Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Conservative Future

For a few decades now, the Conservative movement in Judaism has had identity problems.  Despite its large numbers on paper it has struggled to define itself against its opponents on the left, the Reformers, and the right, the Orthodox.  As a result it has struggled to define itself and to justify to much of its membership the reasons for continued loyalty even as its membership rolls shrank.
This shouldn't be a surprise for anyone.  Historically, Conservatism did best when two societal factors worked in its favour.  First, in the post-World War 2 era there was a revulsion towards nationalism and rigid ideology in North America.  Bland was better.  While Reform offered nothing Jewish in particular, Conservatism offered Jewish observance without the unyielding aspects that made proper Torah observance, Orthodoxy, into a seeming anachronism.  People didn't want extremes and with its middle-of-the-road approach, Conservatism was well positions to appeal to a large number of North American Jews.
The second factor in its favour was Orthodox weakness both before and after the war.  Orthodoxy had a rocky history in the New World since, back in the alte heim, most Orthodox Jews were observant more out of habit and lack of options than out of firm conviction.  Immigrants to North America often left their tefillin on the boat after arriving at Ellis Island, eager to leave the entire Old World behind.  This only accelerated after World War 2 given the horrifying conditions the Jews coming to North America had just experienced.  Again, Conservatism was in a position to appeal to many of the newcomers.  It provided a warm and nostalgic environment through its traditional approach to ritual while avoiding the rigidity that Orthodoxy had often enforced back in Europe.
What's doing the Conservatives in now is a radical change in both those factors.  For one thing, society in North America is now dividing in two different ways.  The first is the growing gap between the involved and the apathetic.  The proportion of people who somewhat care about the big issues in things like religion and politics is shrinking while the two opposite poles, the apathetics who have given up interest and the involved, who are obsessed with those issues, are filling the gap.  The push to extremes is further happening between the political and religious left and right with the number of people in the centre looking for a middling approach shrinking.
The other things is the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  From a movement threatened with extinction following the Holocaust, it has become the dominent group within the Jewish community from a religious perspective.  While the absolute numbers are small, the stuff that matters like ensuring proper Jewish education and continuity are being done well.  Reform and Conservative may have far more young people but 75% of them are going to intermarry and be lost to our nation.  The number of Orthodox who will leave and intermarry is far smaller.  As the community grows so do the number of schools and yeshivos as well as the number of Orthodox employed in general society and therefore exposing the world to the idea that one can be Torah observant and a functional member of society.
In short, if you care about religion you're either going to go to the left and be in Reform or you're going to go to the right and become Orthodox.  Very few will be enthusiastic about something that defines itself as going halfway.
So what's the movement to do?  Well so far it seems to have done everything wrong.  Desperate to shore up the bleeding, it has moved itself so far to the left that it has become almost indistinguishable in religious practice from the Reformers it once opposed.  Like Reform, Conservatism has allowed secular liberal values to replace those Torah values it once approved of.  There is still an emphasis on ritual, albeit watered down from what it used to practice but not enough to really grab anyone serious about practising Judaism. 
This article from suggests that Conservatism has two possible options.  One is to capitulate and accept that Reform and Conservatism are virtually identical.  This would lead to a merger between the two groups with a subsequent possible division within the group to cater to each set of followers while maintaining an overall unity.
The alternative the writer suggests is far more fascinating but less plausible and that's for Conservatism to get back to its roots - a movement that encourages a limited practice of traditional ritual and personal behaviour tempered by secular mores but with a serious demand that those limited requirements are strictly practiced.
With all respect to the small cadre of Conservatives who are really passionate and observant when it comes to the religion Solomon Shechter invented, I don't think the latter option is feasible.  Buildings cost money.  Clergy cost money.  Programs cost money.  A smaller Conservative movement will enter a death spiral in which dues, not able to keep up with the costs, will rise.  This will drive more members away to cheaper options, raising the costs, causing the due to rise, and so on.
The former option is far more likely for one simple reason: the biggest difference between Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox is membership requirements.  To be an Orthodox Jew one must keep kosher, Shabbos, put on tefillin everyday, etc.  To be a Conservative or Reform Jew one must take out a membership in one of their "temples".  Period.  Until Conservatism can manage to build up the intestinal fortitude to limit their membership, to say to people who don't keep kosher or daven regularly that no, they cannot call themselves Conservatives, they will simply progress downwards towards Reform until the only thing preventing the merger is the collection of egos in both movements.
Once that happens it will at least be a simpler divide to manage.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

To Giggle Or To Encourage?

