Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Cutting Away the Crap

I'm always suprised how some posts manage to fall completely flat and others somehow elicit very angry feedback. A recent post on strengthening ties between the Jewish communities in Israel and the Golus somehow managed to upset a couple of people, one a regular to this site and another hiding under the name "Anonymous".

It seems that the idea of Torah-observant Jews stating that our version of Judaism is the correct one is offensive to some people. Okay, I can see why. After all, no one likes being told that they're bad or incorrect in what they're doing, especially when they're sincere about it and really believe they're doing the right thing.

And certainly we're not alone in that approach. Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are quick to pour scorn on any foolish soul who might believe there really is a God, perish the thought. Even within the fold of the Jewish people, one must remember that the slogan of Conservatism was at one point "the authentic form of traditional Judaism". If that isn't exclusive and judgemental, I don't know what is.

Having said that, I would suggest the following:

One major difference between secular values and Jewish ones is the impact of good intentions. In the former, good intentions are everything. Even if a person is completely wrong about something, as long as he meant well everything is considered to be okay. In the latter, good intentions are only part of the package. Intention to perform the proper tasks at hand is the other part.

For example, I am sure that Eric Yoffe, the head of Reformism, does not wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and ask himself: "How can I be a bad Jew today?" Indeed, I could easily believe he asks himself the exact opposite question. When he doesn't put on tefillin and daven Shacharis, it's not because he is trying to anger God or deliberately go against the rulings of Jewish law. Instead, he probably spends his morning engaging in activities that he feels makes him a good Jew. He is as sincere, if not more so, than most.

The problem with this approach is twofold:
a) It leads to a complete lack of unity within the Jewish people. For Eric Yoffe, it is a positive expression of Judaism to address an organization known for its virulent anti-Israel stance. For me, supporting Israel unreservedly and standing against those who deny its right to exist is a positive expression of my Judaism. For some, environmentalism (under the incorrectly used heading of tikun olam) is a positive expression of their Judaism. For others, environmentalism doesn't rank as a priority. Where is the unity? What binds us together?
b) There is a complete lack of consistency in this approach. What passes for Jewish values in the non-observant world is essentially liberal values with a token godhead. Whenever prevailing secular sentiments change, so do the "Jewish" values that tag along with them. Fifty years ago no one at the Jewish Theological Seminary would have suggested that homosexual marriage receive religious approval. Today you're a reactionary facist if you don't approve. The only consistency is a lack of consistency.

Now, let me outline some basic principles. The first is that we live in a free society and that this is a good thing. Service of God, observance of His Torah, is meaningless when forced upon a person. The reason God gave us free will is to give us the opportunity to accept His ways upon us ourselves, of our own choosing. Therefore, people should not, and indeed cannot, be coerced into proper observance of halachah.

The second is to state the absolute position of the Torah-observant world: God presented us with his Torah, both the Oral and Written sides, at Har Sinai a little over three thousand years ago. The Torah we have today, in all its multitudinous volumes, is a direct development of that original presentation.

The third is to state that just as God is truth incarnate, the Torah is true as well as it is His Will revealed to us. Therefore, if the Torah says something is good, then it is good. If it says something is bad, then it is bad and this does not change because of fluctuating cultural standards.

The Torah defines "good" as observance of God's law, both the original and that derived by our sages since the original presentation. To intentionally not observe the law is therefore "bad". One can good the good or the bad (indeed the Torah encourages us to do so because of the need to use our free will in the service of God). However, it is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to choose the bad and then announce a process of redefinition in which the bad is suudenly retermed "good"!

Proper observance of halachah demands scrupulous observances of all the mitzvos a person is capable of following. This means both the ones between man and man and the ones between man and God. Giving charity and being decent to your fellow are as important as putting on tefillin and learning each day. It is true that many Torah-observant Jews stumble in this, emphasizing the external, showier mitzvos while neglecting the equally important internal ones but that does not change the nature of Torah. A bad messenger doesn't affect the underlying quality of the message.

I would conclude, therefore, with the following statements:

1) I am not trying to tell you how to practice your religious activities or how to live your life. My posts are expressions of my opinions, nothing more. I am, however, allowed to have those opinions and state them freely. For me, although there is much grey in the world, there is also black and white. There is a God, He gave us His Torah, we are obliged to follow it to the best of out ability. If you disagree, that is your right but to attack one who believes this is as unfair and closeminded as you accuse me of being.

2) If you don't like what I have to say, if being confronted with something opposing the secular wishy-washy I'm-okay-you're-okay ethic, why are you visiting my blog?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A Sensible Direction

I'm not a believer in the current global warming scare. I do believe the Earth is getting warmer but I don't accept the "evidence" that it is being caused by human civilization. I also think the Kyoto Accord was a joke since the number 2, 3 and 4 polluters in the world (India, China and Russia) either didn't sign on or found ways to weasel out of their pollution-reduction commitments.

Having said that, I accept the air out there is dirtier than it used to be. Smog days in the summer are more common and the sky seems to be grey rather than blue more often than not in July and August. Asthma, cancer, chronic lung disease, all these conditions are increasing in number over time and one cannot escape the conclusion that human civilization is to blame, given our obsession with pollutant-emiting machinery and carcinogen-containing materials.

As a Torah observant Jew, should I care? Is there a mitzvah to care for the planet and take good care of it? Certainly. The famous statement we sing out with every Hallel: "The Heavens are the Heavens of the Lord but the Earth He gave to the children of Man" strongly suggests that the Earth was given to us to care far. Indeed, the first Man set the precedent as the Torah tells us he was put in the Garden of Eden "to guard it and work it". If one looks throughout Jewish law at other things we have been given, such as our bodies, souls and personal property, we see there is a high emphasis as taking care of ourselves and our possessions. We must engage in healthy living habits, we must eat proper foods and we must not waste. Why would one think that taking care of the Earth which is our collective possession should be any different?

The problem with being frum is that, quite often, "doing Jewish" takes over most of one's life. One spends most of the time davening, learning, working and at the end of the day there's little energy left for other things like social causes. We're so busy with the stuff the halachah tells us explicitly to do we don't have time for the implied things, like environmentalism.

That's why I was heartened to see this piece in The Jerusalem Post:

Five years ago on Tu Bishvat, a group of Orthodox environmentalists began Canfei Nesharim ("the wings of eagles"). By linking Jewish law and Torah sources to environmental issues, Canfei Nesharim is bringing environmentalism into the American Orthodox world.
"People take care of the environment because it is central to their values," said Evonne Marzouk, the director of Canfei Nesharim. "We have to show it is central to Orthodox values and in turn that Orthodoxy has something to contribute to the environmental movement."

Canfei Nesharim is determined that environmentalism be seen not simply as a nice sentiment, but as an integral part of Orthodox life, mandated by religious law. The organization provides educational materials, weekly Torah commentary on environmental issues and enthusiastic speakers.
THESE ARE serious, zealous advocates who are versed in halacha, science and law. Marzouk, for instance, works in the US Environmental Protection Agency's Office of International Environmental Policy. Sheinson is an environmental lawyer at the firm Patton Boggs in Newark, New Jersey. Their work is backed by rabbinic and scientific advisory boards.
The group was endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of about 1,000 rabbis that serves as the rabbinic authority of the Orthodox Union. Canfei Nesharim also has the support of the interfaith and non-Orthodox Jewish
environmental groups, which apparently were excited to have a partner who could to reach into the Orthodox world in ways they could not.

An initiative like this should receive support from across the Torah observant world. It can only enhance our appreciation for the beautiful gift that God has given us, the planet we live on.

How to Strengthen Ties

It's no secret that there is a rift between the Jewish community of the Diaspora and the one in Israel. Out here in golus, most non-observant Jews have come to see themselves as citizens of their home states who happen to be Jews, rather than Jews who happen to live in Canada or the United States. The main reason for this is the non-observant lifestyle which is almost completely identical to that of the average Canadian or American. A non-religious Jew has much more in common with the Protestant in the next cubicle at work than with the Shrekover Chasid he sees near the subway station a couple times a week.

