Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Does Criticism = Hatred?

At the request of rav Kornreich, I recently read over an article in The Jerusalem Post Magazine featuring Naomi Ragen's latest critique of the Chareidi community.
Now to be sure Naomi Ragen is not loved by Chareidi writers.  She has written repeatedly, both in newpaper columns and in her fiction novels about the deficits she perceives in their community.  She has done so to tremendous acclaim and popularity.  For too many people her portrayal of Chareidi life is a window into the community that is never questioned. 
Her recent conviction on charges of plagiarism was breathlessly reported by Rav Yaakov Menken repeatedly from his pulpit at Cross Currents.  her subsequent successful appeal that lead to the clearing of all charges?  Well that he has yet to write anything about.  Hmmmmm.....
So it was that I went through her article and was not so shocked by what she had to say.  She detailed the rise of the Burka Babe cult and the subsequent, much-delayed backlash from the Eidah Charedit with which many in the cult were aligned.  But then she noted the obvious:
The Burka Babes are not some isolated phenomenon, the product of a group of diseased minds.  They are based on simple logic - if sleeves to the wrist are more modest than those just below the elbow (wasn't that what the fight was all about in Immanuel at that school a couple of years ago?) then mittens are the ultimate form of modesty.  If covering one's hair is good then covering one's face is even better.  The Burka Babes are the natural end of a campaign that tells women that they can never be tznius enough, that their presence within 5 metres of a God-fearing man leads to all manner of issurim from the Torah and that they have to be isolated and hidden at every possible opportunity.
A bit ironic, wouldn’t you say, after a decades-old campaign led by extremist elements in the haredi world to make their women invisible, a campaign which started with sealing off tiny, inhospitable women’s sections in synagogues, and requiring separate gender seating in separate halls for weddings? A campaign that included fighting against electing women to religious councils (kudos to Leah Shakdiel), signs on public streets demanding every woman cover up according to some male-invented fantasy of how to erase women’s sexuality.
It escalated with the closure of women’s seminaries for higher education, segregated buses and streets and waiting rooms and bakeries and barriers at the Kotel (Western Wall), the erasure of all women’s faces from street ads... It gained momentum with the idea, pushed at every opportunity, that women’s lack of modesty was responsible for every disaster befalling the haredi community – including bombs on buses.
Not knowing when to stop is surely not a problem only of the veiled women.

Yes, Ragen's suggestion at the end of the article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek:
I have a modest proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift). Since God-fearing, pious Jewish women are separated from men from birth and taught to stringently keep covered at all times, we cannot reasonably expect them to has v’shalom get into bed naked with a man (so what if he is her husband?).

Baruch Hashem, modern technology can solve this problem. What I suggest is that artificial insemination take the place of this immodest act. The men will deliver their half via other men to women doctors who will see that the next generation gets started in modesty and piety. Now when the kids are born, the boys will be sent by rocket ship to one planet, and the girls to another...
However, I myself have suggested to friends that the first person to develop human parthenogensis will make a mint off the Chareidi community.  Imagine how successful a business that can guarantee the creation of a reproducing community of males only will be!
Honestly, did anyone take Ragen's suggestion seriously?  Or mine?
Unfortunately this is not just anti-Chareidi hatred but rather a conclusion based on what we on the outside have been observing for several years now.  It is a criticism, yes, but not hatred.  It is a desperate plea from those of us who, despite everything, still see Chareidim as our brethren, to reign in this campaign of craziness masquerading as an attempt to increase religiosity.  We do not protest because of vindictive feelings but because we still care and we see a bad end coming from all this.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

When It Comes to Choosing Sides

Time was that is was easy to be a good Jew and a good liberal.  After all, most non-Orthodox Jews had at best a limited education in classic Jewish values and over time a new set of beliefs - that Judaism was secular liberalism with an all-approving godhead and latkes - became entrenched in the communal mindset.  To be a good Jew was to be a good liberal.  See?  Easy.
It also didn't hurt that for a time conservatism in the West was a source of anti-Israel sentiment while liberalism appreciate the plucky Jewish underdogs in the MiddleEast struggling to turn their little patch of desert into an oasis despite all the odds against them. 
All that changed in the late 1960's and early 1970s'.  One factor was undoubtedly Israel's miraculous victory in the 6 Day War.  The initial response was one of euphoria but as time passed the celebrations turned into the ominous realization that Israel was now perceived no longer as an underdog but as a bully occupying the land of the so-called Palestinians (how quickly people forget that only a few years earlier those lands were under Arab rule and it was pre-1967 that was ancient "Palestine").  Liberalism could support an underdog but a bully?  No way.
Then there was the Viet-nam war and its enduring effect on American and western society.  The great era of compromise ushered in by the ending of the Second World War came to an end.  For liberals Richard M Nixon was not an opponent or a guy with a different set of political views but the evil enemy of everything bright and good.  For conservatives, the liberal leadership was the same - a dark force plotting the destruction of everything worthwhile.  Since Nixon's time the divide has only deepened.  Recall the viscious liberal attacks on George Bush II while he was president of the United State included a movie in which he was portrayed as being assasinated.  How about the over-the-top rhetoric being slung at the current president which his supporters are capable of slinging right back?
Unfortunately for liberal Jews one of the values imported into liberalism over the last few decades is an unquestioning support of anything anti-Israel.  This value is completely illogical since it leads to liberal support of the Arab world despite that world's hatred of everything liberal.  This has not stopped liberal gays, for example, from attacking Israel despite the fact that in the so-called Palestinian Authority it is a capital offense to be gay.  It has not stopped feminists from demonizing Israel even though in many parts of the Arab world woman are lower than third class citizens.  It makes no sense but it is equally undeniable - to be a good liberal means being anti-Israel.
But where does that leave liberal Jews?  Unfortunately it leaves them in an awful position.  Captives of a philosophy that idealizes the post-national, they are asked to take a nationalistic position.  Either you are on Israel's side or you're not.  As one liberal writers notes, some prominent liberal Jews have chosen their side and when it came to deciding if they were Jewish Americans or American Jews they chose neither but instead went with "liberal":
There was a time earlier this year when you could barely spend five minutes on Twitter or Facebook without encountering pieces like Allison Benedikt's "Life After Zionist Summer Camp" or Kiera Feldman's "The Romance of Birthright Israel." Gil Troy described these essays for the Jerusalem Post as resembling 17th-century "captivity narratives": After being "force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes" and dazzled by "hunkalicious Israeli soldiers," the writers "courageously flee their brainwashing into the welcoming bosom of the New York intelligentsia, rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught."

