Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Gedolim Who Matter Part 1 - Rav Adin Steinsaltz

I've always wondered what my lack of a yeshivah education has meant in terms of who I look to for inspiration. I can only guess at that but I would say it's allowed me to look for advice and leadership from those in the Torah world who don't neatly fit into any one particular community but who have nonetheless demonstrated true godlus in Torah learning and leadership. For me a real leader is one who not only knows the difference between holding the course of his predecessors and charting new directions for his followers when the times demand it, but also knows when to choose each option wisely.

So, in no particular order, I'm going to present those who for me are the gedolim of my Jewish world. I would emphasize that these choices are my personal ones and if any of you out there have suggestions of their own, I would be happy to accept guest posts. It would be fascinating to know who is really inspiring people out there to keep the faith.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz

From his Wikipedia page:

Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents, Steinsaltz studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and sociology at the Hebrew University, in addition to rabbinical studies. Following graduation, he established several experimental schools and, at the age of 23, became Israel’s youngest school principal, a record still unbroken.
In 1965, he founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and began his monumental translation to Hebrew, English, Russian, and various other languages. His edition of the Talmud includes his own explanation of the text and a complete commentary on the Talmud. Steinsaltz first translates the Talmud into Modern Hebrew from the original Aramaic and rabbinical Hebrew and adds his explanations, the other language editions are translations of the Hebrew. The only rival to Steinsaltz is Artscroll's similarly popular Schottenstein Edition Talmud (translated first into English and then other languages). To date, he has published 42 of the anticipated 46 volumes. While not without criticism (e.g. by Neusner, 1998), the Steinsaltz edition is widely used throughout Israel, the United States and the world. Over 2 million volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud have been distributed to date. The out of print Random House publication of The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition is widely regarded as the most accurate and least redacted of any English language edition and is sought after on that basis by scholars and collectors. Controversial Talmud passages previously obscured, omitted entirely or confined to footnotes in English translations like the Soncino Talmud, receive full exposition in the Steinsaltz Talmud. Random House halted publication of the Steinsaltz Talmud after less than one-third of the English translation had been published. The reasons for halting publication by Random House are disputed.[citation needed]
His translation of the Talmud from Aramaic (or rabbinical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew) has increased the number of people who are able to study its content. His translation opened the door for women who traditionally are not taught Talmud, and are therefore not proficient in Aramaic, to study the Talmud. Modern Orthodox High Schools and Seminaries teach women Talmud using his translation. The number of men capable of studying Talmud also increased as a result of Steinzaltz' work.
Regarding the access that his work provides, Steinsaltz says:
“I never thought that spreading ignorance has any advantage, except for those who are in a position of power and want to deprive others of their rights and spread ignorance in order to keep them underlings. My gemarot are surely used, if they are used anywhere, in Matan [a yeshiva for Orthodox women in Jerusalem], from beginning to end. Why? Because they help skip the elementary school level of training. That makes learning Talmud for them possible, and if it is possible then it is challenging and some of the men don’t want that challenge.”
The Rabbi’s classic work of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, was first published in 1980 and now appears in eight languages. In all, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored some 60 books and hundreds of articles on subjects including Talmud, Jewish mysticism, Jewish philosophy, sociology, historical biography, and philosophy. Many of these works have been translated into English by his close personal friend, now deceased, Yehuda Hanegbi.
Continuing his work as a teacher and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Steinsaltz established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union. He has served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, Brandeis University, and Florida International University. Rabbi Steinsaltz is also Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Tekoa, and functions as Nasi in an attempt to revive the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz was honored with the Israel Prize in 1988 in the field of Jewish studies.
Being a personal friend and follower of the late Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad-Lubavitch, he went to help Jews in the Soviet Union assisting Chabad's shluchim network. Deeply involved in the future of the Jews in the former Soviet Union, Steinsaltz serves as the region's Duchovny Ravin, a historic Russian title which indicates that he is the spiritual mentor of Russian Jewry. In this capacity, Steinsaltz travelled to Russia and the Republics once each month from his home in Jerusalem. During his time in the former Soviet Union he founded the Jewish University, both in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The Jewish University is the first degree-granting institution of Jewish studies ever established in the former Soviet Union.
Rabbi Steinsaltz and his wife live in Jerusalem, and have three children and eleven grandchildren. His son, Rabbi Menachem Even-Israel, is the Director of Educational Programs at the Steinsaltz Center in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Why he inspires me:

Until Rav Steinsaltz came along, there were really only two ways to learn the Talmud - the old fashioned way from texts that were photostats of photostats, or from the Soncino Talmud with its odd English translation opposite the classic photostated page. Rav Steinsaltz was the first person to ask: Why not change things up to make the text easier to learn? After all the Kehati mishnayos did it with great success. And thus his Talmud project was born.

Its impact has been incredible. For people with a working knowledge of Hebrew (even if not Aramaic), the Talmud opened up as a legible book for the first time. But even though his interpretive commentary made the basic text easier to read, the Steinsaltz Talmud was never presented as a be-all-and-end-all of Gemara study, simply a way to get more into the text. After all, the reader still has to figure out Rashi and Tosafos for himself and the study notes at the bottom of the page only hint at which commentators the reader should explore.

This project has continued on despite opposition from various quarters. Some were outraged that the Rav had tampered with the classic Vilna Shas page format even thought this format is not even 150 years old! The Artscroll Talmud project, it is rumoured, was started specifically because of the success of the Steinsaltz Talmud and although it dented his sales it did not push the project off track. Through his brilliance, Rav Steinsaltz has almost singlehandedly accomplished what Artscroll needs dozens of rabbonim for.

Throughout all of this, Rav Steinsaltz' motive has remained simple: spread Torah to the maximum number of Jewish people possible. He has made his life's work into something which has and will continue to profoundly affect the Torah world.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

