinson's Arch, are unacceptable since it isolates the WoW's from the main plaza and is therefore unfair.
Let's deconstruct these arguments to reveal how shallow they are.
Firstly, it is true that there was no mechitza at the Wall before 1948.  There is ample film and photo evidence of that.  However, there is a simple reason: the Wall was not a site of organized prayer.  This was forbidden under the British and before them, the Turks due to the fear of agitating the Arabs perched on the har haBayis above.  Jews could approach the Wall in small groups and pray individually and for that no mechitza is needed.  After 1967 the Plaza quickly turned into an outdoor synagogue.  In order to accommodate all Jewish worshippers it needed a mechitza.  After all, there is no law in Reformative "Judaism" that prayers must be mixed, just a strong preference while in Torah Judaism there is a law against mixed prayers.  A mixed plaza would exclude the Orthodox.  How ironic that those who claim to be excluded are the ones pushing for it.
Secondly, despite its commercial success we must recall that the section of the Wall overlooking the main plaza is just that: a section.  The section overlooking Robinson's Arch is just as genuine a part of the Wall.  Why don't the WoW's accept that?  Could it be that they're more interested in garnering attention to themselves and infuriating the Chareidim in the Main Plaza than really wanting to pour out their hearts to God?
The official rebuttal to these weak claims is simple.  The Wall is open to all Jews but not all "Judaisms".  A Judaism in which God approves of lifestyles His Torah declares to be forbidden, a God who approves of all secular liberal principles while frowning on those that have been the hallmark of Judaism for millennia, a God who thinks that the outside world encouraging equality for men and women along with the blurring of the distinction between the genders means He has to change His Torah, that Judaism is not welcome at the Wall.  Prayer at the Wall is not about pushing an agenda but approaching the Creator with humility within the parameters of halacha.
Once you drop the authority of Torah, once you change Judaism to fit your views, the holiness of the Temple departs and the Wall becomes just a wall.  If that's the case, they can pray anywhere else.  Why cause a fuss for us?

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The City's Not For Sharing

Today is Yom Yerushalayim, the 49th one since the miraculous day that the Master of the Universe smiled on our brave soldiers in 1967 and gave us the Old City which had been in enemy hands for almost twenty years.  It has become a tradition to publicly celebrate this momentous event in Jewish history and some of the events include a march through the entire Old City by Jews intent on reminding all its inhabitants that they live now and forever under Jewish sovereignty.
Naturally there are some people who are upset by that.  Of course  it's all in the good spirit of post-Zionist, Western-culture-hatred that these concerns are raised.  The same people who were barred from their holy sites for 19 years despite signed treaties guaranteeing them otherwise are not allowed to enjoy the fruits of their success.  This is intolerable, and of course, racist.
Now remember that the Left is actual quite racist but they cloak it under the guise of political correctness.  For Jews to talk about Jewish Israel is wrong.  For benighted Arabs to talk about an Judenrein state of Palestine is fine, a natural reaction to "the occupation".  So thus we have the Temple Mount, the Har haBayis, the site of the binding of our father, Yitzchak Avinu, a"h, but for them it's only one thing: the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site.  Jews need not visit.  It'll just upset "the natives".  And beyond that we have Yerushalayim, the centre of the Jewish world for 3500 years but hey, don't say that out loud.  It'll just upset "the natives".  We can't talk about how the Temple Mount is the centre of our nation but they can shout about their exclusive rights on all their loudspeakers and that's okay.
The linked article is especially weak, though, since its title implies there are two legal Jewish arguments against Jews demonstrating that Yerushalayim is a Jewish city, Old City and all, and nothing else.  The first is taken from the Nevi'im and claims that the reason Babylon was punished for destroying Judah was because in addition to conquering our ancestors they humiliated us.  From this the author learns the classic liberal lesson: you can win a war but don't you dare act like it.  On most other days of the year there are multiple neighbourhoods in the Old City that Jews dare not tarry in or even enter.  On Yom Yerushalayim, one day out of 365, we do and this is too much for the liberal mind.  Sure we won a great victory, let's go somewhere else to celebrate.  We don't want to remind "the natives" they lost or interrupt any of their "Soon we will slaughter the Jews!" speeches.
The second argument is even weaker, based on a statement that makes no sense.  The author claims that the only time the word "degel" appears in Tanach is in Shir HaShirim.  Unless her use of the word "Tanach" specially excludes Torah, she clearly hasn't read the first few sections of Bemidbar in which the word repeatedly appears.  In that case the Degel is entirely about nationalistic identification since each tribe is assigned one so that everyone knows exactly where in the camp they are entitled to live.  The degel, in fact, proves the opposite of her point.  It is the degel of the State of Israel, the Jewish state of Israel, that flies over Yerushalayim.  We should make no apologies for that and the locals should know exactly what the implications of it are.
All this goes without reminding folks that Islamic claims of Yerushalayim as a holy city are based on rumour and myth.  The greatest proof is that even those that pray on the Temple Mount turn to face Saudi Arabia, the centre of their religion.  They love the Temple Mount because it's important to us, not them.
We must understand, of course, that our Final Redemption is only in its earliest stages and that during this time we have to expect a certain level of imperfection in our Land.  We are not at the point where we can simply expel all non-Jews who refuse to acknowledge Jewish sovereignty and enforce halacha as the law of the Land.  Only the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu can help us achieve that and frankly, he's nowhere on the horizon right now.  However, we can realize the this is the reason we share Yerushalayim with others, amongst them our enemies, not because it's a nice liberal politically correct, pro-diversity thing to do.  The march is a reminder that although we cannot have our ideal situation we are still in a position to remind the others that God has given us through His kindness control of our Holy City.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Why Does Anyone Still Care?