For many religious Jews the choice - Israel or being welcomed in the local salon culture and country clubs - For most religious Jews the choice of choosing support for Israel or being welcomed into the local salons and country clubs was never a real one.  We all knew that the price of acceptance was a denial of our basic identity, that as Jews tied to the 3500 year history of our nation and that all-important piece of real estate, the centre of our world.  For liberal Jews, on the other hand, this is really an agonizing moment.  In today's society one cannot pick and choose from different systems of philosophy or belief.  One is either an abortion-hating, pro-war, pro-market deregulation conservative or a abortion-promoting, anti-war, pro-market regulation liberal.  Anything in between is perceved as traitorous by both sides.
Liberal Jews therefore have to make a decision - you're either in with us or you're out with them.  But sadly it seems that it is getting too difficult to be both.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Depriving the World of What It Wants

I once read a cynical explanation of why so many Jew-hating countries in the world voted for the UN Partition Plan of 1947 include the Soviet Union.  The theory, as it went, was that much of the world felt bad for us in the wake of the revelation that six million of us had been slaughtered while they either looked the other way or assisted either actively or by preventing the escape of many Jews from Europe.  The vote for partition was a great opportunity to assuage that feeling of guilt.
On the other hand the vote was also relatively risk free.  After all, the 600 000 Jews of Israel were surrounding by millions of hostile Arabs armed to the teeth and waiting for the chance to invade and slaughter.  The British, may their island sink, were also up for the moment doing everything they could to prevent Jewish attempts to build an army and an arsenal while doing all they could to give the Arabs of Israel the superior fighting position for when the time came for the English to finally abandon the Mandate and go home.  The Jews would have no chance against such formidable odds and would be driven into the sea.
The vote therefore offered the Jew-hating countries everything they wanted.  They could vote for partition and tell themselves that they had done something for those poor Jews but at the same time they could position themselves to shed genuine tears over another 600 000 Jewish graves and what would certainly be the final blow to the Jewish nation from which it could never recover.
Oops.  We won that war.  And the next several.
My father always says that the reason the world is so hostile to Israel is because what the international community likes more than anything is Jewish funerals.  The thought of burying more Jews makes them giddy.
Israel, on the other hand, prevents this from happening.  As a lifeboat and source of protection it may not be perfect but a lifeboat and source of protection it remains.  In Israel Jewish life has value and is something to be protected.

Even Israeli humanistic preachers of “normality” and of being a “nation like all other nations” know that the Jewish oasis in the desert was made possible by the fact that Israel was “armed to the teeth,” as anti-Israel literary critic George Steiner once said. Even Diaspora Jews, from London’s Golders Green to Toronto’s Forest Hill, can enjoy quiet nights because they know that every Israeli fence is guarded by armed Jews and that Israel’s sky is sealed by its Air Force and by the Dimona nuclear plant.

Israel is the only nation deprived by the United Nations of its legal right to defend itself, the only UN member surrounded by neighbors willing to kill themselves to destroy the Jews, and the only democracy that in the last 40 years had to dig trenches in public parks as potential mass graves.
As the number of firearms proves, no Western society lives in greater intimacy with death than Israel. During the Second Intifada, the most effective protection against terrorism in the cafés and shopping malls, aside from IDF incursions into Palestinian cities, was a kind of spontaneous form of Jewish civil defense, the only thing that worked even when terrorists from Jenin and Nablus showed up at a café in Tel Aviv or a gas station in the settlement of Ariel.
That’s the Jewish revolution, which the West can’t accept, the most admirable Israeli phenomenon: A people still able to defend itself against the forces of evil.
On one hand it is not our destiny to simply be a nation like all others.  This would be a horrible disappointment and an abandonment of the responsibility God has given us through the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  On the other hand virtue does not equal vulnerability.  We are enjoined by "the Three Oaths" not to rebel against the nations but they are enjoined by those same oaths not to be cruel to us.  We are nowhere told that being led helplessly to slaughter or exposing ourselves to torture is a mitzvah.
We must therefore pray that the international community continue to be frustrated and disappointed at our insistence on surviving for a long time to come.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Trust vs Verification

It is a given that pushing too hard in one direction inevitably leads to a pushback in the opposite one.  For every frum fanatic screaming "Shabbos!" there is an annoyed chiloni who decided to go shopping or to the beach on Saturday just to "show them".  A backlash against extremism, both left and right, is always a natural reaction even though it catches folks by surprise.
Such seems to be the case in this article from The Jerusalem Post.  In it, Reuven Hammer notes that a time-honoured way of determining one's Jewishness has been changed by the Chareidi-controlled Rabbinate and he questions whether this is a good thing.

