Monday, 16 March 2015

The Upcoming Elections

There's something interesting about watching a car or train accident about to happen.  We know it's a terrible things and that quite possibly there will be horrible outcomes to the occupants of the vehicles.  We know it's not a spectator sport and that we should look away but we can't help it.  Our eyes are drawn to it.
Perhaps that's why all the attention in the upcoming elections in Israel are on Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud party.  If advance polls are right (caveat: in Israel they're often spectacularly wrong) Bibi is in for a drubbing and the Likud is going to lose its governing position unless it makes a serious set of coalition agreements work.  That's not impossible but it does foreshadow the possibility of an Israeli government controlled by single interest parties, none of them with an overarching national vision.
And the alternatives?  A bland nobody who got the leadership of his party that no one else really wanted and Israel's version of Hillary Clinton, a shrill harpy who thinks she's entitled to be prime minister because she's obviously the best person in the country for the job.
Now, one of the advantages of parliamentary democracy is the ability of the prime minister to dissolve his government and call elections at a time most advantageous to him.  This is what makes Bibi's decision to call an election at this time so bizarre.  Yes he was leading in polls but a seasoned politician like him knows that polls in between election campaigns mean nothing.  He had his two main opponents, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, under his thumb with Lapid spinning his wheels in Finance and Livni always off at some dead-end peace conference or another.  Calling an election over nothing was sure to annoy the public.  What's more, there was no real issue demanding it.  If it was over the threat from Iran, Bibi already had a mandate to deal with it.  If it was over the economy, well nothing much was happening to demand a radical change of course.  Other than annoyance with his junior ministers and their aspirations there was no reason to bring down the government.
Except for one.  Bibi has always been comfortable with having Chareidim in his government.  This is the first time since Arik Sharon's first government that no Chareidi parties sat at the cabinet table.  Forget their propaganda - they are not entitled to be in every government.  In fact, with its current makeup Bibi was the most free any prime minister has been in decades to bring in lasting and effective social change to Israeli society.  He could have addressed the crises in housing prices and the income disparity issues plaguing the middle class.  He could have implemented a near universal draft, he could have changed how funding for the intentionally non-productive segments of Israeli society are funded.  Instead he held back any meaningful initiatives and jumped ship the first chance he could.
Despite his excellent speaking skills and obvious passion for the security and well-being of the State, the prime minister seems to have overstayed his welcome in that office.  Yes, Iran is important but so is the day to day life of the average Israeli and that's something he seems to have no interest in which is why the average Israeli will find themselves with an equally dysfunctional two-headed hydra in a few days.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Pleading The Fifth

It's well known that the Chazon Ish, zt"l, ordered the Israeli sheirut leumi program to be considered yehareg v'al ya'avor.  As the story goes, when he was asked what section of Shulchan Aruch he based his p'sak on he replied "The Fifth Section" which is apparently an unpublished work available only to certain poskim.  In other words, Daas Torah.
I have a great problem with this story.  When it comes to conventional p'sak there is no question that the Chazon Ish was and remains a preeminent halachic authority.  It's when things stray into the region of Daas Torah that I get uncomfortable, especially when the reason for such a wide ranging and important decision is based solely on a text that doesn't actually exist.
I've heard other versions of what the fifth section of Shulchan Aruch is; the most frequent seems to be "common sense".  The idea that it's the repository for innovative decisions completely unsupported by any obvious precedents or existing rules is a completely different concept.
For one thing, halacha is supposed to be about conversation.  Ours is not a random dictatorship in which a small group of theocrats shout out orders and threaten severe discipline if questioned.  P'sak should be transparent and open to question and discussion.  We are expected not to simply do but to understand why we do.  Last week's parasha, for example, contained the famous na'aseh v'nishma which amplified on the preceding na'aseh.  Yes, we must follow the Torah which includes the rulings of the great halachic authorities but we have a right to know why we're doing what we're doing.  Quoting a diktat from a non-existent book defeats that process.
It's also another thing if it's someone like the Chazon Ish, a gadol who genuinely had the entire Torah in his mind, doing something like this.  There is a similar story floating around about the Chasam Sofer, zt"l, who pushed his halachic position despite his opponent having a more detailed defence of the opposite view and justifying it by saying "He may have the precedents but I know I'm right".  Again, that's the Chasam Sofer, a once-in-a-generation mind that towered over his contemporaries.  The idea that anyone labelled a "Gadol" nowadays is automatically entitled to the same deference is somewhat difficult to swallow.
What therefore should be the approach to such claims nowadays? 
The response is to ask "Was it political in nature?"  It is no secret that the modern day version of Daas Torah has been abused ad nauseum to create the fiction of a uniform halachic community in order to deligtimize non-Chareidi Torah observance.  The p'sak of the Chazon Ish regarding the sheirut leumi can easily be seen in this regard.  The Chazon Ish was quite involved in trying to define "Torah True Judaism"(tm) and part of it was overt rejection of the State of Israel and all its organs (but not its money, 'natch).  Once a decision crosses the line into politics it loses much of its efficacy.  Chareidi PR folks may huff and puff to the contrary but the bottom line is that they are not the only form of legitimate Torah observance and commands by their leaders do not apply automatically to Orthodox Jews outside their community. 
Why is this so?  It seems more than ever that the dividing line between Chareidism and the rest of Torah-observant world is the issue of submission.  For Chareidim it seems to be all about giving up one's freedom to think and personal initiative and living life according to the rulings of "the Gedolim".  I think that such a derech is not the ideal Jewish one and there is much support for my position in the literature but there's also some support for mindless observance, I guess so kol hakavod to them.
But to say that this is the authentic approach to Judaism?  Sorry, it's not.  When Chazal said there were 70 facets to Torah they weren't kidding.  For modern Chareidism eilu v'eilu mayu be verboten but for the rest of us, a debate regarding halachic and hashkafic issues within the bounds of Torah principles must remain part of our Judaism.
Thus the response to the cherem on sheirut leumi has to be "Why?  Based on what?  With what justification?  What precedents?"  These questions must be asked respectfully but they must be asked, and not just in this situation but in any that seems to take the plurality out of halacha and replace it with a singular political vision.  Only in that way do we actually preserve the authentic tradition.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Mr Bibi Goes To Washington

