Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 31 October 2011

What Learning Should Be

For the last year or so I've been slowly going through the Michtav MiEliyahu, the great mussar tract of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, z"l.  A few parts are difficult, many are inspirational but at the end of the third volume amongst copies of some letters he wrote are parts that are very frustrating.
As a Chareidi icon, for example, it is no surprise that he decries any attempt at innovation in the religious eductional system in the harshest terms.  I was also slightly taken aback by one of his statements on corporal punishment.  Although I don't agree and am reupulsed by the ntion, I can understand how he would, based on ample statements from Chazal, encourage the beating of students by their rebbeim but his advice to beat even a child that is obedient as a prophylatic measure is simply bizarre.
But ultimately it's his condemnation of any use of modern techniques (modern being the 1940's) in the educating of children, the insistence that the way we did it back in Eastern Europe is the way we must do it today, is what I disagree with most.  Forget computers and the internet, he had a problem with blackboards!
The problem with a tradition-based religion/nationalisty is that sometimes the tradition becomes the religion and replaced the original idea.  Is learning about taking in as much of Torah as possible or is it about going through the motions, swaying in front of a yellowed, crumbling text in a dark room by candlelight?  Is it more important to understand the gemara or to understand how the tune recited while reading it goes?
A more fundamental question: is learning Torah supposed to be enjoyable or approached as one does any field of knowledge?
There is no debate that Jews approach the learning of their sacred materials differently from other religions, that we approach Torah as a body of knowledge different than other fields.  We are not only to learn Torah but to love it and the process of learning it as well.  We see value not just in the knowledge but in people who are steeped in it and even in the books that contain it.  A scientist learns facts to conduct experiments, a Jew learn Torah to complete his neshamah and earn his place in Olam Haba.  Quite different.
As Rav Levi Cooper notes in this article, the idea that there should be joy in the learning of Torah is fundamental to the undertaking.
But there is something deeper to this as well.  Unlike other fields of knowledge where a lack of love for the material precludes an interest in it, Torah demands learning despite a person's passion for the material or lack thereof.  A person might not be excited about Shabbos but still has to observe it.  A person may have a strong hankering for ham but still has to keep kosher.  A person might not care much about what happens to an egg born on Yom Tov but there is still an obligation to know.  And here is where I think the insistent on the traditional method of learning lets people down.
There is, after all, no obligation to make learning difficult ab initio.  If someone is doing well in Talmud and really getting enthusiastic about it, do we change him over to some obscure Aramaic text that he can't possible get into and demand he restrict himself to that?  And if someone benefits from a particular teaching style that might not have di rigeur back in the shtetl, do we tell him to buckle down and get used to flickering candlelight instead of trying to meet his needs?  Is not learning the material more important?
In the end it would seem to me that our responsiblity as Jews is, as Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l notes in his comments on the first mishnah in Avos, to ensure maximum dissemination of Torah knowledge.  If it is done is a way that reaches the most amount of people the goal is achieved.  There is value to some traditions but not if it stands in the way of the most important mitzvah to be performed, that of learning our holy Torah.
According to the Alexander rebbes, only someone who endures hardship to study Torah, toiling and sweating, perhaps barely understanding – only such a person should be lauded as having really studied Torah. Enjoyment when studying Torah could be considered a foreign body that contaminates the purity of the pursuit.

