Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

In the Name of Freedom

Years and years ago, I spent a week in Tel Aviv over Pesach. Due to the holiday my friends and I accepted that certain foods would either been unavailable or radically altered. We ordered hotdogs from Miss Lucy's off of Dizengoff Square and instead of hot dog buns we got matzah, rapidly turning mushy from the ketchup and mustard on them. At night we went looking for beer but had to settle for dry red wine. We shrugged and accepted it. In a world where billions lack clean water out of their taps or any water at all, where billions live in oppressive states that murder and rob with impunity, this was at most a minor inconvenience.
But not for one of my classmates. He decided he wanted a ham and cheese sandwich and searched the downtown district high and low until he found a small hole-in-the-wall place that would make him one. And then, prize in hand, he marched proudly out onto the street for all to see his triumph over religious oppression.
For him it was a glorious victory over fundamentalist fanatics. For me it was "What, you couldn't have waited seven days?"
I'm not about religious coercion. One of the most important foundations of Judaism is the freedom of will God gave us to carry out his Torah. If people are forced to observe the law then where is the choice? Where is the glory of God in our actions?
But something about people who davka go looking for chometz on Pesach to show people that they're not one of us primitive religious types really annoys me. It's the pettiness, the childishness wrapped up in wonderful phrases like "freedom from religious oppression". It's not about your right to eat a ham sandwich whenever you want. It's about showing off like a small child who's just outfoxed his parents and gotten away with something he should have, the "nah! nah! you can't catch me!" attitude.
Is a ham sandwich on Pesach such an important symbol? Does anyone really believe you're making a statement of freedom to the world? The person isn't, of course. In reality, they're showing they're still enslaved to their materialistic desires. This isn't about liberation. It's about not being able to put aside one's personal desires for SEVEN WHOLE DAYS in the name of tradition.
Honestly, in a world where billions are either straving or on the verge of it, you can't put up with Pesach food for a week? You can't stop eating for one day in Tishrei? You can't sit inside a sukkah on some of the most pleasant days of the year?
For those who observe Pesach k'hilchaso, this demonstration of an inabilty to control one's lusts is a perfect reminder of the true freedom the holiday granted us. Instead of being slaves to our inclinations and animalistic desires, we overcome them with our unique human intelligence and spirituality. We learn to say "no" to ourselves in the name of a greater good.
And the best part? We don't even suffer.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Nah, Nah, I Can't See You So You're Not There

Like Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, the Hartmann Institute in Israel is an "Orthodox" institution, only that its definition of Orthodoxy si somewhat different from maintain Torah observant Judaism. If anything, the Hartmann Institute is worse in that Rav Avi Weiss still has (for now) some red lines he won't cross because he still recognizes you cannot honestly call yourself Orthodox if you allow certain things that Orthodox tradition does not allow. The Hartmann Institute knows no such red lines. In traditional left wing fashion, they feel free to advertise themselves as Orthodox and traditional because they feel they are, their lack of Orthodoxy and traditionalism not withstanding.
For whatever weird reason, a movement away from Torah true values is usually accompanied by a strong attachment to classic left wing liberalism. And one of the great tenets of left wing liberalism is a selective appreciate of democracy: the system only works when a left wing government is in power or a supreme court has a left wing majority. Otherwise the system isn't "representative" of the people under it, because it would be left wing if it was, because only left wing folks count.
Hence the declaration by Donniel Hartman that the Israeli right wing is dead. Never mind that Likud staged a stunning resurrection in the last election and that the only reason it didn't do better is because the even more right wing Yisrael Beiteinu grabbed a good number of seats. For Hartman this is no proof:
As is evidenced, however, over the last four weeks of Netanyahu's coalition discussions, it is clear that there is no right-wing majority within Israeli society.
His ongoing attempt to court Kadima and Labor signifies that he himself is not so easily subjected to right-wing classification. Netanyahu knows full well that the 65-seat coalition he might be able to form is not an ideologically united group, but one of deeply varying ideologies and interests that will fundamentally make his leadership on almost any issue, foreign or internal, impossible. While he nominally ran as leader of the so-called right-wing bloc, it is not his preference for the future of the country. Netanyahu's natural partners are Kadima and Labor, and he knows that.
There are many words to describe Netanyahu but centrist isn't one of them. Unlike Olmert and Livni who come from proper right wing backgrounds but betrayed them for the sake of power and friendly receptions in anti-Semitic European society, Netanyahu has not given up on his beliefs. Yes, he tried to form a coalition with Kadima. How better to reabsorb the former Likudniks who bolted his party with Ariel Sharon and discredit the left side of the worst group of
opportunists the country has ever seen? Has he tried to court Barak and Labour? Of course, and for two reasons. One is that Barak is probably the most competent defence minister the Knesset can offer (although that's not saying much) and secondly, making Labour a junior party in the government is the Likud's way of kicking someone who's already down.
The only reason Netanyahu cannot form a pure right wing coalition is not because the right wing in Israel is lacking. It's very much alive and it won the last election. The reason is the selfishness of the various right wing parties, none of which are prepared to put the good of the country above their own selfish agendas. (By the way, it's no different on the left). So when Hartman notes:
What does this really mean for Israeli society? If the election had any outcome, it was not the victory of the so-called right, nor the defeat of the so-called left, but rather the clear defeat of both
He is simply denying reality because reality doesn't reflect what he believes. Contrary to his preferred and enlightened opinion, Israeli society is very polarized. In the previous election, the one that brought Kadima to power, society was in a left wing mood, prepared to make compromise and punish those "religious fanatics" in 'Aza who were insolently pro-Zionist. This time, having lived through two failed wars, they had swung the other way.
The right wing in Israel is defined by one simple belief: Israel's interest in survival and thrivign are the most important thing. The Israeli left is defined by the opposite belief: Israel's interest is in appeasing implacable enemies even at the cost of national suicide. Seen from that angle, Hartman's believe in the death of the Israeli Right is so much empty wishing.

Birthright: A Waste of Money

A brainchild of one of the Bronfmans, Birthright is a program that gives young Jewish North Americans who have never been to Israel a free trip to the Holy Land. The idea is:
Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.
In theory, it's a great idea. Take Jewish kids with an imperfect connection to their Judaism, take them to the Land of the Jews and attach them to their heritage. Then when they come home, these youths will feel more of an attachment to our people and be more involved for the rest of their lives. Does it work? Apparently not.
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.
Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.
That’s one of the findings of “
Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.
According to the survey, 44% participate in no Jewish activites after returning home. Only 5% participate in 5 or more. I don't know what the definition of a Jewish activity is but I'm really willing to bet showing up at 7 am on Monday morning with tefillin at the ready for davening isn't one of them.
Should this be a surprise to anyone? I don't really think so. A couple of years ago I ran into a Birthright tour group in Israel. The crowd looked oddly familiar, composed of the usual young men with a two day growth of stubble and Roots sweatshifts and the usual young girls clad in tons of gold and outfits that would make the Russian hookers on the Tel Aviv boardwalk blush with embarassment. I spoke with them for a while to get a sense of their day. Yes, they'd gone to the museum and taken a hike someone but what they were really looking forward to was the pub crawl that evening.
The true measure of the distinctiveness of the program is how interchangeable it is. If Birthright agendae could be copied on a trip to Italy or England, then it's not really anything special. It's just a free trip for some Jewish kids, the majority of whom have parents who could afford to pay, to a far off country where they can meet foreigners and try new beers.
The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.
“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.
Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

Right, they want to be proud of being Jewish but none of that old time "religion" thank you. But if you were to ask these young folk what Judaism is, they would most likely respond: it's a religion. They reject that which makes one Jewish: commitment to a social and legal code given to us by God at Mount Sinai. But then they worry about assimilation and marrying Jewish. So what is it they're asking for?
“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”
They come back hungry all right. Hungry for the next free meal.

