Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 30 September 2007

The Meaning of this Time of Year

Three important events in the Jewish calendar occur during this time of year. The first is the holiday of Sukkos which began late last week and stretches into Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah by the time this one ends. The second is Yom Kippur which preceded Sukkos by only a few days and the third is the renewal of the reading of the Torah this Shabbos with the first parashah in it, Bereishis.

At a glance, it would appear that these three events have little to do with one another. Thematically, Yom Kippur and Sukkos seem to be completely different. The former is the holy Day of Atonement, the climatic end to the Ten Days of Repentance and our chance to stand before God and cleanse our souls of the filth we have contaminated it with over the preceding year. The latter is a holiday that celebrates both the harvest in our Land and commemorates the Yetzias Mitzraim by reminding us that our ancestors left Egypt to dwell in tents, not condominiums after God liberates them from slavery.

In addition, the first part of the Torah has only a limited connection with this time of year. One opinion in the Talmud tells us that the creation of the world was completed on the first day of Tishrei so there is a connection between Rosh HaShanah and Simchas Torah but then one must take into account the three weeks difference between the two holidays. Should they not be spontaneous?

In his commentary on Bereishis, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, ztk”l, finds the elements of a connection to all these holidays that one can use to see why they all happen together at this time of the year. He starts by noting one of the main philosophies of his commentary: Man was initially created with the intent of building a society based on the knowledge of God and his Torah, His will for the world he formed. Due to the downfall of the generations this society was never built. The first attempt was swept away with the Flood that left only Noah and his sons as survivors. The second attempt was effectively ended with the building of the Tower of Bavel and the subsequent dispersion of Man.

It was only with the arrival of Avraham Avinu on the scene that this trend began to reverse itself. As we learn in Lech Lecha, Avraham and Sarah Imeinu dedicated their life to kiruv, to reaching out to the idolatrous world around them so that knowledge of the one true God could be reborn. This explains why Avraham Avinu was tested ten times by God, as the Mishnah in Avos teaches us. The world, we are told in Avos, was created by ten statements. This world never achieved its potential and therefore Avraham Avinu, through his ten tests, was given a chance to become a new focal point of Creation.

Yet we see in the subsequent chapters of the Torah that this effort also seemed to fizzle out. Yitzchak Avinu spent life in a far more solitary fashion than his father. Far from being a price of God and a powerful local leader, he was driven away from contemporary society and forced to make it on his own. For Yaakov Avinu, things were even harder. At least Yitzchak was able to spend most of his life in peace and in a settled state. Other than the first few decades of his life and the last few, Yaakov was either in exile, traveling or in mourning for Yosef HaTzadik. Once again, the idea of building a society dedicated to God and His goals for Creation seemed lost.

In fact, it was only with the process leading to Yetzias Mitzraim that the trend finally turned. One again we find a familiar number: 10. Avos tells us that ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt which seems strange as the Torah does not seem to mention any. Some commentators explain that this means that our ancestors being spared from the effects of the Ten Plagues were those ten miracles but that doesn’t make sense if one considers the nature of the Plagues. Each was God’s hand intervening in nature, changing the physical nature of substances or the behaviour of lower creatures. By definition, each Plague was a miracle, albeit a nasty one as far as the Egyptians were concerned. What this explanation would imply is that the ten miracles our ancestors witnessed were simply not being affected by the miracles that were afflicting the Egyptians

But in keeping with our understanding of the importance of the number 10, this statement in Avos becomes much clearer. God created our world with ten statements. He reintroduced Himself into it with ten trials. Now, with ten miracles, it was as if He created the world anew. Our ancestors became the new Adam (one of the nevi’im specifically notes that the B’nai Yisrael are called “Adam”). With ten miraculous statements, God brought forth a world with Adam at its centre, ready with all the potential possible to live according to His will. With ten miraculous plagues, God then brought forth the new Adam, our ancestors, with all the same potential.

One of the most frequently asked questions about Sukkos is its timing. As a harvest festival it makes sense. However, as a festival designated to help us remember Yetzias Mitzraim, it should have come out right after Pesach!

Here’s another curious thought about Sukkos. On one hand, we are told we must live in the sukkah like we live in our homes. On the other hand, we are not allowed to do anything disgusting in the sukkah. We can’t put a port-o-potty in it, or bring dirty pots into it, nor speak foul language within its confines. But if going to the washroom and using dirty utensils are things I normally do in my home, why can’t they be part of my sukkah?