The Alexander Rebbe’s work Yismah Yisrael was published posthumously in Lodz in 1911-1912, but the material was presented publicly over the years, and it is entirely possible that the Avnei Nezer had heard about the position expounded by successive Alexander rebbes.
The Avnei Nezer was not impressed with the Alexander idea, declaring that this position was a “famous mistake” and claiming that the contrary was actually true: Torah study is most valuable when it is a joyful endeavor.
Only when a person takes pleasure in studying do the words of Torah become part of his lifeblood, coursing through his veins and providing him with spiritual nourishment.
To buttress his contention, the Avnei Nezer cited the Zohar, which says that both the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination grow through happiness.
The Evil Inclination is nourished by unworthy actions; the Good Inclination grows due to the enjoyment of Torah. Thus delighting in Torah study is a positive emotion, for it serves as a growth hormone for the Good Inclination.
The Avnei Nezer did, however, acknowledge a caveat: One who studies only for personal enjoyment – such as monetary gain or intellectual stimulation – and not because Torah is our Divine heritage is indeed learning for the wrong reason. Nevertheless, we are encouraged to fulfill God’s commandments even if we do not do so for the right reasons, in the hope that we will one day fulfill those commandments for the sake of Heaven (B. Pesahim 50b).
In sum, the Avnei Nezer concluded: One who studies both for the sake of Heaven and for any benefit that accrues from Torah study – such learning is for the sake of Heaven, and the person is entirely holy, for even the enjoyment can be considered the fulfillment of a commandment.
Who is correct? Should we ideally take pleasure in Torah study, or is our Torah study purer when it lacks any measure of enjoyment? Perhaps this is a question that need not be answered, and the two contradictory approaches should both be preserved and recalled at appropriate times.
On those days when we relish the encounter with Torah; when we can think of no better pursuit; when we enjoy poring over hallowed tomes and find it difficult to pull ourselves away; when every word seems to speak to our soul – on such days, the Avnei Nezer reminds us that real Torah study is supposed to be enjoyable, and at that time we are “entirely holy,” for the Torah is our lifeblood.
On those days when we regrettably find no joy in Torah; when we grapple with passages from old texts that seemingly have no relevance and no import for our daily lives; when we would prefer to be anywhere else but in front of a book of Torah – on such days the Alexander rebbes remind us that if we overcome the discomfort and study Torah, that Torah is truly pure and lofty.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Occupy This!

Socialism has had a pretty rough time of it over the last couple of decades.  First there was the fall of the movement's international patron, the Soviet Union.  Then there was the revelation that socialism/communism in full and unfettered boom was a murderous and ecological nightmare.  Now we're watching the slow implosion of the social democracies in Western Europe that ignored the consequences of the "Gimme! Gimme!" method of budgeting for way too long.  Yes, someone with  his head screwed on straight would conclude that while some limited elements of socialism might help make a country healthier and happier, full out social democracy creates an prohibitively expensive mess that winds up hurting the people that it was most meant to help.
However, a philosophy's stupidity has never stood in the way of its popularity and there are plenty of people out there with their heads not screwed on straight.  This is possibly the best way to explain the "Occupy Wall Street" movement currently attempting to effect change to the Western capitalist system.
Now on one hand, these folks can hardly be blamed for being outraged.  After all, we live in a system in which corrupt individuals preach to the masses about restraint while shovelling as much money, influence and power towards themselves as possible.  But enough about the Democrats.  There are also CEO's who, despite leading their companies either to the edge of or clean over a cliff have walked away with handsome "bonuses" that are larger than most of us will earn in our lifetimes.  It's understandable that the little guy who loses his job because some rich CEO screwed up and has to eat dog food while the guy responsible for the mess drives around in a gold-plated Cadillac to be bitter.
But here's the first problem, the slogan: We're the 99%.  Well no, they're not.  They're considerably less than that.  Using statistics you can always create a 99% are not rich while 1% are rich scenario and then start preaching about class warfare.  It's doesn't take much intelligence to do so and the members of this movement aren't that intelligent so they're quite capable of staking such a claim.
In fact the number of people who are "wealthy" according to the Obama Administration is far higher than 1% of the American populace.  After all, for Obama you are a "millionaire" who deserves higher taxes start at an annual income of $250 000.  Wow, American math.  That's right, you've got a good middle class job, you've made some smart investments, you shop and provide stimulus to your economy every day and because you've been successful, well you need to be punished with higher taxes.
Except here's the second problem.  Taxes are not what's wrong with the US economy, or anyone else's for that matter.  The problem is spending.  The problem is a culture that says "I want the government to take care of me and minimize my personal responsibility as much as possible".  Europe has been in the advanced stages of that culture ever since the Americans paid for them to rebuild after World War 2 and under Obama's tutelage Americans are catching up.  The old joke used to be that the difference between a Canadian and an American is that if you push an American over he gets up and smacks you hard but if you push a Canadian over he lays there and cries "Why isn't the government picking me up?".  That distinction seems to be gone if the demands of the Wall Street occupiers are to be taken seriously.  An end to debt?  An end to tuition?  Are these people for real?  Do they have any concept of how an economy works?
Of course not.  These are folks who still believe in global warming, after all.  In such a culture there is no understanding of supply and demand, value and quantity and other basic economic principles.  Like the Greeks who demands full social services, a 35 hour work week and a fully funded pension at age 55 but at the same time did everything they could to avoid paying taxes, these people think the government can magically soak that paper villain, "the rich" to raise all the money they can.
But the government can't, for one big reason.  One is that the rich can move.  If you create a hostile enough tax environment then the rich will move en masse to a better jurisdiction.  What's more, if the rich move they take their money which has been funding those factories and jobs with them.  Who suffers then?  Not the rich.
Finally there's this to consider.  According to some reports the OWS movement has amassed over $200 000 in donations and the amount rises hourly.  Is this money going to help the poor?  Finance a food bank or two?  Or is it going to support people who would rather not work for a living but are having fun living in tents in Zucchini Park?  And is that really what a world-changing movement does?
Do these people honestly want the system to change?  It's doubtful since some of them must still have an IQ enough to realize their demands are unreasonable and ruinous to the economy.  They want what their "Gimme! Gimme!" attitude tells them they are entitled to: free everything without having to engage in such ludicrous things as getting a basic job to help pay the bills.  For the sake of everything sensible they should be rejected as retread from the 1960's who just never grew up.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Judaism vs Universalism