An Open Letter to My Detractors

I've taken the opportunity to post this letter on my blog since there are those of you out there, and you know who you are, who are all for comments but are too quick to censor out any that you don't like. Having tried to communicate with you reasonably, I am choosing to post this on my blog where I know I will have a chance to express myself freely.
I don't hate you. I don't care what you think, I really don't. And that's possibly because I really don't care what you think. I believe that every person is entitled to their opinion and should be free from coercion from others. You want to believe, or more specifically, not to believe? Go right ahead. As I told you when you first started up your blog, I'm not interested in changing your mind. I'm not interested in harming you, causing you psychological distress, judge you, ostracize you or shut your blog down.
I have not sent you hate mail. In fact, any mail I sent you was in reply to letters you sent me first and the only thing is the replies were responses or rebuttals to points you raised. Specifically: I did not call you Hitler. I did not demand you accept my opinions. And the one time you perceived that I had offended you, I offered my apologies without rationlizations.
The only mistake I really made was assuming you were interesting in having an intelligent discussion. Clearly you're interested in publishing your views to the entire world (that's what a blog is, after all) but differing feedback is not something you're ready to accept. Well here's the first lession of blogging: Either you take all comers or turn off your comments option.
If anyone has been using personal insults, foul language and baseless accusations, it's you. If anyone has gone out their way to misrepresent the other in this discussion, it's you. I don't feel I've suffered at God's hands. In fact, I think I've been overrewarded by the Big Guy Upstairs. That's why I'm happy to debate those who would deny His existence.
But debate isn't something you're interested in. Just screaming at others and then claiming they're screaming at you.
Clearly you're had a rough life. You've gone through significant changes, you have obvious psychological trauma in background that needs to be dealt with. I've really tried to be understanding of that. Your public swearing at me and blaming me for all manner of ridiculous ills you claim to have suffered is clear evidence of that.
But you're a fellow Jew. God says I must respect and care about you so I shall. I forgive you your impetuousness and rudeness because I don't think you're were trying to be malicious. You really do think you're under attack even though you're not so it's no wonder you're reacting like you do.
I have some simple advice: Get help. Learn how to interact with others and how to interpret challenges to your beliefs without automatically putting up your shields. It's essential for your survival, especially in the secular world.
Good luch and may God watch over you until you come home.

Mistaken Identity

About a year ago I attended rounds at my local hospital. The rounds are lectures on one subject or another and generally a dru company sponsors some snacks and coffee at the back of the room. As I enter, a drug rep I've seen a couple of times before but was not really familiar with approached me with a big smile and told me that she'd tried to come to my office a couple of weeks earlier to drop off some samples but had missed me because I'd been on vacation.
First problem: I hadn't been on vacation.
But then I thought about it. It was about four weeks after Sukkos so she had probably come during the Yom Tov when I was off and thought I was on vacation because of that.
Then she started telling me about how during that visit she spoke with my nurse Gloria about a new initiative her company was thinking about doing and that Gloria had been really interested.
Second problem: My nurse's name isn't Gloria.
So I held up my hand and stopped her in mid-sentence with a simple question to clarify the matter: What's my name?
There was a pause as she blushed and blurted out: Oh, Dr. Ironheart.
Then came my next question: And who did you think I was?
She smiled and answered: Dr JO. (He's an allergist, I'm a family/emergency doctor)
Now, to paint the picture for you, Dr. JO is a handsome guy, very well-dressed and always has a huge smile on his face. He also has thinning hair on his scalp and is clean shaven. I am, to be generous, unattractive, wear off-the-rack cheap suits from Moores, and use a frown as the default expression on my face. Baruch HaShem, there's still hair on my head (at least the part that isn't hidden under my large serugah) and I have a short, greying beard. In other words, I look nothing like him except that we both wear kippot in public.
So I thought about it for a moment and realized: We really all do look alike to them, don't we!
Now I would have left it at that but today I was at the hospital and a nurse came up to me to ask me if I do allergy testing in my clinic. I didn't think about why she'd ask at first and simply asnwered no. Then I asked her why. Her answer was soooo reassuring: She'd been at a different local hospital (the one Dr JO works out of) and was sure she'd seen me doing allergy testing there.
All I can say is that I hope they think I look like him and not vice versa!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

What Matters It What They Think

Rabbi Yitzchak said: It was not necessary begin the Torah (from the creation of the world) but from "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months"(Shmos 12:2) since this is the first commandment that Israel was commanded. And what is the reason it begins with the Creation? Because of: "The power of His works He has declared to His people in giving them the heritage of nations."(Tehillim 111:6) For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: "You are robbers because you have seized by foce the land of the seven nations" they could say to them, "The entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He created it and gave it to whomever it was right in his eyes. Of His own wil He gave it to them and of His own will He took it from them and gave it to us." Rashi to Bereshis 1:1
The first comment of Rashi in the Chumash certainly seems to have strong political overtones. What makes this comment even more remarkable is that it was made at a time when our people did not have sovereignty over our Land. Yet Rashi did not shy away from what he saw as the implications of the first statement in Chumash: God gave us the land of Israel and it matters not that others said they had a prior claim to it.
But looking deeper at the comment, what is missing is as important as what is stated. And what's missing is the response of the nations of the world to Israel's defiant retort: God gave us the Land!
This matters greatly because, in the last sixty years since we have re-established a semblance of Jewish sovereignty in our Land (may the Final Redemption finish its first flowering and grow into full bloom real soon!) we have heard the response to Rabbi Yitzchak's challenge: No, God didn't give it to you. He gave it to us!
Chazal made a number of statements pertaining to the importance of the land of Israel. They suggested that every king in the world maintained a palace/embassy in Israel. They called it the most desired land in the world, one any ruler would want to possess as his crown jewel. We see the truth of their statements in our day and age. For two thousand years, the Church has claimed to be the real Israel and along with it has claimed that our Land should be under their custody. For 1400 years Islam has claimed that their so-called prophet gave them the sole right to speak in God's name and that His land really belongs to them.
Despite it all, we have managed to maintain our hold in the land but like no time since 1948 that hold has become so tenuous. What is the reason for this? Has historical evidence surfaced to show that our claim to the land is a forgery? Have our enemies managed to prove without doubt that their claim to the land is superior?
If one discounts all the statements based on lies, falsehoods and viscious historical revisionism, then the answer is "no". But if that's so, why do we feel that our Land is threatened so much?
This clue to the answer is what is missing from Rashi's comment, that is, the answer of the nations of the world. The reason Rabbi Yitzchak didn't include it in his statement is simply because it does not matter.
It does not matter that a fictional nation created by the Arab League as a propaganda tool claims to be the rightful owner of our Land.
It does not matter that a former Hitler youth employee, raised to the highest rank in Catholicism and an obsessive supporter of the Pope who betrayed our people during the Holocaust, believes that his religion are the best custodians of our Holy City.
It does not matter than a United Nations dominated by countries ruled by petty dictators questions our legitimate rights in the land God gave us.
It does not matter because, as Rabbi Yitzchak said, if we are in possession of our Land, it is because God decided it was time for that to once again happen. That is why the response to our defiance is not record. It does not matter.
What does matter is not that they believe in God's power and defining role in history, even in this day and age. What does matter is that we believe in that. And it is because our collective belief in that fundamental truth has become so weak that our hold on our Land has become so shaky.
On the left, we are told by the post-Zionist secular left that we are, in fact, robbers in the land of the so-called Palestinians and that our every triumph is really a sin against them. On the right, we are told by the Neturei Karta the exact same thing and even their Chareidi brethren only seem to support the State to the extent that they can extract money out of it. Those in the middle, who support the State because it is an expression of God`s power and might are small in number. Our voice is growing dimmer every day, drowned out by the cacophony of those who will onl appreciate what they`ve lost when it is, chas v`shalom.
We who believe that the State of Israel, imperfect as it is, is the first flowering of our Final Redemption, must raise our voices. We must remind our people that God has declared to us the power of His works. We must state unceasingly that the only way we can move history forward to its divine conclusion is to keep in our minds and our hearts that it is our belief that gives us the right to remain in our Land. It is for God to reveal Himself and destroy the doubts of our enemies Himself but perhaps He can only do so when the people He comes to restore believe it themselves.