If They Don't Like It, Let Them Contribute

Hat tip: DaatTorah

The ever anti-Jewish The New York Times ran a recent piece looking at religious-secular tensions in the Israeli army. Naturally, the bias in the piece was obvious: the religious soliders in Tzahal are a bunch of messianic fanatics ready to liberate all of Greater Israel with blood and fire... oops, sorry, that's the Arab slogan.
Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”
Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.
“If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren’t representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?” he said. “To whom do we complain?”

Now to understand the problem with this excerpt, it is important to understand some history about the Tzahal. Traditionally the kibbutzim, especially the Labour Zionist ones, have been the source of the best soldiers and offiers. Look at the higher echelons of the army and you don't have to try hard to find kibbutnikim serving in most important roles.
However, over the last couple of decades with the slide amongst Labour Zionists into post-Zionist self-hatred, this predominance has been challenged. What's worse, the principle challenge has come from the Religious Zionist community which is especially galling to Labour Zionism. After all, one of the principle of the secular Zionist movement is that Israel was meant to be a socialist and non-religious state both because of the ideology of the movement's leaders and because of the widespread belief that Torah Judaism was a ghetto religion incapable of handling the burdens of running a modern country. However, the latter assumption was disproven decades ago. Now with Religious Zionism starting to predominate in the army, another assumption has been shattered, that secular Zionists make the best soldiers. And this is something the Israeli left can't seem to come to terms with.
As the article goes on to note:
In many cases, the religious nationalists have ascended to command positions from precisely the kind of premilitary college course that Mr. Zamir runs — but theirs are run by the religious movements rather than his secular one, meaning that the competition between him and them is both ideological and careerist.
“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies,” noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor who co-wrote the military code of ethics and who is himself religiously observant but politically liberal. “The religious right is trying to have an impact on Israeli society through the army.”
For Mr. Halbertal, like for the vast majority of Israelis, the army is an especially sensitive institution because it has always functioned as a social cauldron, throwing together people from all walks of life and scores of ethnic and national backgrounds, and helping form them into a cohesive society with social networks that carry on throughout their lives.

Well yes, that sounds about right. But why doesn't Professor Halbertal also note that for the first four decades of that State's existence, the same thing happened except that it was the ultra-secular kibbutzniks who were the influential onces having an impact on society?
But for me, the bottom line is to look at why the Religious Zionist movement has become such an important part of the army: because they're the only community in Israel that makes no bones about sending their children to participate in Tzahal.
The Chareidim don't go because of so-called religious reasons. As a result, they have little influence on the army and general society. As a result, they are dismissed as parasites willing to rely on the protection Tzahal provides but without helping contribute to it.
But more and more, the Israeli left no longer willingly sends their children to Tzahal. But unlike the Chaareidim, they avoid the opprobium that draft dodging should bring with it. Withhigh minded terms such as "conscientous objection" and celebrity dodgers like Ehud Olmert's children, they are seen as taking the "moral high road".
But unlike the Chareidim who make token protests as to how the army runs itself (which even they don't take seriously) the Israeli Left still intends for the army they are less and less likely to support to remain a secular organization despite the growing numbers of religious youth fighting to protect our Land.
If the Left doesn't like it, let them help out. If they're not going to, then let them shut up.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Moving Yet Further From Orthodoxy

It's no secret to those following the political trends in the Modern Orthodox community that Yeshiva Chovevei Torah is moving further and further from even a generous defintion of left wing Modern Orthodoxy. Dabbling in interfaith dialogues, participating in forums that grant equal religious legitimacy to non-observant rabbis, and a push towards egalitarianism that resembles something out of the Jewish Theological Seminary's brain trust are all hallmarks of that organization. Indeed, one might be tempted to ask: other than a token mechitzah during davening, what is the different between YCT and the right wing of Conservatism?
And to emphasize this blurring of the definition:
“If a rabbi by definition is a teacher with knowledge, what moral justification is there to prevent women from being rabbis?”That question was posed, in writing, to a panel of five young Orthodox rabbis, graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), from an audience member on Sunday night at the rabbinical school’s annual dinner, held at the Ramaz Upper School.Alexander Kaye, rabbinic assistant at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, elicited applause from many among the more than 300 people in attendance with his one-word reply: “None.”
Yes, well. First of all, a rabbi may by definition be a teacher with knowledge but a Rav is not. He is not only a teacher, but also a guide, moral influence and leader. But he is more than that. He is also a legal authority in a system that recognizes legal differences between men and women and which also places restrictions on unfettered interactions between the genders. It's not politically correct, it's not very liberal, but it is a fact of Judaism.
As a result, a woman can be a teacher. She can be a yoetzet, but she cannot be a Rav.
So then why the urge to boldly go where Conservatism and Reform have already gone? Well, there's this gem of a reason:
the yeshiva prides itself on bucking the prevailing trends in the Orthodox world of insularity, centralized rabbinic power and a certain narrowness of halachic interpretation, according to Rabbi Weiss.
Ah yes, change for the sake of change. To what end, one might ask. Has YCT created a more robust form of Torah observance? Are YCT rabbinic scholars as scholarly as their Chareidi or Mizrachi counterparts? Are they able to darshan at the same level of depth? Are they as commited to punctilious performance of thsoe mitzvos that go against secular liberal trends? And if the answer is no, then what's the point of YCT's boldness? How it is creating a better observant Jew?
Those close to Rabbi Weiss say that he would like to give Hurwitz the full rabbinic title but feels that to do so would marginalize his yeshiva in the mainstream Orthodox community and, in practical terms, make it more difficult for its graduates to find posts at Orthodox institutions.
Someone should tell Rav Weiss that it's already too late for that. One cannot question the sincerity of his graduates, or their desire to perform their duties with honesty, diligence and integrity but the best of intentions won't qualify someone for a position in NASA's astronaut program, nor as they enough to qualify as a truly observant Rav.
But why the rush to push where there's no need to push? After all, the successful parts of the observant community, especially the Chareidi parts, have no need to discuss this issue. For them it's a non-starter. What's so different about YCT that it feels it needs to create a problem in this area that will further marginalize themselves? The answer can be found in this article on the future direction of Conservativism:
“One of the greatest frustrations is that the United Synagogue is not transparent or sufficiently responsive to the needs of the synagogue,” the executive, Rabbi Steven Wernick, told The Jewish Week. “I want to re-energize and re-engage the synagogues by creating priorities and an agenda of the United Synagogue and therefore also the movement.
If one starts off on the wrong foot, one usually ends up tripping on one's face. In that case, Wernick's entire underlying assumption is indicative of his metophorical wrong foot.
Here's the dirty secret about real Judaism: it's a home-based religion, not a synagogue-based one. The principle mitzvos that occupy the highest importance in Jewish life, like Shabbos, kashrus and taharas mishpacha, are all centred on the home. A Jew can live in a town without a shul and lead a fully observant life but the same cannot be said if he has a shul but no Judaism in his home.
Conservatism's religious downfall has been its failure to understand this basic Jewish fact. By emphasizing the shul, by working to make it egalitarian, it has neglected the home and paid for it by alienating and assimilating its potential future recruits. Is YCT following a similar path?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A Valid Exclusion

