Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Is it Racism or Zionism

Although people often don't realize it, Religious Zionism is not simply secular Zionism with kosher food and no working on Shabbos.  There are tremendous philosophical differences between the two movements that many don't appreciate.
Secular Zionism, as conceived by Theodore Herzl and his successors, had a simple objective - to create a European socialist-style state with a Jewish majority population.  For Herzl himself, this objective meant that the state created would have nothing actually Jewish about it.  He had no trouble with creating it in Uganda.  He wanted German to be the national language since that country was the cultural and economic leader of Europe in his time.  His Israel would have been Jewish like public high schools in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods in North America are Jewish - demographically but not more.
Religious Zionism, on the other hand, believes that we on the verge of the aschalta d'geula, the beginning of the final redemption that will end this last exile and bring us all back to Israel where we will worship God in His Holy Temple (may it be built speedily in our days).  Zionism isn't a political imperative and the refusal of the non-Jewish world to accept us as equal members of their societies was not a driving force for the founders of Religious Zionism.  Rather the leadership's understanding of the Torah and the descriptions of what would precede the end of days led to the decision to create a movement dedicated to building a Jewish state in Israel - because it was time to do so according to our prophets.
The result of that philosophy has been a tension when it comes to the non-Jewish population of Israel.  While it is quite clear that non-Jews living in Israel according to the seven mitzvos of Bnei Noach are to be treated with respect, dignity and full recourse to the law, there is also a religious understanding that Israel is Jewish land first and foremost.  However, it is also quite clear that at this state which is only the first flowering of the final redemption, we cannot use a "textbook" approach to the non-Jews in the state.  It is simply not tenable to treat a significant portion of the population as an unwanted underclass with less rights than the majority.
Into this has come the recent halachic ruling forbidding Jews to rent or sell to Arabs.  This has predictably brought with it calls of racism from the secular and part of the religious population.  On the face of it, this would appear to be true.  If American leaders were to suddenly forbid the selling of land or homes to a specific sector of the population, one with full citizenship and rights, we would be the first to cry "racism".  It is difficult to see how the situation here is different, despite apparently support from a majority of Israelis.
One of the rabbonim to sign the recent psak din is Rav Shlomo Aviner, shlit"a, who has also written on his blog about his reasons:
Why did I add my humble signature to the Rabbinic petition against selling houses and apartments, lands and fields, to the Arabs?
The answer is so simple. The vision of the Jewish state. We have returned here after 2000 years of exile, in order to establish a Jewish state.
True, it is permissible for non-Jews to live there, and one has to treat the non-Jew who lives in the land with integrity and respect. Yet strengthening the foothold of the Arabs in the Land demonstrates a lack of national responsibility, for they are presently 25% of the entire population, and a large scale Jewish majority has to be preserved.
It is no secret that the Arabs want to annex our country for themselves and banish us from our Land, and they are doing this in every possible way: 1. By way of bloody wars which result in our country being full of widows and orphans and bereaved parents. 2. Unrelenting terror which likewise exacts from us a price in blood. 3. Recently, since the Carmel tragedy, a call has gone forth from the Arabs to commit a lot of arson in Israel, and indeed, there have been 15 attempts at arson since then. 4. Unrelenting land purchases by the Arabs throughout our country on a gigantic scale, in Yafo, Haifa, Acco, the Galil, and recently, an attempt to buy the Nof Tzion neighborhood in Jerusalem. In our world there are enormously wealthy Arabs who are ready to budget millions towards this end, and indeed, the Jews, lacking national responsibility, who are tempted by the money.
When I was a boy, a member of Bnei Akiva, I, together with my friends in the movement, was asked to go, night and day, house to house, to distribute the blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund, whose goal was the redemption of the Land of Israel from the Arabs.
And now, shall we do the opposite?!
While his words have a certain appeal, there is a flaw in his reasoning as presented here.  Reasons 1 and 2 are not acceptable in this argument because they do not involve Arabs living in Israel.  The majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal citizens (despite the ongoing despicable actions of a sizeable minority of them as well as their MK's).  If Arabs living in Iraq want to wipe out Israel, that does not make Israeli Arabs guilty by association.  In addition, the unrelenting terror is mostly (albeit not completely) caused by Arabs living in Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza who do not see themselves as citizens of Israel.
It is reason 4, however, that provides an opportunity to reframe this psak din in a different, more acceptable light.
I have no doubt that the Rav's statement that non-Israeli Arab money is being used to buy up as much of Israel as possible.  The Arabs are simply following the strategy used by the early Zionist movement to create a viable presence in Israel in the 1920's and 30's.  What can be done about this?
Well where's Jewish money when you need it?  Where are Jewish investors and land developers?  Why are Jews not responding to these offers of sale and buying up the land of Israel for our people?  If a person needs or wants to sell his land and doesn't care who he sells to as long as the cheque clears, can we fault him if he doesn't feel a patriotic need to maintain Jewish control after the sale?
The psak din should not be about forbidding but about promotion.  We should say that Arabs are not allowed to build the land of Israel.  Instead we should be saying that it is a Jewish priority to build Israel.  We should not be saying that it is forbidden to sell to Arabs, or anyone else, but instead emphasizing the need for Jews to buy up land and control it.
This issue not be about being anti-Arab.  Such an attitude is reprehensible.  Rather it should emphasize the mportant value of being pro-Jewish and encouraging Jewish settlement in Israel.

Is It All About The Colour of One's Skin

Israel has an immigration problem.  As the only state in the region with a sense of decency, Israel is a magnet for the dispossesed and persecuted from all around.  Right now the influx is from the Sudan where the Muslim majority is busy oppressing the Chrisian and animist minority into oblivion.  Even as they wax indignantly about human dignity and the rights of the so-called Palestinians, every Arab state in any kind of proximity to the Sudan has barred its refugees from entering their borders.  The only country not to force them away when they arrive is Israel.
Unfortunately immigration of this kind is problematic for Israel.  A large wave of migrants with no employable skills, no familiarity with the local culture or knowledge of the language is a tremendous burden on any country, all the more so a small country's.  Israel's government has every right to be concerned as more and more refugees arrive, especially since most of those refugees had to cross other countries to get there, countries which deliberately refused them entry and instead pointed them towards Tel Aviv.
However, if you say anything negative about the situation, you risk being tarred as a racist.  This is foolish.  Every single country in the world has a right to maintain its borders and control who crosses them.  It is also the responsibility of the national government of a country to do what is best for its citizens, socially and economically.  Demanding that Israel accept unlimited numbers of refugees is something that any other country would find unacceptable. 
And, as Yair Lapid wisely points out, this has nothing to do with racism:
Ignore for a moment the infiltrators’ skin color and inferior Knesset members like Michael Ben-Ari who got on the bandwagon. Close your eyes and try to imagine that the migrants were blond. Tens of thousands of blonds from Norway who entered Israel illegaly.
Sturdy blond men who arrived here without their families, blond laborers who are willing to do any job and never heard about the concept of minimum wage, and blonds who mostly drink alcohol at night. Blonds without healthcare insurance, without income supplements, and without any civil rights.
Miserable blonds whom the police doesn’t want to deal with and nobody wants to admit that he’s responsible for them.
Because had the infiltrators into Israel been blond, nobody would have accused southern Tel Aviv residents of racism, and we could have engaged in a genuine discussion about the fact that these migrants cause a real problem.
The participants in the rally held in Tel Aviv Tuesday tried to explain to the media, almost desperately, that their motives have nothing to do with whether the migrants are white or black. These demonstrators are nothing like the bunch of racism rabbis who signed a petition against leasing apartments to Arabs. Their problem with the infiltrators is not their origin, but rather, what they do to their neighborhoods. They did not come out to protest against the refugees, but rather, against the State of Israel.
Perhaps the timing is bad.  We are, after all, dealing with the recent psak din regarding selling or renting domiciles to Arabs and seen in juxtaposition, one can easily be confused into thinking this is the same issue.  It's not. 
I am not advocating that the refugees be expelled but Israel's government does have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of its borders and control who gets across and declares himself a refugee.  It is not racism to insist that a responsible policy be established instead of allowing the country to be swamped by people who will bring its social services system to collapse from the weight of their needs.

Is It A Waiting Game?