Additionally, one must eat all his meals in the sukkah. Yet if the sukkah is the equivalent of my home, this only makes sense for those meals I eat at home. If I normally eat my lunch at my office, why do I suddenly have to eat it in the sukkah?

Given what we have noted above, the connection of Bereishis and Yom Kippur to Sukkos becomes clearer. There are two opinions in the Talmud about when the world was created, either in Nissan or Tishrei. In reality, there is no conflict between the two. By bringing our ancestors out of Egypt in Nissan with the ten miracles, God effectively created the world anew in Nissan. Nevertheless, there is something further that must be considered if our ancestors were to become the new “Adam”. God not only created Adam, he placed him in a perfect environment, the Garden of Eden. Everything was supplied to him there. His job was to increase his awareness of God and thus his environment was designed to allow him the maximum ability to do that.

Now, consider the environment our ancestors were placed into upon leaving Egypt. There were surrounded by the Ananei HaKavod, divine Clouds of Glory that shielded them from the sun and heat, covered the ground killing off pests and dangers and levelling the ground in front of them to ease their journeys. They were supplied water from a miraculous well and manna felt at the feet every morning. In other words, they were supplied with everything so that nothing would distract them from learning God’s Torah and developing their awareness of Him in their every waking moment. This is completely like what Adam was given!

Remember, though, that Adam only merited the rarefied environment of the Garden of Eden while he was free of sin. Once that state had been sullied, he was sent out to toil in the real world. Therefore we see that God will provide true paradise only to one who is cleansed of all his sins. And at what time of the year can the Jewish people make a claim that they’ve reached that level? Only on Yom Kippur, the day we are told is exactly for that purpose if we return to God with a humble heart and contrite soul.

This, then, is the connection between the three events mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It also answers the questions asked about the strange nature of the sukkah. By surviving Yom Kippur, we become cleansed of our sins and receive a chance to connect with our Father, may He be blessed. To do this, we then build and enter the sukkah. Once inside we spiritually rebuild the environment our forefathers lived in after they left Egypt, a comprehensive one that required no recourse to the outside world. Our ancestors did not need to work for a living because God provided them with everything they needed. Therefore we do not eat or perform other worldly needs outside the sukkah to show that our little booths are just as all-encompassing for us. The sukkah, in turn, is a recreation of the original Garden of Eden, a place only those free of sin could enter. There was nothing ugly or disgusting in it which means that our sukkah must also be free of such things. It is therefore only after Yom Kippur that we could enter the sukkah in the first place and leave the outside world behind so that we can come as close as possible to the original state Man was supposed to be in, as detailed in Bereishis which we read at the end of the holiday.

May the Sukkos holiday season be one of peace and satisfaction for you and yours and may we merit to see a year filled with (positive) miracles and wonders for our People.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Finally, A Show of Independence

Years ago, The Jerusalem Post ran an op-ed piece about how useless an institution the Chief Rabbinate was. The question the writer asked was: Who exactly did the Rabbinate serve? Chasidim follow the rulings of their Rebbes while the Litvish crowd has an established hierarchy they rely on. If the Rabbinate says "A" and the leaders of those two groups say "B", the Chareidim will do "B". As for the National Religious, the Rabbinate was often not in synch with their religious views because it was dominated by Chareidi rabbis who didn't reflect the Dati Leumi philosophy, religiously or politically. And finally, the Chilonim, almost by definition, don't cae about the Rabbinate except when they need to get married or divorced.

In the end, the conclusion was that the only purpose for the Rabbinate was to create kashrus stickers for restaurants and hotels so frum Jews coming from America would have where to eat.

I was thinking about this when I ran across this article from the Post (thanks to FailedMessiah for posting it). I mentioned the problems with the now-upon us shemittah year in a previous post as well as my own personal position. Still, it's nice to see that the Dati Leumi leadership has finally had enough with the Chareidim pushing them around and keeping them in line. In short:

In a move that threatens to split the Chief Rabbinate, a group of religious Zionist rabbis rebelled against the state's supreme rabbinic authority and announced Tuesday that they would set up an alternative kosher supervision apparatus during the shmita (sabbatical) year.
"If local rabbis refuse to recognize fruits and vegetables grown by Jewish farmers during the shmita year as kosher, then we will," said Rabbi Rafi Freuerstein, chairman of the Tzohar organization.
"We believe it is important to strengthen Jewish farmers and Jewish agriculture and provide reasonably-priced produce to the Jewish nation," he said.