Bibi Netanyahu's recent decision to accept an invitation to address Congress during the current Israeli election campaign has certainly generated a lot of attention and controversy.  Time was that a visit by the Israeli prime minister was eagerly anticipated, especially Bibi due to his eloquence.  Like him or not, the man can speak well in English and knows how to connect with his crowd.
Due to my political bent I'm all for anything that pokes a prominent Democrat in the US in the eye.  I should be excited, therefore, that Bibi is coming to the US to remind people just how ruinous the current US administration's foreign policy with its near capitulation to Iran and timidity just about everywhere else is.
Having said that I don't think Bibi should take up the invitation.  It simply doesn't have much of an upside for him.
Consider what's happened so far.  Despite having told the White House about the visit before accepting the invitation publicly he has been lambasted for breaking protocol and insulting President Obama.  If that isn't a set up and obvious show of contempt by the White House I don't know what is.  What's more, he's coming to talk about something Obama really opposes him on.  It's been clear for several months that Iran's biggest ally in its race to become a nuclear state is the current US President himself.  Short of smuggling American nukes to the mullocracy, Obama has done whatever he can to buy Iran time and come up with a deal that will amount to an unconditional surrender to Iran's demands.  Obama does not want Bibi showing up and explaining, on national television in front of the nation's lawmakers, that Iran isn't an American ally-in-waiting.
Given that most major US networks are lapdogs for the Democrats Bibi will have a hard enough time getting favourable press coverage in the US.  What's more, he's in the middle of an election campaign back home.  How does it look to have him gallavanting to North America and acting as if he doesn't need to pay full attention to the campaign back home?  It's not as if Likud is a runaway in the polls and doesn't need his presence.
For these reasons I think it's better that Bibi perhaps take a rain cheque and stay home for now. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

The ER Guy

(With apologies to Billy Joel)

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday
The Regular dregs shuffle in
There's an 18 year old unconsious on stretcher 3
Seems he drank too much vodka and gin

Another says, "Doc, can you get me a pain killer
I'm not really sure what it's called
But it goes in the iv, pushed in quick and completely
And it's called something like "Shemerol"

La la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Give us a drug, you're the ER guy
Give us a drug tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for some ketamine
Because it make us feel all right

Now John down the hall is a friend of mine
He gets me my ketamine quickly
And he's quick with a shot, alwayts gets the right spot
But there's somewhere that he'd rather be

He says, "Doc, I believe my gout killing me."
And he pointed at his swollen feet
"Well I'm sure that I could feel all better
If I could get colchicine for free"

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

And the porter is running a stretcher out
As the paramedics slowly march in
Yes, they're brining another acute MI down
And three ankle fractures just hobbled in
Now Paul cirrhotic with large varices
Who still enjoyed 24 beer a day
And he's talkin' with Bob Stokes who still say that he smokes
Despite being on oxygen
Give us a drug, you're the ER guy

Give us a drug tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for some sedatives
Because it make us feel all right

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the nurse manager gives me a frown
'Cause she knows we've got no beds for all the drunken heads
So they'll be in the hall for a while
And the babies scream down in the Paeds room
And the hip fracture smells like urine
I've got four hours left in my night shift
And wonder what the hell am I doing here
Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Give us a drug, you're the ER guy
Give us a drug tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for some ketamine
Because it make us feel all right

