Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 29 February 2008

Blah, Blah, Blah

A common sight on Canadian university campuses these days is "Israel Apartheid Week", a week-long hatefest meant to create the impression in the eyes of non-involved students that Israel is a bubbling cauldron of racist evil as well as to intimidate any pro-Israel Jewish students into hiding their true allegiances.

Now, I'm not against free speech. If one wishes to speak one's mind, one must be prepared to allow people with different viewpoints to speak openly as well. (This is something politically correct types still haven't figured that one out yet). The problem is that not everyone feels that way. Even more irritating, it is just those who scream loudest about freedom of speech that are the first to clamp down on points of view they oppose.

Recently this came to the fore at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (that's up in Canada, eh?). During the event, a senior university official demanded that the anti-Israel group remove a large, public banner proclaimed their event. Apparently she felt that the banner might intimidate Jewish students who were pro-Israeli. And that's all that happened.

Naturally, things immediately blew out of control and the professional victims committee of the anti-Israel group was ready with their usual pathetic howls of "supression of freedom of speech!" Yes, the hated peddlers were denied a single forum of many. How horribly fascist.

This morning the university held a public meeting to explain why they had limited the freedom of speech for the anti-Israel group. Being an open forum, there were calls across the Jewish community for people to attend and show support for Israel. I myself was opposed to this for various reasons.

One is that these forums end up being crowded by professional Jew-haters. While I went to university to learn, it seems there are a significant number of people on campus who are there to attend rallies and spread hatred. These people love to come to forums. I think it must be included in their tuition. As a result, however, any opponents they run into are immediately screamed at and driven away with either verbal or physical abuse.

Secondly, the biggest problem with calling for Jews to attend these meetings is... that Jews will attend them and feel an urge, in their never-ending need to prove to the gentile world how politically correct they are, to join in the condemnations of Israel and those who would limit open hatred against our brethren on campus.

Finally, if anyone is allowed to speak in opposition to these hate mongers, he is usually an "official Jew", definitely not religious or passionately Zionist but one who is known to be moderate and "firm" in his support both for Israel and human rights. Such a man also spoke this morning.

And really, after all the speeches and anti-Jewish tirades, all the Jewish community had to do was send up one person to ask one question: "Hey, I'm going to be organizing a conference on Islamofascism. You guys have a problem with that?"

Taking Back What They Weren't Going To Give

One of the ongoing fictions of the Middle East peace process is that the Arab states are genuinely interested in a two-state solution for the Israeli-Arab problem. Like any good lie, tell it often enough and people start to treat it as fact. This article from JTA illustrates how some have accepted this foolishness hook, line and sinker.

Irked by the slow rate of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, major Arab players are threatening to withdraw their offer to normalize ties with Israel once a Palestinian state is established.

Gosh, you'd think the fact that they openly counsel Mahmood Abbas not to accept any Israeli offers that don't involve total capitulation to Arab demands would be the reason, but apparently that's not it. It reminds me of a documentary I saw once on Israel which stated that "in 1948, war broke out." A commentator quickly shot that down. "Wars don't break out," he noted. "Someone starts them. Why didn't we want to say who that was in 1948?"

The Arab offer to normalize ties with Israel was part of the 2002 Arab League peace plan initiated by Saudi Arabia. The idea was to give Israel an added incentive to make peace with the Palestinians.

Yes, let's review that offer, shall we? The 2002 Arab League peace plan stated that the member states would consider (not commit) to normalizing relations with Israel if, and only if, Israel fully withdrew to the 1948 borders, surrended most of Yerushalayim, and accepted the so-called Palestinian "right of return" which would flood pre-1948 Israel with some two million refugees. (Maybe they could stay in Yossi Beilin's basement) Furthermore, this plan was presented as non-negotiable. Israel would have to unilaterally do everything it demanded without assurance that as a result any Arab state would actually follow through with its requirements. Is it any wonder that the Israeli government, as incompetent as it is, did not accept these crazy terms?

Then there's the Road Map. Israel has already taken some huge steps with that, including the expulsion from 'Aza and parts of Shomron. Yet the Arabs have yet to comply with a single requirement they agreed to.

But, oh yes, it's Israel's fault that negotiations aren't moving along.

The Egyptians, in particular, were jolted by the sight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streaming over the Gaza border into Egyptian territory with the collapse of the Rafah border fence last month. They were distressed as well to hear some Israelis suggest that Egypt take responsibility for Gaza, as it had until the Israeli occupation in 1967.In Jordan, the fear is that if a moderate Palestinian state is not established soon, Hamas radicals will gain control of the West Bank and pose a direct threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. So when Egypt and Jordan warn that the chances for a two-state solution are eroding, it is at least partly to press Israel to move more quickly toward one.

Isn't it precious to see the loves the Arabs have for their so-called Palestinian brothers? They support them, fight for their rights, demand they have a state of their own, but don't actually want to have them next door or to have anything at all to actually do with them. Never mind that the main reason for the miserable conditions these Arabs live in is that their "brothers" purposefully kept them in squalid conditions to use them as a propaganda tool against Israel. Now that villians like Hamas have emerged from that decision, there is sudden panic on the Arab side. Why doesn't someone remind them that them whats made the mess has got to clean it up?

Moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan had hoped that a two-state solution, followed by a general Arab accommodation with Israel, would weaken the radicals and pave the way for regional stability.

This is possibly the stupidest statement in the whole article and generally undermines any thought the writer really understands the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest financiers of Muslim terror in the world. Egypt is the world centre for anti-Semitic publications. And they're the moderates?

Worse for the two-state option: Many Palestinian intellectuals, including some close to Abbas, are questioning its merits. In a seminal op-ed in the British Guardian newspaper, Oxford-based scholar Ahmad Samih Khalidi -- sometimes referred to as "Abbas' brain" -- argued, "Today, the Palestinian state is largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinians' worst historical enemies, Israel and its implacable ally, the U.S. The intention behind the state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel's dictates on fundamental issues of sovereignty.

Once again, we must remember that the two-state option is a lie produced for consumption by the gullible West. The Arab League and the PLO have a one-state solution in mind, and it won't be one where you can find a minyan on Shabbos, unless you're a Neturei Karta'nik. To say that the state is "a largely punitive construct" is to once again abandon all personal responsibility for your mess. The Arabs created a culture of suicide bombers and fanatics dedicated to the destruction of Israel. The checkpoints, the security fence, the army raids, all evolved in response to unremitting terrorist attacks against Israel. But like a spoiled child whose been caught and punished, the Arab side cries that they are the real victims. Unfortunately, too many people still take that claim seriously.

As Abba Eban once noted, the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Whether it was being offered a state in 1947 which they threw away, or not building one in Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza when it was under Arab control for 19 years, or for squandering every opportunity for normalcy that the Oslo Accords offered them, the Arabs have acted true to type all the way along. They wish for the destruction of Israel. Anything else is either a distraction or a step along the way. The sooner the world realizes this, the better.

Finally, An Essay I Can Agree With

I don't like public relations types. I've met too many for whom even questionable positions assume a degree of virtuosity because of the paycheque that accompanies those positions. As a result, I take a lot of what Rav Avi Shafran writes with a large grain of salt. After all, he's the PR man for the Agudah and no matter what the Agudah does, whether it's positively opposing scientific ignorance or denying that much domestic or physical abuse takes place in the Agudah world, he's there to present it with a positive spin. However, his latest piece is one I can say I fully enjoyed.

I've always been bothered by the amount of amorality present in modern medicine. Either we are taught to be coldly scientific (for example, subjects such as cardiology, pathology, etc.) or we are subjected to secular humanistic views (in medical ethics subjects). There is a strong emphasis on not using one's personal views during interactions with a patient. For laudable reasons we are all trained to be cautious of inflicting our points of view on others who might not share them. This wold infringe on their personal autonomy, currently the central principle in the doctor-patient relationship.

But what happens when cold science and secular amorality collide? The recent famous case of Samuel Golubchuk illustrates just this eventuality. Mr. Golubchuk, a Torah-observant Jew, is currently in a state of extremis, having suffered a significant decline in cerebral function and is now dependant on a respirator for breathing. However, in recent weeks some reports have suggested signs of improvement. At any rate, his family has resisted medical attempts to turn the respirator off while the physicians caring for him have gone to court for the right to do so, feeling that due to his current lack of cerebral function, he is effectively dead anyway.

This case illustrates the simplicity with which secular medical ethics approaches the concept of the sanctity of life. In short, life has no sanctity. Whether it be an inconvenient pregnancy or an old man occupying a precious ICU bed, life can be terminated if necessary and, due to a convenient twisting of terms, it is no longer murder.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that the red lines separating justified killing from murder now become arbitrary. If Sam Golubchuk is dead, according to current medical thinking, what about someone who will be in his position within a few hours due to an evolving cerebral bleed or cardiac arrest? If there is nothing morally wrong with aborting a baby due to personal choice or to avoid giving birth to a child with a genetic defect, why does the child's life suddenly become sacrosanct when it emerges into the cold light of the delivery room? If euthanasia of the terminally ill is a great leap forward, what about doing it for those who will become terminally ill and wish to die while still in good health?

