Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Rare Insight

When I was taking psychiatry in school I always wondered about schizophrenia.  If I developed it would my knowing about it change the course of the illness?  It sounds dumb in retrospect but I thought: if I know that there's a disease out there that makes you hear voices telling you to do terrible things and then you started hearing voices telling you to do terrible things, would there be a chance I'd be able to say, "Oh, this must be schizophrenia and the voices are just a symptom of it"?
And that's how I learned about the concept of insight.  One of the problems with schizophrenia is a lack of it.  A person might know all about the disease and be completely comfortable dismissing the other guy's complaints of psychotic symptoms but then turn around and decide that his own voices were, on the other hand, completely real.
A lack of insight isn't unique to schizophrenia, however, or even individuals.  An entire society or culture can have one.  The French don't know they're snobs or that they smell of body odour.  Americans don't know they talk loud and dress obnoxiously when they're on vacation.  If you criticize them for these traits they will generally look at you with a lack of understanding.  No insight.
And then there's Chareidi society.
As the venerable Rav Eidensohn notes, the famous lack of insight that defines Chareidism might just have been broken by a recent article in The Jewish Press:
1. We've chosen, for understandable educational reasons, to withdraw and live in exclusively Haredi cities and neighborhoods, avoiding as much as possible any social contact with the secular.
This is legitimate and understandable, but as a result they don't really know us, amd so they naturally view us as bizarre, in our manner of dress, our behavior, and our language. This creates aversion and alienation. Why, then, we are angry at them for treating us this way?
2. We chose, for educational reasons—although some of us really believe it—to teach our children that all secular Israelis are sinners, vacuous, with no values, and corrupt.
This could possibly be a legitimate view, but, then, why are we shocked when the secular, in return, teach their own children that the Haredim are all primitive, with outdated and despicable values?
3. We have chosen, for the sake of the preservation of Torah in Israel, to prevent our sons from participating in carrying the heavy burden of security, and instead tasked them with learning Torah.
Of course we could not give that up, but why are we outraged and offended when the secular, who do not recognize nor understand this need—or rather most of them are familiar with the issue, but argue that there should be quotas—see us as immoral, and some despise us as a result?
4. We chose for our sons who do not belong, by their personal inclination or learning skills to the group of Torah scholars (Yeshiva bums and worse), to also evade enlistment—including into perfectly kosher army units. And when it comes to the individuals who have joined the Haredi Nahal, we do not praise them, but despise them instead, and we certainly show them no gratitude, while the Haredi press ignores them—in the best case.
Why, then, are we outraged when the secular don't believe our argument, that the purpose of keeping yeshiva students from enlisting, is to maintain Torah study and not simply the Haredim's unwillingness to bear the burden?
5. We chose to teach our children not to work for a living, and to devote all their time to Torah study. Clear enough, but, then, why are we shocked when the secular—who do not consider Torah study an all encompassing value—feel that we are an economic burden on their necks, as a mere 38% of us take part in the labor force, and they hate us for it.
6. We chose not to teach our children any labor skills, and we condemn those who do pursue a profession. As a result our kolelim include all of those who do not belong among the scholars and still prefer not to work for a living.
Why, then, do we complain when the secular feel, and say so with an increasing volume, that we are parasites, living off of their efforts?
7. We chose (for educational considerations?) not to educate our children to show gratitude to the soldiers who risked their lives and were killed or injured for our sake, too. So we do not mention them in any way by any special day or prayer or special Mishna learning that's dedicated to their memory. Moreover, not a single Mashgiach or Rosh Yeshiva ever talks about it in a Mussar Schmooze, and you'll find no mention of it in the Haredi press.
Why, then, are we surprised that the secular feel that we are ungrateful and despicable, and that the reason for our not enlisting is simply because we are parasites, living off the sacrifices of others in society?
8. When extremist, delusional groups behave in ways that besmirch the name of God—e.g. the spitting in Beit Shemesh, dancing during the memorial siren, burning the national flag—our rabbis chose not to condemn them, clearly and consistently ( except for a few faint statements here and there). Why, then, are we explaining away the fact that the secular believe we all support those terrible acts? Why do we insist that their hostility stems from their hatred of the scholars?
9. We've opted to allow our public officials and pundits to curse out all the secular all the time. Why, then, when the secular media treat us the same way, are we offended and cry out that they're persecuting us?