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Relationship

Sometimes the obvious things are taken for granted.  Sometimes taking the obvious things for granted leads to trouble.
Consider what Torah-observant Jewish education takes for granted, for instance.  We simply assume God exists, that He's involved with the universe, that He presented His Torah to us 3327 years ago and that He still cares about us and is moving history forward towards a Final Redemption for our nation.
I've previously written about all those points but I find it interesting that when it comes to basic education most of those things are taken for granted.  The Chovos HaLevavos, for example, begins his masterful work with an extensive discussion proving God as we understand Him (for all we can understanding Him, of course) but this chapter is often skipped in major yeshivos.  Instead the educational process focuses on the acquisition of information, in many ways just like any other program.  It's not about inculcating emunah, it's about how much Talmud can you stuff into these kids and hope they don't ask any big questions.
Perhaps that's the reason not just for the OTD crisis but for the constant parade of frum Jews in the news for all the worst reasons, Jews who should know better.  For the OTD's it's knowledge without a point, rituals without a deeper meaning.  For those who remain on the derech it's knowledge for the sake of knowing minutiae and ritual by rote.  Where is the deeper ethic?  Where is the why behind the what?
The first thing should be an understanding of our relationship with God.  Without that, there is little point to what we are doing.  Keeping kosher just for the sake of keeping kosher is meaningless.  Keeping kosher as part of my relationship with God changes the spiritual universe in countless ways.  Which is better?
So let me make a suggestion of where to start: God is our Father. 
Now I know this sounds simple and I think it's one of those things that's so simple we know it by reflex but without thinking about it, like people who shout "Dear Lord!" out of habit, not a desire to invoke the name of the Creator.  When we say Avinu Malkeinu over the 10 Days of Penitence, are we really thinking of a father figure or just saying the words?
So I say again: God is our Father.  What does this mean?  It means He loves us.  What is love?  A desire to give to another to ensure that other's well-being.
Anyone with children knows that this is the secret of good parenting.  It's that unconditional love that overcomes the sleepless nights and endless frustrations because the child is always worth it.  It's also knowing that saying "No" is the way to show that love even if the child doesn't understand.
Too often we relate to God in an infantile way.  We want Him to help us when we need something but to stay out of our way when we want something He disapproves of, as if He's some giant cash machine in the sky.  This isn't surprising since, in Western culture, this is how children of all ages from young through to adult relate to their parents.  Gimme a roof, free laundy and food but who do you think you are to tell me when my curfew should be?  The idea that the child is dependent in any way on the parents and owes them something grates at the narcissistic nerves.   And like a loving parent who quietly grits his or her teeth, God sits up in Heaven watching and waiting for us to clue in to how things really work.
A truly positive relationship between a parent and child occurs when the child finally realizes that the most important thing in his life is the parent just as the parent has always known that the child is the centre of his life.  This is the level we should be striving for when it comes to relating to God.  Am I working hard enough to please my Father?  Am I doing enough to make the endless gifts He's giving me meaningful? 
Another benefit of seeing the relationship in this light is the closeness that it can provide.  Seeing God as a strict authoritarian, or as an angry old man up in the sky with a notebook keeping careful track of all our mistakes and waiting for us to screw up so he can add to our punishment doesn't create a healthy, functional Jew but a dystopian parody of one.  I can talk to my father whenever I need to and he will listen.  I can also talk to my Father and I know He's listening as well.  Yes, Chazal talk about the iron wall between our prayers and Heaven but God is omnipotent and omnipresent.  Open your heart, speak your peace and He will hear.  It's something we all need to try more often.
Thus a relationship based on a love and an acknowledgement of dependency which doesn't diminish but rather intensifies that love is what can tie a Jew's neshama closer to the Creator.  Teaching this would probably accomplish more than lots of what does get taught in yeshivos nowadays.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Keep Quiet and Change

There is one principle when it comes to change and the Chareidi community - don't mention it.
Like any other ethnic or social group the Chareidim change over time.  The difference between them and other groups is that they don't admit it.  While Chareidim today are different in terms of dress, behaviour and politics from their forebears 100 years ago the official line from the PR hacks is that, in fact, the way they are today is the way they've always been.  They do not change, after all.
As both Rationalist Judaism and Jewish Worker have been noting recently, things aren't looking so good for Israeli Chareidim.  Despite all the billions of shekels they've received over the years from the Israeli government many of their number live in dire poverty or close to it.  Socially the strain is becoming unbearable.  The fairy tale society their "Gedolim" expect them to maintain has become increasingly unrealistic and the stress is showing.
The solution, accepting that Chareidism is a strong movement that has nothing to fear from the outside world and thereby starting to integrate into Israeli society, is not a serious option, as least not for the leadership.  Despite their surging numbers and growing social structure, Chareidism still needs a persecution complex and sense of victimization by the surrounding communities to define itself.  Chareidim aren't real Chareidim unless they believe that everyone else spends all day every day trying to figure out how to destroy them.
Certainly the recent efforts of the Israeli government to force change had the opposite effect.  It only served to entrench the dysfunctional defiance that characterizes the Chareidi leadership.  In other words, the goverment's proactive attempts have pushed the situation backwards.
We have to remember that forcing change will cause a major disaster.  Despite all the disparagement of their learning there is no doubt that it is a large part of what sustains us as a people.  It is not the only things, as they might claim, but a large part of our collective merit nonetheless.  Forcing an end to so much learning would not be without consequence spiritually to us but even more so, imagine how many people will be lost to Torah Judaism through forceful interventions.
What should be the proper approach?  As I have suggested before there should be two main ways to deal with this situation.  The first is through rejecting the role the Chareidi leadership would cast us in.  We are not Nazis, Cazrists, haters of Torah, etc. and we should have no shame in saying that loudly to them.  The "Gedolim" need their people to think that everyone on the outside sits around day and night thinking of nothing else but destroying the Chareidi community and, by extension, the Torah.  We must forcefully contest this assertion every time.
But beyond that we must remember that there is a personal role to be played in this area as well.  Just as I have written before about the kiruv power of proper public ethical behaviour when it comes to attracting the secular community to a Torah lifestyle, it is equally important to demonstrate that a decent, balanced yet thoroughly observant Torah lifestyle is possible and not a rejection of proper avodas HaShem.  This is done at "the street level", not through political interactions.  Perhaps through these two methods small changes can begin to be made that will lead to positive results.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Imminent Collapse Isn't So Imminent

