Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 27 March 2008

When the Only Rule is That There Are No Rules

The middle ground is always the hardest ground to hold. Extremism on either side is quite often far more logical, at least on a superficial basis. While either end of a spectrum can claim a uniform and consistent set of views, those in the middle must often justify why they accept a bit of both ends and what their justifications for each view are. Some groups can do this well. Others inevitably slide off in one direction or the other until they become nearly identical to one of the extremes that they once stood apart from.

This is the story of what has afflicted Conservatism in recent decades. Whereas once they were the largest so-called denomination of North American Jews, in recent years their numbers have slipped behind Reform as their members slowly bleed away to the right and left. Those interested in a serious Torah lifestyle inevitably choose to become Orthodox which those who don't care about having the authority of halachah in their life become Reform. What used to work for them, a strong liberal philosophy combined with a perceived respect for halachic limits, is now seen as a liability as the Torah observant portion of North American Jewry grows more influential. If one is interested in eating like a Jew, why keep only partly kosher? If one believes in the sanctity of Shabbos, why only observe only certain rules? And if one isn't interested, why do anything at all? When given the choice between complete individualism and authoritative communitarianism, few people will decide on the identical mix of the two.

Yet as Conservatism slid slowly to the Reform side of the spectrum, it continued to loudly assert that it was somehow different. Perhaps it was the ritual part of things that the movement still observed in a semi-traditional fashion as opposed to Reform's free-for-all. Perhaps it was the insistence, despite all laughter to the contrary as well as the assertion of one of its major figures, that Conservatism was still "halachic".

What really ended the movement's distinction from Reform was the change in policy to hold that homosexual intercourse was no longer a sin and that people engaging in that practice were no longer acting contrary to Jewish law. Although the change was made through the official process that the Jewish Theological Seminary uses, this only highlighted the foolishness of their claims to halachic legitimacy. The rule was also passed in typical Conservative fashion:

The movement's legal authorities adopted conflicting rulings on the status of homosexuality in 2006. One permitted the ordination of gay rabbis, another upheld Judaism's longstanding ban on homosexual intercourse.

All this came to mind when I read this article on the recent controversy surrounding the first anniversary of the ruling allowing the "ordination" of Conservative students. This decision has proved to be far more polarizing than the previous major decision that the movement made, that of giving women the title "rabbi". In that case, both sides to the disagreement were able to move beyond the initial conflict, reassured by the fact that nowhere in the written text of the Torah are women prohibited to hold such a position. The decision regarding homosexual rabbis is different. It's one thing to reject the Oral Law as a fanciful invention of old rabbis who didn't speak English (so what did they really know?). It's quite another to have spent decades taking about the importance of the Written Law and then go and defy it with crazy explanation of clear cut rules. By doing so, Conservatism has essentially removed any fundamental different between themselves and Reform. The only real contrasts between the two are window dressing. If there was any doubt of this, then the position held by the group - and articulated by Einat Ramon, dean of the Conservative's Schechter Seminary - that does not accept the legitimacy of homosexual rabbis proves this beyond all doubt:

Ramon is a well-known critic of the liberalizing tendency toward gays within Conservative Judaism. She has said she views homosexuality as a choice and, in a speech last year to a conference in Israel, reportedly said the family is endangered by gays with an agenda who seek to destroy it.
Ramon said further that the Conservative movement must protect the family against these homosexuals, who already have succeeded within the Reconstructionist movement.

Despite her more "conservative" position, Ramon shows she is ignorant of one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. The laws of the Torah were not given for reasons that make sense to us in every age and place. We do not perform mitzvos because of perceived gains or relevant social benefits. Mitzvos are fufilled by a Jew to fulfill the will of the Allmighty God who commanded them. To oppose the ordination and marriage of homosexuals because of considerations regarding the nuclear family misses that point entirely and proves that Conservatism is merely Reform with a different logo on the official letterhead.

Bring Out Your Dead!

The definition of death in Jewish law is an extremely complicated area and I'm only going to touch superficially on it in this post. Given the time (hah!) I would like to put something together for the blog but probably won't get the opportunity until next year.

In recent days Israel has been dealing with a new law regarding organ transplants. Now, it is important to realize that many types of organ donation are sanctioned by halachah and that such donation, if life saving, can be a huge mitzvah. It is also well known that Jews generally perceive organ donation to be something universally forbidden because otherwise the entire body would not be available for burying. Getting past this ingrained assumption is something organizations like the Halachic Organ Donor Society have dedicated themselves too.

The reason for the urgency of the matter in Israel is due to the very low rates of organ donation there. According to one report, Israel is excluded from sharing in organ donation databases in Europe because while there is definitely a demand for organs in Israel, the Jewish community there only very rarely donates.

The classic definition of death, as defined by the gemara at the end of Yoma, is the cessation of spontaneous respiration. Before the era of invasive cardiac monitoring, this was considered a relatively decent standard. Respiration is controlled by the brain stem, the top part of the spinal cord, and when the brain stem dies, spontaeous breathing ceases.

Modern technology, however, has muddied the waters with its ability to measure body functions previously uncheckable, such as brainwave activity, brain metabolism and subclinical cardiac activity. All this has made the modern Jewish definition of death much more difficult. The classic reference case is the person who is otherwise non-viable but on a respirator and has a spontaneous heartbeat. Should the respirator be turned off, breathing will stop and shortly after so will the heart. Is this person alive or dead?

According to Rav Eliashiv, the determinant of life is the presence of cardiac activity. Certainly he is not alone in this view and even if he were, his status as the leading Chareidi halachic authority in the world makes this view important for consideration. Thus for Rav Eliashiv, the patient mentioned in the last paragraph would be alive and indeed this has been his public position, along with all its implications:

The second poster was published solely in Elyashiv's name, and said: "As I have already stated, as long as the heart (of the prospective organ donor) is still pumping blood, even in the case of 'brain death,' it is not permitted to remove any organ from the patient.'
A related article published in the community's paper read: "In the world of the Torah and the Halacha, much concern has been expressed regarding the provocative and shameless intervention in the grave subject of murder and (the Jewish law of) saving a life."

The other position is that breathing is the determinant of life. If the patient is incapable of breathing spontaneous, then even if the heart is beating, the patient can be considered dead. This was the position of the Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l and is still the position of his son-in-law, Rav Moshe Tendler, a major authority in Jewish medical law in his own right. In this view, the absence of function in the brain stem and above renders a person physiologically decapitated. This despite the present of a heart beat, the person is seen as no different that one whose head has just been lopped off and whose heart continues to beat for a very short time after. In addition to the other authorities who agree with this view, the current leadership of both the Sephardi Chareidim and the Dati Leumi community have accepted this view as the prevailing one. The Israeli law reflects this view as well, but also contains an interesting proviso:

The newly approved organ donation law will give every family the right to decide by which halachic ruling they prefer the pronouncement of death to occur – whether based on brain death or heart failure.

In other words, while the law now defines the Israeli legal view on brainsterm death, those who disagree would not be forced to accept that view if it is contrary to their personal halachic viewpoint. This all sounds incredibly reasonable.

The real concern is the response from the Chareidi community which basically runs as: To hell with all of you. Our view is the right one and anyone who disagrees with us is a murderer. I can understand their strong feelings on the subject because, in their halachic opinion, to turn the respirator off on a patient who is braindead but still has a heartbeat is no different than pulling out a gun and shooting the patient dead. Who would not be outraged if the latter were legalized?