When I first got into blogging back in 2007 it was an exciting time.  In the glory days of the Jewish blogosphere there were flames shooting back and forth between the pro-theist and a-theist gangs of bloggers who were eager and willing to share their opinion on the subject of God (He exists, by the way) and Judaism.  New blogs appeared on a weekly basis, people commented with enthusiasm, it was all kinds of fun.
Times have changed, of course.  As our society's attention span continues to shrink many blog essays have been replaced by the mental farts that pass for Facebook posts.  Most of the atheist blogs, having made their one point repeatedly about God and the Documentary Hypothesis (it's wrong, by the way) eventually dried up and shut down.
One of the few blogs that kept this flame alive is Rav Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism blog.  Over the years his interest in Biblical flora and fauna, along with his safari trips and interesting insights into the rational side of Jewish legal history, have kept people tuning into his thoughts.
Along with his ongoing efforts, however, there has been the dark side.  These are a cadre of bloggers who are obsessed in a negative way with Rav Slifkin.  While FKManiac has managed to find other targets to attack over the years, The Slifkin Challenge still seems to have nothing better to do with his life than misrepresent what Rav Slifkin writes about and then challenge it.
And then there's Rav Moshe Meiselman who has written a large opus on the subject of Torah and science in an effort to refute the opinions expressed in Rav Slifkin's now classic The Challenge of Creation.   Rav Slifkin in turn published a series of posts on his blog showing the holes in Rav Meiselman's thesis.  Rav Mencken, over at Cross Currents, recently attempted to bring Rav Meiselman's book back to life with a glowing review only to discover that Rav Slifkin was quite happy to take that apart too.  Since then attacks between Ravs Slifkin and Mencken have gone back and forth and I presume there are quiet phone calls between Mencky and Rav Meiselman in the background on the subject of how to deal with Rav Slifkin's cogent criticisms.
Watching all this from afar, I think the atheists were the smart ones for giving up on blogging and getting on with life.
I mean, seriously, what's the point of all this arguing?  Anyone who agrees with Rav Slifkin is not going to read Rav Meiselman's book and suddenly come to a totally new conclusion on Torah and science.  People who live in Rav Meiselman's magical universe full of unicorns and fire-breathing Chazal will not even touch Rav Slifkin's book no matter how well he presents his arguments.  Those in the middle, for the most part, simply don't care.
What's the argument even over?  Whether the Rambam thought Pi to be an irrational number and whether he learned this from Chazal and their supernatural knowledge of everything?  Really, who cares?
Consider it this way: I'm not a student of Rav Meiselman's and unlikely every to be.  I don't work for him, I don't rent from him and no close relatives of mine are likely to wind up as potential marital partners of his children's or grandchildren's.  The chance of us ever crossing paths is remote and even if it did happen, it would likely be uneventful, just like the time I crossed paths with Rav Leib Tropper (yes I did).
I am also reasonably certain that Rav Slifkin is in a similar situation vis a vis Rav Meiselman.  Yes, Rav Meiselman and his cadre seem overly interested in attacking Rav Slifkin but in the internet age these kinds of attacks have little punch.  Did they put his book in cherem?  Didn't hurt its sales and turned him from a well-known internet personality into an extremely well-known internet personality.  Are scores of yirei Shamayim suddenly going off the derech because of The Challenge of Creation?  To quote the immortal Al Bundy, "Uh, no Peg."
It all seems so petty to realize that this meaningless fight which leads nowhere and changes no one's mind is still going on.  Do they really not have anything better to do?