In the end, there are only two real positions - either life has sanctity and cannot be tampered with, or it does not. Anything that presents itself between those two extremes is merely the former with some window dressing to allow its proponents to avoid feelings of guilt for the fact that they are trying to legtimize the killing of fellow human beings.

Words Can Mean Everything

It's no secret that, as a movement and as a philosophy, Religious Zionism is in trouble. From one side, the other major part of the religious community, the Chareidim, are dissociated from the Dati Leumi and see them as little more than pseudo-religious, misguided Jews who's religious expression of support for the building of the land of Israel, is against the Torah. On the other side, the Zionists have morphed into self-hating post-Zionists and see them as fanatics obsessed with "the settlers" and standing as a stumbling block on the yellow brick road to peace.

Within the community, there are also fissures as evidenced by the various responses to the recent government assaults against the community, first in 'Aza and then in Amona. Some counsel restraint and remind their followers that the rule of law must be maintained. At the other extreme, there are rabbinic leaders calling for resistance and sedition. While the explusion from 'Aza was relatively orderly, the one from Amona was the opposite. The National Religious Party, one of the smaller in the Knesset, has split into two parts. There is even a group, Realistic Religious Zionsts, who counsel large scale surrender of the holiest portions of our Land in order to allow the movement to return to its original focus.

In the presence of all this pressure, it's no wonder some Dati Leumi leaders bemon the loss of a distinctive identity for the movement:

In a recently published book, Rabbi Yigal Ariel, chief rabbi of Moshav Nov in the Golan Heights, condemned harshly the Religious Zionist movement for its recent tendency to become excessively haredi in character.

“Sadly, we (religious Zionists) are gleefully making rapid strides towards the haredi world,” said the rabbi. “Today we hear Religious Zionists speaking out against science, against the academic world, and even against basic rule of law.”

The level of triumphalism within the Chareidi world is no secret. And who can blame them? They were the part of the Jewish community most damaged by the Holocaust but now have become the fastest growing and most influential portion of the Jewish community. Through their efforts, their books and their public relations, they have defined in an ever more narrow fashion the stereotype of the ideal Torah-observant Jew. Is it any wonder that those in the Dati Leumi community who are experiencing a crisis of faith and wondering what their movement stands for would gravitate towards the more definitive Chareidi model?

Ariel’s book, in essence, is a strong indictment of a recent trend in the Religious-Zionist world driving its members to become more and more haredi. In an interview to a local Golan Heights newspaper, Shishi Ba Golan, Rabbi Ariel, brother of one of the founders of Religious Zionism Yaakov Ariel, accuses religious Zionists of losing their way, detaching themselves from the Israeli public, and being swept away into a dark abyss of their own making.
“We have become delusional, irrational people,” said rabbi Ariel, referring especially to a trend towards extremism now evident on Religious Zionist education, as well as a growing focus on the struggle for preserving and defending West Bank territories.

The rabbi also said that he feels that Religious Zionism as a movement is now regressing rather than growing or moving forward. “It is turning haredi to such an extent that I felt that if my book was not published soon there would be nobody in the religious Zionist world left to address.”
The rabbi indicated that, in his opinion, “the haredi world is completely detached from reality, and Religious Zionism is gleefully headed in the same direction. Religious Zionists today speak out against science, the academic world and even against the basic rule of law. More and more things are becoming taboo.”

I would agree strongly with Rav Ariel's concerns. Looking at the movement, it has become obsessed with Yehudah, Shomron and 'Aza. Now, there may be good reasons for this but it has eclipsed the original founding purpose of the movement, which was to build a Torah state in Israel. By becoming identified with "settlers", the Dati Leumi are seen less as average Israelis who also are Torah observant and more as "those crazy fanatics" who attack soldiers and Arabs while generally disturbing the peace if they don't get their way. The response, however, which is to take on those characteristics of the Chareidi community that are irrational, is against Dati Leumi philosophy which is based on acceptance of reality and respect for society. As Rav Ariel notes:

Everyone says the same exact thing and spews the very same clichés,” he said. “We (religious Zionists) now want obedient followers that do as they are told and do not ask difficult questions.”
Our original focus was also on the State of Israel, but now we have forgotten the people of the land of Israel and have become completely isolated in our vision and thinking.

This is completely against the original Dati Leumi philosophy which holds that the return to Zion and its rebuilding are religious imperatives. In order to develop this philosophy, brilliant leaders like Rav Yaakov Reines and Rav Tzi Hirsch Kalischer, the Derishas Tzion, thought outside the box, using our holy sources to prove definitively that not only is a mass return to Israel not a sin but rather something the Jews must do given the prevailing historical trends. A Chareidi attitude of avoiding original thinking, shunning the secular world and towing "the party line" would have prevented the Dati Leumi philosophy from ever being born.

I would humbly disagree with Rav Ariel, whose feet I am probably not worthy to sit at, on one point:

Rabbi Ariel also spoke out against the growing detachment of Religious Zionism from the general Israeli public. Various synagogue newsletter, he noted, have created an entirely new lexicon which the entire Orthodox world now embraces as its own.
“While everyone else spoke of ‘disengagement’ we (Religious Zionists) spoke of ‘expulsion’. Instead of the ‘Amona evacuation’ we referred to the ‘Amona pogrom’….we are settling ourselves apart from the general public through this terminology, and are viewing the world through our own narrow and limited point of view. We are completely cutting ourselves off from the Israeli public.”

On the contrary, this lexicon is very important. Consider other successful groups and you quickly discover that it is their use of words and their coopting of terms that plays a big role in their success. One need look no further than the Arab world and their incessant use of words like "West Bank", "territories", "occupied Palestinian lands" to see the effect of controlling the vocabulary of the discourse. (I won't even go into how "gay" used to mean "happy")

Additionally, the risk of growing too close to the Chiloni community is just as great as that associated with the Chareidim. Those on the right will absorb ultra-Orthodox habits but will not abandon a general Torah lifestyle. The risk of that happening to those on the left is far, far greater as practical experience has shown.

As well, if the Dati Leumi wish to be in a leadership position, we must remember that leaders... well they lead. They don't strive to change themselves to accomodate other groups and trends but define their own and inspire people to follow.

Thus it is important to maintain the lexicon. What happened in 'Aza was an expulsion, not a disengagement (else why are rockets falling on Sderet every day?). Other terms as seen from the Dati Leumi perspective are just as legitimate, as long as they respect the Dati Leumi principles of respect for law and authority.

In the end, if the Dati Leumi wish to regain a leading position within the Torah world and Israeli society, it must stop worrying about the other groups on its flanks and concentrate on building itself up from within. Its children must be raised to realize that Israel's existence is a gift from God but one which we, as Torah-observant Jews, are obligated to work on perfecting as a modern halachic society so we can pave the way for the final redemption. Our view of the Torah and its Zionsitic obligations are compeltely legitimate and the definitive ones for this era. And those terms should be at the head of our lexicon.

Finally Taking Action

I've never understood the tolerance many in the Ultra-Orthodox world have for smoking. Smoking rates have tumbled in almost every other sector of society except for the Chareidi community. It's not uncommon to enter a bais medrash and see men sitting and smoking as they pour over their books, sometimes even sitting under No Smoking signs as they do so!

The idea that smoking is a dirty habit is, of course, one well rooted in contemporary thought and for good reason. Indeed, other than the initial rush of nicotine, there is no benefit to smoking. Most smokers will quietly tell you that the only reason they continue is because they dread the feelings of withdrawal if they're a few minutes late for their next cigarette. The cough, the smell, is it any wonder most civilized societies have banned smokers to the fringes?

Yet I recall a Chabad shaliach who proudly smoked (although, to be fair, he respected No Smoking signs and limited himself to his home and car). He didn't see anything wrong with it and besides, scienctists are always changing their minds about something. I remember one year the news breaking that certain cigarettes had traces of chometz in them. "Great," was the reply. "I'm doing biyur chometz every time I smoke!"

It's amazing to me that the same people who will make sure their bread is Yoshon Pas Yisroel, who won't touch milk unless it's Cholov Yisroel from a cow that was born from a mother cow fertilized by a circumcized bull, who will always wear two head covering and spend 15 minutes checking their tzitzis in the morning with a magnifying glass will not hesitate to pop a cigarette into their mouth and when confronted, ask "So nu? Where in the Torah does it say smoking is forbidden?"

Much of the recalcitrant attitude is based on a psak in the Igros Moshe in which he advised against smoking but stops short of forbidding it outright. However, those actually read this teshuvah note something else. It was written in the very early 1970's before many of the risks of smoking were known. One wonders what the Rav Feinstein, zt"l, would say nowadays when the link between smoking and a multitude of chronic, debilitating diseases has been confirmed.

Therefore, I was glad to see this piece in Ynet mentioning that the Chareidi world has finally taken an interest in cutting down on smoking. In a world where people are finally turning away from cigarettes, it is high time that the Chareidi world stop standing apart and encourage the development of healthy habits in their group. I can only hope this initiative does not founder when it encounters opposition from the hordes for whom all change is "forbidden from the Torah".