If there's one thing Conservatives and Reformers don't like, it's not being taken seriously by their Torah observant counterparts. Never mind their dismissal of the Torah, both written and oral. Never mind their refusal to adhere to the traditional authority structure of our people. Never mind they spend more time worrying about secular liberal mores than Torah observant traditions. How dare you call them non-religious?
The latest affront to their sensitivities came this week in Israel:
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) hosted a Roundtable Forum on Sunday to discuss issues of religion and state in Israel, focusing on the Shabbat, conversions and marriage.
Although the institute maintains that it 'seeks to involve all sectors within Israeli society in dialogue concerning these all-important national dilemmas," the Masorti movement in Israel, which is affiliated with Conservative Judaism, claims that the institute systematically excludes representatives of the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel from such forums.
The movement's Executive Director Yizhar Hess and its president, Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, sent a letter to IDI's president Dr. Arye Carmon on Sunday in which they strongly protested the institute's failure to invite Masorti and Reform representatives to the meeting.

"Is it even conceivable that on such matters as conversions or civil marriages the opinion of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism will not be heard?," they asked in the letter, stating that the two movements "have converted and married off thousands of people in Israel, they deal with the complex reality of the relations between state and religion on a daily basis, and represent a wide public in Israel and a huge public across the world."

Let's dispel some misconceptions. The first is that the Conservatives and Reformers are a strong feature in Israeli religious life. They're not. They're a small minority that even the vast majority of secular Israelis don't take seriously. In North America, surrounding by denominational Chrisianity, these two groups have created the impression that Judaism is also a denominational religion and therefore they have as much authenticity as observant Jews as Prostestants calling themselves observant Chrisians. In Israel, surrounding by far more religious certainty: Islam, Chrisianity, Judaism, the idea of denominationalism is far more obscure.
The second is that they have anything to say at a conference on Jewish law and tradition. I mean really, what could they contribute The Reformer would say that everything is permitted as long as it doesn't offend any politically correct principles, the Conservative would talk about some vote their rabbinical assembly had on the subject, and they would both wax poetically about how religion is supposed to be this happy, no-obligation feel-good experience and how dare those Orthodox go about excluding everybody.
The proof?
The letter also noted that the IDI did not invite the two movements to a conference on "Zionist Halacha" held earlier this year, to which politicians, Orthodox rabbis and non-religious academics had been invited. "This is proof of systematic exclusion as a worldview," the letter asserted.
These two groups don't know what halacha is. So why invite them?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Selective Gratitude

A recent post over at Modern Orthoprax really illuminates the limited thinking of the so-called skeptics and I'd like to comment on that.
The problem of evil in the world is one that has bedevilled thinkers from cultures all around the world for millenia. Jewish thought has not shirked from dealing with this issue and providing answers. Unfortunately, if your agenda before reading these answers is already pre-decided, they're not likely to be of much use to you.
The first, most important answer, is that evil is not a contradiction of the goodness of God. While other cultures dealt with the issue of evil by either inventing a powerful anti-god figure for their theology (the devil in Chrisian mythos, for example), others dealt with it by creating a dual system of gods, one good, one evil (the Zoroastrians, for example). Judaism, with its strict undertstanding of the allmighty nature and total unity of God, could not accept either of these approaches.
Even within Jewish though there have been different approaches. Closet non-believers have advance the theory of God not really being that omnipotent. This approach is interesting but completely at odds with what little understanding we have of God. It also has the disadvantage of making no sense. God can create the entire universe but He can't stop a child from getting cancer, chalilah.
Other, more intelligent and faithful religious thinker have attacked the issue as well and come up with answers that do not a priori require one to refute fundamental Jewish principles. This post isn't the place to review their persuasive arguments but rather I would like to note that this issue has been dealt with seriously by committed Jewish leaders who are sincerely bothered by the idea of evil and need to understand its role in Creation.
All this is lost on some folks who can take all the effort made by these great men and dismiss it in a sentence or two. Naturally they don't see that this casual dismissal reflects more on their stupid self-centred arrogance than on the works they are disparaging.
But beyond that, once in a while they themselves will admit their limited logic.
In response to XHG's idea that cancer is evil because it kills little children, I noted that cancer itself isn't actually evil. It's a disease with no ulterior or malicious motives. It kills because that's what cancer does. To which his response was: You're right. Cancer's not evil. God is.
Now consider how stupid that statement is. Here's the bottom line of XGH's thinking:
This child has cancer. That's evil. God gave it to her, therefore He is evil.
I have good health. That's good. But there's nothing deeper to it than that. God doesn't give me good health. Therefore I don't have to consider God good.
From the book of Iyov Chazal learn that we have to bless God for both the good (hatov vehametiv) and the bad (dayan haemes). But why bless him for the bad? One could easily acknowledge God's role in even the bad things in our lives by a different formula: Dear God, please take this badness you allowed to afflict me away! Why davka bless Him for it?
From our limited perspective, we too often ignore that which is good and right in our lives and focus only on that which discomfits us. Did you wake up healthy this morning? Big deal, matter of routine, it's coming to me really. Did I get a bad headache and have to miss that family party this afternoon? Dammit, why did God allow this to happen?
What we perceive as good and evil are our perceptions. That's legitimate since it's all we have to work with, but we still have to take a step back and realize that those perceptions are limited to our temporal, mortal conceptions of reality. The big picture, the grand unifying scheme that God runs the universe with is beyond us. What we perceive as evil is only so because we don't see that bigger scheme. So we recognize it, rail against it but at the same time recognize it is as much from God as what we perceive as good. And just as we must always be aware of the presence of God when something goes wrong, we must also be aware when things go right. In truth there is no meaningless normal routine to the day.
Except for skeptics who want only the good because, well the definition of "God is good" equals "God gives me everything I ask for without expecting anything back because that's what I think is 'good'". And if God says no, well that's just wrong.