One of the problems with modern culture is that most problems we see, those on TV or in the movies, tend to get solves within a short amount of time.  The biggest political or romantic dramas get solved in the movie theatre within 2 hours while on television even the most convoluted plot gets dealt with after 1 season.  The idea of waiting years, maybe even decades for a strategy to work, makes sense on paper but for a society with the attention span of a caffeine-addled chipmunk, it seems to take far too long.
This seems to be the situation with Iran.  Here's what conventional wisdom generally understands about that country:
1) Most Iranians hate their government for being corrupt, religiously over-zealous and incompetent in running national affairs.
2) Most Iranians are proud of their culture and history and would see any outside attempt at regime change as an assault on their independence.  Given the choice of supporting their own corrupt leaders or foreign liberators, they would choose to side with their own.
As a result, most outsiders have traditionally been very cautious when it comes to discussing attempts at ousting the current government in Tehran.  Certainly there are those who have long advocated the "guns blazing" stategy that worked so well in Iraq (well, at least initially).  However, one of the most strident criticisms of the Obama administation has been its insistence on rapproachment and discussions with the Mad Mullahs and Ahmewhatshisname.  Indeed, people have shouted over and over that sanctions are useless since the Chinese, North Koreans and Russians ignore them and that demanding new talks with Iran simply shows American weakness.
And yet one wonders if there is not some wisdom to this strategy.  Years ago I was visiting a cousin of mine in Israel and mentioned that I was a big fan of Bibi Netanyahu (during his first stint as PM).  "You can have him if you like him so much," my cousin snorted.  Then he explained that while foreigners loved Netanyahu because of his style of defending Israel, they usually didn't realize he was a terrible leader who couldn't delegate, surrounded himself with weak yes-men and was doing a terrible job handling the country's economy and social needs.  Peace with the Arabs might be the only issue Israel has to deal with in the eyes of the world but the country also has to function on a daily basis, just like every other country in the world.  An Israeli leader who gets that elusive peace treaty with the Arabs but creates an economy with 15% unemployment is a lousy leader who won't get re-elected.
This is something we often forget about Iran.  All we see on television is a very minute part of life there.  We see the riots, the whackjobs and the soldiers but there is an entire population that, like us, wants to work for a living, have a peaceful family life and good food on the table.  The Mad Mullahs can make all the rousing anti-Jewish and anti-American speeches they want but when the proletariat go home to an empty fridge and bank account the impact seems to wear off.  There's only so long you can go on blaming someone else for your country's problems and at some point you figure out that it's actually the leaders that are the problem.
As this article notes, that day of realization is coming in Iran:
Iran's opposition leaders said Wednesday that a "dark future" awaits the economy because the government didn't listen to economists when it slashed energy and food subsidies in a country already struggling under biting UN sanctions.
Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi support the government's effort to rein in subsidies but said in a rare statement posted on their websites that it is being implemented badly.
The opposition leaders, who believe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the June 2009 election through massive vote fraud, said the way the government is slashing subsidies only brings more hardship to the country.
Fuel prices have at least quadrupled and bread prices have more than doubled in the past week since the government started dramatically reducing subsidies.
Yes, I am aware that there is a race to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons from the uranium that it is currently enriching but even that issue has a complicating factor.  Iran has allies with nuclear weapons, like North Korea, Russia or China.  Iran has access to terrorist groups which might be able to acquire nuclear weapons.  A regime struggling economically would find it far cheaper to buy or steal such a weapon than spend the money needed to build its own.  And don't believe for a second that the Russians or Chinese, if it was in their interest, wouldn't quietly sell one to them.  If Iran has to independently develop the bomb, then the pace of that development will be tied to the country's economic well-being.  It was one thing for Hitler, y"sh, to throw the last of his country's resources into a last-ditch fight against the Allies.  It's quite another for a country officially not at war with anyone to justify starving its population to build the bomb.  The Iranians are a strong-minded people.  They will not sit quietly for such things; no population ultimately does.
There might be some wisdom in the American stategy to slowly pressure Iran and let its own government's idiocy bring it down.  One hopes that before that government falls it won't do something that will make the hawks retroactively right about their insistence on immediate war.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Another Step Towards Formal Separation

As I've bemoaned on prior occasions, the fact that there's no patent on the term "Orthodox Judaism" is an endless source of annoyance.  Once upon a time people were more open and honest - the Reformers never claimed to be "halachic" and only die-hard old fashioned Conservatives still live under the illusion that they practice any real fealty towards traditional Jewish legal tradition. 
Of concern nowadays are those at the extreme left of the political/religious spectrum of Orthodoxy, those who are called "left wing Modern Orthodox" or LWMO for short.  Over the last few years the leadership of this groups has been taking the membership further away from anything considered traditionally Orthodox and into the murky area between proper Torah observance and right-wing Conservatism.  With recent initiatives like allowing women to lead parts of the synagogue service and annointing female rabbis, albeit under a different title, one has to wonder when the breaking point will come. 
At this point the group still insists on calling itself Orthodox.  It still claims obedience to halacha even though its method of using Jewish legal books is more "pick a posek" than a systematic use of the sources.  But perhaps a new development will create the final push that LWMO needs to formally leave proper Orthodoxy and set up a movement of their own.
As JTA reports, a second LWMO yeshivah to train rabbis in the tradition of Rabbi Avi Weiss' YCT is coming to Toronto:
For now, the plan is for the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School, which calls itself “traditional yet modern,” to open fully by 2012.
The idea of opening the rabbinical seminary is to train liberal halachic rabbis who will be well suited to meet the needs of Canadian Jewry. Organizers say they are aiming at a middle ground between Conservative Judaism and what they describe as an increasingly rigid Orthodox movement.
“I’m somewhat disenchanted with what’s happening in the rabbinic establishment in the United States, especially the direction Yeshiva University has taken, which has moved to the right,” said Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Talmud professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and 1992 winner of the Israel Prize.
Note the repeated use of the word "liberal" throughout the article.  Indeed, the founders are concerned that in the absence of qualified "liberal" Orthodox students and teachers, they'll attract a slightly different crowd:
Sperber, who is on the advisory board of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in New York founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, says the major hurdle will be attracting more Orthodox faculty. If the new school becomes identified as a Conservative institution -- a possibility, given that most of its leadership is Conservative -- Sperber said he will withdraw.
Noting that the Rabbinical Council of America, the main body representing Modern Orthodox rabbis in North America, does not accept graduates of Chovevei Torah, Sperber said, “It is precisely for that sort of reason that one has to support [halachic] institutions of a more liberal nature.”
One should recall that once upon a time Rabbi David Hartmann also called himself Orthodox.  He has long since stopped pretending, especially after he opened a rabbinical school to both men and women, religious and non-observant.  Is this new school going to be going down the same track?  When the inevitable happens and women show up applying for the rabbinical program, will Rabbi Sperber pasken that it's okay?  When someone uses the "pick a posek" method to justify mixed seating during services, will he provide the hechsher for it?  Will he attend during "interfaith" sessions?
And for those who are bothered by my predictable opposition to such a school calling itself Orthodox, let me raise a final, far more practical point.  The recent economic downturn and lack of suitable recovery has left Jewish dayschools, both Torah observant and not, in radical financial trouble across North America.  Where are the funding priorities?  Is there that much spare money floating around the Jewish community to fund a new rabbinical school that can't even tell us where its graduates will find jobs?  Shouldn't the remaining money go to supporting primary Jewish education instead?

