Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Thinking Again About Segulos

Segulos are a tricky subject when it comes to Judaism.  On one hand there is clearly a strong tradition supporting their existence and use, especially when it comes to Kabbala stuff.  Even the Gemara mentions them in various places without much controversy.
On the other hand the Gemara also notes that there is a thin line to be crossed in some cases and then certain actions you might think are segulos become darchei emori, idol worship.  Something which must definitely be avoided.
Perhaps I'm too much of a rationalist (doesn't explain my being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan though) but I've never been comfortable with segulos.  One of the middos that I find most important about God is His absolute free will.  As Rav Shimon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, notes in his commentary on Torah God is completely above any pressure or coercion.  He cannot be forced to do anything.  He can be merciful or strict but it is always by His choice.  So contrary to His nature is any form of influence that the Gemara notes only three cases where human argumentation led to God saying "Well, what can I do?  I have to do things his way".  Even in those cases the Gemara is clear that God wasn't doing this because He was somehow backed into a corner, chas v'shalom, but because He wanted His plans for history to continue on as scheduled.
That's why I've always been uncomfortable with any magical aspects to Judaism.  I don't like the idea of independent angels, sefiros or whatever running around up in Heaven with lives of their own.  I don't like the idea of anything disturbing the absolute unity of God and His sole control of life, the universe and everything.
And I especially don't like magical charms and rituals that people say will create specific results.  For me such things interfere with the unique and personal relationship every single individual in existence has with the Ribono shel Olam.
After all, if it comes down to a red string on the wrist instead of hours of positive mitzvos fulfillment to achieve a certain goal then why bother with the latter?  And if you say that the former only works in the presence of the latter then what does that say about God?  He'll reward you for observing the big 613 but only if you have the right kind of thread on?
Even when it comes to Rosh HaShanah I'm a bit of a drag. Every year the Ironheart family is invited over to one of the nicest families you'll ever meat for one of the Yom Tov dinners.  This family treats the segulos of Rosh HaShanah with lots of energy and enthusiasm.  Me, I cringe.  Am I really to believe that if I eat a fish head then I'll have a better year, regardless of my actions in that coming year or the degree of repentance for my misdeeds of the previous one?  Yes, I enjoy  the apple dipped in honey but that's because it's an apply dipped in honey!  Who wouldn't like that?  I don't really think that my chewing it down with proper kavannah is going to change my fortune for the coming year.  My personal relationship with God, my level of dveikus to Him, and the overarching needs of history and the universe will trump that.
Perhaps we all need to see through the extras more clearly and remember that behind all of these rituals, amulets and herbals there is only one God in Heaven and Earth, that His will is supreme and that He desires a personal relationship with all of us.  Trying to circumvent that or, chalilah, to manipulate him, only drives us further away from him.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Tears Are The Tears Of Eisav

Rav Shlomo Levenstein brings an interesting thought in the name of the Kotker Rebbe, zt"l.  We all recall that when Eisav HaRasha came before Yitzchak Avinu, a"h, for his blessing he was distressed to discover that Yaakov Avinu, a"h, had come previously and "stolen" it from him.  So distressed he was that he began to cry and Chazal say that he shed two and a half tears.  Because of these tears, they note, we have had to endure centuries of suffering at the hands of Edom, Eisav's descendants.
But the Kotzker Rebbe asks a simple question: we have a principle in halacha of batel b'shishim.  If this is true then why haven't the countless tears shed by Jews in their suffering in the last two thousand years nullified those paltry two and a half tears of Eisav and brought an end to our tribulations?
The Kotzker Rebbe answersby pointing our an important exception to the principle of 60:1.  Bitul b'shishim only works with two unlike substances such as meat and milk.  It does not work with two like substances, min b'mino.  In such a case we say min b'mino eino batel afilu b'elef, there is no nullification.
So how can we end Eisav's dominance over us if no amount of crying will end his oppression?
The Kotzker Rebbe concludes by pointing out there are two types of tears.  Eisav's tears were shed out of self-pity.  "I lost the beracha."  "I got cheated."  "I missed out!"  Selfish tears on a loss of good fortune and opportunity.
Such are the tears that we have shed since galus Edom began.  We have cried from pain, theft, bruising, burning and death.  We have shouted out "Woe is us!" so many times to Heaven hoping for an answer.  But such tears, as sincere as they are, come from the same source as Eisav's: Woe is me!
