Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Amalek, Amalek, Amalek

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

Monday, 7 April 2014

Olive Me

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

Friday, 14 March 2014

Is The Real Modern Orthodoxy Standing Up?

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

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Global Bovine Faeces Part 2

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

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Global Bovine Faeces

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

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Exclusive Title Holders

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Golus vs Geulah

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

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Posek On A Stick

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

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles Part 5 - The Hard Solution

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

Monday, 10 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles Part 4 - The Real Problem

In the previous three posts I've tried to work with a simple point: the Jewish obsession with ritual is leading to a plethora of problems and creating a system in which immorality can comfortably co-exist with behavioural perfection.  The trend to see the ritual part of Judaism as the whole thing is a problem that affects the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy from the right where seating arrangements on buses are now ritualistically separated to the left where the entire movement of Open Orthodoxy revolves around egalitarian services and the subtle promotion of homosexual marriage.
If this perception of Judaism is correct, and I assert that it certainly isn't, one has to ask about God must have been  thinking to set up His system in this manner.  Certainly Judaism in such a form is incapable of doing much other than keeping its adherents busying running around doing small tasks all day long.
Here's something else to consider.  The average pulpit Rav is asked questions on various matters, both spiritual and legal.  When it comes to the legal ones they tend to fit into one of four categories: kashrus, taharas mishpachah, ritual and Shabbos.  When's the last time a congregant walked up to his Rav and asked a question about the legality of a financial arrangement he'd made or whether or not his recent transactions at work were in line with halacha?  Once we leave the ritual areas of Judaism it's like we leave the Torah behind.
This is a huge mistake.  As the mishnah in Avos teaches us, everything is in the Torah.  I'm not using the word in the sense of the scroll we pull out to read in shul.  I'm talking about Torah as God's blueprint for the universe, the collective understanding of what He wants from us and how He runs the world, that's the Torah I mean.  But if everything is in Torah then why do we seemingly only apply it in narrow areas?
I would suggest, a la Rav Kook, ztk"l, that this is because of being in golus.  The biggest change to Judaism in the last 2000 years occured about 2000 years ago when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai altered Judaism from a nationality to a faith.  His innovation saved Judaism from destruction, true, by making it portable.  Until then Judaism was tied to national icons like the monarchy, the Temple and the Sanhedrin.  A Jew living in Cappodicia was a citizen of Judaea.  He might been observant of general Jewish requirements like kashrus and Shabbos but he wasn't living a full Jewish life away from home.
With the destruction of the Temple, may it be speedily rebuilt, and the innovation of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai this all changed.  Much of the Torah went into hibernation.  Think about it.  There are six orders to the Mishnah but with the end of national sovereignty the orders of Kodashim and Taharos became irrelevant to practical life, with the exception of niddah of course.  Other than the dwindling community in Israel most of Zera'im, with the exception of Berachos, was no longer something people needed to be fluent in.  Much of Nezikin similarly became obscure in places where the dominant authorities allowed Jews legal autonomy on a very limited basis.  That really then left parts of Nashim and Mo'ed but really only the ritual parts that could be performed outside the Temple.  In other words, 2/3 of the Talmud no longer mattered except for the purpose of general limud Torah.
What then happened over the next 2000 years is that this hibernation became ossified.  We had nothing but ritual so ritual became everything.  A beis din was likely to encounter issues when it came to deciding on divorces and marriages but not business deals since it had no authority over them.  Judaism became what was available to it.
With the dawn of the 20th century something changed.  World history moved forward and the land of Israel was reopened to us as a nation.  The response from many important authorities to this show of mercy from above was one of rejection.  There were a few reasons for this, certainly, but looking back one sees whose side history was on.  Despite all the crying and shouting of the evils of Zionism today we can clearly see that history's plan was for a national Jewish rebirth in the land God wants us in.
Despite this there is still tremendous opposition to the concept of Israel as the first flowering of our redemption in the Chareidi community.  Some of this is due to Israel's secular nation and I agree this is a great concern.  Our forbears did not pray for 1900 for a country in which pritzus and chilul Shabbos were common occurences and part of the general culture.  However part of this opposition is due to an inertia that has left large swaths of the leadership stuck in the post-destruction model.  This is where ritual has led us astray.  For 1900 years it was a ritual for us to pray for and hope for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  We simply had no way to handle the situation once that actually occured.  This ritual of hoping is our mesorah while actually participating in that restoration is the heresy!
The effect this has had on us as a Torah nationality is frightful.  Is it any wonder that the longer Israel exists the nuttier the right wing of Orthodoxy gets?  As the realization of God's hand in our lives becomes more and more obvious it also becomes a threat to the established understanding that we can only be hopeful for Him to intervene in history.  It also explains the increased efforts in the last few years of the left wing of Orthodoxy to break away from tradition and imitate the Reformatives.  That group is looking for something more than the traditional ritual we've had for 1900 years.  They sense there is a greater purpose for Judaism afoot but like the right, all they know is ritual so that's where they innovate.
What then is the solution?