In 2010 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate decided to require documents proving the Jewishness of one’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and greatgreat- grandmother when applying for marriage. Needless to say this is a near impossibility for most people. Is this really Jewish law?
Many immigrants who claim to be Jewish have difficulty proving it to the satisfaction of the chief rabbinate because of the lack of reliable documentation.
Ketubot, or marriage contracts, have been largely non-existent among Russian Jews for over half a century. The result has been that often people who sincerely consider themselves Jews, and may indeed be, cannot prove that fact and are turned away by the official rabbinate when they wish to be married. Similar problems occur for American olim and others in Israel as well.
The well-known journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote an article on such a case for The New York Times entitled “How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?” (New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2008) in which he stated that formerly in Europe, “Trust was the default position.”
He also cited the fact that 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.

On the other hand it is ironic that Hammer quotes from a JTS "responsa" to bolster his point.  After all, when the classical Jewish codes were written, even when the Chazon Ish wrote his position on the matter, there was only one real way to become Jewish - al pi halacha under the guidance of a Torah-observant Rav.
Much has changed in the last 50 years and one wonders if the
poskim who put so much faith in personal testimony would be willing to continue to hold that position.
Consider that the Reformers accept patrilineal lineage when it comes to defining a Jew.  In other words, ignore the masses of "converts" they have created who are not Jewish
al pi halacha but at least made a choice somewhere along the way to undergo some kind of process, however minimal, to join what they think is the Jewish religion.  In addition to them there are how many non-Jews out there with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who believe themselves to be Jewish because the kindly Reform rabbi at their Temple told them they are?
Add to this all the Conservative converts who are not genuinely Jewish
al pi halacha.  (And before any flames get fired keep in mind I'm not commenting on their worthiness or sincerity as human beings but simply stating a legal position)
Add to this all the Russians that claimed to be Jewish or were considered Jewish by the
Sochnut in its zeal to bring as many people to Israel from the former Soviet Union as possible.  Using criteria that even the Reformers might find too lenient, tens of thousands of non-Jews were moved from Russia to Israel and told that they just might be Jews on arrival.
Seen from this perspective the new Chareidi paranoia about who really is a Jew is understandable.  Yes, the couple who show up from the US to register for marriage at the Rabbanut might be bona fide Jews
al pi halacha.  Or one could be the son of a non-Jewish mother and the other a Reform convert.  You may disagree with the Orthodox position on matrilineal descent or non-Orthodox conversions but the guy at the Rabbanut is going to apply those standards at that point because those are the rules he knows and disqualify both members of the couple.
There is no question that the Orthodox monopoly on things like marriage and divorce in Israel has hurt people's perception of Torah observance and created a tremendous sense of resentment.  This is a huge problem since one of the only really ways towards Jewish
achdus is through the acceptance of a universal standard all main Jewish groups can accept.  How can the Orthodox demand exclusive control over conversion, for example, if prominent members of that community behave in an abusive and condescending fashion?
There is no easy answer to this question.  Hammer's article raised important points but his solution is not ideal.  There is simply too much variability in the definition of "who is a Jew" amongst the non-Orthodox to make this issue go away.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Can An Atheist Be A Rabbi?

Every so often Jacob Stein needs to do something to draw attention to himself.  Having failed out of nursing school because of his openly anti-gay attitude he has now chosen a fight with one Jeffrey Fallick, a man who runs his own blog under the moniker: Atheist Rabbi.
Never one to pull punches, Stein's post on Fallick has crossed a line in terms of acceptability on the internet.  In addition to attacking Fallick's character he published personal information.  Was it in the hopes of creating a campaign of harrassment against the poor guy?
Fortunately it seems to have backfired and the only person getting harrassed is Stein himself.  Criticism is piling up againt his very poor choice of posting and none of it is the least bit friendly.
However, the original question - can an atheist call himself a rabbi? - remains unanswered.
I'm going to supply mine: sure, why not?
There was a time when the title "Rav" meant something.  It meant you had spent years studying under one or more qualified rabbonim.  You had learned a good chunk of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch in-depth and by heart.  You had dedicated your life to understanding halacha and how to pasken it.
In today's society, however, a lot has changed.  Take the issue of professional titles, for example.  Once upon a time you needed to either produce a really good thesis or complete medical school to be called "Doctor".  Nowadays you can call yourself "doctor" if you dispense medicinal water (homeopath), boiled herbs (naturopaths) or really good low back massages (chiropractor).
It's the same thing with the rabbinate.  While many Torah-observant folks dislike referring to graduates of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Centre as rabbis the fact is that these institutions have the legal right to grant a degree that comes with the title.  A graduate with the diploma is entitled to use the title "rabbi" and be addressed as such.  So if Jeffrey Fallick is a gradute of Hebrew Union College or another Reform seminary that has such authority then he is indeed a "rabbi" regardless of his lack of belief in God, his lack of acceptance of the authority of Torah or his "alternative" lifestyle.
As for the other issue Stein raises in his post, well the news coming out of Israel clearly disproves his thesis that belief in God and acceptance of the authority of Torah leads to a peaceful, righteous behaviour pattern.  Indeed, if most Torah observant Jews were given the choice of inviting either Fallick or Amram Shapiro, a rav with a genuine semicha for Shabbos dinner most would choose the former.  After all, we might disagree with pretty much all of Fallick's main beliefs but he's unlikely to scream "shaygitz!" and toss his bowl of hot soup in our faces if we did so.  With Shapiro one cannot be so certain.
The real challenge nowadays for Torah observant Jews is to lead an exemplary life both in bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'Chaveiro.  As we are seeing on the news over and over, finding such a balance in which kavod haShamayim and kavod haBrios is not easy and one can easily fall to the extreme of one side or another, leading to great sins being committed in the process in the name of "righteousness".
If Jeffrey Fallick wants to openly preach about being both a rabbi and an atheist, that's his business and his cheshbon with the God he doesn't believe in.  I'm not worried that someone will mistakenly go to him for spiritual advice.  I doubt anyone frum will turn to him and those that do confide their troubles in him aren't looking for the right story from the Gemara but a warm smile and a supportive voice.  And that's likely what they'll get.  Who is Stein to criticize that?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

But What Does He Stand For?