What I find most interesting, however, is the Rabbinate's (ie Chareidi) response to this show of independence:

"If the rabbinate is dismantled as a result of internal fighting, we risk losing national recognition for rabbinic authority," said Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Chief Rabbinate's governing council.
Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger, another council member, said that Tzohar threatened to break the rabbinate's monopoly over religious services and open it up to Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.
"If Tzohar starts providing kosher supervision, what is to stop Reform and Conservative from doing the same?" said Rauchverger.

Each of those arguments is easily rebutted. Firstly, as I mentioned at the start of the post, the idea of national recognition for rabbinic authority is a fiction. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ashkenazic or Sephardic, has no halachic authority and is outranked by dozens of Chareidi leaders in that community. Secondly the idea that Reform and Conservativism will start doing their own kashrus certification is laughable. Fully 100% of Reform and something like 95% of Conservatives do not keep kosher according to objective halachic standards. As FailedMessiah has noted in his ongoing campaign against the Rubashkins, the Conservatives can't even get their ethical Tzedek hechsher off the ground. Now they're going to open up shop in Israel?

There is a hope for the Chief Rabbinate. Remove the Chareidim from it and make it an exclusively Dati Leumi institution. If that happens, there will be more a chance to make the institution relevant to the average Jew in Israeli, something that isn't happening now.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

A Thought on Yom Kippur

With the Day of Atonemen around the corner, it's time to remember exactly what the Torah thinks of good behaviour and sins, reward and punishment.

Too often we arthropomorphize God into something we can understand. We are simple, therefore we simplify the Divine. We can be petty, therefore we imagine that God can be. We conceive of revenge being a suitable behaviour in certain situations and therefore we can't imagine that God wouldn't want to get revenge on us for our misbehaviours. If we say sorry nicely enough, maybe we'll convince Him to leave us alone for another year. Maybe if we convince ourselves that we're not so bad, God will agree with us and forgive us.

Take a moment to read this article by Rav A. Henach Leibowitz on the intention of Divine reward and punishment. It's a welcome reminder that God is not some vindicitve schoolmaster watching and waiting for us to sin so that He can go "Aha! Gotcha!" and write down our misdeed in a book somewhere (what, he doesn't use Microsoft Access?). He is our loving Father who wants us to do what is right and guides us, through fortune and misfortune, towards the goal of leading a proper and fulfilling life. Like children who don't understand why parents force them to do homework, eat their vegetables and go to bed on time, we ascribe the worse of motives to Him, assuming that just as we see things in terms of reward and revenge, so does He. This article is a reminder to us what we should be thinking in our souls on Yom Kippur. God loves us, He wants us to succeed, He craves our triumph over our evil inclinations. And considering all He has given us, we would be less than ungrateful not to return the effort and try to live up to His expectations.

An easy and fulfilling fast to you all.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Education the government shouldn't pay for

Here in Ontario we have an election coming up that really shouldn't be a big deal. After all, the leading two contenders, Liberal Dalton McGuinty and Conservative John Tory, are running on pretty much identical platforms - more government, more spending, more taxes, more waste of public resources.

In fact, there's only one thing that sets the two of them apart. John Tory, in his wisdom (?) has made the funding of faith-based schooling a major issue in this campaign. Under a Tory gvoernment, religious schools would receive some funding from the Ministry of Education, at least in terms of their secular studies. Dalton McGuinty opposes this, despite having attended a Catholic separate school (oh, and his kids go to one too). He's worried that faith-based schooling will result in a fragmentation of Ontario society. He may be a proven liar and a hypocrite but at least he's consistent. After all, he's the premier who shut down the parallel Jewish and Christian legal systems when the Muslim community wanted to impose shariah on its members.

This has always been a relevant issue for the Ontario Jewish community. As is the case elsewhere, schools are expensive institutions to run well. What Jewish school administrator wouldn't want help from the government to be able to hire a full set of qualified teachers and divert the money he already has into the Judaic studies department?

By the way, don't use the argument that with government support, tuitions will go down. They won't drop one shekel. Instead we'll be told how great it is that our money can now go entirely to funding the religious department (and the new park next to the school).