When Did He Figure It Out

The way the story is popularily understood, Yosef's brothers remain clueless as to his real identity until he shouts out "I'm Yosef, does my father yet live?" at the beginning of last week's parashah.  While that makes for a great climax to a suspenseful story, is it necessarily true?
Rav Yehonasan Eibeshutz zt"l, in his commentary on the section, doesn't think so.  In fact, he has a fascinating alternate approach that explains many of the difficulties in the Torah's narrative just before the big reveal.
First there's the matter of two consecutive, yet contradictory verses:
"With whomsoever of thy servants it be found, both let him die, and we also will be my lord's bondmen. And he said, Now also let it be according unto your words: he with whom it is found shall be my servant; and ye shall be blameless." (Ber 44:9-10)
How can the Egyptian emmisary start off by saying that the brothers' assessment of the penalty was correct but then repeat back to them an entirely different punishment?  What's more, why does Yosef echo that same assessment when the brothers change their mind and announce that they'll all stay as slaves (without mentioning an execution)?
Then there's the matter of Yehudah approaching Yosef directly to speak to him.  Recall that until this point there has been an interpreter standing between Yosef and the brothers at all times.  For all they know, Yosef doesn't understand a word of Hebrew and we have no evidence that the brothers knew Egyptian so how does Yehudah expect to directly communicate with the viceroy?
Consider Rashi's comment (from the Midrash) on Yehudah's line that Yosef is like Pharoah.  Rashi says that just as Pharoah decrees and doesn't fulfill, so you too decree and don't fulfill.  Where do we find that Pharoah didn't keep his own law?
Finally there's the content of Yehudah's speech.  He constantly refers to his father as "thy servant".  Once might be nice for protocol but he keeps doing it even though Yaakov is not a servant of any Egyptian, living as a free landowner in Canaan. 
Rav Eibeshutz therefore brings a new understanding to this part of the story.  He begins by noting all these discrepancies and then adds a further one - according to Chazal, Shimon was imprisoned by Yosef when the brothers were earlier released to go and bring food back to their families but was released from jail and treated honourably after they had departed.  Now that Shimon had been reunited with them, is there any doubt that he would have told the brothers about this curious turn of events?
Rav Eibershutz writes that when the brothers were stopped on their way out of Egypt and accused of stealing Yosef's goblet, the penny finally dropped for Yehudah.  What did is was the problematic response to the brothers offering themselves as slaves while suggesting the thief would be executed.  That penalty would have been the norm under the laws of Bnei Noach.  The :Egyptian -according to some opinions it was Menashe - responded by saying "No, we'll do it your way.  You're B'nai Yisrael so your law is the theif is sold into slavery for his theft and there is no penalty for the accomplices.  I'll take Binyamin back and the rest of your go home."
Now think back to the midrash on the reason for the conflict between Yosef and his brothers in their youth.  Chazal tell us that one of the differences between them was the understanding of their current legal status.  The brothers felt that since they were now living as a complete family in Israel, they had achieved the status of B'nai Yisrael and therefore had to observe halacha.  Yosef, on the other hand, held that until the Torah was actually given their status remained that of B'nai Noach.
And here was the interpreter telling them, in essence: Yes the penalty should be as your said but according to your law, only Binyamin is guilty.  How would some Egyptian interpreter know Torah law?  What's more, why was he being selective with halacha?  After all, the complete law is that that thief has to make proper compensation and only if he can't is he sold into slavery.  The brothers surely had enough money to pay appropriate damages to the Egyptian viceroy.  Why jump straight to slavery?
As a result, Rav Eibeshutz says that Yehudah finally figured out what was happening and who the menacing viceroy really way.  That's why he demanded to speak to Yosef face to face, in order to call his bluff.  He approached him and spoke directly in Hebrew.  Yosef might have initially tried to pretend he didn't understand, and at another point might have claimed that Yehudah's belief that he was Yosef was ridiculous.  After all, Yosef was sold as a slave to Egypt and Egyptian law, according to Chazal, forbid slaves from ever holding a ruling position.
Now Rashi's midrash excerpt makes sense.  Yehudah, sure of Yosef's real identity, points out that Yosef has indeed risen from slave to rule in violation of Egyptian law because Pharoah overrode the law.  Just as Pharoah decreed and didn't keep his own rule, so Yosef was under no obligation to demand Binyamin as his slave.
Therefore it was for this reason that Yosef now revealed himself.  According to Rav Eibeshutz, it wasn't because of overwhelming emotions.  He knew the game was up and that Yehudah had figured things out!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Whether Or Not To Bless

The Shulchan Aruch (O.Ch. 671:8) notes that since one must put one's lit channukiah at the entrance of the house, one living in a house with two or more entrances on different sides has to put a lit channukiah at each one.  The reason for this is so that someone walking by the house won't see an empty doorway and suspect the owner hasn't lit his channukiah.  However, the Shulchan Aruch paskens that one need only make a breachah over one channukiah and then light the rest without a blessing.
However there's a problem with this.  In Yoreh Deah 13:2 it is taught that a person who ritually slaughters a pregnant animal and finds that the foetus is developed enough to walk on its legs after being removed from the mother must ritually slaugher the baby if he wants to eat it.  Normally one does not have to slaughter a foetus since it's considered pre-slaughtered because of its mother, but in this case one does.  Like with the channukiah, there is a concern of maaris ayin.  People might see the foetus walking around, not realize where it came from and then wonder why the owner didn't shecht the animal.  But now comes the crucial difference.  According to Rav Akiva Eiger, zt"l, in the name of the Rashba the slaughterer must make the blessing on schechting before killing the animal.  This is in contradistinction to the extra channukiahs where no separate blessing is made for each.
Rav Yehudah Gutman notes thast Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l reveals that the difference is that the channukiah is a necessary mitzvah while slaughtering is an optional one.  One must light the channukiah, one does not need to eat meat and therefore slaughter.  Since one has no choice but to light multiple channukiahs because of a takana of Chazal, one need not make the extra blessings.  What's more, one has fulfilled the element of pirsumei nisa simply by lighting, even without a blessing.  However, when one comes to slaughter the mobile foetus, the situation is different.  Because of maaris ayin the kosher slaughtering becomes obligatory.  Therefore this animal is now like all others and needs to be shechted to be eaten.
I would like to wish all my readers a healthy and happy Chanukah, one and all.

Time For Achdus

As news of the terrible fire spreading across northern Israel gets more and more tragic, let us tonight take some time from our Channukah celebrations to say some tehillim (83,130 and 142 come to mind), personal prayers and entreaties to the Ribono shel Olami for our suffering brethren and the brave firefighters who are struggling to contain this disaster.
May God grant mercy on Israel and may this be the last of our suffering as a nation before the Final Redemption.

Responsibility in Management

"The spoke the chief butler unto Pharaoh saying 'I make mention of my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants and put me in the ward of the house of the captain of the guard, me and the chief baker." (Bereshis 41:18)
A close examination of the episode of Yosef HaTzadik and the two Egyptian ministers turns up an interesting observation.  Who exactly were the culprits in the incident that wound the two ministers up in jail?  Look at the following:
"And it came to pass after these things that the butler of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord, the king of Egypt.  And Pharaoh was wroth against his two officers, against the chief of the butlers and against the chief of the bakers.  And he put them in ward in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison, the place where Yosef was bound." (Ber 40:1-3)
When the Torah talks about who actually did the misdeed, the word "chief" is conspicuously missing.  Yet it appears when describing who actually went to prison.  One could conclude from this that while anonymous members of the butlering and baking staff were at fault for whatever offended Pharaoh, the king decided to punish the ministers in charge of each department for failing to maintain properly quality control.
The dreams each minister then had while in prison contain an additional dimension which allows us to understand why Yosef gave a favourable interpretation to the chief butler but not the chief baker.
In the chief butler's dream, he is directly preparing the wine he will be delivering to Pharaoh while in the chief  baker's dream he is carrying bread on baskets to Pharaoh.  If we understand the reason they wound up in jail is because of a mistake their underlings committed, then this makes perfect sense.  The chief butler has recognized that the failure of quality control in his department is his fault and in the future he'll take an active role in supervising the preparation of the wine so nothing will go wrong.  The chief baker, meanwhile, hasn't learned anything.  In his mind, he is still separated from the preparation of the bread, just like the baskets separate his head from the bread in them.  No one can interfere with the chief butler if he personally involves himself with the preparation of the wine but the birds are still free to come and peck away from the bread from the chief baker.
The lesson Yosef learns from this is clear.  Instead of being an aloof ruler, barking orders from a throne on high, the Torah tells us that Yosef tours Egypt and personally supervises the building and stocking of the store cities.  Not only does he have a plan to save the country from famine, he will personally be involved with it to ensure its success.
Those of us who have positions of management can learn a great deal from this.  A good manager knows how to delegate responsibility but maintains an interest in his delegates.  A bad manager sloughs off tasks onto underlings and then claims not to know how things went wrong when one of them screws up. 
Chazal tell us that God helps those who help themselves.  We can all learn from Yosef how to manage our lives through taking an interest in all their facets.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Honouring Chazal

In the current battle between the rationalist and anti-rationalist groups within Torah observant Judaism, one argument continues to be raised by the anti-rationalist side that the rationalists seem not to have effectively rebutted.  The anti-rationalists contend that by casting doubt on Chazal's wisdom regarding science and other non-halachic matters, the rationalists are engaging in heresy.  Since the anti-rationalist view is that Chazal, in addition to their superior knowledge of halacha, also had ruach hakodesh in all other areas of knowledge and therefore their statements on anything are authoritative and considered must-believe for Jews, rationalists are outside the pale of proper Jewish belief by doubting the accuracy of Chazal's knowledge in this area.
The rationalists have not helped their cause by allowing the anti-rationalists to frame the terms of the debate.  The argument inevitably starts with the anti-rationalist side declaring that Chazal are infallible.  This forces the rationalist side to respond that, in fact, Chazal were fallible, leaving itself open to shouts of "kefirah!" After all, it's a slippery slope, isn't it?  If one thinks that Chazal were fallible in matters of science, then it's quite plausible to accuse one of thinking that their grasp of halacha was imperfect.  In addition, the anti-rationalist side has worked hard to create the impression that a literal reading of certain parts of the Torah which simply cannot be understood in that simplistic fashion is in fact the only way to read that part of the Torah and that such a method is a principle of the faith. 
All of this is a shame since most of the anti-rationalist positions are either indefensible or laughable, as these two short videos demonstrate.  When anti-rationalist positions are challenges head on using valid Torah sources, the only rebuttal seems to be "Well that's not what the Gedolim said so you're a kofer!"  Personally, I stopped using arguments like that around grade 6.
The solution to this problem for the rationalists is to aggressively reframe the debate.  Both sides agree that Chazal were great men who had a supreme knowledge of Torah that we can study and analyze but not improve upon.  We cannot know more Torah than them and they limits they set remain valid for our halachic analysis to this day.  However, the anti-rationalists have created a new image for Chazal, one is which they have become omniscient demigods with magical powers to turn people into piles of bones at will.  They believe that this is the best way to honour Chazal.
Therefore the rationalist position must be to challenge this head on.  Were Chazal supernatural beings, or were they great men with a desire to know God's will within the parameters of intellectual truth?  In short, if they were confronted with the fact that lice do not spontaneously generate from sweat but hatch from eggs like every other known insect on the planet, would they obfuscate with terutzim like "Well, nishtaneh hatevah" or "scientists are all liars" or would they re-examine the issue and learn about the new knowledge that postdated them?
When it comes to halacha, there can be no questioning of Chazal's authority.  When it comes to science, one must apply the standard that holds true in that field today, one of intellectual truth.  A real scientist, when confronted with evidence that opposes a theory or hypothesis of his, either tries to prove to contradictory facts wrong or adjusts his theory in light of the new information.  It should be the rationalist position that Chazal were men for whom truth, the seal of God Himself, was the overriding factor in their investigations of the natural world.  What they recorded in the Talmud was a reflection of the scientific truth of their day.  Had they been aware of other facts, like the size of the universe, the age of the planet, etc. they would have altered their views since truth is the overriding objective they were searching for.
For the anti-rationalists, Chazal are like global warming advocates who pick and choose the "facts" that fit their predetermined thesis.  The rationalists must oppose this on the basis that Chazal wanted honesty and facts as best known at any given time.  Thus a statement of Chazal that seems scientifically absurd today does not mean they are fallible.  Given the information available at the time they came to the most honest conclusions possible.  With the advancement of knowledge of the natural world and the development of the scientific method, we honour Chazal best by learning honestly about the universe around it and seeing how the Torah reflects itself in it since both are creations of God.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Kosovo Redux?