Here's what is known about Yair Lapid.  He's a handsome guy with a great hairdo.  He's a popular TV show host with a great voice.  He's a secular Israeli but feels strongly about his Jewish identity.  He's the son of a famous television star and politician, Tommy Lapid.  And he's just quit his show to run for office in the next election.
What's amazing at this point is that some polls suggest a party led by him would earn 15 seats or so in the Knesset if an election was called tomorrow.  Most of those seats would come at the expense of Kadima while Labour would gain and Likud would remain on top.
But what we don't know is the most important thing of all: what does Lapid stand for?  What platform will he run on?
In Israeli politics he has two choices.  One is to try and form a comprehensive party, one that wants to govern and therefore has positions on all issues affecting the country, like Likud, Labour and Kadima.  The other is to form a special interest party like his father did with Shinui and run on that one issue.  Which will he choose?
We don't know.  That's why his polling results are so amazing.  Based on nothing more than personal popularity from his media position enough Israelis would vote for him tomorrow to give him 15 seats.  What does that say about the normally savvy Israeli electorate?
Some I've read claim that Lapid is his father's son.  The recent Charedifada in Meah Shearim and Ramat Beit Shemesh would have been gold to old Tommy Lapid.  Recall that his party, Shinui, ran on one simple issue: we hate Chareidim, and based on that one issue he gained 15 seats in the Knesset and a place at the cabinet table.  It is undeniable that a wave of resentment against the bekishe-clad barbarians rampaging across their television screens could be manipulated into a protest vote, allowing a new Shinui party to thrive in the next election.
On the other hand there are other issues affecting the country.  There is, of course, the ongoing peace process in which the Right tries to maintain Israel's borders and the Left tries to arrange an honourable national suicide in order to assuage its liberal guilt.  There is also the valid question of how to rectify the incredible degree of economic disparity in a country where a few are really, really rich and many are really, really poor and there are less in the middle every day.  If Israel's economic growth is to continue this is someting a responsible government really does need to address.  Could Lapid's strategy be to form a party that will represent the beleaguered middle class and those beneath who feel like they will never succeed because the odds are stacked against them?
What is most probable, however, is that Lapid will be a one-hit wonder.  As this article from Ynet notes, history is against him.
In the mid-1970s the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) was founded as a response to years of corruption and political cronyism in the ruling Mapai party. Made up of leading politicians, businessmen and academics, Dash exceeded expectations and garnered 15 seats in the 1977 elections making it the third largest party in the Knesset.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to ignore Dash and initially did not invite them into the coalition and formed a government instead with Ariel Sharon's Shlomtzion and the religious parties. Dash eventually ended up joining the coalition five months later. By 1978, infighting and political disagreements led the party to split into three factions and by the 1981 elections the party no longer existed.
The 1990s saw two more new parties vie for the elusive "Zionist center" of the Israeli electorate. Avigdor Kahalani initially broke away from Labor and formed the Third Way party to protest Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's willingness to negotiate with Syria about a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
The Third Way won four seats in the 1996 elections and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first government along with Shas and the other religious parties. By the 1999 elections, however, much of their voters came to realize that the Third Way had little influence in the Netanyahu government and the party ceased to exist.
Taking the place of the Third Way in the 1999 elections was the Center Party. Led by Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Yitzhak Mordecahai and Dan Meridor, they too set out to appeal to the mainstream Israeli consensus. The Center Party promoted a middle of the road platform on most electoral issues that appealed to traditional voters of both the Labor and Likud parties.
Though it initially faired very well in public opinion polls and even presented its own candidate for the premiership, the Center Party won only six seats in the elections. Prime Minister Ehud Barak included them in his wide coalition along with Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party and Yisrael B'Aliyah. The party slowly fell apart throughout the Knesset term and did not run again in the 2003 elections.

Will Lapid actually break that mold or will he be introduced on his new television show in a few years as "Former MK Yair Lapid"?
 Lapid may use his charisma effectively and, with his new party, make a huge impact in the next election.  Indeed that's exactly what his father's Shinui, not mentioned in the article, did.  However it's one thing to run on a protest vote, quite another to be a responsible member of a government while maintaining one's position on the important issues that got one elected.  Israeli history is littered with the political corpses of those who briefly shot to prominence and just as quickly burned out.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

