Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Thinking By The Book

One of the points Rav Haym Soloveitchik makes in his classic essay, Rupture and Reconstruction, is that Jews today are more likely to practice "by the book" because of a loss of connection to tradition that we used to use as the basis of our practices.  Once upon a time people learned about keeping kosher from their parents.  Today it's from the Artscroll book.  Once upon a time a boy learned how to make kiddush by watching his father.  Today there are detailed instructions available for exactly how to hold the cup in order to active the correct sefiros, and so on.  Tell someone you do something a certain way because your parents did so and you are often expected to explain what chapter and paragraph of the Shulchan Aruch it comes from.  Much of the dynamisn and liveliness of Jewish practice is lost through this although it does provide a sense of security for people who want to be able to answer the challenge "But nu, where it is written?"
I was thinking about this when reading through Rav Yaakov Mencken's recent piece in Cross Currents.  The article starts off nicely and advertises the Mishnah Berurah Yomi program which is quite an achievement and has also produced 4 volumes of an enhanced Mishnah Berurah so far. But then he illustrated the importance of his learning with this little vignette:
Several weeks ago, I woke up very early, and found myself with time to review before going to the early Shabbos morning minyan. At the time, following Dirshu’s schedule, we were studying the laws of putting out a fire that breaks out on Shabbos. Now today, most of these laws are not relevant, because we live in more urbanized settings in which a fire will almost certainly endanger someone’s life if not put out immediately. In earlier days, it wasn’t so obvious that one should put out a fire on the Sabbath! So, among the laws with little bearing in our day, I found a note in the Musaf Dirshu (Siman 334, note 63, quoting the HaShulchan HaAruch HaRav) which points out that one is allowed to advise a non-Jew to do something on behalf of himself or another non-Jew. An unlikely situation, to be certain!

Shortly before I left the house, there was a loud roar of an engine followed by an even louder crash. The driver of a borrowed pickup truck, apparently distraught about something, had intentionally gunned the engine and rammed the vehicle into several parked cars — a block away from my house, and on the route I was to follow to get to prayers. When he came to his senses, he abandoned his (mildly) injured passenger and ran away.
I came upon the scene at the same time as a friend of mine who was also planning to go to the same minyan. My friend saw a non-Jewish neighbor emerge from his house, and told him that he ought to turn off the pickup’s engine, as it and other vehicles were leaking. And then he turned to me and said, “I wonder if I was allowed to do that.”
Can you imagine? I was able to show him “chapter and verse,” thanks to Dirshu.
Perhaps it's harsh of me to ask this but when did the halacha outlaw common sense?  You have a car leaking gas and an active car engine nearby.  A resultant explosion could have tragic results.  And you need to check a book to tell you that it's permissible to turn off the engine because it's Shabbos?  Really?
Years ago I was speaking with our local Rosh Kollel (back then we had one in our community) and he was musing about whether or not the prohibition of being kind to idolaters meant that if he was walking through a door and a gentile was behind him whether it was permissible to hold the door open for the person or should he slam it shut in their faces so as not to transgress this mitzvah?  And I couldn't think of a good response that didn't start with the words "Are you serious?"
Common sense is often a danger to some in the religious world.  It's not something quantifiable.  You can't come up with rules and guides for it.  It's just something people with a mature sense of religious priorities develop and work with.  As a result it's often derided or minimized if not outlawed.
Look at the Purim story.  Here's a tale of Mordechai and Ester acting with common sense so that they can save our ancestors from being slaughtered wholesale yet every year we are treated to midrashim that try to rationalize their actions based on the assumption that they would only ever do anything if it was written down somewhere.  Go back further into Nach and you see again lots of times that the hard rules are pushed aside when common sense dictates that they simply won't work.  Not yet satisfied?  How about all the references in the Gemara to sages who, when they couldn't get a conviction of a known convict through the standard beis din proceeding resorted to extra-judicial methods to get the job of punishment done.  not for nothing is the old saying: the fifth section of the Shulchan Aruch is Common Sense.
In general we need the words of our Sages and Poskim to guide ourselves properly through life but once in a while the right decision does not come chapter and verse from a treasure tome somewhere but from that thought process the Ribono shel Olam gave each of us the potential to use.  Perhaps if we tried using it a little more things might be better for us.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Deborah Feldman and UnOrthodox