One of the most pathetic wars of the 1990's was NATO's attack on Serbia to liberate Kosovo from the clutches of Slobodan Milosevic.  It was a conflict that made no sense in that no one's national interests were being helped or harmed by the ongoing civil war in Kosovo.  It was illegal in that NATO's charter allows for the alliance to use force against an enemy after one of its members has been attacked, the famous "An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us" rule.  It led to nothing constructive as Kosovo remains a thug and drug infested backwater to this day while Serbia has yet to reecover from the pounding it took.  Finally it led to deterioration in the state of relations between the West and Russia.  Serbia, after all, is a Russian ally and NATO's unopposed pounding emphasized the former Soviet Union's impotence to protect its traditional friends.
However, at the time I noted to anyone who would listen (both of them) that there was another purpose to the Kosovo raid.  Simply put, NATO was seeing if they could get away with attacking a state which was of no threat to them in defiance of their own charter and international law.  Why would they want to determine if they could?
1) The Kosovans are ethnic Albanians who moved to the area while it was under Turkish rule, displacing the Serbs who had previously lived there.
2) Despite enjoying a certain level of autonomy, their leadership, composed of terrorists and drug lords, started demanding independence in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia.
3) Their cause was quickly taken up by the West even though there is no record of an independent Kosovo in history while the Serbs do have an established connection to the province.
Does this sound familiar?  Let me spell it out:
1) The so-called Palestinians are ethnic Arabs who moved to the area while it was under Muslim rule, displacing the Jews who had previously lived there.
2) Despite enjoying a certain level of autonomy, their leadership, composed of terrorists and drug lords, started demanding independence in the wake of the Oslo Discord.
3) Their cause was quickly taken up by the West even though there is no record of an independent Palestine in history while the Jews do have an established connection to Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza.
At the time my concerns were scoffed at.  America, in particular, would never allow NATO to attack Israel.  The thought that the alliance would invade a country with which many of its members have important military and economic ties was thought to be too far fetched.
And now Haaretz has this small piece which made the hairs on the back of my neck (unlike followers, I have plenty o' those) stand on end:
 NATO will play an integral role in enforcing a Middle East peace deal, but will not play a direct role in reaching that agreement, the alliance's secretary general told Haaretz this weekend. "If a Middle East peace agreement is reached, an international military force will be needed to monitor and implement it," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
At a press briefing in the Portuguese capital, the secretary general said that unlike its member states, NATO as an organization is not involved in the peace process, but expressed support for the efforts of the United States and the other members of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators to reach a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
NATO has no business showing interest in MiddleEastern affairs.  Israel is not a threat to any NATO member, including Turkey, although the Turks seem to wish otherwise nowadays.  So why the sudden interest in enforcing the peace?
NATO has not managed to subdue the Taliban despite trying for almost 10 years.  They have never successfully fought a war anywhere except against Serbia which was outmatched by any one of the member states, never mind their combined might.  The UN maintains peacekeeping forces.  Why would NATO suddenly show an interest?
But imagine the possible scenario.  The Arabs have already threatened to go to the UN Security Council and get authorization to unilaterally declare statehood in Yehuda and Shomron.  The current negotiations between Israel and the United States of Obama regarding an extension of the construction freeze have raised the issue of the US vetoing any such move for 1 year.  Is it so crazy to imagine that after that time period Obama will support an unilateral declaration of independence?
And when Mahmood Abbas announces that he is inviting NATO troops to remove Israeli "aggressors" from his land, what happens next?  When the Turks announce their willingness to help their Arab brethren out under the banner of NATO and demand Israel let them come ashore, what happens in NATO headquarters?  Would a pushback against the Turks be considered an attack on NATO?

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Never Failing to Disappoint

Rav Ovadiah Yosef, shlit"a, is without question an exceptional Talmid Chacham and a Gadol HaDor.  His works on medical halacha are required reading for physicians and his influence in the Jewish legal world is felt everywhere.
Unfortunately he's also a source of unwitting entertainment when it comes to the airing of his political views.  For years he has given speeches on Saturday nights and the presence of recording microphones in front of him has never made his shy away from speaking his mind.  Unfortunately what his mind speaks is sometimes difficult for others to hear and, unlike Ashkenazic leaders who rarely speak in public and who are often misrepresented by their askanim, he is quite willing to go on the record publicly.
His most recent statement, for example, grates at the nerves:
There are those who speak about yeshivot, as though they were created solely for great Torah scholars who will become rabbis and rabbinical judges, and if that doesn't suit the person, he should go to work,” Yosef said of Amsalem's doctrine, without naming him.
“These are not the voices of Torah, but against it; Torah learners sustain the world,” Yosef said.
“Whoever tells yeshiva boys to go to work is lacking faith in our Torah,” he said later in the talk.
This opinion seems surprising considering that in Sephardic culture there is a tremendous appreciation for the importance of labour.  The "learn don't earn" attitude is thought to be mostly confined to the Ashkenazim, especially the Litvish crowd.  However, it seems that along with black hats and suits, many amongst the Sephardim have imported this belief as well.
Does Torah study support the continued existence of the world?  Without a doubt, as Chazal tell us from a verse in Yirmiyahu that if Torah study did not constantly go on the world would be returned to tohu v'bohu
But working stiffs support the continued existence of Torah study, or so is the impression I get from the endless parade of learners who consider me God's agent (after all, God provides for their needs so as the guy who actually cuts the cheque, that makes me His agent, right?).  The Torah itself speaks about the value of labour while the Talmud reminds us that almost all of the great Sages of yore had day jobs.  Can Rav Ovadiah really had meant that a person who chooses the path of Zevulun is lacking faith in Torah?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Whither Modern Orthodoxy (Again)