10. The Haredi press will never offer any praise of or express support for secular Israelis who perform good deeds. Why, then, do we jump up and down when we are rewarded equally? And, in fact, while Haredi spokespersons rarely point anything positive about secular society, the secular media often gives positive coverage to Haredi organizations like Yad Sara, Hatzala, Zaka, etc.
11. We would not agree, under any condition, that secular Israelis turn up in our schools to teach our children heresy, and we would have kept them from putting up stands with books of heresy in our areas. Why, then, do we not understand when the secular do not agree that we seduce her children into denying their parents' heresy?
12. We do not agree—in my view, rightfully so—that secular people move into Haredi neighborhoods. So where do we get the arrogance and audacity to call anti-Semites those secular who don't agree that Haredim move near their homes, in secular neighborhoods?
Going through this list it's not hard to realize that several of the items aren't just flaws in Chareidism but considered by its adherents to be articles of faith.  It's not just that some of them are obnoxious but that those particular folks see it as their religious duty to be obnoxious.
Here's an example to ponder.  A couple of years ago a group of Dati Leumi rabbonim issued a psak about not selling homes in Israel to Arabs.  The psak was widely denounced by secular Israeli society but also by HaRav Shteinman, now the de facto leader of the Yeshivish part of the Chareidi community.  But here's the problem.  In the same pronouncement where he declared the psak to be wrong he also noted that when it came to Chareidim and their desire for exclusive neighbourhoods things were different because of the special and unique needs of the Chareidi population.
Good for the goose, good for the gander?  Not according to him.
Something like five or six years ago Rav Yonasan Rosenblum wrote an essay describing a trip by secular Israeli students to Auschwitz that had gone wrong.  The students had acted out like wild animals disgracing themselves and their country in the eyes of the locals.  Rav Rosenblum noted that you never hear about that kind of thing happening when Chareidim go out on tours.  Tsk, tsk.
Except that a few weeks later the story broke about a Chareidi boys groups at Auschwitz who did the same thing.
As anyone who has ever attempted marriage counselling knows, the effort is doomed the minute one of the spouses announces that only his/her grievances are legitimate, that only he/she is right and that only the other person has to change.  With insight a person can make tremendous changes but I don't know of any magical techniques to create that insight in the first place.  (If you do, e-mail immediately)
Secular and Chareidi society in Israel are pretty much like that, like two warring spouses.  I saw a grat demonstration of that during a trip there in 1998.  One evening I sat down with some Chiloni friends who, through the course of the evening, explained everything that was wrong with the Chareidim.  The next evening I was sitting in Bene Beraq with Chareidi friends who also took the time to tell me about society's illness.  Secular society, that is.
The sad part about those two nights is that each group had the other pegged perfectly.  Chilonim are very aware of what's wrong with the Chareidim and vice versa.  Yes, there are hate mongers on both sides who will create new grievances just for the sake of a fight but the average guy on each side doesn't do that.  They look over the fence and see what's out in the open.
The problem is that they're so busy looking over at the other side of the fence that they forget to look at their side.  "Is it possible," each side could be asking itself, " that they're right about us?"
Perhaps I am just sensitive to this because, growing up in Canada, I've spent a lifetime listening to the French in Quebec whinging about how they want to be independent but who then announce that Quebec is indivisible when the natives there announce their intention to leave Quebec if there is separation.  The hypocrisy rankles.
And it rankles here as well.  For a Chareidi to announce "I hate Israel, the government is trying to destroy the Torah, has my kollel stipend cheque arrived in the mail yet?" and not see why the average non-Chareidi bristles is exactly the problem we as a nation are dealing with.
But how does one build insight into a philosophy that shuns the concepts as a matter of faith?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Point Of Davening

(Hat tip: JewishIdeas)

I love davening.  I absolutely love it.  Every since I got a decent Hebrew education in my teens and found I could understand most of the prayers I have very much gotten into praying with purpose and meaning.  Yes there are days when I'm rushed, tired or distracted by a headache but in general whenever I can I do my best to immerse myself in tefillah at the set times.  Whether davening alone or by myself I don't feel the time dragging when I'm speaking with God.
But there is something to be said about settings.  At home I have a specific room in which I daven.  I have everything arranged and set up so there is instant familiarity and comfort.  In shul I have my makom kavua as well which helps.
But there is more to a setting than a specific seat and this is where shul leaves me disappointed.