The Kotzker Rebbe thus reminds us of something Chazal note repeatedly throughout the Talmud and Midrash.  When Jews suffer, when Jews are lost in exile, when the land of Israel is not the centre of the spiritual universe, the God Himself, kibiyachol, is diminished.  His Shechinah is in exile with us.  His presence in the world and the shefa He bestows to it are limited.  As believing Jews we should be horrified by this.  It's one thing to feel sorry for ourselves.  Heaven knows we have enough reason for that.  But the Kotzker Rebbe says we have to go one step beyond that.  We have to feel sorry for the humiliation our sins have caused God.  We have to cry tears for the loss He has suffered through our being in exile and through the Temple remaining in ruins under foreign occupation.
It is those tears which are min sheb'eino mino and therefore the ones that will nullify Eisav's and end our exile.  As Elul bears down on us with all the subtlety of an enrage bull towards a matador we are preparing once again to arrange our prayers of repentance before the Ribono shel Olam.  Perhaps this years, instead of crying out for forgiveness because we're afraid of punishment we should have the overreaching kavannah instead that our sins need to be forgiven so the Shechinah can regain its proper place in our world.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Sometimes It's The Obvious Answer

In a bid to enrich myself on Tisha B'Av I scanned Youtube for a shiur or two.  I found one that initially piqued my interest but rapidly wound up annoying me.  The speaker, a younger man from the Chareidi community began talking about how on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz many observant Jews were banned from praying at the Kotel because of fears that they would participate in a riot once the Women of the Wall showed up and began their monthly shtick.
He began to speak about reflecting on why this happened but, almost predictably, did not state the obvious: Jews were banned from praying because the police were worried about violence.  Instead he brought up a gemara from the end of Makkos, the famous one about Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues seeing a fox walking in the ruins of the Temple and their varied reactions.  He went on from there and brought in a beautiful interpretation but by then he'd lost me.  All I wanted to do was shout at the screen: Dude!  It's because you guys riot!  If you didn't do that the incident wouldn't have happened.
It reminds me of a story I read somewhere on-line a few years ago about a community where some children had been killed in car accidents at a busy intersection.  The community called a meeting and various people tried to determine what sin they were guilty of that had caused these tragedies and what they should do to make proper teshuvah.  When the Rav of the community was asked though, his answer was simple: Maybe we should ask the city to put in a traffic light.
When people don't want to see the obvious answer to their problems they can come up with all kinds of different solutions.  The average obese person with knee pain doesn't blame that Molson Muscle hanging down over their belts.  He claims that the pain killers I gave him weren't strong enough or that he needs a better pair of shoes.  Similarly the frum world, when looking at its problems, seems to possess a significant central blind spot with excellent peripheral vision.  They see everything else other than their own contribution to what's affecting them.
A fantastic example of this is a recent letter from our favourite PR hack, Rav Avi Shafran which was appended to an article written by Rav Elchonon Oberstein in Baltimore Jewish Life.  The subject of Rav Overstein's column was the recent spate of attacks on Chareidi soldiers by Chareidi civilians incensed by... well who knows anymore?
After noting several things which are not making their way into the Chareidi community regarding how much the Tzahal is trying to accomodate ultraOrthodox recruits and make the process of drafting them as painless as possible and after noting statements from the secular side of society showing care and concern for the worries the Chareidim have about this, a letter from Rav Shafran is appended which, on superficial glance, seems to be what I predicted he wouldn't do: acknowledge the problem and condemn it.
But read the letter carefully and the blind spot reappears.  Consider:
 Now, with various players putting the issues front-and-center, and signaling their intention to mold the charedi community to something closer to their own image, the (easily predictable, if unfortunate) result has been a counterpush – with things like army service and joining the workforce becoming, at least in the eyes of some – a playing into the hands of the enemy (here, Mr. Lapid and company).
Note the way Rav Shafran has taken the Chareidi onslaught against the government and turned it around.  Mr. Lapid and company have, from the start, done their utmost to avoid inflammatory statements and to find as many compromises as possible in order to accommodate the special needs of the ultraOrthodox while the response has been shrill and unyielding.  But instead of noting this Rav Shafran simply repeats the canard: well of course we're upset.  They've trying to change us into seculars!
