Sunday, 7 February 2016

Following Us Everywhere

The Western Wall is a controversial place in Judaism and not because of false Arab claims about the existence of the Temples (may one of them be speedily rebuilt).  When mentioned in news reports, the suffix "Judaism's holiest site" is often appended to "the Western Wall".  Thanks to efforts by the Women of the Wall and pushback from the Charedi community, what should be a place where all Jews can come and worship God has become a low-level battleground.
In this regard we should clear some important things up.  Firstly, the Western Wall is not Judaism's holiest site.  Saying it is both betrays a profound ignorance of history and validates false Arab claims that the har haBayis belongs to them.  The Western Wall isn't even part of the Temple but the last piece of the retaining wall which shored up the compound that surrounded the Temple and the har haBayis.  It contains the general holiness of the city of Yerushalayim but nothing more.  Over the millenia it has become a symbol of our national downfall and exile but when we see the Wall we should not think of it as a holy site but rather a reminder of what we are missing behind it up where the big golden dome currently sits. 
For centuries the Wall was a quiet site for Jewish prayer.  People came and poured out their hearts to the Creator.  Organized prayer was rare due to a lack of cooperation from ruling authorities over the ages as well as the Muslim propensity for using the small alleyway in front of it as a dump.  
All this changed after God miraculously returned the Old City to Israel in 1967.  As a reminder of the way things were we must remember that when the first Israeli soldiers reached it they had no idea what they'd found.  It was one side of a narrow, garbage-strewn alley and it was only after they found the actual har haBayis that the asimon dropped.
Today, of course, no one can miss the place with its open plaza and endless hordes of schnorrers intermingled with tourists and their cute little cone-shaped kippos.  Unfortunately, along with fame has come trouble.  
It is an inconvenient truth that when Jews of all kinds gather to pray and wish to be inclusive of all comers it is necessary for there to be a mechitzah and separation of men and women.  There is no rule in the non-observant "streams" of Judaism forbidding separate worship and there is a rule in Torah-observant Judaism demanding it.  Therefore, in order to serve as a place of worship inclusive of all Jews there must be a mechitzah at the Wall.  An egalitarian plaza would be a sign of a desire to exclude the Orthodox from participation or demanding that we abandon Orthodoxy as a prerequisite for joining the rest of the community.
This hasn't stopped a small group of malcontents from trying to upset the status quo.  The Women of the Wall has, for years, instigated riots through their desire to bring egalitarianism to the Wall.  Not satisfied with just that they have also waged legal battles to accomplish their ends.  And recently they scored a tremendous victory, or so it was portrayed, by having the Robinson's Arch section of the Wall declared an egalitarian plaza.
It hasn't taken long to fall apart.
First there was the usual protest from the UltraOrthodox community about the creation of a non-halachic section at the Wall.  This is, in my opinion, incorrect.  I will explain by way of a personal example.
I live in a small community, one in which the day school must accommodate observant and non-observant children in order to survive.  The compromise over the years has been for the school to provide a very watered-down limudei kodesh curriculum but to exclusively hire Orthodox rabbonim to teach it.  About 16 years ago or so a group of non-observant parents, not satisfied with this arrangement, began demanding that the Reform and Conservative rabbis in town be hired to teach in the school to provide their "perspective" in limudei kodesh.  After the leadership of the school refused these parents took their children and a chunk of funding from the local Jewish federation and started a private Jewish school all their own. 
At first this was seen as a terrible schism within the community.  We're a small one without any multimillionaires to keep us afloat.  (However we are currently accepting applications for one, please contact me at garnelironheart@outlook.com if interested and rich enough) Every dollar from every person counts.  There is barely enough money in the community's coffers for one school, let alone two.  Yet after a while we realized this split was a blessing in disguise.  The formation of this Reform school took much pressure off the main dayschool which could continue its hiring policy without any real parental opposition.
The Ultraorthodox community should see the creation of the new plaza in this light.  No matter how persuasive Rav Avi Shafran and his bagmen try to be, they are unlikely to convince the WoW to start davening in a proper, observant fashion.  The new plaza separates the two groups, reduces friction and allows each group to go about their religious business without interference.
The Ultraorthodox protest isn't why this deal will fall apart.
First of all, there's the Muslim factor.  The Waqf is well-known for supporting the destruction of archaeological remains under the har haBayis while hypocritically condemning any minor renovations at the Wall as an egregious violation of the so-called status quo.  They have already began to issue threats at this new renovation plan even though it doesn't affect them one whit.
More significantly, the Women of the Wall are going to ensure this fails.  Why?
There are two factions within the group, if you recall.  One group is non-observant and wants to bring egalitarian do-as-you-please worship to the Wall.  They are not interested in worshiping, per se, but in being seen worshiping.  Let one think this an unfair comment, consider that their leaders are already rejecting this new deal because they feel it excludes them from the Wall.  This is naturally completely contradictory to the facts on the ground.  The Wall at the edge of Robinson's Arch is the same Wall as at the Plaza.  If it's the Wall they want to pray at, there is it, but it's not.  It's the Plaza they want because of the attention to crave, the "here we are!" factor.  
The other group, the observant women who simply want to sing out loud without Chareidim screaming "kol ishah" at them aren't interested in an egalitarian prayer plaza.  The deal doesn't address them at all and rather implies they are secondary to the egalitarian group.
The biggest proof of their nefarious intentions is, however, found in the non-observant religious thinking.  Orthodox Jews pray thrive daily for the rebuilding of the Temple. Our davening is centred around recollections of its avodah.  We present ourselves to the Wall because of the Temple that used to stand behind it.  
The non-observant, however, are quite different in their approach.  Reform liturgy has never ascribed importance to the Temple or its rebuilding.  Conservative liturgy actively removed mentions of the rebuilding from its prayer books and even composed alternative amidah prayers to avoid mentioning the avodah at all.  You'd think that with such a lack of interest they wouldn't care much about the Wall and praying there.  yet they do.  Why?
Because we do. We, the Orthodox, have made a big deal out of the Wall, turned it from a place for private prayer into the world's largest outdoor shul.  Since the Plaza is national property, however, our treating it as our private place of worship others are invited to attend was bound to create acrimony. 
There is also jealousy, a driving factor in egalitarianism, protests against this idea to the contrary.  Let's be honest.  Yes, there are a small number of egalitarians who genuinely believe that they need to put on tefillin to properly connect to God but they are outnumbered by those who want to do it because  "the men get to do it".  On a large scale this is pushing the WoW in their agenda.  They don't want egalitarian prayers at the Wall.  If they did, they'd be already crowding Robinson's Arch.  they want to end orthodox prayer at the Plaza because it offends them.  They want the Plaza because the Orthodox have it.
One sometimes gets the felling that if the chief rabbis were to announce that all prayer at the Wall must immediately relocated to a nice felafel stand in the Armenian quarter that the WoW would follow us there and demand egalitarian worship while completely forgetting about the Wall.  Such superficial jealously should be pitied.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Selective Freedom Of Speech


