Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Blind Eyes and Deaf Ears

The Jewish blogiverse is now all a-twitter (can I still say that without referencing the social network) with the recent announcement that Rav Chaim Kanievsky views all iPhone owners as severe sinners, illegitimate witnesses and who knows what else.  There is tremendous consternation especially in the Chareidi community where, despite years of effort, a surprisingly large number of people own iPhones.  How many weddings are now posul?  How many mamzerim does this ruling produce?
What no one in the Chareidi community wants to ask is: what is the validity of this ruling in the first place?
Over at Cross Currents, Rav Yair Hoffman tries to take an apologetic approach and suggests some possibilities to make this harsh p'sak seem more understandable:
There are, of course, four possibilities as to what actually transpired here.

The well-meaning Rabbi who runs the organization got carried away and did not understand that Rav Chaim was merely giving him encouragement to continue his work but did not actually mean that the iPhone owners are genuinely pasul l’Eidus.
Rav Chaim himself allowed the quote to be made as a type of warning as to how serious we must view this new challenge to Judaism, but he did not actually rule that the iPhone owners are genuinely pasul l’Eidus.
The well-meaning Rabbi who runs the organization perhaps misrepresented to Rav Chaim what an iPhone device actually is and how the majority of people actually use it.
This author is incorrect and Rav Chaim actually ruled this way with all the associated repercussions and consequences and fully understood the nature and use of the iPhone.
It is unfortunate, but this author is aware of numerous instances where the first and third scenario has been replayed many times with Gedolim. Indeed, many Gedolim have issued the clarification that they only issue their rulings based upon the facts at hand that are presented to them
Unfortunately there are holes in all those suggestions.  To wit, we have no evidence that the Rav who released this statement is well-meaning.  I mean, he's probably given the doubt by Rav Hoffman because he wears th right outfit and studies Torah with the right amount of swaying and Yiddish interjections which is all you need to be considered righteous by many in the Chareidi community but for the rest of us we have no idea if this Rav was genuinely concerned about the spiritual welfare of klal Yisrael or a manipulative power freak who is on a campaign to ban the iPhone no matter how much damage he causes people.
What's further, the idea that Rav Kaniesky, shlit"a, would issue such a definitive statement but expect people to understand he didn't really mean to rule that way but wanted to get across the strength of his concerns is also ludicruous.  Such a rationalization could then be retroactiely attached to all his p'saks.  Is Rav Hoffman suggesting this is a viable option?
Rav Hoffman leaves out three further options that need to be stated:
1) The Rav, fully intending to leave his meeting with Rav Kanievsky holding a ban against the iPhone, completely misled the Gaon, a man with unparalleled Torah knowledge but who has no clue what a real iPhone is.  He told Rav Kanievsky exactly what he needed to so that the Gaon would give him the harsh ps'ak.
2) The Rav never even asked the question but simply held a conversation about the iPhone with Rav Kanievsky.  The Gaon, during the conversation, may have mused about how terrible such a device is and its possible halachic ramifications on owners and the Rav left the meeting, wrote up the p'sak himself, certain that Rav Kanievsky would agree to it.
3) The discussion never took place.  Instead the Rav invented the p'sak after a brief meeting with Rav Kanievsky that had nothing to do with the iPhone issue, confident that Rav Kanievsky would support such a position and then put the Gaon's name on it.
The bigger problem with this story is the implication for the Chareidi leadership.  The fundamental basis for the authority of Chareidi leaders to issue decrees without having to even explain their thinking is the concept of "Daas Torah".  Tuned into God's radio frequence in a way we cannot understand they are able to deliver correct rulings for the masses.  If this is true then how can they really be manipulated?  How can they reach improper decisions if they have ruach hakodesh to guide them to the emes?
This story potentially demonstrates once again that this is not true.  If Rav Kanievsky truly issued the p'sak he is being credited with then it turns out "Gedolim" aren't infallible omniscient leaders but very learned men with no knowledge of the world they are paskening for, men who can be manipulated by base individuals into saying whatever those individuals want them to say.
If you don't believe me, ask Lipa Schmeltzer.
Rav Eliashiv, z"l, is quoted as saying "If you didn't hear it directly from me don't believe I said it."  How can a system which has no reliability on reported statements of its leaders properly function?  How can I believe that a teshuvah was copied and pritned correctly instead of being adjusted to fit a prevailing ideology?  Short of walking in and asking the "Gadol" the question myself how can I rely on any answer they give?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Whose Fault Is Atheism?