Yet the difference here is that equally authoritative sources have deemed that brainstem death is indeed true death in which case turning the respirator off is not murder. Thus it would seem that the current conflict goes beyond medical definitions and comes to rest on the question of whether the Ashkenazic Chareidi community grants any legitimacy to halachic views which contradict its own, no matter how well-placed the authorities behind those views are. Is this simply another power play to delegitimize any rabbonim who disagree with the current Chareidi leadership? If this is the case, they should be called on this. Halachah is only besmirched when it is reduced to a simply, monolithic system identically applied to everyone and only interpreted by one "approved" group. It is a complex system that requires a variety of approaches and viewpoints to arrive at the real truth God wants for us. The debate is therefore another symptom of the bigger problem.

Bye Bye Burka!

"And Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aharon, too each of them his censer and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered a strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And there came forth a fire from before the Lord that devoured them, and they died before the Lord." (Vayikra 10:1-2)

Different reasons have been given for why Nadav and Avihu died in this week's parashah, as well as the meaning of the "strange fire" that they offered. Rav Hirsch, in his commentary, discussed the concept of revising the Holy Service and the affront to God and His Torah that it creates:

The pagan brings his offering in an attempt to make the god subservient to his wishes. The Jew, with his offering, wishes to place himself in the service of God; by his offering he wishes to make himself subservient to the wishes of his God. So that all offerings are formulae of the demands of God, which the bringer, by his offering, undertakes to make the normal routine for his future life. So that self-devised offerings would be a killing of just those very truths which our offerings are meant to impress and dominate the bringers, would be placing a pedestal on which to glorify one's own ideas, where a throne was meant to be built for obedience and obediences only. We can understand that the death of the preistly youths and their death in the first moment of the consecration of the sanctuary of God is the most solemn warning for all future priests of this Sanctuary; it excludes from the precints of the Sanctuary of God - which was to be nothing else but the Sanctuary of his Torah - every expression of caprice, and every subjective idea of what is right and becoming! Not by fresh inventions even of God-serving novices but by carrying out that which is ordained by God has the Jewish priest to establish the authenticity of his activities.

Now, most explanations of what the Torah meant to tell us in this story flow along one particular path. Nadav and Avihu certainly did not have a bad intention when they brought their offerings. Indeed, it seems quite likely that the reason they did was to exceed the spiritual revelation they had received thus far. Thus did their love of God and desire for His radiant presence push them along. So they either "went too far" and were thus punished.

This is instructive in the recent brouhaha concerning the Ramat Beit Shemesh Burka Gang. The initial reports all carried the same basic tone. Here were a bunch of women not satisfied with even the strictest Chareidi views on public modesty and female dress. They were prepared to declare their entire bodies an agent of sin and therefore cover them. But they went further than that. Not content to be "exceedingly pious", they also taught that theirs was the true way and that any woman who did not reach up to their standard was somehow deficient in her observance.

And yet now the news reports tell a different story. The leader of this group, far from being supremely righteous, stands accused of not only beating her children in ways that would make any normal person cringe, but also of encouraging unspeakable acts between them. In an uncommon example of the system working, she has been arrested for these things. There was never any question that these women were mentally ill. Now we have learned just how far gone their minds were.

The problem is the response from the outside. In a celebrated set of posts on Cross Currents, Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein recently decided that any view to the left of what is currently de rigeur in the Chareidi world is "beyond the pale". As documented on this blog, when confronted with angry rebuttals, he replied with a patronizing "Oh I can see why you're upset but that's just because you don't understand why I'm right".

Since that time, however, his words have come back in a haunting way. First, there was the massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav and the response of (one of) the Satmar Rebbe:

This attack happened not in a place of danger, but in the middle of the city (Yerushalayim). It could have happened anywhere, in any yeshiva, but it happened specifically in a Yeshiva associated with the "Mizrachi" stream.We cry for the murdered and for the pain of the families, but we also have to relate to the pain of the Divine Presence. Causing someone to sin is worse than killing him - the people of Mizrachi are the greatest "Causers of sinning" in this generation. They were a bridge between Haredi and secular, and killed tens of thousands of souls. We need to ask Hashem to stop the murders of the body, but also the murders of the soul."

I checked Cross Currents for a few weeks after that comment came to light and even left some (unpublished - what a surprise!) comments on Rav Adlerstein's posts but the words never did seem to get written. Yes, believe that the first chapter of Bereishis can't be taken literally and you are beyond the pale. Justify the murder of Jewish boys (may God average their blood) and you're not.

And now this. Until now, most ultra-Orthodox websites have been silent about the Burka Gang. I definitely do not expect any to address it given this latest turn of events, no more than they have the Chareidi school in Australia which recently hit the news. But the silence brings an incredible confirmation of what is considered "religious" and "non-religious" in the eyes of certain Chareidim.

(As an aside, I've always wondered at the phenomenon that says that if you eat non-kosher food you can't call yourself religious but if you beat your wife and kids or steal from others, you still can)

Never mind that the Burka Gang were trying to be "super-religious". Yes, the comments of Rav Hirsch above were not aimed at the Chareidim of his day but rather at the Reformers but they can easily be pointed in the other direction. As Chazal tell us, the Torah was given to human beings, not angels, which means that God only expects so much from us and a constant superhuman effort in all things is not one of them. One can easily be too far away from a Torah lifestyle through lack of observance, as we see in unfortunately too common, but one can be too far from a Torah lifestyle in the opposite direction, by inventing new standards no one ever heard of before and pronouncing them to be the new norm of observance. With apologies to Rav Adlerstein, such things are just as beyond the pale of proper observance; the stated intentions of the so-called "pious" are not relevant to that.

In the end, Nadav and Avihu tried to exceed the norm that God had decreed. The Burka Gang also did this and it seems that the sincerety of their "holiness" has been exposed for all to see. For all the superficial observances they forced upon themselves, they were far less observant when no one was looking than many people they would decry as "non-religious". And hopefully the golden mean will be restored.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Setting the Terms of Observance

Here's my question to the Modern Orthodox:

Let's say you were approached by a mysterious benefactor. This person promises to take care of all your financial concerns. You no longer need to work. He'll pay your household bills, car costs and kids' tuition. You can take a vacation in Israel or Florida once or twice a year. Don't worry, the money will be there.

So, now that you no longer have to work, what would you do all day long?

Well, obviously other than when you're engaging in family time like at meals or in the evenings. Let's assume the rest of the time the kids are in school so you have no pressing obligations. Your benefactor will even up it a notch. The local hospital has enough volunteers, the local food bank isn't looking either. There are no current community needs to fill. What would you do?

I would suggest that the correct answer is "learn Torah". And I am prepared to defend that answer.

The Torah tells us that it is "your life and the length of your days." Further, God tells Yehoshua early on in his career that "this Torah shall not depart from your mouth day and night." The sixth chapter of Avos brings numerous examples from the rest of the Bible stressing the importance of Torah study and its priority at all times.

Then why is it that so many of us do not spend our days learning Torah? Well, for the obvious reason that this mysterious benefactor has not (yet) contacted any of us. Thus we go to work to pay our various bills and spend the rest of our time participating in society around us. This naturally cuts down on the time available to learn.

The problem is when we forget that, despite the multiple responsibilities we face on a daily basis, our Torah study is the main part of our day. It may be a few minutes here and there but those few moments are when we fulfill the reason for which we were created. As our Sages tell us, it's the same whether you do a little or a lot as long as your heart is directed to Heaven.