V'Yakhel - Implementing the Vision

"And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the things which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall you work but on the seventh day there shall be for you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest unto the Lord; whosever does any work therein shall be put to death." (Shmos 35:1-2)
"And Moshe spoke until all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: this is the thing which the Lord has commanded." (Shmos 35:4)

Rav Hirsch notes in his commentary that the first speaking is worded in the plural: These are the things. The second speaking, however, is in the singular: This the thing. What is the reason for this? It could be because the reminder of Shabbos reminds us of two things: one is the need to work creatively to build up the world God has created while resting on Shabbos despite that need continuing to exist. Therefore, the work as well as the rest are commands. But when it comes to the Mishkan, there is only one thing: the building of a sanctuary for the Lord to dwell in.

This can be applied to our own lives as well. Rav Hirsch, amongst many others, notes that melacha means productive work, producing something that is an expression of one's abilities just as an emissary, a malach, is an emissary of one's wishes. How often do we find ourselves lost in the daily rat race that encompasses our lives? How often does one tedious day of work blend into another, leaving us to wonder if we toil without end or purpose? This, the Torah tells us, is not to be our guiding intention in life. In all we do, we must remember our purpose here is to build the holiness within our neshamos, constructive labour if there ever was one. Every day brings a new opportunity to improve ourselves and our service of God, allowing it to stand apart from all the other days, as it is written: "He renews the work of Creation daily". We exist to perfect our souls so that we can return them to our God in the best condition possible. This is our daily melachah that should give us purpose and prevent tedium from setting in. It the Mishkan in our hearts that we are always engaged in building.

Yet despite the importance of this goal, there is one thing which must override this task: Shabbos. I can offer a couple of reasons for this. The first is that novelty must, by defintion, remain novel to be interesting. Even amazing experiences, repeated day in and day out eventually lose their thrill. Shabbos provides us with a break from our daily struggle in order to prevent us from becoming too accustomed to the process. It contrasts our work so that we can more fully appreciate its importance.

Yet Shabbos in itself is more than a mere intermission. Our Sages tell us that Shabbos is a taste of Olam Haba and looking at the analogy above, one might suggest that the reason for this statement is what I have been describing. Our Sages note that the time for self-improvement and developing of the soul is in Olam Hazeh. In Olam Haba there is no further opportunity for spiritual development. On Shabbos, we pause from our creative labour and from building our internal Mishkan and treat it as if the labour is done, that we have finished fulfilling our requirements. Is this not also the description of Olam Haba? What's more, God in His infinite mercy also gives us the opportunity to grow on Shabbos through our learning of Torah and our observance of its mitzvos even though, technically speaking, Olam Haba would not offer us the same chance. Thus Shabbos turns out to be superior to Olam Haba in this respect.

Thus God has commanded us to do two things: build ourselves into a Mishkan for Him to dwell in, and taste the bliss of Olam Haba. Let us always remember that we labour not in vain but to reach our goal, a holy place in Olam Haba where we can enjoy the glow of the Shechina and benefit from God's munificences. Gut Shabbos.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The Way to say Sorry

I only go to the Haaretz website infrequently these days, especially since the reports that they purposely bias their news (never mind the editorials) to villify certain parts of the Israeli public they disagree with while glossing over the sins of their allies. But I couldn't help but notice this article and felt a need to comment on it.

Recently, the Austrialian prime minister took time out to apologize to the aboriginal population for the sins committed against them by the white newcomers. Naturally this was well received by the liberal left all around the world. This particular piece decided to go one step further. We Jews could learn something from this apology:

Rudd's apology acknowledged the "profound grief, suffering and loss" inflicted on the Aboriginal people but no Jewish leaders seem capable of considering similar sentiments towards the Palestinians. They blame somebody else for the fact that the number of settlers rose by five percent in the West Bank in 2007. They remain mute when Israel's Interior Minister Meir Sheerit suggests destroying a Gaza neighbourhood. They look away when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger urges Israel to move Gazans to the Sinai Peninsula.

How much longer must we wait for the worldwide Jewish community to understand the dispossession and dislocation of 1948 and 1967? And when will the global Zionist leadership realise that Israeli policies in the occupied territories is leading to the country's destruction?

The writer at least reveals his self-delusions:

Israel has become an object of uncritical adulation.

Right. That explains all the universities lining up to host "Israel Apartheid Week" and other hate-fests. That explains the British boycotts of all things Israeli too.

As I read this, I thought that there was a way to apologize to the Arabs. Here's how I would say it:

On behalf of my fellow Jews, both Israeli and not, I would like to apologize to the Arabs of Israel for the following:

For surviving 5 attempts between 1929 and 1973 to wipe out any Jewish society living in Israel.

For refusing to forget that we were occupants of this land long before the Arab tribes had erupted out of their base in their Pennisula. To paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, our ancestors had built up a kingdom in Israel when yours were pagan barbarians running around slaughtering each other in the desert wastes. Sorry about that.

For building a country that, despite all the external pressure, boycotts and constantly military expenditures, has craeted an economy larger than all 22 of your countries put together. We're more literate than you, more productive than you, and we're only pulling further ahead. Sorry about that too.

For refusing to accept your twisted version of history. It was Yitzchak that Avraham offered up on the altar, not Yishmael. Moshe, Dovid, Shlomo, and the rest were B'nei Yisrael, not proto-Muslims. Yerushalayim was the home to two Temples and never any important Muslim shrines until the events of 1948-49 caused you to exagerate Al-Aksa's importance. Really sorry about that, old boy.

For constantly offering you opportunities to undo the big mistake your leadership made in 1947 when they refused to accept a "Palestinian" state on OUR land because they hoped a quick war would wipe us out. Despite this we gave you 'Aza and much of Yehudah and Shomron. We disenfranchised and impoverished thousands of our most patriotic and productive people. And in return you destroyed anything of value we gave you and reduced yourselves to abject poverty, all the while blaming us for your stupid leaders. Sorry there too.

In short, we're sorry you haven't been able to understand that Israel is Jewish land, that we are not a passing phase or another transient foreign invaders but the rightful occupants of this home called Israel. We are not going anywhere and we have no intention of letting you challenged our legitimacy.

And for that WE ARE NOT SORRY!

Why I Can't Be Chareidi

Despite my occasional criticisms and bellicose words, I bear no ill will towards the Chareidi community. In fact, there is quite a bit I admire about them. Further, I have strong connections with the Chareidi world - my rebbe is Chareidi, my best friend is Chareidi, and I started learning gemara in a Chareidi yeshivah with which I still maintain close ties.

What do I like about the community? Firstly, there is the unwavering loyalty and allegiance towards God, His Torah and living life according to halachah as much as possible. Chareidim are proudly Jewish and let Torah values permeate every area of their life. They do not apologize for standing out and never compromise in places where others might want to tone down their Jewishness in order not to stand out. For Chareidim, being Jews is not what they do, it is what they are. I think this attitude is extremely laudable. Given how over the centuries Jews are learned to apologize for everything and to keep their heads down, their proud expression of their Jewishness is something we can all learn from.

Then there is their commitment to learning and praying. I once heard a Rav comment that the problem with kiruv is that some people never get past the fun stuff. Shabbatons and programs are must-attends for them but when it comes to showing up on Monday morning at 7 am to daven, the thrill quickly wears off. For Chareidim, this doesn't happen. For them, an early morning Shacharis is an experience, not an obligation. Those big heavy books on the back shelves of the shul aren't just for show or to help increase the dust content of the building. They're for pulling down, opening and learning from. There is a never-ending attempt to connect to those personalities who have become legends and see the connection from them to us. Hillel, Shammai, Abaye, Rava, Saadiyah Gaon, Rambam, Rashi and the rest aren't names. They're teachers and compatriots. A Chareidi never says "In Rashi's commentary..." but rather "Rashi says..." Rashi is alive for them and teaching them in the present. That kind of dynamic amazes me.

So if I'm that enthusiastic about these features of the Chareidi world, why haven't I gone out to buy my bekisher and Borselino yet? Why do I continue to wear multi-coloured suits (well, okay, each suit is one colour but I have different suits of different colours) and a large knitted kippah?

For one thing, a lot of Chareidi culture relies on insulation from the outside world. I will not argue with the fact that there is a lot to negatively influence Torah-observant Jews out there. Free exposure to any and all aspects of the surrounding culture is not something for the faint of heart or faith. The problem is that the Chareidi world has, to a large extent, taken that insulation and turned it into a principle of the faith. The outside world is no longer something to be handled with care. Rather, it is something to be ignored, disdained and, on many occasions, overtly disrespected. Perhaps it is my job which immerses me in that outside world on a daily basis but I can't turn myself off from it with quite that thoroughness. There is much that is good in the outside world, many things we as Jews could learn, and much that is positive to be inspired by. A simple blanket condemnation of anything that is "the other" is too simplistic for me to accept.