There are 2 aspects to atheism that one must examine.  The first is the belief, or rather lack of belief, in God, chalilah.  This post won't address that.  The existence of God is provable by logic and philosophy and is addressed by far better authors than me so I won't go into that right now.
The second aspect is the motivation of atheists.  Many, I'm sure, are quiet types who don't believe, don't care that they don't believe and don't care that others do believe as long as those others don't show up at their door with pitchforks and flaming torches.
Others, however, are quite militant about their atheism.  Folks like Richard Dawkins, Christophen Hitchens and others not only don't believe but are genuinely perturbed by those who insist on continuing to believe after hearing all the arguments against it.  Again, when confronted with rational counterarguments (usually offered long after the militant atheist in question has left the building in order to avoid a blow-up) most of their positions fall through.  But we must step back and consider what motivates them.
One of the simplest rules in the business world is that if you're doing a good job your loyal customer base will stay with you even in the presence of competition.  In the presence of stiff competition your business then has to up its game in order to remain viable but your customers will still give you a chance if they see you're adapting to the new market conditions.
If we extrapolate this to religion we can see this very model at work and perhaps this can explain why militant atheism has had such a strong rise in the last few decades.
For millenia a religion's only real competition was another religion.  As a result all your religion had to do was promise some unique feature available only to followers in order to retain them.  Chrisianity promised you Heaven if you believed in their saviour.  Islam promised not to slaughter you if you accepted their prophet.  Judaism promised you tzimmes and humentaschen along with a fierce defiance of history's tendency to wipe up small nations.
With the rise of Western intellectualism along with the rise in economic status of the average citizen of society all this changed.  At one time you wanted to be a part of the big picture because that was the only way to matter.  Now that people had their own homes, cars and stocks a rise in the status of the individual became paramount.  Despite JFK's great speech people have, over the last few decades, been far more interested in what the state can do for them then what they can do for that state.
And religion's response?  Tepid at best.  People wanted a belief system without any accompanying obligations and religion offered the exact opposite.  Just ask Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister in the United States who was recently defrocked by his parent church organization.  Despite clear rules against it he conducted the marriage rites at his son's gay wedding.  His response to the defrocking is typical of modern Western attitudes.  He doesn't think he did anything wrong, he doesn't think he broke any rules because the rules he broke aren't fair (according to him) and he won't accept being defrocked because, well because he doesn't want to.  He simulatneously refuses to recognize the authority of his church while insisting on remaining an official within it.
What has this to do with the rise of atheism?  Well part of it, I would guess, is a sense of authenticity.  The bottom line for folks like Schaefer is that their god is a personal one.  The deity, whatever they call him these days, agrees with their personal views 100% of the time.  What they think is right, He thinks is right.  Perhaps without realizing it they are worshipping themselves, each man a religion unto himself.  An intellectually honest person would call them out on this and point out that since they don't have an external, objective source of divine revelation in their lives they are really atheists themselves.
The other is harder to deal with.In his essay "The Pangs of Cleansing" Rav Kook, ztk"l, writes that atheism is a response to religion that has gone off the rails.  It is a challenge to a religious order that is no longer doing what it is supposed to do.  Instead atheism arises and tries to fill the moral void that religion has left behind. 
When we look around at our world we can easily see that this is what is happening.  Every day it seems another scandal erupts either within the Orthodox community, the Catholic church or somewhere in the Dar al Islam.  Religion, which should be a force for moral improvement and the advancement of human decency, seems to be the vanguard of a new Dark Ages and happily so.  Is it any wonder people are making the simple equation and leaving religion, along with God, behind?
Therefore it behooves us not to be annoyed with the existence of militant atheism but to instead see it for what it is: a symptom of our illness as a religion and a call to improve ourselves.  Should we do that, should we be able to restore Judaism as a consistent, moral order it would solve this problem and bring our final redemption that much closer.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Other God Delusion