One of the great hypocrisies of the Left is its selective approach to freedom of speech.  When a subject arises that they're in favour of, they are the first to scream if disputed or argued with.  They demand their right to speak, nay, shout their opinions and Heaven help the person who disagrees.
When it's a subject that they're against, however, they quickly change their tune.  From "I can say what I want!" and "You can't oppress my speaking out!" they move to "Your attitude is creating a toxic atmosphere" and "I feel oppressed!"  Ask any pro-life university students about freedom of speech when it comes to presenting an anti-abortion perspective on Western campuses.  Ask any proponents of traditional marriage about their experiences when they try to express their opinion.  The Left is quite clear - free speech for me, not thee.
That's what makes York University such an odious place these days.  For those not following the news, a large mural (shown above) currently hangs in one of the public spaces on campus.  This mural, created by an Arab student, shows the usual anti-Israel tripe we've come to expect from the Jew-hating lobby.  There's a noble so-called Palestinian armed with nothing but rocks, wearing his keffiyah and a backwards necktie adorned with a map of "Palestine" which naturally does not include Israel. (Syrians will be happy to note it doesn't unclude Golan either, but I digress).  He's watching a bulldozer, presumably driven by those nassssssty Israelis, about to uproot a beloved olive tree, the goal being to put a Jewish settlement in its place.
The reaction from Jewish students at York has been reportedly negative.  They mostly don't like it, some even feel intimidated by it but nothing has been done.  The biggest Jewish group on campus won't do anything to formally protest it either.  Keep in mind that York has a large Jewish community, one of the largest university Jewish communities in Canada, so large that York used to cancel the first two days of school in September if they coincide with Rosh HaShanah.  It also has a distinction of having had a few pogroms occur on its grounds.
But while the student leadership has remained docile, outside Jewish donors haven't, principle amongst them Paul Bronfman, a major donor to the university.  In the wake of discovering that this mural exists and that the university doesn't care about the offence it causes a significant proportion of its student population he has pulled his funding and donated equipment after contacting York President Mamdouh Shoukri (hmmmm......) and getting a milquetoast response.
The justification for leaving the mural in place is, naturally, freedom of speech and expression.  There is promise of a committee to study "inclusiveness" and "respect" and a statement from another flunky denying that the mural is a form of Jew-hatred at all! (Much like Der Strumer was a pretty ordinary broadsheet that just happened to report on legitimate criticism of International Jewry, nothing to see here folks)
Stop and consider for a moment.  Let's say a group of students approach the university with a different picture, one of a heterosexual couple standing happily in sunlight while an anonymous, obviously gay couple stare malevolently at them from the shadows behind.  Or perhaps it's a pro-life group with an obviously anti-abortion painting.  What about the trump card?  What if a Jewish artist produces a picture of the Temple Mount with the Temple standing on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock, the flag of Israel fluttering proudly above it and claims that it's not anti-Islam but merely critical of Muslim occupation of Judaism's holiest site?  Do you think for a moment that any of these paintings would be hung?  And even if, by some miracle they were, how long before they were either taken down or destroyed by "activists" in the name of inclusiveness and respect?
At York, like elsewhere, Jew hatred is freedom of speech.  Protecting Israel is not.  Rich Jewish donors should remember that before cutting their next alumnus cheque.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

One Wedding

Recently everyone seemed to be enthralled with the story of a wedding in Israel in which celebrants shouted "Death to the Arabs" while brandishing weapons.  Much anguish was aired across the press, both print and electronic, about this occurence.  As is common in the right wing National Religious community, there was much chest thumping and declarations of guilt. How could this have happened?  Isn't it terrible?  Isn't the National Religious community terrible by association?  The outrage was so strong that Rav Avi Shafran wrote a hack piece assuring us that, in fact, the Chareidi community had no connection to any terrorism or violence within the Jewish religous world.  (Pause for laughter)
While I certainly do not condone the actions of the celebrants or share their desire for open hatred of the Arabs in Israel, I would like to note something amidst all the wailing.
Yosef Trumpeldor was killed when he was 40 years old by Arabs back in 1920.  Ninetyfive years ago Arabs decided to kill a Jew not because he was occupying their supposed homeland because at that time Israel was occuped and ruled by the British and before them the Turks.  He was killed because he was a Jew that wished to live in the land of Israel and for the Arab community that was unacceptable.  No Israel, no occupation, just a small number of Jews trying to build a community and that was enough to invite death.  Ninetyfive years ago.
Since then it is impossible to count the number of attacks against Jews committed by Arabs in Israel.  How many people killed while riding the bus or walking on the street?  How many infants and children?  How many elderly?  How many gunned down while observing Jewish rituals?
And each time, if Israel, or its pre-State equivalent, dared to respond to remind the Arabs that Jewish blood isn't cheap, how many calls of condemnation or accusations of disproportionate response and war crimes?
Today in the so-called Palestinian Authority along with its sidekick Hamastan in 'Aza we are treated to daily calls by various political and religious officials to kill the Jews and wipe out Israel.  A major national or religious gathering isn't complete without the requisite Itbach al Yahud!.  (Kind of makes Lubavitcher meshichistim seem so benign, yes?)  But one wedding where Jews do the same and suddenly we are facing demands for a cheshbon hanefesh!  Our community is out of control!
One wedding against thousands (if not more) of similar acts on the other side.  We consign such views to the extremist fringe while they make them mainstream and extol their virtue.  Is there any comparison between us and them?
We have a further enemy within, happy to make unbalanced biased films in which a small group of settlers with a violent agenda are portrayed as the influential guides of the entire Jewish community of Shomron and Yehudah with the Arabs as innocent victims.  In the finest style of German World War 2 propaganda we are shown the ugly Jew and his insatiable appetite for causing the suffering of others.
We are accused of occupying Yehudah and Shomron as if there was no Jewish presence there until 1948 when the invading Arab Legion of Transjordan ethnically cleansed the area.  We are accused of wanting to regain possession of our holiest site of worship from squatters who act as if we have no connection to it.  These are the crimes we are accused of.
So let me say that yes: we are guilty of those charge.  I don't call for violence against the Arabs of Israel.  I don't want people going out and shooting innocents, adults or children.  Don't burn their olive tree groves or vandalize their mosques.  Such acts are not those of civilized people and if we truly embrace God's Torah then we must be civilized people.  Is it frustrating?  Yes.  Is it fair?  No.  But until Moshiach Tzidkeinu arrives and properly reapportions the land, removing the foreign element, it is a suffering that we must endure as galus ends.
We do not need to be suckers or helpless victims but the Torah demands of us that we remember our holiness and not let our zeal degrade our piety into fanatic barbarism.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Force Might As Well Have Stayed Asleep