One of the interesting contradictions within secular liberalism is how it demands post-national universalism for the Western world while embracing the exact opposite for the Third.  North Americans and Western Europeans are expected to submerged themselves in moral relativism and multicultural non-judgementalism while any "foreign" cultures, no matter how homophobic or misogynistic, are to be respected and treated as special.
For some so-called "streams" of Judaism this has never been much of an issue.  The Reformers, in particular, have made the ideals of secular liberalism into their new version of Judaism without much apology.  The Conservatives, on the other hand, have striven for decades for a middle ground position embracing both selective aspects of Jewish "tradition" while adjusting whatever aspects of Torah they didn't like to better reflect politically correct positions of contemporary society.
Like any balancing act the time comes when a side has to be picked and it is obvious that over the last thirty to forty years that Conservatism has picked the side of Reform.  There is an increasingly blurry divide between the two movements which allows for all manner of cooperation and even occasional mergers where resources or space are tight.  This should not be a wonder to anyone.  Unlike Orthodoxy where membership is determined by attitudes, beliefs and lifestyle, Conservatism and Reform memberships are based on what temple/synagogue you send your dues cheque to without any reciprocal expectations.
In many areas this acceptance of secular liberalism as a substitute for Torah values has been relatively innocuous.  As opposed to unlabelled am haratzim who act in ways contrary to Jewish ones, these folks simply act in similar ways but use the label "I'm a Reformative Jew!" to justify their actions.  However this has rarely caused much a schism across the greater Jewish community.  Reformatives might not keep kosher, for example, but they have no rules against it which means your local JCC can spend extra to keep a kosher kitchen without much expectation of objection from the local non-religious folks.
Sometimes a schism is caused but again, it is usually more because of a need for convenience than outright rebelling against Torah values.  The recent debate over the opening of the JCC in Baltimore, MD is an example of this.  No one from the non-religious side was demanding the JCC open as a reflection of their Jewish values.  They just didn't see the point in closing it one day a week.
However a line is being crossed now that is significantly more important in terms of the greater Jewish nation.  In its drive towards demanding post-nationalism for the West, secular liberalism has focused on Israel (big surprise!) as a particularly villainous state because of its insistence on being a "Jewish" state instead of a "state for all its citizens".  Israel is also unique in this regard as it shares space with one of the darlings of the secular liberal left, the so-called Palestinians.  Remember that while secular liberals demand post-nationalist universality from Western groups, it is perfectly find accepting nationalist fervour.  The same folks who condemn Israel for putting restrictions on where a Gay Pride route might be in Yerushalayim go silent when the so-called Palestinian Authority announces that in an independent Palestine homosexuality will be a capital crime.
How has this affected the Reformatives?  Well for Reform one need look no further than its former chief, Eric Yoffe and its frequent statements supportive of the position of those who would like Israel to be wiped from the wipe.  Then there is their current chief who is a supporter of one of the most pernicious anti-Israel groups in America, J-Street.
The question is how this is affecting the Conservative who, traditionally, have been strong supporters of secular Zionism, especially through their day school programs and the network of Ramah camps.
Well the answer seems to be in and it's not pretty:

But if the new crop of Conservative rabbis has anything to say about it, Conservatism may not occupy the center for very long.  That, at least, is the message of a recent report by the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, based on a survey of political views among "Generation Y" rabbinical students—born in the mid-1970's to mid-1990's—and the Seminary's somewhat older rabbinical alumni, ordained since 1980. 
At first blush, the report purports to show what one would hope to find among the rabbinate: a solid Jewish identity and strong attachment to Israel.  On closer examination, this identity appears increasingly filtered through a universalistic and liberal political perspective.  Among American Jews as a whole, according to the Pew Forum, 38 percent identify themselves as liberal; 39 percent call themselves moderate.  In contrast, 58 percent of the Conservative rabbis surveyed—and 69 percent of the rabbinical students—called themselves liberal.  It's hard to defend the center when you're not in it.
These rabbis and rabbinical students are "pro-Israel," but they are redefining what "pro-Israel" means.  As liberals, they hold an optimistic view of human nature: Though Palestinian leaderssee their conflict with Israel as a zero-sum game, it seems hard for the rabbis to acknowledge this grim fact.  Instead, they get their understanding of events in Israel from ideologically reinforcing left-oriented sources: liberal media outlets, Facebook posts, and Haaretz.  These sources help explain the conspicuous disconnect between the next generation of Conservative rabbis and mainstream American Jews on the subject of the Arab-Israel conflict.  More than three-quartersof American Jews, according to the latest American Jewish Committee survey, believe that the Arabs' goal is not merely the return of the "occupied territories" but the actual "destruction of Israel."  Only 30 percent of the JTS rabbinical students agreed with a similar statement.

One of the most telling statements in the article is "These rabbis and rabbinical students are 'pro-Israel,'".  Like everything else they have done with Judaism, they have redefined what "pro-Israel" means to avoid admitting that they are becoming anti-Israel.  Pro-Israel for them means demanding of the Jewish state things that would lead to its initial emasculation and ultimately to its destruction.  It means providing support for its enemies and those groups that would assist them in the name of "universal values" like social justice.  Given the choice between traditional Jewish attachment to and support of Israel is the face of international hostility they have chosen to side with the enemies of the Jewish people since that position leads to less of a conflict with their innate secular liberal values.
What's interesting to note is that, just like on the issue of women rabbis and egalitarianism, it seems these rabbis are disconnected from many of their followers.  I'm certain this isn't much of an issue since once of the tenets of secular liberalism is a self-righteous "And I know better than you so if you disagree you're wrong".
What this worsening of their position might ultimately lead to is a fracturing of the movement between those who are essentially indistinguishable from Reform and those who still feel a positive attachment to the enduring Torah values of the last 3500 years.  Time will tell.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Is It Such A Surprise?

By now everyone is aware that Muammar Ghaddafi is dead, killed by the rebels that overthrew his government after 42 years of autocratic and despotic rule.  Two conflicting stories have emerged as to how his life ended.  The "official" version is that he was killed in a shootout.  (The fate of his Ukrainian nurse is unknown)  The unofficial version, supported by actual video footage, is that he was beaten until nearly dead and then shot in the head.
I can't say that I or many others will shed any tears for the monster of Tripoli.  Few will argue that the world is not a better place because of his passing and the American government can rest assured that it has one less major enemy in the world.
What is bizarre to me, however, is the reaction from human rights organizations.  If various reports I've read are to be believed, they are upset that Ghaddafi was killed by the rebels instead of being arrested, read his rights and then escorted to a comfy prison cell, there to await trial in either a Libyan or international court room.
Are they kidding?  Trials are for situations where the guilt of a person, while assumed or implied, is not absolutely proven.  Is that the case with Ghaddafi?  Here's a man accused of multiple crimes over the years like killing his own citizens, running a giant prison state and aiding international terrorists.  But there's a wrinkle: Ghaddafi freely admitted doing all those things.  In fact, he took great pride in them.  What purpose would a trial serve other than to give him one last platform to spew his venom from before taken off to prison or the gallows?
There is a certain naivete born of liberal idiocy combined with Hollywood idealism that seems to infect these groups.  They honestly want to believe that the rebels in Libya are budding democrats seeking to turn the country into a model of social democratic prosperity.  In reality the rebels are simply thugs little different from the thugs they've just removed from power with the help of NATO.  As a former American president might have said, "they're bastards but they're our bastards".
Except,  of course, they're not "our" bastards and the minute it becomes convenient to do so, they'll turn on NATO and treat it as enemy no. 1.  Will anyone with their heads crewed on straight be suprised when they do?
Sometimes I wonder if politicians actually believe the pronouncements they make or if they're just going through the motions because that's what diplomacy requires. 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Simple Logic