Many, many years ago the non-Orthodox synagogue I worked in (did their Junior Congregation) had a congregational meeting and the topic of how to make services more interesting came up.  More dynamic speakers, muscial instruments to accompany the singing, more activities to engage congregants, all sorts of ideas got thrown out from the floor until one guy on the board, not the most traditional in Jewish practice but still an intelligent guy with his head screwed on straight shouted out "Wait!  I come to shul to pray to God.  I'm not looking for a show or entertainment, I'm looking to commune and daven!"
The other board members just rolled their eyes.  Prayer.  What a quaint concept.
Unfortunately this lack of interest in the dignity and importance of proper prayer is getting increasingly lost in parts of the Orthodox world as well.  I think, for instance, of the Carlebach-type service my shul runs on Friday nights.  For me the service is a nightmare, a 90 minute affair that should only take 45 minutes tops in a real shul.  Song after song during Kabbalas Shabbos, two or three breaks where kids go up and dance around the bimah, and then a quick zip through Maariv so we can get to more singing for Kiddush.  I haven't attended Friday night services since I realized this format wasn't an occasional "treat" but rather the standard format.
Now I can understand why the Rav of the shul does this.  He's very much into outreach.  He runs an expensive shul and day school, he needs the money, ergo he needs members and how better to increase membership than to appeal to the non-religious?  After all, we frummers are stuck going to the shul whether we like it or not; it's the only one in town.  This means catering to the non-religious and how better to do so than to make shul fun?
It works too.  The little side chapel we use other than on Shabbos mornings is packed by folks who drive up conveniently right after Minchah has ended and who jump in their cars to go home after the last Aleinu.  In between there's the singing and dancing.  But when we hit Maariv everything changes.  Our Rav hasn't figured out how to turn saying the Shema into a loud, interactive experience (yet) so at that point people either daven (the few religious folks) or close the siddurim and stare blankly into space until V'Shamru, the next tune.
And I wonder: when did shul stop being shul?  I mean a place where there is a sense of dignity and propriety, a place where people stand in some sort of awe before our Creator and who recite the worlds from the prayer book as if they're interacting not with the shaliach tzibur and his happy tune but with God Himself?
Shouldn't there be a sense of majesty?  If not unending chazanus then at least tunes that carry some weight?  Shouldn't people be there to make a connection with the Divine instead of having the rabbinical equivalent of Krusty the Klown calling out "Hey kids!  Now for our next special song and dance..."?
The article that triggered my interest in making this post makes a similar point.  His most powerful paragraph for me was:
 A hazzan is not merely a precenter of the liturgy. He is a teacher of prayer. He interprets the mahzor or the siddur and renders it relevant and meaningful to his congregation. The prayer modes are the hermeneutics he employs. If all a hazzan does is sing some popular tunes for the entertainment of the congregation, or if all he does is sing big pieces to impress the congregation with his vocal abilities and musicianship, he is an abject failure, much like the rabbi who fills his sermons with jokes and teaches little about Jewish life and values. Leading prayer is not about timing the service so it ends before the cholent burns, nor is it about entertainment. It's not even about artistry for its own sake. It is about teaching the congregation what the prayers are, and what they mean. To do that a hazzan must wrestle with the text of the siddur. He has to ponder the depths of his soul and make the liturgy meaningful and relevant to himself. He must lead and teach both by exposition and by example (thus the halakhic requirement that a communal cantor must be known for his personal piety). If the cantor is unclear as to what prayer means to him, his message to the congregants will likewise be unclear. Once a cantor understands what the liturgy means to him, he must then go about presenting it, teaching that meaning to his students within the confines of accepted exposition of the text (with the liturgical hermeneutics, the nusah). Sometimes that meaning will be challenging to the congregation. It may make them tremble or weep. Sometimes it may be whimsical or entertaining. But the message notwithstanding, the cantor MUST always be interpreting the text of the siddur and teaching the interpretation to his students (i.e. the congregation). That is what the unconquerable Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky meant when he stated "I daven with the peirush,", I pray according to the meaning of the words.

We need to do something to reclaim the sanctity of shul, the kedushah of prayer.  Running in and runsing through the davening is unacceptable.  Why is it so hard to handle the middle ground, a decent service with the appropriate tunes that demands that the congregants focus on the real reason to be in shul?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Who's Afraid Of Yair Lapid?

The recent elections in Israel have resulted in what might turn into a society upheaval there.  For the first time in history a significant number of identifiably religious Israelis have become MK's.  What's more these MK's arent' exclusively confined to the Chareidi parties and Bayit Yehuda but spread out amongst several parties.  In fact given how many divrei Torah and religious references were made by MK's in their introductory speeches to the Knesset one can almost hear the sound of the founders of Secular Zionism rolling in their graves.  This was not the Israel they were hoping to build!