The poster-posters and catcalls you describe are misguided and obnoxious -- I felt revulsion reading your account -- but they are just another sadly predictable result of the new polarization of the Israeli populace. 
How odd then that, despite this polarization, there have been no poster campaigns from the secular and Religious Zionist communities in Israel villifying the Chareidim?
Firstly, the American Gedolim as a rule do not comment on anything having to do with Eretz Yisrael, 
Unless it has to do with the Women of the Wall.  Despite the WoW's only real presence is in Israel and therefore only an Israeli concern this hasn't stopped Rav Shafran from issuing comments along with many of his cohorts at Cross Currents.
And yet, on communal issues like the larger one in Israel, the Gedolim do feel they must call a spade a spade, and a stick-and-carrot campaign by anti-charedi people (even those who have occasionally presented themselves as “the charedim’s friend”) precisely that.
In summary: yeah, bad stuff's happening but it's all the fault of those nasssssty seculars who want to destroy the Chareidi community so how can you expect "the Gedolim" to issue any statements?
Tisha B'Av has just passed and with it another opportunity to miss the point of the day.  We must each of us be constantly performing a cheshbon hanefesh on ourselves while simultaneously judging our neighbours, both religious and secular favourably.  Instead of blaming "the other" we must start blaming ourselves.  If both sides were to approach the other with the opening statement "I'm the problem, how can I change to make things better for you?" then we would be many steps closer to eliminating Tisha B'Av as a fast day.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Why No Condemnation?

Another day, another ugly incident in Meah Shearim.  In this case it's the recent mob violence directed towards a Charaeidi man who dared to show up in the neighbourhood wearing a Tzahal uniform.  As the story is told by the Israeli media, he was set upon by the locals, had to take shelter in an apartment and then had to be rescued by a special squad of police who themselves were attacked by the mob.  One shudders to think of what would have happened if the young man hadn't found a place to hide.
These people are Jews?  They're so Orthodox that they're Ultra-Orthodox?  What does that even mean anymore?
In the wake of the attack it has been noted in more than one place that there has been no statement of condemnation from any of the "Gedolei Yisrael", the leadership of the Chareidi community.  Some have noted a paucity of reporting of the incident in the Chareidi press.  Comments can be found on-line that downplay the severity of what happened and emphasizing that the soldier wasn't hurt so why get upset?
So why haven't the "Gedolim" issued a statement?  I would like to humbly suggest some reasons which will also cast a light on the nature of leadership in the Chareidi community.
1) Isn't it obvious?  Despite the anger and hate of Israel some in the Chareidi leadership possess, no major Chareidi leader, not even those in the Eidah Chareidit, would promote violence against other Jews, let alone threatening their lives, chalilah.  Why should they apologize or issue statements when it's obvious they don't approve of this behaviour?
2) How often does the President apologize?  When an American commits a crime somewhere, does the President of the United States go on television to issue a statement about how this act doesn't reflect America's values, etc.?  So why should the Gedolim have to issue a statement in this situation?  This wasn't an approved activity promoted by them but a random act of violence.  Besides, if they had to issue a statement every time a Chareidi misbehaves they'd have no time to learn Torah!
3) Who exactly should issue the statement?  From the outside Chareidism looks monolithic.  From the inside it's a community of communities, disparate in values and beliefs.   No one "Gadol" speaks on behalf of all Chareidim.  Nor do the "Gedolim" have regular board meetings in order to flesh out common policy.  The Eidah Chareidis wouldn't feel a connection to a statement by Rav Shteinman, shlit"a, nor would the Yeshivish care about a pronouncement from Ger.
4) What exactly happened anyway?  Remembe that the "Gedolim" aren't like regular people.  They do not read the newspaper.  They don't watch the news on TV or listen to the radio.  They certainly don't look it up on the internet!  Chas v'shalom!  They are entirely dependent for their information about the outside world on their handlers and those handlers can paint any picture they want without fear of being exposed for being manipulative and dishonest.  If any "Gadol" has even heard about this incident you can be sure the version he was told bears little resemblance to what actually happened.  In the hands of the handlers mobs become guardians of purity and pedophiles and wife abusers become the righteous of the generation.  Even if a "Gadol" wants to release a statement could you imagine how bizarre it would sound?