Certainly the dominant group within the Torah observant world, the Chareidi community, has taken this answer as true. Indeed, while I noted above that a person generally fufills his material responsibilities first out of necessity which winds up limited his time for Torah study, the Chareidi community has gone a step further, abdicating some responsibilities for the sake of increased learning.

If that's so, then why am I asking this question of the Modern Orthodox?

Because I would suspect that the average member of that community would not answer the question this way. There is a danger in extremes. Some elements of the Chareidi community, in their zeal to learn Torah, abandon most of their responsibilities, consigning themselves and their families to poverty rather than take the time to earn a decent living. But in the Modern Orthodox community, the opposite has happened to many. They take on their material responsibilities and ensure their families are well cared for, enjoying good educational opportunities and physical comfort. However, somewhere along the waythey may have forgotten that their struggling is a distraction from their true occupation as Jews and that if they have the time their first priority is to reconnect with God through the learning of His Torah.

Now, I am not, chas v'shalom, saying that leisure and recreation are forbidden. I'm not fan of Lipa Schmeltzer but I was as shocked as anyone when his concerts were recently cancelled on the grounds of their being indecent. People who work hard need to relax, lest their drive themselves into nervous exhaustion and an early grave. No physician will deny that a person needs "down time" to regain their physical and mental strength. But again, just as the Rambam teaches that all our daily activites should be l'shem shamayim, so too should our lesiure activities. Our work should not be an end unto itself and our relaxation should serve a higher purpose than personal relaxation. All our thoughts should be directed to Heaven and when the opportunity to connect with it is available, we should grab it, as Chazal say: the alacritous perform the mitzvos quickly.

And perhaps this is one of the suggestable solutions for solving the crisis that Modern Orthodoxy finds itself in today. There must be an effort to refocus people back to true Jewish priorities so that they can reconnect to God and their purpose in life. One who comes to purify himself receives help from Above. If one makes the Torah one's life's primary work, even if it cannot be one's only work, then that would help crystallize a person's belief and focus on what is truly important. May God grant His mercy and favour on us all.

Which Side Is He On

Not so recently, I ran a post criticizing Eric Yoffe for his intention to rally his "troops" to counter any opposition to a forced Israeli-Arab peace deal that would involve giving up parts of Yerushalayim. Pro-peace as he is, Yoffe was bothered by those reactionary forces in America who still, for some unidentifiable reason, seem to think that our enemies in Israel cannot be trusted to keep their part of a peace agreement and that any deal that involves giving up our Holy City is anathema to believing Jews.

Yet today I came across this article in which an entirely different Eric Yoffe seems to appear. Far from the "I'll stop those war-mongering rightists", this time Yoffe speaks the language of his opponents when discussing the need for Israel to re-enter 'Aza and put an end to Hamas' reign of rockets and terror:

Did they understand that since 2001, more than 7,000 rockets had been fired from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel? Did they realize that a “proportionate” response would involve 7,000 Israeli rockets fired at civilians in Gaza? Did they appreciate that the relatively small number of civilian casualties in Israel resulted not from the humanitarian intentions of Hamas but from the crudeness of their weapons, and that those weapons were now improving? Did they know that the traumatized children of Sderot lived in constant fear? On what basis, I asked, did they expect Israel to tolerate these attacks?
And what would their congregants be saying if their churches in Michigan had been subjected to seven years of hostile fire from across the Canadian border? Would church leaders be calling for “restraint” from the American government in these circumstances? And did they really expect that any American president would show such restraint?

Strong words from a man previously thought to be so dedicated to peace that he was prepared to fight for the Israeli government's right to give a city that is its capital and that of the Jewish people it purports to represent. But he didn't stop there:

What followed, of course, was the suggestion that the “occupation” was responsible for the rocket fire. I replied: Excuse me, but Prime Minister Sharon pulled out of every inch of Gaza in 2005, and his successor was elected on a platform calling for unilateral withdrawal from most of the remaining territories. And yet there has not been a single day of quiet following that withdrawal. Indeed, rocket strikes significantly increased after it was completed.
Yes, I assured them, I shared their concern for Palestinian suffering in Gaza. But the simple fact is that if terror and rocket fire were to come to an end in Gaza, the suffering of her people would end as well.

Of course he's completely right. 'Aza is currently unoccupied and a constant source of destruction for Israel. Yehudah and Shomron rightly remain under Israeli control and one does not read of rockets raining down on Petach Tikvah and Hadera. This is not something to be wondered at. Given a free hand, the Arab leadership in 'Aza has engaged in behaviour that is perfectly predictable for an organization that is dedicated to destroying Israel. Only Israel's continued control on the ground elsewhere has prevented the problem from spreading.

But if you pause to think about it, Yoffe is completely inconsistent in his assertions. On one hand, when he called for the American Jewish left to prevent the Jewish right from sabotaging a deal to surrender Yerushalayim, he was saying, in effect: I'm aware Israel has already evacuated territory at a terrible cost. I'm aware that only complete idiots (read: liberals) still don't see that this was a huge mistake. And I want to push forward a deal that will lead to further withdrawals.

Yet now he talks about how admirably Israel has restrained itself until now in the face of endless provocation and how he can't blame the government if it sends the army back into 'Aza to finish Hamas off!

Well which is it? Was the withdrawal from 'Aza such a mistake that a re-occupation, even if temporarym, is necessary? And if so, how can he justify supporting further withdrawals that only a moron (read: liberals) couldn't predict will lead to further violence against Israel?

Thursday, 20 March 2008

The Meaning of the Day

Other than Yom Kippur, there are five public fast days in the Jewish Year. Of all of them, only one is referred to by the Hebrew word Taanis. The remainder are either referred by simply by their date or as a Tzom. It seems appropriate to spend a moment on that interesting fact.

Taanis derives from same Hebrew root as Inui, affliction. The difference between "fast" and "affliction" is significant in relation to Yom Kippur which is described not as a day of fasting but of inui. The practical difference between the two manifests in the rule that someone who must eat for health reasons on Yom Kippur is allowed to do so if he keeps to a certain minimum amount over a certain period of time (the concept of eating in shiurim). The reason given for this is because, since Yom Kippur is not a fast day but rather an affliction day, this small amount of eating can be allowed in certain circumstances because such small amounts of food do not alleviate a person's feelings of affliction while any amount of eating ends a fast. For example, on Tisha B'Av we do not find the concept of shiurim because it is a fast day.

Conceptually one can see the sense of this as well. On Yom Kippur we are anxious that our sins be forgiven. Thus the affliction we undergo reflects our desire to be cleansed before our Father in Heaven. At the end of the day, the decision about our fate is made and we strive until that last moment to make sure it is a positive one. However, Tisha B'Av and the other historical fasts reflect events that have come and gone. Yerushalayim was laid to ruin, our Temples were destroyed (may they be rebuilt speedily and in our days) and Gedaliah ben Achikam was assasinated. There's no anxiety over the recollection of historical events, only sadness at the tragedies they caused. Thus one fasts but affliction is not required.

What then to make of Taanis Esther, the only one of the fasts to bear a name related to inui? A look at what the event commemorates might be instructive. Remember that the first Fast of Esther was not to recall a historical event but a direct plea to God to save the Jews of Persia from the machinations of Haman {insert booing noises here}. Thus, like Yom Kippur, the Fast was decreed because of a potential future outcome and was one laced with anxiety about what would happen. Hence, although the halachah decrees that the rules about eating on this day are in relation to fasting, not affliction, one can see that the concept of inui is quite relevant.