And then there's the new wunderkind of the Knesset, Yair Lapid, son of Tommy.  In his first run for office he garnered 19 seats for his Yesh Atid party making it the second largest in the Knesset.  With his charisma and media experience he parlayed that into what will be a commanding position in the next government.  And like his father one of the main planks of his platform concerns the Charaeidim.
Now for those who don't remember, Tommy Lapid also swept into the Knesset with a new party, Shinui, a few elections back.  From nowhere he earned 15 seats and a spot in the governing coalition based on a platform entirely devoted to attacking Chareidim.  There was little about Shinui that was positive save the "We positively hate Chareidim and are out to get them" plank.  Now his son is being viewed by the Chareidi community in the same way and for good reason.
For one thing, unlike Tommy, Yair is far more charismatic.  Lapid the elder always came off as a wide-eyed lunatic when talking about the Chareidim; not so his son.  For another, Lapid the younger's platform is far more comprehensive.  Yesh Atid is not a single issue party but has positions on most of the issues that Israelis find important.  Unlike the rest of the world the average Israeli is far more worried about the country's economic difficulties and income disparity than the so-called Peace Process.  Lapid correctly realizes this, hands people a few meaningless bromides about his thougths regarding the Arabs and then spends more time focused on economics.
For another, Lapid's approach to the Chareidim is not based on a "We hate them, let's get 'em" position but rather on one very similar to his economic position.  His message of sharing the burden, whether it be the wealthy with poor when it comes to economic opportunity or whether it be the Chareidim and the Chilonim when it comes to army service, is not one easily dismissed as hate-mongering despite Chareidi attempts to do so.
Despite what he says there will be no mass Chareidi draft in the next few years.  The Chareidi population is too entrenched and controlled by its leadership to meekly submit to such a drastic change overnight.  Furthermore, despite his importance to any new government coalition Lapid will discover that the Chareidi parties still hold great importance in the Knesset.  Bibi might not need tem today but he might after the next election and he is certainly keeping that in mind.
But what might happen is a gradual change in Chareidi society and this worth keeping an eye on.  Not for nothing did Lapid make an eloquent speech to Chareidi law students at Kiryat Ono recently, stressing the importance of the Chareidi community to Israeli society and its need to be aware of the rest of the country's concerns, not just its own. 
By speaking to these students Lapid tried a radical new approach. Until now most attempts to interact with the Chareidim on any societal basis have taken place through their leader, the "Gedolim" and their handlers.  Since Gedolim generally reject any requests made by "the outside" as a matter of principle this approach has led nowhere.  But Lapid has done something else.  He's gone directly to the people and interacted with them.  This might have quite a different effect.
How many disaffected Chareidim are out there?  Not folks wishing they could go OTD but people who are 95% satisfied with being Chareidi and yearn for a way to improve that final 5%?  By going to the leadership we will never find out. The social pressure and groupthink that pervades the community prevents anyone from finding out.  But by talking directly to Chareidim one might light a spark leading to positive change within the community - a movement towards some interaction with the outside world without a compromise in the religious quality of their lives.
The response from the Chareidi leadership to Lapid's outreach has been downright nasty.  This is not a surprise since an intelligent, think-for-themselves Chareidi is a threat to "Daas Torah" and its "You're stupid so just do what I say" system of leadership.  Instead we should quietly watch for the response from the rank and file and have patience instead of expecting a sea change.
On the other hand one can also invoke history.  Lapid the elder, in his first election, got 15 seats and a place at the cabinet table with the Likud and the Mafdal (National Religious Party).  After all his campaigning he did nothing to change the status quo with the Chareidim.  In his second election support collapsed completely and shortly after Shinui disappeared into history.
In his first election Lapid the younger got 19 seats and will most certainly wind up at the cabinet table with the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, the new Mafdal party.  Lapid might succeed in bringing some change to Israeli society or, like his father, his speeches might come to nothing and Yesh Atid might wind up having no future.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Painting Themselves Into A Corner

(Hat tip: DovBear)
One of the dangers of making blanket statements is having to deal with important exceptions to those statements.  It's a lot easier to say "Most people think..." or "The majority of people say..." than "Everyone thinks..." or "Everyone says..."  The latter statements might land you in an indefensible position and then your argument is lost.
Of course just because that's true it doesn't stop people from doing just that, especially some frum folks who really should know better.