It's About How Others See You

It's nice to see that Rav David Kornreich was able to take time off from his usual anti-Slifkin crusade to contribute to Cross-Currents.  It's even more interesting to see that even as condemnation of the Chareidi fanatics in Israel grows he has chosen to throw his lot in with Rav Yaakov Menken's "We are not to blame!" campaign.  Rav Kornreich makes the perfectly logical point that Chareidi society, like any other society, is composed of multiple groups and that bad behaviour by one sector does not mean all the others are responsible or equally to blame.  He notes that these fanatics listen to almost no one which makes official statements of condemnation by "Gedolim" meaningless.  Therefore why should the greater Chareidi community be held accountable for the actions of these few that are beyond their control?
I would like to provide an answer to his concerns.
One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was how to appreciate that people have unique perceptions of situations that can vary quite significantly between folks.  I might think that I have been perfectly clear in explaining to a patient what his problem is and all he might have heard was "Blah, blah, blah".  Consider the dreaded scenario, the one where I tell someone they have cancer, Rachmana litzlan.  I might have a great speech prepared, full of comforting words and copious assurances about the various treatment options and all the appointments I've arranged.  Once the patient hears "cancer" everything else I say turns into an incoherent mumble.  If I don't realize that, if I walk out the room convinced I've done a great job handling the situation I'm fooling myself and I haven't done my job.  The patient's perception is everything.  If they're not happy, I haven't done what I'm supposed to, no matter how great I think my performance was.
Now, to the outside world the Chareidim are one big monolithic group.  It's bad enough that if you put on a skullcap of any kind that people automatically lump you together, how much more so the Oreo cookie uniform?  It's true that amongst Chasidim each can tell which clan the other is part of from the way the hat is styled and worn but to those of us on the outside they all look the same.  A Gerrer chasid who sees a Belzer tearing up the street with a chainsaw in hand might think "Nothing to do with me" but for outsiders all they see is a crazy Ultraorthodox Jew and they'll look at the Gerrer next to him and wonder what he has stashed in his bekishe.
Then consider what the situation is like for those who pay attention to ongoing events in the religious world.  Every week another pashkevil or cherem seems to appear on the streets of Israel.  This is banned, that is condemned and the Heavens shake to their very foundation every day over some new outrage over such nonsense and meaningless things.  But we are still waiting for a fiery denounciation of this ongoing Chilul HaShem.  Not part of your community?  It's never stopped you from condemning someone before.  Indeed the responses from the Chareidi camp that have appeared only seem to cement impressions that the "gedolim" have no real clue what's going on and see non-Chareidi resistance to the thugs as yet another pogrom against them.
For these reasons alone it is imperative for the Chareidi leadership to come out with unequivocal statements of condemnation of the whackjobs in Beit Shemesh and Meah Shearim.   The perception from the outside is what matters.  What people outside the Chareidi community matters.  It is not enough, as Rav Kornreich claims, to know that the primitives don't care about pronouncements from Ravs Eliashiv and Sternbuch.  It is not enough to say "Well I can tell the difference between 'my' Chareidim and 'them'".  Too many on the outside cannot and are getting fed up with part of what they see as a big monolithic family covering for and quietly supporting these provocations.  They will not endure this forever.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Entitlement and Ingratitude

One of the things that irritates me the most is a sense of entitlement.  I deal with it all the time at work.  People with no foot pain to speak of come in, having discovered that their health plan at work covers orthotics, and ask for custom orthoses because, well because they're covered so they want some.  I have an older man as a patient who sailed in the merchant marine during WW2.  He isn't technically a veteran but is classed as such by the Canadian government which offers WW2 veterans an extremely generous coverage plan.  He and his wife know the benefits off by heart and have become the kind of people that, if they had to pay for air to breathe, would hold their breath while waiting for me to give them a prescription for it so it would be covered.
I can't stand entitlement.
Another thing that bugs me are people with no sense of gratitude.  Again I deal with this on a regular basis.  A person goes into Emerg, the doctor discovers an important diagnosis and gives them the right treatment but what do they remember?  That they had to wait 3 hours to see the doctor in the first place and the chairs weren't comfortable.  Never mind that they didn't pay a cent for the experience or that the doctor got things right for them.  Come the holidays he won't be on their card list.
The reason I mention both is because avoidance of entitlement and hakaras hatov are core Jewish values.  One can easily see this from the parameters of our relationship with God.  Here is Someone who cannot take anything from us since, as the source of existence, He already has it all.  We can, in relating to Him, only take and since our very existence is a gift from Him there is nothing that is truly ours.  We cannot demand from Him anything.  How could we ever be in that position?  As David HaMelech, a"h, noted in Divrei HaYamim, when he was donating gold and silver to fund the future construction of our Holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt), the gold and silver came from God so all he was doing in donating was returning it to its source.  How much more so our very lives which are only maintained by the neshamos that He provided in the first place.  If Judaism allows us any rights it is only because He decided to grant them as a gift to us.