Why Atheists Make the Wrong Choice Again and Again

Early on in the story of Creation, we are told that God created a garden in Eden and in the middle of this garden he planted two trees: Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life never really plays a role except for a brief mention just before Adam and Chavah get turfed out into the wife world but the Tree of Knowledge is central to the rise and fall of Man. As the story is well known and also documented in John Huston's The Bible I will not recount it here.
One of the most fundamental questions that arises on reading the story of the Tree is: did Man originally not know what good and evil was? Did eating the fruit of the tree give him that knowledge? And if he didn't know what evil was, how could he be punished for sinning when he meant no wrong?
The Ramban, in his commentary on the story, opines that the Tree of Knowledge refered not to absolute knowledge but to emotional knowledge. Before Man ate from the Tree, he was aware of the concepts of good and evil but made his decisions in a strictly utilitarian fashion. It wasn't about what he wanted but what was right and what was wrong which guided his decisions. What the Tree added to his psyche was the illogical facet of emotional choice. To wit: I know that I'll gain weight if I eat that bucket of chocolate ice cream and I know that gaining weight is bad so I shouldn't do it, but I want to eat the ice cream so I'm going to.
In medical parlance, this is often the difference between successful and unsuccessful attempts to effect lifestyle change. For example, almost every smoker knows that smoking is unhealthy and that quitting is the right thing to do. But the majority, for reasons of enjoyment or addiction, do not want to quit smoking so they continue to engage in a harmful activity that they will readily admit they should not do. Had Adam never eaten the fruit of the tree, he would never have started smoking because the benefit of the potential enjoyment would have been outweighed by the negative factors associated with the habit.
(In the regard, I find it fascinating that one of the midrashic traditions suggests that the fruit of the Tree was the grape. Like smoking, alcohol is an oft-misused substance. Unlike smoking, in small amounts it has proven benefits. Those who use it logically benefit, those who use it emotionally suffer!)
What is most important about the difference between wanting and needing is the effect on the person whose desires are thwarted. If I do not get something I need, I feel disappointment but then immediately consider alternative ways to achieve my goal. By contrast, if I don't get something I want, the negative emotional backlash is considerable. We are all aware of the reaction of a child whose wants are not met. We also know, although we don't like to remind ourselves, that adults are often no better, just more sophisticated in their disappointment. But on a deeper level, achieving a need never diminishes the important of that need in the person's eyes. Wants and desires, however, often change once we have achieve them. Consider the story of Amnon and Tamar in Shmuel Beis in which Amnon's need to "interface" with Tamar turned to hatred once he'd achieved the desired coupling. Or, as Spoke put in in Amok Time, "having is not as pleasurable as wanting."
So what does this have to do with the alleged targets I mentioned at the beginning of the post? Simply: everything.
It is a simple argument to make that one cannot prove God exists. I dealt with this a few posts ago in noting that this lack of proof is essential to Judaism as it causes us to rely on faith which is stronger than knowledge. Unfortunately, atheists often use this argument in a conclusive fashion: one cannot prove God exists, therefore He does not! (Chas v'shalom)
The fatal flaw in this argument, from Dawkins and Hitchens down to the littlest self-aborbed atheists out there is that the logic works the other way as well. If one cannot prove God exists, one cannot prove God does not exist either. All the books that Dawkins, Hitchens and those other pseudo-intellectuals try to foist on us suffer from this fundamental flaw. You cannot say God does not exist because you simply cannot prove it. Insisting on His non-existent makes you as close-minded and "religious" as those you would seek to criticize for being, um, close-minded and religious.
And the simple logic they all like to deny follows from there: there are now two options. If He exists then after I die I have to make a reckoning with Him. If He doesn't, I don't because after I die I'm wormfood and nothing more. If I acnkowledge God's existence and choose to give my fealty to Him, then I cannot lose. If I'm right, I get a good shot at a nice place in the Next World. If I'm not, well I won't know because I'll be dead and gone.
But if I, chalilah, deny His existence, then I'm only running with a 50% chance. If God's out there, He'll be mighty disappointed with my lack of belief. It's only on the chance He's not that I get away with it. And what do I get away with? Well, nothing really except a life of amoral, self-absorbed hedonism.
Given the two alternatives, what rational person would chose the atheist option? Well, if you think about it this way, no rational person would. But that's the point of the Tree of Knowledge. It's not about the rational opinion. It's about emotional opinion. Chazal tell us that our ancestors in Israel, the ones in the Bible who constantly turned to idols despite the repeated negative consequences their worship was associated was, knew that idolatry was useless and that only God was real. They simply liked the sexual freedom that the surrounding religions offered and used their defection from God to obtain that. (Maybe that's why JewishPhilosopher always uses that line?)
Modern atheists are no different. They delude themselves into a logical impasse - that my belief must be wrong because I can't prove its legitimacy but that their belief is right despite being unproveable - and then use that delusion to turn their lives into a meaningless, live-for-the-moment affair.
This, of course, is understandable. Some of them have been raised in homes where ritual observance of the minutiae of halacha was more important than showing love and affection. Some were educated by idiots who presented the beauty of the Torah in the worst possible life. And some are just selfish narcissists capable of nothing but searching after personal pleasure. After all, if a person is going to be wormfood after his death, he better get in all the pleasures he can while he's here, yes? But this delusion can only be maintained by the emotional choice trumping the rational choice and keeping it surpressed. Otherwise, the truth would have to shine through - they've made a huge mistake.
The way back to Eden, as it were, is through true cheshbon hanefesh. For those who were hurt by people who misrepresented Judaism to them, it is through separating their understanding emotional negative reaction from an objective assessment of what our faith and nationality offer. It is by ignoring the messenger and learning of the message itself. And what better time than this week, when we return once again to Chapter 1 of the truest Book in the world?