The second is the famous statement of the Chasam Sofer, zt"l: "Anything new is forbidden by the Torah." If one looks at the history of halachic development before and after this statement, the contrasts will be amazing. Look at the Rishonim and the early acharonim, their breadth of thought, their daring in interpreting the Torah and the rest of Tanach, especially the prophetic or less-than-literal parts. Even the development of halachah was seen as a normal thing, as long as it proceeded along traditional lines and was not guided by secular but rather religiious need.

After the decree, however, things seem to have changed. Or rather, not changed. We are told that the way the Chareidim dress is the way they have always dressed. Moshe Rabeinu himself probably wore a shtreiml at Matan Torah. Innovation in halachah, changes to address crises in the Torah observant world, are all ruled out before they can even be suggested. The only progression is towards the stricter of any possible interpretations.

Thus one can find earlier authorities questioning if our world is davka 5768 years old or is the first chapter of Bereishis meant to be interpreted in an allegorical fashion. Nowadays, such a suggestion is "beyond the pale" and proof of heresy (just ask Rav Nosson Sliffkin). Things that never were an issue not so long ago, relatively speaking, like the type of headwear that makes you a "good" Jew, or whether or not sandals are acceptable footwear, have been decided and any questioning of the final decisions is again "heresy".

I can't accept this limitation. God, in His perfect and infinite wisdom, gave us a Torah that was meant to grow over time. In his commentary on Chumash, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that the structure of the Aron Kodesh in the Mishkan - stone tablets inside wood ark inside gold covering - denotes that the original base Torah is everlasting and unchangeable, just like stone. Yet, like wood, our oral apprecation of the Torah is meant to grown and blossom, while the gold covering symbolizes that this growth should be with the purest of intentions - the desire to achieve perfection as defined by God and His Torah. Thus to attempt to free the halachic process because of external pressues, for example the reaction to Reform and Conservativism, would be akin to removing the wooden part of the aron. One may have pure gold surrounding unchanging stone but one does not have what God instructed us to build.

Finally, there is the concept of Daas Torah that troubles me. It is one thing to say that "Rav so-and-so is the biggest expert in this subject so what he says is authoritative". I can understand that and certainly there are many Chareidi leaders who have selflessly dedicated their lives to understanding Torah and God's intentions for this world. One cannot imagine the sacrifices they have made to advance Torah in this world and we certainly cannot hope to debate them on what they know so well. And I am not suggesting that.

But Daas Torah has evolved beyond this extreme b'kius into a political tactic. Consider the recent debate on whether or not metzitzah b'peh is permitted if done indirectly through a pipette. Even a superficial examination of the halachic literature demonstrates that major authorities can be found on both sides of the argument. But the response to this challenge from the Chareidi world seemed unbelievable: Daas Torah says that you have to do it directly and a pipette is not allowed. End of story.

Except again, that is not how halachah works. To use something like Daas Torah as a trump card when one is losing an argument cheapens the entire concept and brings down the level of respect it is entitled to. Why should I respect the Gedolim of the Chareidi world if their answer to anything they disagree with is "Daas Torah 'cause I says so!"?

I hope and pray to God Allmighty that I can take those aspects of the Chareidi lifestyle, the passion and depth of belief, and combine them with those aspects of other Torah observant groups, and help create for myself and my children a Judaism full of enthusiasm and energy, unwavering loyalty to God combined with respect for those who make His Torah their life work, without giving up my free will and independence of thought so that I can make God my personal God and reach a connection with Him and His Torah. I truly believe this is what the Allmighty wants from each of us. May we be successful in our endeavours.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean People Aren't Out To Get You

When NATO invaded Serbia several years ago in order to "save" the Kosovars from the horrible, blood thirsty Serbs, I sat back and trembled at the implications: THIS IS A REHEARSAL FOR WHAT THE WEST WANTS TO DO WITH ISRAEL. At the time, no one thought I was making sense (a not uncommmon occurence) but I believe recent events have proven my thesis correct.

In brief, recall the situation: Kosovo was a province of Serbia. Part of the original Serbian heartland, it had undergone migrations of Albanians who were now the majority population. The Kosovans decided that they wanted to separate from Serbia, just like the Croats and Bosnians before them. And just like those other two peoples, the Serbs decided to use force to prevent that.

Something interesting happened however which people still don't like talking about. When the original Yugoslavia broke up into warring factions, there was very little interference from the outside world. Other than some impotent peace keeping forces, the former Yugoslavs were left to duke it out between themselves. Eventually the war ended and the borders were settled.

But when the Kosovars decided they wanted to separate from Serbia, something different happened. Now keep in mind this separation was different than the previous one. In the previous one, formerly separate nations which had been united under the Yugoslavian flag decided to break ties with one another but it wasn't like the Croats were trying to take Serbian territory. In Kosovo, an ethnic minority decided that their province should leave the country which had administered it for decades.

But there was another important difference. In contradistinction to the lack of outside interference in the previous wars, the outside world took a sudden and stirring interest in this one. So much interest, in fact, that NATO decided to blow Serbia to bits and then forcibly separated Kosovo from the rest of the country.

Now, there are a couple of problems with what NATO did. For one thing, according to the alliance's charter, they are a defensive group, formed to provide joint defence to each member state. NATO was never intended to initiate wars, especially against an adversary that was not threatening it in any way. In other words, NATO broke its own law to attack Kosovo.

The other concern is what happened afterwards. When NATO invaded Serbia, it was ostensibly to protect the Kosovars from the Serbs in the main country. But what happened to the Serbs living in Kosovo? Well their homes were burned, their churches were destroyed and they were mostly driven out of Kosovo, all under the watchful eye of NATO forces. One minority was protected, another destroyed.

All this came to mind when the Kosovans suddenly announced their independence from Serbia last weekend. This came as a surprise to many because the purpose of the NATO invasion wasn't to create an independent Kosovan state but to preserve the high level of autonomy the province had previously enjoyed from Belgrade. Yet despite this unilateral changing of Serbia's borders, the Serbs were given no say in the matter. In a more troubling development, many major powers including the United State immediately recognized the new state.

And what a state it is: 40% unemployment, no industry to speak of, no real government, high levels of corruption and powerful gangs running most of the national infrastructure. Kind of like the Bronx, I guess, but wiht a flag of their own.

How does this affect Israel? Consider the similarities, especially as viewed through the anti-Semitic eyes of the European Union, the Arab world and Russia:

1) Kosova is occuped by Serbia. The Serbians oppress the Kosovars, steal their land and prevent them from expressing their natural desire for sovereignty.
2) Serbia cannot keep this people under its occupation. It is therefore important for the international community to force the issue and separate Serbia from Kosovo.

1) "Palestine" is occuped by Israel. The Israelis oppress the "Palestinians", steal their land and prevent them from expressing their natural desire for sovereignty.
2) Israel cannot keep this people under its occupation. It is therefore important for the international community to force the issue and separate Israel from "Palestine".

The factors are already moving into play. If Kosovo remains independent, then the world will have proved that a foreign alliance (NATO) can invade a country that is of no threat to it (Serbia) and forcefully remove a piece of its territory (Kosovo) without anyone being able to stop them.

Caroline Glick discusses some of the implications in her latest piece but the questions must be asked: What happens when the Arabs decided, in the probably not-so-distant future, to declare unilateral independence and then scream that Israel is occupying their sovereign state? What happens when the Russians and their new central Asian allies announce that, just like NATO, they're going to ride to the rescue of the poor Arabs by attacking Israel and enforcing the new boundaries of "Palestine"? How can America protest a tactic it had no hesitancy to use not even a decade ago?

What happens indeed?

Ki Sisa: It Isn't the Tool, It's How You Use It

The story of the Golden Calf is well-known, at least that's what people think. In brief, the popular understanding is that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, goes up to Har Sinai to get the Luchos. After 40 days he doesn't come back, the people panic and compel Aharon to build an idol which turns out to be the Golden Calf. The people declare that this image is their new god until Moshe shows up, smashes the Luchos and restores God's authority over the nation.

Then come all the questions, like how the people could go and build an idol, in effect denying God's rule over them only forty days after experiencing the Divine revelation? A close reading of the text, with the help of some of the important commentators changes that perception quickly.

The first thing to note is the request itself:

"And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, they gathered themselves until Aharon and said unto him: Get up and make for us an elohim that will go before us, for as for this Moshe, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what had become of him." (Shmos 32:1)

An accurate reading of the text establishes the true motive of the people who requested the image. It was to replace Moshe, not God, in their lives. Consider Moshe's role until that point in the narrative of the Exodus. He had acted as God's representative at almost every stage. He had announced the redemption, called forth al but the last of the ten plagues. He had raised his hands to split the sea, hit the rock to bring forth water and led the people politically. He had also been appointed to receive the Torah from God by the people after the giving of the Ten Commandments. At this point, therefore, the B'nei Yisrael were completely used to a model in which an intermediary stood between them and God. The idea of a personal God, one that could lead each of them directly and at the same time all of them together as a nation without a human messenger was completely unknown to them. In the absence of Moshe, is it any wonder therefore that they wanted a replacement?