Deborah Feldman, a former frummie with a blogging history of antagonism towards the religious world has just published a book, Unorthodox, in which she details her religious upbringing and subsequent rejection of it to lead a secular life.
The book has gotten some expected and unexpected reactions.  On one hand, Ms. Feldman has become a darling of the celebrity circuit, appearing on national television in the US to promote her tome.  On the other hand, even normally hostile FailedMessiah seems to have turned against her as more and more of the supposedly biographical information in the book turns out to be either not verifiable, contradicted by others or just plain false. 
Now some of this is to be expected.  I have not read the book but in various reviews I've seen the phrase "And she heard this from her husband who heard it from..." repeatedly.  Now perhaps I've spent too much time in the academic world but it seems to me that this kind of reference is generally reserved for such august publications as The National Enquirer, not serious publications in the non-fiction section of the bookstore.  Indeed, the best defence I saw of her depiction of one fictitious episode was neatly encapsulated here in the comments section at the bottom: "Given the numerous scandals that have been covered up in many right wing Orthodox communities, I would say it's plausible that and event like that murder could happen."  Hmmm yes, that's certainly a reason to condemn a group of people.  It could'a happened so why not just assume it did!
However, there has been one positive response to the book that I think deserves attention, that of Rav Yaakov Rosenblatt.  In polite but firm tones he points out that Feldman hasn't so much left frumkeiti for something different but rather has defined herself as the great tattler of loshon horo willing to give a sex-saturated society an inside look at another society, one in which sex is still restricted and taboo, the exact opposite of liberal secular life today.  She is the guide to what the rest of Western civilization must certainly consider a freak show but is that really why she left?
A couple of years ago I was speaking with a yeshiva high school principle from the Long Island area about the OTD problem and, like a good black hatter, he initially insisted that the problem was miniscule, that it was totally overblown and that most OTD's were mentally unwell or something like that.  When I pointed out the proliferation of books and blogs as well as the statistics showing the increasing numbers he retorted that the reason was because of a change in behaviour.  Once upon a time someone who left the faith simply walked out the door and into a new life without looking back.  You never heard from them again.  Now the person walks to the door, stands under the lintel and spends the next few years screaming back "I'm leaving because you're all so terrible!"  As a result people notice it more.
Ms. Feldman is standing in the doorway and shouting at the outside world "Hey everybody, look inside here at the people I hate!"  But she can't stay there forever.  It will be interesting to see what she does when she finally does leave the frum world.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Will They Emulate This Next?

Perhaps its selective recollection on my part but it really seems to me that the Chareidi drive to separate men and women in as many spheres of life as possible, while present for a long time, really kicked up a notch when the world discovered the Taliban.  Here was a sect of Muslims that were more machmir about covering up women than the Chareidim.  Well naturally they had to compete.  And so we've had the ongoing fights over separate buses, separate trains, separate public appearance, etc. and the rise of the Burka Babes of Beit Shemesh as the ultimate response to Mullah Omar's sect.
But when I was persuing the news I came across a little piece that might suggest a new direction Chareidi extremists might turn.  It seems that Iran has, in its attempts to reduces the feelings of sexual tension men might feel while travelling, instituted a little thing called "temporary marriage":
Shia Islam allows a man and woman to marry for a fixed period of time, ranging from an hour to a century.

A man can also have any number of temporary marriages - or sigheh, as they are known.
However, Iranian society still looks down on temporary marriage as a cover for prostitution.
Iran's interior minister, himself a cleric, said marriage was a human need and temporary marriage should not be used just for sex but to solve social problems.
He said there needed to be a cultural change to allow this.
He also said couples should marry at an earlier age.
Iran first started promoting temporary marriage as an alternative to living in sin 15 years ago.
The then President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, said it was a way for men and women to satisfy their sexual needs.

He even said there was no need for a cleric: the couple could read out an oath in private in order to marry.
These days, some girls who want to travel with their boyfriends and be allowed to stay in the same hotel room or avoid arrest by the moral police might have a temporary marriage.
Poor women who need financial support also do it.

Well they might, given that there's a gemara that discusses this very issue.  In the sugyah the issue is raised for exactly the same reasons as mentioned in the article quoted above.  A man during his travels might have certain urges.  Let unfulfilled he might come to commit serious sexual sins, therefore he might be allowed to take on a temporary spouse, in a concubine state of marriage, to allow him a legal outlet for his tension.  I recall discussing this with a Rav when I first read that gemara and his immediate response was "Yeah, we don't do that nowadays" but there it is, an actual Jewish practice that predates the rise of Islam.
So if we're going to out-Muslim the Muslims then the burka and restrictions on women in public are not enough.  We need to live according to our mesorah and if the gemara says it's okay, then who are we to argue?  A spin-off might even be an increase in Chareidi unemployment.  After all, the excuse "Honey, I have to go on another business trip" sounds a lot more legitimate when you are actually involved in business...
Now on the surface the idea that any Jews would see this as permissible is bizarre.  After all, the extremists are doing their best to limit what men and women can do while legally married.  Will they allow temporary marriages despite this?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

They have Money For This?!