There's also the perceived issue of fairness. When Ontario became part of Canada, there were essentially two public systems - Protestant and Catholic. While the Protestant system evolved into the public one, the Catholics have managed to maintain a modicum of disinctiveness. However, one has to ask what the relevance of an arrangement made in 1867 has on the far more diverse society of today?

Here's the problem - John Tory is playing to our worst instinct. He's offering to help us pay for our children's education while leaving them in Hebrew school. He's appealing directly to what Jewish leadership in this province has been whining about for decades. McGuinty, on the other hand, is against faith-based schools, unless the faith happens to be Catholicism.

I wonder though: Has anyone thought about the consequences of government funding? Think about this. The government of Canada already has a policy forbidding Canadian citizens born in Jerusalem from listing Israel as their country of birth. Do we want the government to have a say about what goes on in our schools? And given the track record Western society has towards different ethnic groups and tolerating their cute ethnic foibles, do we want the government paying for another school down the street to teach its kids about jihad?

Finally, as a taxpayer, I have to ask: How much is Tory's idea going to cost? We already spend billions on education and turn out an unacceptably high number of functional illiterates. How much more will this cost me in April?

In there end, the government should pay for one educational system alone: the public one. If Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Jedi want to educate their kids differently, let them pay for it. This issue is a red herring distracting us from the fact that we have no real choice to vote for in October (Howard Hampton? Please, pass me the Gravol). If McGuinty and Tory are the best this province can do for potential leaders, that's pathetic.

If they say it isn't true, then it must be!

Ynet reported today on Syrian denials that the reason for the Israeli Air Force's recent "visit" to Syrian airspace was a joint Syrian-North Korean effort to help the Assad regime acquire nuclear technology.

Coming from the Syrian government, a denial this strong is practically an admission that they were caught red-handed.

The only problem I see is the fall-out in Israel from the raid, assuming that's what happened. Ynet also reports that Ehud Olmert's popularity has risen as a result. This is the most dangerous possible outcome for the country. If a single secret mission that sends the Arabs into a tizzy is all you have to do to convince the populace you're a great guy after spending the previous 2-3 years showing that you're incompetent, Israel's electorate is in great trouble.

However, I will note with approval Olmert's current approach to Syria: openly declaring a non-conditional interest in resuming peace talks. It's about time Israel learned what Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator of Romania in the 1970's taught Yassir Arafat, y'sh, about peace negotiations. As documented in a book by the former head of Ceausescu's secret service who defected to the West, the dicatotor told Arafat to proclaim that the PLO was interested in peace. "The world won't care if you still try to blow Israelis up," he explained. "Once you say you want peace, the pressure will be put on Israel to give you anything you want."

Oslo in a nutshell, eh?

At least Olmert seems to have learned. Unless, of course, he's serious in which case we're all in bigger trouble. I say we push things forward, though and as a token of good faith, Israel should send Shimon Peres to Damscus to make high level contacts. Maybe they can drop him off during the next secret overflight.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Is Modern Orthodoxy Necessary?

Well, it's a fair question. There are lots of movements out there in the world that either never should have been started or addressed a specific concern at one time which is no longer relevant. Any group of people with an ideology or agenda must be prepared to answer the question: What justifies your existence? Modern Orthodoxy is no different.

In order to suggest an answer to this question, one must ask what Modern Orthodoxy is. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. Various writers on the subject note concepts like ideological Modern Orthodoxy and behavioural Modern Orthodoxy. Others label it as Judaism-lite, a refuge for those Jews who wish to call themselves faithful to the tradition of our fathers without committing to a serious lifestyle change that would set them apart from the secular world they live in. In other words, it's hard to say what Modern Orthodoxy is, only what it isn't.

One place to start, then, is to look at other Orthodox groups and see what defines them. By doing this and noting their possible weaknesses, I can possibly note some distinctions that positively define the need for Modern Orthodoxy. After all, if the local store doesn't sell milk, you can open a milk store next door to it and make some money.

The most obvious comparison is the dominant group in the Torah-observant world today: the Chareidim. The strengths of this community are obvious. They have rigidly defined ideologies, a strong sense of being distinct from the secular world around them and a good sense of group think that provides for a modicum of unity in the face of external challenges. Finally, according to their leadership, the Chareidi lifestyle is the ideal Torah lifestyle. If the point of being a faithful Jew is to live in a way of perfect consonance with Torah and its values, why is there a need to the Chareidi world?