As for the word elohim, it is used throughout the Torah as "authority" or "judges" and in this context it does not necessarily refer to a new diety to replace God. Remember that the presence of God still hung above the mountain where Moshe was. To create a substitute authority for the Master of the Universe would have been inconceivable.

But if it was guidance they were seeking, then how did the situation get so out of hand? Clearly their sin was severe. As Chazal tell us (and Rashi notes), "there is no punishment of B'nei Yisrael that does not include some of the punishment for the Golden Calf." If all they were doing was creating a substitute intermediary why such harshness?

For this, we need to consider a further, interesting fact. There are two objects mentioned in the latter half of Shmos which shared one important characterstic: they were both made solely of gold.

"And I said unto them: Whosever hath any gold, let them break it off; so they gave it to me and I ast it into the far and there came out this calf." (32:24)

Rashi notes the phrase "there came out this calf" and states that Aharon threw the gold into the fire. The Midrash tells us the story that the two sons of Balaam happened to be present and cast magic spells on the fire and out came the fully formed calf, made of pure gold.

The Menorah, similarly, was also made of pure gold, in contradistinction to all the other appurtenances in the Mishkan. Not only that, but it wasn't made of pieces of gold welded together but of a single block of gold, the same as the Calf.

If this is correct, what might the connection be between the two items, the Calf and the Menorah? I would suggest the following: The Menorah was intended to give off light and be a beacon for the intellectual well-being of our people. The Calf was intended to be a substitute for Moshe so the people would have a desired intermediary between them and God. In both cases, the items in question were tools to be used towards a specific end.

Yet how differently they functioned! The Menorah, lit daily in a solemn ceremony, focused people on the holiness of the Mishkan, the central sanctuary of our people in the desert. Its effect was to increase the piety and intellectual commitment of our ancestors. The Calf, on the other hand, because a focus for lewdness and riotous behaviour. It served as the justification for the establishment of a new order, one which retained no holiness of the God-inspired one.

And from this we can see the common feature, that of the tool. In both cases, a golden object acts to channel the people but it is the people themselves that choose the way they wish to be channeled. The gold itself has nothing to do with that. We have free will, to be both used and abused.

In the same way, we can look around and what surrounds us in this world and see the same thing everywhere. The vastness of modern society that permeates our lives is filled with tools: media, electronic, constructive and the like. In every case, the tool itself is neutral. It just sits there waiting to be used. How we used it does not define it as good or evil, it defines us.

Therefore, if we wish to worship God, live our lives according to His Holy Torah, and fulfill our purposes in the world as much as possible, we do no benefit to ourselves to isolate ourselves from the tools He has given us. Modernity is not a curse ora stumbling block. It is an opportunity for us to rise even higher in our worship of God. Are there opportunities for sin? Unfortunately there are, but the choice remains with us. By choosing correctly, we purify our intellects and let the light of the Menorah shine through them. But by choosing incorrectly, we prostate ourselves before the Golden Calf. And this is why every punishment we suffer through has a bit of the punishment of the Gold Calf in it. Every time we use the tools God has given us incorrectly, we show we have not yet learned the first lesson given in this parashah. Thus we are once again reminded through our correction.

Let us therefore choose to embrace the tools of the modern world in ways which God would want us to, to increase our holiness and our understanding of His Torah, without succumbing to the temptations their materialistic natures offer.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Reverting to (Re)Form

It's an old story: the Orthodox Jews didn't participate in the early aliyot to pre-state Israel. They didn't support the establishment of the state. They don't fight in the army. They don't participate in society.

What people don't remember is that opposition to the establishment and survival of Israel didn't just come from the radical right wing of the Orthodox world. The Reformers, for the most part as part of their mainstream policy, also opposed the creation of the State of Israel because of fears it would give birth to nationalistic feelings in assimilated Jews that felt more American than Jewish at the time. After all, for them America was the new Holy Land. It was only with the survival and growth in prosperity of the State that the Reformers turned around and developed a patriotic feeling for our homeland.

Since that time, Reform has tried very hard to make people forget about that unfortunate "blip" in their history. As part of their ongoing efforts to villify the Torah observant community and paint us as reactionary and obsolete, they have played up their strong attachment to Israel. They visit in small numbers, proportionately speaking (compared to the Orthodox population), they have camps and programs there, they talk about growth and creating temples and institutions.

But sometimes the true, original philosophy of Reform - Let us be just like all the other nations, except with blintzes - shines through.

Those who follow the news from Israel know that the government of Ehud Olmert is reportedly conducting secret negotiations with our enemies regarding the surrender of Yerushalayim as part of a final peace deal. Yes, the prime minister whose popularity continues to languish in the single digits, who is under several fraud investigations, whose success record in protecting his country is 1-45 (after all, he did get the Hezbollah guy in Syria), is planning to hand over the heart of the Jewish nation to the same thugs who now shoot rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon on a regular basis. And what is he getting in return? The enemy's (in)sincere thanks.

Most Jews are outraged this is happening, especially as it is being done secretly by a prime minister with no moral right to continue in his post. But not all. In fact, in addition to the whackjobs on the left one expects to give comfort and succor to the enemy, like Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, we now find the Reformers in all their glory:

Rabbi Yoffie told Haaretz that if the Israeli right wing mobilizes its supporters in the United States against such an agreement, the Reform Movement would respond in kind.

Oh well, I guess the threat isn't so real. After all, being Reform is synonymous with lack of commitment to Jewish values. Secular liberal views aren't likely to mobilize a large amount of people and those that do come out with do so to show their disdain for anything legitimately Jewish.

Yoffie said that despite their statements, he doesn't believe that the right-wing elements in U.S. Jewry would mount a serious public opposition. "Such an agreement would also be a major part of American foreign policy and they wouldn't dare to try and derail it," he said. "But if they do try, we would also mobilize our people against them."

So let's get this straight. The most incompetent prime minister in Israel's history wants to compound the mistake that was the 'Aza withdrawal. He wants to do it without the support of over 90% of the electorate. He wants to hand over vital strategic and religious parts of his country to an enemy that still openly calls for Israel's destruction (in Arabic, of course). And Yoffie wants Reform to take to the streets and help him. Am I the only person to wonder what's wrong with this scenario?

Now, remember this is the man who recently decided to show how "pro-Islam" he is, even as he works to undermine the Jewish State. It never fails though. Whenever there is a threat to Israel or Torah observant Jews, there will also be those who will jump up and shout "Not me! I'm as goyish as you goyim. More, even!"

To which the only real reply is: Shut up Eric.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

A Title Everyone Can Use

Once upon a time, the title "doctor" had a very limited meaning. You were either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a physician.

However, since the word has a deeper original meaning, the use of "doctor" has spread throughout society and become attached to multiple careers that claim to play a role in healing sick individuals. As a result, the title has come to mean less since lots of people with almost no knowledge of medicine or the liberal arts can tack it onto their names.

(Come to think of it, the same thing happened with beepers, but I digress)

A similar phenomenon has occured with the word "rabbi". Once upon a time, the title was very exclusive, and rightfully so. A rabbi was a leading person in the Jewish community, someone who had committed years of his life to learning our sacred texts and who had dedicated himself to understanding our halachah so that he could lead Jews in a proper direction as they observed God's Torah.

However, that's not really true today (heck, they gave me the title so it can't be!). The term "rabbi" today is similar to "doctor" (they gave that one to me too so you know it's in trouble!) in that any approved and licensed school that wants to offer a "rabbinical" program can graduate its students and give them the title. Hence the plethora of rabbis nowadays. Forget knowing Shas. Fluency in Hebrew and belief in God are options for some of them.

But at least until recently, the term still had something behind it. A rabbi could at least point to a developed philosophy of sorts behind the degree. A Reform rabbi had completed whatever curriculum the Hebrew Union College deems necessary to complete its rabbinical program, a curriculum developed around Reform philosophy. Same thing with Conservatives. No, they weren't "the real thing" but they had some attachment to a system.

Now, however, a shul in need can reach out and hire a non-denominational rabbi:

Formed last April after the disintegration of Santiago’s only other egalitarian congregation,
Ruach Ami members wanted to preserve the spiritual and progressive focus of its parent synagogue, says member Victor Grimblatt. They feared a rabbi from the Masorti seminary would take them in a different direction. Then they heard about Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., whose rabbinical school is set to graduate its first class of 11 transdenominational rabbis on June 1.

The first thing I did when I read that paragraph was to read it again. Given the trends of the Jewish Theological Seminary over the last 20 years, exactly what did this congregation think would happen if they went to the Conservatives? I would assume it would be quite easy to find a rabbi whose views matched theirs.

But if they're non-denominational, then what are they?

Green says the program was created five years ago not just to serve a communal need but to provide a home for future rabbis who don’t fit movement categories.“We have people who are Reform theologically and Conservative in practice, or who consider themselves Conservadox,” he says.

I love that word, "Conservadox". I met a nurse once who used it to describe herself. Now, she drove to shul on Shabbos, and she didn't keep kosher outside the home (or in it but she made sure to buy mostly kosher products) and her husband didn't put tefillin on every day but when I asked her what was "dox" about her, she told me that she feels very strongly about Israel and goes to shul ever Shabbos and Yom Tov. Riiiiiiight.