Getting Closer to a Sensible Solution

A few years ago, after a mohel in the New York area allegedly gave two neonates herpes as a result of his use of metzitzah b'peh during the ceremony, there were calls for banning the direct sucking of blood from the penis by the mohel. Interestingly halacha provides support for both the indispensibility and dispensibility of direct metzitzah b'peh so the call to protect the health of neonates was certainly not an attack on Judaism or halachic observance. Of course, the Chareidi community predictably announced that it was and got its leadership to declare that metzizah b'peh is the only way. (Kinda catchy when you rhyme peh with way)
As passions over the issue have cooled, it's nice to see an experienced mohel weigh in with what sounds like a practical solution. As opposed to those who would dismiss the concerns of one side or another, he acknowledges the concerns of both and comes up with an interesting compromise solution:
Relative to other surgeries, bris milah is a simple procedure, with a surprisingly low risk rate. At the same time, an incision, an open wound and the removal of skin tissue necessitate precautions which will minimize danger to the child. The parents and the mohel must be on the same page on this latter point.
In an operating room, a surgeon takes many precautions to minimize the chance of bacterial infection reaching the patient. Mohels should be held to these same standards when operating on infant boys. It is understood, of course, that the public nature of the ceremony makes complete sterility an impossibility. Nonetheless, we are a far cry from where standards should be...

A mohel who washes his hands and is careful not to shake others’ hands should be commended. But when he adjusts his pants, head-covering, lab coat or tallis, not to mention his instrument bag or a bottle of wine while laying out instruments, he has negated any previous hand washing.
Some mohels will operate with bare hands “sterilized” by alcohol or Purell. Nice as this is, touching the pillow, baby, sandak, and baby’s diaper make previous efforts meaningless. Additionally, it is virtually impossible to completely clean under the fingernails, unless (with a big ‘perhaps’) the mohel soaks in a chlorinated pool for 20 minutes immediately before the bris. This is an uncommon practice.
Mohels should be required to wear sterile gloves, donned immediately before touching sterile instruments and the sterile field of the bris. If it is time consuming, he can wear two pairs, removing the outer pair immediately prior to beginning. Non-sterile gloves are a step up from “no gloves,” but they are still less than ideal.
“Metzitzah” is defined as drawing “deeper” blood from the circumcision spot, which some view as a medical necessity while others view it, based on modern medical knowledge, as a ritualistic remnant of what may have once been deemed a medical requirement (Shabbat 133a-b).
Over time the idea of doing metzitzah with the power of the mouth was introduced, which is defined in two ways: either put a mouth directly on the wound, or use the power of the mouth through a sterile pipette. The latter avoids direct contact and the sharing of body fluids between mohel and baby.
Both are halachically sanctioned, while only one meets the approval of any unbiased modern medical sensibility. Arguments such as “saliva heals” and “one’s first instinct is to suck a cut on your finger” are irrelevant to the case of a mohel’s mouth touching a fresh wound in a newborn.
Any parent who insists that metzitzah be done with direct oral contact should do the metzitzah himself.
Maimonides writes, “It is impossible to restore the lost life of a Jewish child” (Milah 1:18). While he says this to allow delaying a bris on a child who is not physically ready, certainly the same dictum should be followed when circumcising a child: no step in the bris procedure should allow the slightest possibility that its inclusion can open the door to giving the baby an infection.
It is our responsibility and right to demand the best for our children. For the sake of the health of our children, let us begin with insistence that the bris maintains the highest standards of sterility.

I don't doub there will be those who attack his position as kefirah. I think it's a wonderful compromise that can accomodate anyone's halachic sensibilities.

Another Sign of the Imminent Redemption

I... I don't even know how to mock this one:
Actress Lindsay Lohan is planning to convert to Judaism to show her committment to her Jewish girlfriend D.J. Samantha Ronson, according to the British Daily Mail Online. Lohan, 22, announced on her facebook page that she planned to eschew her Catholic faith and then flew to London to attend the bar mitzvah of Ronson's half brother, Joshua, according to report. "She's exploring Judaism right now. She's explored the Church of Scientology, she tried Kabbalah, and now this. I think it's just another phase," her estranged father Michael Lohan, who became a born again Christian and then minister after a period in jail, was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail.
"But either way, she's involving God in her life, and I'm happy about that," he said

Holocaust Denial and Sinai Denial

It is absurd to deny the Holocaust. Where does one even begin in describing how useless and stupid it is? All the recorded evidence, all the eye witness testimony, it boggles the mind that anyone could believe that the whole horror was faked.
Yet there are people who do. Some are easy to dismiss. Red necks, ignorant Eurotrash, much of the Arab world and other such groups with no knowledge of history and a willingness to believe anything as long as it's presented the right way. The lack of belief in these people is easy to understand. They're stupid and a trip to Auschwitz would cure more of them of their misconceptions.
But then there are the others like David Irving who have made it their life's work to "prove" the Holocaust didn't happen. Unlike the hicks from the sticks, they are well dressed, educated and have an answer to every challenge. They can show you how all the evidence has been faked. They are willing to stand up to any survivor and call him a liar.
Now, as long as we have organization such as the Simon Weisenthal Centre and scholars like Deborah Lipstadt, these monsters have been kept in their place. But what has really made the difference in battling Holocaust deniers until now has been the living testimony of the survivors. It is one thing to stand in a court room and argue over the authenticity of a photo or grainy piece of video. It is quite another to argue with Bubbie Greenberg's defiant "Vot are you talking about? I vas there!"
The problem is that the number of survivors is dwindling with time. Age, the enemy of every mortal person, is taking its toll and within a few decades there will be no one left who can state "I say them do this! I was there!" And and that point the dynamic will change entirely.
No longer intimidated by eye witness testimony, deniers will be able to move the battle away from the personal and entirely into the academic/legal arena. Refutations of Holocaust deniers will require scholarship and high level of proof of evidence. Want to see the future of the Holocaust denial movement? Look at Iran's obsession with supporting these scum. In the Muslim word, the burden of proof isn't on the deniers. It's on the people who speak the truth. And they have the money they need to fund their supporters in the Western world.
(As a side point, the next time you see someone describe the president of the so-called Palestinian Authority as Dr. Mahmood Abbas, remember that his PhD thesis was a piece proving the Holocaust didn't happen and that we made up the whole thing to get the Europeans to give us Israel)
Within a few decades we will no doubt see a new trend in skepticism. It won't be consider idiocy to deny the Holocaust. It will be called skepticism. It will be presented as a search for the truth. We will be told "Yes, some Jews died, of course, no one would say not a single Jew died but really, the evidence isn't all these, etc. etc.). People who "believe" that six million Jews died in the Holocaust will be labelled as naive and not worthy of discussing the topic with.
For some, this is a pessimistic and cynical outlook. For a believing Jew, this is just history inexorably repeating itself. After all, it is quite obvious to us that God gave us His Torah at Har Sinai, that David HaMelech ruled over Israel and that his son Shlomo HaMelech built our first Temple in which the Shechina resided.
But not to the skeptics...