Additionally, it might be suggested that the reason we don't observe this day as an affliction day is because we do not observe the Fast of Esther on the days it was originally held on (it would make for a short Pesach seder since it went through Pesach during that year). Our Taanis Esther is a remembrance for a historical event, hence the fast, not the affliction.

But the lesson for us today is still instructive. Especially in light of recent events in our Land, we can see that the Hamans of the world are still out there plotting our demise. Far from a mere lead up into Purim, it behooves us to spend some time on this day and think about our precarious situation in this world. We love to glorify our material lives and believe that we hold the key to our own survival. As experience after experience has taught us, this is a false hope. We have only our Father in Heaven to protect us and we must keep our thoughts focused on Him and His mercy.

Yet we are not bidden to remain passive in the hopes of miraculous intervention from above. Purim follows Taanis Esther because the Jews of Persia, having put their hopes in God, then went out and fought for their lives with all their strength. As Jews we must keep our faith with God but also do our best to succeed as a people in this world with the strength He gives us.

This is the lesson of why Taanis Esther comes directly before Purim. Having spent the day in reflection of how we can only succeed with the help of God, we then rely on that help to overcome our enemies. With all that is threatening us today, we must do both more than ever.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

What Kind of Modern Orthodoxy?

In the end, the criticisms of Schweitzer's article on Modern Orthodoxy have boiled down to one of two things:

1) No mention of Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik and his important role in the development of Modern Orthodoxy in North America

2) It seems the article is recommending that Modern Orthodoxy become Chareidi.

I'll leave the first point aside for now. The second, however, is important because those who make this criticism seem to have missed the point of the article.

What, exactly is the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidism? On a fundamental level, it's a difference between autonomy and centralization. The Chareidi world, through its use of a hierarchical power structure and tools of conformity such as uniform clothing and cultural normals, is very centralized. One cannot simply call oneself Chareidi without dressing and acting in a certain way and acknowledging certain concepts as absolute truth.

On the other hand, Modern Orthodoxy has, until now, functioned in a diametically opposite way. Without any central authority, any leader of a congregation or yeshivah has been able to develop his own philosophy vis a vis what Modern Orthodoxy means. As a result, one has a spectrum of practice and philosophy ranging from Rav Avi Weiss and his YCT on the left which is little different than the UTJ, the extreme right end of Conservatism, and Rav Hershel Schachter and his school of thought on the right which is quite close to the left end of the Chareidi world. Interestingly, both sides claim to be following in the spirit and philosophy of the Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik despite the wide variance between them.

What this means is that there is no real Modern Orthodoxy in terms of concrete values and beliefs. The movement is simply one that occupies the position on the spectrum from UTJ on one side to those Chareidim who wear coloured shirts during the week on the the other. This is hardly an inspiring model for its youth which is why the majority, when they hit university age, either drop out or buy a black hat.

If Modern Orthodoxy wishes to become a real movement rather than a space filler, then it must create concrete standards that define what its beliefs and positions are. The problem is that whatever the standards, someone is going to disagree with it. Allow women's prayer groups and the right wing objects. Disallow them and the left wing shouts "foul". Until now this fear has kept any meaningful change from occuring. But the atrophy of the movement is accelerating. The recent capitulation of the RCA to the Chareidi-controlled Rabbanut is a sign of this. Imagine if the RCA had wanted to hold its ground against the Rabbanut. Could Rav Basil Herring have resisted Rav Amar knowing that his membership's support is, at best, lukewarm? One cannot lead when the followers will not follow. One can also not blame the Chareidim for this power play. They realize their opponents, the Modern Orthodox leadership such that it is, is weak and have taken advantage of it. The MO crowd may be smarting from this realization but for the Chareidim, this was a can't-miss opportunity to impose uniform standards, their standards, on anyone claiming to be Torah observant. This won't be the last time the Chareidim invade the Modern Orthodox community and demand it change its standards or be delegitimized. And if the MO response is the same each time - whining about how their weak leadership surrendered and how they shouldn't be fanatics - then the Chareidim will win each confrontation.

It's also not as if the Modern Orthodox community hasn't produced its own outstanding leaders. Men such as Ravs Hershel Schacter, Michael J. Broyde, Benjamin Hecht and Yehudah Herzl Henkin among many others have been hard at work expanding the depth and scope of Modern Orthodox halachic thought. The literature, the responsa and the philosophy are all there but need to become the authoritative guides to the Modern Orthodox community.

The only way to break this is for the Modern Orthodox community to acknowledge that it has a problem of self-definition and loyalty. Faced with a united front to the right, it must form a united front of its own and it can't do that by trying to be all things to all people. Somewhere along the line, Modern Orthodoxy will have to define itself along halachic lines and then say to those beyond those boundaries: You're either in with us or you're out but you can't do whatever you want and use the MO label any longer. I don't not write these words easily. Disenfranchising Jews whose hearts direct them towards God and his Torah in ways I disagree with is not my intent but the alternative will lead to a complete disintegration of the centre ground and no place will remain for those who wish to be observant but do not want to be Chareidi.

Once this is done, those who remain in the MO fold must become passionate about their beliefs. No long "frum by default", their Orthodoxy must be a positively expressed one, the same way the Charedi community passionately expresses their way of life. In this regard, Schweitzer iws 100% correct. Only by seeing themselves as a cohesive movement, by knowing that others think as they do and are prepared to fight for those same beliefs, can the Modern Orthodox community exert its influence in Jewish affairs.

The Modern Orthodox world has to pull back and develop some insight instead of reflexively rejecting anything that seems Chareidi. In some areas, such as ascribing importance to Torah learning, the Chareidi approach is quite legitimate. In other areas, such as the disdain for productive work and the disregard for kavod habriyos when it comes to non-conformists, the Chareidi model is not workable. But to develop a new MO model requires an open mind and an ability to decide that one's principles might not be the best ones from a Torah point of view. It means accepting that certain stringencies, far from being inventions of fanatic rabbis or not reflective of Jewish trends in that past, are real behaviours that are incumbent on all Jews who wish to show fealty to God and His Torah.

A Cold View of Heaven

When I was in the second year of my medical training, I took a course which had a segment on medical ethics and palliative care. One of our assignments was to choose a book dealing with death and dying from a sociological or religious point of view and to review it. The book I chose was Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

My review of the book was primarily a negative one and my thoughts on the subject haven't change all these many years later. The book is generally used within Conservatism to comfort people who have suffered a loss. It has also developed a certain popularity in other religious circles. One can see why, even from a look at the title of the book. When one has suffered a loss, there is a temptation to ask the question "Why me?" or "Why him/her?" There's nothing wrong with this and Jewish leaders all the way back to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, have tried to come up with an answer.

None of them have, which makes you wonder how Harold Kushner did.

He did so by essentially changing the rules. In a variation of Admiral James T Kirk's admission that he cheated while in Starfleet Academy so that he could pass an unwinnable test (see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Kushner changed the very nature of God to alow his thesis to work.

In short, we don't know why bad things happen to good people. We cannot understand why children get sick or, chas v'shalom, die. We can't understand why some people slave their entire lives for a few pennies and die in penury while cheats and scoundrels are rewarded with comfort and success. For Kusher, who suffered the tragic loss of his son to illness, it made him question God's very abilities to run the world. If God is good, how can bad things happen?

Now, in the authentic Jewish sources, such as the Ramchal and others, these concepts are explained to a degree with the understanding that all things, good and bad, emanate from God and have a role to play in this world. Kushner chose to see things more simplistically. If God is good, then He can only do good. If bad happens, then it's because God cannot do anything to stop it. He can provide silent comfort and a source of hope for tomorrow but in terms of general help, He's about as capable as a warm cup of tea.