Over the last few days Jewish Worker has been featuring pieces on the mess the Israeli Chareidi community finds itself in these days.  I myself have previously noted that what is starting to happen among them is predictable and inevitable.  To wit: the first generation after the war worked and accumulated capital because that's what Jews had always done.  The second generation drank the kosher Kool-aid and dropped out of productive society to follow the instructions of "the Gedolim" that Torah-true Jews "learn, don't earn".  After sharing the Kool-aid with their parents they found they were able to survive such a lifestyle choice by spending their parents' money.  The parents, for their part, believed they were doing a big mitzvah in encouraging their children to learn full-time. 
But here's where the problems started.  The second generation had the first's capital to live off of.  In  turn they produced nothing for their children to survive on but raised them to believe in "learn, don't earn".  Now we had a perfect collision of non-productive folks with no money to live on.  Is there any wonder a crisis is now starting to unfold?
Over at his blog, Rav Slifkin wants to know if this debacle will induce change.  The answer, from where I sit, is in the negative for a few reasons.
1) "Learn, don't earn" has been wildly successful for the Chareidim until now.  It has allowed them to build a society where Torah-true Jews live a Torah-true lifestyle of learning without such petty things as worrying about who will pay the bills.  God (meaning the parents, some gemach somewhere or the Israeli government) will provide!  As anyone who observes cultures of entitlement knows, such groups never expect the good times to end and when faced with a reality in which they do they immediately retreat into denial.  It's always been fine until now and therefore it will continue to remain fine.
2) The brainwashing in the Chareidi community has ensured that there are now two generations of adherents who not only have no employable skills but also no motivation for seeking employment.  It's hard to go from sitting in kollel and being told you and your Torah study are the reason the world was created to asking if you can sweep up at the local convenience store for a few dollars.
3) This entire dysfunctional system was created by "the Gedolim" who, in the Chareidi mindset, are infallible demigods.  When the Chazon Ish, zt"l, announced "learn, don't earn" as a new compulsory way of life he didn't set a time limit on it.  His laudable goal was to recreate the Torah-learning culture that had been destroyed by the Holocaust but now its become an end unto itself.  No "Gadol" could ever stand up and announce the end of the program and a return to sanity.  Being Chareidi is synonymous with sitting in kollel and those Chareidim that work are used to being relegated to being second class citizens in their community.
4) There is no insight.  If Israeli Chareidism falls apart the damage to the Torah world will be incalculable.  Because Chareidi leaders have portrayed their form of Orthodoxy as the only legitimate one those who leave the community as things degenerate will not stop at Modern Orthodoxy or Religious Zionism on the way out.  They will simply leave Torah observance all together.  This is something we must all be desperate to avoid but the lack of insight into how Chareidism will be the main cause of the sudden surge in the OTD community is lost on them.
5) Despite the warnings, the money's not all gone yet.  The State of Israel, despite being villified for daring to expect some minimal gratitude for all the money it puts out, is still handing out free cheques to the batlanim.  There is still a lot of Chareidi money in the US getting sent out to Israel as well.  No one, not the Israeli government and certainly not the American Chareidi community want to see the horrible outcome the collapse of the Israeli Chareidi community would cause.
As a result those who are waiting for the headlines of a sudden change are going to be disappointed.  This stumbling is going to go on for a while with all the misery the enforced poverty of such a lifestyle demands.  That's a pity.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

No, You're Not Charlie

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings there has been a spasm of support from the world of journalism and the faux-journalistic blogosphere.  We have been encouraged to post graphics from the magazine to show our defiance of the terrorists.  We are all up in arms about freedom of speech.  There must be the right to mock religions freely without fear that some religious nutjob will want to shoot us!  The outrage is palpable.
It's also completely hypocritical.
First, let's look at Charlie Hebdo.  This is a magazine that makes a living by mocking, and it doesn't mock with any subtlety.  It plays to sterotypes, it stoops to low levels, it plays to any negative stereotype it can find.  Such a publication is now the vanguard of Western civilization?  It's like claiming Jennifer Lopez's semi-stripper performances are the pinnacle of Western dance.  Oy lanu ki chatanu.
After all, anyone who knows comedy knows that it's easy to get a laugh from mocking.  What separates the excellent comedy and satire from the good versions is the desire to avoid insults and denigrations.  Any stand-up comedian can get a laugh by making fun of the Catholic Church or insulting trailer trash.  It's too easy and should be seen for the cop-out that it is.
Then there's the journalistic reponse.  As the eloquent Rex Murphy notes, here the hypocrisy goes through the roof:
Where was this “we” when a video critical of Islam was mendaciously identified as the “cause” of the terror attack on Benghazi? Where was “we” when Hillary Clinton went on Pakistani television to declaim against this “reprehensible” video and revile its maker, and at the Benghazi victims’ funerals said: “We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.” Where was “we” when the filmmaker was arrested, while to this day the butchers of Benghazi roam the Earth unmolested?