Spock: "The needs of the many outweight the needs of the few"
Kirk: "Or the one."                         (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

The Jewish world is all a-twitter with the news that a deal has been arranged to have kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released in exchanged for 1027 Arab terrorists, many of whom are responsible for the murder of Jews.  For some this is a moment of euphoria.  After five years of what must have been brutal captivity, Gilad is coming home!  For others, a broader view of the situation seems to preclude celebrating.  I find myself in the latter group.
On one hand, I feel great sympathy for the Shalit family.  For five years they have been living a nightmare that I would wish only on my worst enemy.  Chazal tell us that when one loses a loved one for certain that the grief eventually passes but when one thinks a loved one is dead but really isn't the bereavement never ends.  We learn this from how Yaakov Avinu mourned for Yosef Hatzadik for 22 years.  For the Shalits, the grieving over the loss of Gilad, combined with the faint hope he might return safely to them one day must have been agonizing.
On the other hand, we have to ask if the terms of the deal are worth it.  One soldier for thousands of murderers and wanna-be murderers.  According to some reports I've seen the recidivism rate of released terrorists is about 60%.  It is almost guaranteed that hundreds of Jews will die over the next ten years as a result of this release.  And beyond that there is the suffering being caused to survivors of terrorist attacks and their families who thought their assailants were imprisoned for life and who now have to accept that those monsters will be loose to wreak havoc on them and their neighbours once more.  Yes, the pain of the Shalit family has to be considered but what about the pain of these other families?  Was it not taken into account?
In addition there is one basic problem with this deal: there is no confirmation that I am aware of that Gilad is alive save for the assurances of Hamas.  Not exactly the most reliable source, eh?  What happens if, at the prisoner exchange, the Arabs show up with Gilad in a box?  Does the deal get called off? 
I do not blame the Shalit family for one instant for protesting for the government to get Gilad back and applying the pressure they did.  I do blame the government for capitulating to them.  Bibi Netanyahu has to be concerned not just with the Shalit family but with the six million other Jews in Israel, many of whom will suffer if this exchange goes through.  Yes we all want to see the Shalit family happily and safely reunited but what about the cost to everone else?  Do their lives matter less?
To be blunt: If/when these killers murder more Jews, are the Shalits prepared to make a shiva call to each family and say "Well we're sorry about your loss.  Too bad but hey, we got Gilad back!"?
It is still my opinion that Gilad was killed by Hamas five years ago after they realized a quick prisoner exchange was not in the works.  I also don't doubt that they will not understand Israeli's reluctance to hand over 1027 murderers for his body.  The Arab world has had a long tradition of expecting Israel to fulfill its side of any deal without feeling any obligation to keep up its own end.
But I cannot put my mind at ease with the idea that one soldier, however loved by his family and friends, was made more important than six million other Jews.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Inventing History