As a result, entitlement is something no Jew can afford to have when it comes to the Divine.  Similarly, a constant awareness of what we have received from Him demands of us a constant sense of hakaras hatov.  Lines like Baruch haShem! are uttered often but without the proper intent.  Shouting those two words shouldn't be about "Look how frum I am!" but with a sense of "Thank God for all the kindness He has shown me!"
And when it comes to bein Adam l'Chaveiro, both hakaras hatov and avoiding a sense of entitlement are also important. After all, Chazal implore us in the importance of imitatio Dei repeatedly.  The way to cleave to God is to imitate those thing we call his characteristics.  Therefore if we are to eschew entitlement and ingratitude in our relationship with him, we must certainly shun it in our relationship with our fellows.
It seems to me that the segment of the Chareidi population that is currently causing so much societal ill in Israel, along with the general malaise afflicting the greater part of that community both in Israel and Golus are because these values have been either ignored, abandoned or turned into aveiros.
During a recent family simcha I spoke with a guest who lives in the more "moderate" area of Ramat Beit Shemesh.  When I asked him about how things in Israel were he couldn't seem to find a single good thing to say about the State.  Living in Israel for him was "mamash Golus" for him, perhaps even worse Golus than living in North America.  The government was all about being anti-religious, the society around them was out to get them, they were suffering because of his oppression and so on.
Now let's take a step back and look at some facts.  The schools his children attend, where they learn no core curriculum subjects like math and science despite laws demanding that they do, is paid for by the State.  The street he walks out, the water that comes out of his tap, the hospital he goes to when he needs it are all provided for him by the State.  His quiet streets at night?  The ability to live freely in Israel without being subject to Islam's dhimmi restrictions that its neighbours would love to implement there?  All due to the State.
Yet while he takes everything the State offers him for gratitude his culture has turned lack of hakaras hatov into a mitzvah.  And he's one of the moderate ones!
Now I would never pretend that life is rosy in Israel and that the Chareidim are the only ones who refuse to see it.  Is their government perfect?  Well let me ask you: is any government perfect?  I could find plenty to complain about my governments here in Canada at all three levels.  Certainly the United States is trying to win some kind of competition of "most dysfunctional government in the world" these days.  Yet I am also acutely aware that my governments do provide some important services for me, that once in a while my tax dollars go to good use so I have no trouble feeling some gratitude towards them even while hoping that they will become better at what they do.  Not in Israel.  It seems any sign of gratitude towards the government that provides them with billions of dollars and a safe environment to grow in is consiered assur l'gamreh.
Yet if this same government that can do no good threatens to cut back on the financial largesse that it hands the Chareidi sector then the screaming and shouting immediately begin.  How dare the government try to destroy Torah and Judaism in Israel?  Don't they know the Chareidim are the reason the state exists?  Don't they know that they have an obligation to send this money to this non-productive sector of the economy?
Entitlement.  Lack of hakaras hatov.
What's more, the modern attitude in the Chareidi commuity of "the more machmir the better" has taken this to a new level, the level of the fanatics in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Meah Shearim.  Taken to its extreme, lack of hakaras hatov become hate of one's benefactor while entitlement becomes bullying.  I don't just not want to say "thank you", I hate you for having given me anything at all which you better continue to do or I'll make your life miserable!
All the protests and riots seem to revolve around these two qualities, qualities which have been damaged by modern Chareidi philosophy but downright perverted by the fanatics.  Yes there is a world of difference between the average Chareidi who is disgusted by the fanatics and the fanatics themselves.  This does not change the fact that the sense of entitlement and dismissal of hakaras hatov that mainstream Chareidi philosophy endorses is the same as the sense of the fanatics, just not as intensely displayed.
To show that they stand against these whackjobs and within the ranks of civilized human beings, the Chareidim community needs to make a statement on this issue.  It's not enough to be like the Agudah and deplore the violence if not the goals of that violence.  There has to be a recognition that one can be grateful to the State of Israel without necessarily becoming an enthralled supporter of everything it does.  One can be kind and cooperative with one's fellow non-Chareidi, both religious and non-religious, without it being seen as an endorsement of that lifestyle.  One can step back and realize that publicly demanding things that most people around do not see as necessary or even desirable is not a kiddush HaShem but ultimately causes the opposite, Rachmana litzlan.
It is only with this kind of a sea change that Jewish society can take its needed step back from the brink and begin to function with any sense of cohesion again.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Guest Post - On Teaching Ancient Near East Monarchs