For example, a recent controversy in Toronto illustrates this exact point.  The whole thing started with the publication of yet another Kugel-style book, Torah From Heaven.  Like others that have come before the author has decided to put greater faith in academics than tradition and has written a book to reconcile his desire to believe in the divinity of the Torah with his intellectual inability to do so.  Billed as a book for the skeptical Orthodox it's more another tome for the Orthoprax - those amongst us who talk the talk but don't believe a word of what they're saying.  For those who understand the incredible limitations of the Documentary Hypothesis and the weak positions academics based themselves on it's yet another cry of lack of faith hidden as desire for intellectual truth.  In other words: yawn.
That hasn't stopped those who share this (lack of) belief in the truth of Torah from gushing over it.  Dr. Rabbi Martin Lockshin of Toronto, for example, wrote a glowing review of the book.  He goes over the general contents and, in an open concession to the Orthoprax, announces:
Rabbi Solomon argues further that historical scholarship makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy, or that our text of the Torah today is identical to the original one. The Talmud often quotes biblical verses whose wording or spelling differs from our own (as do Rashi and basically every other Bible commentator who lived before the days of the printing press).

Really?  It's impossible to believe that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, was the author of the Torah?  Impossible?  Or would the author and his followers just like to believe that so they can pursue their erroneous thesis?  Further, the word "often" in "The Talmud often quotes biblical verses" is also erroneous.  It does occur, true, and on a couple of cases this misquotes have halachic implications but it is not often by any serious definition of the word.  Rashi's misquotes also number less than a dozen.  Hardly a resounding basis of support.
The logic the author of the book uses is quite simple: it's a principle of faith that we believe that the Torah we have today is pretty much the one Moshe Rabeinu finished up before his death (with a few notable exceptions).  The Orthoprax can't accept this and so declare it to be impossible because modern secular academics say so.  And since it's impossible it can't still be a principle of faith.  Presto!  You don't have to believe in Torah miSinai to be a good Jew!
As far as that goes it's yet another tempest in a teapot.  Dr. Rabbi Lockshin, for example, is the leader of a small-time partnership minyan slowly moving towards right wing Conservatism.  His views are hardly going to be bandied about mainstream Jewish institutions in Toronto with any seriousness.  Like all the other hard-care Orthopraxers out there who would like to believe that they aren't a small minority he is not a threat to mainstream genuine Orthodoxy.
So what does the Toronto Board of Rabbis do?  It's leading lights, Ravs Shochet, Ochs and Miller, issue a blanket condemnation stating: "Halacha rules unequivocally that the denial of the G-dly origin of "even a single word" in the Torah... contravenes this principle (that our Torah is 100% identical to Moshe Rabeinu's) and constitutes kefirah b'Torah".
There are two problems with this response.  The first is that it's overkill.  Dr. Rabbi Lockshin wasn't suggesting a small part of the Torah, a few verses here and there, have been added, substracted or altered over time.  He is endorsing that the document itself isn't min haShamayim at all!  Why take such an ideological position when it would have been far simpler to say "Jews must believe in matan Torah in order to be considered Orthodox" and leave it at that?
But the second problem is far more difficult.  As Prof. Marc Shapiro shows in his work, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, there is plenty of legitimate evidence that small changes have occured to the text of the Torah over time.  Starting with a baraisa in maseches Sofrim which openly discusses Ezra editing the Torah after the return from Babylon in order to produce a reliable text, moving on to the rare times the Talmud misquotes a verse from the Torah and through various Rishonim and Acharonim who openly discuss the problem and its implication for fulfilling the mitzvah of listening to krias haTorah there is enough talk in the mesorah literature about the issue.  To state that 98% of the Torah we have today was what was handed to Moshe Rabeinu is doable.  To state it's 100% denies Chazal and the subsequent poskim who examined the facts.  Yet this is exactly what the Toronto Board of Rabbis does in its proclamation.  For them you're either 100% in or you're 100% out.
So here's the problem: their position is vulnerable.  Start at a position of 98% and you take away all your opponent's arguments.  Through a defense of the integrity of the text through its explanations in the Talmud and Midrash along with genuine scholarship that proves the antiquity and indivisibilty of the Torah the Orthodox position can be maintained.  Start at 100% and you're easily disproved and once that happens there is no red line stopping critics from moving from a 98% position to a 0%.  What's more, there can be no Orthodox counterargument since the original position was so unworkable.