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Unless you live under a rock or in Meah Shearim you know that the Star Wars movie franchise recently returned to the big screen with its seventh installment, The Force Awakens.  Set some 30-35 years after the events of the sixth (well, really third) film, Return Of The Jedi, the movie gives us a look at what has become of the galaxy in the wake of the destruction of the evil Emperor Palpatine and his Galactic Empire.
For some fans, this was an opportunity worth salivating over.  After all, it's been a whole ten years since the third (well, really sixth) film, Revenge Of The Sith, graced the screens of the local googleplex.  In that long, dark decade all we fans have had to tide us over has been one season of the traditionally animated Clone Wars, five seasons (and one movie-length pilot) of the computer-animated Clone Wars and one and a half seasons of Star Wars Rebels.  Really, it's been a total famine and there's no wonder fans were eagerly lining up for tickets and merchandise.
As viewers of The Phantom Menace, the first (well, really fourth) film in the series found up, there is no way to satisfy expectations of this magnitude.  George Lucas took a western in space and turned it into a semi-documentary on an anxient religious order and the trade regulations of a fictional galactic republic.  It was only momentum and clever advertising that enabled the film to become one of the top grossing movies of all time.
Now the franchise is owned by Disney, a company known for making safe, predictable family entertainment.  Director JJ Abrams was tasked with bringing Episode 7 to the big screen and was faced with two choices.  He could immerse himself in the burgeoning Star Wars culture community, read up on the major novels and comics that have detailed the history of the galaxy since Return Of The Jedi and built a movie that brought some of those great stories to life, or he could simply remake the seventh (well, first really) film, A New Hope with new characters.
He chose the latter.
What was the basic plot of A New Hope?  A plucky band of rebels, striking from a secret base, wage a guerrilla war against a much more powerful bag Empire led by a mysterious dark figure and his not-so-mysterious major domo, a tall guy who wears a black outfit complete with matching cape and mask.  The rebels obtain secret plans to the Empire's secret weapon, a cannon so big it can destroy an entire planet.  In order to hide those plans and get those plans to their secret base they hide them in a cute droid that beeps in a way no one can understand except a select few.  This droid is helped by a youth who discovers his connection to the Force and starts to build on it, a swashbuckling pilot and his pet Wookie, and an elder from the last generation who guides them towards their goal until being tragically killed by the black caped major domo. Eventually the plans are delivered, a squadron of X-wing fighters attack the Empire's super weapon and, with a lucky shot, destroy it.
There were some great scenes we will never forget.  Plucky rebel defenders lining a corridor as storm troopers blow their way onto their ship only to get cut down by the Empire's superior weapons.  The black clad figure striding onto the scene to check out the carnage and then interrogate the rebel ship captain who dies rather than reveal where the plans are, the wonder the youth feels as he learns how to use the Force and fight with a light sabre, all great memories.
Well I've pretty much just described The Force Awakens for you as well with one crucial difference - it's nowhere near as good.
Instead of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo we get Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron.  Yes, in this bold new galaxy last names are in short supply.  As opposed to Luke who struggled with how to engage the Force and master it, Rey simply discovers her abilities one day and a few scenes later she's dueling with Kylo Ren, the new major domo who has been practicing for years and beating him!  Instead of Princess Leia with her simultaneous need to lead conflicting with her relative vulnerability to attack we get Finn who covers his inability to do anything other than storm troop with bluster so transparent that a blind Denebian sludge bat could see through it.  Finally instead of Han Solo, a character carefully introduced and built up until you can't help but love the scoundrel we get Poe Dameron, a guy with some quick lines who abandons Finn after their TIE fighter crashes and then inexplicably shows up flying an X-wing fighter halfway across the galaxy.  Seriously, Finn was knocked out in that crash and Poe just leaves him to die in the heat.  How did he get off planet?  We never find out.
Then there's the new bad guy, Kylo Ren, or Ben Skywalker to his parents.  Points for effort on this one.  Anakin Skywalker was a good guy always in danger of being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.  Kylo/Ben (or Bylo for short, at least for me) is a bad guy always in danger of being seduced by the Good Side.  Darth Vader had son issues and the Emperor feared that Luke would transition him away from the Dark Side where he really didn't belong.  Bylo has daddy issues and Han almost seduces him back to the Good Side but fails because frankly, Bylo is a loser whose only shot at glory is through the easy way the Dark Side provides him with another power to stop a blaster bolt in mid-air, except for the one that Chewie almost takes him out with shot from halfway across a stadium-sized room.
Finally we have Supreme Leader Snoke, a name I giggle at every time I say it.  I mean, really!  Before we had The Emperor.  Yeah, his name was Palpatine but once he was in charge he really didn't need it anymore.  He was dark, his acting had gravity and he had a great presence.  And Snoke(giggle)?  Well let's be blunt: it's Gollum.  Played by Andy Serkis, we find out that Gollum is running the Empire and, with a galaxy full of force-enabled individuals the best major domo he can find is a dumb-ass kid who wants to go to the Dark Side so he can show his parents what's what.
And did I mention the introduction of a 1000 year old short alien with weird eyes and a knowledge of things like the Force that no one else has?  Except this time it isn't the voice of Grover powering it.
There is only one word to describe this movie: underwhelming.  It lacks originality, suspense or compelling characters.  I didn't see Poe as anything other than a minor secondary character even though he's the guy who fires the shot that destroys the new Death Star (they called it something else but I can't bother to remember).  BB8 is R2D2 with more marketing ability.  The "mysterious Captain Phasma" is a loser who, when forced to turn off the shields to her Death Star, actually does so instead of saying "I'd rather die than betray the Emp... First Order" or something meaningful like that.  And Rey and Finn?  It's been done.
All this proves to me that the JJ in JJ Abrams stands for Jar Jar.  It's the only explanation for how he's managed to ruin both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchise.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

And That's Their Red Line?

Non-religious and religious Jews in North America define Judaism quite differently.  For many of our non-religious brethren, Judaism is a religion like Chrisianity, something you practice rituals from when you attend "temple" on Saturdays and when holidays roll by but not a fundamental party of one's identity.  For others, it's an ethnic identity like Italians being Italian.
As a result North America has proven a fertile ground for groups such as Reform and Conservativism which present a Judaism that claims to allow a person to be a good Jew in the absence of binding obedience to Torah and halacha.  And then there's the Reconstructionists.
Like Humanist Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism can only really call it that because Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, did not take out a binding copyright on the word "Judaism" the day after bringing the Torah down from Sinai.  As anyone familiar with the movement knows, Reconstructionists reject pretty much about every fundamental belief that the Torah requires a Jew to have to be considered in good standing.  It really is a different religion with secular liberalism as its guiding role, not Jewish values.  As a result one should not be surprised to find their "rabbis" espousing values antithetical to Torah.
What I always find curious about groups like this is their red lines.  One you've dumped the Torah as an external, unyielding standard, why does the answer to any question have to "no"?  Why are there suddenly any limits other than those things forbidden by law in the surrounding society?
And that's why I was surprised to read this on line:
Seven rabbis have quit the Reconstructionist movement in the wake of an announced policy that allows rabbis to marry non-Jewish partners.
Several synagogues are also discussing potential responses to the new policy, the Forward reported over the weekend.
The policy was announced in September after the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted that having a non-Jewish partner would no longer bar qualified applicants from admission to the rabbinical college or from graduating as rabbis.
According to the Forward, one of the seven rabbis who has withdrawn from the movement is Rabbi Reba Carmel, who serves at a nondenominational synagogue in Warrington, Pennsylvania. She told the Forward that the policy allowing intermarried rabbis is “detrimental to the Jewish people in America.”
Really?  They've dumped Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpacha along with approving of lifestyles the Torah strictly disapproves of.  That's all okay for a Reconstructionist "rabbi" but to be intermarried is suddenly assur?  How does one justify this selectivity?  Encouraging assimilation is fine but living it to its logical conclusion isn't?
Perhaps this is another reason the Torah observant don't take the non-observant movements seriously.  When you have a"Let's make it up as we go along" method it's kind of hard to.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Here Comes Judah Maccabee, Here Comes Judah Maccabee

With our short historical memories, it's hard to understand the antipathy some Jews have for Chrisianity.  In a few cases it's based on personal memories of the alte heim.  For others it's a failed attempt by a missionary to show the "truth" of the so-called New Testament.  Finally, for the secular liberal Jew it's a simple dislike of anyone who pushes religion and a politically correct desire to live in a parve society free of religious coercion. (Save by a swarthy group of folks from a hot place in the world near Israel but I digress...)
Myself I recall as a child the habit some elderly Polish Jews had of spitting as they walked by a church while muttering "Sheketz teshaktzienu".  Growing up in a tolerant multi-cultural society replete with "holiday pageants" and no open religious persecution it was hard to understand the bitterness that still lingered in them.
That is, until you remember that the general acceptance of Jews into Western - read: Chrisian - society is only a couple of generations old and that before this change in attitude we were a disadvantaged minority suffering from different levels of persecution, often in the name of Chrisianity.  Fifty to sixty good years, yes, but stacked up against 1800 years of unremitting hatred, persecutions, pogroms, forced conversions and murder it doesn't amount to much time to cast off the old feelings.
It's also worth remembering that despite this cultural change and our general acceptance in Gentile society, that there are still lots of Chrisian groups out there that see it as their mission to convert us all into good J.C. lovers so that he can supposedly effect his second coming.  As anyone involved with Jews For Judaism will tell you, there's lots of money being spent on this effort.  Behind lots of smiles is an agenda that is pleasantly hostile to our continued existence as a nation.  As Chazal said, kabduhu v'chasduhu at the best of times.
Most importantly we must remember that Chrisianity as a religion is innately opposed to Judaism.  For all the talk from the Vatican and elsewhere about us being an "elder brother" religion we must remember a simple piece of logic: If J.C. was the son of God come to abolish the Torah and redeem us from our sins by dying for us, if only he who accepts J.C. as his personal saviour gets into Heaven then we are wrong by persisting in our observance of halacha and our refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his mission.
And if they're wrong, if J.C. was a prominent rabble rouser with messianic delusions, one amongst many in that era, if Saul of Tarsus, y"sh, invented the whole religion after suffering from an epileptic fit on the road to Damascus then it doesn't matter if there's a billion people who believe it, it's still false!
One question cannot have two diametrically opposed answers that are both correct.
This is why I was dismayed with several rabbis who identify themselves as Orthodox released a statement shortly before the holidays claiming an affinity for Chrisianity as well as granting it a measure of truth.  The idea of the document is amazing in so many ways but mostly for the groveling nature of its text which I am sure was not intended.  As just one example, consider this statement:
After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe… seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters
Mutual?  Really?  Perhaps that could be said of the first century or so of Jewish-Chrisian conflict before they took over the Roman Empire but ever since then the hostility has pretty much been one way: them on us.  The Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, all of these were not two way encounters.  If there is one side that suffered, one side that needs to be apologized to, one side that can safely sit back and wait for the extended hand of reconciliation, it ain't us!
After all is said and done, our response to both Chrisian and Islam can be summarized in one simple request: Could you just freakin' leave us alone already?!  Why do we have to beg for more?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Dunkin' Dames