It's Only Democracy When They Win

The political left has always been profoundly deceitful about its respect for basic human rights and the democratic process. Despite wrapping themselves in the flags of decency and respect, they actually have none of each quality when the winds of fortune blow against them. This articule by professional whiner Larry Garber is a case in point.
The first thing to note is that Avigdor Leiberman's right wing secular party did very well in last month's Israeli elections. I'm not a man of Leiberman but facts are fact. The party did not cheat, did not fix ballot boxes, did not bribe voters. They presented a populist agenda and received enough seats to guarantee their presence in any potential coalition government. Surely that is evidence of the democratic process and marketplace of ideas at work. Not for Garber:
Yet Lieberman’s success and his potential presence in a new Israeli government should be a cause of concern for those who care about Israel’s democratic future and who worry about Israel’s growing international isolation.
Lieberman has never disguised his belief that Israel’s Arab citizens are a potential fifth column threatening Israel’s security and well-being. He advocates a policy of “transfer,” whereby areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arabs would eventually become part of a Palestinian state. Those Arabs living within the transferred areas would have the choice of moving to other parts of Israel or automatically forfeiting their Israeli citizenship.
Proposing such a policy sends an explicit message to 20 percent of Israel’s citizens that they are unwanted in the country in which they work, live, pay taxes and attempt to find some path to equality in the designated Jewish homeland.
Even more pernicious is the party’s slogan -- “Without loyalty there is no citizenship.” This notion, reminiscent of America’s dark days of McCarthyism, patently defies a central value of democracy: namely that human and civil rights are not dependent on how a government classifies the nonviolent expression of opinions.

Note all the bitterness and half-truths in this short excerpt. Lieberman's success at the ballot box is a threat to democracy. By voting in a man the "world community" does not like, Israel will become more isolated. In other words, Israel's decision to choose someone they like irregardless of the rest of the world's opinion in undemocractic!
Oddly, when Shinui won 15 seats only a few years ago on a platform calling for discrimination and hatred towards a large sector of the population, hypocrites like Garber didn't seem to see this as a threat to democracy. Apparently you're only a real demagogue if you're a right wing one.
Then there is his description of Lieberman's policy, especially his dismissive attitude towards the statement on loyalty. Yet a sane person can find nothing wrong with it and it is generally the standard any country expects from its citizens. How much more so when Arabs in Israel who call themselves "Palestiniains" instead of Israeli Arabs openly imply they are sympathizing with a terrorist movement at war with the country they hold citizenship in.
But Garber's arguments also do not follow through: a demand for loyalty is not the same as McCarthyism. Loyalty demands doing nothing to damage the country you hold citizenship in. It says nothing about beliefs or civil rights as long as the citizen does not attempt to harm his country. This is hardly an onerous demand. As the American saying goes: America, love it or leave it. Only an arrogant ass would remain in a country he ates, actively work to harm it and then scream about his civil rights when he is called on it.
But then, we have Larry Garber.

Fixing the Fix that Fixed Things in the First Place

Years ago after the Conservative synagogue I grew up in went (mostly) egalitarian, I was treated to a speech by one of the leaders of women-first group about how suddenly counting women to a minyan was not only a very important part of calling oneself a Conservative Jew but was also an affirming way to call oneself traditional.
"We have," he announced solemnly, "a tradition of change."
The group listening then broke down into the two sides. One side nodded at his sage words. Yes, this way important, they said, because those damned Orthodox always hog the word "tradition" for themselves.
And the other side, the ones with their brains on, thought: how can anyone believe this?
I mean really, a tradition of change? Ultimately flexibility? But what if the change I want to bring in is that I don't want further change? If I'm not allowed, doesn't that show inflexibility on the part of the tradition? Isn't that what we supposedly hate about the Orthodox?
I thought back to that speech when I read this article today:
The international president of the Conservative movement’s synagogue arm has agreed to meet with a group of influential rabbis, cantors and lay leaders pressing for swift and radical change.
The official, Raymond Goldstein of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said the meeting would be held to help develop “a strategic plan for renewing the Conservative movement,” but that it would have to wait until after his organization selects a new executive vice president. He said negotiations are underway with one of a handful of candidates who were interviewed, and that he hoped to have the process “wrapped up” as early as next week.

Consider that over the last thirty years, the Conservatives have endorsed female and gay rabbis, as well as abandoned the pretence of being at all loyal to even the Written Torah. With the exception of some areas of ritual performance, they are indistinguishable from the Reformers. And all these great ideas have been touted as renewal, rebirth, amazing progressive progress. What on earth could they have left to renew?

So Much For That Solution

A few months ago, El Al announced that it would designate certain flights as "Chareidi" in order to better service that part of their clientele. These flights would have separate seating, gender specific stewards and no movies. Naturally non-Chareidim would be allowed to buy tickets for these flights but would be expected to hold by Chareidi norms while on the plane.
At the time I was torn over whether to think this was a good thing or a bad thing. The capitalist in me told me that if this increased the number of tickets El Al sold, then as a private company the airline had every right to proceed with this idea.
On the other hand, if these Chareidi-specific flights replaced regular ones which resulted in an inconvenience to the rest of El Al's customers, then how could it be a good business decision overall?
In the end, I needn't have lost sleep over the concept (okay, I admit I didn't but anyway...).
After failing to reach a deal with El Al that would see the company operating separate flights for the ultra-Orthodox sector, rabbis are now calling on their public not to fly with the Israeli company at all, and prefer foreign airlines instead.
Ahead of
Passover, the high season for visits in Israel and abroad among haredim, the rabbinic committee on transportation has published a statement urging the public to fly only with airlines that offer movie-free flights, or flights with designated areas that are movie-free.
I am an impatient person by nature but one thing life has taught me over and over again is that if a crisis looms its ugly head, just wait. Most of the time the problem will solve itself. In fact, great leaders are made great by knowing when to attack a problem head on right away and when to lay back and let it burn itself out.
In this case, it was the latter. I should have realized that no amount of concessions would have been enough for the Chareidi community. Never mind what they've already achieved:
Although on El Al's major flights every passenger can turn off his personal TV screen, and on some of the other flights the company operates a "movie-free" zone, the rabbis ordered their followers to refrain from flying wit the Israeli airline.
But somehow I doubt I'll see less black hats ahead of me in line the next time I check in for an El Al flight.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Being Positive

Something which non-believers can never understand is the positive feeling belief in God and religious observance can bring one.
Without God we are really alone in the universe. "Here today, gone tomorrow, that's me!" (Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon).
Without Torah we don't really know what God wants of us. So we invent things, generally things we want and say that it's God's will that we be happy and since these things make us happy, well that's what God wants of us. But all these thrills are cheap and temporary, fun at first but lacking in novelty and enjoyment after a while.
With God and Torah, each day is a new, positive challenge. How can I enhance my neshama today? How can I fulfill His will today? How can I make the world a better place today?
Where are the objective answers? In Torah. Where can I find eternal values? In Torah.
Purim is perhaps the best example of the divide between right (us) and wrong (them). Although God's name never once appears in the story of Esther, it doesn't have to. The believer knows through his faith that God arranged events the way they did. As a result, not only do we have a great story and a good reason to drink heavily, but we can also derive moral lessons and grow as individuals and a people as a result.
For the non-believers? Well first of all, the story probably dind't happen, and even if it didn, it didn't happen like that and God, if He's around at all, chas v'shalom, had nothing to do with it. And it might be a great story but there's nothing they're going to learn from it. Garbage in = garbage out.
Tonight we will be in the positive, full of love and gratitude to God Almighty and by tomorrow we'll be that much more complete. And them? They'll still be mierable, basing their entire lives on negating all that's great about ours. Oh well, sucks to be them.