Where is this We of the Hash-tags when whole swathes of the press, and some political leaders, refuse to call acts that are plainly terroristic by their proper name? Can those who refuse to say the word “terrorism” after a terrorist act now claim they are Charlie Hebdo?
And where was We of the Hash-tags when President Obama made the inexplicable declaration at the United Nations that “the future does not belong to those who slander the Prophet?” More than anything else, that sounds like a fulsome statement of accord with those who denounce cartoons and videos and editorials about the “Prophet,” who riot after he is “traduced” by someone in the West. There is no “We are Charlie Hebdo” in that statement. There is surrender instead.
And what about our prophets, of the Enlightentment and democracy, who made free speech the core of our lives and politics? We are notoriously timid in defending them, and almost tumid with the desire to speak up for those who despise them. Why do we wallow in some shallow hollow of factitious guilt, moaning over our failings to “understand” after 9/11, after Mumbai, after London, after Ottawa, after Paris this week, rather than laying the guilt on the real perpetrators and the ideology that fires them?
Our universities bleat about inquiry and free speech, but they are feeble and craven, caving in to protestors and special interests, pleading “sensitivity” and the “wish not to offend” any time some topic or speaker threatens to “hurt” the professionally agitated on campus. Where was “we” when a band of fatuous progressives protested former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice giving a convocation address at Rutgers University? She worked for Bush, so free speech be dammed.
Where was We of the Hash-tags when Ann Coulter was pre-emptively cautioned about what she could or should say by officials at the University of Ottawa? Where was “we” when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was humiliated and an honourary degree invitation revoked after campus activists at Brandeis University — faculty and students — protested? Brandeis mounted a defence of free speech that would have Patrick Henry drooling with envy: “[Ali] is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights. … That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” A Presidential Medal of Freedom for that wonderful “that said.”
You want to show defiance on your blog?  Find a copy of one of the famous Danish cartoons and post it on your blog.  Note that the biggest defender of Muslim demands for supression of freedom of speech is the President of the United States and call him on it.  Ask why a poster of an actor playing Moshe Rebeinu, a"h, clad only in a bathrobe and getting out of a taxi with his genitals visible and an art exhibit offensive to Chrisians are expressions of freedom of speech but it's okay to quietly avoid anything similar when it comes to ol' Moe the supposed prophet?
But more than that, demand civility.  Yes, we should have the same right to mock Islam as we do other religions but beyond that we have to remember to rise above mockery in general.  Saying you're Charlie Hebdo is fine but can't we do better than that?

Sunday, 14 December 2014


There's no question that Modern Orthodoxy is looking for an over-arching theme to describe its raison d'etre.  The Yeshivish community has Torah Uber Alles, Chasidus has its singing, dancing and rioting mixed with Tzadik worship and the Dati Leumi have Zionism and its religious implications but Modern Orthodoxy?  It's just sort of there, isn't it.
It's not a small thing either.  Consider the Off the Derech phenomenon.  Within Ultraorthodoxy it's usually due to a strong rejection of the comprehensive worldview presented to the person.  In Modern Orthodoxy, however, people seem to leave through attrition.  They just lose interest in their practice and drop it quietly.
Then there's movement the other way.  One rarely hears of someone Ultraorthodox embracing Modern Orthodoxy with gusto but there are lots of baalei teshuvah within the UO community that come from the MO world, people who were looking for something more, something missing in their own background.
Jewish Action has a piece that is now widely circulating through the Jewish blogsphere on a trend that might be trying to change all that.  Called Neo-Chassidus, it's an embrace by MO's of some Chasidic behaviours and rituals like growing a more Jewish haircut (read: longer peyos), more active Torah learning and, most importantly, more intense prayer ritual behaviour.
On one hand this is very encouraging.  Modern Orthodoxy, for many, is a system of religious behaviours devoid of any larger, deeper meaning.  The idea of dveikus is limited, prayers are done by rote and outside of actively Jewish environments like a shul there is little that an MO does that is actively Jewish.  After all, they dress like everyone else, hold down jobs like everyone else, often take in popular entertainment (albeit limited (hopefully) to appropriate venues) like everyone else.  A trend towards increasing specifically Jewish behaviour in all facets of life is something that might develop a positive sense of Jewish identity and improve one's connection to the Ribono shel Olam.
On the other hand, there's something missing in the entire activity.  I can speak from personal experience, living in a small community where, amongst other things, the local Rav has decreed that all Kabbalas Shabbos services will be done in the Carlebach style complete with the extra singing and dancing.  What have I  noticed?  That there are lots of folks who otherwise don't come to shul who will go to those services and have a grand ol' time.  But then they get in their cars and drive off home so what impact did the "davening" really have?
As a kiruv professional I once heard speak said, it's not about the fun stuff, the programs and the signing, it's about getting the person to show up on a cold dark weekday morning for Shacharis that marks real acceptance of Judaism in one's life.  If everything is done just for fun then once the fun is over you lose the person but really, you never had them.
Having read the article, that's what this Neo-Chassidus strikes me as.  Real Chassidus, after all, isn't just about the singing and dancing but about an entire system of religious and spiritual belief that expresses itself constantly through one's dress, speaking and activities.  It isn't something you turn on when you go to daven and turn off afterwards when you return to the real world.  It's also something you persist with even when times are tough. 
But Neo-Chassidus seems to be cherry-picking from the best of what Chassidus has to offer without taking on the hard stuff.  Lots of fun at shul but no shreimls or long, dark outfits in the July heat, for example.  Not much Yiddish either, it seems.
Why is this?  I would suggest it's because in North America there is a strong cultural trend towards selfishness that has extended itself into religion.  We don't ask what we can do for God, we rather want to know what He's offering us now to keep us interested in Him.  This trend has certainly infected Judaism.  The Reformatives and Open Orthodox are more blatant in their expression of this selfishness but it permeates all to way to the far ends of UltraOrthodoxy and certainly through Modern Orthodoxy.  We see it in the UO community in those fanatics who listen to the "Gedolim" when they want to but ignore them when they don't.  We now are seeing it in MO with Neo-Chassidus. 
I'm looking for a better davening expreience.  I want something more interesting to learn.  I need more spirituality.  All these are laudible desires but when the "I" determines what a person does, not his sense of obligation to the community, not the call of duty from Sinai onwards but a desire for novelty and "authenticity" (hint to those who call Chassidus "authentic Judaism": Rambam and Ramban were't Chasidim) then there is something very wrong.
In the end I doubt Neo-Chassidus will spark a mass movement in MO the way real Chassidus did amongst the masses of the alte heim.  In fact, once it loses its novelty it'll become a fringe group in MO we read about in Mishpacha Magazine instead of Jewish Action.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Encouraging Observance