The simple, quick answer is that not everyone can be Chareidi. This is an unavoidable fact. Whether for reasons of personal taste, views, inner values or just plain lack of interest, the challenge of leading the intense lifestyle that the Chareidim do isn't something every observant Jew can take upon themselves. If that's the case, what's the alternative?

Hold on a moment. The assumption made in the previous paragraph - IF being Chareidi isn't for everyone THEN there must be an alternative - is a pretty big one. Consider a parallel situation. Not everyone can be an NHL level hockey player. Is that a reason to create a parellel NHL for those who can't make the cut, so that they can pretend they're in the same big leagues while not meeting the actual standards? Why can it not be suggested that the Chareidi approach is the ideal and that anyone failing to live up to this ideal should accept their shortcomings and strive to come as close to it as possible?

The real answer to that is that the Chareidi assumption of idealism is erroneous. There are many ways to live a consistent Torah lifestyle, of which their approach is merely one. Therefore, one can be an observant Jew without necessarily being Chareidi. Is Modern Orthodoxy one to the approaches to allow one to fulfill one's Jewish potential, then?

(A further reason that Chareidi Judaism isn't for everyone is that community's response to the corruption within its ranks. I would venture to say that the vast majority of Chareidi Jews are honest, decent folks who are living the way they think is holiest, but a not insignificant number of evil individuals are able to tar the entire community through their behaviour. Rightly or wrongly, the Chareidi world is regarded in a negative fashion because of the many people who have had negative experiences interacting with them)

I would propose that as it is currently defined (see above), Modern Orthodoxy is not an approach to a Torah lifestyle. Let me be more specific. There is a small group within that community know in the literature as the ideological group. These are the people who believe in approach Torah and God through an appreciation of the greater world and its contents, accepting that since everything is a creation of God then learning about the universe enhances one's knowledge of the Diety. Unfortunately, these folks are in the minority.

The majority of people who define themselves as Modern Orthodox today are part of the behavioural group. As mentioned above, they are people who practice Judaism-lite. If they don't wear a black hat when they pray, it's not because they believe that wearing a certain type of skull cap or not helps one approach God in a better way. It's because they just don't want to wear the hat. If they dress in a modern fashion, it's not because this is how they choose to express their Torah values. Rather, it's because they don't want to stick out or be associated with "fanatics" of the Chareidi world.

What is needed therefore, is an approach that can take those Torah observant Jews outside the Chareidi world and provide them with a reason for being. Being modern for the sake of being modern is a useless propostiiohn, but it can also be an expression of one's Torah beliefs if the underlying reason for the push to modernity is to help one understand Torah and God better. I would therefore make a call to those who want to realize their Jewish potential without compromising their beliefs for the sake of "fitting into the mold". There is an alternative, an approach to Torah and God which can provide you with fulfilment.

Welcome to the Navonim.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

What Could They Have Been Thinking

Sometimes people do things that are so inconsistent with their stated beliefs that you have to shake your head. Two examples the Jewish media recently carried were Eric Yoffie's address to American Muslim organizations and the other is Arnold Eisen's plans for his tenure as leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Eric Yoffie, as many know, is the head of the Hebrew Union College and the de facto leader of Reformism. Now, whether one agrees with the principles of that faith or not, it is undeniable that they hold secular liberal values to be the guiding principles they live by. Things like a restricted diet, limitations on personal activities on certain days of the week and a mandatory dress code of any kind are anathema to them. His recent address to the Islamic Society of North America, however, is something that flies in the face of that.

On the surface, Islam, especially militant Islam, is somethat that the Reformers should oppose vigorously. It is a religion that believes in the separation of women in worship and public life, the limitation on women's rights, persecution of homosexuals, the imposition of a justice code that includes beheading and limb amputation as a punishment for various crimes and a habit of blowing up its enemies in a most unseemly fashion.

Certainly when it comes to Judaism, Reform has not let down its guard. It functions as the vanguard against any attempts by Torah observant Jews, both real and imagined (but mostly imagined) to impose halachah on the majority of the Jewish population that chooses not to observe it. Why then does he choose to suck up to the leadership of a religion (remember, CAIR and ISNA both have ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, our good friends) that opposes everything Reform holds sacred?