It's a cryptic posuk in Ha'azinu.  "They have provoked Me with non-gods," says the Ribono Shel Olam, "so I will provoke them with a non-people."  Rashi ad loc identifies this non-people with the Chaldeans based on a relevant verse from Nach but then he had never heard of the so-called Palestinians.
If one comes to argue with anybody about whether or not the "Palestinians" deserve a state, one has already lost.  Even using the name is a loss for those who would defend Israel's legitimacy and Jewish rights in our land.  The only way to argue is to challenge the defender of the Arabs in Israel to explain exactly who these so-called Palestinians are and where they came from.
We need no reminder that the name "Palestine" is a Latinized version of "Philistia", chosen by the Romans to replace the title "Judaea" after the downfall of the Second Commonwealth and the destruction of our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).  One reason the name was chosen is because there were no Philistines.  It was a safe name to give the province since no ethnic/national group was likely to crop up and demand control of it.  \We also need no reminder that from the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt to the declaration of the State in 1948 there was never a minute in which Israel was ruled by a local government instead of by an imperial authority from afer.  There was never, ever a state called Palestine.  There has never been a Palestinian currency or national anthem used at official functions. 
Even the so-called Palestinians themselves are intruders in the area, leftovers from the Arab conquest of the MiddleEast and north African several centuries ago.  That is why it is so important for many of them to either deny the Jewish historial tie to Israel or to pretend that we are all descendants of Khazars and converts.  After all, admitting we are Jews and that we had a functioning kingdom there when the ancestors of the Europeans were still loincloth clad savages would mean they came second, that they are the real invaders while we are the real homeowners.
None of this seems to matter when it comes to attacking Israel.  Certainly truth is irrelevant or inconvenient.  The Arabs latest ploy, having had their attempts to declare a "state" delayed at the UN General Assembly, is to once again delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world by severing our historical connection with our land.  The Arab bid to join UNESCO - something illegal under the UN charter but hey, why be a wet blanket? - and then declare all the places they can in Israel as their own "heritage" is but another attempt to attack our nationhood and replace truth with lies.
The Palestinians will seek World Heritage status for Bethlehem and its Church of the Nativity if the UN cultural agency admits them as a full member, and will then nominate other sites on Israeli-occupied land for the same standing, a Palestinian Authority minister said on Monday.

Hamdan Taha, a PA minister who deals with antiquities and culture, said UNESCO membership was the Palestinians' natural right. He described as "regrettable" the objections of some governments including the United States.
Aside from Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has listed ancient pilgrimage routes and the West Bank towns of Nablus and Hebron among 20 cultural and natural heritage sites which Taha said could also be nominated as World Heritage Sites.
UNESCO's board decided last week to let member states vote on a Palestinian application for full membership, seen as part of a Palestinian drive opposed by Israel and the United States for recognition as a state in the UN system.
"UNESCO membership carries a message of justice and rights. Why must the Palestinians be left outside the international system?" Taha said. "I see it as crowning long efforts over the past 20 years."
He said that after gaining full UNESCO membership, the Palestinians will revive their bid to secure World Heritage status for Bethlehem, which was rejected this year because the Palestinians were not a full UNESCO member.
"This is a simple example of how Palestine has not been able to preserve its cultural heritage through the tools granted to every state in the world," Taha said.
Preserve its "cultural heritage"?  How can a "people" with a non-existent history prior to 1919 have a heritage?  Other than through the deluded ramblings of Islamic preachers, does the Arab world have any tie to the tombs and sites in Israel?  Was Rachel Imeinu a Muslim?  Was Avraham Avinu a so-called Palestinian?  What claim do they have to an inch of our land?  None except those claims which have arisen in their fertile imaginings.
Why have the so-called Palestinians been left outside the international system?  Because they are not a nation but a weapon, created by the Arab League and maintained by the PLO and Hamas in the Muslim world's ongoing war against Israel.  Weapons do not have heritages or holy sites.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

False Freedom

The Mishnah in Avos famously tells us that there is no real freedom other than through observance of Torah.  Although the non-religious like to scoff at this describing our observance as an unending and myriad collection of rituals and minutiae, from the philosophical Jewish point of view this is absolutely true.  In a reality in which a person is either guided by his yetzer hara, his animalistic and primitive passions, or rises above them it is only the person who says no to his primal passions and leads a life of free choice based on the Torah's ethics that really lives up to his potential.
Sadly this message is lost on many of our brethren, such as Uri Misgav:
The self-importance this man radiates is palpable yet beneath the veneer of his indignation against religion and especially, of course, Judaism lie some important contradictions.
I do not fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason that I do not adhere to any religious mitzvah: I do not believe in God. I am not “secular,” because this is a narrow definition referring to lifestyle alone, and I’m not infidel either. I’m an atheist.