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Coming Dictatorship

One of the recurring themes in Hollywood movies about political dystopias is how the nightmare future is dominated by an extreme right-wing government.  Based on the world's experience with fascism in the 20th century, we are treated to repeated examples of right-wing groups, sometimes neo-Nazis, sometimes religious fanatics, taking over the world and forcing their views and ideology on everyone.
Truth is that while fascism had a brief run in the sun between 1933 and 1945, it is the extreme form of left wing thinking, communism, that outlasted, out-controlled and out-murdered any other system in the history of civilization.  The same people who think that communism wasn't such a bad idea are usually in favour of movies that tell us the right wing is an imminent threat to our freedoms, usually as they advocate for a diminishing of those freedoms in the name of political correctness.
In short, they try to distract us with nightmares of a right-wing takeover while the worse left-wing one is in process.
In Canada this has recently taken a large step forward and I do believe that most Canadians don't realize what has happened.
Several months ago we elected a new government up here in the Great White North.  After 11 years in power the Conservatives were relegated to Official Opposition status while the Liberals under Justin Trudeau swept into power.
Who is Justin Trudeau?  He is the faithful son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-1983.  PET was a closet communist who admired the worst mass-murderer of the 20th century, Mao Zedong, as a great thinker and philosopher.  He made common cause with Fidel Castro, a ruthless thug who turned prosperous Cuba into an impoverish outdoor political prison.  He looked down on the United States with contempt and only admired those parts of Europe that shared his socialist vision.  Through the introduction of official bilingualism in the government and civil service he worked towards achieving his goal of a Canada run by Quebec since most Quebecois are functionally bilingual while the vast majority of non-Quebec Canadians are not.  He ran up huge deficits annually to support his vast socialist projects as well.
And Justin?  Well he's on record as saying that a Canada run by the Conservatives is not a Canada he feels part of and that if Canadians continued to support a Conservative government despite being offered the opportunity of having him as leader he would support Quebec separating from Canada.  He is also on record as feeling that the Chinese government is the best in the world, specifically because its authoritarian nature allows it to do whatever it wants with Chinese society without having to worry about things like elections and popular opposition.
During the election campaign one of the big issues he hit upon was electoral reform.  Canada currently has a Westminster-style parliament with the country divided into something like 338 ridings.  Each party runs a candidate in each riding and the candidate that gets the most votes in that riding, even if it's less than 50%, winds up getting that riding's seat in Ottawa.  Given that there are three major parties and one minor one across the country, that means a party that gets 40% of the overall popular vote can easily get a majority of 55-60% of the seats in Ottawa.  Whether or not that's good depends on who's in power.  When the Liberals are in opposition they tend to remind people that the Conservatives didn't really win a majority.  When they're in power they like to point out that they have a majority of seats so who cares about the popular vote.
Now they want to change that system on the excuse that they want a new one which will ensure that any government got into power by getting more than 50% of the vote, a true majority.  They are proposing a ranked ballot in which votes choose their number 1 and 2 choices.  If someone gets 50% of the votes in the riding, great.  If not, the top two candidates make it to the second round.  The electoral officer then counts the 2nd choices of the ballots of the rest of the candidates and applies them to the remaining candidates meaning someone will eventually get 50%. 
This all sounds nice until you realize one important thing: the Liberals know from their polls that amongst socialist and conservative voters they are almost always the second choice.  Now do the math.  Say in a given riding the Conservative gets 40% of the vote, the Liberal gets 35% and the NDP (that's our Socialist party) gets the last 25%.  The Conservative and Liberal go to the second round and the NDP candidate's ballots are counted to tally up the second choices.  Given that almost all the NDP voters will choice the Liberal as their second choice the Liberal candidate will now jump to 60% and take the riding. 
The math works the same if the NDP gets 40% and the Conservative gets 25%.  The Liberal wins again.
What this means is that other than a handful of dedicated ridings where the Conservative or NDP candidates usually get more than 50% of the vote, the Liberals will take pretty much every other riding in the country.  Short of a massive flub, like say the Liberal Prime Minister having sex with a donkey on the evening news, opinion won't shift significantly enough to change this.  As a result we will have a system where every  4 years we have what amounts to a token election guaranteed to put Justin and company back into power.  Remember his comment about the Chinese government system now?
Justin has already announced that there will be no popular referendum on this.  He will force whatever he wants through Parliament using his current majority.  Naturally there is a 10 member committee in Parliament studying this and naturally 6 of them are Liberals.  Any thoughts on their conclusions?
My only question is why most Canadians don't even seem to care.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Happy Holiday