The answer comes from Dennis Prager, a journalist who was held up by Yoffie during his address as an example of a servant of the the true enemy, intolerance:

Slander, morally equating fundamentalist Christians with fundamentalist Muslims, and respecting women who "voluntarily" wear veils: What the left has done to liberal denominations within Christianity and Judaism is a moral and religious tragedy. For example, liberal churches that regard America and Israel as villains have inverted Judeo-Christian morality. But little exemplifies the moral decay of the religious left as does its replacing Judeo-Christian moral standards with multiculturalism and tolerance. It has led to one of its leading clergy announcing that the veil is worthy of respect.

Only slightly less fatuous is the recent interview Arnold Eisen gave upon assuming command of the sinking ship known as Conservatism. Here's a movement that's in big trouble. Their numbers are declining, their outgoing chancellor told them they're apathetic and listless, and in reponse they've made it an article of faith to deny anything's wrong! Eisen shows this very clearly through his answers which show that any hope of the Conservatives regaining some kind of intellectual edge of the sort they once possessed decades ago is gone. Consider his ideas on the concept of "mitzvah":

Instead he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah -- a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

As Bug Bunny once said, "it is to laugh". What they feel obligates them? Boy, I wish someone in med school had given me that option. What do I think I need to know about medicine? Is this a prelude to the gutting of the already weakened rabbinical curriculum? Is Eisen worried that people see a disconnect in their relationships with their rabbis that can only be cured by removing any advantage those rabbis have in terms of education? If a congregant chooses what obligates them, why do they need a rabbi in the first place? Does he have jobs for all his shortly-to-be-unemployed clergy?

His statement on the future direction of education at JTS is suggestive:

He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of "canned lectures." And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists -- and Jews -- love most: talking.

Listen, the old men that come to minyan in my shul also sit around talking. They talk and talk, and never really accomplish anything with their verbiage. Maybe this is an admission on Eisen's part. Conservatism is about empty talk and no real Jewish action.

But it's this final point that caught my attention, coming on the heels of the Yoffie article:

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

What is this obsession liberal Jews have with Islam? It opposes everything they believe in. A dialogue with them can only end with their admitting that Islam is a "great religion" that should be admired, although they could look in their own religious backyard and find an even richer, more honest tradition, one they've been purposefully ignoring for over a century. This is their greaet loss and a sign of their stupidity.

Wanting it both ways

The chareidi world, as noted a couple of posts ago, believes in the concept of Daas Torah, that is that their leaders, through knowledge and piety, have attained a certain level of Ruach haKodesh which allows their to unerringly make the right decisions for their followers.

One recalls a couple of month ago, this Daas Torah resulted in the cancellation of a large concert in Yerushalayim. The decree was signed by the leaders of the Chareidi community and implied that these concerts were damaging to the souls of their followers.

This was after the organizers had arranged separate seating in the stadium, separate entrances for men and women, and separate busees to bring the patrons to the concerts so there would be absolutely no mixing. Despite these precautions, the Gedolim still felt that the concert was an occasion for peritzus. The Chareidi community's response seems to have been "Well, okay, they're the Gedolim and if we don't understand their reasons, it's because of our limitations." Everyone else's response seems to have been "Huh?"

But then a piece was published on Cross Currents that seems to have an answer to why the concerts were banned. It seems:

Today, too, we have self proclaimed agitators and charlatans who have nothing to do with their time but to go around to our leading Torah sages and try to convince them that separate-seating concerts are a threat to our Yiddishkeit and to ban them. They falsely claim that there is pritzus in the hallways plus other fabrications.

Ah, now things are starting to make sense. The Gedolim, not knowing the full details, were provided with the wrong information by a group of self-righteous do-gooders who opposed the concert who felt their opinions trump everyone else's. They fed the wrong information to their leaders who then issued their decree based on this misinformation.

Then, why does the writer conclude thusly:

In the final analysis, gedolim are our einei ha-edah, and important issues must be brought to them. We must be prepared to do things that are not comfortable when allegiance to their authority demands it.

Back in the day when I was first learning how to use computers, I was taught a basic principle in programming: GIGO - Garbage In = Garbage Out. If the Gedolim of the Chareidi community are being given the wrong information, how can an intelligent person follow their p'sak? As one of the comments to that post went:

If the statements of the gedolim are based on false premises, why should they be followed? (assuming that gedolim themselves wouldn’t want incorrect opinions to be followed)
But if the statements of the gedolim are not based on false premises, what are the “agitators” doing wrong?