In this, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is a very non-reassuring book. It presents the view of an impotent diety incapable of helping when times are tough. Forget Simon and Garfunkels' "like a bridge over trouble waters I will lay thee down". When bad times are close at, Kushner's god will watch silently but sympathetically from Heaven. For him, we really are all alone in our painful, random world.

Of course, if that's the case, then what's the point of observance? Kushner himself questioned this years ago when he declared at a JTS forum that Conservatism is not a halachic religion. After all, if his god cannot prevent bad things from happening, how powerful can he be to reward? And if all that happens is random anyway, what's the point of keeping any of the mitzvos? Better to look out for oneself than altruistically subject oneself to possible harm.

In the end, I can understand why non-religious groups have such admiration for the book. The same god who can't help you can't stop you from doing whatever you want and calling yourself a good Jew for it. What I don't understand is why people can't figure out why Torah obsrvant Jews have such a problem with it.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Reattaching the Leadership

A couple of memories stick out for me when I think about the relationship between the leadership of the Chareidi community (the Gedolim) and the rest of the Torah observant world.

One is a story I heard years ago of a certain rabbinic leader who was visiting New York from Europe in the 1920's. On his way to shul on Shabbos morning, he heard two Jews speaking Yiddish on the street. He looked over to see two tradesmen discussing their work plans for that day and fell over in shock. Jews, speaking Yiddish, working on Shabbos? He had never heard of such a thing and had trouble dealing with this realization.

Another comes from a Rav Pesach Krohn video I watched on Tisha B'Av years ago. He mentioned a story about a great Rav who used to walk aorund in public without wearing his glasses so that he wouldn't see the world around him. "After all," said Rav Krohn, "there are certain things a tzadik shouldn't see!"

Finally, a recall reading in Eim HaBanim Semeicha of how Rav Issachar Teichtel tried to understand the virulent anti-Zionist attitudes of the Munkatcher Rav despite the abundant sources supporting a Jewish return to Israel. His conclusion was that the Munkatcher was surrounded by people who always agreed with his views and as a result never heard a different opinion or had to consider another point of view. Had he been, he might have seen things differently.

I wondered about these thigns in the wake of the big concert cancellation recently. Now, we're not talking about a Metallica concert or a Pink Floyd reunion (halevai) at which all sorts of very frowned-upon activities might be taking place. This, like a similar one in Israel which was also cancelled, was set up to be as observant as possible. Separate seating, strictly kosher food, the works. So what bothered someone so much that 33 influential rabbonim felt the need to annonce its cancellation?

Apparently going out on the town for a concert is forbidden by Jewish law. That, or having any pleasure is.

Back in medical school I had a teacher in Internal Medicine who felt very strongly about the importance of a doctor making his medical studies the priority in his life. Now, he was a great teacher and extremely knowledgeable but his lifestyle was quite limited. Essentially he practised medicine. In his spare time, to relax, he read the latest medical literature. And he had no compunctions about giving us all very large amounts of reading and work to do. If we grumbled, his response was "Well, do you want to be a good doctor or go out on Saturday night? Because you can't have both."

Now, for all that non-Chareidim criticize them, one must acknowledge that the Gedolim are the world experts in pure Torah knowledge. These are men who have spent decades immersed in Torah study, have worked their way from one end of the bais medrash book collection to the other. They spend their days doing little else other than learning Torah and answering people's questions in a Torah fashion. Because of this, when it comes to Torah knowledge they are truly a cut above others who think that doing Daf Yomi or owning a number of Artscroll books qualifies one to pasken for oneself.

Having said that, one must also consider that this lifestyle is very limiting. Because of their love for Torah and its study, this is all the Gedolim do. Furthermore, they are surrounded by other schoalrs who aspire to their level and therefore learn Torah all the time. Leisure for them is an easy Gemara with a juicy Maharsha to get through. I wonder, however, if this immersion has caused them to forget that others are on a different level? After all, the pure Torah lifestyle is not for everyone, nor can it be. Each person is gifted by God in his own special way and it is through the optimizing of these gifts that we flourish as a people.

But if the Gedolim only see Torah wherever they look, and if all those around them also only see that, then the idea of going out to a concert for an evening's enjoyment would surely seem extremely foreign and wrong. After all, time spent at the concert is bitul Torah and this is a sin that cannot be countenanced. Furthermore, the halachah forbids conerts and public happy gatherings as a memorial to our destroyed Temples. Yes, for a very, very long time this law was observed principally in the breach without anyone saying too much about it. But for those for whom any law, however obscure or unobserved by the rest of the Torah observant world, is an important rule that cannot be questioned, surely Lipa Schmeltzer's concert should not have been allowed in the first place.

I wonder, however, how disconnected the Gedolim have become from the laity because of their dedication to Torah and exclusive focus on it. This consideration is not without reason. Many Chareidim children go "off the derech" due to an inability to keep up with the latest standards. Others become tired of the never ending stringencies and fail to see a point to them. Some genuinely need "down time" to relax and unwind without thinking that they are sinning for it. When everything becomes forbidden, then everything inevitably becomes permitted.

On one hand, the Shulchan Aruch and the other major codes do specify that music and celebration are forbidden as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temples, unless they are connected in some way with a mitzvah (eg. wedding). That's what the books say.

On the other hand, in the last few centuries these laws have been observed more in the breech than anything else. Imagine someone puts up a stop sign on a deserted road and at first everyone stops even though there's never any traffic coming the other way. After a few years people start ignoring the stop sign. No one is delegitimizing it but somehow because of circumstance this particular stop sign is ignored. Even the sheriff doesn't have a problem with the situation. One day a new cop comes to town and, to make his mark, he starts waiting by the stop sign and nabbing all the residents who drive through it.

Technically, the new cop is 100% right. There's a stop sign and people driving through it are breaking the law. On the other hand, there was a reaonsable excuse for why it was being ignored.

Similarly here, it is undeniable and much to our discredit that due to our many sins and our spiritual dullness, we simply do not feel the loss of our Temples like we used to and like we STILL should, may Heaven preserve our damaged souls. But as a result, not listening to music or attending concerts does not make a difference to our observance of that particular mitzvah. Again, techincally speaking, the rabbonim were 100% right in banning it if they were going to go by the books.

But maybe that's one reason God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us an Oral Law. Because sometimes you need to go by more than just the book.

Have they forgotten that not everyone can have a lifestyle like theirs? In their zeal to perfect the Jewish people, have they decided that what has been the norm until now - different Jews observing the mitzvos in different styles, each to the best of their ability - must be changed into a uniform approach that brooks no dissent? A tzadik should know that non-religious Jews can speak Yiddish, light Chanukah licht and still not observe Shabbos, chas v'shalom. He should wear his glasses in public so that he can see what his people are doing and understand how to best approach them.

And if this is so, might it be possible that someone outside the fold with a love of God, His People and His Torah might be able to tell them this? That through their desire to banish any potential peritzus from the Jewish people, they are driving many away who cannot keep all the stringencies they have decreed?

Principled Ignorance

I've never been a big fan of Shakespeare. I realize that most of my lack of appreciation is due to ignorance of the value of classical English literature and its contribution to world society. But I still don't understand why his stuff couldn't be translated into English I can understand, without all the "fardles" and "bodkins" thrown in.

Having learned The Merchant of Venice back in grade 9 (my school project that year was a full length parody in which Shylock wins his trial and runs off with Portia at the end), I have also never understood the claim that the play is anti-Semitic.