By Rav Ben Hecht, president, founder and sole-executive leader of Nishma

Torah’s Perspective of the Historical Timeline
In speaking with Lord Ironheart about his post “Questions Aren’t Fatal, But Stupid Answers Are” I mentioned to him that the real problem with the presentation by Rabbi Shafran was that he didn’t really fully understand the extent of the issue with which he was dealing. Garnel asked me to expand on my thoughts for a guest post on his site…so here it is.
The problem for Rabbi Shafran was the claim by historians that, since the Code of Hammurabi, which predated the Torah, contained ideas similar to the Torah, it must be that the Mosaic Code simply copied aspects of the earlier Babylonian Code. Such an assertion, in Rabbi Shafran’s mind, would challenge the uniqueness and even Revelational quality of the Torah and, as such, could not be tolerated. Rabbi Shafran needed an explanation. The explanation that Rabbi Shafran accepted to explain this phenomenon yet retain his allegiance to Torah was that, in fact, the Code of Hammurabi was actually a product of the Torah which this king was taught by Avraham Avinu. We all know that Avraham learned and followed Torah – although he pre-dated Sinai – and it was aspects of this knowledge that was transmitted, by our forefather, to Hammurabi and from which the latter developed his Code. To Rabbi Shafran, problem solved. To Garnel, though, this answer was, in itself, an even greater problem. Where, for example, did Rabbi Shafran – or, more correctly, Rabbi Weinberg -- get this from? It may be true that, in a simplistic way, this answer solved Rabbi Shafran’s dilemma but there was no further consideration or investigation of what this answer truly meant or implied. What evidence was there to support it? To Garnel, the greater problem was such, as he defined them, stupid answers.
Under direct investigation, Rabbi Shafran’s theory actually already presented problems. As Bob Miller commenting on Garnel’s post pointed out, Hammurabi is generally understood to be the evil Nimrod, who threw Avraham into the furnace. It would seem to be a stretch to argue that Nimrod then learned Torah from Avraham. In truth, there would seem to be some Midrashim that do contend that there was a further relationship between Avraham and Nimrod and even that the latter did teshuva but the general tone of the literature does not seem to support this. There is also a strong opinion that Nimrod was also Amraphel, one of the 4 kings who attacked the 5 kings as reported in Bereishit, Chapter 14. (According to T.B. Eruvin 53a, the debate between Rav and Shmuel was not whether Nimrod and Amraphel was one and the same person but which name was his real name.) According to much midrashic thought, at least part of the plan of the war was also to destroy Avraham. So it would seem that both before Avraham left for Canaan and afterwards, there was bad blood between Nimrod and Avraham – so how could one even contend that Avraham taught aspects of this pre-Sinai Torah to such an evil idolater? One of the goals in throwing Avraham into the furnace was also to limit the very effect of his teachings to the masses; the Nimrod himself adopts these teachings? It’s nice to present answers but what do these answers truly mean? Under scrutiny, it doesn’t seem to add up. If one wishes to present an opinion of what happened in history, one has to consider all the consequences and ramifications of this opinion arriving at conclusions that consider the history of the time period as a whole. This, Rabbi Shafran did not seem to do.
It was also within this context that Garnel truly laid his challenge of Rabbi Shafran. There was much going on; societies developed aside from, it would seem, the direction of Torah law. The very charge against Sodom was not an evil of anarchy but that it possessed an evil legal system. There was a dynamic in the world that involved the movement of humanity into societies with laws and included in Garnel’s challenge was that Rabbi Shafran did not consider the reality of this dynamic in his consideration of what was occurring within this time period. Yibum is a perfect case on point. There was a practice of this type that pre-dated Sinai as evidenced by the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Bereishit, Chapter 38) but this practice clearly was different than that legislated by the Torah which only applied to the brother of a childless man and no other close relative (Chinuch, Mitzvah 598). If one contends that yibum was a lesson from Torah perhaps taught by the Avot, this could not be for its practice did not follow the Torah parameters. If it was a practice that developed within the workings of the ancient societies, though, does that take away from its value as a Torah mitzvah? Rabbi Shafran’s approach is clearly much too simplistic.
Yet there was one challenge I presented to Garnel in his presentation which I felt he overlooked and which needed to be stated. It is important within this consideration of what occurred in ancient history that one continue to recognize a significant distinction between the secular view of what transpired and a Torah view. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1 attacks this issue in explaining how idolatry developed. From a secular perspective, humanity first considered idolatry, with a study of history attempting to explain how monotheism developed. From a Torah perspective, knowledge of the One God was existent; the need would be to explain how idolatry developed which is what Rambam undertakes in this section of his Code. The complex dynamic of history cannot be simplified but there is a key issue of how to understand the underlying background of this dynamic.
This is the point here. Within the secular perspective, the development of ancient legal systems is recorded based upon the perceived dates of the uncovered legislation. In this respect, the Code of Hammurabi is defined as a most significant historical point in this development. Given that the Mosaic Code is dated to have been formulated at a later date, there is already a preconceived interest in seeing how this latter code was similar to and/or deviated from the earlier Babylonian system. Rabbi Shafran would seem to have problems with this and so tries to develop an answer that ignores the movement of history: i.e. Hammurabi simply knew Torah.
From the Torah perspective, though, there was also a dynamic but of a different nature as the starting point was different. Humanity knew of God but moved towards idolatry. In the same way, humanity also knew of certain societal laws – the Seven Laws on Noach – and moved from there. Hammurabi emerged from a past of a certain perspective. It is clear that he did something new but what exactly was this newness may be a matter of debate based upon how one answers what came before hand. If lawlessness existed prior to Hammurabi, then one can look at his Code from one perspective. If some type of legal perspective, though, existed prior to this pronouncement of his Code, the dynamic that existed would have to be understood from a different perspective. From a Torah perspective, the world of Hammurabi did come out of a vacuum of law but of a pre-existing legal structure of the Seven Laws of Noach. This may provide another reason for similarity -- but it is not simplistic. This recognition causes us to look at ancient history from a very different perspective but it does not ignore the significant dynamic that existed. It does not necessarily simplify it or lessen our challenge in attempting to comprehend it.
The real problem with Rabbi Shafran’s answer is that he seems to maintain with his answer that he has solved all the issues. What he does not recognize is that while he actually may have provided some insight into one problem, at the same time he may have created many more. Clearly, it would seem, for example, from many midrashic sources that Avraham Avinu attempted to affect the ancient world and was successful in this to some extent. But what actually was this effect on the ancient world and what were the further consequences of it? If Shem, Cham and Yafet all experienced the Flood and thereby had no doubt about the existence of God, how could Cham’s very grandson, Nimrod, throw Avraham into a furnace for maintaining this belief? We could also wonder how this knowledge of God could be so lost that Avraham did not know anything of this until he found it on his own. We may also wonder, according to the Torah time line, how the Babel story connects with Avraham being 48 when it occurred. Yet, pursuant to this time line, it would also not be so surprising that this same Nimrod-Hammurabi would have some knowledge of the remains of the Noachide legal system so that he would incorporate it within his Code. This approach does not simplify history but it does recognize that maintaining a Torah perspective in looking at history goes beyond the question of specific details. The issue is the total view of ancient history – and that is not an easy issue. Where Hammurabi’s Code came from is just one minor issue amongst many others that need to be worked out even according to the Torah perspective of the time line. This is the real challenge and complexity that Rabbi Shafran ignores.

Reinventing the Invented

I'm always skeptical when a new book comes out on some Torah subject and the advertising around it declares it to be new, groundbreaking or the first of its kind.  Koheles long ago assured us that there is nothing new under the sun and this maxim generally holds true far more often than we would like to admit.
As a new example, consider the new, groundbreaking first of its kind book from Feldheim called "Hamafteach".  The book surely fills a great need.  For those of us who don't have the entire Shas memorized, a comprehensive index would be an incredibly useful tool.  One can easily believe that HaMafteach will be a big seller for Feldheim.
What's more, the story behind where the book came from, as detailed at TabletMag is also inspiring.  The author joins a list of names such as Kehati and Margaliot HaYam who prove that you can be a professional and talmid chacham without having to sit in the Beis Midrash all day long.
In fact, in this entire feel-good story about a great new sefer there is only one problem: the claim to novelty is untrue.  HaMafteach, as thorough and important as it is, isn't the first index to the Talmud.  Long before Artscroll was a gleam in Rav Nosson Sherman's eye, long before Rav Adin Steinaltz, shlit'a, began his incredible commentary to the Talmud, there was Soncino's English-Hebrew Talmud.
Much maligned for being difficult to follow and mostly ignored since the shiny new Artscroll's entered Hebrew book stores, the old Soncino Talmud has one incredibly redeeming feature: the Index volume.  Just like HaMafteach it is an incredibly complete listing of various subjects and personalities from the Talmud Bavli.  Yes, it does have limitations - as an index to the Soncino edition it uses that edition's page numbers (but there is a conversation table to standard Bavli page numbers, an annoying extra step but there nonetheless) but it was the actual first comprehensive index of the Talmud.  And despite meriting barely a mention in The New York Times' version of this story, it deserves recognition.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