Over in Israel, a similar process has occured in the secular population. They have become Israeli and do not identify with being Jewish. This is the price of putting a lot of Jews in one place. Being a "member of the tribe" ceases to be something special, something that joins people together in the face of a different majority. Besides, Arabs living within the 1949 armistics lines don't generally identify themselves as Israels but rather as Palestinians so being Israeli and Jewish are pretty much synonymous for them except that being Jewish has expectations associated with it while being Israeli doesn't.

(It's a little known piece of history that when the Zionists were planning to declare indepedence, they argued about what the state should be called. Although "Israel" won out, "Judea" or Yehudah was an option. Since "Jew" in Hebrew is Yehudi, this would have led to real problems regarding Who-is-a-Jew. Imagine how many non-Jewish people would have Yehudi written on their identity documents!)

Given that North American and European Jews therfore overwhelmingly see themselves as residents of their home cultures and Israelis mostly don't care about Jewish culture either, it's no wonder that the two communities are growing apart. However, this is a terrible tragedy that must be stopped. It can have only negative ramifications for the Jewish people as a whole.

Some suggestions from Professor Yehezkel Dror, the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI) include:

1. Israel must begin to consider the impact of its actions on the totality of the Jewish people before instituting any measures.
2. Israel must also consult with prominent world Jewish leaders before taking any steps that have a marked impact on the nation as a whole (future of Jerusalem, the ‘who is a Jew’ dilemma, etc...)
3. Stressing Jewish studies and Jewish history studies in Diaspora schools, as well as highlighting topics of Jewish interest in the media.
4. Cultivating a deeper understanding of the Jewish Diaspora and its unique needs among Israel’s elite, which, notes Professor Dror, is markedly ignorant concerning the leadership of the Jewish Diaspora as well as concerning important events that impact world Jewry.
5. Developing a coherent policy concerning Israelis living abroad, which serve as an important link between Israel and the Diaspora.
6. Strengthening the status of Jerusalem as the heart of Jewish civilization.

The problem with these ideas is that they are all non-starters. For one thing, Israelis have been saying for a generation that Diaspora Jews should have no input into how the State is run since they do not live there and therefore don't share the risks that Israelis do every day of their lives. As well, the ignorance the Israeli elite has of the Diaspora is purposeful. After all, Israeli's elite has nothing but disdain for their Jewishness. Telling them they should be interested in meeting a certain person because he's influential in the Jewish community of America is the worst thing you could do to motivate them to get together with the person. They are, after all, Israelis first so what would they have in common with this American?

There is really only one answer to the question of healing the rift. Both communities must make an effort to remind their members that they are Jews first and foremost. They may live in Canada, the United States, Britain or wherever, or they may be born and bred in Israel but they are citizens of the Jewish nation with all the responsibilities and obligations that implies. And what is implied is an allegiance to God and his Holy Torah. It is only in this way that we can have a common denominator that crosses political and cultural boundaries. I am a common citizen with every Jew everywhere in the world. My community should be open to him and his community to mine because of that bond. When that kind of national feeling is rekindled, the rift will be healed.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Another Step in the Devolution of a Culture

It began here in Haaretz:

An American immigrant was attacked and beaten Sunday night in Beit Shemesh by a gang of ultra-Orthodox zealots, in what appears to be an escalation of tension between religious groups in the city. T., who is himself ultra-Orthodox, was kicked, beaten and threatened with further violence in an attack that landed him in the hospital. T.'s car windows were also smashed. T., who asked to go unnamed, has been active in trying to stem the recent tide of Haredi violence in the city.

It has slowly spread since there to multiple blogs that follow this situation. This is not the first time unprovoked Chareidi violence in Beit Shemesh has made the news. We have read for months about riots in the streets, attacks on public places like malls, the stoning of buses and the assaults on people who don't belong in the neighbourhood, according to the thugs that now roam its streets. And that's saying nothing about the threats and intimidation that goes unreported every day.

Understand clearly the depth of all this. These thugs are not simpletons running around and looking for a good time. They're not terrorizing innocent people for money or even kicks. They believe these actions are their God-given duty. In their minds, when they beat a woman on a bus for not wearing the right clothes, when they attack an American immigrant who was trying to arrange a peaceful rally, they think they are performing a mitzvah! There can be no greater perversion of God's just will and His Holy Torah than what these scum are doing! They have turned the Torah into a despicable weapon and no one cries to the Heavens over this!

We hear all the time from the Chareidi world about how they have set the standard for true Jewish behaviour. Disagree with any of their chumros and one is "beyond the pale" of true Orthodoxy. Isn't it interesting, then, to look at what puts you beyond the pale? Use your brain, like Marc Shapiro and come to conclusions that differ from the traditional answers that in truth have no real literature to support them and you are beyond the pale. Question the literal reading of the first chapter of Bereishis and you are beyond the pale. But if you attack a man in as cowardly a fashion as you can, if you assault women who don't agree to your taste in clothes, if you smash public property and threaten people with their lives, well that never seems to get mentioned, does it.

Confront the Chareidi leadership on this issue and you get evasive answers. "Tsk, it's just a few hooligans." "Tsk, well they're just concerned for their families and their Torah environment." The excuses go on and on. It doesn't matter if you put their phone numbers on your blogs. Any caller who disagrees with these villians is automatically a heretic and a target, such is the intensity of their self-righteousness.

It is time those of us who still have eyes in our head to see with stand back and state the obvious: If these kinds of cowards can still walk into any Chareidi shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh or just plain Beit Shemesh and be counted to a minyan, can be offered an aliyah, then we don't care about being "beyond the pale" because the Pale has become "A WRETCHED HIVE OF SCUM AND VILLIANRY". (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope)

Given the choice between being a "Torah-true Jew" which means having something in common with these dirtbags and being "a heretic" for still thinking that Torah and mitzvos is about creating a decent, loving Kingdom of God in this World, I'll go with the latter, thank you very much.

Stand up and be counted or acquiese. It's your choice.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Next Step in the Devolution of a Culture

In the aftermath of World War II, the Chareidi community began an awesome effort to rebuild what had been destroyed by the Nazis. y"sh. Specially, their objective was to restore the Torah culture of learning that had burned away in the fire of the Holocaust. As a result, priorities were created which emphasized a lifestyle of full-time learning for all men regardless of abilities while leaving the women to raise the children and work for a living to support their husbands.

It didn't take long for reality to sink in that this would not be enough. More money than could be generated by the Chareidi women workforce would be needed to build yeshivos, maintain them and also supply their members with decent sustenance. Hence charitable appeals and the idea that the donor would somehow merit a "share" in the learning he was supporting (while remaining second class because, after all, he was still working and not learning full-time).

This wasn't enough either to prevent huge numbers of kollel families from sinking into poverty so another trend appears - the aidem, the rich father-in-law. Yes, our Sages said our daughters should strive to marry Torah scholars but now our sons were expected to marry rich girls as well. There were expectations, after all. Why should a couple not enjoy many of the benefits that working people had, like a nice apartment, a car large enough for all the children and good food on Shabbos, just because the husband refused to work ofr a living to support such a lifestyle?

Unfortunately, that trend was a time limited one. It was inevitable to anyone paying attention that you cannot keep such a thing going forever. After all, if the son-in-law spends all his aidem's money, what's left for his children in turn? Where will the money for the next generation come from?