You aren't going to see a statement from Rav Avi Shafran on the matter for almost all the same reasons, plus he's way too busy attacking decent talmidei chachamim for daring to not see his brand of Judaism as perfect.  He's trapped in a conundrum.  On one hand he wants us to believe that "real Torah Judaism" is a society in which the "Gedolim" have absolute control.  On the other hand, acknowledging the riots means either claiming the "Gedolim" are responsible due to their leadership positions or that in reality the leadership doesn't actually control anything.  Far easier to distract by writing another diatribe against the WoW's.
The response of the average Chareidi-on-the-street is the litmus test here.  Do they feel they have more in common with other observant but non-Chareidi Jews or do they still feel a kinship with these primitives and see them more as misguided than as barbaric?

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Religious Zionism Must Lead

One of the dangers any movement faces is becoming complacent.  In the beginning a group of people set out with a goal and a plan to achieve it.  With good fortune and the help of Heaven they do that but what happens after success?  How many revolutions ended with the upstarts become the government they replaced?  How many advocates drift along mouthing slogans without any sense of further achievement?
It is the same with countries.  Many countries simply exist.  England, Russia, China, these countries aren't moving towards any meaningful accomplishment, they have no sense of purpose, they are simply there because they always have been. On the other hand the United States, until only a couple of decades ago was filled with a sense of purpose.  They were a beacon of democracy, the wellspring of true capitalism and the world's policeman, guaranteeing freedom from the autocracies that threatened civlized peoples.
What about Israel?  Does it serve a purpose?  Did it ever?
The second question is quite easy to answer.  The founding and maintaining of the State served a different purpose depending on which group you asked.  For Labour Zionism Israel's purpose was to show the world that Jews could create a European-style socialist state and be just as good as the Gentiles were at it.  For Religious Zionists it was about God turning history and helping us rebuild our national home in our Holy Land.
The problem with these visions is their success.  Labour Zionism did create a European-style socialist state on the eastern Mediterranean coast.  Jewish life did flower and prosper within it.  Sixty five years later Israel isn't simply a place on the map but an important member in the family of nations, a world leader in many areas and home to the largest Jewish community on Earth. 
So now what?
Eight years ago Ehud Olmert gave a speech which captured the ennui that had enveloped Labour Zionism and turned it into an apathetic post-Zionist movement.
"We are tired of fighting; we are tired of being courageous; we are tired of winning; we are tired of defeating our enemies."
Like a World Series champion that barely makes .500 the next season with almost the same line-up because the players no longer care as much, Olmert's vision of Israel was a simple one: We built a state, we survived every attempt to destroy us.  We'v proved ourselves.  There's nothing left.
It's no surprise that post-Zionism has turned Labour Zionism into a self-defeating movement.  One hundred and twenty years ago Theordore Herzl and the first Zionists announced they would take a patch of desert land under Ottoman rule and turn it into a modern state run for Jews by Jews.  Few world leaders and people of influence took them seriously at the time.  Today it seems almost inconceivable to recall a world in which Israel did not exist. 
But success has been the movement's undoing.  For us Israel is the rebirth of our ancient commonwealth.  The rest of the world sees it as a post-World War 2 upstart state (at best).  No one questions the right of France to exist (although if you ask me...) or whether or not the world needs a Nigeria.  Israel is the only country in the world that has to constantly justify its right to be on the map in any form, the only country whose borders are contested on an ongoing basis. 
The old answers don't cut it anymore either.  Is there a need for a European-style socialist state in the Middle East?  In these days of economic turbulence one could ask if there's a need for European-style socialist states in Europe, never mind the Levant. 
Do Jews need a life raft, a place to flee?  Well Israel certainly still fills that roll but the current overt danger to large Jewish communities outside of Israel is currently at a historic low.  That's not to say things can't or won't change, I won't be that presumptious, but at the moment the more dangerous place to be a Jew in the world is in Yesha, not Moscow.
Simply put, if someone were to ask what the net effect on the world would be from the forcible migration of Israel's Jews to Europe and North America what would the answer be?  Would Israel be missed?
This is where Religious Zionism comes in.  Unlike secular Zionism, the Dati Leumi do not see the founding and maintaining of the State as the end-all and be-all.  Certainly the existence of a Jewish state not run al pi halacha is not the goal of history or something desirable for observant Jews.