For one thing, if ol' Bill Shakespeare hated Jews, it couldn't have been from personal knowledge of them. Jews had been expelled from England centuries before and wouldn't be allowed back in until long after his death. To him, a Jew was a character from history or literature, not a real, living person and if he thought derogatory thoughts about Judaism, it would be fair to wonder if he'd ever had the opportunity to hear positive ones.

Despite this, The Merchant of Venice in the original (anyone can twist the text on-stage for personal ideological reasons) does not come off as anti-Semitic. Shylock is a venal character, to be sure, but if one examines how he is treated by the title characters, Antonio and Bassanio, it is hard to blame him for carrying a grudge and wishing to make their lives difficult. Yes, his request for a pound of Antonio's flesh is unreasonable but when the matter comes to trial at the end of the play, one cannot help but be disgusted with the tactics used to frustrate his desire. A fake judge, a loose interpretation of what justice is when it helps Antonio and a strict interpretation of the law when it results in thwarting Shylock, all these point at something far deeper. I am not a scholar of Shakespeare's works (I can't understand what they're saying half the damn time!) but is it possible that he had developed some sympathy for this people he did not know? Was he portraying Shylock as the bullied victim who tried to get back at his tormentors only to be frustrated by them?

I thought of all this when I read this post from Cross-Currents tonight:

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news coverage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

The article goes on to analyze the results of the girl's decision but in my opinion, the actual issue is skirted around. For me this is not a case of whether or not the school should honour its obligation to teach matters required by the national curriculum or not, or whether children should have a right to protest material they find offensive. For me, the defining line is:

they had not even been studying The Merchant of Venice.

Uh huh. So, based on heresay or assumption, these girls took a principled stand on something they clearly know nothing about, and as a result damaged their grades and their school's reputation.

It's one thing to take an active stand on a researched position. It's quite another to decide to avoid material based on assumptions or guesses. It does not speak of principles but impetuous ignorance. Is this state of education in the Jewish system today? And when these girls go out into the real world and are confronted by jewish points of view different to their own, will they react just as dismissively?

Friday, 7 March 2008

What Might It Take to Avoid The Split?

It's easy for bloggers to find a column or article they don't like and post a rebuttal or dismissal of the piece on the Web. Heck, that's what a good chunk (most?) of my posts seem to be some times. It's harder to find stuff by folks you've differed with before and lavish praise on it? We're used to a negative spin in the media. After all, no one reports good news. It's not sensational. And it's the same thing with good columns. If you disagree, you want to tell the world. If you agree, you shrug your shoulders and move on.

But what with the recent emphasis on Jewish unity, or to be more specific the lack of it, I wanted to draw attention to Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece from Mishpachah, "A Hint of Jewish Unity". Although he certainly could not have realized it, the impact of the piece would become much more important shortly after with the horrific events of yesterday in Israel.
My brief stopover in Toronto last week happened to coincide with a solidarity rally for Sderot called by the Toronto Jewish Federation. As an Israeli citizen and a resident of Israel for almost three decades, it struck me that if Jews in Toronto were gathering to show solidarity with their fellow Jews in Sderot, it was no less incumbent upon me to do so.

This is one of the things I admire about Rosenblum. Yes, at times he will push positive PR for the Chareidi world in spite of any negative implications that might have otherwise been emphasized. Well, that's his job, after all and he is dedicated to earning an honest living. However, most of the time he will present a situation with a great deal of insight. He doesn't enter a discussion convinced that he is right and dismissive of his opponents. He is prepared to defend his position with great erudition but also concedes when a different point might be made. Thus, he starts the article with a thought that is not at all controversial, that of attending a Sderot rally. Later in the article, however, he notes:

I also reflected on how unlikely it would have been for me to participate in such a gathering of a broad cross-section of my fellow Jews in intensely polarized Israel. Even within the Israeli religious community, those things about which chareidim demonstrate generally do not attract the national religious community and vice versa.

This is an important observation. One comment that keeps coming up in the Israeli media is how the secular residents of northern Tel Aviv don't care about what happens in Sderot and won't until the rockets start landing in their back yards. A similar complain is sometimes voiced about the Chareidi community in Yerushalayim. Except for those who live there or truly care, the idea of rockets falling on Sderot has become like background noise. Of course it happens every day. Now, what was the score on the Leafs game?

What has been forgotten by many, I suspect, is that these rockets are not being fired at Sderot out of a desire to hurt or kill Israelis. They are being shot because of a desire to hurt or kill Jews. In a country where being Israeli has frequently supplanted being Jewish, a connection may have been broken between culturally disparate segments of society. How much more so the distance between the Israeli and Golus Jewish communities. Too often we see ourselves as Canadians, Americans, Israelis, but not as Jews with a tremendous heritage in common.

FROM THE MOMENT that the scenes from Sderot began, I found myself crying. I wasn’t exactly sure why. The most obvious explanation, of course, was that I was crying over the suffering of the residents of Sderot. But I suspect that there was something else behind those tears as well – a certain question: Why did I have to come to Toronto to focus on the suffering of my fellow Jews in Sderot?

As I child, I recall the many times my parents would shush me during the news as the words "And in Israel today..." came from the television. Every incident, every action or reaction, was the subject of divided attention and then endless conversation with Jewish friends and family. Of course we had to discuss it. We were Jews, this was Israel, it was not a question.

And this is possibly why Rav Rosenblum found himself crying, why I felt an overwhelming urge to this morning when I went through the news to read about what happened yesterday in Yerushalayim. We are all fellow Jews, both those who have kept their observance of God's Torah fresh and alive and those who have unfortunately strayed from that path. No, we no longer share even the most basic values and any attempt to build a reconciliation on the illusion that we do is doomed to fail.

But we share something more. A spiritual tie to one another born in one tremendous moment over 3000 years ago when the Heavens opened and God's voice called out "I am the Lord, thine God, that took you out of the house of bondage, out of the land of Egypt." It is that tie that makes the people of Sderot and the students of the Mercaz HaRav yeshivah my brethren and makes me feel a connection to their suffering. And that is the tie that must be nurtured to avoid our people from further splintering.

May Hashem Avenge Their Blood

We are alone in our crying this today. Despite the platitudes and condolences of the world, we remain alone. Even as the bodies are being buried and their holy souls are flying to their Maker in Heaven, there to be placed under His Throne of Glory, the world is already hedging the support they say they have for us in this tragic hour. Some, in fact, cannot put their own pathetic hatred aside for a moment lest they feel they are betraying their ideology of mindless hatred.

In the last while, there have been multiple posts across multiple blogs discussing the schism between the observant and non-observant parts of our people. Questions have even been raised as to whether the two groups even share any basic values. Some have expressed sadness, while others disgusted glee (yes, you know who you are).

This morning, I would submit a definition for "Who is a Jew". Anyone who reads the news and feels a pain in their heart is a Jew. Anyone who feels that he lost someone dear even if he didn't know anyone at the Yeshivah but simply because a fellow Jew was killed in cold blood is a Jew. Someone whose blood boils within him at this outrage and turns his heart towards our Father in Heaven for support in this difficult time is a Jew.

For we are all alone in this world and we have only our Father in Heaven. We cannot bring what is true justice to our oppressors and enemies. Only He can. We do not scream about "blood and fire" and massacring our enemies. Only God can deliver true justice, therefore we must hope and pray that in the merit of the kedoshim who are with Him now that He will justly avenge their split blood and that we, who are still in this world will suffer no more but see His speedy redemption instead.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Coming Split, Part 2

Hot on the heels of the previous post, I came across this article in The Jewish Week (hat tip: Nishma and its founder, Rav Benjy Hecht). It served to confirm the concerns I raised at the end of the previous post.