The Age of the Universe

I've always been fascinated with the first few chapters of Bereshis. Well, really, who hasn't? Within a few pages we go from God alone in the... well just alone, to the creation of everything, to the rise of man and then his fall and expulsion from paradise. Although the text is terse and keeps details to a minimum, the potential hidden behind the simple words is huge. Indeed, the ongoing debate between those who would take the text 100% literally and those who would interpret it in a deeper fashion is raging more today than many times in history.
For myself, I believe the world is 5769 years old as of three weeks ago. However, understanding that for God nothing is impossible, including creating a version of time that doesn't correspond to our current notions of chronological measurement, I also have no problem with the concept of a universe that has been around for billions of years. Remember that for almost the entire first six days of Creation, the only being wearing a watch of any kind was the Master of the Universe. What kind of presumptive arrogance is it that presumes that His Timex measures seconds the same as mine?
Thus the belief that a day in God's reckoning could take billions of years in ours is not beyond comprehension. I also would suggest that this is an important concept and secret of Creation that would allow many who currently insist on denying the principle of creation ex nihilo because of the difficulty they have with the strictly literal version of the text.
Consider the wording of the text: there was evening, there was morning, day X. How long was the evening, and what happened to the intervening nights and afternoons? A reliance on a translation or a simple understanding of the words robs our understanding of the text. Remember that Hebrew has a great flexibility for interpretation. Erev not only means evening, but also mixing (cf. erev rav=the mixed multitude). Bakar not only meaning morning but also is a root for one of the forms of clarification. The text might mean "there was evening, there was morning" or it might just as easily be implying "things were indistinct at the beginning of the process of the particular day and by the end eveything that had occured was clear".
However, I do not mean to dismiss the literal meaning of the text as an unacceptable way of understanding it. One of the core principles of Judaism and the foundational truth of reality is that God is omnipotent. While many of us are uncomfortable with the theory of the "already completed world", that is that God created a world that looked billions of years old so that all the conclusions of scientists regarding the true age of the Earth and its environs are completely wrong, one cannot argue that it is impossible.
The Gemara tells us that certain things should not be studied because of the adverse consequences such study brings about. One of them is to inquire into Creation and what came before it. Given that none of us were around at that time, nor could we hope to understand the scale of it, it seems sensible to conclude that a rigid, single view of how the universe was created is unlikely to convince all believing Jews. Yet, if one is flexible, there really is no core disagreement between the two versions noted above. What is most important is to accept and know that 5769 years ago, however that time is measured, God created everything we have. "The secret things are for the Lord our God", we said in Nitzvaim a few weeks ago. Our job is to live the most moral lives we can without creating ideologies based on unprovable suppositions that have nothing to do with the basics of our faith.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Give Me What I Want and Don't Expect Any Gratitude Back

Years ago I came to a simple realization: An adult is someone who realizes that his parents were right when they made him do his homework, punished him when he misbehaved and expected him to live up to his responsibilities.
Adults, it seems, are in short supply these days. Not just the kind of adults who appreciate their parents but also those who relate properly to God.
Not for nothing do we call Him our Father in Heaven. Like a parent who provides a supportive environment, guidance and sustenance for a child, God provides us with life, health and opportunity. Ever second of our existence is directly dependent on His beneficience. As our Sages note, if He were to remove his protection and support from us for even an instant, we would cease to exist.
But that's just the basics, something incumbent on everything alive in the universe. The Jewish nation, however, has an even closer tie with God because of His kindness. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt and that only as a result of His intervention in history were we able to leave and become a nation on our own. The terms of the intervention were clearly spelled out as well: accept God's law, His holy Torah, as the guiding post of our lives. When He opened the gates of Egypt, we left and as a result accepted upon ourselves the Torah for all time.
This is perhaps why the second tochachah, the one in Devarim, ends with the predication that the Jews who survive all the listed tribulations will ultimately return to Egypt as slaves. The only reason we came out was to receive the Torah. The tochachah befell us because of our refusal to hold up our side of the bargain. Given that our freedom was contigent on observance of God's perfect Law, and that we failed to hold up our end, is it any wonder He would wind up sending us back there?
Appreciating all this, however, requires an adult frame of mind, the one that sees the good and bad coming from the parental figure in a relationship and realizes that the bad is really good but only perceived as being the opposite due to the intellectual limitations of the child. Lacking an adult frame of mind, a person becomes immersed in selfishness. He is entitled to the good and should be shielded from the bad by the parental figure without any reciprocal responsibilities on his part. This is the attitude that makes children what they are.
It's also the intellectual attitude of Western society these days.
Consider, for example, this article from The National Post. A U.S. senator apparently attempted to sue God in court:
The senator was attempting to obtain an injunction against God to prevent him or her, from "committing acts of violence such as tornados and earthquakes."
How typical of petty secular thought. Tornados and earthquakes come from God and He must be stopped from doing it. How dare He commit injustice in this world! But when it comes to waking up in the morning and seeing a beautiful sunrise, when one walks down the street and feels no pain in one's limbs or chest, when one eats a good meal which is uneventfully digested, well God's nowhere to be found there! After all, we deserve all that. It's coming to us. Why feel gratitude for it at all?
At this time of year, as we sit in our sukkahs surrounded by the glory of His world, we should all take a few moments to reflect on what God has given us. How much do we have? And have we expressed ourselves adequately to Him to give thanks for it? Because one cannot take anything for granted.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Bees in the Sukkah

It never fails. Every year (almost) the weather clears up for Sukkos and we go out to enjoy a beautiful lunch in the shade. Then, just as everyone is enjoying the honey-dipped challah, out come the bees.
Many responsa exist on how to deal with the little critters. Is it allowed to kill them? It is allowed to trap them and, if so, how?
Several, years ago, while working in a biology lab, I was given a unique solution to the problem of annoying insects in the sukkah. One must remember that insects do not breath through mouths and lungs like mammals but rather take oxygen in directly through pores in their exoskeletons. The oxygen then diffuses into the bloodstream just underneath.
This means that the insect must, in effect, breath in whatever it's coated in. That's why they swim like crazy when you pour water on them or flush them down the toilet. Unlike mammals that can close their mouths, the insects have to breath in the water and drown.
So the first thing you do is buy a spray bottle, the kind that sprays stain remover or Windex.
Now, you could fill the bottle with water but instead, consider a clear, sugar-free alcohol like vodka. You could also choose a coloured alcohol and/or one with sugar content but be sure you don't like your guests before you do as they won't be coming back after you demonstrae this technique.
Fill the spray bottle with vodka, bring out to the sukkah and being to enjoy your meal. Sooner or later, the bees will come. When they do, whip out the spray bottle and douse them with the vodka. Remember that they have to inhale everything on their carapaces which means the vodka will go into their bloodstream, rendering them intoxicated faster than a Lubavitcher on the Rebbe's birthday.
Depending on how much alcohol you use, different reactions will occur. A light coating will most like cause the bee to fly away. Too much and you will drown/alcohol poison the bug to death. The right amount will cause the bee to fly slowly and unsteadily to the floor where it will proceed to walk to the door of the sukkah and hail a cab (bees are responsible insects). Alternatively, you could offer it a coffee in exchange for a promise to tell all its friends to stay away.
Good luck and a happy, healthy Sukkos to all.