This here story from didn't get the attention I think it should of.  For a quick summary, it seems that out there in the Reformative world there are now an increasing, albeit still small, number of men who are making a routine of going to the mikveh.  As the article notes:
Ozur Bass is one of a small but growing number of Jewish men who have adopted the practice of monthly mikvah immersions in tandem with their wives’ menstrual cycles.
Mikvah use by men is not new. Men long have gone to the mikvah before their weddings, and some visit the mikvah as spiritual preparation before major holidays. Many Hasidim immerse before every Sabbath. Jewish law requires mikvah immersion – for men and women – as part of the conversion process.
In recent years, American Jews also have begun using mikvah immersions to mark milestone occasions like bar or bat mitzvahs, miscarriages or divorce. Some couples go to the mikvah when they’re trying to conceive.
But regular monthly mikvah use by men in correlation with their partners’ cycles, known in Hebrew as niddah, has been almost unheard of.
Naomi Malka, the mikvah director at Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, said a core group of about 10 men have begun to do it off and on. Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in the Boston area, has had 18 men use the facility for monthly immersions since it opened in 2004, according to the organization’s records.
“It’s becoming increasingly common,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “When we talk about egalitarian practice in Judaism, our minds immediately go to women’s practice. I think it’s exciting and interesting to see men taking on practices that traditionally have been the domain of women.”
To be sure, monthly male mikvah use is still a fringe phenomenon. But its emergence is a sign of the degree to which modern Jews are reimagining traditional rituals, the lengths to which some couples are going to practice egalitarian values and the rising interest in mikvah use generally among American Jews.
Keep in mind throughout this discussion that there is no obligatory reason nowadays for a man to go to the mikveh.  Yes, many of us have the custom of going on the eve of Yom Kippur, some on Fridays and many Chasidim on a daily basis but while it may serve a spiritual need it effects no practical change in one's status.  And it seems it's the spiritual needs, or possibly the faux spiritual needs, that this new trend seems to serve.
When it comes to egalitarianism this is not the first attempt by the Reformatives to invent rituals.  Years ago I recall reading a story about a new ceremony invented to be performed on the eighth day after the birth of a daughter.  The folks involve felt it wasn't fair that boys got a whole party just for turning eight days old so they decided to produce something for their girls.  Of course, they didn't lop off any parts from the girls so perhaps they weren't that dedicated to egalitarianism but still, the desire was there.
And what was the point?  It seemed to be to prove that commercialism and superficiality as a means towards spirituality was what was driving them.  After all, a bris milah is not about the party or the catering but about the surgical procedure and legal obligation it fulfills.  By insisting that a similar party, sans the snip 'n' clip, had some meaning, the Reformatives seemed to be proving that their religious practice is simply about making things up as you go along to feel good.  The way they present it also seems to betray a lack of acceptance of the legal requirement for going to the mikveh, making it into a family cultural practice they just happen to do.
Michael, a 29-year-old man in the Boston area who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told JTA he began going to the mikvah every month at the request of his fiancee when they moved in together.
“She said that since we’re living together now, she wanted to go to the mikvah every month, as that was her mother’s practice and her family’s practice,” Michael said. “I knew the concept, but I honestly didn’t know much about it.”
One could easily level that criticism here and not just at the part about both members of the couple going to the mikveh together before marriage.  A woman goes to the mikveh to remove the tumah of her niddah state.  Yes there is a spiritual element but in the end, as long as she prepares and dunks correctly she has accomplished her objective.  In contrast, the man accomplishes nothing.  He has no additional state of tumah the mikveh is removing that will result in a change in his behaviour or who he can be intimate with.  He comes out the same way as he went in.  But the men doing this seem to be ignoring that in favour of their subjective feelings of spiritualism.  Some have even gone beyond and invented a ritual to make themselves feel connected:
Men who use the mikvah monthly have adapted the ritual in different ways. Ozur Bass, who has been doing it for 23 years, says he submerges four times, each time facing a different direction while meditating over one of the four Hebrew letters of God’s name. When he’s done, he sings the “Yedid Nefesh” hymn, traditionally sung before Friday evening prayers. He says a blessing beforehand but has no witness
My first reaction was, of course, to giggle.  I've seen it suggested elsewhere that when one is davening the Amidah one should imagine each of the four letters of the shem havayah during each of the four times we bow.  I don't think spinning around in the mikveh to that same imagery is mentioned anywhere and certainly the blessing is a beracha l'vatalah.    In short, it's the stereotypical position of the Reformatives dumping Shulchan Aruch and then slowly picking Jewish practices back up but with their secular liberal desires deciding which ones they'll go with.  It's about as halachically meaningful as those new age "rabbis" who hold mountain top spiritual retreats on Rosh Hashanah.  Feels great, means nothing.
But I think there's something different here we should look at.  It's easy to mock (something I can say with definite authority) but if Avos tells us to judge each person favourably then it behooves us to look for the positive and I think there's a bit of positive in this.
First of all, the idea that men feel an obligation to go to the mikveh, sometimes simultaneously with their wives, shows a strong desire for fairness and respect.  Yes, it's expressed in a dumb way but the desire is a good thing.  These are men who probably treat their wives with tremendous respect and dignity.
Another thing to consider is the desire for a spiritual connection to God.  Now, as is typical of the secular liberal approach to religion, it's all about bringing God down to us, not raising ourselves up to Him.  As I've written before, modern religion is about the worshipper deciding that God has the same morals as Him and these Reformatives are no different.  However, if you consider the widespread apathy in society towards religion in general or the way large numbers of Torah-observant Jews do their rituals by rote without any inner passion but simply because they have to, the fact that these men desire a connection, even if they're doing it backwards, is still something that can be worked with.  Given a choice between apathy and interest, the latter is always preferable.
The only question is: how does one get someone like this to see that Torah observance isn't about customizing God to you but you customizing yourself to God without killing their spiritual need?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Save Your Tears