One of the problems with a movement that prides itself on giving its members autonomy is that it is very difficult to define the parameters of that movement.  Chareidism has it relatively simple with very specific criteria that tell one how to be a good member.  With Modern Orthodoxy it's not so simple, especially as recent events regarding Rabbi Avi Weiss have demonstrated.
Perhaps another reason Modern Orthodoxy has trouble defining itself is the name the movement has chosen.  The English equivalent of Chareidism is Ultra-Orthodoxy which pretty much tells you what the public image of that community is - you find the chumra and they'll take it on.  What does Modern mean?  Does it refer to the style of dress, an acceptance of television and movies as an acceptable part of life, or an approach to halacha that differs from the Ultra-Orthodox?
For many, there is an impression that while the Chareidim are stuck in the Dark Ages and unwilling to change anything about halacha, the Modern Orthodox are willing to be flexible, almost to a fault, at ensuring that Jewish law changes to keep up with developing needs in the community as well as expectations from the surrounding secular culture.
However, neither of these impressions is actually true, despite what some might think as this article about Rav Daniel Sperber, demonstrates:
The Orthodox world has dealt with the “uncertainty” and “perplexity” brought on by these changes in two ways, Sperber says. One is to “retreat behind the walls,” condemning all change as a threat to “the nostalgic picture of what Judaism was.” The haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, and “the so-called right wing of modern Orthodoxy,” take their cue from the 18th- and 19th-century Talmudist and teacher known as the Chatam Sofer, who ruled that “chadash assur min ha-Torah,” or, “Innovation is forbidden by the Torah.” That began, Sperber says, as a technical point about the laws of the harvest; was applied “out of context” to Orthodoxy’s conflict with the new Reform movement in Germany and Hungary (and even among the Orthodox, Sperber says, it was considered “a very extreme statement”) and finally became a universal rule.
Sperber gave two examples of from the Hungarian town of Mattersdorf (now Mattersburg in Austria). The synagogue had never been heated, and during the winter the synagogue officials had to pay people to come to be sure of having 10 adult men for prayers. But when someone proposed installing a fireplace, Sperber said, the reaction was, “Our forefathers didn’t have it, and chadash assur min ha-Torah.”
Synagogues had never had benches, either, only upright reading desks known in Yiddish as shtenders. That made for a lot of discomfort during the long High Holiday services, but the idea of bringing in benches met the same fate: “Our forefathers didn’t have them …” (“Did he say he’s bringing in examples,” a bystander whispered, “from Mattersdorf or from Chelm?” -- the legendary Jewish town of fools.)
The problem with this analysis is obvious: does anyone know a Chareidi today who won't use electricity, a chair or even toilet paper, all innovations since the Chasam Sofer's famous proclamation?  Do Chareidim hand-sew all their clothes?  Do they insist on books that are printed on old-fashioned presses without any assistance from computers?  What Rav Sperber is describing is of historical interest but hardly applicable to the Chareidi community today.
Many in the Modern Orthodox community don't like being labelled as "less frum" than their Chareidi brethren but if you take a moment to look at those areas that Modern Orthodoxy claims it is more involved in, it becomes very clear that Chareidim are there too - doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock brokers, computers, engineering and many more professions.  It's true that a smaller proportion of that community is engaged in such fields but that is usually because of a greater commitment to the idea that full-time learning is as acceptable a profession as gainful employment.  Perhaps the greatest difference is the idea that Chareidim use those professions for their purposes (making money to support the local yeshivah, for example) while the Modern Orthodox are more likely to immerse themselves in the culture of the profession itself.
If this is so, then how does Modern Orthodoxy distinguish itself?  It's interesting to observe that more many, the main focus of attention is the same as that of the Chareidi community in recent years: gender separation and sexuality.  While the Charedi leadership in recent years has attempted to emulate Talibanistic standards in terms of definitions of tznius as separation of men and women in public, those on the left fringe of Modern Orthodoxy have gone the other way, trying to push the limits of what halacha will allow in terms of minimizing feminine-specific clothing, gender separation and even roles in prayer.  This focus, to the exclusion of an approach to the greater problems facing the Jewish nation, is beneficial for neither group.
It must be recommended that Modern Orthodoxy stop worrying about the stereotypes of Chareidim we have all allowed ourselves to become hypnotized with.  Instead of reacting, Modern Orthodoxy needs to start defining itself and building its strengths along the lines of those definitions.  It means looking that the halachic literature and analyzing it with proper methodology to determine what behaviours and beliefs are considered properly Orthodox instead of looking to secular culture for answers and then trying to find supports within the poskim.  Modern Orthodoxy, in short, should be about Orthodoxy, not Modernity.

Friday, 12 November 2010

A Man for All Ages

One of the problems Jewish education has had for the last 1500 years or so is a lack of priority in studying the Bible.  The Torah gets memorized, to be sure, but once Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, ascends Har Nevo for the last time interest quickly falls off.  Some books have reamined popular, like the five megillos and Tehillim, while other parts are familiar because they are found in a haftarah somewhere.  But huge chunks of the Bible never get read, other than as disjointed verses which appear to prove a legal point or two in the Talmud. 
This is a terrible shame since, as my father loves to say repeatedly, you can learn how to do Judaism from the Talmud but you have to read the Bible to know how God wants you to be a Jew. 
One of the main books that prove this point is the book of Yirmiyahu, Jeremiah.  If there's one book that warns us in the modern day of the dangers of complacency and false piety, it's Yirmiyahu.  From warnings against political disunity to a reminder that God's protection is not unconditional and that we have to earn His respect and guidance, Yirmiyahu hammers away at misconceptions that still plague us today.  As this article notes:
From this it is easy enough to discern where Lau locates Jeremiah's contemporary relevance. The state of Israel is weighed down today by serious social problems, from the status of foreign workers to forced prostitution—problems often pushed aside by the need to focus on the country's strategic situation. Among some, there is also a kind of insouciance about the country's supposed indestructibility, an attitude no less superstitious than the ancient dependence on the Temple. As Lau notes toward the end of his book:
There are still false prophets in Jerusalem proclaiming, "We have a tradition from our forefathers that the third commonwealth [i.e., the state] won't be destroyed." Their function is to put us to sleep and make us forget our weighty responsibility: to be deserving of this house.
Lau's Jeremiah is thus a rabbi's warning against national and/or religious self-confidence divorced from a social conscience and the commitment to moral excellence. In one sense, it may be said (though Lau doesn't say it) that his warning goes to the heart of the modern project itself, and to the war waged by hard-boiled thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes to emancipate politics from theology. Reversing the trajectory, Lau's Jeremiah reconnects the two by implying that their disconnection was what doomed the Jewish state in the first place. In this sense, his warning is pertinent to contemporary situations, and dilemmas, well beyond the state of Israel.
More specifically, though, Jeremiah constitutes a challenge to Zionist and religious-Zionist pieties. Among secular Israelis, interest in the Bible has waned with the passing of the heroic phase of the Zionist revolution. Meanwhile, within the religious-Zionist camp, a battle has been waged between those who would read the Bible "at eye-level"—meaning, on its own terms and without the mediating presence of traditional commentaries, and those who consider it forbidden to read the text without the aid of those commentaries.
Yirmiyahu reminds us that it is not enough to go through the motions of doing Jewish.  He repeatedly informs us that the first Jewish state was not destroyed because women wore denim skirts, the children watched television, or that people didn't wait long enough between meat and milk.  The state was destroyed because of theft, violence, murder and marital immorality.  It was destroyed because people saw God the way a child sees Him - give Him a gift and He has to give you what you want.  It's okay to sin.  Just remember to bring a sacrifice to Him afterwards and He has to forgive you.  The Torah says so!
Is that so different from many in the religious community today who countenance theft, pedophilia and political corruption but turn around and shout about their piety when it comes to tznius and avoiding the temptations of secular culture?  What would Yirmiyahu say to them today?  How would they respond?  With the same dismissiveness and violence that our ancestors treated him with?
There is no question that every single mitzvah in the Torah is of inestimable value and that a Judaism that bypasses some in order to emphasize others is incomplete and improper.  The Reform Jew who works hard at giving charity and what he thinks is tikun olam while not keeping Shabbos or kashrus is not doing well.  The religious Jew who only eats mehadrin food and waits two hours extra for havdala but cheats his employees and on his wife is no different.
But if we are to emphasize what is absolutely necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, then some things do rise to the surface.  Decency, honesty, respect for our difference and for one another.  An acceptance that while the halacha is binding it is deep and multi-faceted so that there is rarely only one answer to an important question.  But most importantly, a constant remembering that God is above us, watching our actions and hoping for us to do well.  Like children desiring to please a parent, we too muc always remember that what we do is for our good and to please Him, not the guy watching us through the blinds across the street.  This is the message of Yirmiyahu and one that needs to be preached again in our day.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Passive Aggressive

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the holy bible of Psychiatry.  While most other diagnoses in medicine require a certain standardized approach in terms of things which rule a condition in or out, Psychiatry lives and dies by the fixed criteria contained in the DSM.  One could be crying uncontrollably for 13 days but you have to be despondent for 14 to be diagnosed with major depression, for example.
To its credit, the DSM does change over time to reflect new understandings in mental illness.  Conditions appear and disappear depending (usually) on new research and discoveries.  Sometimes these changes are controversial (homosexuality was removed by open vote at an annual APA meeting, for example) and sometimes they are just odd.
For example, the DSM III contained a personality disorder called "Passive Aggressive".  Now, we all know folks like this.  They whinge and whinge for help but throw up roadblacks the minute any is offered.  They prefer to be in a state of misery, finding it familiar and comfortable.  They are clearly the most frustrating folks to treat.
Yet the DSM IV removed Passive Aggressive.  It was felt by the researchers at the APA that most of the features were similar enough to the Dependent personality disorder and therefore Passive Aggressives could be subsumed into that category.  Me, I disagreed but who am I to know better than the APA?
If there is one example of Passive Aggressive in the Jewish world, it is definitely the Israeli Chareidi community.  One need only look at the statements of its leaders and PR bagmen to see how the criteria play out.  The most recent article in the Israeli press regarding Chareidim and army service is just another example.  As usual, the author puts the blame on the secular population.  It's not that the Ultra-Orthodox don't want to servce.  The Chareidim, it seems, are just not wanted in the army because they're too different:
I will never forget the experience of going through my IDF tests as an adolescent. The slang that was used along with the cursing was more than I heard since the day I was born to that day. Indeed, those who boldly stand up and speak out bluntly are right: The haredim aren’t really fit for military service.
I have no doubt that fans of cheap populism will speak out now and slam these words, which many good people know are true. Meanwhile, some politicians will continue to utter hateful words, because this hatred motivates their actions and they won’t let the facts confuse them. They shall continue to stick to their theories, just like they will continue to demand that the haredim head out to work, without checking how many are already working and how many want to work but can’t, because they did not serve in the IDF or because their studies are not recognized as an academic degree.
The Israeli army has, since the founding of the State, proved that no one is unwanted when it comes to military service.  Where the Russians who came en masse 20 years ago so similar to Israelis that integrating them wasn't an issue?  Did the Ethiopians just blend in when their turn came?  Somehow the IDF has absorbed disparate populations, as much variety as the UN claims to have, but the Chareidim are the exception to the rule?
Over twenty years ago I recall reading an article in The Jerusalem Post about a failed effort to create a new Chareidi unit.  All efforts were made to ensure there would be no problems.  No training on Shabbos, only male instructors, time for learning, etc.  And why did the program fail?  The recruits wanted mehadrin min mehadrin food and the stuff supplied was only mehadrin!  A shande!  How could such an insensitive thing happen?
The idea that somehow it's the secular popuation that is making the army inhospitable to the Chareidi community is an insult to both the Chilonim who have bent over backwards to create as Jewish an army as possible and to the Chareidim who actually do serve in the army and show that these pretend obstacles can be overcome, that it is possible to protect the State and being fully yiras Shamayim at the same time.  No amount of passive aggressive whinging by an author who admits that he was too fat for army service anyway will change that.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Beyond The End Of One's Nose