The answer recently broke out into the news:

The leader of an Orthodox Jewish sect was arrested Wednesday after authorities unsealed a sweeping 37-count indictment alleging that he operated a decade-long tax fraud and money laundering scheme stretching from Israel through New York to downtown Los Angeles' jewelry district, authorities said.Grand Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz, head of the Spinka religious group, and his executive assistant, Gabbai Moseh E. Zigelman, are accused of soliciting "tens of millions of dollars" in contributions to Spinka charities while secretly promising to refund up to 95% of contributors' donations, federal prosecutors said. The contributors then illegally claimed tax deductions on their bogus donations.Weisz and Zigelman calculated in January that Zigelman alone had solicited nearly $9 million in 2006, with a $700,000 profit for Spinka after donors were repaid, according to the indictment.

How could such a thing happen? What about laws like dina d'malchusa dina? What about honesty? What about the chillul Hashem and the damage to all other Jewish charities that will occure because of this?

Some of the answers suggested are chilling:

“There is a great temptation among these rabbis, who come from a culture that often views the ‘government’ as in the hands of enemies, to believe that for ‘higher’ motives is acceptable,” Heilman said. “In fact, often their temptations are driven by more venal and selfish aims than they might acknowledge.”

I disagree with the second half of the statement but acknowledge the first. Charedi Judaism has many strengths but adopting to changes in society is not one of them. Conceived in a world where Jews were persecuted second-class citizens who had to survive by their wits and any other means possible, however shady, it has retained this philosophy to a great extent even until this day. The goy (and in Israel, the government) is "the other" whose dream is to extort and destroy Judaism. Therefore all methods of self-preservation is permitted.

Unfortunately North America is not the dark kingdom of the Czar. We don't live under the boot of the Cossack and the law of the land, such that it is, officially applies equally to all citizens of the state. Refusal to see this was certainly a factor that led to this scandal. How many more groups out there are even now doing what the Spinka Rebbe did with the thought in mind that since they're cheating "the other" then what they're doing is okay?

But the second half of the statement above misses the mark completely. I doubt that the Spinka Rebbe and his associates took a single cent of the fraudulent funds for themselves. I don't think they were being venal and selfish at all. Consider their position. They have yeshivos, schools, and countless families that live on charity for lack of real support. The bills come in month after month and all the donations and rich fathers-in-law can't cover them all. What is to be done? How can this lifestyle of dependency be sustained?

This would appear to be the next step in the devolution of the learning-only culture. From putting the women in to the workforce to the rich fathers-in-law, this is the next logical step to keep the money flowing so that economic realities can be ignored.

Let us hope and pray that this scandal will be isolated and that sensible thoughts will prevail and allow this culture to return to a sense of normalcy.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Radical Revisionism

Today in The National Post, an opinion piece by a Jewish writer focused on Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), the wife of Achav, king of the Ten Tribes (see the second half of Kings I and the first part of Kings II for the details of her career).

To put it simply, Jezebel was not a nice lady. A Phoenecian by birth, she married Achav in an arranged marriage to shore up relations between the two countries. While Achav needed no encouragement to worship idols and do all manners of dastardly deeds (again, see Kings I & II as well as the final chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin), Jezebel did what she could to worsen the religious decay of the Ten Tribes. Amongst other things, she encouraged murder to increase Achav's lands and slaughtered as many prophets of God as she could get her hands on. Her only successful opponent was Eliyahu HaNavi and even he had to flee on occasion to prevent heads from rollings, specifically his.

Therefore it was a disappointment to see this article in which all we know about the woman is turned on its head. Disappointed, but not surprised as there seems to be a constant need in the Jewish secular world to "reexamine" asasumed characters throughout the Bible and recast them as good or wicked based on modern secular standards. This article does that and in spades.

To start, we have the old line about how men fear politically amibitious women:

We accept ruthless, ambitious men with barely a murmur of protest. We think of them as charming rogues, perhaps. Or as captains of industry. Or charismatic politicians. They are admired, even if grudgingly. Ruthlessness and ambition are somehow seen as "manly" and thus suited to the rough and tumble of politics. But a ruthless, ambitious woman? God save us from such an unnatural phenomenon, unless of course she's presented as a soap-opera epitome of evil, in which case we can boo and hiss to our hearts' content.

This is repeated ad nauseam, usually by supportors of megalomanical women who want to divert the conversation from their shortcomings. In truth, no one looked at Saddam Hussein, for example, and said "Yes, he's a murderous dictator but look how he wears that uniform of his. Ah, there's a charming rogue!" If people don't like Hillary Clinton, it's because she's an egotistical lying opportunist, not because she's a woman. Those qualities which repel people would be equally abhorrent in a male candidate.

Then there's the obvious problem applying the principle to the story. While Jezebel is portrayed as evil, Achav doesn't get much of an easier ride. In fact, he gets treated just as poorly, both in the Bible and in the rabbinic literature. He isn't a pawn of Jezebel. He's an evil ruler in his own right. So much for that contention.

The article then goes on to lament that the way Jezebel was villianized wa through sexualizing her. The only real problem with this thesis is that it's incorrect. The Bible does not portray her in that light and neither does rabbinic literature. Maybe Christianity did over time but they also think Adam and Chavah had an apple in the Garden of Eden. So much for that.

Of course, the real bone of contention is the opposition to Jezebel's polytheistic ideals:

The instigators of this decline were the militant Yahwist prophets led by Elijah and his successor Elisha, for whom pragmatism and compromise threatened the supremacy of the one god. In a stunning act of self-fulfilling prophecy, they helped bring about what they most feared. Elijah's transformation into the caring protector of the Jewish people came later, a post-mortem redemption in which he would become, as one Israeli scholar puts it, "a kind of Jewish Santa Claus." And as his image rose, Jezebel's fell.

Get it? If you believed in God and that his Torah was the unconditional law of the Jewish people, you were a religious fanatic who ultimately undid the kingdom and helped in its destruction. The errors in this paragraph are legion. First of all, while Eliyahu may have been described by some as militant, he led no army but always stood along againt Achava and the idolators. Elisha clearly led a quieter, more retiring life. What's more, this "transformation into the caring protector of the Jewish people" is Eliyahu's function from the start. He recognizes that God would reward our ancestors if they were faithful to Him and punish them if they disobeyed His laws. Instead of throwing up his hands and moving to Boca, Eliyahu dedicated his life to fighting idolatry and defeating the evil forces in the Northern Kingdom in order to help save the Jewish people there from destruction. To label him as the seed of the eventual downfall of the state is absurd in the extreme. For someone who claims to have read the Bible carefully, I doubt if the author of the article was paying close attention to the actual words.

But strip away the seven veils, as it were, and Jezebel's story becomes disconcertingly contemporary. Her clash with Elijah and his followers shows what happens when humans believe they have a direct line to the divine; how that belief can be politically manipulated; and how it finally destroys not only its perceived enemies but also itself. In the face-off between Jezebel's policies of alliance and detente and Elijah's insistence on absolutism and confrontation, of her pragmatic statesmanship versus his divine dictates, the kingdom itself was what finally got thrown to the dogs.

This is the final position of the article. Jezebel, to the author, is interested in alliances and detente while Eliyahu is the fanatic determined to wrest control of the state from her and her husband. How could someone reading the Bible honestly conclude such a thing?

The answer is to understand the secular frame of reference the author is using:

a) There is no God (chas v'shalom). Despite protestations to the contrary, the article portrays God as irrelevant to the story. Never mind that Eliyahu haNavi did have a direct line to God. That's just what the writers of that part of the Bible stuck in to defend his foolish fundamentalism. In the absence of an influential diety, Jezebel's religious position is as legitimate as Eliyahu's and since she's the queen, he's the rebel undermining the state.

b) There is no true good and evil. Did Jezebel worship idols? Sure, but so what? She was entitled to her own religious beliefs as much as Eliyahu was entitled to his. By attacking her, Eliyahu was attacking freedom of religion which is a major sin (unless you're a Muslim fundamentalist but that's the subject of another post). This clearly makes him the bad guy.

c) Jezebel is a woman. Therefore, we cannot really believe any of the bad things that the writers of the Bible said about her. They only put all that in there to defend their fundamentalist beliefs and because they were all closed-minded misogynists. Therefore she really wasn't a villian but since the story needs one, let's nominate Eliyahu.