One of the accompanying features of Zionism every since Theodore Herzl, a"h, got the idea in his head, has been pessimism.  At every step along the way from the First Zionist Conference to modern day events people have held negative attitudes towards the success of the Jewish rebirth in Israel.
For some it was religious.  For some it was political.  For some it was practical cynicism but there has never been a dearth of people willing to either say that Israel would never be established, never survive its first few years and never endure into the future.
Despite that Israel has flourished in ways its most optimistic founders could not have imagined.  From the humble beginnings of the First Aliyah the country has become a minor world power, a centre of agriculture and technology and, most importantly, the reborn centre of the Torah world with countless yeshivos and other Torah institutions.
Once upon a time we were told that Israel would flounder demographically because of the high Arab birthrate.  Somehow that hasn't happened with the population proportions not budging significantly in the last 30 years.  We were told that Israel would drink the Kinneret dry.  Instead the country is the world leader in desalination and the Kinneret, although not as full as it should be, still maintains its presence.
That doesn't stop naysayers from continues to write eulogies for Israel, chas v'shalom.  The latest eloquent attempt can be found on TabletMag and, while well written, is just an updated version of the dirges we've been reading for years.  It lists all the well-known threats to Israel's continuity, both internal and external and seems to conclude that it's only a matter of time before one, or a combination of those factors will cause the State to collapse, chalilah.
This is, of course, bunk.  Israel isn't going anywhere.  And why am I so sure?
Because along with pessimism, another accompanying feature of Zionism since its founding has been incompetence.  Consider all the mistakes various Zionist leaders made over the last century or so and you'd be amazed the State ever came into existence or endured.  The visionary founder of the movement was fine with the Jewish national homeland being put in Uganda and having German as the national language.  The religious element of the Jewish community in Europe created a reaction in the secular group that led to anti-Torah hostility and a plan to build a Jewish state free of Judaism.  This sounds incredible today but that was the guiding ethos of secular Zionism.  Look at political events, the early division of the new Yishuv into mutually antagonistic groups even as the British and Arabs stood at the gates waiting to end the whole Jewish National Homeland project.  Even heard of the Altalena?
Even now when one considers the corruption endemic in Israel's elite and how the government is dominated by parties with no interest beyond narrow parochial ones, it is to wonder how the country functions at all.
What is the secret then?  In one word: God.
Despite the insistence of the finest Hungarian rebbes of the last century and a half, it seems God is interested in Jewish rebirth in Israel.  History was arranged to ensure that the Three Oaths (even though they're aggada, not halacha) would be upkept, empires rose and fell based on their ability to push the objective forward and despite the various attempts of all our enemies as well as our own to push the project into the crapper, Israel survives and thrives.  Just read The Secret War Against the Jews and you'll see that the Purim story has nothing on what went on behind the scenes from the earliest days of Zionism until now. 
By no reasonable standard should David Ben Gurion, a"h, have been able to stand up on 5 Iyyar and proclaim the State's independence.  By no reasonable standard should a fledgling army and accompanying militias been able to drive back and actually take territory from larger, better armed forces.  By no reasonable standard should a country with minimal natural resources and almost no industrial base have developed into the source of everyone's computing and cell phone experience.  Yet it happened. Why?  We must say that it's because of the Master of the Universe.
If this is so then the author of this latest article should hold his tears back.  Is Iran threatening us?  So did Nasser, y"sh, and he was in a much better position to harm us than the mullahs of Tehran.  Are there growing tensions between the religious and secular populations?  That is hardly news. 
Israel will endure not because we want it to, not because it's a good idea, not because world Jewry needs a lifeboat and not because of its leaders and elite but because God wants a Jewish rebirth in Israel and He will not be gainsaid.  Our task is to recognize His hand is history and reach up to grab it through emunah and shemiras mitzvos in the building and maintaining of the land He demands that we have.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Bringing Chasidus To Modern Orthodoxy

Years ago I sat through a speech by a major figure in the Conservative movement on the topic of inspiring followers to more become more enthusiastic about his Judaism.  He bemoaned all the expected things like a lack of ethusiasm in the younger generation, the disconnect between the older folks and the movement's ideal, and so on.  Then he said something I didn't expect.  He explained that he was jealous of the UltraOrthodox, especially the Chasidim.  He loved how Chasidim swayed during prayers, how they davened at the top of their lungs, how everything Jewish they did was invested with seriousness and effort.  What did he want?  He wanted to see Conservative chasidim!  He wanted to see students at the JTS just as enthralled during prayers, just as invested in bringing Judaism into all corners of their lives, and so on.
Naturally that never had a chance of happening.  While it may have started as a reaction to the Reformers, Conservativism has been a ritual-heavy imitator of Reform for a couple of decades now.  You cannot have chasidic levels of enthusiasm in a religion where lack of enthusiasm in traditional Jewish beliefs and behaviours is a dominant feature.  Yes, some in the JTS might get really excited about homosexual marriage, social justice or other politically correct causes under the rubric of tikun olam but ultimately they're into those things because the secular liberal society around them is, not because of a deep yearning Jewish desire to be.
You can see that in the way their younger generation is bleeding out.  Those who don't care or are impatient with those few strictures the so-called Rabbinical Assembly hasn't done away with yet move over to Reform.  Those who are serious about learning and tradition move to Orthodoxy.  That leaves a group stuck with inertia behind.  Not terribly inspiring.
Modern Orthodoxy, to a large extent, is also suffering from that ennui, possibly to an even greater degree.  To  the left, the Reformatives have their conception of tikun olam if nothing else to energize them.  To the right there's the "everyone's against us" attitude of the Chareidim to bind them together and give them purpose.  What does Modern Orthodoxy have?  Is it any wonder that the same pattern is happening amongst Modern Orthodoxy's younger generation?  The perception that "real" learning and practice is the domain of Chareidism or that the only way to be a good person is to leave the rigid ritual-centered world of Orthodoxy behind takes many youth away leaving behind those who simply don't care about changing due to apathy.
Unlike Conservatism, however, Modern Orthodoxy seems to be developing an answer to this: Neo-chasidus.  First featured in a Jewish Action article a while ago, it seems to be continuing on as a movement within the community.  It's a group that has taken on some of the more stereotypical traipses of Chasidus - long peyos, untucked shirts with tzitzis hanging out, loud Carlebach style davening and a strong interest in the classics of the Chasidic movement.  It's described as a search for Jewish authenticity and an attempt to infuse the Modern Orthodox Jew's behaviour with the inner light of Torah.
A recent article in Times of Israel reflected further on this phenomenon and even made specific suggestions on how to improve Modern Orthodox to capitalize on its advantages.  Amongst them, the author mentions story telling, ritual emphasis and mussar.
Unfortunately I don't share the enthusiasm.  There are a few reasons for this that I'd like to share.
1) To paraphrase the old saying, if you're going to do chasidus right then be a chasid.  A lot of what comes out of neo-Chasidus is behavioural but real Chasidus is supposed to be much more than that.  Even if the original elements of the movement, the joy of connecting to the Infinite One, the dvekus and hisboddeus aspects and the mystical appreciation have mostly been replaced by strictures, behaviours, ritual and xenophobia, there is still a global attitude that the Chasid bears.  The sthreiml isn't just about his quest for Jewish authenticity, it is his Jewish authenticity.  He truly believes that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, wore one at Sinai and that by putting on his he is connecting in the only legitimate way to God and Torah.  Neo-chasidus, on the other hand, seems to be obsessed with the superficial trappings and justifies that by invoked the term "Jewish authenticity".  But let's be clear: Chasidus is an innovation.  Yes, it's based on the vision of a great man, the Baal Shem Tov, and it works with materials from some of the most brilliant and pious minds in Jewish history like the Arizal, but it's an innovation.  Before Chasidus came along no one looked like or dressed like a Chasid.  They are no more authentically Jewish than the Litvish or the Yemenites and Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, dressed differently than all of them.  This means neo-Chasidus is looking for authenticity in the wrong place.
2) The material that makes us Chasidus is deep and meaningful.  The problem is that it is representative of only one approach to Torah which, while legitimate and important, is not the only important approach.  If Modern Orthodoxy wants to get its members learning deeply then it has to find inspiring material from all sections of Jewish literature but more importantly, it needs to create its own.  Again, it's great to read the Kedushas Levi but to truly appreciate it on the level it needs to be one must ascend to the level of a Chasid.  You don't dabble in such stuff, you invent yourself in it.  Why can Modern Orthodoxy not produce books that present the movement's vision of a Jew's connection to God in more than a dry, academic way?  Surely there are visionaries in Yeshiva U or various places in Israel that have the chops to produce such material.  Where is it?
3) The role of women would have to be clarified.  I recently read an article on sexual restrictions in some Chasidic groups and the impression I got was summed up in one line: outside of Lubavitch there are chasidim but no chasidos.  The leaders write for and speak to the men.  Control of the community is entirely in the hands of the men.  Women are needed to produce offspring and cholent and can be safely photoshopped out of existence otherwise.  This isn't just a coincidence but an integral feature of Chasidus today.  Is neo-Chasidus going to produce neo-Chasidos as well as neo-Chasidim and if so, is it really Chasidus or just an imitation?
Ultimately it seems to me that neo-Chasidus is about imitating some other movement's approach and appropriating some of its superficial features in order to increase adherents' interest in Judaism.  This brings us back to the Conservative failing - those who take their Chasidus seriously will eventually become bored with halfway measures.  Those who don't will abandon it when the novelty wears off and then we'll be back to the beginning of this discussion again.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Trump Card