The bottom line is that, in the words of the great Canadian rock band Rush, "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice." These rabbis can be described as many things but Torah observant is not one of them. It is also interesting to read about the niche they expect to fill in the future:

We think the wave of the future is the transdenominational congregation, or a multiplex congregation that welcomes many kinds of Jews and holds different styles of services,” Green says. “We are preparing people to serve in those flexible, varied kinds of settings.”

People have always resented Orthodoxy because it stands apart from other so-called streams of Judaism. This, however, is due to something unique in Orthodoxy which is the concept of standards that cannot be violated no matter how inconvenient. Whether in kashrus, sexual morality or holiday/Shabbos observance, there are lines that Orthodoxy forbids crossing which means Torah osbervant Jews can only have so much interaction with non-observant institutions. In the end, these new non-denominational rabbis are indeed denominationalists, the harbingers of a new movement which will result with Conservatism finally accepts that it has no fundamental difference with Reform and merges with it.

All those who think that's a great thing for Judaism would do well to note the unintentional advice in the article:

“We’ve been growing exponentially,” Greenstein says. “People are beginning to understand the denominations were not given at Sinai.”

No, they weren't. They were invented by Jews who wished to rebel against God but still consider themselves good members of the faith. Perhaps once the heterdox world unites, there will be more of an acknowledgement of this.

An Interesting Encounter

I was in the supermarket yesterday and ran into an old clinical teacher of mine from residency who isn't Jewish. He walked over quickly and said "I'm glad I saw you. I had the most amazing experience on the weekend." I quickly wondered what had happened. Was it a cryptococcal meningitis, or possibly a toxic shock syndrome? Maybe an acute cor pulmonale in the absence of left ventricular dysfunction?

No. "I went to this Orthodox Jewish wedding! It was so f--ing amazing! The outpouring of joy, the way people celebrated. I've never seen so much f---ing happiness in my life! I told my wife, they should have a recruiting table and if they did, I'll f---ing sign up right now!"

I managed to keep a straight face as dialogue from The Big Lebowski came to mind. Actually, come to think of it, this teacher bears a passing resemblance to John Goodman. Anyway, I started to note "Well, there are some other parts to being Jewish than just going to weddings..." when he looked at me and nodded. "Yeah, but it was so amazing. Have you ever been to one?"

That caught me off guard. "Um, I had one myself," I stuttered. My teacher, undeterred,m continued on: "Well, it must have been f---ing amazing too. Wait a sec, are you Orthodox?"

A Guide for the Non-Halachic Minyan

I've never known much about the Shirah Chadashah crowd, the so-called Orthodox egalitarians in Yerushalayim who have developed some interesting ideas about how to make a prayer service more equal-opportunity for all their members. However, recently a couple members of this crowd, Elitzur and Michael Bar Asher Siegal, published a booklet , Guide for the Halachic Minyan, in which they outlined their halachic approach to the issue of egalitarian minyans and the participation of women in services.

Clearly the Bar Asher Seigels are trying to develop a prayer format that they can be comfortable with, one that reconciles their desire to abide by proper halachic behaviour while indulging their need to be progressive and egalitarian at the same time. The problem is that this booklet does not answer that need. If anything, it unfortunately exposes the limitations of left wing Modern Orthodox thinking and expose the rest of its practitioners to yet more ridicule from the Chareidi community.

To start, the book ignores one of the single biggest problems with women conducting services, that of Kol Ishah. Now, there are multiple definitions of what it prohibited by this term, ranging from the extremely strict (see the previous post on burkas) to relatively lenient. However, most major authorities would agree that an individual woman singly pleasantly for men is forbidden. Had this booklet started by addressing this issue, even if it had used every lenient opinion available, it would have at least aknowledged this fundamental problem and that its authors had considered and dealth with the issue. However, there seems to be no mention of the problem. It is taken for given that the prohibition does not exist. not a good way to start the booklet.

Even if that fundamental problem is passed over, the contents themselves testify to the problems with the concepts contained within. Consider:

From the perspective of the halakhic feasibility of women’s leadership,
the prayer service may be divided into three categories:
Parts for which there is no reason to forbid women’s
leadership. Typically these parts may be left out of the service,
or may be led even by a child.
Parts of the service for which there is reason to think that
women’s leadership would be
problematic (devarim
shebikdusha, sections that involve positive time-bound
commandments or in which the leader fulfills the
congregation’s obligation, etc.), but for which women’s

Parts where women are apparently barred from fulfilling the
congregation’s obligation, though even here halachic solutions can be advanced.

In other words, the conclusion has already been reached that really, the entire service can be led by women despite problems involving d'var sheb'kedushah as well as the responsbility for the prayer leader to fulfill the obligation of the listeners.

Indeed the latter point is almost immediately addressed in an ingenious fashion:

Otherwise, though, the recitation of Hallel during festivals is
obligatory only upon men, as it is a positive time-bound
commandment, and women are therefore unable to fulfill the
obligation of a congregation that includes men. However, there is no
need for the prayer leader to fulfill the congregation’s obligation,
and if each person in the congregation makes sure to recite Hallel
individually, as is the common practice in any case, there is no
reason to prevent a woman from leading Hallel.

An interesting solution, therefore, is to reclassify the prayers as basically individual since each person is already praying out of his or her siddur which means the woman leading services isn't really leading at all, getting around the problem of her leading them in the first place. But if that's the case, why have a prayer leader at all? What unifies the congregation?

Going further into the booklet, one quickly learns about the halachic methodology used by the authors. As Michael Schweitzer noted in his milestone article, the way left wing Modern Orthodoxy often discovers its leniencies is through the concept that "where there's a halachic will, there's a halachic way." Looking at many of the sources throughout the booklet, it is clear that the authors did in-depth research but only considered those opinions that they agreed with, regardless of whether or not more authoritative rabbonim had rejected them.

In a way, this is not dissimilar to the concept of the chumrah-of-the-week in which eager Chareidim eagerly comb the rabbinic literature and then grab any stringent opinions they can regardless of how obscure the source is. The difference is that this group forbids what's permitted, a far lesser transgression than permitting that which is forbidden.

At any rate, halachah does not work in this fashion. It is not a grab bag of choices which allows each person to custom his or her individual level of practice. There are community standards and expectations which render certain opinions the norm and others not. Thee may be a Chacham Tzvi or Rabbeinu Tam that is permissive and reflects the worldview of the authors. However, the halachah may not follow these opinions. A cursory study of the Misnhah Berurah gives one insight into this methodology. A respected decisor, for example the Taz, may present a lenient opinion only to be opposed by most of the Acharonim. Thus we do not follow his opinion except possibly in certain extreme cases. This booklet seems to use the opposite approach - if there's a lenient opinion out there, they bring it as the source of their permissiveness. This is faulty and ruins the booklet's attempt at being a legitimate halachic guide.

Consider this footnote regarding the Shulchan Aruch's prohibition against women having aliyos even thought technically speaking the Gemara (T.B. Megillah) permits it:

Shulchan Arukh OH 282:3, on the condition that the congregation “waives the honor due it.” See
also Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s comprehensive explanation: Rabbi Mendel Shapiro, "Qeri’at ha-
Torah by Women: A Halakhic Analysis" (Edah 1:2).

Again, a fundamental principle, that the congregation cannot waive its honour, is completely ignored and the opposite is assumed to be true. Most poskim agree that a congregation cannot waive its honour. What's more, there is a meta-halachic principle involved here as well. As noted by many authorities, including Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt"l, there are some behaviours and actions which, despite being able to find support for them in the literature, are not done in Torah-observant environments because there is no mesorah that they ever were done. The opposite approach, that some opinion somewhere permits something that has not been a Jewish behaviour until now and that therefore this new behaviour can be adopted without difficulty, is a recipe for anarchy. It de-emphasizes the community aspect of Judiams and replaces it with a Reform-like "religion of one" in which each person picks and chooses to craft a Judaism that fits his or her personal moral position. This is completely wrong since Judaism demands the exact opposite (cf. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch's explanations of the symbolic meaning of the Aron Kodesh and its placement in the Mishkan), a sublimating of one's personal feelings to the objectivity of Torah values.

In the end, this Guide for the Halachic Minyan will cause damage to the position of Modern Orthodoxy within the Torah-observant world. Conservatives and Reformers will be able to point at it and show how their religions are not so different so why don't the Orthodox accept them as legitimate? Chareidim will rightly point to the book as evidence that the only real difference between left wing Modern Orthodoxy and right wing Conservatism is the mechitzah, assuming the Shirah Chadashah crowd believes one is necessary (not mentioned in the booklet). Those Torah-observant people who don't know better will be led astray thinking that there is a valid source within the halachic system for egalitarianism. None of these can be considered positive outcomes.

In a recent conversation, Rav Benjy Hecht of Nishma noted to me a further futility to the concepts in the booklet. It is clear from the depth and breath of the literature on the subject aht God, through his Torah and the Oral Law, differentiates between men and women in halachah. What the Shirah Chadashah crowd seems to desire is a nullification of that differentiation to assuage their secular liberal principles. But if they are truly Torah observant, wouldn't removing the different between men and women be counterproductive to becoming more involved Jews?