In the end, the true Jewish moral of the story is that there is one God in Heaven who rules over the entire world and has chosen the Jewish people as His own. He has given us His Torah which is our Law and way of life. Acceptance of these facts are what is good, denial is bad. People like Jezebel would always spout the foolish porinciples of moral relativism. It was a hero like Eliyahu who stood against this amoral grayness, saw it for the evil it was and called it by name. Would that we would have more leaders who would cut through the diplomatic morass and announce our true convictions to the world.

If this is the state of secular Jewish thought, may they all see the truth of Torah speedily and in our days.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

A Fascinating Find

I once read an awful book, Acts of Faith, mostly to impress a girl I wanted to date at the time. Terrible stuff, really. The frum Jews were all evil or stupid, the non-frum all enlightened and noble. One scene I recall was a confrontation between an atheist Jewish college professor and the frum yeshiva bochers who were taking his class in Jewish history. The bochurs insisted that our ancestors were pure in their worship of God. The atheist insisted, based on all his historical evidence, that they worshipped idols. Well, didn't that send the bochurs into a rage? How dare he say such slander against our ancestors?

Except that it's true. All you have to do is open a Tanach and read it. Pick a book, any book: Judges, Shmuel, Kings 1 & 2, and any of the Prophets and what do you find? Ethusiastic widespread idol worship constantly plaguing Jewish society.

That's why this article from The Jerusalem Post caught my eye:

The 2.1 x 1.8-cm. elliptical seal is engraved with two bearded priests standing on either side of an incense altar with their hands raised forward in a position of worship.

Dr. Eilat MazarPhoto: Dr. Eilat Mazar Expedition
A crescent moon, the symbol of the chief Babylonian god Sin, appears on the top of the altar.
Under this scene are three Hebrew letters spelling Temech, Mazar said.
The Bible refers to the Temech family: "These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city." [Nehemiah 7:6]... "The Nethinim [7:46]"... The children of Temech." [7:55].
The fact that this cultic scene relates to the Babylonian chief god seemed not to have disturbed the Jews who used it on their own seal, she added.

Well of course not. A quick read of Jeremiah and Ezekiel quickly reveals that idol worship was essentially the state religion in the dying days of Judea. Far from causing anyone discomfort, this revelation should be a source of comfort - the words of the Bible once again prove to be accurate in their recollection of contemporary history.

I can't wait until someone finally unearths David haMelech's Visa card.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Too Stringent By Half

I recalled years ago eating at the Shabbos table of a man who davened at the Agudah shul in Toronto. We spoke about various matters, amongst them how hard it was to find chalav Yisroel candy bars (for his kids, me I'm a Mars Bar kind of guy). He sighed and, in what I can only decribe as a moment of unguarded weakness, noted: "When I was a kid, we used to stop in at the corner store on the way home from school and pick out any candy bar we wanted. We never heard of hecsherim on them. Now I can't buy a candy for my children unless it's chalav Yisroel. When did this happen?

Uri Orbach of Ynet notes the same creeping stringency in the ongoing commotion surrounding separate seating in public buses that service the Chareidi population. He correctly points out that concepts and ideas that even the most stringent Jews would not have thought about thirty years ago have now become normative within the Chareidi community which, in turn, is attempting to impose its standards on the rest of the frum world.

This is how the process generally works. Someone comes up with a chumrah (you've all certainly heard of the Chumrah-of-the-Week club). Many times it's either a ba'al teshuvah looking for ways to up his observance so that he doesn't feel inferior to his frum-from-birth friends or it's a rabbi in an outreach setting who has a particular liking for this crazy stringency but knows that preaching to people who know what he's talking about will just get him laughed at. But ba'al teshuvahs? They'll try anything!

The next step is that other people see these stringencies being practised and when they ask about them they receive an innocent look back: "Well, it says in the that you're supposed to." And, either through insecurity or a fear of being left behind, these other people begin to pick up the chumrah.

Finally, widescale observance spreads through the community and outsiders who refuse to hop on the bandwagon are categorized as "less frum" because they don't accept this chumrah which was almost universally ignored until recently.

Now, I'm not talking about actual halachos that fell into disuse over the centuries such as shaatnez, a married woman covering her hair, or chalav Yisroel in certain places. What I am talking about is sleeves that must go to the wrist (just below the elbow is fine according to most mainstream sources) and separate seating on buses. All these little things slowly redefine what's considered normative in Torah observance and leave more and more people who are really shomer mitzvos out of the increasing rigid group of people who believe that it is they who define what a mitzvah is and what it isn't.

It behooves us to remember that a way of observance, if supported by legitimate halachic sources, is as legitimate and "strict" as any other, regardless of the external differences.

We Should Have Taken Out A Patent on the Term

One of the interesting problems with free speech and thought is that people can take and misuse titles pretty in much any way to want to. For example, a couple of years ago a group called the Toronto Environmental Coalition was going around touting the benefits of insecticides on suburban lawns, not exactly the propaganda you'd expect from a group with a name like that.

Rabbi David Hartman joins the group with this article from The Jerusalem Post. Now I am not drawing any conclusions about Hartman's level of scholarship, his personal piety or the amount of observance he commits to. However, I am questioning whether or not he's truly Orthodox if he goes ahead with the plans in the article which, basically, are to start ordaining women as rabbis.

This is where the problem mentioned in the first paragraph comes in. Consider the secular example of the title "doctor". Far from being restricted to PhD's and physicians, many para-medical professions can claim the title as well, such as chiropractors, naturopaths and chiropodist. "Doctor" has even made into the popular culture with such forgettable terms as "spin doctor" and "doctor of love". Far from improving the image of the term, this trend has devalued the title. As the villian in The Incredibles aptly noted, "when everyone's super, no one will be super."

The term "rabbi" has undergone a similar devaluation over the last few decades. Time was that to earn the title one had to know the Talmud almost completely by heart as well as be fluent in the major legal codes like the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishneh Torah. With the advent of the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, one can now enter and complete educational programs that result in the title "rabbi" without having to live an observant lifestyle, learn much of the Talmud or even crack open one of the Codes. Heck, one can live a lifestyle that the Torah explicitly prohibits and still earn the title.

As such, calling oneself a rabbi in this day and age is not very meaningful. Like "doctor", it's just another title earned after a specific educational program.

So what's the problem with women rabbis in the first place? If you're not Torah observant and therefore have no real standards that are unchangeable, then there is no problem. The difficulties with Hartman's approach are
(a) he is accepting women into the program that don't even pretend to be Torah obsevant. It's one thing to take women who claim to be Torah-observant and say they want to go one step further and become rabbis. But to enrol women who, ab initio reject much of what the Torah defines as Judaism shows that this program has nothing to do with increasing holiness in the world but rather is about soothing bruised feminist egos.
(b) he justifies his radical idea by using classic Reform/Conservative thinking:

"The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant. People who come to the Hartman Institute to study are committed to making gender equality in Judaism a reality."

Real Judaism embraces and glorifies the classic distinctions between men and women because in Torah law these differences are the strengths and special virtues of each gender. Hence the modesty and nurturing abilities of women, far from designating them as "the weaker sex" elevate them to a special place of importance in the Jewish home.

Rather, it is modern day feminism which denigrates anything traditionally associated with the role of women as being lowly and enslaving while envying all the jobs men have typically performed in society. A woman who rejects all that makes her holy and special as a woman would, without doubt, seek out those things that are usual for men to do. After all, what else other than a non-identity is left to her?