And Then They Pull This

One of the most bizarre features of the current Chareidi "uprising" in Beit Shemesh and Yerushalayim is the way the aggressors in the conflict insist on portraying themselves as the victim.  With all the sincerity of a rapist who claims that it was his victim's skimpy outfit that forced him to assault her, the Chareidim who have spoken to the press insist that they are the ones who are being provoked and put in danger.
The problem is not that thinking people would reject such idiocy in an instant.  The problem is that the more religious some Jews get, the less they seem to think!
Forget for a moment the stone throwing, arson, shouts of "Nazi", "prutzah" and "shiksa".  Forget for a moment the mobs that have turns Meah Shearim into a no-go zons for police, buses and ambulances.  What really takes this cake is this story from the Israeli media and, for once, no self-respecting person can claim this is a smear job done up to make the Chareidim look bad.
Minister Yossi Peled, a Holocaust survivor, could not believe his eyes when he saw the pictures from the ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood on Saturday night.

"I admit that some things are inconceivable, like taking the horrifying picture of the little boy facing the Nazis with his hands up. Regardless of whether the struggle is justified or not, this points to something insane, irrational, immoral," he told Ynet on Sunday morning.
"Any word you say will be inappropriate. I may be naïve: I never believed, no matter which conflict we're talking about, that we would use symbols of the Jewish people's tragedy for an internal battle. It was our battle against an external threat. It's inconceivable. The blood froze in my veins."
Saturday's demonstration was organized by an extreme faction in Mea Shearim in protest of what has been defined as "the exclusion of haredim" and the start of the jail term of an ultra-Orthodox man convicted of assaulting an electronics store salesman.
Mordechai Hirsch, one of the leaders of the extreme Neturei Karta faction (and the son of Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, who served as minister in the Palestinian government), said his nephews, who are not even 10 years old, took part in the protest wearing a yellow patch.
"Of course I justify it," said Hirsch. "Yes, it's from the Holocaust and it's legitimate. There's no question about it. This protest reflects the Zionists' persecution of the haredi public, which we see as worse than what the Nazis did.
"The Germans just killed the body, but these people want to kill the soul, the spirit."

Yes, there are morons who will try to turn this situation around, to really play the victim card.  In a particularily poorly written piece on Cross Currents for example, Rav Yaakov Menken writes:
While some pointed out that the OU/RCA Statement said nothing about tzniyus, it is still true that their statement didn’t merely condemn the hooligans. Their statement, too, defended Torah Jews, if not a Torah value: “We also urge all observers to recognize that the behavior of these hooligans does not in any way represent the attitude or demeanor of the Charedi community at large. The vast majority of Charedi Jews find these actions abhorrent, and the community should not be judged by the inexcusable conduct of a few.”

That the OU and RCA know is that this won’t stop with the Charedim. The “activists” have, in fact, already come for the best and brightest of the religious Zionists, those most anxious to serve in elite IDF units. Now in Israel, people are speaking out against “mistreatment” of women in the IDF. Are they referring to the rampant problems of sexual harassment of female soldiers? No — “extremist religious behavior… affecting the role of women in the armed forces.” The one speaking is Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, the Chief IDF Rabbi,” and he expressly made reference to Beit Shemesh. Has he so soon forgotten that the religious “problem” most recently afflicting the IDF was the desire of some young men, not one of whom was Charedi, to observe halacha with regards to Kol Isha?

On Shabbos morning I was speaking about the situation with a friend in shul and what he said really shocked me.  He told me that this was civil war, Jew on Jew, just like in the time of Chanukah.  He felt that these extremists were the new Chasmonaim and that responsible religious Jews had a choice - line up with them and stand up for Torah or line up with the Hellenized Chilonim.  It was that simple for him.  When I pointed out that there were plenty of religious Jews lining up with the Chilonim because these Chareidim are no Chasmonaim but just barbarians looking for an excuse to cause trouble he dismissed me by saying that any religious Jew who sides with a Chiloni is already Hellenized and no longer really religious.
"Including me?" I asked.
At that point he realized he had crossed a line and tried to backtrack but the damage was done.  I don't think I'm going to learn with him for a while.
Yes, Rav Menken, they will come for us because we all look alike to them.  That's why it's so important for us to stand up and be counted alongside the Chilonim so that they do see these parasites as a small fringe group.  It's time for the Agudah to drop its mealy mouthed statements and condemn the massive chilul HaShem occuring without qualification.  We do have an obligation to show that we are not like them, that we are decent, honourable and moral people.  They do not represent Torah and it is questionable if there is a flame hot enough in Gehinnom for themb but we must stand up and make it known that we are not on their side.
How interesting to use the recent example of religious soliders being disciplined by the Tzahal for refusing to listen to kol ishah.  This is the exact opposite of what the "small group" of Chareidim in Beit Shemesh and Yerushalayim are doing.  Had they been of the same ilk, the religious soldiers would not have asked to be excused from listening to women singing but would have stormed the stage, attacked the women and then, when they were being subdued, shrieked "We are being attacked! We are the victims!"  The example from the army is in no way analogous to the protests now going on.
The mind just spins at the sight of people who have been pampered by their government for the last 60 years, protected and pain to become parastic denizens of the State they hate so much, degrading the memory of the Holocaust like this.  No amount of protest can express the outrage a decent, moral person should feel at the sight of these menuvalim daring to appropriate such imagery for themselves.