In the last few decades there has been a tremendous increase in the desire of people to learn kabbala, Jewish mysticism.  Along with this there has also been an increase in the number of books available for such folks, both in English and Hebrew.  Translations of the Zohar, both into Hebrew and English are readily available in Jewish bookstores and on-line.  Some of the greatest works of mysticism can also be found in such places as Amazon.
Contrary to the opinion of others I don't think this is such a great thing.  I mean, yes kabbala is an important and deep subject within Judaism.  The problem is that kabbala is the neurosurgery of Judaism and, like neurosurgery, it's not something anyone with a particular hankering for it should be getting into, especially unguided.
This especially bears mentioning as we live in the age of Artscoll.  Once upon a time a person who wanted to learn Talmud, for instance, needed a teacher.  He needed to go to yeshivah for a course of studies and his learning would be guided by an experiences rebbe in order to ensure he got the appropriate understanding of the text.  Nowadays with the availability of the Artscroll or Steinsaltz Talmuds this is no longer the case.  Anyone with an interest in Gemara can go to a Jewish bookstore or even go on-line and purchase a set complete with decent translations and elucidative notes.  On one hand this has opened up the world of Talmud to countless Jews who otherwise would have been cut off from our heritage.  On the other hand it has created a culture in which the commentary in the book becomes the person's rebbe instead of a real live teacher connected to our mesorah.
This lack of connection can certainly cause problems with one's understanding and use of the nigleh Torah.  There's a big kal v'chomer involved when it extends to kabbala and nistar issues.
Why does this matter?  While the nigleh deals with both bein adam l'Makom and bein adam l'chaveiro the nistar side of things involves bein adam l'Makom on a far more intense level.  It seems to me that this can be so intense that focusing on it leads one to forget about bein adam l'chaveiro.
This came to me a few years in a conversation with a Chabadnik who was telling me about how some folks had come through for him in a big way.  I responded by asking how he had shown his gratitude.  He shrugged and said "Look, it's all due to the Ribono shel olam.  He's the only one we really need to show gratitude to."
This comment stayed with me because it really exemplified the attitude that exposure to nistar brings out in some people.  Yes, God is the infinite, perfect and omniscient centre of our reality and the ultimate undeniable cause of everything.  Yes, He has a personal relationship with each of us, even those of us that, chalilah, deny His existence.  Yes, when it all comes down to it He is the only mover and shaker that truly exists.  But that doesn't mean that He's the only thing in Creation that we should be relating to, that we should see our fellows as mere tools in His hands.
It is also clear from His words on the subject in Tana"ch that we should be seeing our fellows as important, that the need to interact with them positively is a definite virtue He appreciates.  Far from ignoring the positive contributions of others to our lives because "only God matters" we are adjured to emphasize things like gratitude and kindness because this is the kind of decency He demands of us.
This then is the danger of kabbala these days, something which might explain the shockingly low level of bein adam l'chaveiro that is practised by many who otherwise claim to be on the highest level of piety.  How many people strive to ensure their food is mehadrin min mehddrin min mehadrin but have no issue with theft and slander? If only God matters then other human beings don't and this is an attitude that we must all strive to avoid.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Tznius As It Was Meant To Be

The current obsession in the frum world seems to be over tznius, commonly translated as "modesty".  We often make fun of the non-religious for their misuse of terms like tikun olam in ways that have nothing to do with their true usages but I think it's time was all admitted that tznius the way the Orthodox use it today is just as far from its meaning as thinking that Chanukah is a festival celebrating religious freedom.
In reality when one looks at the various uses of the root for tznius in Tana"ch there is no indication it has anything to do with clothing or one's public appearance.  Instead it always seems to be about one's attitude vis a vis interacting with God.  The Navi, for example, adjures us to walk modestly with the Ribono shel Olam and one would be a full to think he's hinting at the clothing one should wear.
Despite this tznius has become all about external appearance.  A woman's worth as a Jew and human being is defined nowadays by how obsessively she covers herself up.  Forget her attitudes and her interactions with her fellows.  A wig is great.  A wig with a shaved head underneath?  Gevaldiq!  Now that's real tznius.
Is it any wonder that the more whack job elements in the Torah-observant community have come to base their self-appointed belief in religious superiority almost entirely on this concept?  What makes a Chareidi woman more religious than her Modern Orthodox counterpart?  How much more she covers her hair and how her skirt is a little longer.  Can one be mystified then at the rise of the Burka Babes of Beit Shemesh and now Chatham, Ontario?
After all, if a shaved head under that wig is superior to just the wig then the shaved head under the tichel so that everyone can see the bare outline is even more tznius.  And if that is more modest than hiding one's face and head under a formless burka is the ultimately level for modesty.
One of the problems with Orthodoxy, as I've noted before along with others, is that we have might seem to have no right border.  Yes, we know very well where our left border is and are great at spotting folks like the Morethodox crowd who enjoy standing on that border and taking long visits beyond it.  But the right side?  Exactly how nutty do you have to be to stop being considered with Orthodox?  You can meet with the president of Iran at a conference on Holocaust denial and although you'll become a social pariah no one will say "You're no longer Orthodox".  You can't simply dismiss them.  They are doing what we're doing but more aggressively and with greater extremism.  How can one stand up to it and point out that it's a wrong form of Torah observance?
Let me suggest something about tznius.  Instead of translating it as "modesty" I would like to offer "dignity" as a better way to get the world across.
It is not dignified to force 15 year old girls to marry 40 year old men.  Nor is it dignified to make all women walk around in burkas with the only generous concession being that young girls can show parts of their faces.  What else can we add to the list?  How about not giving your children a decent education in any language other than Yiddish thereby making their outcasts in the country they live in?  How about not teaching your children trades so they grow up to become welfare addicts, experts at Talmud and defrauding the social assistance system of the country they live in?
Being Orthodox should definitely be about tznius, but that means the Orthodox Jew should be dignified in dress, comportment, education and manners.  Running around and pretending to be refugees from a low budget production of "Fiddler On The Roof" because your religious outlook can't handle any other type of world is not dignified.  It brings shame and ridicule and is therefore not tznius.
It is time those of us who are shomer mitzvos but also are well aware of our role as the Am haNivchar to stand up and say that there are behaviours which go against our beliefs not because we're not religious enough to endorse them but because we value tznius, dignity, as a major Torah value and we don't appreciate those who pretend to be more relgious than us but have no concept of tznius themselves.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Once Again An Unnecessary Defence