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles - Part 3 - Ladies and Tefillin

I was going to make this a more halachic piece but I'm on call in the local ER right now, it's an obscenely early hour in the morning and I don't have my seforim with me so my usual stylistic ranting will have to do.
Recently two Modern Orthodox schools, SAR Academy in Riverdale and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's Ramaz school made waves within the Jewish world by announcing that girls who wished to wear tefillin during davening would be allowed to do so.
Naturally this has resulted in waves of outrage from the right side of Orthodoxy and waves of outrage at the outrage from the left side.  On the right folks like Rav Steven Pruzansky and others like him can see nothing good in this.  They note the lack of approval for this practice amongst the halachic sources and remain concerned that letting young women wear tefillin is a first step towards Reformativism and a meddling with the mesorah.  For folks on the left any opposition to these girls is unacceptable and presents an exclusionary Judaism that they don't want to be part of.
Let's cut through a few things.  Technically there's no issur to prevent these young ladies from putting on tefillin whenever they want.  There is an issue over whether or not they can make a beracha since they are not obligated but these kinds of things have been argued about for years when women decided they wanted to start waving a lulav at Sukkos but nowhere does it say in Shulchan Aruch that women are outright forbidden to put on tefillin.
That doesn't mean the classical codes have nothing to say on the matter.  While acknowledging the technical lack of an issur the Rem"a clearly states his discomfort with the idea.  There are, in fact, no sources I could find while reviewing the subject over Shabbos that are comfortable with the idea or even say "Well, if she really, really wants to..."  In other words, while the lack of prohibition exists the concept of women putting on tefillin is not recommended by the authorities.
Now for many on the left this is no barrier.  They will point out that Michal, the daughter Shaul wore tefillin.  They rarely point out the next part of the Gemara where Chazal said that the contemporary authorities protested against her.  They'll point out that Rashi's daughters wore tefillin.  Well, once your father knows as much as Rashi...
In fact there is no answer to give a woman determined to wear tefillin.  She's going to do it and if a Rav pushes back she might use the rebuf to jump ship to the local Conservative synagogue.  Certainly the Rav will be roudnly criticized by the relevant folks for daring to deny the young lady her "right" to get closer to God through the tefillin.
Leaving this aside one must then ask: why does a young lady want to wear tefillin in the first place?
Let me point out that there is one reason why men wear tefillin: because God said to.  When I get up in the morning, before I daven Shacharis I put on my tefillin because I have to.  If I decide one morning that the tefillin aren't doing anything for me it doesn't matter.  I still have to put them on.
What's more, despite popular appearances tefillin aren't tied to the daily prayers.  If one wakes up on a desert island one morning bereft of one's possessions one still must daven, even without any tefillin in sight.  And in the reverse, if I decide I don't want to pray one morning I still have the obligation to put my tefillin on.  Yes, we make a connection between the two because nowadays that's the only time we wear them but really one does not depend on the other.
Which brings us back to these young ladies.  I have no doubt that they pray every morning with great sincerity and conviction.  As far as their actual obligations go al pi halacha they fulfill them. So why the need to put on tefillin?  They are not chayav in the mitzvah.  They don't get the same reward as if they fulfilled something they are obligated to do.  They annoy many people by doing it.  So why the urge?
I will suggest that there is a simple reason: because the boys do it.  Remember what I've been saying about the role of ritual in Judaism nowadays: it's everything.  The more rituals you do, the more Judaism you're doing.  When a boy goes to pray he puts on his tefillin.  When a girl goes to pray she just gets to open a siddur.  In a ritual-centred model of Judaism why wouldn't the young lady get the impression that the boy is doing more than her?  If she sincerely desires to have the best prayer experience possible why wouldn't she see adding tefillin to her prayers to bring them up to the same level as the boy's?
The actual halachic position is simple: a girl without tefillin and a boy wearing them are both in the optimal position for davening.
The perceived ritual position is also simple: the more you do, the frummer you are.  Until that perception is changed one cannot argue against the "Morethodoxy" folks and their desire to change Judaism to suit their underlying secular liberal values.
Once again ritual has taken over reason and become the defining feature of our practice of Judaism.  That doesn't mean it's correct.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles - Part 2 - The Max Factor