And this, in the end, is why women in Torah Judaism don't need to become rabbis. Rabbis must deal with public appearances, large scale audiences, and political fighting that the Torah says is out of character for women who are far too civilized for such things. For a woman to desire to be a rabbi means she rejects that which makes her special as a woman. And so on this count the Hartman Institute is completely wrong.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Let's Bring Back the Ess Tog Too!

I've never been a big fan of people who wax poetically about "the good old days." I'm not alone either. Koheles notes that people who say "boy, things used to be so great back then" doesn't say such things from a perspective of wisdom. People who praise home births with midwives because that's how they did it in the old days often forget that in those same old days half the children died in infancy from polio and meningitis for lack of vaccines and antibiotics. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword.

Thus Rav Avi Shafran's recent column caught my eye and made me feel a need to comment. He starts offf by identifying a very legitimate point. In our hustle-bustle society, there are constant demands for attention:

We don’t generally think of our well-lighted spaces as impairing concentration, but the logic is unquestionably there. The more informational input to the senses, the less mental focus. That is, after all, the point behind darkened arenas and spotlights. Our brains are wonderfully able to filter out much that might distract us from tasks at hand, but the extraneous information is still there even if we don’t consciously notice it, background static to our contemplations. Every time I turn on my little light on my winter commute home, I appreciate Rabbi Lopian’s prescience anew.
Rabbi Salomon went on to add the telephone to the list of erosions to deep thought. How often are not only our dinners but our reflections rudely interrupted by ringing or warbling, or trilling? And the more mobile the technology, he noted further, the more opportunities for our concentration to be broken. Anyone who has silently cursed his cellphone knows just what the rabbi meant.

This is absolutely correct. Working as I do in an office with three phone lines and a fax machine, I have come to hate the sound of ringing. I often fantasize about getting rid of my home phone except that I would still have a cell phone which needs to be on at all times so it wouldn't do me much good. And yes, there is little that bothers me more than sitting down to learn, only to be interrupted by the phone not thirty seconds later.

This observation, however, goes a little further and this is where I disagree:

How sadly true. In pre-automobile times, people were rarely if ever expected to travel beyond the confines of their immediate towns or neighborhoods. With options so limited (and towns so small), there was more time to stay put, sit still, stay focused. Many of the things that pull us, unresisting, into our cars and onto our highways, around the corner and around the world, may be worthy ones, but that cannot change the fact that they take us away – from our homes, from our families, and from study and introspection, the pillars of Jewish existence.
Rabbi Salomon was not asking his listeners to return to horses and buggies or oil lamps. He is no Luddite and has no disdain for technology. No, he is simply an exquisitely sensitive observer, someone who sees a broader picture than most of us do. He challenges us to open our eyes to what we have lost even as we have gained. The losses are tragic, even if so subtle that most of us don’t even realize what we are missing.

In pre-automobile times people had to walk carefully along the street or risk stepping in horse excremement. With options so limited, people had no choice other than the stay put, sit still and stay focused. There was no great world to visit, no chance to broaden one's horizons. A peddler's son you were born, and a peddler's son you were likely to die.

But what's more, the long-losted glorified environment did not come without its drawbacks. The ess tog, or "eating day" for example. Back in the "good ol' days" there was no government funding for yeshivos, no major donors with an interest in splaying their names over the fronts of buildings. Instead, people who wished to learn full-time survived on the most meagre amounts of charity (that was real mesirus hanefesh when you compare their lives to the ones of many full-time kollel'niks today). An ess tog was an arrangement a younger boy would make to get fed. On Mondays he would eat by Mr. Fishbeim, on Tuesdays by Mr. Gross. On Wednesday he didn't have anyone so he would make it a personal fast day for his sins.

That's what we should remember when we think of how great it was back when people learned by candlelight. And then we should look around and think that despite what we may have lost, what we have gained is infinitely greater.

Chemotherapy as a Lousy Metaphor

Rav Yonasan Rosenblum recently published a column in Mishpachah Magazine in which he compared the creation of the emphasis on mass learning in the Chareidi world after World War II to chemotherapy given to a cancer patient.

I know. I didn't think it made sense either but then I read through the article. After that... well, it still didn't make sense.

The opening arguments make sense:

Let us think of the destruction of the major centers of Torah learning during the Holocaust as the "disease." The body of Klal Yisrael could not go on after the Holocaust without its heart – the talmidei chachamim produced in the great yeshivos. Time was of the essence, for how long can a body survive without its heart?

This is absolutely true. The devastation to the Torah-observant world from the war could have led to the end of any meaningful Orthodox community ever developing again, chas v'shalom. Indeed, most people don't remember that the reason David Ben-Gurion acquiesed to the Chareidi community's request for draft exemptions is because he and the other secular Zionists figured that within 1-2 generations the Chareidim would simply disappear as a relevant segment of Israeli society so what harm was there in it? Such was the pessimistic mood in the years after the war.

The solution, however, seems to be introduced rather clumsily:

As a hora'as sha'a, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Torah leaders of the post-Holocaust generation advanced a societal model that had no obvious precedent in Jewish history. That new model was one of long-term, full-time Torah study for virtually all males. A necessary corollary of the model of long-term Torah learning for all men requires wives to become the primary breadwinners – at least for the period during which their husbands are sitting in learning. The only alternative would be for the parents of young couples to undertake to support them and their offspring as long as the husband is in full-time learning. While there might be some parents who can afford to hold out a number of sons and sons-in-laws in such a fashion, the number is obviously small. And so women working became the norm.

One is compelled to ask some questions at this point: who were these leaders? How were they chosen? From where did they get the authority to make this decision? And did they consult the people whose lives they were going to irrevocably change at any point?

But more than this, the basic metaphor that opens the article is flawed:

No one in their right mind would knowingly ingest poison. Unless, of course, he or she was diagnosed with the dreaded disease and the doctors prescribed chemotherapy. But even after the decision has been made that chemotherapy offers best hope of destroying the malignancy, doctors continue to monitor the effect of the toxins on the patient. There is no point to administering a "cure" that is worse than the disease. And if the chemotherapy proves successful, the patient's physicians do not simply ignore the adverse side affects. Everything possible is done to alleviate those side effects.

This is inaccurate. First of all, chemotherapy is not the only time doctors prescribe poison (I know how that sounds!). Warfarin, which is sold in hardware stores as rat poison, is used to thin the blood of people at high risk of stroke from certain heart-related conditions. Aspirin is used to produce heart attacks while digoxin improves the symptoms of heart failure.

Now, one could say that I'm quibbling but the point is that any treatment, if prescribed without care and outside of specific guidelines, has the potential to harm a patient. That's why expertise and careful monitoring of any therapy is essential.

I will grant, however, that chemotherapy is unique in that it is davka given to be toxic. Really, the hope in chemotherapy is that the drugs will kill the cancer before they manage to kill the patient!

And it is in that concept that Rav Rosenblum's analogy fails. The bottom line is that chemotherapy is given, in most cases, as a last-ditch attempt to control a cancer or force it to remission. Quite often it is given as a palliative measure, not to control the cancer but perhaps retard its growth so that the patient's life must be extended.

Finally, chemotherapy is not open-ended. Protocols exist to control the number of treatments, the measures of success or failure and the conditions for ending the therapy.

In this regard, the analogy to the shift in the post-war Chareidi community failed completely. The shift to mass kollel enlistment and women taking over the workplace was instituted without discrimination. If you're male, you're expected to learn irregardless of your aptitude or interest in the matter. If you're female, you're expected to work to support your family, produce babies to populate that family and look after those children while working to support the family, ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Even a casual examination of that system can spot its major flaws.

No protocols were set in place to determine how long this "repopulation effort" would be in effect. Will the day come when the Chareidi leaders stand up and say that there are enough people learning and it's time for men to return to the workplace? Doubtful. Too much time and effort has been spent on defending the system despite its dysfunctional attributes. To announce any changes would be theological suicide. It's not going to happen.