I don't recall where I saw this before (maybe Rafi G's blog) but there is an interesting phenomenon to take note of when it comes to religious observance and Israelis.  To wit, the more the government enforces a particular halacha or area of Jewish law the more non-religious Israelis struggle to break those rules.  So for example the chiloni public constantly works to avoid Shabbat restrictions or find ways to eat chometz on Pesach. 
On the other hand, those areas where the State chooses not to intrude show very high rates of participation among the secular population.  The vast majority of Israeli males have a bris milah. Most Israeli families light Shabbos candles and make a seder every year. 
This is one of the ongoing problems of having a Jewish state where the Torah is not the law of the land and the non-religious population is the large and governing majority.  There is an ongoing dance between running a secular democracy and running a Jewish society.  The ones doing the dance can never have a happy result.  Push the secular democracy angle and the religious get upset over the diminishing Jewish nature of the society.  Push the religious agenda and the seculars shout about coercion.
But perhaps the two opposite phenomena above point towards a different way, one that the Religious Zionist community might be encouraged to push for at the national level.
The ultimate goal is to turn the first flowering of our redemption into the final flowering, after all, and no way is better than by moving Israeli society towards greater observance.  I would venture that most secular Israelis would welcome such a move as well if it were presented in the right away.  The "you're all sinners if you're not like us!" method clearly has had little effect.  Furthermore the kiruv movement works but only on a small scale and nowadays seems to barely be balancing the traffic out of observant Judaism.  What we should want is a society that embraces Torah observance out of love and desire to connect to its religious and historical roots.  Legal or social pressure are absolute contraindications to achieving this.
Perhaps then it's a good thing that Bayit HaYehudi is encouraging an electoral slate not exclusively composed of Religious Zionists.  The old Mafdal party failed for precisely the reason that the Chareidi parties continue to succeed.  Chareidi voters are sectoral, interested only in their own community's welfare so they choose the party that will best represent them whether or not such representation has a positive effect on the country as a whole.  Dati Leumi voters care about the State as a whole so a party limited to their community that doesn't have a holistic platform isn't as interesting.  If the Likud or Yesh Atid offer a better vision for the individual Religious Zionist then they would get the vote.  Bayit Yehudi needs to avoid that trap but without losing its Dati Leumi character.
What Naftali Bennett has to do is create a system in which non-religious Jews and even non-Jewish Israelis feel that they can be part of Israeli society while maintaining that Israeli society must have an underpinning of halacha at the government level.  This means proposing a government that publicly observes Shabbos and Yom Tov restrictions while granting a bit more liberty at the societal level to reduce the onerous pressure that drives people away from observance.  Perhaps a balance like this will move Israeli society in the correct direction.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What Makes A Tzadik