The old "Torah vs Science" debate has once again chosen to raise its ugly head and, with a weary sigh, we find ourselves once again having one of the most useless debates in Jewish history.
Let's get one thing straight off the top: Rav Natan Slifkin's greatest talent isn't his intelligence or his writing skills.  It's his uncanny ability to get people obsessed with him in a negative way.  There are two blogs I know of which seem to be dedicated to attacking him.  Now Rav Moshe Meiselman, the mentor of one of Rav Slifkin's most persistent nemeses, has published a book purporting to defend Chazal's infalliblity when it comes to their statements on science and medicine conflicting with the current state of knowledge.
Rav Slifkin has spent enough time on his own blog deconstructing the flaws in this work.  I have little to add to his statements, especially as I have not nor do I plan to purchase it. 
I just think that it should be stated again: the debate between the rationalists and irrationalists in this area come to down one simple question: Were Chazal closed-minded dogmatists unwilling to consider any sourec of knowledge other than the mesorah they'd received from their teachers? 
For the irrationalists the answer is "yes".  This means that if Chazal said that water is warmer at night because the sun is going underneath the ground then that's the real reason it is, not because it's releasing heat absorbed during the day.  If Chazal say that the Sun revolves around the Earth, then reality be damned.  Scientisits, they don't know nothing!
Since it is axiomatic for the irrationalists that the mesorah contains all branches of knowledge and is direct from Heaven it therefore follows that since Chazal knew the mesorah perfectly they cannot be questioned on any of their statements.  To do so is heresy and therefore those who do so much be fought with vigour.
For the rationalists the answer to the question is "no".  This means that if Chazal said that a certain disease is treated by a combination of herbs and mystical incantations it's because Chazal were working with the medical knowledge base of their time.  They weren't stupid.  It wasn't that they didn't know.  When it comes to Torah knowledge is eternal.  Nobody knows Torah better than Chazal and when it comes to Torah knowledge we cannot contradict them, only try to understand them. 
When it comes to science what's "true" changes as the knowledge base develops.  Once time was a constant.  Einstein showed it wasn't.  It doesn't mean that scientists who espoused chronoconstancy before Einstein came along were ignorant.  They were just as smart but limited by the knowledge base of their day. 
This is something lost on the irrationalists.  They view criticism or change as a personal attack on Chazal but that's wrong.  Rationalists have no less respect for Chazal, for their intelligence and piety along with their incomparable Torah knowledge.  It's just that rationalist recognize that scientific statements aren't part of Torah but merely observations Chazal felt should be included in the Talmud.
Is there proof for this position?  Well  Rav Slifkin has his own but I'd like to suggest a different one, one that is suprisingly applicable in this modern day and era.  The Talmud Bavli, Niddah 30b, tells the following:


AS FOR A MENSTRUANT etc. It was taught: R. Ishmael stated, Scripture prescribed uncleanness

and cleanness in respect of a male and it also prescribed uncleanness and cleanness in respect

of a female, as in the case of the former his fashioning period corresponds to his unclean and

clean periods so also in the case of the latter her fashioning period corresponds to her unclean

and clean periods. They replied: The duration of the fashioning period cannot be derived from

that of uncleanness. Furthermore, they said to R. Ishmael, A story is told of Cleopatra the queen of

Alexandria that when her handmaids were sentenced to death by royal decree they were

subjected to a test and it was found that both [a male and a female embryo] were fully fashioned on

the forty-first day. He replied: I bring you proof from the Torah and you bring proof from some

fools! But what was his ‘proof from the Torah’? If it was the argument, ‘Scripture prescribed

uncleanness and cleanness in respect of a male and it also prescribed uncleanness and cleanness in

respect of a female etc.’, have they not already replied, ‘The duration of the fashioning period cannot

be derived from that of uncleanness’? — The Scriptural text says, She bear, Scripture thus

doubles the ante-natal period in the case of a female. But why [should the test spoken of by the

Rabbis be described as] ‘proof from some fools’? — It might be suggested that the conception of the

female preceded that of the male by forty days. And the Rabbis? — They were made to drink

a scattering drug And R. Ishmael? — Some constitution is insusceptible to a drug. Then said

R. Ishmael to them: A story is told of Cleopatra the Grecian queen that when her handmaids were

sentenced to death under a government order they were subjected to a test and it was found that a

male embryo was fully fashioned on the forty-first day and a female embryo on the eighty-first

day. They replied: No one adduces proof from fools. What is the reason? — It is possible that the

handmaid with the female delayed [intercourse] for forty days and that it was only then that

conception occurred. And R. Ishmael? — They were placed in the charge of a warden. And the