When it comes to the three basic laws of Jewish family life it is interesting to note that one of these pillars is often ignored.  People love to talk about kashrus and shemiras Shabbos and often when deciding whether or not a couple is frum enough to be trusted when it comes to a dinner invite those two factors are often raised for consideration.  When we in the Torah-observant community compare ourselves to our non-observant brethren it is these two areas that are talked about as well.  "They" don't keep properly kosher.  "They" don't keep Shabbos.  If we're going to mekarev "them" we need to discuss those things and when they adopt them we can consider them on their way.
But there is also the third pillar that needs to be mentioned: taharas hamishpacha.  This is often far more an Orthodox "thing" than kashrus and Shabbos.  Many non-observant Jews keep a modicum of kashrus in their lives, even if it's something minimal like avoiding bacon and ham on principle.  Many also light Shabbos candles and make sure to have at least one seudah over Shabbos.  A far smaller proportion keep a reasonable facsimile of the laws of taharas mishpacha and sadly, a large number don't even know they exist.
That's why, whenever we discover a non-observant person observing those laws, we should pile on the encouragement.  The penalty for eating non-kosher food is minimal compared to the penalty for a husband being with his wife when she is a niddah.  Why wouldn't we want to increase observance of this mitzvah, or even just an awareness and some minimal behavioural changes around it, if possible?
That's why, when I read about women being turned away from the mikveh in Israel I get quite annoyed. 
I was shocked by this whole exchange. I could not believe that a bride trying to immerse in a mikvahwould be turned away anywhere. Don’t we want women to be going to the mikvah? Such emphasis is put on this practice in the Orthodox world, and here they are pretty much guaranteeing that this young woman would never try to enter a mikvah again in her hometown of Jerusalem. Why would she? Everything beautiful and holy about that moment had been ruined. I had been looking forward to the thrill of visiting the mikvah in Jerusalem, but this also made me feel unwelcomed. I was no different than that bride, as I did not have a document from an Orthodox rabbi that said I was ‘fit’ to enter a mikvah.  I did not have a copy of my ketubah to show that I was a married woman.
Now one must keep in mind while reading the article that there is one big criticism that can be leveled against it: the women writing it never actually experienced being turned away from the mikveh.  She heard about it, she experienced it vicariously through a teacher of hers telling her about it, she shared in the frustration of a Chabad rebbitzen but she never actually got told "You can't come in here".
Nevertheless the experiences she describes are troubling.  One of the problem with Israel have an official religious policy is that those with a little power create a big set of problems.  Everyone knows of the kashrus authorities who deny certificates to institutions because of political considerations that have nothing to do with their food preparation procedures.  Now it seems we can add visiting the mikveh to the list.  If this article is accurate, we're discussing women who are prepared to show up at the right time, prepare themselves the right way and dunk according to halacha.  Yet because of other issues they are being denied to right to do so.
And what is the limit of the sin being caused?  Imagine a non-observant woman showing up at the mikveh before her wedding and being turned away because she's not Orthodox.  Instead she goes elsewhere and performs a tevilah that, al pi halacha, is not sufficient.  She goes and gets married and her husband is now guilty of intercourse with a niddah.  Tell me, on whose head does that sin actually go?
This is something that needs to be protested.  Behaviour is not changed through intimidation or insults.  It is changed through encouragement and positive examples, something we must insist on from our comrades.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Dying Society

More and more jurisdictions across North America are embracing the latest nihilistic trend in medical decision making - euthanasia.  Multiple states, led by Oregon, have legalized it under specific circumstances and last year the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the federal law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide after deciding that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  
As the situation currently stands, the old law remains in place for another month or so.  The current government has asked the Court for an extension so it can craft a new law before the old one expires.  If the extension is not granted, or even if it is but the government can't pass a satisfactory new law, Canada will be without any law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide, much like it has lacked any law regulating abortion since the old one was struck down by the Supreme Court back in the 1980's.
The results of this development are either enlightening or frightening, depending on which side of the debate you sit.  For those who hold that God gives life and only He can take it away, this is a tragedy and another step towards civilized barbarism as Western society sinks into cultural decay.  For those who see nothing sacred in life this is a great step forward.  For decades we've been able to kill unborn babies without consequences (at least none that we're allowed to talk about).  Now we can proudly add the terminally ill to the list.
But will the list end there?  Already in Europe, the pioneering area in euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide has expanded to include children with disabilities, people with prolonged but not necessarily terminal illnesses and even the very depressed in some places.  In the absence of a law in Canada, will the initial "Only for the terminally ill and those with intractable pain" quickly expand to other indications?
Consider how the definition of death changed in Western society in the late 20th century and you'll see a reason to shudder.  The former definition was a strict one, quite close to one of the mainstream positions in Jewish law in requiring cessation of cardiorespiratory function.  Faced with a need for organ transplants and a lack of organs due to this definition, ethicists in the 1970's and 80's changed it to one requiring brain death only, not brain stem death or cessation of cardiac function.  This had the beneficial effect of allowing doctors to pronounce people dead even thought they would have previously been considered to be alive and thus increased the availability of organs for transplant.  
Currently Western society considers it a sign of mental illness to desire suicide.  We hospitalize people against their will when they try (and fail, of course).  Well, what happens when we change the definition?  Let me present the following one for your perusal: Suicide is wrong when attempted by a person with no physical or mental illness that might reasonably encourage him to want to kill himself.
Imagine that definition going into play.  It sounds nice in that it creates a category of people for whom suicide would be considered wrong but the minute someone tries to kill themselves it becomes evident that they have a mental illness that encourages them to want to kill themselves.  
Part of this drive takes place in the shadow of Western society's growing aversion to any kind of suffering.  We want to live without pain, without illness, without disability and see any of those three things as intolerable affronts to our pursuit of personal fulfillment.  A life not free of these things is not a life worth living, according to this popular way of thinking.
In typical decadent Western fashion, it won't be the patients ending their lives themselves.  No, they'll get their physicians to do it for them.  They don't want to suffer and they don't want to lift the syringe either.  They want to sit back and passively exit life without even taking the final responsibility for the moment it happens.  
And where are the red lines?  If people will end-stage cancer and ALS can request that their doctors kill them, why can't people with dementia, severe depression or just good old fashioned loneliness?  Any red lines would be arbitrary and ultimately moved to accommodate societal desires.
As an Orthodox physician I tremble at the thought of this coming to pass.  Engaged as we are in a low level culture war between religious and secular liberal forces, this will play out for me on a personal level.  Halacha is very clear on this issue: I am forbidden to participate in any way in physician-assisted suicide (even of socialists and communists, nebich).  That means that I cannot even refer a patient to  physician willing to kill them if I won't do it myself.  On the other hand, the political correct regulatory authority that issues my licence to practice medicine has, over vociferous protests and objections, announced that it expected physicians either to kill their patients on request or to make arranged to find a doctor who will.  Refusal to help kill patients would result in disciplinary action and possible loss of right to practice medicine.  What's a God fearing Jew to do?
Well the answer to that is evident, isn't it.  But it's the bigger picture here that should scare us all: a society that has no interest in living with adversity will eventually lose its will to live at all.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Conservative Future