Does the Tune Matter

My father has, for as long as I can remember, been a big fan of chazzanus. Some of my most annoying memories of childhood are the mornings he would play tapes of various famous chazzanim after opening my bedroom door to force me out of bed. I can't count how many times I would take out his chaazanus tapes from the car radio when I was borrowing the vehicle so I could flip to the rock station. I don't like chazzanus.
Naturally, God has a sense of humour about such things. As a result, I've been leading services in various shuls on various occasions since I was bar mitzvah'd. It doesn't seem to matter where I go. If I become a regular in any particular place, within a week or so I'm asked to go up to the shtender. Is there a tatoo on my forehead that I can't see that says "Pick this guy"?
One of the lessons my father taught me (several times because each time I did my best not to listen) was that a proper chazzan doesn't invent tunes. Rather each important prayer has its own traditional melody and the proper chazzan recites that nigun. People who go up and invent their own tunes while warbling loudly just show that they have no idea what real chazzanus is.
(Having said that, did you know that "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones is a great nigun that can be used for K'el Adon, Adon Olam, Lecha Dodi....)
So, for the last two years I've been recruited to lead services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at the local Jewish Old Age Home. Knowing that I didn't know most of the requisite tunes (I could sing along to Kol Nidre but there was no way I knew how to do it on my own), I searched the web until I could collect enough MP3's to listen to in the car so I could perform competently.
My problem is that I'm not good at picking up tunes. I'm not tone deaf, just attention deficient so I often have to listen to a tune several dozen times in order to pick it up.
This year, in addition to everything else, I was also tasked to do Ne'ilah. Now I really had no idea what the nigunim for Ne'ilah are because by that time on Yom Kippur my brain is in active ketosis and not forming very many memories. So I downloaded more MP3's and feverishly listened to them over and over again. Leading my kids to remark: "You hate chazzanus Abba. Why are you listening to it in the car?"
In the end, some of the tunes stuck but most didn't. As a result, I muddled through as best as I could, warbling ignorantly to fill in my knowledge gaps. And (at least to my face) my "performance" was well received.
To be kind, this is not a crowd that knows any chazzanus. One year I sang Adon Olam to the theme from Star Wars and one guy commented: "Wow! I didn't know the Jews invented this one too!" So for them not to realize I'd bandly bungled most of Ne'ilah isn't a surprise but when I tried to explain that, in fact, I had gotten most of the tunes wrong, they shrugged and said: Who cares?
And now I'm thinking: Do the tunes matter? If you're not in a crowd that wants to hear chazzanus a very specific way, does it matter if you just make up or borrow tunes as you go along?
Some might say it does. After all, no one wants to hear Kol Nidre to the tune of "Scarborough Fair" by Simon & Garfunkel but they also don't care if Slach Na is done like "No More Tears" by Ozzy Ozborne. (No kidding, it's a stretch but definitely do-able. Don't try it at home. I'm a profession nudnik)
So do tunes matter? And if they matter for some prayers and not others, where's the dividing line? When does it really make a difference?

The Relationship of Teshuvah to the Transgression

I saw this question on one of the blogs I follow. I'd like to share it here and then follow it with my suggested answer:

Here is a question I heard from Rav Mordechai Elon, in the name of the Hi”da, about the nature of Teshuva. Fasten your seat belts because it is quite a difficult question. Hopefully, some of you will have some good answers. I plan on posting my own answer during Chol Hamoed Sukkot. The answer I have bring an incredible understanding to our holidays and to the concept of Teshuva. Still, enjoy this post - the question is as sweet as the answer, and I can’t wait to read your answers as well.
There is a concept in Halacha called “Lav Hanitek Leasseh”. This concept, a very technical legal concept, is defined as follows: If there is a Lav, a negative commandment, which is then connected to an asseh, a positive commandment, then it is a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh. For example, if you steal (going against a negative commandment), you then need to give back what you have stolen (a positive commandment related to this negative commandment). Therefore, the commandment not to steal is a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh.
On the other hand, if you have a negative commandment which is NOT related to a positive commandment , it is NOT called a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh. Any negative commandment which is not followed by a positive commandment related to it DOES NOT fall in this category.
This differentiation has a practical difference (Nafka Minah) in Jewish Law - We get Malkout (flagellation) for going against any negative commandment except for a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh . (There are other exception to this rule but they are not relevant to this question: A Lav She-ein Bo Maaseh and a Lav Sheyesh Bo Mitat Beit Din.) Again: if it is a regular negative commadment, you get Malkout for going against it. If it is a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh, you don’t.
Now comes the most incredible part of the question. There is a Mahloket between the Rambam and the Ramban. The Rambam holds that Teshuvah is not a mitzvah from the torah. If you sin, you sin, and then you need to do teshuva but its not a Mitzvah from the torah to do Teshuvah. We won’t deal with his opinion right now.
On the other hand, the Ramban says that Teshuvah is a Mitzvah Min Hatorah, a positive commandment from the torah.
Now, lets formulate this Ramban in the way it is usually understood: If someone sins, then he has the positive obligation of doing teshuva. How does this apply to a negative commandment? If someone goes against a negative commandment, then he has the obligation to do teshuva. This applies to ANY negative commandment!
Rav Elon quotes the Hidah which asks an absolutely incredible question. The Hi”dah asks: If the opinion of the Ramban is right, then all the negative commandments in the torah are Lav Hanitek LeAsseh! Think about it: If someone goes against any negative commandment, then he has the obligation to do teshuva. This is the very definition of a Lav Hanitek LeAsseh! But we have a problem! If this is the case, then, the punishment of Malkout (flagellation) can NEVER apply, since it only applies on negative commandments which are NOT Lav Hanitek LeAsseh! However, Malkout is a form of punishment from the Torah! How can it be possible that it would never apply? How can it be possible that we can’t even think, conceptually, of a time when this punishment can apply? This is impossible!
We all know the Ramban did not make stupid mistakes so the Hidah asks: What did the Ramban mean when he said Teshuva was a Mitzvat Asseh? We cannot just understand it through its simple literal meaning because, as we have seen, it would make absolutely no sense and would not be coherent with the rest of Torah!

Okay, so here goes:

First of all, according to many authorities, the Rambam does hold that teshuva is a mitzva d'oraisa but at Dan notes, that's a subject that's best left for its own discussion.

However, I believe the answer to this question is due to the special relationship of teshuvah to the mitzvah it's atoning for.

Consider the case he notes as problematic: the lav hanitek l'aseh. Now, if one looks at the relationship between the lav and the aseh, a clear connection develops. The aseh only becomes incumbent on the person after the transgression occurs. Further, it is directly related to rectifying the misdeed caused by the transgression. Having done A, I must do a specific B in order to avoid a whippin'.

Teshuvah is different. As opposed to B rectifying misdeed A, teshuvah rather recitifies the fact that a misdeed was done in the first place. In other words, in the case of lav hanitek l'aseh I can fix the problem by a corrective action. Teshuvah does not fix anything like that. Rather it acts on the taint left on my soul by the misdeed and inclination that led me to commit it in the first place.

For this reason, teshuvah would still be relevant and a necessary obligation even if sone did a lav hanitek l'aseh.

Any other answers out there?