Menachem "Max" Stark was a Satmar chasid.  He was also a slumlord and involved with disreputable types and bad loans.  These associations cost him his life a little over a month ago after he was found murdered.  So nasty was his business life that, according to the New York press, it was hard for the police to narrow down the list of possible suspects to a reasonable number.
What made people sit up and pay attention, however, was the way in which The New York Post presented the story.  Under the headlines and the question "Who didn't want him dead?" was a picture of Stark dressed in full Satmar regalia.  This caused some to scream "Anti-semitism" but really it posed a far more difficult problem.
Not knowing Stark I'm conjecturing but I think that the picture of him dressed as a chasid, a pious Jew, is exactly how he would want to be portrayed.  It's probably how he saw himself.
One could ask how a man reputed to be guilty of all sorts of financial and landlord-related offences could come to think that way.  How is it that one could be so reputedly vile when it came to one's business dealings but still portray oneself as a pious individual?
If you point out that a person with no conscience would have no problem doing such a thing you'd be right so I'll take it to the next level.  The funeral Stark was given, complete with the local Satmar rebbe (remember there's a couple of 'em) crying over his coffin and at the shiva was worthy of a hero, not a scumbag who'd pushed another scumbag too far and paid for it. 
Yes Italian mafiosos get state funerals with the local clerics eulogizing them as heroes and champions of the community.  But the Satmar rebbe with his self-righteous indignation over any perceived violation of "Toyrah" he sees?  Here's a man who thinks the existence of the state of Israel is an abomination.  If you're a Zionist you're scum to him but if you're a thief and oppressor of the poor you're fine?  Isn't Judaism supposed to be different than that?
Now when it comes to mafiosos the reason for the high honours at burial is obvious: fear.  Who wants to be caught disrespecting a man with a mob at his beck and call?  What priest is going to stand up and say "No way I'm gonna do his funeral!  The man was a murderer and a thief"?
With Stark such considerations were not relevant.  Yes he was entitled to a kever Yisrael like any other Jew but why the high kovod?
I would suggest it's because, from the Satmar perspective Menachem Stark was, in fact, a completely righteous man.  He wore the right clothes and headgear.  He swayed the right way during prayer.  I don't doubt that his Yiddish was acceptable and that every time he saw an Israeli flag he spit on the ground in disgust.  He did his "learning", ate only the most mehadrin foods and all his meat was Satmar-style shechita
That he threw out most of Choshen Mishpat in his business dealings was simply not part of the equation.
As I noted in the previous post we have, after 1942 years of golus, compartmentalized Judaism into the parts we still do, which is mostly ritual, and the parts we don't, which is pretty much everything else.  Yes, the Shulchan Aruch has four sections but there's a Mishnah Berurah only on Orach Chaim which gives people the impression it's the only part that matters other than some areas of Yoreh Deah one can't avoid like kashrus and taharas hamishpacha.  The rest is a closed book to most Orthodox folk, especially Choshen Mishpat where the laws of financial crimes are encoded.
Menachem Stark ignored Choshen Mishpat, something only the greatest of scholars learn.  The average person has no idea what's in that volume and in this case ignorance is bliss.  If you have no clue you're sinning you can't see yourself as not righteous, can you?
So once again we see the same pattern: Stark was ritually correct.  His actual sins didn't count because of that.  For his friends and the Satmar rebbe he was a better Jew than a Dati Leumi guy who is completely honestly in business because the Dati Leumi ritual is despised by Satmar. 
It is a twisted mindset where how you dress and what poltical/religious views you espouse define your piety.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Ritual Uber Alles - Part 1 -Getting the Get