There is, however, another anaology I could suggest. Let's say a major flu pandemic sweeps across the world. Because of their front-line status, a disproportionate number of doctors and nurses die from the illness. After the pandemic ends, governments in the affected countries realize they need to rebuild their supply of medical staff. After all, surgeries still need to be performed and heart attacks still need to be treated. The problem is that is takes seven years to produce a basic emergency room physician from scratch and nine to ten years to produce a well-trained specialist while the need for new doctors and nurses is now.

Let us say, then, that medical school is truncated from four years to two. Residency programs cut back to a maximum of two years. It is impossible to be fully trained in such a short time but due to the emergency situation, it's done and four years later undertrained graduates are populating the hospitals. Fortunately, at the beginning, there are still many survivors of the pandemic to guide them and ensure some competence in the system.

Now it's thirty years later. The well-trained doctors are all retired or dead. The system is still churning out barely trained replacements. Would you feel confident about such doctors? Well then, do you feel comfortably about such learners?

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Good Thing He Chose Shabbos

It's no secret that modern Western culutre has made a mess of the family unit. On one side are the relentless pressures from outside - work, friends, Internet, MSN, television and the iPod all compete to distract a person from those around him, especially his family. On the other side is the downgrading of the importance of the family unit - these days it seems any group of people can set up a "family" regardless of gender or relation to one another. Single parent families, homosexual couples, blended families; the nuclear family doesn't carry the same cachet that it used to.

How refreshing then to see a response to that from a secular source. Tal Brody and Yaakov Ne'eman, through their Shishi Mishpachti (Family Friday) organization are trying to reclaim the concept of family time for a culture which has devaled it for a long time.

Being with one's family can be a challenge. It is always easier to speak to friend of one's own gender and age with similar interests then to a family member of a different age, outlook with interests that might seem quite strange. Unfortunately, too many of us avoid that challenge nowadays. Once upon a time, family dinners each night were sacrosanct for many. Nowadays it's odd to hear that people still do that sort of thing.

Interestingly enough, this concept is mentioned in the Torah this week. When Moshe Rabeinu is given instructions for the first Pesach offering and seder, God tells him to organize the people first around their family units and then into larger groups. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on Bo goes on at length of the significance of this. Jewish life is organized around the family and it is that unit that gives us our enternal strength. With close family ties, one knows what one's past is and this helps plan for the future as well. With such a group, no one feels alone. There is always somewhere he can belong, people that can be counted on for support. "V'hi sheamdah": And it is that family unit which has sustained us in the face of so many tragedies over the millenia.

I hope this initiative succeeds. Jewish society in Israel is quite fragmented and ego-obsessed. Perhaps some of the old values can be reclaimed if people choose to forsake their constant dash towards personal satisfaction and instead make their families and reconnecting with them the priorities.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Still Not Getting the Point

Note: This is a corrected version of the post. In the original, Rav Gelman was referred to as a Conservative. This was an error and has been changed.

In the post at this site on Modern Orthodoxy, various solutions are suggested for the crisis facing the movement today. What they all have in common is a demand that first Modern Orthodoxy define itself in Torah terms, not merely as a negative "We're not Chareidi" but as a positive fulfillment of Torah and halachah. Unfortunately, many within and just to the left of the Modern Orthodox movement still don't understand that a genuine Torah-based movement must base its philosophy and goals on, well, Torah.

I thought of this as I was looking through Rav Gil Student's famous Hirhurim blog. He brings a link to The Jewish Week and an article by Barry Gelman. A very left-oriented member of the Rabbinical Council of America, he repeats much of the same stuff that the YCT crowd and those near it in the philosophical spectrum love to say when they explain how Modern Orthodoxy can be improved. For example, his salient points are:

In many ways the envy of other denominations, the Orthodox community could reshape the way it is perceived if it becomes more engaged and relevant by broadening its conversation.

Okay, first of all, if we're the envy of others, why is the solution to become more like those others? Should those others become more like us? Secondly, the difficulty with the way Orthodoxy is perceived is based on the fact that we hold to a system of ethics and laws that are not up for debate or influence from the secular world around us. The "heterodox" movements on the other hand are guided by the secular world in setting their priorities, no matter how many Hebrew words they attach to them.

Related to this is the need for Modern Orthodoxy to become a movement that speaks to all Jews by relating to the full gamut of human conditions. This includes Jews whose lifestyle deviates from halachic norms. Modern Orthodox communities have managed to integrate those who do not observe Shabbat and Kashrut in the traditional sense without creating the perception of condoning that behavior; it can and must do the same for all Jews.

This is also something that differentiates true Torah observance from the pretenders. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on the building of the Mishkan, notes that when the Torah talks about where things are placed in it, it always says that these items are "in front of the Testimony" (the Aron Kodesh). For him, the meaning is that while people can approach Torah, learn from it and practice its laws, Torah remains outside of us. It is not something internal, personal and individual that we can alter at will to suit ourselves but remains an external, objective truth. Torah can indeed related to "the full gamut of human conditions" but with one important caveat - a person who wishes to sincerely approach Torah must put God's wishes first, not his own. Again, this is the downfall of the philosophy of Reformism and Conservatism. Only those sections of Torah which fit with a person's secular liberal values are relevant. The rest are ignored as archaic, sexist or obsolete.

Second, Modern Orthodoxy needs to speak out on the major cultural and ethical issues of the day. Darfur, materialism, poverty, global warming and immigration are just some of the issues facing the American and world public. The imperative to imitate God establishes a moral responsibility to speak out and to act on issues facing humanity.

I always wonder: Where did the idea that speaking out "on the issues of the day" is a positive expression of Torah behaviour? It is one thing to be appaled by the evil that permeates so many parts of our globe. If one has an ability to help alleviate some of that evil, one certainly must make an attempt to do so. However, even if Modern Orthodoxy were to speak out, what would it say? Killing and enslaving the black tribes of Darfur is wrong? Well, duh. Of course it is. But what is the Torah approach to the problem? That would be a question for leading halachic authorities, not an opportunity for feel-good demonstrations or dynamic speakers at shul.

The point of embracing leniency is to bring more people to observance of halacha as the more people recognize that they can live according to halacha in specific areas, the more they will be willing to try it in other areas.

Uh huh. So why do over 90% of Conservativists not keep even the most basic mitzvos that the JTS purports to encourage? Why is that number closer to 100% in Reform? If making things easier increased observance, Conservativists and Reformers would be the frummest Jews out there. That they're not speaks to the reality of human nature. People respond to demands, they slack off when they're given leniencies. What Modern Orthodoxy needs to do is "tighten things up" and introduce certain standards so that people will have something to rally around other than the kugel at kiddush.

Finally, Modern Orthodoxy must begin to tackle issues of the spirit, meaning and relevance of Judaism, and answer questions like: What do the myriad of steps that need to be taken before meat is rendered kosher teach us about the Jewish view of eating meat? What do the laws of the Sabbatical year teach us about labor relations and property ownership? How can a full understanding of the laws of Shabbat impact social and family life? Should the Biblical laws prohibiting waste and destruction impact on our choice of the cars that we drive, as well as the food we waste at our lavish weddings and bar mitzvahs?

This paragraph finally reveals Gelman's vision for Modern Orthodoxy. Clearly he's been spending too much time with Rav Avi Weiss. All the above questions are the standard feel-good bafflegab that has made concrete Jewish practice so irrelevant for its members. Given the choice between standard kosher chicken and free-range organic chicken, a non-observant Jew interested in kindness to animals will choose the latter. Using the Sabbatical year laws to learn about labour relations (I'm not entirely sure what we means but hey, he probably does) leads people to think about unions, not Shemittah.

All in all, this article summarizes what's wrong with many of the visionary ideas for improving Modern Orthodoxy. One of the criticism of Schweitzer's article is that his suggestions basically amount to "let's become Chareidi too". I can see that but I think that from a different perspective it's exactly the right idea.