(Hat Tip: Orthonomics)
The obsession gripping the Chareidi community with the issue of gender separation is truly frightening.  Here is a community with so many problems, both social and financial and all they seem to be able to do to response to announce new ways to hide women from the sight of the men or limit their existence in their society to an even greater extent.
The latest example of this has been covered by both Orthonomics and the Emes v'Emunah blog, both of them quoting from a story in the American Jewish press about preparations for the upcoming Siyum HaShas celebrations being put on by the Agudah.
Never mind all those stories you hear about poor Chareidim with empty fridges and shoes worn through.  Forget all the stuff about schools being forced to cut back or close due to lack of funds.  In the Chareidi community there is, in fact, plenty of money as the decision to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a mechitzah at the festitivites shows.
Now one may point out that it is a priority for the Agudah crowd to have not just separate seating at the event but visibly separated seating.  After all, there are many who would want to participate in the event who don't really care what halacha has to say about separate seating at public events and will insist on attending only if a large mechitza has been erected.  Nothing says "Look how frum I am" like one of those.
But a quarter of a million dollars?!  For a one time thing?  From a community that never hesitates to cry poor?
As Rav Maryles notes, the "We want to be inclusive as possible" line is also a lie.  The Agudah couldn't care less about participation by those who are to the left of its hashkafah.  Their leaders would like nothing more than to look out into the crowd and see only black hats.  Not suedes, not knitted, and certainly not those rayon pointy-topped ones.  Are they going to include prominent non-Agudah rabbonim whose merits, piety and knowledge are certainly on par with theirs?  Not likely, not by a longshot.
So in summary: they have the money to spend on a fancy divider, but not on food and schools.  They are prepared to put a five-star party on even as so many of the community, especially in Israel, live in parking lots or on the street wondering where their next meal will come from.
This is Torah behaviour?  This is really the mesorah?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

But Once He's Elected...

I'm sure I'm not the first person to write this: there oughtta be a law that says that politicians are legally bound to hold by their election platform and campaign promises once elected.  Otherwise they would be charged with contempt of the electorate and removed from office.  The one downside I can think of with this is, of course, that we would have dozens of elections every year, each one right after the last.  But eventually we might just get someone who actually tries to keep his promises.  I wonder what that kind of government would be like.
Yair Lapid, charismatic Israeli journalist and son of famous politician Tommy Lapid recently threw his hat into the ring as a politician when he became frustrated with the state of the State today.  And who can blame him?  On one side are the very rich Israelis who control the economy and major political parties to ensure that they get richer while the average Israeli continues to struggle along or sinks.  On the other side is the growing Chareidi community which, while spewing venom on a regular basis towards the State, never seems to tire of taking money from it while insisting on its right to continue to be an economic drain within in.  The wonder isn't that Lapid was angered enough to leave his lucrative job in television to become a politician but that he isn't currently running at 90% popularity amongst secular Israelis.
Lapid has now released the initial parts of his platform and the components are entirely predictable.  He has railed against both the very rich and the Chareidi community, the former for their role in choking the prosperity of Israel's middle class and the latter for their role in grabbing all they can of the State's largesse while refusing to contribute towards the development of the economy.
There is no doubt that the Chareidi press will portray Lapid as the son of his father, the old religious-baiter who never met a Chareidi he liked.  What it will not do is take a moment to engage in a good ol' fashioned cheshbon hanefesh, just like it didn't when Shinui grabbed 15 seats in the Knesset a few elections ago.  For the Chareidi PR machine and their black and white thinking, anything other than fawning admiration of their community is hatred of Torah, hatred of Judaism, hatred of God, etc.
But really the situation is deeper than that.  Imagine a Chareidi community is which the truly elite sat in kollel and became the next generation of religious scholars while the vast majority, ambitious and intelligent as they are, turned their proclivities towards becoming economically productive.  It's one thing to accuse Chilonim of being Judaism-haters when they decry the Chareidim for being extremist parasites but would they still be so anti-religious if the criticisms were of Chareidi economic success?
The Chareidi community, for all its howling otherwise, is the architest of its own misfortunes.  There is no doubt that there are many in the secular community who need no excuse to hate them but they are a minority when compared with the multitudes that see Torah and Judaism in a negative light specifically because the bad elements of the Chareidi velt insist on handing them a new reason each week.  And Lapid's throwing down of the gauntlet is a challenge to them: will they continue to have a disproportionate say in how the State runs?  Will they continue to expand their misogynistic efforts to remove women from any public view despite the opposition of the vast majority of the people around them, many of them Torah-observant?
There are only three problems with Lapid's solutions.  The first is that time is not on his side.  While there are many who love to point out the high rate of defection from the Chareidi community to the OTD world it is still much smaller than the community's birth rate.  And when one takes into account the low birth rate in the secular community, one realizes that Lapid is running against the clock.
The second is that the opponents of his changes will not take his attempts to win the election quietly.  It is not in the interests of Israeli's corrupt aristocracy  to allow a liberalizing of the Israeli economy that will decrease their wealth while spreading it to the middle class.  Does Lapid believe they will quietly go one sipping their fine wines on their terraces in Kfar Shmaryahu as he roils the population up against them?  Or will large amounts of money be spent to prevent his efforts from succeeding?
The third is the question of what Lapid will actually do should he win the next election?  For this there is an unfortunate precedent: his father, Tommy.  Recall that Shinui got 15 seats in their greatest election and a seat at a cabinet in which only three parties were involved, none of them Chareidi.  Yet the system did not change, the govenrment continued to function as it had previously and Shinui virtually disappeared in the next election after a series of scandals showed that its MK's were as corrupt and self-serving as the Chareidim they tried so hard to villify.  It's one thing to achieve power but quite another to wield it effectively.  Unless he gets a majority in the Knesset he will have to deal with other parties and, given his desire the raise the percentage threshhold for getting a seat, who will speak with him?  Not the small parties whose existence would be threatened by such a change, nor the larger ones who would face the possibility of long stays in opposition should a majority government ever come into existence.
There is also the matter of the Chareidi community's response.  Will they really roll over and start sending their youth to the draft offices?  If forcibly drafted, will they really cooperate with the army?  If rhetoric and verbal vitriol was the worst of what they were capable of this would be a small matter but as too many elements in that community have shown over the last while, violence and civil disobedience on a large scale is something many of them are not averse to, even as the Shafrans and Menkens of the world shriek about how everyone is guilty... but them.
Lapid's goals are admirable and an Israel remade in that image would be even more economically successful than it is now.  But it is one thing to shout hopeful slogans, quite another to achieve them.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