For a few decades now, the Conservative movement in Judaism has had identity problems.  Despite its large numbers on paper it has struggled to define itself against its opponents on the left, the Reformers, and the right, the Orthodox.  As a result it has struggled to define itself and to justify to much of its membership the reasons for continued loyalty even as its membership rolls shrank.
This shouldn't be a surprise for anyone.  Historically, Conservatism did best when two societal factors worked in its favour.  First, in the post-World War 2 era there was a revulsion towards nationalism and rigid ideology in North America.  Bland was better.  While Reform offered nothing Jewish in particular, Conservatism offered Jewish observance without the unyielding aspects that made proper Torah observance, Orthodoxy, into a seeming anachronism.  People didn't want extremes and with its middle-of-the-road approach, Conservatism was well positions to appeal to a large number of North American Jews.
The second factor in its favour was Orthodox weakness both before and after the war.  Orthodoxy had a rocky history in the New World since, back in the alte heim, most Orthodox Jews were observant more out of habit and lack of options than out of firm conviction.  Immigrants to North America often left their tefillin on the boat after arriving at Ellis Island, eager to leave the entire Old World behind.  This only accelerated after World War 2 given the horrifying conditions the Jews coming to North America had just experienced.  Again, Conservatism was in a position to appeal to many of the newcomers.  It provided a warm and nostalgic environment through its traditional approach to ritual while avoiding the rigidity that Orthodoxy had often enforced back in Europe.
What's doing the Conservatives in now is a radical change in both those factors.  For one thing, society in North America is now dividing in two different ways.  The first is the growing gap between the involved and the apathetic.  The proportion of people who somewhat care about the big issues in things like religion and politics is shrinking while the two opposite poles, the apathetics who have given up interest and the involved, who are obsessed with those issues, are filling the gap.  The push to extremes is further happening between the political and religious left and right with the number of people in the centre looking for a middling approach shrinking.
The other things is the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  From a movement threatened with extinction following the Holocaust, it has become the dominent group within the Jewish community from a religious perspective.  While the absolute numbers are small, the stuff that matters like ensuring proper Jewish education and continuity are being done well.  Reform and Conservative may have far more young people but 75% of them are going to intermarry and be lost to our nation.  The number of Orthodox who will leave and intermarry is far smaller.  As the community grows so do the number of schools and yeshivos as well as the number of Orthodox employed in general society and therefore exposing the world to the idea that one can be Torah observant and a functional member of society.
In short, if you care about religion you're either going to go to the left and be in Reform or you're going to go to the right and become Orthodox.  Very few will be enthusiastic about something that defines itself as going halfway.
So what's the movement to do?  Well so far it seems to have done everything wrong.  Desperate to shore up the bleeding, it has moved itself so far to the left that it has become almost indistinguishable in religious practice from the Reformers it once opposed.  Like Reform, Conservatism has allowed secular liberal values to replace those Torah values it once approved of.  There is still an emphasis on ritual, albeit watered down from what it used to practice but not enough to really grab anyone serious about practising Judaism. 
This article from jta.org suggests that Conservatism has two possible options.  One is to capitulate and accept that Reform and Conservatism are virtually identical.  This would lead to a merger between the two groups with a subsequent possible division within the group to cater to each set of followers while maintaining an overall unity.
The alternative the writer suggests is far more fascinating but less plausible and that's for Conservatism to get back to its roots - a movement that encourages a limited practice of traditional ritual and personal behaviour tempered by secular mores but with a serious demand that those limited requirements are strictly practiced.
With all respect to the small cadre of Conservatives who are really passionate and observant when it comes to the religion Solomon Shechter invented, I don't think the latter option is feasible.  Buildings cost money.  Clergy cost money.  Programs cost money.  A smaller Conservative movement will enter a death spiral in which dues, not able to keep up with the costs, will rise.  This will drive more members away to cheaper options, raising the costs, causing the due to rise, and so on.
The former option is far more likely for one simple reason: the biggest difference between Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox is membership requirements.  To be an Orthodox Jew one must keep kosher, Shabbos, put on tefillin everyday, etc.  To be a Conservative or Reform Jew one must take out a membership in one of their "temples".  Period.  Until Conservatism can manage to build up the intestinal fortitude to limit their membership, to say to people who don't keep kosher or daven regularly that no, they cannot call themselves Conservatives, they will simply progress downwards towards Reform until the only thing preventing the merger is the collection of egos in both movements.
Once that happens it will at least be a simpler divide to manage.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

To Giggle Or To Encourage?

This here story from jta.org didn't get the attention I think it should of.  For a quick summary, it seems that out there in the Reformative world there are now an increasing, albeit still small, number of men who are making a routine of going to the mikveh.  As the article notes:
Ozur Bass is one of a small but growing number of Jewish men who have adopted the practice of monthly mikvah immersions in tandem with their wives’ menstrual cycles.
Mikvah use by men is not new. Men long have gone to the mikvah before their weddings, and some visit the mikvah as spiritual preparation before major holidays. Many Hasidim immerse before every Sabbath. Jewish law requires mikvah immersion – for men and women – as part of the conversion process.
In recent years, American Jews also have begun using mikvah immersions to mark milestone occasions like bar or bat mitzvahs, miscarriages or divorce. Some couples go to the mikvah when they’re trying to conceive.
But regular monthly mikvah use by men in correlation with their partners’ cycles, known in Hebrew as niddah, has been almost unheard of.
Naomi Malka, the mikvah director at Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, said a core group of about 10 men have begun to do it off and on. Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in the Boston area, has had 18 men use the facility for monthly immersions since it opened in 2004, according to the organization’s records.
“It’s becoming increasingly common,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “When we talk about egalitarian practice in Judaism, our minds immediately go to women’s practice. I think it’s exciting and interesting to see men taking on practices that traditionally have been the domain of women.”
To be sure, monthly male mikvah use is still a fringe phenomenon. But its emergence is a sign of the degree to which modern Jews are reimagining traditional rituals, the lengths to which some couples are going to practice egalitarian values and the rising interest in mikvah use generally among American Jews.
Keep in mind throughout this discussion that there is no obligatory reason nowadays for a man to go to the mikveh.  Yes, many of us have the custom of going on the eve of Yom Kippur, some on Fridays and many Chasidim on a daily basis but while it may serve a spiritual need it effects no practical change in one's status.  And it seems it's the spiritual needs, or possibly the faux spiritual needs, that this new trend seems to serve.
When it comes to egalitarianism this is not the first attempt by the Reformatives to invent rituals.  Years ago I recall reading a story about a new ceremony invented to be performed on the eighth day after the birth of a daughter.  The folks involve felt it wasn't fair that boys got a whole party just for turning eight days old so they decided to produce something for their girls.  Of course, they didn't lop off any parts from the girls so perhaps they weren't that dedicated to egalitarianism but still, the desire was there.
And what was the point?  It seemed to be to prove that commercialism and superficiality as a means towards spirituality was what was driving them.  After all, a bris milah is not about the party or the catering but about the surgical procedure and legal obligation it fulfills.  By insisting that a similar party, sans the snip 'n' clip, had some meaning, the Reformatives seemed to be proving that their religious practice is simply about making things up as you go along to feel good.  The way they present it also seems to betray a lack of acceptance of the legal requirement for going to the mikveh, making it into a family cultural practice they just happen to do.
Michael, a 29-year-old man in the Boston area who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told JTA he began going to the mikvah every month at the request of his fiancee when they moved in together.
“She said that since we’re living together now, she wanted to go to the mikvah every month, as that was her mother’s practice and her family’s practice,” Michael said. “I knew the concept, but I honestly didn’t know much about it.”
One could easily level that criticism here and not just at the part about both members of the couple going to the mikveh together before marriage.  A woman goes to the mikveh to remove the tumah of her niddah state.  Yes there is a spiritual element but in the end, as long as she prepares and dunks correctly she has accomplished her objective.  In contrast, the man accomplishes nothing.  He has no additional state of tumah the mikveh is removing that will result in a change in his behaviour or who he can be intimate with.  He comes out the same way as he went in.  But the men doing this seem to be ignoring that in favour of their subjective feelings of spiritualism.  Some have even gone beyond and invented a ritual to make themselves feel connected:
Men who use the mikvah monthly have adapted the ritual in different ways. Ozur Bass, who has been doing it for 23 years, says he submerges four times, each time facing a different direction while meditating over one of the four Hebrew letters of God’s name. When he’s done, he sings the “Yedid Nefesh” hymn, traditionally sung before Friday evening prayers. He says a blessing beforehand but has no witness
My first reaction was, of course, to giggle.  I've seen it suggested elsewhere that when one is davening the Amidah one should imagine each of the four letters of the shem havayah during each of the four times we bow.  I don't think spinning around in the mikveh to that same imagery is mentioned anywhere and certainly the blessing is a beracha l'vatalah.    In short, it's the stereotypical position of the Reformatives dumping Shulchan Aruch and then slowly picking Jewish practices back up but with their secular liberal desires deciding which ones they'll go with.  It's about as halachically meaningful as those new age "rabbis" who hold mountain top spiritual retreats on Rosh Hashanah.  Feels great, means nothing.
But I think there's something different here we should look at.  It's easy to mock (something I can say with definite authority) but if Avos tells us to judge each person favourably then it behooves us to look for the positive and I think there's a bit of positive in this.
First of all, the idea that men feel an obligation to go to the mikveh, sometimes simultaneously with their wives, shows a strong desire for fairness and respect.  Yes, it's expressed in a dumb way but the desire is a good thing.  These are men who probably treat their wives with tremendous respect and dignity.
Another thing to consider is the desire for a spiritual connection to God.  Now, as is typical of the secular liberal approach to religion, it's all about bringing God down to us, not raising ourselves up to Him.  As I've written before, modern religion is about the worshipper deciding that God has the same morals as Him and these Reformatives are no different.  However, if you consider the widespread apathy in society towards religion in general or the way large numbers of Torah-observant Jews do their rituals by rote without any inner passion but simply because they have to, the fact that these men desire a connection, even if they're doing it backwards, is still something that can be worked with.  Given a choice between apathy and interest, the latter is always preferable.
The only question is: how does one get someone like this to see that Torah observance isn't about customizing God to you but you customizing yourself to God without killing their spiritual need?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Save Your Tears