I will conclude with a quote from Schweitzer's article which seems most relevant to this situation:

Modern Orthodoxy has come to emphasize matters that are only remotely connected with Torah, like showing concern for world affairs and engaging the general community in feel-good endeavours. The final result is that while the mother might express her modernity at an all-women’s prayer service, her children will do it at the movies.

Take A Look In The Mirror First

I've always had a problem with "Ashkenazi-creep", the tendency for people to assume that the way Ashkenazi Chareidim, specifically Eastern-European Ashkenazim, do things is the way to do something Jewish. It ignores the rich diversity of legitimate traditions within Torah Judaism in a an attempt to replce them with bland conformity.

I especially don't like seeing Sephardim adopting Ashkenazim customs and behaviours because they want to appear more frum. Sephardi Judaism is older, more colourful and far more dynamic and it is a shame when people abandon such a rich heritage because of the mistaken impression that it's no longer good enough.

So, on one hand I was heartened by this article in which Rav Yitchak Yosef, the son of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, one of the pre-eminent Sephardi rabbinic leaders of the day, castgated Sephardim who adopt Ashkenazic customs because they think it's more religiously correct, and also attacked the Ashkenazim who are giving the Sephardim this impression.

There's only one problem. While anyone who has ever seen Rav Ovadiah Yosef knows he is careful to appear in the garb of a traditional Sephardi rabbinic leader. However, the picture at the top of this post is of his son. Exactly who is he dressed like, an Ashkenazi or a Sephardi?

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Differentiating Between the Ideal and the Unavoidable

The traditional nuclear family has been under attack for decades. The strategy to destroy its importance and value has reaped great dividends in the Western world. Today the world "family" can apply to almost any unit of people as can be imagined. Far from mom, pop and the kids, one can even find unrelated people cohabitating under a single roof describing themselves as a family. Then there's "alternative" lifestyles and even polygamists who still exist in North America.

Standing against this change has been the traditional Jewish definition of family which, despite endless social pressure, does not change. The ideal Jewish family remains what it has always been: a loving mother and father, along with their beloved children. This model remains the ideal, despite the attempts of social engineers to change that.

That doesn't mean the efforts cease. This recent article in Ynet seems to believe that change in the religious world means a necessity to change the definition of the ideal family:

With a delay customary for the religious world, slowly but surely the religious family is also turning into a new, different, and alternative family. We can show our displeasure, make a face at the synagogue, or turn a cold shoulder at school, but they are here: The new religious families, and particularly the special-different-alternative families; the debate over their legitimacy or definition has been irrelevant for a while now.

Really? According to who? Pretty much only those people in these alternative situations who crave the legitimacy the traditional nuclear family offers in Judaism. The article also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how Jewish law evolves:

Just like in the legal-secular world, and as opposed to common perception, social norms are not created by Jewish law, but rather, the opposite is true (or at the very least, two trends coexist simultaneously while constantly affecting each other.) The history of Jewish law is replete with developments and changes forced upon it by the world in which it exists. And just like in any other walk of life, the same will happen in the area of family life as well. Reality will change, and Jewish law will change – you should have no doubt about that.

Social norms may differ from Jewish law but Jewish law does not change to accomodate them. People may talk in shul but I don't know of a single posek who says that it's okay. People may want to have premarital sex but again, other than a professor at Bar Ilan and some horny admirers, one is hard pressed to find legal support for such a fundamental change in Jewish law. The history of Jewish law is, in fact, replete with examples of the resistance of Jews to changing morals and norms around them. As the world has intermittently slipped into barbarism, the Torah and its laws are the one thing that has remained as a bulmark against our joining the Gentile world in their tragedies and farces. Reality does not change Jewish law. Rather, for the believing Jew, the opposite happens.

Many would like to think that what is natural is also what’s right, and that it is the only way to manage proper family life (not to mention family life based on Jewish law) yet reality proves that this is not always the case. For example, those who give birth should naturally be raising their children…yet we have become accustomed to viewing adoption as an acceptable way for creating a family.

A Torah observant Jew does not think that what is natural is also what's right. He knows that what God wants, through the laws of His Torah, is what's right. End of story. Yes, reality deal us odd or tragic circumstances. No one should look down at single mothers or adoptive parents but to accept them as equivalent to the ideal Jewish family model is absurd. Let's not even mention the possibility of accepting "alternative lifestyle" families as acceptable in Jewish law.

It is catering to the common denominator instead of encouraging striving to the highest possible ideal. It is, in short, the mediocrity of Western secular liberalism vs the demand for excellence that is Torah philosophy.

Debasing the Meaning of the Act

There's a great line in Steven Martin move, "L.A. Story" that's appropriate for this piece from The Jerusalem Post. In it, Martin's character is about to take a far younger female paramour, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, away for the weekend. However, he has realized that he's truly in love with a different woman, one far closed to his age and intellectual interests than the blonde airhead he's standing with. So, in what he hopes will be a compromise, he suggest that they not "make love" while at the resort. "That's okay," says Parker, "we'll just have sex!"

There is a world of difference between the two terms, of course. The former implies a loving, intimate relationship between the two partners. Making love implies a complete physical and mental sharing, an act in which the pleasuring of the other person is the priority of each participant until both are consumed with the desire to make the other one happy.

Having sex is two people each looking for their own personal satisfaction. It's all about them and their needs, not their partner's. It's something any animal out there does with equal efficacy (and far less casual foreplay at the bar beforehand).

Making love is love, while having sex is lust. I've written about this before and the interested reader is referred there for more details.

In truth, I was wondering when Ashkenazic Cheif Rabbi Yona Metzger was going to get into the news. Recently all the interesting statements have come from his Sephardi counterpart, Rav Shlomo Amar. I'm glad to see that Rav Metzger also wants to attract some of the spotlight.

However, in this case, I can't critizice what he's said:

In an attempt to stem a trend of quasi-condoned premarital sex among young modern Orthodox men and women, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger has issued a prohibition against allowing single women to use mikvaot (ritual baths).
In a letter dated January 24 and addressed to the rabbis of the Land of Israel, Metzger warns of a trend in which young modern Orthodox men and women use mikvaot to circumvent one of the severest prohibitions connected with sexual intercourse.
"It is absolutely prohibited to allow a single woman to immerse herself in a mikve," wrote Metzger. "And it is an obligation to prevent her from doing so."

In recent years, there has been a trend amongst the left-leaning side of the Modern Orthodox world to look for ways to circumvent that most inconvenience of Jewish traditions, the prohibitions against casual sex. Hence the odd belief stated in this article:

There is no Biblical prohibition against a male and a female having sexual intercourse once the obstacle of nidda has been removed.
There is, however, a less stringent rabbinic injunction against premarital sex.

This is bizarre. A less stringent rabbinic injunction? Is there really such a thing? The purpose of rabbinic injunctions is to prevent the violation of Torah prohibitions. If it's there, it's to prevent something far worse from happening.

But even the first premise is faulty. Even a superficial read of the Torah will quickly show that casual sex carried with it great responsbilities, up to and including having to marry the woman in certain cases. Nowhere does the Torah imply that if the woman goes to the mikveh than a night of doing the horizontal mamba is perfectly okay and ethically fine.

The root of this problem can be traced to certain poskim throughout the ages who had no difficulty with this arrangement as long as certain conditions were understood:

Zohar's article, printed in Akdamot, an academic journal on Jewish thought published by Beit Morasha, analyzed the opinions of leading halachic authorities from the Middle Ages, such as Nachmanides, and those of the modern era, such as Rabbi Ya'acov Emden, and showed that many permitted sexual relations without marriage.
In an arrangement sanctioned by Jewish law, according to these opinions, the woman becomes a pilegesh, or concubine. Neither the man nor the woman has any obligations or rights, but both must adhere to family purity laws in accordance with Halacha.

Imagine telling a young woman entering the dating scene that, for a night, she can become a concubine. She can enter into a relationship with a man which he has the right to unilaterally end and without having to provide her with any compensation. Is a night o' nookie worth such a humiliating stipulation?

What's more, this is an egregious example of "picking and choosing" that it such a common criticism of the non-observant Jewish movements like Conservatism. Perhaps Rav YTaakov Emden, tz"l, found a way to approve of concubines. Did he actually believe that young men and women should use his responsa to engage in casual sexual relationships? Are the people who rely on his opinion also prepared to live according to all his strict rulings as well?

In a comment on evolution in the famous Hertz Chumash, Rav Hertz notes that it is not man's descent from apes, but rather his ascent that the Torah tries to impress on us. Animals have sex. Human beings are expected to be above this, to act with the Godly dignity our creater imbued us with and form stable, long-term relationships that allow partners to make love, something truly holy and special. Abandoning this height for a lifestyle that might be more convenient but it lowers the participants to a level God has sought to raise us up from. Is 1 few hours of pleasure worth that?