Being Chareidi is not about practice but rather attitude. A person can be meticulous in their level of observance, learn at a high level and still not be Chareidi. What distinguishes the Chareidim is their passion, their enthusiasm for what they are and do. What Modern Orthodoxy needs to do is decide what it is that makes them a Torah movement and then generate the same enthusiasm and passion for those standards. They need to become Chareidi in how they feel about their practices and beliefs and be as passionate and meticulous about observing them as the Agudah crowd.

If one looks at the few Torah giants associated with Modern Orthodoxy, one can see that they were able to do this. Both Rav Y.Y. Weinberg (the Seridei Eish) and the Rav took a back seat to no one in their observance and commitment to Torah learning. What made them Modern Orthodox was their willingness to seeing the rest of the world as being part of God's creation and therefore knowledge of it was a worthy adjunct to Torah. We should all look to their example to see how to create real Modern Orthodoxy

Stupid and Stubborn

Everyone remembers the Women in Black from the late 1980's and early 1990's. They were the ones who dressed in black clothing and stood in quiet demonstrations against Israel's "occupation" of its own land on a regular basis.

When I saw this article in The Jerusalem Post, I was truly suprised. I would sure that once the Arabs started killing Jews in earnest in 2000 they would see the error of their ways and disband. No such luck.

Despite the over 1000 Jews that have been killed in Arab terror, despite the countless successful suicide bombings and even more unsuccessful attempts, despite the endless barrage of hate from the Arab media, despite the daily rocket attacks on Sderot and now Ashkelon, these fine and valient women still believe that Israel is the cause of all the problems in the conflict. Yes, all we need do is is withdraw to Abba Eban's "suicide borders" of 1949 and give the Arabs everything else they demand and our consciences will be clean.

Only an idiot can be so stupid.

An Interesting Twist to the Shemittah Debate

Ynet has a two-part article (the more important half here) detailing a unique solution to the problems with the observance of Shemittah in modern day Israel.

Now while the author, David Golinkin, is a Conservative, his thesis still deserves attention. Basically he brings three concepts of modern day Shemittah to the discussion. The first is that it is still D'oraisa, something most Poskim reject. Shemittah hasn't been that since the destruction of the First Temple. The second is the consensus of most rabbonim for over 2000 years which is that since the first destruction, Shemittah has been a rabbinic mitzvah. What is interesting is that he has found evidence of a third concept, that Shemittah is Midas Chasidus, in other words, completely optional in today's society.

If true, that would solve a great deal of problems. A farmer wishing to observe Midas Chasidus could observe Shemittah either strictly (the Chareidi approach) or through Heter Mechirah (the approach of some of the Dati Leumi). One who didn't wish to could simply claim he's not a chasid. There is no obligation, after all, to observe Midas Chasidus.

The problems with Prof. Golinkin's thesis are:
(a) Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish, generally seen as the original leaders of the Heter Mechirah vs No Heter Mechirah debate, were surely as aware of the Midas Chasidus option as he is. After all, the poskim that Golinkin lists, such as the Rashbam, the Rashbash and Rabbeinu Nissim, were hardly unknown sages. If the Chazon Ish did not mention Midas Chasidus as an option, certainly it was because he did not feel it was a viable choice. As for the Heter Mechirah side, I have only rarely seen Midas Chasidus used as the reason to observe the Heter and then it is invoked to convince people to accept all the leniencies needed to make it work in the face of all the objections.
(b) The statement of purpose that Prof. Golinkin notes is also incorrect. Firstly, while it is true that the secular Zionists did not build Israel just so they could either give it or sell it to the Arabs once in seven years, they also did not build it so that Shemittah, or any real Judaism would be observed there. Remember that the purpose of secular Zionism from Herzl to Ben-Gurion was to build a non-religious state so Jews could prove that they could be a people "like all others". As for the religious Zionists, the purpose of building Israel was to fulfill God's wish that the beginnings of the final redemption commence. Along with the responsibility of living in and tilling the ground of Israel came the obligation of Shemittah. Heter Mechirah was a controversial solution to a big problem.
(c) Even if a large number of prominent rabbonim supported the concept of Midas Chasidus as the modern reason for observing Shemittah, the rabbinic leadership since that time has overwhelmingly supported the idea that Shemittah nowadays is a Mitzvas D'rabbonon. It is a usual tactic of the Conservatives to dig up rejected, forgotten or minority opinions that fit their mode of thinking and declare that these are all viable halachic options. Unfortunately, that's not how the system works.
(d) Prof. Golinkin's final point illustrates the usual flaw in Conservative thinking, that since times have changes, the solutions in halachah must change with them:

In the final analysis, what is the purpose of Shmita? “That the poor of thy people may eat" (Exodus 23:2). Today, almost no one fulfills the commandment's purpose as it appears in the Torah. Therefore, it would be most appropriate for all Jewish farmers in Israel to donate a percentage or a fixed amount of the Shmita year's profits to poor people. In this way, the original purpose of Shmita will be achieved.

In the final analysis, we observe Shemittah not because of feeding the poor or letting the land rest so it can regain its fertility. We observe Shemittah because God told us that once in seven years we were to let the land lie fallow, like it or not. Yes, the poor do not go and glean the fields like they did 3000 years ago but that does not change the essential obligation of Shemittah. We do not say that just because the poor don't go and take their sustenance from the fields that we can't observe Shemittah. In Conservatism this might be logical but not in halachah.

Despite these criticisms, the article does bring an interesting idea to the table, one probably worthy of further discussion in more learned circles.

Friday, 4 January 2008

The First Crack in the Wall

It is the job of paid public relations people to represent their organizations in the best possible light no matter what the circumstance. The most extreme example is recent times was Saddam Hussein's propaganda minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who continued to preach about Iraq's greeat victory over the U.S. army even as American tanks rolled through the streets of Baghdad behind him.

Sometimes one wonders what public relations people must be thinking when they support a position that most people see as bizarre or indefensible. There are two answers I can suggest. One is that they are being honest in that they signed a contract requiring them present a positive spin and, having pocketed the pay cheque, they are duly fulfilling the terms of that contract. The other is that they actually believe what they're saying without an reservation.

Examples of the latter in Chareidi PR writing can be found here and here. Generally speaking, Rav Avi Shafran does his job of presenting the Chareidi world with great enthusiasm. Even when it comes to criticizing domestic abuse in his community, he manages to do so while downplaying the whole issue and dismissing most of the concerns raised. Unfortunately, far from convincing outsiders of the correctness of these positions, columns like this tend to alienate non-Chareidim even further.

Examples of the former, people who do their jobs honestly while also maintaining an insight into the group they represent, can be found here and here. While one will never see a Chareidi writer publish a mea culpa in so many words (he'd have to hand in his hat and membership car if he did), there are examples of insight into the troubles of the Chareidi world that can be mentioned.

Indeed Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's two columns represent a great departure from the usual synchophantic columns that portray the Chareidi world as a great utopia of learning and lovingkindness by discussing the biggest problem in the community today: the intential condemning of much of its people to permanent poverty.

In the first column, Money Matters, Rosenblum notes that 60 years of dependency on the State of Israel and outside donors to pay its bills has caused many Chareidim to forget that money simply doesn't show up on your doorstep one day without anyone taking the time to acquire it. He correctly points out:

A disconnect between effort and family income, which is one effect of government benefits, creates a sense of entitlement to even those things that would have been considered unimaginable luxuries one or two generations ago, including an apartment for every newlywed couple. Even in families struggling to make basic ends meet, it is not uncommon to find a number of children with their own cell phone and family cell phone bills of a thousand shekels or more per month. In supermarkets catering to the cost-conscious chareidi consumer, one still sees shopping carts piled high with soft drinks and junk food that are not only unhealthy but costly.