Rabbis? — There is no guardian against unchastity; and the warden himself might have

intercourse with them. But is it not possible that if a surgical operation had been performed on the

forty-first day the female embryo also might have been found in a fully fashioned condition like the

male? — Abaye replied: They were equal as far as these distinguishing marks were concerned. Now, this story is fascinating because it echoes modern science and medicine.  We live in what is called the era of evidence based medicine.  Medicine, like any branch of scientific knowledge, has its own dogmas, things which have been accepted as true without there being any real proof.  It's just something each teacher has told his student because he heard it from his teacher and just accepted it.  Nowadays there is an ongoing effort in the medical literature to challenge these dogmas.  What's more, there are very specific rules for reading and interpreting new papers.  All therapeutic trials are not created equal.  What's amazing about this gemara is that Chazal are rebutting Cleopatra's evidence based on very similar ideas.  Yes, they start with their dogmatic position but when challenged by secular experimentation that seems to contradict this they are able to point out flaws in the design of the "studies" that render them inadmissable.  The implication is clear: if Cleopatra had found a way to satisfy their concerns Chazal would have looked at her findings in a serious fashion. Honestly, does anyone really believe that if Chazal were to come back to life and discover all the stuff science has figured out in the last 1500 years that they'd simply dismiss it?  They wouldn't believe bacteria exist because the mesorah never mentioned it?  The flat-earthers amongst them would continue to insist on that position? Wait, don't answer those questions. Why should this be so?  The rational answer is that Chazal were open-minded in their search for truth.  Instead of coming to a conclusion and then selectively choosing the evidence that supported them they were prepared to consider all information since they were involved in a honest pursuit of understanding the Divine mind.  This is what made them great, not some mythical omniscience they themselves never claimed to have. So once again we go back and forth, neither side really listening to each other.  It is simply important to remember that the rational position, far from disrespecting Chazal, probably has a better understanding of how they worked and a stronger claim to be their real defenders.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Remembering Who's Really Worst

Mayor Rob Ford has made the news around the world for the last few weeks.  The cicumferentially-challenged chief officer of Toronto has become famous for being caught abusing crack with known felons, then lying about it, then getting caught, then sharing vulgar thoughts on his marital life with the press.  With each passing day the city's embarrassment grows as Ford continues to refuse to step aside and go gently into that good night.  The left, which was outraged by his even winning the election a couple of years ago is now nearly apopleptic at his insistence on remaining in his position.  What's the point of gleeful jubilation if the target refuses to quietly accept his downfall?
But after all the articles have been written and all the pundits have had their say there is something more to consider.  Let's remind ourselves of the former premier of the province of Ontario, one Dalton McGuinty.  During his 10 year tenure McGuinty expanded the size and cost of government to record levels.  During his first term at premier he broke almost every single pledge he made during the election campaign.  He treated the citizens of Ontario the way one might treat a developmentally challenged child by  constantly introducing new safety regulations that gave the impression that Ontarians are clutzy morons that have to be protected by the nanny state lest a sense of personal initiative lead to some form of harm.
Worst of all are the financial scandals he left behind.  Just to name a few: one billion dollars blown at eHealthOntario, the government's initiative to increase electronic medical practice.  Tens of millions of dollars spent with little to no oversight at the provincial air ambulance agency.  Another 1.2 billion dollars to move two gas plants because not moving them might have cost him a couple of ridings in the last election.  When news of that scandal hit the papers he shut down the provincial parliament, then retired and announced that he had nothing to answer for because he was no longer premier.
In short, he was patronizing, incompetent and corrupt.  But who's getting the front page treatment?
Now, I'm not excusing Rob Ford's behaviour.  As a now-former supporter of his I also wish he'd just go away and leave the spotlight to someone lest demonstrably vile.  He's made a mockery of the mayor's office, which is quite an achievement for an office previously inhabited by Mel Lastman.  He's disappointed and disillusioned Ford Nation, his rapid cadre of supporters.  He's a complete letdown.
But when he came to work he worked hard.  His foibles didn't affect his citizens.  He wrestled with costs and always tried to let the beset interests of Toronto guide his agenda.  He might have been a stoned and drunk boor after work but while on duty he was all business.
Dalton McGuinty, on the other hand, probably doesn't have a single personal vice to his name.  He probably drinks in extreme moderation, if at all and is probably a loving father and husband who would rather die than embarrass his loved ones.  And he's also a corrupt politician and a liar with a disdain for democracy.  If Ontario is a financially precarious situation, something that affects almost 10 million people it's definitely his fault but there's no sign he's prepared to take an iota of responsibility.
So who's really the worse person here?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Of Glass Houses and Stones