There is no doubt that Chabad takes whatever it does to extremes.  There is no Jewish group more active in more far-flung places of the world than them.  Despite a lack of local resources that would drive out less-committed Yidden, Chabad emissaries live full Jewish lives in scattered places around the globe, providing a taste of Yiddishkeit to any of our brethren who happen to wander by.  Their dedication to kiruv is also unmatched and they work with great fervour to bring back lost Jews to Torah.
Unfortunately it is human nature to let extremism cut both ways.  While a moderate often refuses to take a defined stand on anything, an extremist will have a firm opinion about everything and a refusal to budge from it.  The problem with Chabad's extremism is that its desire to bring Jews back to Judaism is matched by a belief that their Judaism is the only real kind. 
As Rav Shmuely Boteach, former black sheep of the movement, notes in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post:
I knew then in theory what I just witnessed in practice: Chabad emissaries would one day take over the Jewish world. Why? Because of the grandness of their vision and the passion with which they pursued their mission. Other Jewish organizations sought to educate people about their tradition, but Chabad sought to raise all Earth’s inhabitants to a higher God-consciousness, and to make Judaism the driving force in every decision of daily life.
The passionate dedication of the Chabad emissaries was infectious. They did not preach the Torah. Rather, it coursed through their veins, seeping out of every pore. Hassidic teachings about the approachability of God and the accessibility of a higher spiritual reality were grafted onto the average Chabad activist’s very DNA, becoming an inseparable part of his or her character and personality.
WITNESSING THE fulfillment of that promise at the conference was an awakening. Chabad is no longer merely a Jewish movement. It is Judaism. I find it astonishing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew in to attend the Jewish federations’ annual General Assembly but bypassed the Chabad conference. If an Israeli prime minister wants to be part of the unfolding of modern Jewish history, he has to address Chabad. No other organization even comes close to its global reach or grassroots impact. And it is growing exponentially.
They don't read newspapers and are unlikely to care about what Rav Boteach says but one can imagine going to the Rebbes of Ger, Belz and Satmar (both of them), all of them significantly larger in size than Lubavitch despite a total lack of outreach, and telling them: "Did you know that Chabad is Judaism?"
Indeed, Rav Boteach should know this.  All the shluchim should know that theirs is not the largest sect within Orthodox Judaism and that within the Chareidi community they are relegated to the fringe with the Bratzlovers, a kooky sect that might be scrupulous in the performance of some mitzvos but which endorse beliefs and worldviews unacceptable to the main group.
Then there's the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi who would also be shocked to know that they are not Judaism.  Never mind the pantheon of thinkers and towering figures they lay claim to.  Never mind all the learning and practice.  They aren't Judaism because they're not Chabad?
Yet there is the other side that Rav Boteach mentions and must be emphasized. As Rav David Berger notes in his book on the subject, Chabad is expanding within significant parts of the Jewish community through a clever strategy.  Just as leftists realized long ago that if one infiltrates the school system to ensure that children are raised with a socialist/politically correct philosophy so as to create a large group of support later on, Chabad realized long ago that going where no frum Jews could be found was like mining for gold.  There is a reason Chabad is found in isolated small Jewish communities that no one else pays attention to, why they show up on campuses even in cities with a large Torah-observant population and why they pay so much attention to Jewish communities and travellers in such places as Russia and India. 
Generally one does not find Chareidim in these places since they prefer large centres where they have resources, yeshivos and other such supports.  One doese not find Dati Leumi there either since the movement's focus is on Eretz Yisrael, not golus.  Asd a result, if you're a non-religious Jew living in a small town in the American mid-west, or a student venturing onto a university campus, or a villager someone in Siberia, chances are the only frum Jew you'll ever meet is a Chabad shaliach
The consequence of this is obvious - if all you ever want from the Chabadnik is chicken soup on Friday night and the occasional raucous Purim party, that's fine but if you want to learn more about Judaism you will be introduced to Torah observance but through the Chabad lens which is, in many ways exhaustively documented elsewhere, different from conventional Torah observance.  What's more, you will be taught that theirs is, like Rav Boteach say, the Judaism of our ancestors, the only real type, the kind that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, brought down from Har Sinai.
One might raise an objection by pointing out that Aish HaTorah and Ohr Sameach are hardly different in that approach to kiruv.  This is definitely true.  Ask an Aish or Ohr rav about the age of the Earth and you will be told the only legitimate answer is 5771 years.  They won't teach you about the Rav or Rav Kook either in those places. 
But the significant difference is that Aish and Ohr generally restrict themselves to large communties, as I noted above regarding Chareidim in general.  You won't find Aish in Woebegone, Minnesota.  You just might find Chabad.
Through their kiruv, Chabad is indeed working very hard to present a specific type of Torah Judaism to the non-religious masses who don't know about the depth and variety of Torah observance.  They are working hard to convince the multitudes that Nusach Ari is the only siddur God hears you pray and that a certain deceased rabbinical figure really is the Moshiach, that it is a fundamental principle of Judaism and an actual halacha to believe this, and that he is just waiting for the opportunity to reveal himself and bring the final salvation.
That Chabadniks don't realize that Judaism is far bigger than them and that their beliefs are not standard in the rest of the Torah community is regrettable.  That the rest of the Torah Jewish community is sitting back while they divert our non-religious brethren into their narrow camp isn't.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A Hidden Gem

Long-time readers of this blog know that when it comes to learning Talmud I prefer the Steinsaltz classic edition to the Artscroll.  There are a few reasons for this but my principle one is the different format.  With Artscroll, both in the Hebrew and English, the footnotes seem to form a constant disruption while reading the text.  You read a couple of words and bang!  You need to look at a footnote.  Then you return to the text, read a line or two and again, another footnote.  I find this way of reading quite disruptive.  It also doesn't help that half of the footnotes in the Artscroll are completely unnecessary and could have been interpolated into the text with a few words.  In the Steinsaltz edition, the notes at the bottom are more comprehensive and can be read after finishing the sugya in question which allows my learning to flow more easily.
However, one major limitation of the Steinsaltz edition is that it only has one volume of the Yerushalmi, Peah, with no plans for more.  If one wants to learn the Yerushalmi in addition to the Bavli, there is one popular effort, that of Artscroll's (surprise!)  Like the Bavli, the format involves the text above and copious footnotes below.  In addition, there are Hebrew and English versions in the works over the next few years.  Wishing to pick up some Yerushalmi over the next few years, I had resigned myself to relearning the Artscroll method and planned on picking up some volumes.
And then one night while surfing on the internet I came across the website of one Rav Yechiel Bar-Lev, shlita.  A quick look at Rav Bar-Lev's biographical information quickly reveals that (a) he is a very learned Talmid Chacham and (b) he clearly doesn't sleep, how else to explain the prodigious amount of work he has produced in the past few years.  He has produced two important works, one an edition of the Zohar with a readable Hebrew elucidation, and an entire set of the Yerushalmi.  One can view sample pages from both on line.  The Yerushalmi, in particular, grabbed my attention for his unique format.  Like the Artscroll he has the classic Talmud page and on the opposite side he has his interpretive Hebrew translation, copying Artscroll's fonts and style.  However, at the bottom of the page his footnotes read like the Steinsaltz Talmud's, more comprehensive and not requiring one to look up and down, up and down, like the Artscroll's.  A perfect synthesis.
Having ordered and received a set, I can say I have not been disappointed and look forward in the near future to starting a daf yomi with this edition to complement the Bavli one.  I encourage everyone to peruse Rav Bar-Lev's site and see the products for themselves.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Needed: Insight

One of the biggest reasons for conflicts between different groups is a lack of insight on the part of leaders and followers on each side.  So busy are both sides in accusing one another of various crimes that neither steps back and asks: Are we part of the problem?  If we fix ourselves, might things improve?
Years ago my wife and I visited Israel together and spent time with both Chiloni and Chareidi friends.  While with the former we heard about all the evils of the ultra-Orthodox population.  While with our religious friends we heard about how degenerate secular cutlure was.  And it occured to me: both sides are right.  The Chareidim are guilty of what the Chilonim accuse them of, and vice versa.  Both groups have their strengths but also their shortcomings which their opponents constantly choose to focus on.
But when each group confronts the other from a position of righteousness - you are the evil ones, we are the victims! - then only bad consequences can emerge.  Such is the nature of the ongoing strife in Israel between the religious and non-religious populations.  A splendid example of a complete lack of insight into the situation can be found in this Ynet article:
We can understand those who disagree with people who value Torah studies over convenience and the good life. We did not ask anyone to laud these yeshiva students – but why humiliate them?