Time for a Turnabout

Over the last little while, a video featuring comedienne Sarah Silverman has been circulating through the Web. In it, Silverman encourages young Jews to call their presumable more conservative grandparents and tell them they should vote for Barrack Obama in the presidential election. As Rav Yonasan Rosenblum notes in his recent piece on this:
The website for the intitiative,, features comedienne Sarah Silverman instructing Jewish youth in Lysistrata-style tactics: Threaten to withhold future visits unless Granny agrees to vote for Obama. Here’s another suggestion: Tell them that if they don’t vote for Obama, “the goodest person we’ve ever had as a presidential choice,” it can only be because they are racists.
Now, Sarah Silverman has never been mistaken for someone who exemplifies traditional jewish values and observances. In fact, the only traditional stereotype it wouldn't be a stretch to identify her with is the self-hating Hollywood Jew who uses his/her ethnic name to legitimize anti-Jewish statements and beliefs. Just like Woody Allen who perpetrated all sorts of anti-Semitic caricatures in his movies and was never held to account for it because, after all, he's just so Jewish, Silverman uses her name and her questionable credentials to present an "authentic" Jewish position on the upcoming vote.
All this is natural considering that the entertainment industry in the United States has succeeded in creating a youth-obsessed culture. Watch any major television show or movie and the stereotypes shine out: young people are vibrant, imaginative and full of ideas. Old people are either demented, dementing, a pain to have around or secretly evil.
It ties perfectly with why Barrack Obama, a man whose sole accomplishment in life is to promote himself, is leading in the polls over John McCain, a man with decades of military and political service at a time when inexperience in leadership will plunge the United States and the world into a terrible recession.
Youth today (which unfortunately means anyone under 35) have no perspective with which to view world events. As Rosenblum saliently notes:
The grandchildren will seek to prove that Obama will is good for Israel, but their identification with Israel bears no relationship to that of their grandparents. For them the Holocaust is the stuff of history books, not a living memory. Ditto the U.N. vote on Israel’s creation. They did not huddle anxiously around TV sets listening to the U.N. debates leading up to the 1967 war, when a second Holocaust seemed all too possible and 10,000 graves were dug in Tel Aviv in anticipation of war casualties. Many have never heard of Entebbe.
Is it then any wonder that these Jewish grandchildren would naturally see their bubbie and zaidie as apple sauce-sucking incompetents who have to be told to vote for?
I have one piece of advice for any bubbie or zaidie who is threaten by their grandchildren that they won't come to visit if that grandparent votes for McCain: Either the grandchildren vote for McCain or they're out of the will. Period.

The New Enemy

Once upon a time, long ago now it seems, Jews left their comfortable homes in golus and returned to our Holy Land to beging the process of its rebirth. They were the chalutzim, the pioneers who, to this day, are remembers as great Jewish leaders who struggled against every sort of adversity, including a local hostile Arab population, to build up the land of Israel.
Today there are still chalutzim in the land of Israel. People who have left their comfortable homes in golus and pre-1967 Israel to build up the remaining parts of Israel that were stolen from us in 1949 and returned by the help of God after the Six Day War.
However, unlike the original chalutzim, these brave men and women are subjected to a different treatment by today's historians and social programmers. To put it simply, the Israeli left has spent the last 15 years demonizing them as obstacles to peace and a threat to the future of the State because they supposedly illegaly occupy so-called Palestinian land.
Never mind the facts: That what today is Israel and Jordan was promised as a Jewish National Home by the League of Nations and the Great Britian in 1922. Or that Jordan was spliced off by Winston Churchill to reward Arab allies from the First World War despite this solmen agreement. Or that the Arabs never recognized the 1947 United Nations partition plan and, until this day, continue to reject the idea of two states west of the Jordan River. Never mind that this lack of recognition meant the occupation by Jordan and Egypt of Yesha was never recognized by the international community (until, curiously enough, 1967!) and that these territories remained as "unclaimed".
Rmember: Israel's pre-1967 borders are the armistice lines of 1949. Had Israel managed to conquer Yesha before being forced into an unfavourable ceasefire, there would never have been a "West Bank" and today the Arabs would be forced to state to all what they say to each other in Arabic: they consider all of Israel to be occupied Palestine.
Never mind all that: it's convenient to demonize our chalutzim.
It is, however, especially galling when Israelis themselves participate in this stupidity. Time was, the Israelis had a saying: ein bereirah. The majority, even those on the left, recognized that Israel was surrounded by hostile enemies that wanted to wipe it out and that unilateral concessions in pursuit of an illusory peace would be potentially fatal.
Not anymore. Since the madeness of the Oslo Discord infected the intelligentsia of the State, the idea of wanting a strong, united Israel and putting its survival and success first has come to be seen as a form of fascist hatred. Yet, as this article in Haaretz suprisingly points out (since Haaretz prides itself on being front and center when it comes to attack our brave pioneers), the hypocrisy of this intelligentsia knows no bounds:
Much has been written about an Israeli prime minister who was suspected of criminal activity but shielded from criticism so he could advance the "correct policy." And none other than President Shimon Peres recently extolled the virtues of Abie Nathan, founder of the offshore pirate radio station The Voice of Peace, who violated the law and said what a good thing it was to do so. Barely anyone reminded the president of the ideologues running a pirate radio station on the "other" side, who violated the law so their voices could be heard from aboard the Arutz Sheva ship. Unlike Nathan, they did not merit immunity from the law and were punished for breaking it.
One must beware of those who talk about the greatness of the rule of law even as their hearts are full of hatred when it comes to the Other. What does Talia Sasson, the champion of the rule of law when it comes to illegal outpost construction, have to say about the tens of thousands of illegal buildings constructed by Bedouin and Arabs in the Galilee, Negev and East Jerusalem? And when was the last time the left wing or the media criticized the anarchists who attack Israel Defense Forces soldiers near the West Bank separation fence the same way they criticize the settlers? Why is the press interested in how much money Israeli taxpayers have to pay for security at right-wing rallies, while the cost of left-wing rallies is irrelevant? Why is there extensive media coverage when police refrain from raiding an outpost due to fear of clashes with settlers, but not when police refrain from chasing Arabs who steal cars, cattle and agricultural equipment along the seam line between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods and in Judea and Samaria? Take, for instance, the many articles about the body of the Palestinian shepherd whom the Palestinians accused the settlers of murdering - and the silence that greeted the news from the police laboratory that there had been no murder at all, that a dud shell caused the shepherd's death. Are the facts relevant only when they hew to the line? In a few weeks the country will commemorate the 13th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. In the eyes of his supporters, those who object to the legacy attributed to Rabin are just as terrible and out of bounds as the assassination itself. In this matter too, the accusatory finger the left points at the right is generalized and inflammatory, to the point where half the country finds itself alienated from the memorial day. From the perspective of the left and the media, settlers have become the ultimate Other, mainly because of the ideological threat that they, religious Zionists and anyone who identifies with them poses to those who pride themselves on an absence of ideology. The Kadima party, with its blurred identity and limited values, is just one example of this. The settlers - in the path they have chosen, in their faith and even in their appearance - represent the exact opposite. That is their sin, and that is their reward.