In contrast to the goal-fulfilled secular Zionists, Religious Zionism has to still sense a sense of purpose to the State.  No, the world would not be essentially the same if all Israeli Jews moved to Thornhill or Skokie.  God has moved history, manipulated events and changed the hearts of great leaders in order to bring us home to rebuild His land.  A lack of Israel would be a frustration of those plans, an affront to the Ribono shel Olam
Our purpose in the world isn't simply to keep black hat milliners in business.  Our purpose in the world isn't to supply international newspapers with tales of pedophiles and theft.  Our purpose in the world is to move history forward to its natural conclusion where God reappears in the midst of all civilization and makes known His will to all, where we return to our land, rebuild our Holy Temple and restore true Divine worship in the eyes of the nations of the world.
We aren't here simply because we are here.  Many of us have forgotten this.  Our non-religious brethren have transformed their identity into an ethnic designation.  Jews, Italians, Argentians, half a dozen of one and six of the other.  Our Chareidi brothers have, through their desire to ignore the will of God and His involvement in hisory, degenerated into a reactionary cult in which decisions are made based on what's good for "the oylam" without regard to ethics, decency or Torah.  The secular don't see a way forward.  The Chareidim are trying to drag things backward.
What needs to interpose between both is a group that can accomodate the needs of both without compromising the essential vision of the State of Israel as aschalta d'geula.  It needs to be a group that both values the learning and practice of Torah as central and primal to Judaism while using that Torah to interact with the modern world to create a functioning society.
That leaves only Religious Zionism as a movement with such a comprehensive view of a Jewish future.  On the secular side Religious Zionism is well aware that halacha must encounter, examine and legislate for modern economic, legal and political systems to create an environment in which Torah behaviour is mandated but Torah repression is avoided.  On the religious side it offers both chasidic (Rav Kook, ztk"l) and Yeshivish philosophies (the Rav, zt"l) for those for whom everything is seen through the lens of the Torah.  Through its vision of creating a modern state run al pi halacha as a prelude to the arrival of Moshiach it provides an underlying point of unity for these groups. 
This is why, following the moderate success of Bait Yehudi the movement must develop itself into a strong alternative both for secular Jewish nationalists looking for depth and meaning and for Chareidim looking for genuine religious practice within God's plans for This World.  Only in this way can Israel have a proud, strong and historically meaningful future.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

What's the Point of Talking

Pity poor Rav Dov Lipman.  All the guy wants to do is improve the lot of his fellow Chareidim.  He's young, earnest, honest and hard-working, full of good ideas and eager to improve his community's lot.
And what's his reward?  Villification, slander, lies and public attacks.  And all of that from a community which claims to be the embodiment of holiness in the world, the ideal that God desires from all of us.
He's not alone, either.  As the wise RYGB has noted, it seems that anyone who questions the Chareidi party line in Israel is immediately lumped in with such historical figures as Hitler, y"sh, Stalin, y"sh, and Chiemlnitski, enemies of the Jewish people, Torah and possibly even God.  This seems to have been the fate of one Barry Jacobson who also dared not tow the official line in public.  Even Rav Jonathan Sacks is not immune from the Agudah's attack dogs, especially after his recent speech in which he gave his perspective of what's ailing Chareidism today.
As the pressure ramps up on the community in the face of the Israeli government's determination to integrate them partially into society the response has become even more fanatic.  One report out of Israel suggests that they want to make it illegal to not have Chareidi parties in the government.  Another report states that it is now sina qua non that Chareidim should not have to work but instead be supported by the State while they learn full time.  Therefore the Israeli government is going again this "natural law" in its efforts to extend the draft to them.
And need I mention the debacle over the Women of the Wall yesterday in which thousands of supposedly God-fearing Jews worked together to create a tremendous chilul HaShem in public?
How does one even respond to all this idiocy?
One thing is certain: rational conversation with the leadership and its representatives is a waste of time.  These folks live in a completely different reality from the rest of us.  We see that Israel survives both due to the physical and the mystical.  Yes, Torah study is a positive factor that guarantees the survival of the Jewish people and the State but the army is another important factor that can't be dismissed.  For these folks, however, it can be.  All the physical efforts, all the important work done to keep the borders secure are meaningless to them because in their world it's only Torah study that matters.