Rav Yaakov Mencken of Cross Currents is, as we all know, not the most sophisticated writer on the block.  He seems quite easy to outrage and is always read with a biased screed against his perceived enemies.  His latest piece, once again attacking the Women of the Wall and giving them attention they don't deserve, raises an interesting point on his thinking.
In short, he notes the emerging awareness that Women of the Wall is connected to leftists groups, some of whom are anti-Israel.  I certainly agree with him that these kinds of things should be noted.  If the WoW's are taking aid and succour from groups that would like to see the Wall on the Arab side of the barbed wire fence then people should be made aware of this.  After all, I doubt most people who are sympathetic to the WoW's would agree with losign the Wall to Judaism entirely.
But take a step back and wonder.  Rav Mencken is, no doubt, an upstanding UltraOrthodox Jew.  He wears the outfit, speaks the Yeshivish and likely sways beautifully when davening.  I'm also willing to bet that he loves hanging out with UltraOrthodox Jews of all types, including Chasidim. Including Satmar Chasidim.
Now let's remind ourself of the official position of the Satmar Chasidim when it comes to Israel.  They are, to put it gently, rapidly anti-Israel.  They have no problem with so-called Palestinian maps that show a 23rd Arab state run by unrepentant Jew-killing terrorits instead of Israel.  They have no problem calling for the end of Israel and reminding people that "real Orthodox Jews" (i.e. them) are anti-Zionists.  Does Rav Mencken have the same problem with them as he does with the anti-Israel groups that the WoW's hang around with?
In short, with whom would he rather associate?  Zionist Riverdale or Israel-hating Williamsburg?  And if it's the latter, who is he to criticize the WoW's?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Keeping Obligations Straight

One of the things that bugs me about some portions of UltraOrthodoxy, especially Chassidus, is how customs, innovations (gasp!) and minor rules are sometimes elevated to a point where they become emphasized more than actual halacha.  Rav Harry Maryles, in his latest post, point this out by referring to the story of a woman who is an ex-Satmar chasid because of her disagreement with head shaving.  As Rav Maryles notes in his post:
Mrs. Goldberger is a former member of Satmar. She says that she left Satmar five years ago based on this issue. The custom (perhaps even the Halacah as they see it) is for a married woman to shave her head. They feel so strongly that a married woman’s hair is Erva, that they do not want to take the chance that a single strand of hair will even be exposed. The safest (and according to Satmar the only) way to assure that is by a woman shaving her head. This is what Mrs. Goldberger did. At first without giving it much thought since that is what all married Satmar women did. This is what the Satmar Rebbe required. Here is how Mrs. Goldberger put it:
The Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, famously gave emotional, tear-jerking speeches against married women growing their own hair. “Jewish daughters, our mothers and fathers gave up their lives to our Father in Heaven for the sanctity of His name, but you, their daughters, don’t want to give up even a few hairs?” he asked in a speech on Yom Kippur eve in 1951, according to “The Rebbe,” a 2010 biography by Dovid Meisels. “What does Hashem Yisbarach (God) ask of us? A few hairs! Because of a few hairs you are making yourselves lose both worlds. Jewish daughters, shave your hair and give honor to the Torah.”
I am in no position to argue Halacha with the Satmar Rebbe. His Torah knowledge dwarfed that of even many great Rabbonim. It certainly dwarfs mine by a lot. But he is not the only Posek in the Jewish world. Most Poskim do not see it his way. I therefore strongly disagree with him.

These few paragraphs encapsulate for me what is wrong with the frum system today.  No, Rav Maryles is nowhere near the calibre of the Satmar Rebbe, z"l, when it comes to halacha. (As for me, al achas kamah v'kamah).  However, the Talmud is certainly a few notches higher than him and nowhere does it say a woman must cover her hair, much less that she should treat this "obligation" as something God obsesses over in Heaven.  The Shulchan Aruch, which is also a few notches higher than the Satmar, also does not endorse hair shaving in the married woman and actually contains negative opinions about the practice.  The Satmar, based on mystical sources, has gone and trumped the foundational books of halacha and created a requirement for his married female followers that is entirely a later invention, something the Torah, Talmud and major codes of law do not require.  And to top it all off he presented it as something God specifically wants.
We all know what that means.  It means a frum woman who is otherwise scrupulous in her observance of mitzvos including covering her hair but who doesn't shave her scalp is a sinner, defying God's wishes and not making the necessary sacrifice the Satmar believes He requires.  It means that normative halacha is not really what an observant Jew should be following because, despite the endorsement of such minor authorities as the Rambam, the Tur, Rav Yosef Karo and the Rema, it isn't really what God wants!
The problem with fighting against this attitude is the automatic association in Jewish culture between learning and righteousness.  As I've written before, we have a simple formula: extensive learning = righteousness.  After all, if a particular authority wasn't such a big tzadik he wouldn't have been such a knowledgeable man.  And since we wish to follow the righteous then the big learner is automatically an authority figure.
But then we reach the critical difficulty.  It's one thing for an authority to stand up and say "From my learning I believe the following practice is important and those who wish to follow in my system should also do it."  Clearly the Satmar was obsessed with women's appearances, especially the dresses, stockings and hair.  Fine, that was what he believed was a priority to be addressed amongst his followers.  But can we not see a little bit of presumption in stating with such certainty "This is what God wants!" when nowhere in the official literature does it say that?
As observant Jews we sacrifice quite a bit in our daily lives.  It is one thing to insist we hold firmly to our love of God, strength in learning and fealty in mitzvos performance.  It is quite another to invent new requirements and treat them like they're the new minimal baseline for proper Jewish behaviour.  As the Talmud itself asks, "613 mitzvos aren't enough, you have to go and invent more?"
We best fulfill God's will by doing what He asked of us as detailed in our holy books and remembering that basic halacha isn't something to keep us unwashed masses busy while the "real" Jews engage in mystical laws and behaviours.  The basic halacha is what God wants of us and Chazal weren't simply sopping us with the Talmud while keeping the Zohar for the special ones.  It's hard enough to live a decent halachic life, after all and as Rav Maryles' post concludes pushing too hard for things that aren't necessary to the faith winds up causing the opposite problem.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Who Serves Whom