If you do not want minorities in the Israeli state, and if you are unwilling to live alongside those who are different than you, declare it openly and expel us: The Arabs to Lebanon and Egypt, us haredim to the United States, and leave the State of Tel Aviv intact. The scope of venom directed at us makes it appear as though we personify all the wickedness and corruption around here, yet none of these loud critics have the courage to stand up and say the same things about Israeli Arabs. When it comes to the Arabs, these critics support dialogue, patience, and affirmative action. But not with the haredim.

We, the haredim, do not need anyone’s kosher certificate for Israel’s right to exist in the Holy Land. This land is promised to its scholars and thinkers in the Book of Books. Without substantive attachment to the Bible, we have no place here, amidst the hundreds of millions of Muslims. Hence, despite the occasional waves of incitement, more and more people move closer to the Creator.
The problem with this cri de couer is that it completely ignores the reasons why the secular community has become so virulently anti-Chareidi.  In the last year we have been subjected to non-stop stories about Chareidi violence, Chareidi corruption, Chareidi chumros, Chareidi demands, and with the advent of the internet what the Chareidim are saying about non-Chareidim is now also publicly broadcast.  The image of the poor, innocent, suffering shtetl dweller who has done nothing to bring down the wrath of the Satan upon himself but endures nonetheless carries no weight outside those who would love to believe that image is true.
Is the average Chareidi an evil entity?  No, chas v'shalom we should think that the average Chareidi is anything other than decent, devoted and full of love of God and Am Yisrael.  But the public face of the community is not representative of this individual.  Whether its triumphalist bovine faeces at odds with reality, revisionist screeds lacking in facts, or just generally poor writing, the appearance is one of a community completely oblivious to its negative points and willing to smear any outsider in the name of God the all-merciful.  And it is this appearance that the Chilonim are rallying against.
Who is right?  Well, as I concluded during that visit years ago, both sides are.  The bottom line is that the secular community in Israel brings many important things to the country.  Their spirit, innovative spirits and willingness to work hard under pressure is what has allowed Israel to survive the hatred of its neighbours and much of the world since 1948.  They are the builders and sustained of the State and without them Israel would still be a malaria-infested swamp/desert.
But on the other hand, Israel is a nation unique in that its raison d'etre is constantly relevant.  No one questions Britain's place in Europe, or Luxembourg but the idea of a Jewish state in the MiddleEast is controversial enough, all the more so a secular European-style social democracy.  If not for the Jewish element, Israel would lose its relevance, its need to exist.  After all, there are lots of places in the world for secular socialists and capitalists to live but Jews have a special tie to a very specific tract of land in only one place in the world.  The Chareidim at their best provide much of that Jewish character and ensure that it endures.
In short, both sides need each other for Israel to endure as it has.  One must hope against hope that leaders will emerge on both sides that will realize this and announce to their followers that it is time to listen to the criticisms directed against them and respond constructively.  Perhaps the secular community could stand a little more Torah in their lives.  Certainly the Chareidim could go to work.  And that would be the ideal outcome.

The Achievement of a Lifetime

Although we are blessed to live in a time when the publishing of seforim is occuring at an unprecedented rate, there are still occasions when one particular sefer or set comes out which stands out from all the rest.  Such a set is the Steinsaltz Talmud, four decades in the making and finally officially complete as of November 7.
The project is one that has revolutionized learning.  Back in  the late 1960's when the Rav began his translation and elucidation of the Talmud, there was one English-Hebrew version of the Talmud available, the Soncino, which was a remarkable achievement but not the greatest to learn from given its awkward English style, limited footnotes and lack of correlation between the English and Hebrew pages.  In addition, there was nothing for the Hebrew-speaking market in Israel.  Unless you were raised in a yeshiva environment, the Talmud was a closed book for you.
Rav Steinsaltz, like Pinhas Kehati before him with the Mishnah, set out to make the Talmud intelligible for the masses.  He revolutionized the Vilna daf, creating a new format that left the text, Rashi and Tosafos on the page but added his own interpretive commentary which included Hebrew translations of the Aramaic parts of the text.  He also added additional notes that the bottom and sides of the page to add depth to one's learning both in traditional (bringing Rishonim and Acharonim) and innovative (bringing etymological and historical pieces) ways.
Naturally his efforts to bring Torah to the masses raised opposition from some corners.  There were those who claimed that the Vilna format that he had adjusted was supposed to be unchangeable and that he had shown great chutzpah in doing so.  What's more, his commentary occupied the column where Rashi's had traditionally been put.  I recall a personal anecdote from several years ago learning with this volume and asking a dedicated kollel-type a question on the daf.  Apparently the answer was in one of the Tosafos but after staring at the Steinsaltz page for a moment he rolled his eyes and groaned in frustration.  "I can't find Tosafos in this crazy format" he muttered.  I immediately point out where Tosafos was and helpfully pointed out "See?  It's labelled with the word: Tosafos".  He wasn't impressed.  I didn't care.
It also doesn't help that Rav Steinsaltz has raised controversy in other areas:
But as scholars and Jewish leaders herald his remarkable accomplishment, Steinsaltz himself has become a figure of controversy, criticized in some Orthodox circles for what many consider his unorthodox behavior. 

Five years ago he found himself outside the Orthodox consensus for accepting the post of nasi, or president, of a modern-day Sanhedrin, a re-creation of the ancient Jewish legal body that set ritual observance for the Jewish people. Steinsaltz’s decision a year later to hold Rosh Hashanah services in which the shofar was sounded on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah -- a practice banned centuries ago by the Jewish sages -- caused further controversy. 
Having had the zechus to meet the Rav it is easy to see why his behaviour might be seen as odd by others.  Simply put, if we the average folk are on the first floor in terms of intellectual ability, the Rav is on the 10th floor seeing and considering things that wouldn't occur to us.  For him the Torah is not a strait jacket limiting one's activities but a book of possibilities in how to approach God and feel a connection to him.
Of course, there haven't been speedbumps along the road towards the completion of the Talmud project.  While he was lauded at the time for releasing an English translation of the Talmud, in truth the project never had a chance of being successful in the way Artscroll's was.  After 22 volumes covering a handful of tractates, it became clear that a final project would be over 100 volumes and it was abandoned.  In addition, the product was so English  that the books opened left to right, not the traditional right to left.  Finally, Artscroll's masterpierce Schottenstein Talmud emerged (some say with the specific objective of wiping out the Steinsaltz English initiative).  Although there are rumours that the Rav is considering another attempt at an English-Hebrew Talmud which would more closely resemble the Artscroll effort, it's worth considering whether such an endeavour would be worthwhile, given Artscroll's lock on the market.
The other major disappointment for me was his Yerushalmi project.  Never mentioned now, the Rav initially planned to complete not only the entire Talmud Bavli but also those tractates in the Yerushalmi which lacked a corresponding Bavli.  When the size and scale of the project became obvious, this plan was quietly dropped.  The only memory of it is the lone volume of Peah that remains as a teaser of what might have been.
In summary, we are witnessing a tremendous achievement by a tremendous talmid chachami who has changed the face of Talmud learning in the Jewish world forever. Kol hakavod.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