Teaching Pigs To Sing

There's an old saying I like to use: Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

But as I'm halfway through the fast and in a suitably ornery mood, I'll disregard that sage piece of advice for the moment.

I've been reading some atheistic arguments over the last few days and the one thing that sticks out is how moronic they are.

Not the arguments themselves, mind you. Some of them are quite well crafted. I mean the atheists themselves. It takes a great deal of persona disconnect and intellectual blinders to successfully argue that atheism has any merit. Okay, I can live with people who do that. It's when they both deny they're doing it and then condemn religious counterarguments for doing the same thing that really gets me.

Take, for instance, a sampling from this dough head's blog:

Still, he was saying things like "there's no evidence for God's existence", and I'm sure that must have been something of a shock to some of the more religious kids (they sure didn't tell me that in yeshiva. God's existence was always a given.

Well, that's a bit of a broad statement, saying there's no evidence. Are we talking scientific evidence? Okay, got us there. There's no scientific evidence for God's existence. Whoa! Good thing we're a faith-based religion that relies on belief, not scientific evidence.

Or does he mean philosophical evidence? Well he can't because too many great philosophers have contructed excellent metaphysical proofs for God's existence. Yes, yes, I know that most of those arguments rely on you having to believe God exists in the first place but here's the trick: the philosophical proofs for a lack of God's existence, chas v'shalom, rely a priori on you not believing in Him as well. In other words, same card game, different suit.

Never be afraid of the truth

Truth, real honest intellectual inquiry, requires you to check your biases at the door. Most modern science and philosophical inquiry fails at this point because the underlying assumptions of the investigator guide his subsequent research and findings. Someone intent on proving that the Arctic ice cap is melting will prove it. He'll measure the part that's shrinking and dismiss the other part that's not as an anomaly. Someone who wants to prove an absence of the Divine will ignore any philosophical arguments that run counter to his theory. No wonder these kinds of people always think they're right.

You make the ridiculous claim that God exists (he doesn't). There is ZERO evidence for his existence (if there is, do let me know. Or better yet, run it by XGH first, chochom).

XGH is a great example of the intellectual dishonesty I noted earlier. Although he's an excellent writer, all his "proofs" rely on first dismissing all his opponent's arguments. Catch him on an inconsistency and he just denies it's inconsistent without showing why. Waste of time. (See the reference to pigs above)

There is no reason for me to take your claim any more seriously than any other yokel or shmo's claim of any other God, be it Jesus, the tooth fairy, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

This is a common rebuttal from the atheist crowd and it's really quite a simplistic one. Another one out there calls it the "pink unicorn" argument but it's a variation on reducio ad absurdum. The position is quite simple: if you say there's a 50% chance for God existing because He either does or doesn't, then there's also a 50% change that there are invisible pink unicorns flying around my room.

Why does this argument work? For one, just because a particular argument has two potential answers, it doesn't mean both are 50% probable. That works with coin flips but not, for example, with crossing a busy street with your eyes closed. In the former it's pretty much 50% but in the latter, even though you once again reduce the possibilities to two options - you either make it safely across or you don't - it's certainly not a 50-50 proposition either way.

And that's only from a scientific statistic point of view. When you get to God, you're now dealing with faith which skews the issue. If you believe (good for you) then it's 100% probably that He exists because you believe He does. If you don't (dumb ass) then it's 100% that He doesn't.

Secondly, if there did happen to be pink unicorns flying around my room, what would that imply? Well, potentially that I'm psychotic. Okay, say the atheists, all religious people are psychotic.

That doesn't quite work out either though, especially if you've ever met someone who truly is psychotic. Psychosis, as medically defined, is a loss of contact with reality. People who hallucinate about pink flyuing unicorns always have trouble dealing with every other aspect of reality. They cannot interact normally with other people. They cannot think rationally. And they cannot intellectually string together a series of coherent arguments. However, people who passionately believe in God can do all those things. They show no evidence of psychosis.

Finally, all this is a dstraction from the real argument. There may be no evidence that God exists (whatever the word "evidence" may mean) but there is also no evidence it doesn't. Yes, taken that way the argument for Him is pretty weak but when you consider that evey atheist insists that you must accept He isn't out there at the start of every discussion, then you have complete hypocrisy. I can't say He's there but they're allowed to say He isn't. (Once again, see the reference to pigs)

Second of all, something you said reminded me of how when I was very frum, I once wrote an essay/article for school about how Torah is our ultimate source of truth and morality, and if science and Torah disagree, we must follow Torah.

This is one of those fake arguments that really annoys me. Why are so many people obsessed with the supposed conflict between science and Torah? Science is there to teach us how the world works and how we can make a better brand of Silly Putty. Torah is there to teach us the moral value of that Silly Putty. Someone who relies on science as a source of truth and morality inevitable becomes morally cold and advocates for eugenics and other moral crimes against humanity. Setting up a conflict, however, is important for atheists. By evaluating Torah using the physical standards of science, they place it in an intenable position and then declare it defeated. But in a battleground of moral ideas, science cannot possible be considered as anything serious and that's not a defect in the nature of science, just what it is, and what it isn't.

There is nothing that requires a god as an answer, whenever people have used god as an answer in the past, it prevented them from seeing the true answer

Sure there is, but for too many people God is like the parent they never did really love or respect when they were told "no". Having a God that is independent of our personal wants and wishes, who provides us with a legal code that it not modified by the trendy mores of secular liberal society, all of this is reminiscent of the parent who made us eat our vegetables or didn't let us going to that movie because it was too violent. A person truly grows up when he realizes that he was wrong and his parents were right but most people remain children at heart, continuing to resent what their parents put them through, whether it was making them 'fess up and say sorry for something they didn't think they did wrong, or just making them do their homework instead of letting them go to their friends us. On a much more cosmic scale, God fills that role. The emotionally and intellectually mature person accepts that he is limited. There is an authority which knows much more and wants to provide him with benefits. All he need to is follow the rules. And the emotional and intellectual child bucks at that. He rejects God because he doesn't, as it were, want to do his homework to reject God nowadays all you have to do is shout "I don't believe."

No, you see, I happen to think it is true that religion often directly causes people to commit atrocities (What do you think causes and enables Muslim suicide bombers to kill hundreds of people and motivate others to do so, as well? What started and fueled the Spanish Inquisition?

Right, and the Nazis and Communists were not religious movements. Idiot Hitchens' explanation of this little flaw is priceless. Yes, well maybe they were atheists but they turned their political beliefs into religious ones so they started acting like religions.

The sad truth is that religion does not directly cause people to commit atrocities. Megalomaniacs who misuse religion directly cause people to commit atrocities. And most of these megalomanics don't really believe in the principles of their religion, nor do they accept that God could possibly disagree with them. In other words, they're self-worshipping atheists. Oh but that would be inconvenient, wouldn't it.

Yes, as humans, we are biased. The difference is that some of us really try to overcome our biases and see objective reality as best as we can, not the reality that we wish was real, but the reality that is real, while you don't seem to try.