One of the accompanying features of Zionism every since Theodore Herzl, a"h, got the idea in his head, has been pessimism.  At every step along the way from the First Zionist Conference to modern day events people have held negative attitudes towards the success of the Jewish rebirth in Israel.
For some it was religious.  For some it was political.  For some it was practical cynicism but there has never been a dearth of people willing to either say that Israel would never be established, never survive its first few years and never endure into the future.
Despite that Israel has flourished in ways its most optimistic founders could not have imagined.  From the humble beginnings of the First Aliyah the country has become a minor world power, a centre of agriculture and technology and, most importantly, the reborn centre of the Torah world with countless yeshivos and other Torah institutions.
Once upon a time we were told that Israel would flounder demographically because of the high Arab birthrate.  Somehow that hasn't happened with the population proportions not budging significantly in the last 30 years.  We were told that Israel would drink the Kinneret dry.  Instead the country is the world leader in desalination and the Kinneret, although not as full as it should be, still maintains its presence.
That doesn't stop naysayers from continues to write eulogies for Israel, chas v'shalom.  The latest eloquent attempt can be found on TabletMag and, while well written, is just an updated version of the dirges we've been reading for years.  It lists all the well-known threats to Israel's continuity, both internal and external and seems to conclude that it's only a matter of time before one, or a combination of those factors will cause the State to collapse, chalilah.
This is, of course, bunk.  Israel isn't going anywhere.  And why am I so sure?
Because along with pessimism, another accompanying feature of Zionism since its founding has been incompetence.  Consider all the mistakes various Zionist leaders made over the last century or so and you'd be amazed the State ever came into existence or endured.  The visionary founder of the movement was fine with the Jewish national homeland being put in Uganda and having German as the national language.  The religious element of the Jewish community in Europe created a reaction in the secular group that led to anti-Torah hostility and a plan to build a Jewish state free of Judaism.  This sounds incredible today but that was the guiding ethos of secular Zionism.  Look at political events, the early division of the new Yishuv into mutually antagonistic groups even as the British and Arabs stood at the gates waiting to end the whole Jewish National Homeland project.  Even heard of the Altalena?
Even now when one considers the corruption endemic in Israel's elite and how the government is dominated by parties with no interest beyond narrow parochial ones, it is to wonder how the country functions at all.
What is the secret then?  In one word: God.
Despite the insistence of the finest Hungarian rebbes of the last century and a half, it seems God is interested in Jewish rebirth in Israel.  History was arranged to ensure that the Three Oaths (even though they're aggada, not halacha) would be upkept, empires rose and fell based on their ability to push the objective forward and despite the various attempts of all our enemies as well as our own to push the project into the crapper, Israel survives and thrives.  Just read The Secret War Against the Jews and you'll see that the Purim story has nothing on what went on behind the scenes from the earliest days of Zionism until now. 
By no reasonable standard should David Ben Gurion, a"h, have been able to stand up on 5 Iyyar and proclaim the State's independence.  By no reasonable standard should a fledgling army and accompanying militias been able to drive back and actually take territory from larger, better armed forces.  By no reasonable standard should a country with minimal natural resources and almost no industrial base have developed into the source of everyone's computing and cell phone experience.  Yet it happened. Why?  We must say that it's because of the Master of the Universe.
If this is so then the author of this latest article should hold his tears back.  Is Iran threatening us?  So did Nasser, y"sh, and he was in a much better position to harm us than the mullahs of Tehran.  Are there growing tensions between the religious and secular populations?  That is hardly news. 
Israel will endure not because we want it to, not because it's a good idea, not because world Jewry needs a lifeboat and not because of its leaders and elite but because God wants a Jewish rebirth in Israel and He will not be gainsaid.  Our task is to recognize His hand is history and reach up to grab it through emunah and shemiras mitzvos in the building and maintaining of the land He demands that we have.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Bringing Chasidus To Modern Orthodoxy