Rav Moshe Twersky, hy"d, is one of the victims of the recent terrorist outrage in Har Nof.  One of the eulogies given in his honour has been making the rounds on various blogs.  After reading it, I thought to comment on it.
Now before I go on I was to be ABSOLUTELY clear: I am commenting on the euology, not the man, may his memory be for a blessing.  I don't want anyone thinking that my criticisms are directed at him, chas v'shalom.  Having cleared that up I will commence.
The eulogy is quite disturbing if one reads it through and considers a few things.  Some of them are expected.  We must realize that it is an ikkar emunah in the Chareidi community to despite the State of Israel that supports, protects and finances them.  Comments in the eulogy assuring us that Rav Twersky hated the State of Israel and saw its true "evil" aren't so much a sign of delusion but an attempt by the eulogizer to shore up the Rav's status as a good Chareidi.  Recall that during the summer skirmish in 'Aza the Agudah also found time to express solidarity with Jews in Israel and thank the American army for providing the Iron Dome but deliberately avoided any show of gratitude to the Israeli army.
Similarly, the attack on Rav Natan Slifkin's book is also not so much meant to be personal but a reassurance that Rav Twersky never had "wrong thoughts" or wavered from a Puritan's view of how the Torah is to be literally understood.  Finally the eulogizer's claim that Rav Twersky saw full-time learning as the only real occupation of a frum Yid is along the same lines.  It's like a checklist is being completed.  Anti-Zionist?  Check! Anti-non-Chareidi hashkafah?  Check!  Learn, don't earn?  Check!  He was a real tzadik.
Now that's not the entire eulogy, of course, just the parts highlighted by Rav Slifkin for their negative content.  There is plenty in there about Rav Twersky's dveikus, his commitment to learning and mitzvos, his overal zrizus for a Torah lifestyle and all that is certainly inspiration and laudable.
But what's missing?  What about the man in his society?  Was he a nice guy?  Did he give tzedakah with a smile?  Did he greet passersby on the street, religious or not, with a sever panim yafos?  Did he wawit in line patiently?  Did he treat chilonim with respect when he had to interact with them?  We simply don't know.
Again, I'm not saying he didn't do all those things.  For all I know he was a genuinely friendly guy who worked hard to present a positive image in public and was respectful and considerate of all.  But I don't know that from this eulogy.  It's not in there. Why?
I would suggest that this is because, unlike the three characteristics noted above, all these things hold far less importance in official Chareidism.  Given the choice between a rude lout who's a determined learner and a polite fellow who might work all day and learn in the evening when he can, Chareidism far outvalues the former over the latter.  That Rav Twersky might have held the door open for the elderly guy coming into shul behind him is far less important than how early he arrived at shul to start praying.
How did this happen?  I blame the emphasis on mystical Judaism that has gripped the frum world over the last few decades.  Once upon a time the kabbalah, the neurosurgery of Judaism, was restricted to genuine mekubals, the brain surgeons of our nation.  With the expansion of the influence of Chasidus along with the spread of mystical books in modern Hebrew and English the mystical has become far more accessible and to the detriment of the nation.
Consider the following: a rationalist performs a mitzvah because that's what the Shulchan Aruch says he has to do.  The action is the fulfilling of the will of God as understood by our Sages.  For the mystic, however, it's an entirely different aspect.  The performance of the mitzvah with the proper kavannah involves the manipulation of spiritual forces and an  outpouring of Divine bounty as its result.
What's the nafka mina?  For the mystical approach it means a diminishment of the importance of bein adam l'chaveiro.  If I'm giving tzedakah to someone from a rational perspective then it's important for me to know how to give it properly so that the recipience benefits from it without hurt feelings or other negative outcomes.  If I'm giving charity in order to bring down some shefa from the Upper Worlds then the recipient's part in the mitzvah becomes far less important.  He's no longer a fellow human being I'm trying to raise up and support but a tool in my mitzvah performance.  He loses a chunk of his humanity.
Now real mekubalim are far smarter and more sensitive that that.  They don't lose sight of humanity around them but the amateurs?  If all reality is an illusion as some Lubavitchers claim then who cares about the feelings of the guy next door?  He doesn't really exist.  The idea of common decency disappears since it doesn't have any connection to the Upper Worlds in the absence of a specific mitzvah performance.
That's why the eulogy shows such a lack of interest in Rav Twersky as a man on the street.  For official Chareidim there is man and his relationship to God, nothing else is important.  That's why Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's piece on Rav Twersky contained this money line:
One of my sons asks his Rosh Yeshiva at the levaya whether a communal or individual tikkun is needed. He replies that there is so much in need of tikkun communally he would not know where to begin. But each of knows in his heart where he or she has failed and what is required to repair the breach between him and Hashem.
One could rightfully ask: Given that the Chareidi community has repeatedly vicsciously attacked the secular and Religious Zionist communities over that last couple of years with all manners of unacceptable insults, given the Chareidi community's protest a few months back at which the Shfos chamascha verses, usually reserved for the worst enemies of our nation, were shouted against the Israeli government, given the completely lack of gratitude the Chareidi community has shown for the State's nurturing and financing of what was once a dying kehillah, is it so absurd to believe that the effort on tikun should first be repairing the breach between the Chareidim and the rest of klal Yisrael?
For a community that doesn't see itself as a functioning part of that klal it might be too much to ask.  But that's what is the most concerning part of the eulogy for me.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Danger of Decentralization