Which brings me full circle to my first point. The old "I'm not biased but I've already decided you are!" argument.

I don't think any of these swine will be singing "Summer of 69" by Pink Floyd tonight for Purim but that's a pity. After all their self-righteous bafflegab, they're the real unhappy ones who are missing out. More pity them.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Coffee Conundrum

As a youth I didn't mind fast days so much. I mean yeah, they were boring and the summer time ones seemed to stretch on forever, but physically it wasn't a big deal.
By the time I hit med school however, it was a different story. I started to get headaches on each and every fast day. Now I dread thembecause by the end of the day I was a nauseous wreck. Sure it made for great kapparah but still...
So naturally I looked for ways to get around the headaches. Someone suggested drinking lots of water the day before. Didn't work. Get lots of sleep. Didn't work.
And then someone finally asked me: do you drink coffee?
Well yeah, was my reply, one to two cups a day. Why?
And that's when I learned about caffeine withdrawal. What really struck me as odd was that I only drink one cup a day. Usually people withdraw after 2-3 cups but I guess I'm just sensitive.
Now, knowing that I'm not the only person who goes Jones during a fast day, and as it so happens there's a fast day tomorrow, here's my advice for coping with voluntary food/drink deprivation:
1) Drink lots of water the day before. (Yeah, I know I said it didn't help but dehydrating could amplify what's coming)
2) Stop all coffee one week before the fast. (Yeah, I know, but I was busy last week and didn't have time to post this)
3) Do what my rebbe taught me, the "Segulah of the Chafetz Chayim". Tonight after dinner eat a bunch of seedless grapes (well, they can have seeds but who has the time for all that spitting?). Then have two cups of non-caffeinated tea. In the first put 5 teaspoons of sugar, but no sugar in the second cup.
Ever since I started doing that I've aced all my fasts, B"H. Try it and see for yourself.
And easy fast and happy Purim to all my readers.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A Doc Hollywood Moment

In Michael J. Fox's 1991 film, Doc Hollywood, the actor plays a newly-minted plastic surgeon who, while travelling cross country to a Hollywood clinic, crashes in a small midwestern town. In order to pay for the damage his reckless driving caused, he takes on a temporary role as family physician, assisting the town's aging general practictioner.
In one scene, he is assessing an elderly woman who complains she has spots in her field of vision. He looks at her, carefully removes her glasses and then cleans them. After putting them back on her face she smiles and say "Oh they're gone now. Thank you doctor."
I thought of that scene this morning when I had an elderly woman come into my office complains of how the skin on her face was burning. It had all started when she bought some new shampoo which seemed to irritate her face when she rinsed it out of her hair. She had already gone to the pharmacy and picked up some low strength cortisone cream which helped but was now wondering if there was something better I could prescribe.
I suggested that she try a different shampoo. And she thought about it and smiled. "Wonderful idea, doctor. I never thought of that!"

Judging People Externally

This article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency caught my attention today and reminded me of a bitter story which shows me how Jewish unity is like the Loch Ness monster, something everyone's seen a grainy photo of but knows doesn't really exist.
Flip your lids. That is, wear a different kipah.
If you wear a leather kipah, wear a velvet one. If you wear a velvet one, wear one of those Zionistic knitted ones. If you wear a knitted one, don one of those cheap shiny white ones.
It is also an amazing social experiment because you are the same person you were a moment ago when you had on your regular kipah. So why is it that all your friends look at you slightly different and wonder what’s going on?

Sounds simple and the author brings some good points about it. But in truth, it's more likely to fail. Here's my story:
Several years ago I was at a wedding along with some friends. One of these friends was the son of a prominent rabbi in the Jewish community near where I live. His father had his own shul which was dedicated to outreach and, from the few times I'd davened there, really seemed sincere about welcoming people in. Naturally his wife was also renowned for her welcoming nature and tolerance for all kinds of people.
Anyway, my friend and I were talking and we got onto the subject of how people judge you by your kippah and decide on what kind of a person you are before they even say one word to you. If you were velvet, you're frum. Suede? Well, you probably wear velvet on Shabbos. Knitted kippah? You're not really religious. And he thought it was all hooey. No one really thinks like that, he insisted. No one really thought that because he wore a velvet kippah he was frummer than me in my knitted job.
So I suggested we switch kippos and see what happens. He readily did it because he refused to believe anyone would care and notice.
Five minutes later he found me and requested we switch back immediately. Two of his friends had joked that it wasn't Purim which he didn't care about but what had shocked him was his mother's response when she saw him in a serugah. "Get that off your head," she apparently told him. "Do you want people to think you're a goy?"
In other words, beneath the veneer of the outreach smile was the usual intolerance: you're only frum if you look like us.
I was also reminded of this story last week while learning with a Chabadnik rav I have a chavrusa with (and no, it's not in Tanya). That evening I'd already showered and was wearing an old black cloth kippah I keep around the house. He stared at it and was clearly confused. Why wasn't I wearing my serugah? A paradigm shift perhaps?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As long as we insist on dividing ourselves along political/religious lines based on such insignificant details as kippah fabrics, we will remain in golus.