One of the most important findings of the Pew Report on Jewish identity was that many, if not most, non-religious younger Jews are turning away from Judaism because they don't find it relevant to them.  The idea of being Jewish as an obligation simply doesn't exist in their personal frames of reference and as a result they treat being Jewish as one option among many for meeting their personal and spiritual needs.    As Rav Yonatan Rosenblum eloquently notes in a recent essay:
THE HIGH INTERMARRIAGE RATE should occasion no surprise. "Jewish" has long since ceased to be a primary, or even tertiary, identity for most American Jews. Those things that most American Jews associate with Jewish identity – a sense of humor, a taste for certain foods, commitment to social justice, Holocaust remembrance – are by no means exclusive to Jews. If politics or a sense of humor or taste in movies are primary to one's self-identity, then one is likely to choose one's spouse on the basis of those things, not religion.
Nor is it any surprise that "Jewish" should rank so low on the totem pole of self-identification. For the one message that most American Jews have never heard is: Judaism is unique; Judaism has a message that differs from the prevailing zeitgeist. Rather they have been told that Judaism is trivial, and its rituals and proscriptions outdated and primitive.
Every time, "Jewish" or "marriage" are redefined to "keep the kids within the fold" or to maintain the demographic numbers, the message is conveyed that Judaism is meaningless and exists only for its own self-perpetuation. Judaism, our young understand, makes no demands and will accommodate them however far afield they travel.
AMERICAN JEWISH LEADERS, including a large swath of the clergy, have not followed Wertheimer's minimum prescription for the preservation of American Jewry as a distinct community: to address directly about where, how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethic of the culture at large, by "speaking on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia . . . have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart."
Years ago I went to a student forum at the local university where three local rabbis were asked to speak.  The Reform rabbi waxed on about how his daughter lived her Jewish values by volunteering at the local food bank and homeless shelter.  Shabbos was a nice idea, of course, but she felt it was more important to express her Jewishness by spending Saturday afternoons helping the homeless.  I then asked what I thought was the obvious challenge: when she meets someone non-Jewish who has exactly the same values as her what will keep her in the fold?  I saw this myself with an old friend who was raising in the Conservative system through school, camps and youth groups.  She was a big leftist social justice type and ultimately met a non-Jewish guy who shared her values.  She saw no trouble with marrying him because he was exactly the kind of guy she was looking for and his not being Jewish didn't factor into it.
Much of the fault for this can be laid squarely in the Orthodox community.  Our public obsessions with those things that are not relevant to non-religious folks like kashrus, Shabbos and taharas mishpacha give the impression that Judaism is all about personal ritual with no connection to societal concerns.  The endless parade of Orthodox Jews in the headlines for various crimes along with the public disheveled appearance of many Orthodox neighbourhoods only helps to make the non-religious feel like there is nothing in true Judaism that is of relevance to the 21st century liberal.
All this also brings to mine the old JFK quote (which wasn't his, by the way): "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.The other factor that works against Judaism and spring from this quote is bigger than that.  Our civilization is one in which "duty" is a dirty word to be used on other people, not on oneself.  The combination of increasing convenience through technology and rising entitlements from oversized government has created a society of folks who are interested in the opposite of JFK's great quote.  Young Jews, it would seem, want their local synagogue/temple to do something to entertain them as opposed to seeing it as a place to congregate out of obligation to the community.  They look at Judaism and ask "What's in it for me?" instead of "How can I contribute to Judaism"?
Rav Rosenblum's article brings an example of a community which has successfully engaged in efforts to change the slide away from Judaism but, as he notes, the success of the small and homogenous South African community cannot be duplicated in North America for various reasons.  This does not mean that the underlying principle, presenting Judaism as a faith with distinct values, is a wash.
What is needed, however, is leadership on both the Torah observant and non-religious sides of the divide to change their presentations.  Non-religious leaders are pandering to the secular liberals in their congregations in increasing radical ways but are not gaining any ground.  As the kids in my childhood synagogue once told the rabbi when he asked them why they didn't come out for youth activities, "the non-Jewish people have lots better parties and lots more fun".  The Conservatives seem to have shrunk after every step they take away from Torah observance in order to accommodate secular liberals.  The Reform have reached the point where a good number of those who even participate minimally in the movement aren't even really Jewish.  
On the Orthodox side there has to be a step away from the obsession with the minutiae of ritual.  We have to ask ourselves a simple question: are non-black stockings on a woman worse than theft and pedophiles?  How can we penetrate the klipah of selfishness our culture has wrapped our non-Jewish brethren in if we don't show them that Judaism does speak to their values but only as a whole system instead of bits and parts?
On the non-religious side there has to be a recognition that only Jewish unique values make one's actions Jewish.  Helping out at the local shelter because that's what makes you feel Jewish isn't authentic.  Helping out because the Torah obliges us to clothe the poor and shelter the homeless and by doing so we are connecting to God, that's authentic.  And building that connection to God comes with personal and ritual obligations.  At some point Reformative clergy have to swallow a bitter pill and say "Look, if you want to be a good Jew you also have to do the following..."  Intermarriage will only drop when the non-Orthodox Jew decides to marry another Jew not because of "Well, I don't want to marry a non-Jew" but because only another Jew can match their values.
The Torah and Talmud have no shortage of exhortations on how to help the poor and enact social justice.  Instead of figuring out new ways to make keeping kosher more difficult we should be figuring out how to be machmir on helping the homeless.  Instead of worrying about whether or not women and men can sit in sight of one another on a public bus we should be stocking our local food banks, both kosher and not.  Somewhere along the way the books of Yishiyahu, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel, uncensored, must make their way back into our curriculum.
We observant Jews have as much an obligation to save our non-religious brethren from assimilated obscurity but we have to change ourselves as well in order to do that.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Friendly Face of Anti-Semitism