It sometimes seems that the election campaign in the US for president never seems to end.  With the Republican debates in full swing and the first primary in Iowa not so far away it's been interesting to watch, as a Canadian, the field in both parties and how various races are shaping up.
On the Democrat side there seems to be a foregone conclusion that it's Hillary Clinton's turn to run for president with Bernie Sanders in the running as a form of comic relief and diversion for the granola-eating wing of the party.  In theory the Democrats should be in fine form.  They've held the White House for the past seven years and are awash in money.  It's interesting to note that despite this there are only two real candidates seriously running.
On the Republican side things are much more concerning.  The party that gave us Ronald Reagan seems to not have been able to produce a genuinely towering figure since the end of his presidency.  This time out is no exception.  You have the usual bunch that seem to run every time with their limited ideas and token expressions but no one with an amazing vision to inspire the party and the nation.
And then there's Donald Trump.
I've avoided writing about him until now because frankly I think he's already gotten far more attention than he deserves but people have been asking me, "Lord Ironheart, what are your thoughts on the Donald?"  So here they are:
Donald Trump is a Democrat plant.
Yes, you read that right.  The current front-runner in the polls for the Republican nomination is really a Democrat in RINO clothing.  Let me explain.
Let's say you're the Democratic leadership.  You've got a small field of candidates which plays well for party unity but doesn't excite the voting public.  Your lead candidate is a person who acts like she's entitled to be the next president and that actually running for the job is a necessary annoyance.  She has poor public charisma to all but her most loyal supporters, her husband still overshadows her in every public appearance and the word "shrew" still crosses most people's minds whenever she opens her mouth.
Up against her you have a genuine socialist who's got a whole bunch of crazy ideas (as socialists always do) that, if implemented, would destroy America's economy in the name of "social justice".  He's got the far left wing of the party, the section that's most likely to show up for things like primaries, all energized because they finally have a candidate openly campaigning on things they've always dreamed of.  The vast majority of Americans, however, are turned off by people who say "Hey, let's be more like Greece and Spain!" with their 30-40% unemployment and frequent brushes with national bankrupty.
With a bunch like this, the Republicans could run a lacklustre candidate and still have a serious shot in 2016.  What to do?
Enter Donald Trump.
Now, just like the Democrats have a left wing that is verifiably stupid, the Republicans have a right wing which is equally off the grid.  These are the folks who still think Whites and Blacks shouldn't go to the same high schools or use the same water fountains.  They're still miffed that Chrisianity isn't the official state religion or that women are allowed to work in "real" jobs and they hate immigrants from countries other that northern and western Europe.
Just like the radical fringe on the Democrat side, these folks are very politically active.  They'll show up at any rally, always make it out to vote in whatever primary there is and campaign noisily.  Like the Democrat fringe, they represent the worst of their party and are a turn off to potential middle of the road voters.  Unlike the Democrats, however, they are far scarier and social unacceptable.
Imagine, if you will, the leadership of the Democratic party sitting with the Donald and telling him that since he has the ego and the money they want him to run for president... for the other side.  They want him to be his blustering arrogant best, say all the worst things that will bring out the Republican radicals hooting and whistling.  Be insulting, aggravating, and insufferable!  It'll just turn those nutjobs on.
What's in it for them?  Donald Trump as a Republican candidate is a sure fire way to ensure that Hillary Clintons wins in 2016.  The Republican fringe will vote for him, sure, but the rest will be too disgusted and either vote Democrat or sit the election out.  The entire Democratic party rallies around Hillary in the meantime, especially after Trump has made multiple misgynistic comments about her. 
What are the clues that this is indeed the strategy?  Consider that Donald Trump, for all his antisocial behaviour, is a successful and intelligent man.  Yes, he likes being the centre of attention but what he's doing now goes far beyond logic or sense.  He has turned himself into a stereotype and brought out the worst element of the Republican party while making it seem like they are the typical representatives of that group.
And if the Republicans don't let him run as their candidate or he doesn't win the primaries?  He's already threatened to run as an independent and guess which party he siphons votes off of?
If he wins (hah!) he benefits.  If he loses, he takes the GOP down to yet another defeat.  What could make more sense?