The mishnah in Avos at the end of chapter 1 tells us there's nothing better than silence.  Another mishnah tells the sages to be exceedingly careful with their words lest bad consequences result.  Perhaps these mishnayos should have guided the proclamation.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

With Their Nation Or With Their Enemies?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland exists in a way that makes it seem graced by Heaven.  Just off the northern Atlantic it should be a frozen wasteland devoid of any meaningful population.  Nature, however, supplies it with ocean-based winds that keep its climate not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter.  Yes there's the rain but that makes up for the lousy water pressure.
In addition the culture seems so modern and liberal.  The British have presented us with some of the finest literature, cinema and television in the world, not to mention comedy.  Add to that their magnificent history of bringing culture and civilization to the four corners of the globe and their role, as the first truly global empire, of creating safe international commerce through the power of their navy.  Yes, Britain is an important country in world history.
It's almost enough to make you forget that they're generally a bunch of damned Jew haters.  Well, almost.
What we, in our rush to quote Monty Python at all the right occasions, like to forget is that while it is a Western democracy, fought against the Nazis and all that, Britain has been a hotbed of Jew hatred for centuries.  Whether it was expulsions, libels or outright massacre the soil of green England is stained red with the guilt the British should be feeling for their treatment of our nation.
One does not even have to look into perfidious Albion's dim past to make this case.  The 20th century will do quite nicely.  After liberating Israel from the Ottoman Turks recall that Britain solemnly took upon itself a mandate to create a Jewish national home in Israel composed of what today is Israel and Jordan.  Then, without any real authority to do so, it sliced off Transjordan to pay a war debt to some of its Arab allies.  Then, realizing the importance of oil and maintaining a powerful presence on international affairs meant sucking up to the emerging Arab states, the British decided to do away with the rest of their commitment to us.  Piece by piece, first by restricting land purchases, then attempting to deprive the chalutzim of the ability to defend themselves from Arab attacks, then a blockade of Israel's coast to prevent Jews from arriving (ethnic based immigration restrictions, how cricket is that?) and finally an attempt to partition Israel into mostly Arab Palestine and a tiny Jewish bantustan the British did what they could to ensure that the Jewish Nation Home project would be an abject failure.
And then there were British attempts to ensure that Jews fleeing the fires of Nazi-occupied Europe would be unable to escape that Hell.  In summary, as my father once said, maybe it was that Nazis, y"sh, that slit our throats but it was the British holding us down so they could do it more effectively.
It should therefore not come as any shock that Britain is slowly starting to show its true colours once again.  What must infuriate them now is their inability to bully the Jewish nation like they once could.  Their idiot MP's and ministers can stand up and hector Israel all they want and we don't have to apologize and ask for more.
Consider this article from The Spectator:

Glick recently came to London to take part in an Intelligence Squared debate. The debate was about Israeli settlements. Glick and Danny Dayan attempted to explain to the London audience that Palestinian rejection rather than Jewish settlement in the West Bank is the primary reason there is still no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The debate is now available on Youtube and there you can see the deeply rancorous tone of the discussion. At one point Lord Levy’s son, Daniel Levy, (arguing against Glick and Dayan) has to be almost physically restrained by his own co-debater (William Sieghart). Levy’s frustration appears to come from being pulled up on an allegation he casually makes against Israel for which he turns out to have absolutely no evidence.
But the audience go with him, and go against Glick and Dayan in the final vote by a factor of 5 to 1. As Glick notes in her bitter farewell to London, the audience was so hostile towards her argument that when she even mentioned the matter of Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and his involvement with the Nazis during World War II she was booed down by the audience. They – having been presented to her as open-minded – turned out to be so close-minded and partial that they would not even hear a historical fact about a Palestinian figure who was an actual Nazi.

There are also William Hague's endless one-sided anti-Israel pronouncements coupled with his empty statements about his friendship for Israel.  Some friend.  I'd rather have an honest enemy than a false friend like him.
There is a certain pride the British feel about their country, their history and their culture and there are many reasons they should.  But British Jews will soon have to make a choice.  In order to share in that pride as a member of that society, in order to maintain their good standing as "British" they will have to throw their status as "Jews" into the mud and stomp on it well and good.  If the "Jew" part of their being is of any value then they will have to face the fact that Jews who are proud of Israel and Judaism are not a welcome segment of British society.  Haven't been and aren't now.  Sorry old chap, you weren't expecting that?