In brief, there are as many answers for why the North American Jewish population is fissuring down the fault line of religious/non-religious but everyone agrees that it is happening. The problem is that constructive solutions are difficult to suggest. Pretty much anything one side demands of the other is considered a non-starter. The Orthodox community is not going to give up observance of halachah in order to reduce the alientation the non-observant community feels from Jewish religious behaviour. The non-religious are not likely to start observing Shabbos and kashrus in order to please the Orthodox. And so it goes.

The survey found that the single issue most important to Orthodox Jews in deciding who to vote for president this year is “support for Israel” (25 percent), while only 6 percent of Conservative Jews, 3 percent of Reform Jews and 4 percent of respondents who characterized themselves as “Just Jewish” agreed. Sixty-four percent of Orthodox Jews said they feel “very close” to Israel, compared to 39 percent of Conservative Jews and 22 percent of Reform Jews and those who are Just Jewish.
The non-Orthodox groups chose “economy and jobs” as the most important issue, followed closely by “health care,” both of which ranked behind “terrorism and security” for the Orthodox.

This is not surprising when one considered the different definitions of Jewish identity between the two groups. One way of summarizing it is to label the religious as American Jews and the non-religious as Jewish Americans. The two superfically sounding terms reflect a world of difference. For one group, being Jewish is the primary root of personal identity. An American Jew and a Russian Jew are both Jews, members of the same national group despite disparate home addresses. The opposite is not necessarily true. A Jewish American and Jewish German might find they have little in common, each identifying more with the dominant secular culture of their home country rather than the common Jewishness between them.

When one considers that, the results of the survey make perfect sense. American Jews are concerned about the Jewish homeland and the Jews living there. Given the relative peace and security of life in North America, this translates into Israel and America's relationship with it being the political priority for this group. In the other group, the Jewish Americans are more worried about what other typical American groups might be concerned with, like the economy and their material well-being.

Fifty-six percent of Orthodox Jews described themselves as politically “conservative,” twice as many as Conservative Jews and three times as many as Reform and Just Jewish. The differences were reflected in response to the Iraq war, with 57 percent of Orthodox Jews agreeing that the U.S. “did the right thing in taking military action” compared to 27 percent of Conservative Jews, 22 percent of Reform and 24 percent of those Just Jewish.

Again, there is no shock here. The underlying principles of the two groups are completely different, leading to diametrically opposed political outlooks. Simply put, for American Jews the priority is what God, through His Torah, expects us to believe and do. For Jewish Americans, liberal secular values are the guiding principles. Combining that with concern for Israel, it's no surprise most observant Jews are conservative while most non-religious ones are liberal.

But more than that, a non-existent past seems to linger in the mind of non-religious Jewish leaders:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says “it is one of the great tragedies of Jewish life” that the kind of Jewish unity that existed until about 25 years ago among the denominations, despite their serious differences, has “come to an end.”

Consider the time frame and you can easily deduce the real reason for the end of the "Jewish unity" Yoffie is talking about. It was about 25 years ago that assimilation and intermarriage began to take a huge toll on the non-religious population while the Orthodox population in North America began to rapidly grow and exert influence of its own in the larger Jewish community. Until then, Reform and Conservativism dominated the public religious scene with religious Jews being relegated to the side-lines and the Ultra-Orthodox being ignored as strange and weird relics altogether. Today Reform and Conservatism are shrinking, the latter more quickly than the former, while the Orthodox world continues to grow in strength, both political, financial and cultural. In truth, the community was never united but now with the Orthodox making a large impact, this disunity is playing out on a larger scale.

Sociologists might trace a rightward shift within the Orthodox community to the growing trend over the last two decades or more among yeshiva high school graduates, both girls and boys, of spending a year, and often two, in Israel to study in yeshivas and seminaries before starting college back home. The positive result has been a deepening commitment to and appreciation for Torah study, religious observance and the State of Israel among these young people. But it has also meant that many of these teens become heavily influenced by their rebbes and teachers whose views, practices and values are far more conservative than those of mainstream American society in terms of openness, diversity, tolerance and secular education.

The underlying biases of the author shine through in these lines. Imagine the preceding worded this way:

Sociologists might trace a left shift within the secular community to the growing trend over the last two decades or more among high school graduates, both girls and boys of abandoning what little relics of Jewish observance they had when starting college far from home.
The positive result has been a deepening commitment to and appreciation for liberal values, secular mores and the culture of political correctness among these young people. But it has also meant that many of these teens become heavily influenced by their professors and study partners whose views, practices and values are far more liberal than those of mainstream American society in terms of openness, diversity, tolerance and secular education.

Doesn't sound too flattering, does it? Yet if a religious Jew were to take umbrage at the original version, it would be used to demonstrate how rigid and close-minded Orthodox Jews are. In other words, the underlying assumption is that secular culture is the objective normal. Since Torah observance deviates from it, it must be abnormal and, in some ways, wrong.

In recent years, with Richard Joel becoming president of Yeshiva University and the founding and growth of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, there has been a sense of an attempt to move the Modern Orthodox community back to the center.

Once again, the biases come through. I don't know much about Richard Joel but YCT is (in)famous for its approach to Modern Orthodoxy. Rav Weiss is not seekng to nudge the community to the centre. He is sitting on the far left and trying to sway people in that direction. In addition, this move has not been good for Modern Orthodoxy. As the innovators move further and further towards the right wing of Conservatism, they create greater and greater questions of religious legitimacy on the movement in the eyes of both the Chareidi community and the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy itself.

For now, the two sides may each be waiting for the other to fade, but the only hope of bringing them closer is to place an even greater emphasis on Jewish education and identity. In that way, they may vote as liberals or conservatives, but motivated by a common sense of Jewish values.

This is perhaps the most disinforming piece of the article (good thing it came at the end). Note the first sentence mentions the completely acceptable emphasis on education and identity. The second mentions the equally inoffensive "common sense of Jewish values". But not two paragraphs before, Rosenblatt states:

What all sides agree on is that the sharp differences between the Orthodox and religiously liberal Jews reflect their strongly held worldviews, and that neither side is budging. The Orthodox are not bending on halacha or on an Israel-centric view of politics, and the others are not giving in on patrilineal descent, gay and lesbian inclusion, or political liberalism.

So on one side, the Orthodox will not budge on such issues as who is a Jew, what is acceptable Jewish behaviour and how one should think and value things as a Jew. On the other side, the non-religious are doing the same things. Yet these three items: Who, what and how are the very essence of the ultimate question of "What is a Jew"? If the non-religious are so far apart from Torah ideals on these three things, what common Jewish values are left? Latkes on Chanukah? Matzoh on Pesach?

Monday, 3 March 2008

The Coming Split

Years ago I listened to a sermon in which a Rav described a recent meeting of the Satmar elite. One of their interesting statements was that, contrary to any census date out there, the total Jewish population in the world was really only one million souls. It wasn't hard to guess who they were including and excluding.

At the time talk like this was dismissed as a bunch of fanatics looking to isolate themselves from the world but certainly not mainstream opinion in the Chareidi community. Unfortunately this no longer seems to be the case. As this now infamous New York Times Magazine article notes, the Chareidi community in Israel is talking steps to ensure not only that they have control of over Jewish life cycle activities in Israel but that they also now control the answer to the question: "Who is a Jew?"