Sometimes I feel bad for Yom Ha'atzma'ut.  Nobody gets upset about Pesach or Shavous and everyone looks forward to Purim but Yom Ha'atma'ut?  People either really love it or not.  There seems to be no in-between.
To me that seems proof of the importance of the establishing of the State.  After all, folks tend not to care too much about unimportant things.  When something holds a deep emotional meaning to folks they do tend to express their care and interest, sometimes extremely strongly.
For example, whenever a gentile politician announces something like "I support Israel's right to exist" or "I support Israel's right to defend itself" people don't bat an eye but does it ever occur to them how stupid either statement sounds?  I mean, when was the last time you heard, "I support Nigeria's right to exist" or "I support Pakistan's right to defend itself"?  It seems only when Israel is the subject that such things need to be stated because otherwise they might be in doubt.
Within the Jewish People we find the same problem.  Support is there for Israel but on condition or begrudgingly.  On the left we have Reformatives who support the State of Israel as long as it's a multicultural, religiously tolerant, semi-socialist, non-religious entity.  On the right we have the folks who refuse to admit any liking for the State or its institutions but who betray their happiness with its existence by accepting all the tax funds it shovels their way (but without them having to say "thank you", chas v'shalom).
So as usual it's left up to the centre, in this case the Religious Zionist community to get it right here's what that community has to say:
1) The State of Israel is not perfect but it is the start of the Final Redemption, a gift from God to give us an opportunity to move history forward to its eschatological conclusion.  (Did I use the word right?)
2) The Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.  We have no allies, partners, folks we can share with, and so on.
3) Therefore, when anyone challenges the legitimacy of the State and of Jewish society in Israel we have to respond simply, without convolutions or appeals to their understanding.  God gave us this land.  Through His generosity, it's ours.  Don't like it?  Find another place to live, please.
Let us hope that this Yom Ha'atzma'ut is the last in which we have to accept an imperfect state and government and that in the coming year history will once more move forward so that we will see all of Yerushalayim, including the entire Has haBayis in our possession under the rule of God's chosen Moshiach.  Until then let us realize that Israel is our connection to God, our proof of His intervention in history and not accept the opinions of anyone who thinks less.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Part 3: Emunah In General