What if you try to point out there's lots of non-Chareidim out learning Torah while serving in the army?  The response is that it's only their learning that counts just like it's only their Gedolim who are real Gedolim.
In short, you can't reason with them.  Trying to refute their arguments is a waste of time because the principles of rational debate do not override their beliefs.  Tell them that staging a riot at the Kotel is a terrible thing and they will tell you that they do not care about what the world thinks, only God.  The idea that God Himself might not be onside with their plans simply will not occur to them.  It is axiomatic that He is.
So what's left?  As hokey as it might sound: self-reflection.  We on the outside also have principles and beliefs.  Are we being true to ours?  As mightily as the Chareidim fight against the draft because they truly believe theirs is the good fight do we also have that same sense of security?  Are we trying to create a Jewish nation in which burdens are equally shared or are we out to get the Chareidim?  Are we opposing a society of "learn, don't earn" because we really believe that it is not the Torah way or is it because we simply don't see any value to learning like they do?
This is the important lesson of all the hyperbole coming out of the Chareidi PR machine.  It is a challenge to us on the outside.  We need to be as focused and as principled as they are so that we can stand firm in our beliefs.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Properly Understanding The Mesorah

Way, way back when I was still going to the Conservative synagogue in my home town I frequently butted heads with one of the gvirs of the congregation, a genuinely nice guy with a limited Jewish education, lack of insight into how limited it was, and a strong egalitarian streak.  For him it was important that the synagogue be trendy, egalitarian, modern and reflective of societal values.  That's what Judaism was to him and if anyone in the synagogue advocated a more traditional approach (like me) he would go on the offensive.  One day he went as far as to declare, on behalf of the congregation, that ours was a "tradition of change".
I got in trouble that morning for pointing out that a tradition of change strongly suggests no tradition at all.  He didn't like that.
In truth Torah Judaism does allow for change.  Despite what the crowd over at Cross Currents might state the mesorah does shift over time.  The idea that all change is rejected because it's against "our mesorah" is quite false.
The problem is not just when all change is rejected.  It's also when people who believe a "tradition of change" is our tradition also think that the mesorah can be adjusted at will to reflect surrounding circumstances.  So on one side you have "All change is forbidden" and on the other you have "No, you're allowed to change whatever you want if you really have to".
The truth is somewhere in the middle and seems to go like this: change is permitted but only in those circumstances where there is compelling evidence that it's necessary, there is support in the halachic literature for the new position and the consequences of not changing are greater than  the consequences of changing.
Let's look at two examples, one historic and one in process right now.
The first is the founding of the Beis Yaakov school system.  When Sarah Shenirer started the first school it effected a revolution in Jewish education.  While nowadays we take the idea that women should be literate, educated in a broad curriculum and knowledgeable in Judaism for granted it wasn't so long ago that the idea of women's formal education was forbidden, especially in Eastern Europe.  Whatever a woman needed to know, so the mesorah told us, she could learn from watching her mother or asking the local Rav.  She didn't need to know how to read or do math since her role in life did not require those skills.  And at the time the slogan was that it had been this way from time immemorial.  Yet somehow change occured.
Historically it's easy in retrospect to see why this was the case.  At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries Torah Judaism was under assault from all sides.  There was the slow dropping of barriers between gentile and Jewish societies, especially in western and central Europe, gentile societies in which women received formal education.  There was the Haskalah with its challenges to Torah Judaism in eastern Europe in particular.  Finally there was Zionism with its approach to creating a "new Jew", one who could be male or female and educated regardless of gender.  It is quite clear that the leaders of the Torah observant community of the day saw that continuing to pretend that women didn't need a formal education would end up as a disaster.  Women would wind up either being educated in public schools by edict of the government or going off to non-religious Jewish schools run by the haskalah or Zionists and thereby be lost to Torah observance.
A century later the decision to being formal schooling for girls can be seen as an important decision that was made the right way.  But the underlying point remains: the mesorah changed and in a big way.
The second example is the current controversy regarding metzitzah b'peh. As most folks know the new concern regarding direct MBP is the transmission of the herpes simplex virus.  Due to our many sins this virus has found its way into our community on a not-so-rare basis.  Many mohelim are either infected or at risk of infection.  A herpes outbreak is contagious for several days before the characteristic rash appears and the virus transmits skin-to-skin.  All of this is a huge risk for a newborn with an immature immune system.  A neonatal herpes infection could cause encephalitis or death.