Those of us who see the big picture, who know history and can see past the politically correct lies that have been forced upon us, should be prapred to point this out to the appeasers and their friends. Either that, or once again it's time to tell them: Just shut up!

A Needless Ritual

I've never been a fan of the "traditional" form of kapparot. The idea of tormenting a bird that I might not even be able to eat afterwards has always bothered me. The further idea that somehow my sins will be transferred onto the chicken (didn't I chuck them into the river already during tashlich?) strikes me as bizarre.
Fortunately, I'm in good company. In the Shulcah Aruch, OC 605:1, the Mechaber considers it a polytheistic ritual. Even though the Rema disagrees, his is far from a ringing endorsement of the practice.
Which is a shame because the idea behind kapparot is a nice one that gets lost in the annual cries of "animal cruelty" that are too often justfied. Personally I use money and donate it to charity, sometimes to the local kosher food bank so people can get their holiday meals without having to abuse any birds in the process.

Inmates Running the Asylum

Just in case you thought Sukkos was about Jews celebrating the greated of the Ribono Shel Olam together, some residents of Meah She'arim would like you to know this is not true:
Any women who may be planning to attend the traditional Simchat Beit Hashoeva festivities (water-drawing festival) in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim this Sukkot may want to think twice, as they may no be allowed to enter the area.
The last two years have also seen Meah Shearim's streets divided into men and women's galleries for the sake of chastity; but this year's festivities have been clouded by a demand made by the extreme groups within the neighborhood's community, such as the Sicarii, which demand women be kept out of the festival altogether.
Some of the splinter groups have even gone as far as threatening to forcibly prevent women from entering the area; gathering some 2,000 signatures to that effect and threatening to use "a foul-smelling chemical agent" to drive people away.
Now, I sure that if you confront any of your local Chareidi PR men, they'll assure you that the people making these demands are extremists whose views are not representative of the general community. (Unless you'r Rav Avi Shafran who would either deny these extremists exist or would try to convince you that their attitude is actually the authentic mainstream Jewish one.)
And these PR men are probably right. What I've noted before and what never gets mentioned in public forums because it's not flashy or newsworthy is that the average Chareidi is a normal person with a different lifestyle who just wants to live and let live, like anyone else. We only see the crazies because they stand out and, consciously or subconsciously, decide that everyone in their community is like them. But when push comes to shove, who will be guarding the entrance to Meah Shearim's narrow streets? Reasonable folks who will politely explaining to visitors that the area is restricted to locals or thugs with pepper spray? And if it's the thugs, would does that say about the leadership of the community and its ability to run its own affairs?
But two things in particular in this article caught my attention. The first is the name of the fringe group mentioned: Sicarii. Who were the Sicarii? For those for whom Tisha B'Av is only a murky memory:
On one occasion they kidnaped the secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple, but liberated him in exchange for ten of their comrades ("Ant." xx. 9, § 3). At the beginning of the war against the Romans, the Sicarii, with the help of other Zealots, gained secret access to Jerusalem, where they committed atrocious acts. Their leaders, including Menahem b. Jair, Eleazar b. Jair, and Bar Giora, were among the important figures of this war;
The Sicarii resorted to terror to obtain their objective. Under their cloaks they concealed sicae, or small daggers, from which they received their name. At popular assemblies, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they stabbed their enemies (Romans or Roman sympathizers, Herodians, and wealthy Jews comfortable with Roman rule), lamenting ostentatiously after the deed to blend into the crowd to escape detection. Literally, Sicarii meant "dagger-men".
The victims of the Sicarii included Jonathan the High Priest, though it is possible that his murder was orchestrated by the Roman governor Felix. Some of their murders were met with severe retaliation by the Romans on the entire Jewish population of the country. On some occasions, they could be bribed to spare their intended victims. If the narrative of Barabbas is not an invention to create a parable, even convicted Sicarii were occasionally released on promising to spare their opponents, though there is no evidence for this practice outside the Gospels, which are largely in accord on this point. Once, Josephus relates, after kidnapping the secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple precincts, they agreed to release him in exchange for ten of their captured comrades
The Sicarii were a major part of the societal schism that led to the fall of Yerushalayim and the destruction of our Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days. And this group, which supposedly wants to safeguard the "purity" of the Meah Shearim community, has taken their name?
Unfortunately, in all this a quite reasonable part of the article might have been missed:
Let it be made clear that this year we will not allow tourists and visitors to stroll in our streets at all hours of the night, under any circumstances.
Having visited Meah Shearim as part of a non-religious tour group many years ago, I can empathize with this part of the community's concerns. I recall the "briefing" our group (grade 11 students from North America) were given by our chiloni tour guide. We were instructed how to dress, how to act, and told not to point or make offensive exclamations. However, on the day of the tour, the female co-leader of our group showed up wearing pants while two of the girls wore shorts, insisting that they would not be told what they could wear by religious extremists. And yes, many of us stared at the locals as we walked through the streets, not unlike how we would have looked at animals in a zoo. If this happens on a regular basis, is it any wonder that the locals of Meah Shearim are sick of it and angry about it?
This is the unfortunate part of the article. A reasonable demand to be respected and left alone, buried amidst news that the looneys are running the looney bin.

Shifting the Blame

By now people who follow the Israeli news scene have read about the Yom Kippur riots in Akko. This isn't the first time that riots have occured in this city. In 2006, during Simchas Torah, Arabs also took advantage of the holiday to take "offense" to the public behaviour of the Jewish students of a local yeshivah - apparently they were dancing in the streets with their Torahs and enjoying themselves - and rioted as well.
Back then, the police arrived and, much to the surprise of the yeshiva students, ignored the violent Arab group and arrested various yeshivah students while also disarming their guard. And just like in 2006, when the dust settled, guess who the police blamed?
The dominant elements behind the riots in Akko seem to be Jewish instigators, Northern District Police Commander, Major-General Shimon Koren, told Ynet on Sunday.
"We have no intention of letting up. We know who's behind the incitement and the arson. It's a very small group of people and they will be dealt with to the full extent of the law," he added.