One of the neat things about halacha is the way that it's set up to handle changing circumstances.  One of the not-so-neat things is that the great poskim of our nation often don't handle changing circumstances well and as a result the implementation of halacha suffers.
One such area of Jewish law is geirus, conversion.  Now on the surface it seems pretty cut and dried.  There are three elements to the process:
a) Acceptance of the authority of the mitzvos before a qualified Beis Din
b) Circumcison (for males only, please!)
c) Immersion in a mikveh
However, halacha is never that simple.  The decision to accept the potential convert into the process of conversion is up to the beis din and there are no ironclad rules there.  There is no obligation, for example, to accept just any old candidate who shows up and expresses an interest.  Certainly if a secondary gain or underlying agenda is detected the beis din is free to reject the candidate.  As horrifying and exclusionary as that sounds to some we must remember that no Gentile has an obligation to convert to Judaism.  Turning them away doesn't cause them any loss. 
(Frankly the way we're behaving these days it's probably doing them a favour)
Another important factor, tied into the whole agenda issue, is that of the status of Jews in the world.  The halacha seems to strongly imply that when we're doing well we're not to accept converts.  For example Chazal tell us that during the reigns of David haMelech, a"h, and Shlomo haMelech, a"h, conversions were not allowed.  Chazal were concerned that people would want to convert because of the benefits of Jewish citizenship, not out of a pure and altruistic love of God.
The establishment of the State of Israel, along with the integration and achieved equality of Jews in Western countries has raised this issue once again.  There are once again perceived benefits to being Jewish, especially in Israel where many people seem to confuse Israeli and Jewish citizenship.  Add to that in the West the rising rate of intermarriage, chalilah, and therefore the number of Gentile spouses seeking conversion to imcrease family harmony. Finally throw in the non-observant so-called streams of Judaism and their illegitimate conversion processes and suddenly all sorts of complexities raise their ugly heads.
That's why I think the new Israeli law meant to decentralize conversions will wind up causing more problems than it solves.
Now it's not every day (or month, or year) that I find myself agreeing with Chareidi political positions.  In this case, however, they are correct to insist that the central Rabbanut maintains control of the process.
Yes, there are problems with how the Rabbanut does conversions.  It has been co-opted by the Chareidi leadership and has imposed neo-Chareidi standards for conversion, presenting them as the authentic mesorah the same way they do in every other area of Jewish life.  Conversion candidates are often harassed or made to feel unwelcome.  The demands placed on them go beyond what halacha actually expects and the idea that they can be stripped of their Jewish status without so much as a by-your-leave if they fall afoul of even the most minor Chareidi chumrah is against authentic halacha.
But what't the alternative?  Decentralizing the conversion process sounds nice and it allowed other Orthodox  rabbonim, especially the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox ones, into the game.  What's more, for the most part those conversions will likely follow the Rabbanut's standards.  And yes, that's what the Chareidim are principally objecting to: a break in their monopoly. 
On the other hand the Chareidi sector is the largest and most influential of those in the observant world.  Pushing through a process their leadership objects to would lead to consequences such as automatic rejection of all non-Chareidi conversions.  We already have enough trouble explaining to Reformative converts why they aren't really Jewish and in those cases we have solid halachic ground upon which to stand.  How do we explain to an Orthodox candidate that a huge chunk of the Torah observant world rejects him despite his unconditional commitment to Torah and mitzvos?
The answer is to grow the non-Chareidi component of the Orthodox community through outreach and inreach until it becomes the most dominant sector in the Torah world.  This won't happen overnight and not without tremendous changes in the outlook of the non-Chareidi Torah leadership but it is the only way to end the bullying without simultaneously defranchising many committed Jews.  Until then the process of conversion must, for the sake of the converts and their need to be accepted by all observant Jews, remain centralized.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Who Writes What Matters?

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink tends to lean left, sometimes far left, when it comes to Orthodoxy.  His latest piece on the concept of the modern Midrash is a strong example of this.  While it's a well-written piece and certainly addresses a need among some it also has a gaping hole in its centre.
The Midrash has always occupied a difficult place in our literature.  On one hand it's not Talmud.  There are almost no legal statements in the Midrash and on the rare occasion that they appear we are under no obligation to pasken by them.  They are almost all tales, fables, moral lessons and elucidations of verses in our holy Scriptures.  Some are practical, some are interpretive and some are simply bizarre.
However it is important to remember that all are the produce of Chazal.  They are not simply whimsical storeis written by folks with a passing knowledge in Tanach to kill a few hours on a dreary afternoon.  They continue deeper meanings that are available to those who study them properly.
This is where Rabbi Fink's piece goes wrong.  His calling the movie Noah a modern midrash, for example, is ridiculous.  Noah is not a midrash. It is a Hollywood blockbuster loosely based on the original story.  Unlike the real Midrash it is not meant to teach any moral lesson.  It does not hesitate to alter the original story, eliminating or introducing new characters where the writers felt like it.  Like The Ten Commandments it may be a breathtaking piece of film making but it is not an accurate representation of events as they were.
Therefore his next conclusion that we need to be writing modern midrashim also needs to be taken with a large grain of kosher salt.  As noted above, the midrashim were written by Chazal, men who had the entire Torah, Written and Oral, at their mental fingertips.  They were also the inheritors of centuries of tradition.  Is there anyone alive today who is even close to that level?
Ironically I could answer that anyone who might be would also never dare consider writing a new midrash.  Once they have achieved that level of knowledge they are well aware of the complexity of the original and how silly it would be to try and reproduce that with any authority.
Perhaps it's the egalitarian age that we live in that has gotten to Rabbi Fink.  Years ago I read an interview with the author of a piece of fiction called The Red Tent.  It is an account of the story of Dinah and what happened to her at the hands of the wicked Shechem.  Naturally it was all made up by the author.  The title of the book is one such invention.  In her mind she recoiled from the idea that menstruating women were seen as somehow unclean during the time of our Avos and created the "red tent" that such a woman would be banished to.  In typical liberal fashion the interviewer and interviewee proceeded to criticize our Avos for doing such things even though those things were all the fabrication of the author!  At the end the interviewer wrote that she thought that this book was the same thing as Midrash since it was a person taking a sparse story from the Torah and fleshing it out.
Kind of like having the personal support worker from the nursing home performing an emergency appendectomy in the local hospital because, well the surgeon works in health care and he works in health care so why can't he also operate?
We must remember that real life is not so egalitarian.  If modern LWMO's want to invent stories to fulfill their need to have the Bible reflect their views then let them but don't call it Midrash.  That's simply not honest.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Control Of Torah

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

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Tool Or Guide

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