And we're back.
Over the next few posts I want to develop a thesis using recent examples of 'bad frummies in the news", something of which there is no shortage, chalilah.  It is my hope to build up a common theme between all these incidents and hopefully raise some insight that might lead to discussion on how to change what I feel is the fundamental problem of Orthodoxy today.
The first example is the divorce saga of Avrohom Weiss and Gital Dodelson.  Now this tragic story has been dealt with in greater detail elsewhere and it is not my intent to take any sides or delve into greater details or underlying reasons.  In brief, Weiss and Dodelson were married after a brief shadchan-induced relationship, life turned out not to be ideal for either from the get-go and after several months and one child Dodelson said "enough" and left.
Here's where things got tricky.  Dodelson, as might be expected, demanded a get immediately, even before the conclusion of the divorce proceedings.  According to reports Weiss refused and wanted to wait until those proceedings were all done.  In the absence of any beis din saying so Dodelson went public, took her story to major non-Jewish news outlets and presented herself as an agunah.  With the help of some PR folks she quickly painted Weiss as the villian and even got as far as threatening a boycott of Artscroll Mesorah Publishers, the employer of a close relative of Weiss who was supporting him in his refusal to give a get.
Now when it comes to the giving of a get it is difficult to have a rational discussion.  The plight of the agunah is a well-known one and the idea that there is a one-sided facet to Jewish divorce in which the man has all the power and the woman is chained to him is the foundation of the public perception that the man who refuses to give a get is an evil villian trying to ruin his wife's life.  This is something that unfortunately occurs all too often but frequency of occurence does not mean that all instances of the man not quickly handing over the get are examples.
In this case, for instance, the Weiss family made a good case that the reason for get refusal was because they were still in process through the courts and were hoping to negotiate a better custody and alimony deal.  Weiss reportedly had no problem with giving the get but wanted to wait until the end of the process.  This was not sufficient for Dodelson who reportedly wanted the get immediately on demand.  The question must be asked then: al pi halacha does she have that right?  Did Weiss have an obligation to hand over the get as soon as he was told to?
Let me point out the following: no he doesn't.  Al pi halacha divorce proceedings are initiated and completed by the husband.  A wife's request for a divorce, as legitimate as it might be, carries no legal significance.  Yes, in a reasonable relationship the man would hand over the get as soon as possible but if divorces were reasonable there would be a lot less family law lawyers gainfully employed.
What's more, the status of the husband as a get refuser is established when the beis din handling the divorce instructs him to hand it over and he refuses.  In this particular case (please correct me if I'm wrong) there was no order from beis din
If this is the case, why did Dodelson react the way she did when her initial requests were refused?  Why did she immediately engage in a destructive PR campaign that presented Orthodox Judaism to the greater North American public as a sexist, backwards religion and threaten to cause financial damage to a major publishing house as a response?  What made her think that her request for a get was all that was needed?
I would suggest it's because we in the Orthodox community have long ago forgotten something very important about Judaism.  Judaism is not a religion.  It is not an ethnic identity.  It is a national entity complete with a constitution and full legal code covering civil, criminal, ritual and interpersonal matters.  However, after 1914 years of exile something interesting has happened to our understanding of this.  For pretty much all of our exile we haven't had much of a chance to exercise authority in criminal law.  Civil law usage has also been pretty minimal.  In fact, other than ritual acts along with some interpersonal matters like marriage and divorce most of our law has remained dormant.  Yes we study it but the bottom line is that we don't realize it has a place in our daily lives like the ritual does.
In fact, since the ritual is easily 90% or more of our contact with the legal aspects of Judaism we seem to have quietly subsumed the final 10% (or less) into it.  I would suggest that this is the case in the Dodelson-Weiss divorce.  Dodelson didn't see the get or the need for beis din to order it handed over as necessary.  For her and her supporters it was a ritual matter.  The marriage was over as soon as she said so and according to ritual when a marriage ends the husband hands over the get.  It's like refusing an aliyah or putting on tefillin before Shacharis.  You just do it because it's part of the ritual!
Weiss, on the other hand, seemed to understand that the get is the final part of the divorce and since the courts were still involved and there were outstanding issues the marriage was technically not over, therefore there was no reason to hand over the get.  This did not save him because he was still portrayed as violating his ritual requirements.
It would therefore seem that much of the friction between Dodelson and Weiss arose from this conflict between ritual and legal understandings of Judaism.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Blind Eyes and Deaf Ears