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Unfairly Taking Credit

It should be beyond debate that the nation of Israel, both the people and the state, exist and survive through the help of God.  This help is earned through three methods: prayers and Torah study, His infinite patience and our own efforts.
Of those three things we often find that the first two get all the attention, the last one not so much.  Perhaps this is because of the emphasis nowadays on the spiritual and mystical aspects of Judaism.  People are interested in hearing about how things work out or don't due to presumed merits and sins, not so much about the efforts that may or not have been made in the endeavour.
This seems to come to the fore most of all when the topic of service in the Israeli army comes up along with the lack of participation of much of the Chareidi community in that service.  The line from the Chareidi PR flacks is well known: their Torah study is the true reason the State endures and the efforts of the army, if they mean anything at all, are only successful because of that study.  Therefore, as opposed to the general perception that the Chareidim should be grateful to the army for protecting it, in truth it is the army and secular society that should be grateful to the Chareidim for their real protection.
Unfortunately there are too many holes to poke in this argument to ever take it seriously.  Rav Natan Slifkin, for example, has detailed the actual absence of any evidence for this argument in the halachic literature on many occasions.  A few real world examples added on will suffice.
Consider that when Israel actually enters a state of distress, such as when rockets start flying out of 'Aza or over the northern border from Lebanon, it is the Chareidi population that scrambles to safety first.  One would think that they would instead crowd at the border with their Talmuds and intensify their learning but apparently Torah study only protects when the student is far away from the battle and safe from harm.  Then there is the more blunt example.  Chareidim are often fond of pointing out that many of their forbears were slaughtered in the Holocaust, may Hashem avenge their blood.  The obvious retort is: why didn't their Torah study protect them?  If the answer is "Well you can't change God's decree" then why is that answer not used when the army is successful in protecting Israel?  Why it is suddenly not God's decree but their Torah study that is responsible?
Rav Avi Shafran, with his usual obliviousness, continues to push the discredited paradigm over at Cross Currents.  He once again connects two things which are not necessarily linked and hopes you'll just assume they are.  The two elements are:
a) Israel's fate is in the hands of God and right now He's in a favourable mood
b) Chareidi Torah learning is what is keeping that favourable mood going
The problem is that the linkage isn't necessarily there.  Does Rav Shafran have any evidence that it's Chareidi Torah learning that is causing Israel's survival?  Perhaps God prefers the learning done in Dati Leumi institutions since those combine a practical (instead of theoretical) love of the Land of Israel with Torah instruction?  Perhaps He's impressed with 18 year olds who leave their homes to stand on the borders and protect the lives of millions of Jews despite their fears and apprehensions?  Perhaps it's the various acts of kindess that take place in the country every day in all corners of society?  Perhaps it's because the army, despite the endless provocations of its enemies, maintains a moral standard unmatched by any other serious army in the world?  Perhaps it's a little bit of all of those things?
Now the Chareidim are often accused of not sharing "the burden" with society and they respond with all sincerity that since Torah study is an underlying duty of any Jewish society it is they who shoulder the real burden.  Leaving alone that all their arguments end with "And we're really doing everything" one can point out that their main point is correct.  A Jewish society must not only be filled with kindness and morality but it must also value Torah study above almost anything else.  Perhaps it would behove secular society to introduce a small amount of Torah study into its educational system to ensure all Israeli Jews graduate from high school with a functional knowledge of what Torah is, what its greatest books contain and some understanding of those contents.
But if the Chareidim really see themselves as the moral peak of society then it behoves them to make the first move and venture into general society where they can better serve as examples of piety combined with practicality.
Just a thought.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Book Review:Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness and Hebrew

By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Available here:

As a nation we know that Hebrew is intrinsically different from all the other languages in the world.  There is the religious aspect in that we believe that Hebrew is the language the world was created with and the first people on the planet spoke.  Its words are imbued with deeper mystical meanings that help shape the fabric of reality itself.  It is the language of the Torah, God's blueprint for Creation.
Then there is the practical aspect.  Hebrew is the only language from Biblical times that still exists in any mass form today.  Yes, there are small groups of Assyrians, Babylonians and Arameans out there in Syria and Iraq speaking a version of their biblical tongues and some have even preserved the ancient script but Hebrew is the language of an entire country as well as the liturgical language of millions of Jews worldwide.  Unlike Assyrian and the other ancient tongues it has a seat at the table of nations today, something no other ancient language can claim.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, in his new book on the development of the Hebrew language, finds himself having to maintain a delicate balance.  The purpose of the book is to take a serious look at the origins, development and current state of Hebrew as well as its influence on other languages through the ages.  The balance comes between presenting the opinion of Torah sources on the subject and those of academics.  This is not an easy task.  Dismiss the academics and he risks getting his book labelled as yet another Artscroll piece of fluff that presents a subject devoid of historical fact that will only appeal to Orthodox readers uninterested in a meaningful look at the subject.  Dismiss the Torah literature and the book becomes yet another perceived attack on Judaism and an attempt to analyze Hebrew as just another language which will cause him to lose out on the Torah observant audience.
Fortunately for both groups Rabbi Klein manages to maintain that delicate balance through most of the book.  He covers such subjects as what language the world was created with, what language the first inhabitants of Earth might have spoken and where other languages might have come from if everything started out in Hebrew in the early chapters.  It is here that he best maintains the balance between the religious and academic approaches, showing how both support a common thesis when it comes to the origins and early development of Hebrew.   From there he treats such subjects as the variety of languages that Jews spoke that had Lashon HaKodesh, his term for classical or "true" Hebrew" mixed into it.  Almost all people have heard of Yiddish, many of Ladino but his listing of various other languages that Hebrew has influenced or been a part of over the millenia is truly fascinating.  My critique of that section of the book is that I would have liked to see examples of vocabulary from those other mysterious half-Jewish tongues.  Given the modernity of the book he also mentions Yeshivish as a semi-Hebrew language but I would argue that it does not belong on the list as it is not a language meant for use by the general Jewish community of a region (eg. America) but rather a private language reserved for a small segment of that community, unlike Yiddish, Ladino and the others.
The history section in which the origins of the word "Hebrew" and how it came to be a label for Lashon HaKodesh is well documented and provides a nice summary that the reader can digest easily.  There is also the part in which modern Hebrew and its development is examined.  Unlike other languages, Rav Klein notes that Lashon Hakodesh, or the original Hebrew bequeathed onto humanity by God, is not a language like others.  William Shakespeare spoke English but anyone who has ever read his plays knows that the English he spoke is nearly incomprehensible at times.  However, it is still labelled as English because there is no patent on the label.  This is not the case with Lashon Hakodesh.  Rav Klein points out that just because Modern Hebrew uses the ksav Ashuri and many words and grammar rules in common with the language of the Bible that does not make it the same Hebrew and certainly it cannot be called Lashon Hakodesh.  He also documents the politics around the development of Modern Hebrew, reminding us that there was and is still a significant part of the Orthodox world that would rather we all spoke Yiddish except when davening because they see Modern Herbew as a bastardization of pure Hebrew.
At the end of the book Rav Klein presents five appendices and I wonder why they aren't labelled as chapters, especially the first three which are as long as his chapters and set out in virtually the same format.  In these appendices he deals with such issues as foreign words in the Bible along with whether or not foreign-sounding names were, in the Jewish literature are actually Hebrew names.  Once again he balances different views instead of dogmatically presenting just one in order to be "Torah true".  However it is towards this end of the book that the academic approach starts to become a little anemic and I would have liked to see more opinions from outside the Torah world if only to give a better appreciation of the Torah ones.
My main criticism is in the final section which is full of erratum and fill-in's that should have made it into the main text.  Obviously this is not the author's fault and I would think that if this book goes to second edition he will have been given a chance to edit those areas into the main text.  The add-in's would serve to improve an already good text even further.
Overall I recommend this as a good read and one that will deepen the reader's appreciation of what Lashon Hakodesh truly is.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Don't Rely On Mesorah

In the ongoing conflict between Open Orthodoxy and the rest of the Torah observant community, one word keeps popping up on the non-OO side of the debate: mesorah.
It's a loaded word, mesorah.  It means tradition and transmission all rolled into one but, like many other Jewish terms that have been hijacked by a group within our nation it's current use is a new one not reall envisioned by its creators. (Think tikun olam and how the Reformatives changed it)
Mesorah is, like Daas Torah, a magical concept owned by the Agudah and those to the right of it.  It's a magical word which means "they way we present Torah Judaism today is the way its always been since Har Sinai and anything that deviates from our standard is a lesser version." 
Why do we listen to our "Gedolim" even when they talk about subjects they have no expertise in?  Mesorah!  Why do we dress so rigidly?  Mesorah!  Why do we relegate women to second class status and erase their existence from public life?  Mesorah!  Why do we oppose women rabbis?  Mesorah!
The problem is that arguing against that position when it comes to some of Open Orthodoxy's egalitarian innovations really paints one into a corner.  The easy response to "Women rabbis are forbidden because of mesorah" is two words: Turkey and kitniyos.
Turkey is a response because technically speaking it shouldn't be kosher.  The Torah contains two lists of birds that are not kosher and the Gemara in Chullin derives from this that since the Torah always mentions the short list of two options it must mean that all other birds in the world are kosher.  It then goes on to fully describe the signs differentiating a kosher bird from a non-kosher one but concludes that since we are not expert in examining birds for these simanim we avoid eating any bird that we do not have a valid mesorah for its kashrus
The problem with turkey is that, on one hand, it has the simanim of a kosher birdOn the other hand the Chazal, Rishonim and early Acharonim never heard of it because it existed only in the Americas so there was no way to include it in the mesorah of kosher birds.  Despite this the vast majority of Jews have been eating turkey, probably because it looks like a giant chicken, since it was discovered.  This led to lots of teshuvos with the final decision being that turkey is kosher.
Why is this relevant?  Because one of the main reasons used to justify turkey's kashrus is that it got itself into the mesorah in a back handed way.  That is, most Jews ate it because it lacked the simanim necessary to forbid it outright and now that most Jews eat it, it has a mesorah of being kosher and until someone can provide proof of a non-kosher siman, it remains acceptable.
And that's something the OO's can use to their advantage.  Sure women rabbis aren't acceptable under the current mesorah but here's a great example as to how the mesorah changes based on popular behaviour.  The more women rabbis become accepted by the population of Torah observant Jews, the more the mesorah will grow to include them until eventually the mesorah will demand proof from the person who wants to disqualify them.
Then there's kitniyos.  Everyone Ashkenazi knows this one.  While our Sephardi brothers are enjoying a delightfully spiced rice and pea pillaf at the seder we Ashkenazi are chewing on our waterproof non-gebrokht matzah balls. (Did you know that matzahs are male?  Well apparently so)  Originally designed to forbid to Ashkenazim those foods that might accidentally come to resemble chometz foods, the numbers slowly grew from the original list as more and more foods came to be of concern.  But one food should concern us.  Peanuts is on the list.  What's the problem with that?  Well, like turkeys peanuts started off in the Americas.  The Rishonim who created the concept of kitniyos didn't know of their existence.  What's more, exactly who uses peanut flour for anything?  Yet there they are on the list, probably because they're a legume and other legumes are kitniyos but strictly speaking there's no way there's any mesorah about peanuts, just like there isn't with turkeys.
This leaves proponents of the mesorah with a difficult choice: either ban turkeys and allow peanuts on Pesach or admit that the mesorah does change over time and be left without a good argument against women rabbonim.
Which is a shame because there's plenty of other good reasons to maintain the status quo, just they require a lot more thinking and explaining.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Time To Take Stock

