Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 14 December 2014


There's no question that Modern Orthodoxy is looking for an over-arching theme to describe its raison d'etre.  The Yeshivish community has Torah Uber Alles, Chasidus has its singing, dancing and rioting mixed with Tzadik worship and the Dati Leumi have Zionism and its religious implications but Modern Orthodoxy?  It's just sort of there, isn't it.
It's not a small thing either.  Consider the Off the Derech phenomenon.  Within Ultraorthodoxy it's usually due to a strong rejection of the comprehensive worldview presented to the person.  In Modern Orthodoxy, however, people seem to leave through attrition.  They just lose interest in their practice and drop it quietly.
Then there's movement the other way.  One rarely hears of someone Ultraorthodox embracing Modern Orthodoxy with gusto but there are lots of baalei teshuvah within the UO community that come from the MO world, people who were looking for something more, something missing in their own background.
Jewish Action has a piece that is now widely circulating through the Jewish blogsphere on a trend that might be trying to change all that.  Called Neo-Chassidus, it's an embrace by MO's of some Chasidic behaviours and rituals like growing a more Jewish haircut (read: longer peyos), more active Torah learning and, most importantly, more intense prayer ritual behaviour.
On one hand this is very encouraging.  Modern Orthodoxy, for many, is a system of religious behaviours devoid of any larger, deeper meaning.  The idea of dveikus is limited, prayers are done by rote and outside of actively Jewish environments like a shul there is little that an MO does that is actively Jewish.  After all, they dress like everyone else, hold down jobs like everyone else, often take in popular entertainment (albeit limited (hopefully) to appropriate venues) like everyone else.  A trend towards increasing specifically Jewish behaviour in all facets of life is something that might develop a positive sense of Jewish identity and improve one's connection to the Ribono shel Olam.
On the other hand, there's something missing in the entire activity.  I can speak from personal experience, living in a small community where, amongst other things, the local Rav has decreed that all Kabbalas Shabbos services will be done in the Carlebach style complete with the extra singing and dancing.  What have I  noticed?  That there are lots of folks who otherwise don't come to shul who will go to those services and have a grand ol' time.  But then they get in their cars and drive off home so what impact did the "davening" really have?
As a kiruv professional I once heard speak said, it's not about the fun stuff, the programs and the signing, it's about getting the person to show up on a cold dark weekday morning for Shacharis that marks real acceptance of Judaism in one's life.  If everything is done just for fun then once the fun is over you lose the person but really, you never had them.
Having read the article, that's what this Neo-Chassidus strikes me as.  Real Chassidus, after all, isn't just about the singing and dancing but about an entire system of religious and spiritual belief that expresses itself constantly through one's dress, speaking and activities.  It isn't something you turn on when you go to daven and turn off afterwards when you return to the real world.  It's also something you persist with even when times are tough. 
But Neo-Chassidus seems to be cherry-picking from the best of what Chassidus has to offer without taking on the hard stuff.  Lots of fun at shul but no shreimls or long, dark outfits in the July heat, for example.  Not much Yiddish either, it seems.
Why is this?  I would suggest it's because in North America there is a strong cultural trend towards selfishness that has extended itself into religion.  We don't ask what we can do for God, we rather want to know what He's offering us now to keep us interested in Him.  This trend has certainly infected Judaism.  The Reformatives and Open Orthodox are more blatant in their expression of this selfishness but it permeates all to way to the far ends of UltraOrthodoxy and certainly through Modern Orthodoxy.  We see it in the UO community in those fanatics who listen to the "Gedolim" when they want to but ignore them when they don't.  We now are seeing it in MO with Neo-Chassidus. 
I'm looking for a better davening expreience.  I want something more interesting to learn.  I need more spirituality.  All these are laudible desires but when the "I" determines what a person does, not his sense of obligation to the community, not the call of duty from Sinai onwards but a desire for novelty and "authenticity" (hint to those who call Chassidus "authentic Judaism": Rambam and Ramban were't Chasidim) then there is something very wrong.