In the end, how can someone not see the problem in this situation? And why is no one telling the Gedolim that this is happening? Or have they already decreed that this is impossible?

A Push for Experience

There's something to be said about society's lack of respect for age, experience and knowledge. One feature of modern secular liberalism has been an emphasis on equality to the exclusion of all else. To the popular mind, the opinion of an uneducated illiterate is equal to that of someone with a PhD in astrophysics. Because, according to this creed, all people are automatically of the same worth, their opinions are too.

I see this in my profession on a regular basis. Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, a new form of learning and practising medicine came into vogue. Called Evidence-Based Medicine, it demanded that decisions by doctors no longer be made through experience, trial and error, or gut instinct, but through the use of the medical literature and its findings. Systems were designed to analyze medical trials and determine their worthiness of being used to analyze patient problems. Medical research began to change their standards to produce more trials that would meet the new rigorous standards.

So far, this all sounds fine. Who could object to a doctor finding importance in knowing the very latest in medical knowledge and using it to help his patients? The problem with this system, as with all systems, is that the fanatics pushing it went too far with their agendas. When I was interviewing at one school, for example, I was given a paper to read which stated that "with evidence-based medicine, a first year intern is just as competent a clinician as a consultant who has been practising for 30 years because both have equal access to the literature and use the same skills to analyze it."

Right. Thirty years of experience, of trying therapies out, of interviewing patients and developing a feel for the art of medicine, all meant nothing. The only thing a doctor really needed to do was consult Medline, the all-knowing database of medical literature. Left unanswered were some very basic questions.

Why do we need doctors then? Nurses can check Medline just as effectively to give answers to patients. What happens if their no evidence? Do we just wave our hands helplessly and refuse to treat our sick patients? How exactly does one interpret the evidence? If the trial included males 46-58 years old, do I tell my 45 year old patient that I can't use its conclusions to assist him?

In the end, medicine is both an art and a science. Science can be learned, facts can be memorized. But art? You don't teach art from a textbook. You teach it through example, through encounters, and through the passing of experience from seasoned clinicians to new recruits. There are some things for which there will never be evidence, patient problems that will only be solved by consulting one's instincts. It must be remembered that there is inestimable value to that.

Monday, 10 September 2007

A thought on Heter Mechirah

With the beginning of Rosh HaShanah in a couple of days, a new Shemittah year will be upon us. This is a special time in the Jewish cycle of years, a chance for heightened spiritual awareness and a chance to reconnect with God in a way that is difficult for us to do when we are surrounded by the burdens of the material world.

Naturally, in Israel, the religious community has chosen to mark this special occasion by acting like spoiled children.

Now, I will admit my bias up front: I don't hold by the Heter Mechirah, the idea created by Rav Elchonon Wasserman to help Jewish farmers in the last 1800's and early 1900's bypass Shemittah restrictions that would have fatally crippled the nascent farming economy of Israel. Whatever its utility in the past, I feel the benefits of continuing to apply it today is outweighed by the serious halachic difficulties it presents.

Some people look at it simple: We allow the sale of chometz over Pesach (mechirat chometz)so why not sell the land of Israel for a year? The quick and easy answer is that one sells chometz that one personally possesses to avoid the prohibition of possessing and benefitting from it over Pesach. The land of Israel, on the other hand, is not a personal possession of anyone and can't b made that way by any organzation, religious or political. Another consideration is that when I sell my chometz over Pesach, I do so with the acknowledgement that if the non-Jew I sold it wishes to enter my house and take some of my bread for himself, I must let him without any thought of saying "Hey, hang on, I didn't seriously mean for you to actually take what you want." Could you imagine the worst possible ramification of selling the land of Israel for the Shemittah year? The Arab in question could quite easily walk into the Muqata and sell his new possession to our enemies for a few dinars. What would we all say then? That it wasn't a real sale? Well then the farmers can't really work the land.

There is also the argument of prozbul. The other feature of the Shemittah year is that all personal debts are cancelled at its completion. In order to prevent people from not loaning money because of the fear that the borrower might wait out the seventh year to avoid repayment, Hillel the Sage invented the prozbul. During the Shemittah year, the debt is transferred to the local Beis Din. Personal loans are cancelled but not ones between the court and the individual. Some wonder why this can't be done for the agricultural restrictions but again, the difference is not the ownership of the land but the use of it. Still, that hasn't stopped people from noticing the obvious - the same leaders who generally don't approve of the Heter Mechirah aren't farmers. They engage in regular business activities and for them there is a way around the Shemittah restrictions. It doesn't seem fair.