Years ago I sat through a speech by a major figure in the Conservative movement on the topic of inspiring followers to more become more enthusiastic about his Judaism.  He bemoaned all the expected things like a lack of ethusiasm in the younger generation, the disconnect between the older folks and the movement's ideal, and so on.  Then he said something I didn't expect.  He explained that he was jealous of the UltraOrthodox, especially the Chasidim.  He loved how Chasidim swayed during prayers, how they davened at the top of their lungs, how everything Jewish they did was invested with seriousness and effort.  What did he want?  He wanted to see Conservative chasidim!  He wanted to see students at the JTS just as enthralled during prayers, just as invested in bringing Judaism into all corners of their lives, and so on.
Naturally that never had a chance of happening.  While it may have started as a reaction to the Reformers, Conservativism has been a ritual-heavy imitator of Reform for a couple of decades now.  You cannot have chasidic levels of enthusiasm in a religion where lack of enthusiasm in traditional Jewish beliefs and behaviours is a dominant feature.  Yes, some in the JTS might get really excited about homosexual marriage, social justice or other politically correct causes under the rubric of tikun olam but ultimately they're into those things because the secular liberal society around them is, not because of a deep yearning Jewish desire to be.
You can see that in the way their younger generation is bleeding out.  Those who don't care or are impatient with those few strictures the so-called Rabbinical Assembly hasn't done away with yet move over to Reform.  Those who are serious about learning and tradition move to Orthodoxy.  That leaves a group stuck with inertia behind.  Not terribly inspiring.
Modern Orthodoxy, to a large extent, is also suffering from that ennui, possibly to an even greater degree.  To  the left, the Reformatives have their conception of tikun olam if nothing else to energize them.  To the right there's the "everyone's against us" attitude of the Chareidim to bind them together and give them purpose.  What does Modern Orthodoxy have?  Is it any wonder that the same pattern is happening amongst Modern Orthodoxy's younger generation?  The perception that "real" learning and practice is the domain of Chareidism or that the only way to be a good person is to leave the rigid ritual-centered world of Orthodoxy behind takes many youth away leaving behind those who simply don't care about changing due to apathy.
Unlike Conservatism, however, Modern Orthodoxy seems to be developing an answer to this: Neo-chasidus.  First featured in a Jewish Action article a while ago, it seems to be continuing on as a movement within the community.  It's a group that has taken on some of the more stereotypical traipses of Chasidus - long peyos, untucked shirts with tzitzis hanging out, loud Carlebach style davening and a strong interest in the classics of the Chasidic movement.  It's described as a search for Jewish authenticity and an attempt to infuse the Modern Orthodox Jew's behaviour with the inner light of Torah.
A recent article in Times of Israel reflected further on this phenomenon and even made specific suggestions on how to improve Modern Orthodox to capitalize on its advantages.  Amongst them, the author mentions story telling, ritual emphasis and mussar.
Unfortunately I don't share the enthusiasm.  There are a few reasons for this that I'd like to share.
1) To paraphrase the old saying, if you're going to do chasidus right then be a chasid.  A lot of what comes out of neo-Chasidus is behavioural but real Chasidus is supposed to be much more than that.  Even if the original elements of the movement, the joy of connecting to the Infinite One, the dvekus and hisboddeus aspects and the mystical appreciation have mostly been replaced by strictures, behaviours, ritual and xenophobia, there is still a global attitude that the Chasid bears.  The sthreiml isn't just about his quest for Jewish authenticity, it is his Jewish authenticity.  He truly believes that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, wore one at Sinai and that by putting on his he is connecting in the only legitimate way to God and Torah.  Neo-chasidus, on the other hand, seems to be obsessed with the superficial trappings and justifies that by invoked the term "Jewish authenticity".  But let's be clear: Chasidus is an innovation.  Yes, it's based on the vision of a great man, the Baal Shem Tov, and it works with materials from some of the most brilliant and pious minds in Jewish history like the Arizal, but it's an innovation.  Before Chasidus came along no one looked like or dressed like a Chasid.  They are no more authentically Jewish than the Litvish or the Yemenites and Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, dressed differently than all of them.  This means neo-Chasidus is looking for authenticity in the wrong place.
2) The material that makes us Chasidus is deep and meaningful.  The problem is that it is representative of only one approach to Torah which, while legitimate and important, is not the only important approach.  If Modern Orthodoxy wants to get its members learning deeply then it has to find inspiring material from all sections of Jewish literature but more importantly, it needs to create its own.  Again, it's great to read the Kedushas Levi but to truly appreciate it on the level it needs to be one must ascend to the level of a Chasid.  You don't dabble in such stuff, you invent yourself in it.  Why can Modern Orthodoxy not produce books that present the movement's vision of a Jew's connection to God in more than a dry, academic way?  Surely there are visionaries in Yeshiva U or various places in Israel that have the chops to produce such material.  Where is it?
3) The role of women would have to be clarified.  I recently read an article on sexual restrictions in some Chasidic groups and the impression I got was summed up in one line: outside of Lubavitch there are chasidim but no chasidos.  The leaders write for and speak to the men.  Control of the community is entirely in the hands of the men.  Women are needed to produce offspring and cholent and can be safely photoshopped out of existence otherwise.  This isn't just a coincidence but an integral feature of Chasidus today.  Is neo-Chasidus going to produce neo-Chasidos as well as neo-Chasidim and if so, is it really Chasidus or just an imitation?
Ultimately it seems to me that neo-Chasidus is about imitating some other movement's approach and appropriating some of its superficial features in order to increase adherents' interest in Judaism.  This brings us back to the Conservative failing - those who take their Chasidus seriously will eventually become bored with halfway measures.  Those who don't will abandon it when the novelty wears off and then we'll be back to the beginning of this discussion again.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Trump Card

It sometimes seems that the election campaign in the US for president never seems to end.  With the Republican debates in full swing and the first primary in Iowa not so far away it's been interesting to watch, as a Canadian, the field in both parties and how various races are shaping up.
On the Democrat side there seems to be a foregone conclusion that it's Hillary Clinton's turn to run for president with Bernie Sanders in the running as a form of comic relief and diversion for the granola-eating wing of the party.  In theory the Democrats should be in fine form.  They've held the White House for the past seven years and are awash in money.  It's interesting to note that despite this there are only two real candidates seriously running.
On the Republican side things are much more concerning.  The party that gave us Ronald Reagan seems to not have been able to produce a genuinely towering figure since the end of his presidency.  This time out is no exception.  You have the usual bunch that seem to run every time with their limited ideas and token expressions but no one with an amazing vision to inspire the party and the nation.
And then there's Donald Trump.
I've avoided writing about him until now because frankly I think he's already gotten far more attention than he deserves but people have been asking me, "Lord Ironheart, what are your thoughts on the Donald?"  So here they are:
Donald Trump is a Democrat plant.
Yes, you read that right.  The current front-runner in the polls for the Republican nomination is really a Democrat in RINO clothing.  Let me explain.
Let's say you're the Democratic leadership.  You've got a small field of candidates which plays well for party unity but doesn't excite the voting public.  Your lead candidate is a person who acts like she's entitled to be the next president and that actually running for the job is a necessary annoyance.  She has poor public charisma to all but her most loyal supporters, her husband still overshadows her in every public appearance and the word "shrew" still crosses most people's minds whenever she opens her mouth.
Up against her you have a genuine socialist who's got a whole bunch of crazy ideas (as socialists always do) that, if implemented, would destroy America's economy in the name of "social justice".  He's got the far left wing of the party, the section that's most likely to show up for things like primaries, all energized because they finally have a candidate openly campaigning on things they've always dreamed of.  The vast majority of Americans, however, are turned off by people who say "Hey, let's be more like Greece and Spain!" with their 30-40% unemployment and frequent brushes with national bankrupty.
With a bunch like this, the Republicans could run a lacklustre candidate and still have a serious shot in 2016.  What to do?
Enter Donald Trump.
Now, just like the Democrats have a left wing that is verifiably stupid, the Republicans have a right wing which is equally off the grid.  These are the folks who still think Whites and Blacks shouldn't go to the same high schools or use the same water fountains.  They're still miffed that Chrisianity isn't the official state religion or that women are allowed to work in "real" jobs and they hate immigrants from countries other that northern and western Europe.
Just like the radical fringe on the Democrat side, these folks are very politically active.  They'll show up at any rally, always make it out to vote in whatever primary there is and campaign noisily.  Like the Democrat fringe, they represent the worst of their party and are a turn off to potential middle of the road voters.  Unlike the Democrats, however, they are far scarier and social unacceptable.
Imagine, if you will, the leadership of the Democratic party sitting with the Donald and telling him that since he has the ego and the money they want him to run for president... for the other side.  They want him to be his blustering arrogant best, say all the worst things that will bring out the Republican radicals hooting and whistling.  Be insulting, aggravating, and insufferable!  It'll just turn those nutjobs on.
What's in it for them?  Donald Trump as a Republican candidate is a sure fire way to ensure that Hillary Clintons wins in 2016.  The Republican fringe will vote for him, sure, but the rest will be too disgusted and either vote Democrat or sit the election out.  The entire Democratic party rallies around Hillary in the meantime, especially after Trump has made multiple misgynistic comments about her. 
What are the clues that this is indeed the strategy?  Consider that Donald Trump, for all his antisocial behaviour, is a successful and intelligent man.  Yes, he likes being the centre of attention but what he's doing now goes far beyond logic or sense.  He has turned himself into a stereotype and brought out the worst element of the Republican party while making it seem like they are the typical representatives of that group.
And if the Republicans don't let him run as their candidate or he doesn't win the primaries?  He's already threatened to run as an independent and guess which party he siphons votes off of?
If he wins (hah!) he benefits.  If he loses, he takes the GOP down to yet another defeat.  What could make more sense?