His conclusion is vague, of course, mentioning that something has to be done to solve the problem and the Chareidi community has to play a role but the fact that he mentioned a need for change instead of calling for others to simply up their contributions or for the State of Israel to simply hand over more money is a huge step away from the traditional "we have no problems and we expect you to pay all our bills" approach.

However, it is Rav Rosenblum's second column, Chemotheray as a Metophor, that truly heads off in a different direction than his colleagues'. He writes:

As a hora'as sha'a, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Torah leaders of the post-Holocaust generation advanced a societal model that had no obvious precedent in Jewish history. That new model was one of long-term, full-time Torah study for virtually all males. A necessary corollary of the model of long-term Torah learning for all men requires wives to become the primary breadwinners – at least for the period during which their husbands are sitting in learning. The only alternative would be for the parents of young couples to undertake to support them and their offspring as long as the husband is in full-time learning. While there might be some parents who can afford to hold out a number of sons and sons-in-laws in such a fashion, the number is obviously small. And so women working became the norm.

One could raise a difficulty with the second sentence, that the model involved full-time Torah study for all males. Without a qualifier, one wonders: was the model meant for all Jews? All observant Jews? Or only all Chareidi Jews? However, that would miss the essence of what he writes next, after pointing out that the natural order, according to the Torah, is for fathers to support the family while mothers do the important task of nurturing it so it will grow and flourish:

Needless to say, the vast majority of Torah homes in which the wife is the primary wage-earner enjoy admirable marital harmony and the children are flourishing. There is nothing inevitable about the strains in any given family nor is every strain incapable of being overcome. Since Gan Eden, life has never been easy, and each generation has its challenges. And we have witnessed the emergence of many "super-Moms" who appear, at least to the outside eye, to pull down large salaries, whose children always look tip-top and happy, and who seem to effortlessly manage their homes and serve tasty Shabbos meals. But those super-Moms may be setting a standard that most women cannot meet. Rebbetzin Faigie Twersky has spoken forcefully of the tension caused by the multiple tasks under which today's wives and mothers labor. The head of an Israeli project employing many chareidi women described to me cases of women deliberately underperforming so that they would be fired and could return to taking care of their families. The phenomenon is not widespread, but neither is it limited to a single case. I remember hearing a lecture 20 years ago by a prominent woman attorney, in which she described how she balanced the multiple demands on her time. A young woman in the audience, listening to the speaker describe staying up to 3:00 a.m. making Purim costumes, asked her: "But how do you manage to do everything?" With tears in her eyes, she answered: "You can't."

His conclusion is even more aggressive:

Divorce rates are rising in the Torah community, particularly among young couples, and we witness increasing numbers of our young leaving the fold (often only for a period of time) and many others who toe the line but without any evident enthusiasm. How much has the inversion of the normal roles of the sexes contributed to these trends? What has been the impact of overstressed and absent mothers been on children? I have no answers to these questions. And I doubt anyone else does either.

Actually there are answers out there, not in terms of specific statistics but through observation of Chareidi society over the last few decades. It's just that no one in the community wants to hear the answers.

Once again, Rav Rosenblum avoids coming to a open conclusion, ending with a non-commital "yeah, we have to do something about this" but it's not hard to see where this column and the other were leading. His bottom lines are that the Chareidi world sees free money as an entitlement while its odd domestic arrangements are slowly destroying its very framework. Something must change.

No one, God forbid, is suggesting closing all the yeshivos and kollels in Israel or elsewhere. As a nation of Torah, we need people of action and sound mind to continue to learn on the highest levels so we can be informed of ratzon Hashem in our daily lives. But just as an secular society would collapse if everyone decided to spend their lives working on their PhD's and no one wanted to do the actual jobs that make society work, Chareidi society is now finding out that they attempt to do the same thing has run its course and must change. A new Torah-observant society must emerge, one in which both working for a living and learning are seen as equally valuable.

If Rav Rosenblum is a voice in the wildnerness, then there is good cause to be pessimistic for the future. If, however, he is speaking for many who do not have the public voice and eloquence that he has, there is hope for positive change.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Not Knowing When You're Not Capable

For a long time, Israel has coasted on the myth that it has a good educational system. Well shouldn't it? It's schools are run by Jews, it's teachers are Jews and the students are Jews. Everywhere else in the world such a phenomenon would be a recipe for success. But not in Israel. As recent statistics depressingly point out, the secular education system in Israel is in bad shape. It trails almost every European school system in results and leads in violence and teacher intimidation.

Therefore it was with great amusement that I read this latest gem from Ehud Olmert, criticizing the Chareidi community's demand for more control over their own school system, one which may not teach most basic subject but is also far freer of violence and drugs than the secular system:

Addressing MK Yakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, Olmert stated:” I will tell you what I had told your colleagues before…. If you (haredim) were allowed to run the haredi education system you would destroy it, because you would only hurt one another.”
Olmert furthermore noted: “The haredi children in Jerusalem had always thanked me for managing their education and said that they were lucky that I was not haredi. Only a secular Jew can manage Haredi education with any semblance of integrity.”

Uh huh. So having driven their own system into the ground, the secular Israelis now want to take credit for the success of the Chareidi one? The worst the Chareidim could do is to have their schools do as poorly as the Chiloni ones. Maybe it's that inspiring example that leads them to want to control their own affairs more,

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

A Taste of Their Own Medicine

It's well known that Chareidim fear the influence that popular culture will have on their children. The allure of the excesses and unbridled freedoms that the secular world offers are very tempting to those who have always lived their lives within normal limits. Although no one keeps statistics, it is understood that there is significant bleeding from the religious world, Chareidi, Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox in the face of this pressure.

The Chareidi response has been to insulate their communities. There are limits on all forms of popular media. Every so often a campaign to destroy bus shelters with immodest advertisements is launched. Modesty committees work endlessly to ensure that the "high level of spirituality" of the community is untainted by the influences of the outside world.

The non-religious response to this has generally been one of annoyance. One can understand that a secular person, upon being told that his culture is degenerate, might feel a little defensive but the reaction often goes beyond this, as if to imply that Chareidim have no right to shelter their children and themselves from what they see as a pernicious influence, as if the need to know about what goes on in the outside world is necessary for them.

How interesting, then, to read about what the non-religious reaction is when the Chareidim fight back. n In this article, we learn that Chareidi rabbis now go to a school in Petach Tikvah where they interact with the children and encourage them to take mitzvos upon themselves. They provide opportunities for prayer and kosher food and encourage the children along a more Jewish path than they may have been on until then.

As for paying the children to come to lessons, first of all 18 shekels has very little buying power. Secondly, is it any different than paying an allowance to a child to make sure he makes his bed and cleans his room every day? No one ever gets upset about that.

To be sure, there is room for concern. Most of the emphasis seems to be on the worry that the children will drop out of the school, enlist in a Bene Beraq yeshivah and then not do army service after that. All reasonable worries, to be sure.

However, what struck me was the part about the mother crying that her child won't eat in her house anymore because it's not kosher. This is in Israel, for Heaven's sake. To buy non-kosher food actually takes effort there, not like in Golus. But what's more, could this be the real reason why the parents are worried that the children will drop out from their current lifestyles?

Consider the intolerance that's being shown. The child asks if the mother might keep the basic level of kashrus which, in Israel, is not hard to do. The mother responds that she will not, dagnabit, because she's not a fanatic and that's not what she does, completely missing the point that this is something the child now finds important. A small concession and the child remains tied to the parents. No compromise and the child starts to feel a lack of connection. No wonder there's a worry about their becoming frum.

Most of all though, I see this as a tremendous opportunity for the Dati Leumi. If this tactic works for Chareidim, there's no reason motivated, enthusiastic Dali Leumi rabbonim couldn't achieve the same thing, while at the same time eliminating the one major complaint that the parents seem to have, avoidance of army service which is not something the Dati Leumi endorse. We can only hope they note this and try to increase their efforts in this area.