In the end I doubt Neo-Chassidus will spark a mass movement in MO the way real Chassidus did amongst the masses of the alte heim.  In fact, once it loses its novelty it'll become a fringe group in MO we read about in Mishpacha Magazine instead of Jewish Action.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Encouraging Observance

I don't recall where I saw this before (maybe Rafi G's blog) but there is an interesting phenomenon to take note of when it comes to religious observance and Israelis.  To wit, the more the government enforces a particular halacha or area of Jewish law the more non-religious Israelis struggle to break those rules.  So for example the chiloni public constantly works to avoid Shabbat restrictions or find ways to eat chometz on Pesach. 
On the other hand, those areas where the State chooses not to intrude show very high rates of participation among the secular population.  The vast majority of Israeli males have a bris milah. Most Israeli families light Shabbos candles and make a seder every year. 
This is one of the ongoing problems of having a Jewish state where the Torah is not the law of the land and the non-religious population is the large and governing majority.  There is an ongoing dance between running a secular democracy and running a Jewish society.  The ones doing the dance can never have a happy result.  Push the secular democracy angle and the religious get upset over the diminishing Jewish nature of the society.  Push the religious agenda and the seculars shout about coercion.
But perhaps the two opposite phenomena above point towards a different way, one that the Religious Zionist community might be encouraged to push for at the national level.
The ultimate goal is to turn the first flowering of our redemption into the final flowering, after all, and no way is better than by moving Israeli society towards greater observance.  I would venture that most secular Israelis would welcome such a move as well if it were presented in the right away.  The "you're all sinners if you're not like us!" method clearly has had little effect.  Furthermore the kiruv movement works but only on a small scale and nowadays seems to barely be balancing the traffic out of observant Judaism.  What we should want is a society that embraces Torah observance out of love and desire to connect to its religious and historical roots.  Legal or social pressure are absolute contraindications to achieving this.
Perhaps then it's a good thing that Bayit HaYehudi is encouraging an electoral slate not exclusively composed of Religious Zionists.  The old Mafdal party failed for precisely the reason that the Chareidi parties continue to succeed.  Chareidi voters are sectoral, interested only in their own community's welfare so they choose the party that will best represent them whether or not such representation has a positive effect on the country as a whole.  Dati Leumi voters care about the State as a whole so a party limited to their community that doesn't have a holistic platform isn't as interesting.  If the Likud or Yesh Atid offer a better vision for the individual Religious Zionist then they would get the vote.  Bayit Yehudi needs to avoid that trap but without losing its Dati Leumi character.
What Naftali Bennett has to do is create a system in which non-religious Jews and even non-Jewish Israelis feel that they can be part of Israeli society while maintaining that Israeli society must have an underpinning of halacha at the government level.  This means proposing a government that publicly observes Shabbos and Yom Tov restrictions while granting a bit more liberty at the societal level to reduce the onerous pressure that drives people away from observance.  Perhaps a balance like this will move Israeli society in the correct direction.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What Makes A Tzadik

Rav Moshe Twersky, hy"d, is one of the victims of the recent terrorist outrage in Har Nof.  One of the eulogies given in his honour has been making the rounds on various blogs.  After reading it, I thought to comment on it.
Now before I go on I was to be ABSOLUTELY clear: I am commenting on the euology, not the man, may his memory be for a blessing.  I don't want anyone thinking that my criticisms are directed at him, chas v'shalom.  Having cleared that up I will commence.
The eulogy is quite disturbing if one reads it through and considers a few things.  Some of them are expected.  We must realize that it is an ikkar emunah in the Chareidi community to despite the State of Israel that supports, protects and finances them.  Comments in the eulogy assuring us that Rav Twersky hated the State of Israel and saw its true "evil" aren't so much a sign of delusion but an attempt by the eulogizer to shore up the Rav's status as a good Chareidi.  Recall that during the summer skirmish in 'Aza the Agudah also found time to express solidarity with Jews in Israel and thank the American army for providing the Iron Dome but deliberately avoided any show of gratitude to the Israeli army.