So far I have discussed my approach to hasgachas pratis and revealed that I am of a semi-deterministic bent.  I then followed up with the idea that bakashos in prayer should be focused on people requesting the faith to accept what is happening to them and to ask for greater understanding of their situation, not a grab bag of requests from the celestial catalogue.
As a result of those two essays I now come to the final part of the question: what is my approach to emunah in general?
The first source for emunah that I want to reference is that of Avraham Avinu, a"h, specifically Bereshis 15: "And he believed in the Lord and He counted it to him for righteousness."  Avraham Avinu, as we know, was promised a son and a great inheritance in Israel at a time when there was no physical evidence that any of it would come true.  Sarah Imeinu, a"h, was infertile.  They were both elderly.  Yet Avraham Avinu never doubted God's promise.
The second source is from the 1st chapter of Pirkei Avos which we just read this past Shabbos.  In it we are told not to serve God as servants seeking a reward but to serve Him as servants not seeking a reward and to have the fear of Heaven upon us.
There is also a third and final source I want to reference, also from Avos, which tells us that all people and things in the world have their "fifteen minutes of fame" as it were.
Combining these three sources with the previous two essays I believe I can provide a simple answer to what emunah should be.  Emunah should be a simple concept because it has to serve as the foundation for all our beliefs, inclinations and interactions with the Creator and the universe He created.  As a foundation it should be someone obvious and comprehensive that can be a common factor in all those things.
Emunah is accepting that God knows what He's doing.
As Chazal says, b'chol derachecha, da'ehu.  In all your ways, know Him.  That is the basic expression of emunah.  Accept that you were created by God and that you therefore have infinite individual value.  On the other hand, so was that slug you were watching crawl across your driveway this morning.  At some point, it will also matter in some way in the grand scheme of things.  Yet you are not the same as the slug.  You are part of the pinnacle of creation, one of the self-aware that knows that God is the Creator and that you are fulfilling a purpose, not just mindlessly going through your day working towards that purpose.  If you feel the need to speak to Him on a personal level, you know you have nothing greater to do that acknowledge His perfection, His need (as it were) for you to play your role in Creation and to request a greater understanding of that role but that overall you are part of His bigger picture.  This is the example of Avraham Avinu who, even though he was offered something his understanding of the physical universe told him he'd never have, did not waver in his belief that he would eventually hold that something in his arms and give him a name.  That is the standard we aim for.  When we reach it we see that we are part of God's team (as it were) and therefore our service of Him isn't for brownie points but as part of a universal effort to bring history forward to its final conclusion, our redemption.
It seems simple but for each of us it's a challenge of a lifetime.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Does Prayer Matter?