The Mishkan and Tefillin

"And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth therefore, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and thou shalt make a crown of gold round about." (Shmos 25:10-11) "And thou shalt make staves of acacia-wood and overlay them with gold." (Shmos 25:13) The first time I ever learned Chumash, I almost abandoned the effort when I reached Parshas Terumah. Having started midway through with Kedoshim I'd learned that not every parashah was full of exciting stories or uplifting speeches. Despite that, I'd slogged through the long stretches full of sacrificial bits and procedural stuff. Then when I hit Bereishis it picked up and I was thoroughly enjoying myself until I reached Terumah. First of all, I have a hard time visualizing objects from their textual descriptions. Show me a picture and it all makes sense but tell me about how something looks and I really don't have a clue how to put it all together. Second, I couldn't figure out the relevance of all the descriptions. Yes, Rashi on Bereshis 24:42 tells us that the casual conversation of the servants of the Avos are more beloved by God than the Torah of their descendants because Eliezer's story is repeated in full while many important halachos are only hinted at. But it seemed to me that Shabbos, kashrus and many other important areas of Jewish life that remain relevant today only received a sketchy outline in the Torah. Meanwhile the details Mishkan, which was built to last 11 days (Dev. 1:2) at the beginning and then only remained in use slightly longer than 38 years (Yehoshua 4:20), stretched out over four and a half parshios. What’s up with that? Could the Torah not have simplified things by simply saying that God instructed Moshe Rabeinu, a”h, to make a Mishkan and its various contents and just added a few volumes to the Talmud to bring in the details?
Since that time I’ve become well aware of the many commentaries that explain the deep symbolism to the Mishkan and its constituent parts. Whether it represents the universe in toto, a human being or a continuing of the revelation of Maamad Har Sinai, there is clearly a great purpose in the Torah giving us all the details of its construction. This isn’t simply a hot-to guide. And this past Shabbos I found another thought on the Mishkan I hadn’t come across before.The Meshech Chochmah on the two verses noted above comments on a subtle difference between the two types of gold used in making the Aron. In the case of the Aron itself, pure gold (zahav tahor) was to be used while for the staves plain gold was acceptable. He states that the difference between zahav tahor and just zahav is that the former is resmelted to increase its level of purity. He then brings a halacha from the Shulchan Aruch to show a fascinating way to understand one of the symbolic meanings of the Aron. In Orach Chayyim 32:37, the Mechaber states that the leather used to make tefillin boxes “must be processed for the sake of the mitzvah where possible.” Commenting on the words “where possible”, the Mishnah Berurah (32:171) notes that it is the opinion of the Rambam that the leather of tefillin boxes needs no processing at all. As a result, the processing step does not require specific kavannah because it’s not an essential part of the process. Although all other decisors disagree, the Mechaber implies that where processed skins are unavailable to make tefillin, the Rambam’s opinion can be relied upon.
But what does all this have to do with the Mishkan?
It is well known that in Jewish philosophy the human being consists of three parts: body, mind, and soul. Consistent with this the commentators also note that there are three articles placed in the Kodesh section of the Mishkan: the table, menorah and incense alter. The table, with its lechem hapanim represents the physical, the menorah with its lights represents the intellectual, and the alter with its ephemeral incense represents the spiritual.
But then what is the purpose of putting the Aron under the same roof but behind the paroches in the Kodesh Kodashim section? Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l, notes that this represents the Torah as external to the person. God’s law is not something we can internalize and play with as we see fit. It remains outside, objective, immune to our attempts to alter it. All three components listed above have a high degree of subjectivity. Each person has different physical tastes, intellectual interests and spiritual acuity. What works for me does not work for anyone else.
What’s more, I can adjust myself over time. That which I found interesting and meaningful ten or twenty years ago is not always what tickles my fancy today. My taste in foods, reading materials or how I approach God in prayer evolves over time.
This is not so in Torah. What was considered appropriate by Torah standards twenty, one hundred or two thousand years ago is the same today. What is right and wrong in the world does not get adjusted by societal “norms” or the whims of flawed humans. The Torah does not change; it remains external and objective.
What the Meshech Chochmah seems to be noting then, is that in the human being who is essentially a walking, talking Mishkan, the tefillin God had commanded us to wear serve the same role as the Aron did in the original structure. While I contain my own versions of the table, menorah and altar, the tefillin remain external to me, an objective reminder of where my loyalty must lie without compromise.
And how does he show this parallel? The verses above note that the gold that actually made up the Aron was pure and processed lishmah. The gold that made up the staves did not requiring processing. This is the same as the Rambam’s understanding of how tefilling as constructed. The parchments themselves must be processed lishmah for they hold on them the words of God, just as the Aron contained them. The boxes which serve to carry the parchments do not require further processing. There are the staves of this Aron equivalent.
Thus for the Meshech Chochmah, when we put tefillin on in the morning we are not simply fulfilling a mitzvah but are also turning ourselves into a complete replica of the Mishkan and meriting God’s promise: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.” (Shmos 25:8)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Guest Post by Baruch Pelta

A Letter by Shua Finkelstein a"h
[When I went to yeshiva, I was in the same shiur as one Shua Finkelstein. Shua was recently niftar -- if I understand correctly, he died in his sleep. The truth is that I barely knew Shua, but I understand that he wrote the following letter which was posted on the Facebook group established in his memory. He wanted it to be publicized and perhaps it can stand as some small tribute towards his own concern for his community: --Baruch Pelta]

There is thing called child molestation that we have all heard of we all know it happens in different places we all know maybe priests or that creepy uncle. Let me tell you a little about this thing and first hand what it can do to a kid. A frum child is molested he knows nothing about tummah and kedusha all he knows is that he was violated that his body is a toy thats what gets engraved into his brain not that he is a person worthy of respect but that he is an object a tool. This kid grows up he knows nothing of sex all he knows is that he is dirty and that his rabbis say sex is bad he doesn't understand he thinks he is bad any mussar shmooz he hears it directly at him and this innocent kid begins to believe of himself as a bad person.Nobody likes being bad he will look for a place with no expectations of him a place were he can be free to fit in a world where everybody is bad....Chances are he will either convince himself this is the normal and pass it in to another innocent child or he will resort to rebelling to prove to himself he is as bad as he thinks he is......Often he will find drugs to take him away to give him an escape from his horrible reality....That being said...Did you ever notice a support our troops symbol on the back of somebody's car? do you know what that represents? that means that thousands of miles there are people no different then yourself fighting a war and that we support them that gives them the morals they need to keep doing what they must do in order to protect us.I dont expect to see "save our kids" on the back of all of our cars but is it too much to ask that each and everyone of us do our part???I will not mention names but there was one play group accused cased closed and dealt with. thats a start but that should send a chill down your spine theses are kids we are talking about.... there is another play group that is still open after over 5 cases have been brought against it!!!!! do you love your kids???? theses are the same kids that some vaad in lakewood will put in ad in the paper to protect from cellphone texting or god forbid a concert but did you see an ad saying Guard your kids!!!!?DO research!!!!! If your in doubt dont send them there! A play group that has had 5 allegations against it is still open????? Of course its there parnasah we are so worried about... Maybe i should fill you in on some facts there is a jewish rehab whose name i will not mention that deals with kids whose lives are in danger i spoke to the intake administrator there about the cliental from Lakewood and i was told 99.% of all kids from lakewood Yes lakewood our holy town who doesn't allow text messaging were molested in this town!!!!! and that is what led to there addiction! now some facts of this rehab which has a high success rate 50% dont stay clean and out of all the jewish kids there that leave and relapse there is an average of 3 jewish souls that die a year!!! Murdered by you and me and all of us unwilling to take a stand against these people in our community the rabbis are scared to do anything? its political?? how dare they say that?? this is life and death we are killing kids over here we are condemning them to a life of misery of lonely depression and god forbid of passing on this horrible sickness.IT IS YOUR DUTY as a Jew, As a Human to find these people in our community and no longer let them live among us!!!! 'Oy le rosha Oy le schayno' I think over here we are all the reshoim if we sit back and do nothing!! and if you dare say you are worried that people in play groups will lose there jobs there is some math you may want to do. a rehab a 6 month program to give a molested kid a chance $5,000 per months totals $30,000 now this place on average has 20 kids per six months thats $60,000 do you want me to count in the average fee of therapy $150-per hour????? or maybe you want the numbers i got from the local funeral homes?????? WAKE UP!!!!!! Ask yourself honestly is it that you are truly concerned about this just isn't your place or do you just not know what to do? I think trying to be worried about innocent money just went the window....This cannot be hidden any more!!!!! you know something speak up!!! have you been thru this??? share your story, help create support groups Help publicize this letter share your story.... If you are an offender seek help it can be done your amends will not be easy but it can be done.You can make one fatal mistake and that is to try and hide and think you will get passed by come out help fix the wrong before you will no longer have that chance EVER. If we all get together as a town to help weed this community it can be done with minimal damage. Anybody innocent who may receive slight setbacks because of this consider it your part in saving a life. ASHRECHA--

"People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about."--Anton Chekhov