The Jewish blogiverse is now all a-twitter (can I still say that without referencing the social network) with the recent announcement that Rav Chaim Kanievsky views all iPhone owners as severe sinners, illegitimate witnesses and who knows what else.  There is tremendous consternation especially in the Chareidi community where, despite years of effort, a surprisingly large number of people own iPhones.  How many weddings are now posul?  How many mamzerim does this ruling produce?
What no one in the Chareidi community wants to ask is: what is the validity of this ruling in the first place?
Over at Cross Currents, Rav Yair Hoffman tries to take an apologetic approach and suggests some possibilities to make this harsh p'sak seem more understandable:
There are, of course, four possibilities as to what actually transpired here.

The well-meaning Rabbi who runs the organization got carried away and did not understand that Rav Chaim was merely giving him encouragement to continue his work but did not actually mean that the iPhone owners are genuinely pasul l’Eidus.
Rav Chaim himself allowed the quote to be made as a type of warning as to how serious we must view this new challenge to Judaism, but he did not actually rule that the iPhone owners are genuinely pasul l’Eidus.
The well-meaning Rabbi who runs the organization perhaps misrepresented to Rav Chaim what an iPhone device actually is and how the majority of people actually use it.
This author is incorrect and Rav Chaim actually ruled this way with all the associated repercussions and consequences and fully understood the nature and use of the iPhone.
It is unfortunate, but this author is aware of numerous instances where the first and third scenario has been replayed many times with Gedolim. Indeed, many Gedolim have issued the clarification that they only issue their rulings based upon the facts at hand that are presented to them
Unfortunately there are holes in all those suggestions.  To wit, we have no evidence that the Rav who released this statement is well-meaning.  I mean, he's probably given the doubt by Rav Hoffman because he wears th right outfit and studies Torah with the right amount of swaying and Yiddish interjections which is all you need to be considered righteous by many in the Chareidi community but for the rest of us we have no idea if this Rav was genuinely concerned about the spiritual welfare of klal Yisrael or a manipulative power freak who is on a campaign to ban the iPhone no matter how much damage he causes people.
What's further, the idea that Rav Kaniesky, shlit"a, would issue such a definitive statement but expect people to understand he didn't really mean to rule that way but wanted to get across the strength of his concerns is also ludicruous.  Such a rationalization could then be retroactiely attached to all his p'saks.  Is Rav Hoffman suggesting this is a viable option?
Rav Hoffman leaves out three further options that need to be stated:
1) The Rav, fully intending to leave his meeting with Rav Kanievsky holding a ban against the iPhone, completely misled the Gaon, a man with unparalleled Torah knowledge but who has no clue what a real iPhone is.  He told Rav Kanievsky exactly what he needed to so that the Gaon would give him the harsh ps'ak.
2) The Rav never even asked the question but simply held a conversation about the iPhone with Rav Kanievsky.  The Gaon, during the conversation, may have mused about how terrible such a device is and its possible halachic ramifications on owners and the Rav left the meeting, wrote up the p'sak himself, certain that Rav Kanievsky would agree to it.
3) The discussion never took place.  Instead the Rav invented the p'sak after a brief meeting with Rav Kanievsky that had nothing to do with the iPhone issue, confident that Rav Kanievsky would support such a position and then put the Gaon's name on it.
The bigger problem with this story is the implication for the Chareidi leadership.  The fundamental basis for the authority of Chareidi leaders to issue decrees without having to even explain their thinking is the concept of "Daas Torah".  Tuned into God's radio frequence in a way we cannot understand they are able to deliver correct rulings for the masses.  If this is true then how can they really be manipulated?  How can they reach improper decisions if they have ruach hakodesh to guide them to the emes?
This story potentially demonstrates once again that this is not true.  If Rav Kanievsky truly issued the p'sak he is being credited with then it turns out "Gedolim" aren't infallible omniscient leaders but very learned men with no knowledge of the world they are paskening for, men who can be manipulated by base individuals into saying whatever those individuals want them to say.
If you don't believe me, ask Lipa Schmeltzer.
Rav Eliashiv, z"l, is quoted as saying "If you didn't hear it directly from me don't believe I said it."  How can a system which has no reliability on reported statements of its leaders properly function?  How can I believe that a teshuvah was copied and pritned correctly instead of being adjusted to fit a prevailing ideology?  Short of walking in and asking the "Gadol" the question myself how can I rely on any answer they give?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Whose Fault Is Atheism?