Having stated all of that, I will note that I do not live in Israel. It's easy for me to write this but the reality of the matter is that many, many farmers and businessmen who rely on domestic produce will suffer financially if they are forced to observe the Shemittah regulations. So, just as happened seven yers ago, we read stories of how the Chareidi leadership is doing everything in its power to prevent anyone from utilitizing the Heter Mechirah, while at the same time we are told about how people will suffer if they can't.

However, I have, upon considering the matter, come up with a solution. The real root of the problem is monetary - the farmer will go bankrupt, the restauranteur will sustain heavy losses to rely on imported produce, etc. If these people could be adequately compensated to observe Shemittah, this problem would go away.

But where to find the money? There is an easy answer. The government should "suggest" to the Chareidi leadership the following: Since they are demanding the strict observance of Shemittah, they should surely be interested in helping those people who would be most economically damaged by the restrictions that involved. So, for the next year all the money that currently goes into paying the yeshivos and kollels should be diverted to those people whose livlihoods will be hurt by Shemittah observance. The money should be used to pay for them to sit idly until next Rosh HaShanah. Make them attend mandatory courses in Shemittah too so they know what to do and not do after the year ends.

As for the people who will now not be getting money for the next year to sit and learn, well the answer to that is something they already say: God will provide.

A Cult is A Cult is a Cult

I'm on record as saying that I admire R' Yonasan Rosenblum and enjoy his writing. Sometimes I do disagree with him but he always makes an excellent point back up with copious facts. Being human, however, it was inevitable that he would stumble and in a recent column, he did just that.

Now, keep in mind what Rosenblum's job is. He is paid to present the Chareidi world in a positive light. Some days that's not an easy thing to do, especially given the propensity for main-stream media to highlight every fault in that community and ignore their positive aspects. However, he always rises to the charge with great aplomb.

That's why I was shocked by a statement he made in this column. To summarize it, he points out the problems with the whole concept of global warming and how it has become more a religion than a scientific subject. On this point, I fully agree with him. I'm not an expert on the subject, but then again, neither are the vast majority of global warming activitists. If that's the case, why do I disagree with the cause? Mostly because of how it's presented. In any debate about global warming, those who believe it is happening demand, as a prerequisite, that the fact that global warming is happening be taken as given. In other words, it is impossible to discuss with them whether global warming is occuring or not. Cast doubt on that sacred fact and you are a heretic not worth speaking to any longer. When that kind of certainty exists, I get nervous and back off. They can't tell me what the weather is going to be tomorrow but they know what it'll be in 20 years?

Rosenblum expresses a similar point but then writes something which I never expected:

The awakening of all these figures resonates with me. As a consequence, alarms go off in my head every time I hear that the words "debate closed," and that anyone who does not subscribe to a particular view is a moron or morally flawed.

I wrote to Rosenblum after reading this because, amongst other things, he has written before in defence of the current Chareidi leadership and their propensity to make decisions based on "Daas Torah", a fuzzy concept that implies that the Gedolim of that community, through their extraordinary level of Torah learning and piety, have been imbued with a kind of ruach hakodesh that enables them to make the right decisions every time even if halachic discussion might not reach the same conclusions. Daas Torah, in other words, has become a trump card in discussions with Chareidi authorities. Disagree and have sources to back up your position? Daas Torah! And how dare you disagree with that?

Now look at that paragraph again and substitute Daas Torah for Global Warming. Doesn't that sound scary?

Welcome Back!

I apologize for the precipitous disappearance of this blog a month ago. At the time I was, for lack of a better excuse, burned out. I had mentally taken it upon myself to try and keep up with the more experience, better intellectually equipped bloggers out there like FailedMessiah and DovBear. I wanted to constantly produce material for people to read and trying to add this into my already crammed daily schedule proved to be far too much.

So here's the objectives for the new blog. Over the next couple of days, before Rosh HaShanah sets in, I'll try to reconstruct the look of the old blog and put in a couple of posts. Then after the Holydays, I'll continue posting but not at the frenetic pace I was working at before. With a bit of luck and help from the Big Guy Upstairs (the BGU) this will succeed.