Similarly, the attack on Rav Natan Slifkin's book is also not so much meant to be personal but a reassurance that Rav Twersky never had "wrong thoughts" or wavered from a Puritan's view of how the Torah is to be literally understood.  Finally the eulogizer's claim that Rav Twersky saw full-time learning as the only real occupation of a frum Yid is along the same lines.  It's like a checklist is being completed.  Anti-Zionist?  Check! Anti-non-Chareidi hashkafah?  Check!  Learn, don't earn?  Check!  He was a real tzadik.
Now that's not the entire eulogy, of course, just the parts highlighted by Rav Slifkin for their negative content.  There is plenty in there about Rav Twersky's dveikus, his commitment to learning and mitzvos, his overal zrizus for a Torah lifestyle and all that is certainly inspiration and laudable.
But what's missing?  What about the man in his society?  Was he a nice guy?  Did he give tzedakah with a smile?  Did he greet passersby on the street, religious or not, with a sever panim yafos?  Did he wawit in line patiently?  Did he treat chilonim with respect when he had to interact with them?  We simply don't know.
Again, I'm not saying he didn't do all those things.  For all I know he was a genuinely friendly guy who worked hard to present a positive image in public and was respectful and considerate of all.  But I don't know that from this eulogy.  It's not in there. Why?
I would suggest that this is because, unlike the three characteristics noted above, all these things hold far less importance in official Chareidism.  Given the choice between a rude lout who's a determined learner and a polite fellow who might work all day and learn in the evening when he can, Chareidism far outvalues the former over the latter.  That Rav Twersky might have held the door open for the elderly guy coming into shul behind him is far less important than how early he arrived at shul to start praying.
How did this happen?  I blame the emphasis on mystical Judaism that has gripped the frum world over the last few decades.  Once upon a time the kabbalah, the neurosurgery of Judaism, was restricted to genuine mekubals, the brain surgeons of our nation.  With the expansion of the influence of Chasidus along with the spread of mystical books in modern Hebrew and English the mystical has become far more accessible and to the detriment of the nation.
Consider the following: a rationalist performs a mitzvah because that's what the Shulchan Aruch says he has to do.  The action is the fulfilling of the will of God as understood by our Sages.  For the mystic, however, it's an entirely different aspect.  The performance of the mitzvah with the proper kavannah involves the manipulation of spiritual forces and an  outpouring of Divine bounty as its result.
What's the nafka mina?  For the mystical approach it means a diminishment of the importance of bein adam l'chaveiro.  If I'm giving tzedakah to someone from a rational perspective then it's important for me to know how to give it properly so that the recipience benefits from it without hurt feelings or other negative outcomes.  If I'm giving charity in order to bring down some shefa from the Upper Worlds then the recipient's part in the mitzvah becomes far less important.  He's no longer a fellow human being I'm trying to raise up and support but a tool in my mitzvah performance.  He loses a chunk of his humanity.
Now real mekubalim are far smarter and more sensitive that that.  They don't lose sight of humanity around them but the amateurs?  If all reality is an illusion as some Lubavitchers claim then who cares about the feelings of the guy next door?  He doesn't really exist.  The idea of common decency disappears since it doesn't have any connection to the Upper Worlds in the absence of a specific mitzvah performance.
That's why the eulogy shows such a lack of interest in Rav Twersky as a man on the street.  For official Chareidim there is man and his relationship to God, nothing else is important.  That's why Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's piece on Rav Twersky contained this money line:
One of my sons asks his Rosh Yeshiva at the levaya whether a communal or individual tikkun is needed. He replies that there is so much in need of tikkun communally he would not know where to begin. But each of knows in his heart where he or she has failed and what is required to repair the breach between him and Hashem.
One could rightfully ask: Given that the Chareidi community has repeatedly vicsciously attacked the secular and Religious Zionist communities over that last couple of years with all manners of unacceptable insults, given the Chareidi community's protest a few months back at which the Shfos chamascha verses, usually reserved for the worst enemies of our nation, were shouted against the Israeli government, given the completely lack of gratitude the Chareidi community has shown for the State's nurturing and financing of what was once a dying kehillah, is it so absurd to believe that the effort on tikun should first be repairing the breach between the Chareidim and the rest of klal Yisrael?
For a community that doesn't see itself as a functioning part of that klal it might be too much to ask.  But that's what is the most concerning part of the eulogy for me.