Hi all,

So instead of a rant, I want to interact.  I've been doing this blog for close to eight years now.  Yes, I'm not positing on a very regular basis and the reasons are (a) fatigue at complaining about the same things time and time again and (b) a lack of perceived response when I do post.  Am I reaching people?  Am I making a difference?  Am I just tilting at windmills? 
So I'd like to open it up to my public, assuming there is one.
What do you like about the blog?  Why don't more people comment?  What should I change or address?
Don't be shy!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Ethnicity vs Purpose

One of the things I find annoying when non-observant Jews write about their Judaism is their reduction of a national/religious entity into a superficial ethnic identity.  In the latter model any Jew, no matter how disconnected from Judaism, is a good member of the tribe simply for identifying as a Jew. 
Thus they care about Mark Zuckerberg and were genuinely upset when he married a non-Jewish woman or commented on how his favourite food was pork from pigs he slaughtered himself.  They watch the adventures of Howard Wolowitz on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory and see in him the typical modern Jewish American despite his proclivity for non-kosher food, prostitutes (in the early seasons) and a Polish Catholic wife (later seasons).  In short, they see Jews who have little to no connection to actual Judaism and begin and end their assessment of their Jewishness with their lack of refusal to deny that they're Jewish.
I therefore enjoyed the article Rav Avraham Gordimer wrote on Cross Currents recently and not just because this was his first article in a long time that didn't attack Open Orthodoxy.  I enjoyed it because he identifies something that makes Orthodoxy work in a way that non-Orthodox "streams" of Judaism don't and it isn't something superficial.
He begins by noting that demographically Orthodoxy is in a position of strength.  Although it is the smallest group in North America it is also the youngest, the fastest growing and the one with the highest retention rate.  When it comes to the largest communities like New York and surrounding areas the statistics are impressive when it comes to growth in shul attendance and rate of increase of Jewish school numbers.  He brings a mneumonic from a different article to explain this:

The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE.
That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews.
The Orthodox have shown that the price of intensive Jewish living has its rewards. The question is how many others will be willing to pay the PRICE to assure a rich Jewish life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

But then he goes on to make the most important observation.
However, it is not commitment to Jewish identity, Jewish culture, or even Jewish preservation that drives people to invest well beyond their means and then some, and to strain themselves beyond imagination, for the sake of Torah education and the fulfillment of Mitzvos. It is rather an awareness of a holy obligation, as expressed in God’s Mandate, that propels Orthodox Jews to sacrifice everything for Torah and Mitzvos without second thought.

In other words, it isn't the actions but the purpose behind the actions that matters the most. 
Now one could easily point out that many members of the Orthodox community along with many institutions fail on this exact point.  Too often we emphasize ritual over understanding, rote over internal involvement.  As the steady flow of OTD's out of Orthodoxy (something this article doesn't talk about) proves, Torah observance without meaning behind it doesn't create committed Jews, it creates sheeple that, if they begin to think about the emptiness of their practice, pack their bags and leave.
So at the same time that Rav Gordimer has identified the secret of Orthodoxy's success he has also identified a serious limitation that we must constantly address and never take for granted that it's been permanently dealt with.  Our practice must be for a purpose to mean something.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Classless Society