There are 2 aspects to atheism that one must examine.  The first is the belief, or rather lack of belief, in God, chalilah.  This post won't address that.  The existence of God is provable by logic and philosophy and is addressed by far better authors than me so I won't go into that right now.
The second aspect is the motivation of atheists.  Many, I'm sure, are quiet types who don't believe, don't care that they don't believe and don't care that others do believe as long as those others don't show up at their door with pitchforks and flaming torches.
Others, however, are quite militant about their atheism.  Folks like Richard Dawkins, Christophen Hitchens and others not only don't believe but are genuinely perturbed by those who insist on continuing to believe after hearing all the arguments against it.  Again, when confronted with rational counterarguments (usually offered long after the militant atheist in question has left the building in order to avoid a blow-up) most of their positions fall through.  But we must step back and consider what motivates them.
One of the simplest rules in the business world is that if you're doing a good job your loyal customer base will stay with you even in the presence of competition.  In the presence of stiff competition your business then has to up its game in order to remain viable but your customers will still give you a chance if they see you're adapting to the new market conditions.
If we extrapolate this to religion we can see this very model at work and perhaps this can explain why militant atheism has had such a strong rise in the last few decades.
For millenia a religion's only real competition was another religion.  As a result all your religion had to do was promise some unique feature available only to followers in order to retain them.  Chrisianity promised you Heaven if you believed in their saviour.  Islam promised not to slaughter you if you accepted their prophet.  Judaism promised you tzimmes and humentaschen along with a fierce defiance of history's tendency to wipe up small nations.
With the rise of Western intellectualism along with the rise in economic status of the average citizen of society all this changed.  At one time you wanted to be a part of the big picture because that was the only way to matter.  Now that people had their own homes, cars and stocks a rise in the status of the individual became paramount.  Despite JFK's great speech people have, over the last few decades, been far more interested in what the state can do for them then what they can do for that state.
And religion's response?  Tepid at best.  People wanted a belief system without any accompanying obligations and religion offered the exact opposite.  Just ask Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister in the United States who was recently defrocked by his parent church organization.  Despite clear rules against it he conducted the marriage rites at his son's gay wedding.  His response to the defrocking is typical of modern Western attitudes.  He doesn't think he did anything wrong, he doesn't think he broke any rules because the rules he broke aren't fair (according to him) and he won't accept being defrocked because, well because he doesn't want to.  He simulatneously refuses to recognize the authority of his church while insisting on remaining an official within it.
What has this to do with the rise of atheism?  Well part of it, I would guess, is a sense of authenticity.  The bottom line for folks like Schaefer is that their god is a personal one.  The deity, whatever they call him these days, agrees with their personal views 100% of the time.  What they think is right, He thinks is right.  Perhaps without realizing it they are worshipping themselves, each man a religion unto himself.  An intellectually honest person would call them out on this and point out that since they don't have an external, objective source of divine revelation in their lives they are really atheists themselves.
The other is harder to deal with.In his essay "The Pangs of Cleansing" Rav Kook, ztk"l, writes that atheism is a response to religion that has gone off the rails.  It is a challenge to a religious order that is no longer doing what it is supposed to do.  Instead atheism arises and tries to fill the moral void that religion has left behind. 
When we look around at our world we can easily see that this is what is happening.  Every day it seems another scandal erupts either within the Orthodox community, the Catholic church or somewhere in the Dar al Islam.  Religion, which should be a force for moral improvement and the advancement of human decency, seems to be the vanguard of a new Dark Ages and happily so.  Is it any wonder people are making the simple equation and leaving religion, along with God, behind?
Therefore it behooves us not to be annoyed with the existence of militant atheism but to instead see it for what it is: a symptom of our illness as a religion and a call to improve ourselves.  Should we do that, should we be able to restore Judaism as a consistent, moral order it would solve this problem and bring our final redemption that much closer.