On Hedonism

There are three types of people: those who go to Pesach hotels, those who don't, and those who don't but secretly wish they could and publicly attack those who do.  I am in the first category.  Rav Emanuel Feldman of Cross Currents is apparently in the third.
In his recent piece he sarcastically attacks the concept of Pesach hotels and portrays those of us who enjoy such programs as hedonists who are quite prepared to act in a gluttonous fashion as long as the hashgachah is reliable.  He even intimates that those who consider themselves 'Truly Frum" but attend these programs aren't really so different from the "Not So Frum" who are along for the ride.
Frankly, I have had it up to here with attacks on those of us who want to spend our hard-earned money on bringing the simcha back to simchas Yom Tov.  For some people, spending the holiday at home with family and friends is the only way they can envision a meaningful experience.  Fine, that works for them and kol hakavod.  But for others, spending the holiday away from home and being able to relax without worrying about all the preparations getting ready for Pesach entails is what brings satisfaction.
Perhaps for some people it's about the all-you-can-eat kiddush and diving into the trough at dinner.  For many of us, though, it's about taking those things we enjoy about Pesach without having to worry about the annoyances that come with it.  Imagine being able to sit through the Seder without having to worry about serving the food or cleearing the dishes.  Imagine spending erev Pesach learning the Hagadah instead of running around to ensure all the preparations are ready.  Imagine Chol HaMoed with activities for the adults and kids without having to worry that they'll wind up somewhere and accidentally be handed chometz because the people they're with don't know better.
Is it about the cost?  When it comes to the price of Pesach food, cleaning supplies and the help needed to get the house ready, along with the cost in hours needed to prepare the house (something no one ever seems to figure into the calculations) there isn't that much of a savings from staying at home.  And what's the price of the peace of mind knowing that in the weeks up to the holiday you are able to relax at night instead of worrying if your children once again hid Cheerios in the sofa cushions?
Further, the basic argument - that those who go to Pesach hotels are gluttons looking to maximize their gashmius while pretending it's about their ruchnios - is a red herring.  It is just as possible to be a glutton over Pesach in one's own home.  The only difference is that in the hotel they clear the dishes away when you're done.
A Pesach hotel experience is not for everyone.  And for some it can be a disgusting licence to stuff oneself like a pig.  But for many of us it's an annual vacation, a chance to enjoy the holiday with friends we only see at that time of year, a chance to get away and really enjoy the Yom Tov.
As a Rav I heard speak once said, the greatest threat to Judaism today isn't the Pesach hotel.  It's the people who think that the Pesach hotel is the greatest threat to Judaism today.