There is a way to prevent such things from happening, indirect MBP in which the mohel sucks the blood out of the incision using a pipette or syringe.  There are many poskim who have no problem with this and consider the milah valid if done this way.  It also eliminates the risk to the infant.
And the opposition?  No surprise that one of the biggest reasons for refusing to consider indirect MBP is because it's against "our mesorah".
Now look back at the criteria I mentioned above.  There is evidence that herpes infections in neonates as a result of direct MBP are occuring on a not-infrequent basis.  There is support in the halachic literature for indirect MBP as a valid alternative.  The consequences of continuing direct MBP are newborn boys become seriously ill, possibly brain-damaged or dying.  If changing from direct to indirect MBP is forbidden because "our mesorah" doesn't change then you have to close down every Beis Yaakov as well.
As for women rabbis, well I'm not sure what the compelling circumstances are that demand we consider the idea, there is at best lukewarm support in the halachic literature for such a big change in the structure of religious leadership of the Jewish community and the consequences of not changing are what?

Monday, 1 July 2013

Ethnicity Or Torah

One of the main differences in approach between religious and non-religious Jews is how they define a "good" Jew.  For religious Jews it's based mostly on personal practice and the regular learning of Torah.  For the non-religious definitions are based more on an ethnic basis.  Just like someone can be a good Italian simply by accident of birth and a like of ravioli, one can be a good Jew if one has even just a Jewish father and a liking of blintzes on Sundays.
Neither approach is entirely satisfactory.  While the Torah approach has more legitimacy since religious practice and learning has been what has kept our nation strong and distinct from the surrounding cultures for the last 3000 years it is foolish to assume that it can be the sole defining feature for what makes a Jew.  It fails to account for not only those legal differences in practice between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, for example, but also the cultural things that give each group its special flare. 
Why does this matter? Shouldn't Torah be enough?  Shouldn't we simply define our comradeship based on mutual appreciation of learning and practice?
I would venutre to say that it is not enough for a couple of reasons.  As keeps getting demonstrated almost daily it is quite obvious to state that Torah learning and personal practice does not a mensch make.  In fact reading the news out of Israel you sometimes sadly get the opposite impression, chalilah.  Based on my personal feelings it is sometimes very difficult for me to walk down the street in Bene Beraq and feel like I have anything in common with some of the folks on the street there.  This is not a good situation.
Another reason concerns the greater good of the Jewish nation.  Although, nebich, most Jews are not properly Torah observant (if at all) that does not make their innate status of Jews less valuable.  They have their place in God's grand scheme of things even if their personal level of practice suggests they don't agree.  We have enough enemies willing to reduce the size of our population.  We need not assist them through disenfranching our co-religionists.
What's more, despite their lack of observance there is much we Orthodox Jews can learn from them.  ON one hand an ethnically exclusive approach to one's Jewishness leads to Howard Wolowitz - a stereotype that amuses the gentiles who watch while causing those who know what real Judaism is to cringe.  On the other hand might someone like Howard, befriended by frum Jews, have turned out more involved religiously, more conscious of his Judaism and its obligations?  
There is also a general sense of nationhood to consider.  If I meet another Jew I am not just meeting someone who puts matzoh balls in his chicken soup for taste.  I am meeting someone whose history goes back 3500 to yetzias Mitzraiym and beyond.  It doesn't matter if he's from Israel, Russia, South Africa or China.  When I see a Jew on the news he's one of mine.  This sense of camraderie is one of the factors in our survival after all the hardships we've been through.  And that sense doesn't necessary come from personal practice and Torah study.  How many ultra-Orthodox Jews are quite dismissive of Ethiopians because they're the wrong colour or demand that Sephardim wear Orea cookie outfits if they want to be considered properly observant?
Look at Israel right now, the conflict between the seculars and the Chilonim in particular.  With the language flying back and forth you'd think mortal enemies were about to clash. We are talking about Jews against Jews.  Shouldn't there be some moderation, some reaching out because we are all the same nation?
We are right now during the Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av should be a stark reminder that sinas chinam put us into golus and is keeping us there.  No, we can't approve of the ethnic Jew's claim that he is being "good".  We have standards that demand practical observance and learning of us.  But we must continue to feel a sense of brotherhood towards him or we are lost as a people.