The British View of Things

Israel has never had much luck with British prime ministers. Whether due to political expediency or the long, much-hallowed tradition of official British anti-Semitism, Britain's leaders have usually been a thorn in Israel's side, from Chamberlain through Churchill to Eden and on. The one exception is Margaret Thatcher but that's because she mostly left Israel along and because of her unique, realistic political outlook in knowing who her true friends and enemies were.

Thus it is no surprise that Tony Blair, both during his term as prime minister and now as a special envoy to the Middle East, has had a distinctive anti-Israel bias to his public pronouncements. Indeed, if one reads between the words, the true attitude comes through loud and clear:

The Arab world truly wants the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved urgently, and many Arab leaders back terms for a permanent accord "very close to what Israel is wanting," Quartet peace envoy Tony Blair told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.

Yes, this is absolutely true. The Arab world wants the conflict resolved through the destruction of Israel so they can temporarily create a new country, Palestine and then deport all the "Palestinians" living amongst them to this new state. Ask any Arab you meet. The so-called Palestinians are the dregs of Arab society, marginalized and kept in absolute poverty and misery by their Arab brothers. After all, successful integration of these folk would imply acceptance of Israel and abandonment of the absolute imperative to destroy it. No, there's no getting on with their lives for the so-called Palestinians. But after 60 years of failing to destroy Israel, the Arabs are getting tired of the citizens of this pseudo-entity they've created. Now Israel's real sin is forcing them to put up with this permanent underclass.

As for Israel wanting something similar, that's what Blair gets for only listening to those Israelis, like Yossi Beilin and his ilk, who would be very happy to see Israel removed from the face of the Earth tomorrow, if only to assauge their guilty liberal consciences.

"I spend a lot of time talking to the Arabs," said Blair. "I have a genuine belief, and this is not shared by everyone in Israel: The Arabs genuinely want this settled now.

Really? Then why were Israeli delegates at Annapolis treated as pariahs? Why were they not allowed to use the same entrances as the Arabs? Why does no Arab state officially open ties with Israel except Egypt which uses its influence to increase anti-Israel hostility in the Middle East?

Although Blair preferred not to identify which leaders he was referring to

Probably because the only thing these leaders lead is the staff of the 7/11's in Newark where they work.

He faulted Israel for not acting with sufficient urgency to speed up a range of economic projects that could immediately benefit Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. He also asserted that freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank could be improved without compromising Israeli security.

Once again, blame the Jews. It's Israel's fault that Yassir Arafat stole billions of dollars from his own people and either hid the money in foreign banks or used it to by arms he promised not to when he signed the Oslo discords. It's Israel's fault that he whipped his people into a frenzy of anti-Semitic hatred and built a new society in Yehudah, Shomron and Aza which is defined by its desire to destroy Israel. It's Israel's fault that Hamas has decided that it would rather have the Azans live in mistery than stop the Kassam rockets and let the locals resume a semi-normal life.

The sad truth, which the secular liberal West has never been able to understand, is that the Arabs in Israel are responsible for their misery. Were they to abandon their demands for a second Holocaust tomorrow, accept the fact of Israel's existence, and work to build up their own society, they would be as prosperous as the Israelis. But in the fine tradition of cutting off one's nose to spit on one's face, they continue to huddle their own in sqalid refugee camps. Better mistery in the belief they can destroy Israel than prosperity living alongside it. Of course this attitude is incomprehensible to the soft Western liberal mindset.

After all, the only person that can understand the stubborn Arab is the stubborn Jew.

Being Intolerant of Intolerance

I sometimes wonder how people who worship at the altar of Political Correctness reconcile contradiciting priorities. For example, Political Correctness demands the complete equality of men and women in all things (except for access to jobs, promotions, public office, divorce settlements in which it favours women but let's not go there). It also subscribes to the concept of cultural relativism in which it is believed that no cultural practice, however odd or odious it might seem to secular liberal sensibilities can be judged as good or bad. It's just "different". But what happens when the Politically Correct are forced to interact with an ethnic group that has a practice that offends his/her egalitarian sensitivities? Does feminism or non-judgementalism take priority?

Well, we now have an answer, courtesy of Brenda Hogg, the deputy mayor of Richmond Hill, Ontario. For those familiar with the area, Richmond Hill is a prosperous bedroom suburb north of Toronto that is home to a relatively large Jewish community. And where one finds enough Jews, one will find Chabadniks lighting menorahs in public. It seems last December she was invited, in her capacity as deputy mayor, to attend such a lighting. After arriving, she was introdocued to the rabbonim running the event and, as is common in secular culture, tried to shake hands with them. If the account in the paper is accurate, one of the rabbonim visibly recoiled (although I doubt it was in horror as Ms. Hogg described in the article). The other, trying to defuse the situation, explained to her that it was due to respect for women that they did not shake hands with them.

Naturally, Ms. Hogg was disgusted by this explanation:

"If I am entering someone's temple, synagogue, church, their place of worship, if I choose to enter then I will conform to those traditions. But when this is a public event and this is held in a public building or a commercial building ... at that point it seems to me that you don't get to tell me how to dress. When did we start thinking that by accommodating that, we were maintaining or enhancing Canadian society? Canadian laws and traditions are based on acceptance and inclusivity."

The response from the "official Jews" at the National Post was predictable. Barbara Kay, who seems never to have met a Chareidi Jew that she couldn't hate without even getting to know him, offered this:

I’ll let some feisty Muslim woman columnist take on the Muslim men, and I will confine myself to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, or the "black hats," as other Jews call them.
Now these rabbis are entitled to their old-fashioned attitudes regarding women and the intermingling of the sexes. But they surely must have known that Ms. Hogg would be in attendance in her elected capacity as deputy mayor. Are they so hermetically sealed in their religious world as to be unaware that it is a convention in our society — a very Canadian convention — for people to shake hands when introduced

Now, I personally am one of those "crazies" who is shomer negiah. Having said that, in my day job I frequently come into contact with women who do not know that Orthodox Jews, both male and female, restrict their interpersonal physical contact to those of the same gender. I have therefore always applied a principle my father insists on, that "to be rude is almost always worse than to insist on having things your way" in these kinds of situations. If a hand is extended to me, I quickly return the gesture. Most people would be bewildered were I to try and explain Jewish custom to them and frankly, when one looks at the origins of these laws, non-intimate contact is seen in a far more lenient light that the alternative. In a perfect world, I wouldn't have to deal with this but this world is far from perfect and our challenge in following God's law is to overcome that imperfection the best we can while offendeding the least we are able.

So do I think the Chabadniks were wrong? Absolutely. Look at the results and see how much chilul HaShem has been publicized because of this. Did Deputy Mayor Hogg understand why they did what they did? No. Once it was explained to her, did she realize that no offence was meant? No. So what gain was there in upholding a minor custom in an awkward situation? Indeed, as others have suggested, Chabad should have called her office and let her know about the handshaking issue so that no feathers would have been ruffled.

Having said that, I also think that Deputy Mayor Hogg has to take a step back and look at her own statements. For example:

When did we start thinking that by accommodating that, we were maintaining or enhancing Canadian society? Canadian laws and traditions are based on acceptance and inclusivity.

Strictly speaking, that's not entirely true. Canadian laws and tradition since the Trudeau era (1968-1983) are focused on absolute, non-judgemental multi-culturalism. The objective of official Canadian culture is to take immigrants from around the world and encourage them to not adopt the norms of the majority around them but to maintain their culture as strongly as possible. If anything, the Chabadniks, by refusing to change their behaviour, were acting in the best spirit of Canadian multi-culturalism. How could Hogg think otherwise? And how dare she, in the name of Political Correctness, demand that they accept her views as "the" norms?

What's more, and this has been a peeve of mine for a long time, a deputy mayor is a public servant. Key word: servant. Yes, governmental philosophy in Canada for the last 50 years has been to act in the opposite manor (old quip: other countries have governments, Canada is a government with a country) but if you strip away all the liberal arrogance about the righteousness of the nanny state, Brenda Hogg is a servant of the people, amongst them these Chabadniks. Exactly what would happen to a butler who bad-mouthed his employers in such a way?

Finally, there is Ms. Kay. Contrary to her concerns, I would not call her a self-hating Jew. In fact, I've always had the impression she quite likes herself and is very fond of Reconstructionism, the religion she has confused with Judaism. I do think she is sensitive to those who would label what she strongly believes in as incorrect and, as a result, has developed a strong hatred for Chareidim and Chasidim in particular, as evidences in her writings. Thus her rush to write a hostile column about them with every chance she gets. No doubt she'll do the progressive radio interview circuit as well in the coming week and spew her vitriol as amply as she can.

No, there is no "code" not to criticize other Jews in the media. However, there is the matter of proper behaviour. I would challenge her to look at the pages of her own paper. In the article, Ms. Hogg describes being similarly discriminated against during a ceremony in a mosque. To date, The National Post has published two opinion pieces and several letters criticizing the Chabadnik rabbonim for their behaviour. I have yet to see one letter written by a Muslim explained why the officials who refused to interact with Ms. Hogg during the Eid ceremony she attended were primitive, self-centred or fanatic in their devotion to outdated rules. Perhaps she will note something about that.