The second topic mentioned for discussion is bakashos in tefillah


I think a great place to start when looking at prayer is the works of the Rav, zt"l, especially the recently published Worship Of The Heart.  In it he explains the concept of prayer, its universal access and how to achieve avodah shebalev
To follow up on the previous post, given that I endorse a semi-deterministic position when it comes to hashgacha pratis I think it's fair to ask if I think prayer is effective.  The answer, as is common, is "that depends".
There are three types of prayer to consider.  The first is prayer that praises the Creator for His greatness, His gifts to us, His guidance of the universe and so on.  This type of prayer was set down for us by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah because, as Chazal note, if we were to try and accurately praise God for His greatness we would be at a loss for words.  We simply cannot say enough praises about Him to fully describe His essence and falling short of that full description would be insulting to Him.  Therefore we are limited to what the early sages and last prophets ordained as appropriate and acceptable to Him.
The second type is that of showing gratitude.  Similar to the first category, most of them are set out for us although there is room for informal, spontaneous "thank God!" exclamations in this category.  Again, we have much to guide us from the earliest sages and last prophets in terms of where to focus our attention and how to properly express gratitude for His endless gifts to us.  So far, so good.
The third category is that of requests and like the second category there is both a formal and informal approach.  We have well known requests in our daily prayers both for our needs, our nation's needs and those of the world at large.  This category, however, lends itself to the most individualism.  This is where the sick prayer for healing with an intensity that those who are healthy do not.  This is where the lonely, the heartbroken or just the child wanting a new bicycle approach God with specific requests for help.  Not surprisingly, this is the category that leads to the most disappointment.
As mentioned, I endorse a semi-deterministic position.  God has, is and will see all that has, is and will occur.  He knows how the novel ends, as it were.  For Him there are no surprises.  We, trapped in the linear flow of the river of time, must accept the idea of a past we cannot return to, a present that is always slipping past and a future we cannot know until it becomes the present.  From our limited position we see ourselves as choosing and perceive that those choices determine our futures.  However, if the whole plan is already in existence from God's viewing point, is there really a point to individual request-based prayer?  Simply put, if the grand scheme calls for that child not to get a new bicycle for some reason, is his prayer useless or even a cruel joke?
In response to that I would like to reframe the question: is it appropriate to pray for the bicycle in the first place?
Near the end of Berachos we are told a statement of Hillel's.  He notes that if he enters his city and hears the sound of frantic shouting he is certain that it is not coming from his house.  Taken superficially the story seems to lend a sense of arrogance to him.  He's so sure nothing could go wrong at home that would cause distress?
I have heard it explained differently though.  Hillel's faith in God, and that of his family, was so strong that no matter what happened there was immediate acceptance that the events in question, great or terrible, were an expression of His will.  The house could catch on fire, someone could plummet to serious injury, and the response would be "That's what God wants, no point in screaming because He is perfect and therefore this is for the best".  
It's understandable that most of us are not on that level.  I certainly am not, nebich.  This does not change that such a level is something we should aspire towards.  As part of that process we therefore have to reconsider how we approach God with our requests.  After all, to think that God is going to upend history for someone, no matter how much pain or desperation they're in, smacks of hubris.
The child wants a bicycle.  The sick person wants healing.  The grieving wife wants her missing husband to come home.  To turn to God and request a fulfilment of the heart's request is certainly understandable but if the negative event, as painful as it is, is part of the overall plan towards the greater good of Creation, should it be negated?  Again simply put, if the sick person's healing comes at a future cost of dozens of lives from a serious of events set in motion by his convalescence, should be still be seeking out his recovery?
Bakashos in prayer should therefore be of a different type.  In the spirit of Hillel, we should still seek out God when we are needy, emotional or desperate but the theme of our prayer to Him should be "Do what's best, I trust You on that, but please let me see the reason this is happening so I can understand Your ways better."  Such a prayer would, instead of causing disappointment, lead to a greater sense of faith in God and remind us that we all are part of the greater community in Creation.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Divine Intervention

So, off camera I've been e-mailing back and forth with a reader who has been asking me some really interesting questions.  Until now I've not published any of that here.  I was enjoying the private conversation.  Some of his recent questions have been quite deep and I began thinking that the answers would make good blog posts.  So without further adieu, I am going to try and post a few of them along with my answers.
hashgacha pratis, bakashos in tefillah, and emunah in general.