Ah, but no one expects the Spanish inquisition!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Sometimes The Answer Is No

Despite all my criticisms of him, there is one essay of Rav Avi Shafran's that I like.  It's called "The Conservative Lie" and it's about all the failings of the Conservative movement.  Some of it is unforgiveably triumphant but those who read Shafran's materials know that he is given to that style.
The part that sticks in my memory is where Rav Shafran goes through the Conservative methodology and notes that whenever a difficult issue has come before the so-called Rabbinical Assembly the answer to whether or not the issue is permissible always seems to be "yes".  From driving on Shabbos to women rabbonim and, since the article was written, on to open acceptance of homosexuality the Conservatives never seem to be able to say no to anyone.  As Shafran correctly points out there's a problem with such a methology.  It lacks any sincerity or principle.
It seems that one of Morethodoxy's guiding principles is also the desire to say "yes" no matter what to whomever really wants something. In the past its members have opined about their desire to somehow find a way to make homosexual marriage permissible al pi halacha and their great frustration at not being able to (yet).  Now they've moved on to partnership services and decided that these are a great idea despite the abudance of halachic objections to them.
The responses on the Morethodox blog have been somewhat simplistic, create distinctions where there are none in order to generate leniencies that have no firm basis and ignore the strength of minhag in the current practices within the Orthodox world.  None of this is surprising from a movement that wishes to make huge changes in the way Orthodoxy is practice, all of them without the support of a single major posek
But the real motivator comes out in their latest piece which has to do with a young Israeli lady named Ophir ben Shitrit.  Ms. ben Shitrit is Torah observant and attends an Orthodox school in Israel. In violation of the school's rules she recently performed on an Israeli version of American Idol called "The Voice".  As a penalty for violating the rules she was suspended from her school.  Not a nice situation.
Rabbi Barry Gelman's response to this seems to lay bare what Morethodoxy thinks of the word "No" when it comes to halacha.  There is first the title of the article:
I do not know if Ophir Ben Shetreet will remain observant, but if she doesn’t, I may know the reason why.
Right.  So if she goes "off the derech" as a result of being punished for breaking her school's rules then it's the school's fault, not hers.  If she looks at the school and says "This is so unfair, I can't be observant anymore!" then it's perfectly understandable.
Well no it's not.  As Gelman's article notes there are indeed a variety of authoritative rulings defining and limiting the restrictions surrounding kol ishah.  If Ms. ben Shitrit isn't happy with her current school's hashkafah it would seem the answer is clear: switch to a school that isn't so strict. 
This doesn't seem to be what Gelman is advocating.  Instead of suggesting that Ms. ben Shitrit either switch schools or decide to obey the rules in the one she's currently enrolled in, he implies that since there are valid halachic opinions that allow the young lady to perform on television then the school should accomodate her by accepting those views.
Could one imagine a LWMO guy walking into a Chareidi shul and insisting on shaking hands with the Rebbitzen because he's aware of a lenient opinion that permits this and he happens to hold by it?
Ultimately Morthodoxy is moving towards Conservatism through its selective quoting of halachic sources and its desire to eliminate the word "No" from its Torah vocabulary.  Orthodoxy, in their model, must conform to our desires instead of the opposite way around. 
And isn't this the basis for partnership congregations?  Sure we're willing to do the Orthodox thing, they seem to be saying, as long as it's set up in a way that connects to us, as opposed to hoping we'll connect to it.
Halacha certainly has a great flexibility to it and a Rav with a deep knowledge of the legal sources can often work wonders in difficult situations.  But there are limits.  Sometimes the answer is "no" and it doesn't matter how much we would like it to be otherwise.  The challenge is for us to ask ourselves how to accept that instead of stamping our feet and demanding the ruling change to accomodate our feelings.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Is The Amud For Everybody?

I'll admit it: I'm an amud snob.  I don't think just anyone who wants to lead services should do so.
I'm not the worst snob though.  My personal requirements are limited.  I think a person who leads services should believe in God, have a decent command of Hebrew and be able to carry a tune.  Am I asking too much?
In the shul I daven in, apparently I am.
Perhaps it's just me but when people who fail to meet the qualifications I just mentioned go up to lead services it grates on my nerves.  A few years ago, for example, we had a guy saying kaddish for his mother.  This is a gentleman who will happily explain to you why he doesn't believe in God, the hereafter, etc.  When asked why he was making the effort to come to shul every day to lead services and say kaddish he said he was doing it in memory of his mother.  Not because she was watching from the Heaven he didn't believe it but because he thinks it's what she would have wanted.
Would you want to be part of a congregational service lead by this guy?