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Unfairly Taking Credit

It should be beyond debate that the nation of Israel, both the people and the state, exist and survive through the help of God.  This help is earned through three methods: prayers and Torah study, His infinite patience and our own efforts.
Of those three things we often find that the first two get all the attention, the last one not so much.  Perhaps this is because of the emphasis nowadays on the spiritual and mystical aspects of Judaism.  People are interested in hearing about how things work out or don't due to presumed merits and sins, not so much about the efforts that may or not have been made in the endeavour.
This seems to come to the fore most of all when the topic of service in the Israeli army comes up along with the lack of participation of much of the Chareidi community in that service.  The line from the Chareidi PR flacks is well known: their Torah study is the true reason the State endures and the efforts of the army, if they mean anything at all, are only successful because of that study.  Therefore, as opposed to the general perception that the Chareidim should be grateful to the army for protecting it, in truth it is the army and secular society that should be grateful to the Chareidim for their real protection.
Unfortunately there are too many holes to poke in this argument to ever take it seriously.  Rav Natan Slifkin, for example, has detailed the actual absence of any evidence for this argument in the halachic literature on many occasions.  A few real world examples added on will suffice.
Consider that when Israel actually enters a state of distress, such as when rockets start flying out of 'Aza or over the northern border from Lebanon, it is the Chareidi population that scrambles to safety first.  One would think that they would instead crowd at the border with their Talmuds and intensify their learning but apparently Torah study only protects when the student is far away from the battle and safe from harm.  Then there is the more blunt example.  Chareidim are often fond of pointing out that many of their forbears were slaughtered in the Holocaust, may Hashem avenge their blood.  The obvious retort is: why didn't their Torah study protect them?  If the answer is "Well you can't change God's decree" then why is that answer not used when the army is successful in protecting Israel?  Why it is suddenly not God's decree but their Torah study that is responsible?
Rav Avi Shafran, with his usual obliviousness, continues to push the discredited paradigm over at Cross Currents.  He once again connects two things which are not necessarily linked and hopes you'll just assume they are.  The two elements are:
a) Israel's fate is in the hands of God and right now He's in a favourable mood
b) Chareidi Torah learning is what is keeping that favourable mood going
The problem is that the linkage isn't necessarily there.  Does Rav Shafran have any evidence that it's Chareidi Torah learning that is causing Israel's survival?  Perhaps God prefers the learning done in Dati Leumi institutions since those combine a practical (instead of theoretical) love of the Land of Israel with Torah instruction?  Perhaps He's impressed with 18 year olds who leave their homes to stand on the borders and protect the lives of millions of Jews despite their fears and apprehensions?  Perhaps it's the various acts of kindess that take place in the country every day in all corners of society?  Perhaps it's because the army, despite the endless provocations of its enemies, maintains a moral standard unmatched by any other serious army in the world?  Perhaps it's a little bit of all of those things?
Now the Chareidim are often accused of not sharing "the burden" with society and they respond with all sincerity that since Torah study is an underlying duty of any Jewish society it is they who shoulder the real burden.  Leaving alone that all their arguments end with "And we're really doing everything" one can point out that their main point is correct.  A Jewish society must not only be filled with kindness and morality but it must also value Torah study above almost anything else.  Perhaps it would behove secular society to introduce a small amount of Torah study into its educational system to ensure all Israeli Jews graduate from high school with a functional knowledge of what Torah is, what its greatest books contain and some understanding of those contents.
But if the Chareidim really see themselves as the moral peak of society then it behoves them to make the first move and venture into general society where they can better serve as examples of piety combined with practicality.
Just a thought.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Book Review:Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness and Hebrew

By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Available here:

As a nation we know that Hebrew is intrinsically different from all the other languages in the world.  There is the religious aspect in that we believe that Hebrew is the language the world was created with and the first people on the planet spoke.  Its words are imbued with deeper mystical meanings that help shape the fabric of reality itself.  It is the language of the Torah, God's blueprint for Creation.
Then there is the practical aspect.  Hebrew is the only language from Biblical times that still exists in any mass form today.  Yes, there are small groups of Assyrians, Babylonians and Arameans out there in Syria and Iraq speaking a version of their biblical tongues and some have even preserved the ancient script but Hebrew is the language of an entire country as well as the liturgical language of millions of Jews worldwide.  Unlike Assyrian and the other ancient tongues it has a seat at the table of nations today, something no other ancient language can claim.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, in his new book on the development of the Hebrew language, finds himself having to maintain a delicate balance.  The purpose of the book is to take a serious look at the origins, development and current state of Hebrew as well as its influence on other languages through the ages.  The balance comes between presenting the opinion of Torah sources on the subject and those of academics.  This is not an easy task.  Dismiss the academics and he risks getting his book labelled as yet another Artscroll piece of fluff that presents a subject devoid of historical fact that will only appeal to Orthodox readers uninterested in a meaningful look at the subject.  Dismiss the Torah literature and the book becomes yet another perceived attack on Judaism and an attempt to analyze Hebrew as just another language which will cause him to lose out on the Torah observant audience.
Fortunately for both groups Rabbi Klein manages to maintain that delicate balance through most of the book.  He covers such subjects as what language the world was created with, what language the first inhabitants of Earth might have spoken and where other languages might have come from if everything started out in Hebrew in the early chapters.  It is here that he best maintains the balance between the religious and academic approaches, showing how both support a common thesis when it comes to the origins and early development of Hebrew.   From there he treats such subjects as the variety of languages that Jews spoke that had Lashon HaKodesh, his term for classical or "true" Hebrew" mixed into it.  Almost all people have heard of Yiddish, many of Ladino but his listing of various other languages that Hebrew has influenced or been a part of over the millenia is truly fascinating.  My critique of that section of the book is that I would have liked to see examples of vocabulary from those other mysterious half-Jewish tongues.  Given the modernity of the book he also mentions Yeshivish as a semi-Hebrew language but I would argue that it does not belong on the list as it is not a language meant for use by the general Jewish community of a region (eg. America) but rather a private language reserved for a small segment of that community, unlike Yiddish, Ladino and the others.
The history section in which the origins of the word "Hebrew" and how it came to be a label for Lashon HaKodesh is well documented and provides a nice summary that the reader can digest easily.  There is also the part in which modern Hebrew and its development is examined.  Unlike other languages, Rav Klein notes that Lashon Hakodesh, or the original Hebrew bequeathed onto humanity by God, is not a language like others.  William Shakespeare spoke English but anyone who has ever read his plays knows that the English he spoke is nearly incomprehensible at times.  However, it is still labelled as English because there is no patent on the label.  This is not the case with Lashon Hakodesh.  Rav Klein points out that just because Modern Hebrew uses the ksav Ashuri and many words and grammar rules in common with the language of the Bible that does not make it the same Hebrew and certainly it cannot be called Lashon Hakodesh.  He also documents the politics around the development of Modern Hebrew, reminding us that there was and is still a significant part of the Orthodox world that would rather we all spoke Yiddish except when davening because they see Modern Herbew as a bastardization of pure Hebrew.
At the end of the book Rav Klein presents five appendices and I wonder why they aren't labelled as chapters, especially the first three which are as long as his chapters and set out in virtually the same format.  In these appendices he deals with such issues as foreign words in the Bible along with whether or not foreign-sounding names were, in the Jewish literature are actually Hebrew names.  Once again he balances different views instead of dogmatically presenting just one in order to be "Torah true".  However it is towards this end of the book that the academic approach starts to become a little anemic and I would have liked to see more opinions from outside the Torah world if only to give a better appreciation of the Torah ones.
My main criticism is in the final section which is full of erratum and fill-in's that should have made it into the main text.  Obviously this is not the author's fault and I would think that if this book goes to second edition he will have been given a chance to edit those areas into the main text.  The add-in's would serve to improve an already good text even further.
Overall I recommend this as a good read and one that will deepen the reader's appreciation of what Lashon Hakodesh truly is.