Part 1: Hasgachas pratis

I think that the term hasgahas pratis has suffered the same fate in the Orthodox world that tikun olam has in the non-Orthodox one.  Just like the Reformative have appropriated the latter term to mean anything trendy and politically correct, we seem to have taken the former and turned it into a feel-good concept.  Look, I caught my bus and made it on time to davening today despite waking up late!  Hasgachas pratis!  I was supposed to be on that flight that hit the World Trade Centre but I missed it because of traffic.  Hasgachas pratis!
From what I've read and understand, this is completely not what the concept is about.
Let's set down some basic assumptions.  We live in a four dimensional universe but can only travel in three of them.  X, Y and Z are all available and controllable but not T, time.  (Unless you have a TARDIS which I don't... yet) One of our psychological limitations is our inability to truly comprehend any entity which does not require three physical dimensions and one temporal one.  Yes, we have Einstein's theory of relativity and timespace interaction but on a practical, daily basis we are stuck with what we see.  We cannot conceive of an independent entity that occupies only one or two dimensions or one that can travel through time like we do over a bridge.
Furthermore, we accept as axiomatic that God, as First Cause and Creator, exists outside all of these dimensions since, as Creator, He existed before them.  What does that mean?  Going back to the previous paragraph it becomes obvious: we have no clue.  We don't know what it's like to live in a reality independent of time or physical dimension.  We can say that He has all of existence in front of Him; all that was, is and will be from our perspective already "is" in front of Him.  Just like I can look at a Rubik's Cube on my desk and appreciate it in its entirety.  God does that with our universe.  Can you understand how?  I can't.
This raises some difficult questions.  For example, if He's looking at all of existence all at once then what I call the future has, in some way, already happened.  Predestination.  But what does that do for freedom of choice?  I think I'm making a decision but perhaps I'm only playing out my role as programmed.  To support that position we have the mysterious statement of Rabbi Akiva in Avos, that all is foreseen but permission to choose is granted.  It's self-contradictory.
And if everything has been written then how can there be hashgachas pratis?  After all, if my catching the bus this afternoon is a fixed part of the Divine plan then how is my saying Baruch haShem! after running to catch it a sign of Divine attention?
It seems to me that we have to instead see Hasgachas pratis as a different concept.
Consider the final chapters of the book of Iyov.  In the book, as is well known, God punished Iyov even though he hadn't done anything wrong.  Iyov responds by continuing to believe in God but deciding that He really doesn't do anything for us down here.  We're on our own as He sits in Heaven and watches the Sunday football game.  Into the picture come four friends who, in varying ways, tell Iyov that God works in a linear fashion.  You sin, you get punished.  Therefore despite his protestations to the contrary they are convinced that Iyov must have sinned and he's simply living in denial.
Finally, after a lot of back and forth God Himself makes an appearance.  He makes it clear He's not happy with the four friends and how they've been insisting Iyov is some kind of menuval.  But then He turns his attention to Iyov and things get really interesting.
In a nutshell He points out to Iyov that the universe is really large and really complicated.  There are a near infinite number of pieces that have to be kept in perfect order at all times and a simply human being can't comprehend the complexity of the entire system, much less understand how it works.  In short, life is a lot bigger than us and we have to accept there is a lot happening out there we don't understand.
Consider this the next time someone else grabs that taxicab and, as you stand on the sidewalk swearing you see it hit full on by the cross-town bus.  Hasgachas pratis!  If you'd have caught that taxi you'd be dead!  God is personally watching over you.  Or was the purpose of saving you not because of you but because of a great-grandchild you'll eventually have who fulfills some important destiny?   If something bad happens, is it a swipe at you or one of the chess pieces moving in the grand design to put another person into a position to act on something?
Hasgachas pratis isn't about looking at God in a linear fashion.  Something good happened to me.  Hasgachas pratis!  Something bad happened to me.  Hasgachas pratis!  Me, me, me.  It's about understanding that despite running this incredibly large universe, God has assigned a role for each and every one of us.  Again, to recall Avos, there is no person who doesn't have a role in Creation.  If something unexpected happens to you, good or bad, it is a reminder of that.  Coincidences, good or bad fortune, everything might be meant and there may be a bigger purpose at work than can be conceived but you were still an integral part of that purpose.  That's the way I think the concept should be understood.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

One Objective First

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

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Get Serious Or Stop Complaining

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

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Dear Aaron, Please Shut Up

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

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Holocaust Fatigue

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

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How Do You Combat Apathy?

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

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Preaching A New Religion

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

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Reaching Up Or Bringing Down

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