I do not believe in any form of higher or divine intervention. I only believe in human beings and in systems of values that are worthy of following while living life in this world. I also believe in progress and science. After thousands of years of human existence in the company of “God,” it appears reasonable to demand a single, minimalistic empirical evidence to his existence.
At this stage, many of you will dismiss me with being “simplistic” – after all, generations of theologians convinced us that faith involves endless intellectual depth. Yet the truth is that there is no such science, theology. One cannot base a whole science on something that was never reinforced by evidence of actually existing.
Meanwhile, genuine, broad and well-argued atheism may be simple, but not simplistic. In fact, this kind of atheism is sorely lacking in Israel.
I can still address the existence or non-existence of God as an open question somehow. Yet in the face of religion I’m speechless.
Am I Jewish? Certainly. I was born to a Jewish mother and I feel belonging to the Jewish people, its past and heritage. However, I am an atheist Jew. Nice to meet you. And let’s not stop with Yom Kippur. I did not circumcise my son. I object to the cutting of genitals for children of both sexes, with or without anesthesia.
I know you are infuriated with me right now. This is what I wanted. I want all of you, but mostly the “seculars” among you, to seriously confront your choices. The principle of “to each his own” is acceptable to me, as long as it means that a person may choose not to believe anything.
Don’t decide for me what to eat, when to fast and on what day of the week to travel by bus. I was born and I shall die a free man

Consider his demand to be left alone by the requirements membership in the Jewish nation foists upon him.  He is quite happy to identify with the cultural aspects Judaism offers.  After all, there are no obligations associated with latkes and humantaschen.  It is also quite possible that he is a passionate Zionist.  Again, no obligations.  In fact, like so many like him it's all about the obligations. 
Imagine a teenager or someone in their early 20's still living at home, demanding meals, laundy and to have his room cleaned but snorting arrogantly when told that he has to shovel the driveway, mow the law and wash the dishes.  Could anyone have respect for such self-indulgence?  Yet with God our Father watching over us, providing us with our entire existence and running the universe for our benefit there are still folks out there playing the "Nah! Nah! Nah! I can't see you!" game.
In truth, Misgav isn't as benign as he likes to sound.  Despite insisting that everyone has a right to make a choice of his own, he has already made an important decision for his son.  By refusing to circumcize him he has decided that his son will be lacking full membership in the nation he himself feels a cultural attachment to.  If the son, when he grows up, wants to return to observance of Torah he will only be able to do so properly after undergoing a painful operation under anaesthetic.  Thanks dad!
Then there is his final line, that he will live and die a free man.  As Chazal have so annoyingly reminded us, real freedom is not deciding that one wants the pizza instead of the wings for dinner tonight or to wear non-matching socks despite the wife's nagging.  Real freedom is rising above one's instincts, passions and desires and making a choice based on reason and logic instead of "I want this!"  Misgav is not a free man.  He is a slave to his yetzer hara who, like God, he refuses to see even though it is right in front of him.  He ate on Yom Kippur, chalilah, not because he chose to but to "show God He can't tell me what to do!"  Some freedom.
Now, Misgav may otherwise be a fine gentlemen.  He may be possessed of good manners, a kind disposition and a generous spirit.  Certainly by living in Israel he is already on a high level despite his refusal to acknowledge such spiritual things.  But he is not free and his refusal to see that only deepens his servitude.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Are They Taking This One Too?

First it was Channukah.  Officially a holiday reminding us of the triump of our observant ancestors over the Seleucid/Greek occupiers of Israel and their assimilated Jewish allies, the festival has become a celebration of "religious freedom" and gift giving to millions of non-religious Jews whose connection to Torah and Judaism is limited at best. 
Then it was Tikun Olam.  Officially a legal term referring to those measures and bylaws needed to ensure society works well, it has become in the hands of the non-religious a catch-all phrase to represent those virtues secular liberal society holds dear like feminism and ecocrusading.
Now it seems Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur are starting to undergo the process of being co-opted by those who desire a connection to Jewish nationhood and history but not through the proper channels of Torah learning and mitzvah observance.
This story, for example, shows how the "trendy" crowd is starting to latch onto Kol Nidrei and turn it into another day of "social awareness":
It's rare that Mae Singerman, a self-described secular Jew who grew up in a Reform family, observes Yom Kippur by praying, fasting or attending synagogue.