Up here in the Great White North there's a controversy that raises its head every so often, much to the amusement of the locals.  The issue is - ahem - topless women.
See, the first thing you have to know about Canada is that God has shown this country a great deal of favour.  If our news shows were to simply report truly bad news the news shows would be five minutes long at most, assuming that they weren't cancelled for lack of material.  Thus in order to keep our newscasters employed we invent all sorts of issues to get riled up about.  Keep it in perspective though.  We have Rob Ford.  Syria has suicide bombings and ISIS-run massacres. 
Secondly, by law Canadian women are allowed to walk around topless in public, just like men.  Every few years this becomes a national issue because (a) we have nothing better to get upset about and (b) because some people still get upset when it happens.
This came to national attention during our recent national election campaign when one of the candidates, the guy who is now prime minister, attended a Pride parade and took photographs with topless women.  The spin in the media was mostly positive - our future prime minister isn't stuck up and obsessed with dated gender roles or apparel.  He's a with-it guy who isn't shy about embracing modern mores.  The message was clear: if you have a problem with topless women you're out of date with your values.
In a way, I'm glad the woman in the picture in The National Post article I've linked to is a red head because it makes my first point that much easier to make.  Most people in Canada know that Justin is obsessed with climate change and enhancing Canada's role in arresting it.  Among the many problems with the change in our environment over the last few decades that cannot be debated is the depletion of the ozone layer.  The practical outcome of this phenomenon is an increased toxicity to the sun's ultraviolet rays.  In short, it's easier to get UV radiation exposure on a sunny day, especially in the summer which increases one's lifetime risk of skin cancer.  Redheads are especially at risk given their genetics and need to c over up more than brunettes and blondes.  So a redhead walking around topless on a sunny summer day?  Dumb.
Frankly, from a public health perspective we should be demanding than man wear shirts and hats for proper UV protection instead of fighting for the rights of women to increase their cancer risk in the name of equality.
But there's something more to this that needs to be said.  One of the problems with the Ultraorthodox obsession with tznius is that there is pushback from the rest of the Jewish community, Modern Orthodoxy included.  The idea that a woman should dress modestly has something of a bad odour about it, probably because the same people who spend the most time harping on it also demand separate seating on buses and special editions of Photoshop that automatically remove any females in the picture you just took.  Dressing appropriately becomes just another thing those "Chareidiban" are demanding from the rest of us.
We should not see proper dressing in that regard and in fact we should look at it with two other facets.  First, we should emphasize that proper dressing is not a women's issue, it's a Jewish issue in general for both genders.  Secondly, we should not view the matter as one of tznius but rather one of class.  In other words, instead of creating a whole kerfuffle around the length of one's skirt or sleeves because of a perception that God is tape measuring one and looking to get angry if He finds something the wrong size we should be instilling in ourselves a sense that we are meant to be a classy people.  Yes, legally a Canadian woman can walk around topless if she wants but a classy woman, or man for that matter, doesn't.  He or she dresses cleanly and properly to show that class.  Instead of browbeating folks why not point out the positive, reach upwards instead of attempting to drag up from the depths?
Proper dress, proper public and private comportment, all the things that go with them should be a matter of decency and fine behaviour through a sense of striving for excellence.  Maybe if tznius was presented in this fashion it would gain wider acceptance outside the Orthodox community as well.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Empty Empathy

There is a story famously told about Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, zt"l, being approached by a woman who wanted to wear tzitzis. As the story goes, he advised her to start by wearing a simply four cornered cloth under her clothes.  Once she got used to that, he reasoned with her, she could move up to a genuine tallis koton.  She followed his advice and when he spoke with her a few weeks later she was gushing.  The garment had given her such a feeling of spirituality she felt ready to put tzitzis on it.  The Rav retorted that the spirituality was a sham.  The garment she was wearing had no halachic significance.  It lacked tzitzis so it was just a piece of cloth.  He told her to stop pretending and worry about those mitzvos she did have to keep.
I've always had a problem with that story because the anonymous woman in it comes across as completely stupid.  She didn't ask what the point of a four cornered garment without tzitzis would accomplish?  She didn't figure out that she hadn't actually done anything by wearing it?
That story came to mind when reading Rav Avi Shafran's latest piece of condescension on Cross-Currents.  In it he describes a guest at his Shabbos table, there no doubt to experience the "authentic" Jewish Friday night experience.  The guest is clearly bothered by the planned activity later in the evening, a tisch where the men will be sitting at the table eating while the women will be relegated to the gallery to watch the spectable.  No mention is made if there will be snacks for the watching women or if they will be expected to nourish themselves from the spiritual vibes wafting up from below.
It's Shafran's answer to her contention that she is going to be a spectator at the religious event when she'd rather be participating that makes one gag. 
For some reason, I resisted the reflexive urge to offer my shiur. I paused for a moment – always a good thing to do – and responded instead from the heart. “You know, I totally understand how you feel,” I said. “That’s the way things are done, and the way they need to be done. But I can really relate to your feeling as you do.”

Had the answer been "I'm sorry you feel that way but that's how the game is played around here" or something that effect, I'd have rolled my eyes and moved on.  But the answer is annoying on a few levels and I don't just want to let it pass.
Let's start with the first obvious point: he has a shiur for those who don't get why women are relegated in Augdah-style Judaism to spectator status whenever it comes to Jewish practice outside the house.  Never mind that most of the modern day separation of men and women in public by the Agudah and those to the right of it is an innovation only a few centuries old.  Rav Shafran actually has a shiur that no doubt it meant to disabuse the uninitiated of the notion that Judaism was ever any different. 
Add to that his statement that he understands how she feels.  A follower of Rav Shafran's writings knows what that statement means: he doesn't know how she feels.  He knows how he thinks she should feel and really does believe she feels that way but given his answer (I'll get to that next) he doesn't actually seem to have a clue.
Finally there is his explanation - that's the way things are done.  Well yes, in some quarters it is.  That's the way they need to be done?  No, that's not true.  Again, the demotion of women from equal partners in Jewish life to unclean objects that need to be photoshopped out of pictures and are only really around in Orthodox life because the men haven't figured out parthenogenesis yet is not that old an innovation in Jewish life.  Shafran and his ilk may like to pretend that the way they practice Judaism now is the way it's always been, the easier to not have to explain why their Jewish behaviour is quite different from even only a few centuries ago when nothing is every supposed to change.  Again, this is untrue and needs to be challenged.
Finally there's the answer the young lady ostensibly gives
:“Nobody has ever said that to me before,” she finally said. “Being validated in my feelings means more than you can imagine to me.”

Really?  That's it?  Rav Shafran looks at her, says something dogmatic with absolutely no evidence to support it and she just rolls over because he said he knows how she feels?  Did she spend the night sitting and watching the tisch below thinking "Well maybe I'm being excluded from participation in a spiritually fulfilling activity but hey, the guy who gave me dinner understood me so it's okay!"?  Kiruv is that easy?  Will we next here about him meeting with a Maharat from YCT and telling us that after telling her he knows how important Torah is to her that she shaved her head and is now a Satmar rebbitzen?
What's really worse here?  The cheap line Rav Shafran used or the simplistic way he portrayed his guest?