This, despite the general consensus on how the riots started:
The northern city of Akko has seen four days of stormy riots, as Jews and Arab resident began clashing after an Arab motorist drove into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, in which traffic traditionally halts.
So, the Arabs display behaviour which offends the religious sensitivity of the local Jewish population and when hostilities break out, the Jews get blamed. Now, let's look at the polar oppsite: let's say that a Jew had entered an Arab neighbourhood during one of their holidays and displayed what they would have considered offensive behaviour? Would it be ignored?
Are you kidding? Not only would Akko have erupted in city wide riots, most of the Arab centers around the country would have also erupted in "sympathy" with their offended brethren. No doubt EU observers would be called in to "monitor" the situation and condemn Israel for its insensitivites to minorities and non-Jewish religion.
This anti-Jewish attitude is millenia old. It doesn't seem to matter how something starts. We always seem to be to blame. But it's more disconcerting when a Jewish police chief is now the one doing this. Not exactly how the Zionist dream was supposed to turn out.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Intentional Ignorance

In his latest piece for Ynet, Uri Orbach points out something that has been a bother to me for some time.
My friend Kobi Arieli once told me that while visiting the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem he encountered an ultra-Orthodox teacher, near the tiger’s cage, telling his students in Yiddish that it was in fact a lion. When Kobi corrected him, the teacher said, in Yiddish: “Lion, tiger, what’s the difference?”
We are told that knowledge is power, yet it appears that often the fear of displaying too much knowledge is one of the characteristics of religious and ultra-Orthodox discourse. Even though there is no mitzvah that prompts us to confuse tigers and lions, religious people nonetheless have a tendency to convey the sense that general knowledge is minor and insignificant vis-à-vis familiarity with the Torah.
One is allowed to know a little bit about the ways of the world, but this isn’t truly important, because “the Torah contains everything.” Therefore, it is even appropriate to display blatant contempt towards everything that represents the achievements of modern society. This is the case in the face of scientific innovation, and certainly in the face of “culture produced by sinners.” Ignorance is power, too.

How much important information is contained in this short part of the article! Within the Chareidi community, there does exist a certain pride at not knowing about the outside world, as if to say: See, my mind is uncontaminated with tumah. When the Toronto Blue Jays were in their first World Series back in the early 1990's, the Rav of the shul I was attending in Toronto gleamed with pride as he explained that he had no idea that Toronto's major league ball team was making history as the first Canadian team to be in the Series. Yes, he vaguely recalled that Cleveland had a baseball team but knew nothing of the sports fever gripping the streets.
More than that, there is an act put on by some chozrei b'teshuvah who, unable to live with their lack of ignorance of the outside world due to their formerly sinful lifestyle, learn to feign ignorance. They forget about that concert they attended, or what a Big Mac tasted like. After all, keeping those factoids in their minds would mean their former tumah is still present too.
But it's one thing not to know how the Toronto Blue Jays are doing this year or that Dr. Pepper made a ridiculous deal with Axl Rose to finally get Chinese Democracy released some time this year. {Cue laughter} It is quite another, however, to feel pride or indifference in not knowing the difference between a lion and a tiger. That doesn't bespeak of a pure Torah education. It bespeaks of stupidity.
To say that everything is contained in the Torah is just plain wrong. How do we know this is so? The Torah itself tells us in the second Tochachah: "Also every sickness and every plaque which is not written in the book of this Law, them will the Lord bring upon thee until thou be destroyed." (Dev. 28:61) The Torah is God's Will, revealed unto us, the source of his Law for this world and the guide to our lives but it is not a science textbook, a history textbook or a math textbook. Yet does this mean we must remain ignorant of science, history and math because the Torah does not deal with them? And what to do with the mishnah in Avos that tells us that "everything is in it"? (Avos 5:22)
The answer is that the Torah, being our guide to life, is relevant to every facet of that life. It is the consort that leads us through the wide world full of information God has created for us. It tells us what is appropriate to learn and what is right to avoid. A movie about how DNA works would be approved, while one about donkeys getting it on with Scottish Highlanders would (probably) be frowned on. It is a good thing to learn about science and medicine so that one can lead a healthy, productive life and enhance God's creation through his efforts to improve them. It is wrong to believe that science is more than just a tool, to engage in scientism as a false religion instead of keeping God's Torah. In all cases of interaction with the outside world, the Torah guides us but the interaction is necessary in the first place!
The most confident, fulfilled Jew is the one who faces the outside world head on, knowing that the Torah has the answers to all its challenges and who then takes what God has created and fashions it as a tool to enhance his Torah observance. Anything else is either a concession to the secular or a ghetto-ignorance that is no longer appropriate.

More Bafflegab on Agriprocessors

Although I instinctively don't like it, I do understand why there's a "circle the wagons" mentality in some parts of the frum community whenever something important to them is challenged. For centuries this was a necessary reaction to the hugely anti-Semitic world around them. More often than not, it was an appropriate defense to a trumped up charge - blood in the matzos, controlling the world financial system and other such lies.
Unfortunately, the same reaction persists today even when the community is confronted with an obvious failing on its part. One of the biggest examples these days is the ongoing revelations of pedophilia and child abuse within the Orthodox yeshiva system. As many other bloggers are doing an excellent job documenting this, I've left the issue alone. The other big current issue seems to be the ongoing Agriprocessor saga.
Indeed, what's happening with Agriprocessors seems to exemplify how far this "circle the wagons" tactic will go. Consider the recent column by Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein. Like one of his fellow Agudah apologists, Rav Avi Shafran, he seems to have decided that no matter how many charges are levelled against the Rubashkin family company, it is the duty of a "good" Jew to disbelieve that any wrong doing has taken place and that those who are protesting against the massive amounts of chilul Hashem coming out of Postville are, in fact, the real enemies of the Torah observant community.
Yes, the Hechsher Tzedek is a bad idea. After all, the vast majority of Conservatives don't keep properly kosher in the first place. And as both Rav Shafran and Rav Adlerstein point out, it will likely be hijacked by union-friendly groups to create many new requirements that have nothing to do with American labour law but rather socialist grievances with the capitalist system.
But that doesn't change what's happening with Agriprocessors. The documented incidents of cruelty to animals, the 9000 plus charges regarding child labour, illegal labour and unsafe working conditions, the attempts by the Rubashkins to villify their opponents, all these remain issues. Rav Shafran and Rav Adlerstein simply don't get it: It doesn't matter if the meat is kosher. It matters that the environment the meat is produced in isn't.
As Rav Basil Herring, head of the RCA noted in The Jewish Week, it would be so hard to create a working version of the Hechsher Tzedek that avoids all the potential problems with union hijacking:
Rabbi Herring said the guidelines would have two parts. In the first part, a company would make a commitment to act in accordance with all civil laws and regulations.
Rav Shafran's response in the same article is baffling:
“A big part of our concern is that the hekhsher tzedek is perceived and promoted for kosher food producers,” he said. “Limiting a hekhsher or guideline to kosher food producers alone when the same concerns apply to seminaries and synagogues and widget manufacturers would be perceived by people as if there is some central interrelationship between kashrut and ethics.
“If you want to empower ethics in the Jewish community, it should be done through halachic means,” Rabbi Shafran continued. “There is no reason to begin with the empowerment of ethical behavior in one aspect of Jewish life, rather it should be aimed at all business, social and personal concerns.”

Am I the only one who has a problem with his concern that people will perceive that there is a relationship between kashrus and ethics? Of course there's an interrelationship! Observing God's laws is supposed to be about leading an objectively ethical life. If you live in a house bought with stolen funds and the maid who cooks your dinner is an underaged illegal immigrant, does the meat being glatt make you a good Jew with nothing to worry about? Can we so completely compartmentalize bein Adam l'Makom from bein Adam l'chaveiro?
Proper Orthodox Jews should expect more than such simple, hypocritical thinking.