But at sundown on Friday, the 27-year-old from Brooklyn planned to join hundreds of other Jews at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration for Kol Nidre, the opening service of Yom Kippur that starts the holiest time on the Jewish calendar.
"For me, it's about bringing my Jewish identity and my politics together," said Singerman, who has participated in several anti-capitalism protests in recent years and visited the demonstration at Zuccotti Park for the first time last week. "Having a Jewish service or ceremony brings more Jews who wouldn't necessarily come. I know people coming tonight who are pretty skeptical about Occupy Wall Street but are willing to give it a try because of the Yom Kippur service."
Organized mostly via Facebook over the last week, the Kol Nidre service starts at 7 p.m. across from the downtown park where demonstrations have occurred since mid-September. Almost 500 people have RSVP'd on Facebook, although at least a few dozen of them are out-of-towners who are just showing their support.
The service, led by rabbis and students from several Jewish traditions, has been endorsed by Jewish organizations such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the Shalom Center. The Rabbinical Assembly, an association of Conservative Rabbis, has donated 100 prayer books for the service, and organizers say that the Battery Park Synagogue and Chabad of Wall Street have welcomed holy-day observers who spend the night at the protest camp to come pray at Saturday services. Similar Kol Nidre services have also been planned in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Daniel Sieradski, one of the service's organizers who has been participating in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, said he was inspired to arrange for the Yom Kippur service by a part of the haftarah from the Hebrew Bible, which is typically read the first morning of Yom Kippur.
"You can fast for a day, you cover yourself in ashes, you can wear a sack cloth, but who cares if you are not out there feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, breaking the bonds of oppression?" said Sieradski, paraphrasing Isaiah 58:5.
"I am less concerned about halacha, Jewish law, and traditional observance than I am about the prophetic character of recognizing the divine in my fellow human being," said Sieradski, who also plans to observe the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the demonstration.
While Sieradski said he does not plan to sleep over at the encampment Friday night, Nom, a 23-year-old Talmud student, said she plans to spend the night there with a group of friends to start her Yom Kippur observance. She will walk two hours to her upper Manhattan home on Saturday morning to attend synagogue.
"Part of Yom Kippur is that you are supposed to review the past year to see what you can improve about yourself and your community. I am seeing right now that I live in a country where homes are being foreclosed, where people are losing jobs and people are suffering," said Nom, who did not wish to give her last name.
"We're hoping the people up top can do some sort of teshuva. It literally means 'return,' but the whole point is that one specifically in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will admit their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness," she said. "We are putting ourselves out there. and so should Wall Street. They should have the opportunity to review their actions and change."
While others have pointed out the idiocy of these protestors far more eloquently than I can, there are a few points that could easily be made from the Jewish perspective.
The first is the absolute hypocrisy of these protestors.  Using Facebook to organize?  Isn't that a large multi-million dollar corporation, the kind they're angry with?  I'm willing to bet that they checked for updates using Iphones, Blackberries and other smartphones running on the Android operating system, again all produced by giant corporations that are supposedly evil.  Like the rioters in England a few months back, claims about concern for the way corporations are running roughshod over society tend to get undermined when the prostestors openly rely on many of those corporations to coordinate their activities.
Then there's the open misuse of the word "Judaism" to describe activities that are not in the least Jewish.  Consider Mae Silverman's statements at the start of the article.  This is, according to the story, a woman who has never observed Yom Kippur properly but is now prepared to start but not in order to do any kind of chesbon hanefesh, but rather to blame someone else, anyone else like corporate America, for all of society's problems.  I'm willing to bet Mae Silverman has benefitted quite a bit from capitalism throughout her life although she doesn't seem to have enough insight to realize that her "anti-capitalism" protests are merely biting the hand that feeds.
Then there's Daniel Sieradski who is quoted as saying that he's not interested in any of the obligations that Judaism demands of its followers, just in regurgitating selective verses from the prophet of his choice that fits his agenda.  It's interesting that he picked Isaiah consider that this particular prophet had a great deal to say about the importance of Jewish law and tradition.  Does Sieradski also consider those verses important? 
Finally there's the statement: Part of Yom Kippur is that you are supposed to review the past year to see what you can improve about yourself and your community - that shows these protestors have no clue what Yom Kippur. 
Like a spouse in a dysfunctional marriage, it's all about "them", not "me".  How do I improve myself and my community?  By blaming Wall Street, corporate America, and capitalism for all my problems.  Do I work to improve them myself?  But I'm not at at fault!  Do I go out and become part of the system so I can constructively change it?  Nah!  They might expect me to actually show up on time for work and put in a hard day of it.  It's far easier to deride, insult and protest from a distance, all the while living quite well from the benefits of the system that I hate so much.
To all these people, please find something else to call your new religion and holiday.  The words "Judaism" and "Kol Nidre" are taken.