On Esther Petrack and Orthodoxy

Much has been made recently of a young Jewish woman's attempt to make the big time by competing in the TV show America's Next Top Model.  Although a Jewish woman competing on that program might be expected to garner some attention from the greater Jewish community, the "one of ours in on TV!" group, what really got Ms. Petrack a lot of attention was Tyra Banks asking her to confirm her self-identity as Modern Orthodox.
Initially there were two problems with this identification.  One was the conflict between being a tznius woman and showing up on a television show where women were expected to act in a skanky fashion in order to win.  The second was what was an apparently heavily edited segment in which Ms. Petrack was confronted with the incompatibility of being shomer Shabbos and competing on the show.  The clip presented Ms. Petrack as being fully willing to dump Shabbos in order to be part of the ANTM experience, something that was later shown to be false.  However, the other concern of public exhibitionism in a decidely unJewish fashion remained.
Now, at the start let us be clear.  What Ms. Petrack chooses to do with her time is her own business and she answers for her activities directly to God, not a committee of folks who want to decide how others should live their lives.  To criticize her in a "That's not how a Jew behaves!" fashion is not for any of us to do.
However, the challenge of Esther Petrack isn't over her personal behaviour but rather that she was under the impression that she could behave in a non-Orthodox fashion and still call herself Orthodox.
As one blog seems to have noted, Modern Orthodoxy is differentiated from Chareidism by a more inclusive attitude as well as more lenient standards of behaviour:
Modern Orthodox Jews are more inclusive. There is a broader range of activity and thought that is acceptable. But when someone so much as tiptoes over the line they are out. Rabbi Avi Weiss dared tread just across the line and everyone and their grandmother has “excluded” him or proclaimed him to be “beyond the pale”. The truth is that Modern Orthodoxy is more inclusive but only because they have a broader definition of what is acceptable thought and action. However, going outside that self-defined perimeter means you are outside Modern Orthodoxy. There is not more tolerance, just more tolerated activity.
The same thing drove the comments that ousted Esther Petrack from Modern Orthodoxy. Esther’s mother wrote that her family goes “mixed swimming” (and wear bathing suits in public). This is an accepted action within Modern Orthodoxy. (Forget halacha for a minute, this is a social issue, not a halachic issue.) Yet, Esther’s modeling was outside what some people want to define as Modern Orthodoxy so she is out. Esther self defines as Modern Orthodox. Somehow people think they have a right to tell others how they are to be defined.
What seems to be missing from this analysis is an understanding of the difference between official positions and common action.  To use the recent Rubashkin debacle as an example, no self-respecting Chareidi will openly state that theft and lying are permitted.  Sholom Rubashkin himself would probably insist on that as well.  But there is a difference between what one says in public and the standards fallible Chareidim can find themselves living by.
The same is true for the Modern Orthodox community.  Find me one reputable Modern Orthodox posek who says that mixed swimming or walking around in public clad only in bathing apparel is permitted Jewish behaviour.  That many in the MO community have no problem doing this does not mean that the activity is permitted, only that many in the MO community have no problem doing forbidden activities without tying it into their Jewish practice.  Rav Fink has created a false separation by talking about social issues vs halachic ones.  For an observant Jew, everything has a relevant halacha.  Some MO Jews may go mixed swimming but even if it is socially acceptable, it is not Jewishly acceptable.
And this, in the end, is the line that Esther Petrack crossed that got folks so upset.  If she wanted to display her body for the American viewing public, that is her choice.  It was her continuing insistence (and her mother's) that she is Orthodox that has upset people.  Judaism is a package deal and while we are all guilty of picking and choosing our behaviours and mitzvos we can none of us ever justify that behaviour as being appropriate.  Rather we must accept that we are, through our human fallibility, falling short of the ideal instead of dismissing it as being socially acceptable.

Frum For Fun

As I've noted in previous posts, one of the advantages of living in a small Jewish community is that you don't have any of the judgemental frummer-than-thou nutjobs that make being not-Chareidi orthodox so umcomfortable.  In addition, our shul is more a community synagogue than an Orthodox one in nature (although we have the whole mechitza setup) and our day school is also community based which means our children learn how to interact with and respect non-observant children without being taught that they're this strange species of life.
However, there are limitations to living in such a small community.  The reverse side of the lack of nutbars is that there are very few dedicated "professional Jews" to serve as an example to folks looking to become more attached to their Judaism.  It also doesn't help that the local rav does whatever he can to downplay any sense of depth or commitment to the religion when attempting his special brand of kiruv.  As a result, some folks get presented with a version of "Orthodoxy" that would not be considered Orthodox in a larger community.  We are all aware of FFB's and BT's but this group is one I like to call "Frum for Fun" (FFF).
The basic dynamic of this group seems to be as follows.  When it's fun to "do Judaism" they are very involved.  This is the crowd that shows up for davening on Shabbos and belts out the tunes at the top of their lungs.  They're involved with shul projects, do lots to help out during the holidays and kiddush luncheons and are always enthusiastic participants when it comes to special events.  Their sincerity cannot be questioned and they bring an amazing energy to everything they do.
And then Monday morning minyan rolls around and... they're not there. 
See, the real challenge of kiruv isn't getting people out to some Shabbaton or Pesach seder.  Getting people to show up for programming is easy.  Ask any Chabadnik.  The real challenge of kiruv is getting these same people to see the importance of being at shul during the week when it's just the routine praying that's going on.  It's about getting guys to wear a kippah outside of shul and women to change how they dress when it's not Shabbos.  This happens in large communities because as people progress they see other folks still further ahead and realize there's a deeper commitment than what they're currently engaged in.  As a result, they continue to progress so that they can become part of that group.  In a small community there is such a need to be inclusive of anyone who shows some interest in helping out that no one wants to say the dreaded phrase: "If you want to be frum then you have to change the following:"  The fear is that a person will respond by heading out the door and that kind of negative outcome is to be avoided at all costs.  However, in order to avoid alienating we dilute the actual commitment.  The FFF's never progress beyond the beginning stages.
This works, of course, as long as these folks stay within the small community.  At some point, though, there is a danger in that a FFF might move to the larger community nearby and suddenly discover that what he/she thought was Orthodox "enough" isn't.  That disillusionment might be heartbreaking.
So what's better?  Making people feel welcome no matter how partial their observance for fear of harming their connection with Judaism, or showing them the line in the sand where real Orthodoxy begins and presenting them with the honest limits of what's "inside the pale" and what's not?

Friday, 22 October 2010

Lot and the Angels

The story of the destruction of Sodom is always thrilling to read but close perusal of the narrative reveals some plot holes that must be filled if the true importance of the events is to be properly appreciated.
For example, we are told by Chazal in great detail about the selfishness of the culture of Sodom.  In one of its lighter veins, Chazal tell us a number of stories of Eliezer, Avraham's servant, visiting Sodom and outwitting the residents who wanted to torture and kill him.  We are told of laws designed to prevent any of the residents from providing even the slightest amount of charity and the final doom of the metropolitan area is said to have been sealed by the torment and death of a girl who had violated that rule.
Yet when the angels arrive in Sodom at the beginning of the story, there is no immediate problem that they encounter.  Look at the story again.  They arrive in the evening which means the city gates were still open.  this implies there were still people in the streets.  Lot, sitting out in the open by the city gate and therefore presumably in full view, walks over and invites them to his home.  No one protests his actions, no one seems to follow him as he takes a tortuous route back supposedly to throw off any pursuit, nothing at all happens until Lot and his guests are well into their meal.  If the Sodomites were so vigilant on keeping others out of their rich city state, why did a response to the angels' arrival take so long to materialize?  And why did they ask where Lot's guests were?  Wasn't it obvious they were in his house?
Finally, there is a midrash that tells us the reason the angels' presence was detected was because Lot's wife, a native Sodomite who hated the idea of hachnasas orchim, claimed to have no salt to serve the visitors and then went around from house to house asking all her neighbours for salt because she had guests for dinner.  Did she not realize there would be a violent response when the matter became known?  Surely she would have feared for her family's safety no matter how much she despised the idea of guests. 
The Alshich haKodesh brings a simple, yet fascinating answer to the question.  He begins by noting that angels interact with material creatures in ways that do not correspond to the laws of nature.  An angel appears only to those by whom he wishes to be seen.  In the case of the angels, they only wished to be seen by Lot.
Think about this and a lot of the plot holes in the story disappear.  According to the Alshich HaKodesh, no one saw the angels arrive in Sodom.  Lot was not seen walking away from the public area in front of the gate with two strangers and no one would have thought twice to see him wandering through the alleyways, although they might have wondered why he was talking to himself.  Further, on arrival home he would announced the presence of two guests to his bewildered wife.  Imagine her confusion as he began setting three places at the table and baked some matzos for the "guests".  Now we can see her statement to her neighbour in a sarcastic tone instead of the presumed hostile one before: My husband has gone insane.  He is so desperate for guests he's pretending we have some and demands salt for them to!
Finally, the Alshich HaKodesh notes that the rage of the mob could also be explained by his idea. Imagine the situation now: they've just arrived at Lot's house because he has forbidden guests, Lot comes out and through the open door they see... no one.  Was this a joke?  Was Lot playing with them?
Therefore the Alshich HaKodesh's idea explains many of the otherwise strange irregularities of the story of Sodom and its destruction and suggests an interesting idea: God and His actions in this world are generally invisible, unless we know where to look.  Perhaps if we spent more time looking for Him through good deeds, we would see more of His benificence, unlike the Sodomites who were mired in their selfishness and couldn't see His presence at all.