And then this weekend it got worse.  On Friday afternoon one of the teens in the congregation who belongs to a Frum-for-fun (see prior posts for explanation) family decided he wanted to lead Mincha.  He decided this and was given the opportunity despite barely being able to have read Hebrew and (I overheard him saying this after) not even having looked over the Amidah he had to repeat out loud.  He stumbled over pretty much every word except "Baruch attah" and a couple of times looked over at the Rav and asked "Did I say that right?" 
And then on motzei Shabbos we had another congregant who is now starting to say kaddish for a parent.  A nice guy from the FFF crowd he also can barely read Hebrew and stumbled over almost every word.
Give me some credit.  I sat patiently through both "performances' without saying anything but by the end of it I felt like someone was dragging their nails across the chalkboard.
The leading of services should be something special.  A shaliach tzibur isn't just up there because he has a chiyuv or because it's "his turn" but to serve as the spiritual uniter for the congregation's prayers.  Shouldn't that mean meeting some kind of minimum standard of competence instead of giving over to anyone who wants it as a form of outreach or keeping people interested?
Or is it just me?

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Academic Torah

One of the big mistakes people make with Torah study is approaching it like it's just another field of knowledge.  I know that I often do this, comparing a concept in Torah to one in medicine or science or trying to use an approach that works for me with secular studies when it comes to Gemara or halacha
This is generally a mistake because Torah isn't just another field of knowledge.  It's a piece of the Divine, a chance to share an enounter with the Ribono shel Olam.  We don' learn Torah simply to know facts but to gain an insight into existence itself.  It must be approached with reverence and awe. 
That's why, for example, Professor Marc Shapiro isn't a posek (nor does he wish to be, I would assume).  While he may have a broad and deep knowledge of Torah sources he analyzes them from the point of view of a modern academic.  Here's the big hint: when you read an essay and the Chofetz Chayyim is repeatedly referred to as Rabbi Kagan you know something's missing.
This is also why some folks don't like Rav Natan Slifkin's approach to Torah.  The man is brilliant and erudite but some of his work comes across as academic more than religious.  Presenting the Rationalist Judaism approach as an academic one detracts from what is important - that the only real Torah study is done through a religious, "irrational" (for lack of a better word) approach.
This flaw in learning and promulgating Torah isn't restricted to the MO academic world.  The Gemara, in discusssing the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) lists various reasons as to why the Churban happened.  One of them is that people who learned Torah didn't recite bircas haTorah before studying.
Obviously this is absurd.  Is it reasonable to assume great Torah scholars sat down to learn all day long but didn't recite the blessing beforehand?
The deeper answer, as I've heard from various sources, is not that they didn't recite the blessing but that the blessing was disconnected from its source.
There are two ways to relate to a blessing over a mitzvah or a benefit (for example, food).  The preferred way is to concentrate on the meaning of the blessing, that we are acknowledging the kingship of the Ribono shel Olam and His requirements for us or thanking Him for a benefit He has provided us.  The not-so-good way is to treat the blessing like it's a secret passcode.  I want to wave the lulav so I mumble the requisite words and get to do it.  The only thing standing between me and this apple is a sentence so I fire it off without really thinking about it.
Too often we all (I'm especially guilty) pronounce the blessings in the second way.  It's a formality or an annoyance to get through on the way to our goal.  The blessing is not about taking an instant to recognize God's kingship but instead is detached from its holy source.  It's a ritual with no depth.
This is what Chazal meant when they said that the Churban was due to scholars not reciting the bircas haTorah.  Of course the scholars said it but that's all they did.  It was a formality and then they sat down to learn Torah all day.  Not God's Torah.  Just Torah.  It became a field of knowledge no different than biology and physics, a body of facts to know and understand.
This approach to learning seems to be the dominant form today.  How else to explain people who dress the part, act the part. speak the part, spend their days swaying in prayer and learning and who then go and steal, cheat and abuse?  Are they doing the right thing?  Yes, absolutely.  Their observance of ritual is punctillious but it is superficial.  Even their prayers are empty.  They provide the lip service and none of the heart.
Thus while the academic approach to Torah is obviously cold and lacking religious meaning the opposite approach is similarly empty but hides it quite well.
It's time to take a step back and look again at how we interact with God and how sincere and meaningful our observance is?  Both from the left and right we have distanced ourselves from the Source of all existence and turned our religion into a series of activities devoid of true meaning.  In order to become the moral beings we are meant to be we therefore must find a way to reconnect.