In short, it has been traditional to believe a person who introduces himself as Jewish. Indeed, there is apparently a psak from the Chazon Ish himself endorsing this view. If this is the case, then what has happened here?

One day last fall, a young Israeli woman named Sharon went with her fiancé to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to register to marry. They are not religious, but there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate, a government bureaucracy, has a monopoly on tying the knot between Jews. The last thing Sharon expected to be told that morning was that she would have to prove — before a rabbinic court, no less — that she was Jewish. It made as much sense as someone doubting she was Sharon, telling her that the name written in her blue government-issue ID card was irrelevant, asking her to prove that she was she.

Understand who is being challenged here. This is not some stranger from Russia or elsewher with no obvious connection to our people:

She grew up on a kibbutz when kids were still raised in communal children’s houses. She has two brothers who served in Israeli combat units. She loved the green and quiet of the kibbutz but was bored, and after her own military service she moved to the big city, which is the standard kibbutz story.

Now, this article has elicited the usual outrage. I was also angered by what I read. But the more I thought about it, the more my attitude changed. I would like to approach this from a different angle, one noted in the article itself:

Trust — or lack of it — is the crux. Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless she really did. The leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (known as the Hazon Ish, the name of his magnum opus on religious law), held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, “even if nothing is known of his family,” Karlitz wrote.
Several trends have combined to change that. In an era of intermarriage, denominational disputes and secularization, Jews have ceased agreeing on who belongs to the family, or on what the word “Jew” means. Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly question the Jewishness of those outside their own intensely religious communities. The flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel deepened their doubts. In the Soviet Union, when someone with parents of two nationalities received identity papers at age 16, he could pick which nationality to list. A child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother could put down “Jew.” The religious principle of matrilineal descent was irrelevant.
In the United States, the Reform movement responded to rising intermarriage by deciding in 1983 to accept children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother as Jews if they were raised within the faith. The denominations also diverge on how to accept a convert into Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally do not regard conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis as valid — either because the rabbis do not strictly follow religious law or because they do not require the converts to do so. The number of people in America “recognized by some movements as Jewish but not by others” is “certainly in six figures,” according to Jonathan D. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor and the author of “American Judaism: A History.”

Of the greatest concern is that the split is not between Orthodox and non-Orthodox:

Strikingly, the rabbinate’s doubts extend even to Orthodox rabbis in America. “They’re not familiar with them,” Friedman told me. “They say: ‘The rabbis in the United States, in England, aren’t the kind we know. Someone can define himself as an Orthodox rabbi, but really he’s Reform.’ ” A marriage registrar given a letter from an Orthodox rabbi abroad certifying that a person is Jewish is now expected to check with the office of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, which maintains a list of diaspora clergy whose letters are to be trusted. The list is not publicly available. If the rabbi who wrote the letter is not on the list, the applicant is asked for other proof or referred to the rabbinic courts.
Converts, even the children of converts, potentially face greater difficulties, because the rabbinate has also become more skeptical about Orthodox conversions performed abroad. What’s more, under pressure from Chief Rabbi Amar, the main association of Orthodox clergy in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, is establishing its own regional rabbinic courts for conversion. A recent council position paper warns that the group makes no commitment to stand behind conversions performed by other rabbis. The paper also stresses that converts are expected to accept Orthodox religious law, or Halakhah.

Consider the historial record. Until about 150 years ago, the only ways to become Jewish were to be born to a Jewish mother or convert al pi halachah. And given the general position of Jews in society, who would take the decision to convert lightly?

With the rise of Reform and Conservatism, however, this changed. For the first time since the Karaite movement acutally mattered, people were now calling themselves rabbis in the absence of proper training. Worse, they were marrying and divorcing Jews and converting non-Jews without fulfilling all the halachic requirements associated with those events. Then, only a few decades ago, Reform went further and added the concept of partilineal descent, labelling non-Jews as members of the tribe without any sanction at all from halachah. This is a step even the Conservatives have not taken (yet).

In the last few years, the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy has moved further to the left than anyone might ever have imagined they might. Concepts like women prayer leaders, interfaith dialogues and philosophies that differ little more than marginally with Conservatism's right side have all come to the fore and gained importance with this group.

Over the last fifteen years Israel has been flooded with Russian immigrants. Most of the first wave were genuine Jews but when the number of olim began to slow down, the Jewish Agency made it very clear that they were prepared to bring non-Jews to Israel as well. As long as a Russian had a connection of some kind to Judaism (possibly he had once shopped in a Jewish-owned store and enjoyed the experience) he was eligible to come to Israel. And come they did, by the tens of thousands. And it's not like they made any pretense about being Jewish either. There are now more functioning churches in Israel than at any time in history. Christian rights are starting to surface as a issue in some places.

Finally, there is the recent state attitude towards conversion. In a bid to defuse criticism of the policy that flooded Israel with non-Jewish Russians who don't really care about being there, the state has tried to loosen the conversion requirements and create mass groups of converts to increase the number of Jews in the state, a concern given the rapid rise in the Arab population. This conversions are not legitimate in the eyes of many authorities, not just the Chareidi ones and risk creating a population of faux-Jews whose children will reap the difficulties their parents have sown.

Now imagine you're a Chareidi rabbi. You were born in a Chareidi neighbourhood and went to a Chareidi yeshivah. You've never watched television or read a secular newspaper. You have no non-Chareidi friends. And throughout your entire life, you've been told over and over again that the only proper way to be Jewish is to be Chareidi. Anything else is a lesser form of observance. So if a person walks into your office and is not dressed Chareidi, what would you think of him? What if he's a Reform convert? What if he's a gentile from Russia who thinks he's Jewish because he has Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return?

With that kind of background, is it any wonder this is happening? Years ago I recall sitting with a non-Orthodox chazzan and talking about the problems associated with non-religious conversions and patrilineal descent. He said he was worried that the Jewish people would split in two over this. I agreed with him. "We already won't eat in your homes, won't marry your children without checking at least two or three generations back just to make sure no one's mother was a non-religious convert. We won't pray in your synagogues or view your rabbis as 'the real thing'. The split is a lot closer than we think."

Yet who is really to blame? The article's emphasis and the reaction from many people across the blogsphere has been to blame the Chareidi world for their intransigence and intolerance. One can expect a more vociferous rebuttal from the Modern Orthodox world than the non-Orthodox groups. After all, the Reformers and Conservatives have long been used to being shut out by the Chareidim. But many in the Modern Orthodox world have deluded themselves into thinking that despite their differences, the Chareidim still viewed them and their rabbonim as "legitimate".

To the contrary, I would suggest the fault in this case lies with the aggrieved groups. As noted above, until relatively recently in Jewish history, entry to the tribe was a controlled matter which made "quality control" realtively easy. In a world where the non-religious requirements for calling someone a Jew are becoming more and more lax, is it any wonder the Chareidi world has reacted by becoming more stringent, in an effort to slow the tide? With the growing number of people out there who are not Jewish but have been incorrectly told by a trusted religious figure that they are, is it strange that the Chareidim have shouted out No Further?

The more the non-religious and left wing of Modern Orthodox pull away from tradition and towards innovation for the sake of... well, innovation, the more the Chareidi group will pull towards tradition and reject innovation. The solution to prevent the coming split is not to scream at the Chareidi and demand they dilute their standards but for the non-religious to finally accept that through their desire for convenience, they have ruptured the one underlying quality of the Jewish nation, the idea that if someone says they're Jewish that they really are. Perhaps once they take responsibility for the damages they have caused, some healing and movement back towards the centre can begin.