One of the things I like to do in my family practice is take in students.  One of the fun things about having new students is hearing about what's going on at the local medical school, any changes in the curriculum and the initiatives the school is launching.
Sometimes I also get to hear about class politics. A few years ago I had a couple of Jewish students who told me about one of their classmates, a very politically active fellow who was constantly bombarding their student message board with announcements about protests and demonstrations he thought his fellow students should get involved in.  He was also using it to share his political opinions freely even though the board was for school-related information.  As you can probably guess his opinions were on the left side of the political spectrum.  As you can also guess his comments on Israel were not, to say the least, friendly. 
It was bad enough that the Jewish students in my office expressed discomfort with having him around.  It's one thing to have strong views but in medicine one of the unspoken but very important rules is "Leave your politics at the door".  I've had Muslim students galore in my office and ER.  We stayed away from political discussions and got on fabulously.  I don't bring my beliefs into the department and I expect others not to as well.
Over time the name of his guy faded from memory.  My students graduated and moved on through residency and onto independent practice.  Then, last Saturday night I arrived at the ER I always work at on Motzei Shabbos and met the new guy who had just joined the staff.  He was friendly and the nurses said they liked how he worked (always important).  Then I heard his name.  At first I thought "Wait, I know that name" and after a few minutes it came to me.  It was that guy my students had told me about.
Now here's the predicament.  There is no doubt this guy is a Jew hater.  (I try to avoid the term anti-Semite because of all of those ignoramuses out there who say "Well an Arab can't be an anti-Semite because they're Semites too)  A quick Bing search of his name  along with the word "Israel" brings up a plethora of links including his Twitter feed where he discusses an elective he did in 'Aza during residency.  His comments are, as expected, about the great resilience of the so-called Palestinian people who are suffering from the "illegal" seige and "indiscriminate shelling" that Israel is throwing at them.  It's the usual Jew hating crap when it comes to Israel and its enemies.
So how do I know he's a Jew hater?  He could be just another leftist useful idiot.  I put it to the test.  I reentered his name into Bing along with "Tibet" (occupied by China), "Darfur" (occupied by Sudan), "East Timor" (occupied by Indonesia) and "Rwanda" (site of a large massacre a few years ago, you might have heard about it).  No hits.
Like all other Jew haters he is the kind of guy who cloaks his venom in a respectful facade of caring about social justice and oppressed people but there's only one people he cares about and only one side of a story he wants to hear before rendering his verdict.  I doubt he's toured S'derot or Be'er Sheva and seen the damage rockets from 'Aza have produced.  Frankly I don't think such a tour would make a difference.  He'd just see them as acts of resistant and blame Israel anyway.
But what's bugging me is how nice he is.  He did handover without an issue (naturally there was no mention of my kippah), told the staff a few jokes and went on his way.  He followed the rule: leave your politics at the door. 
I will happily admit I was fortunate to grow up in a sort of bubble.  I experiences no Jew hatred as a child or young adult.  The only time Jew hating slogans were shouted at me were by high school acquaintances who were not Jew haters but simply wanted to insult me and chose the least imaginative way possible. 
In university I was aware that there were Jew haters on campus and of the occasional anti-Israel protests but I graduated long before Israel Apartheid Week came into being and besides, I never had time to look into these things.  Unlike leftists who don't seem to have any academic responsibilities I actually had exams to study for which meant long hours in the library.
The only real trouble being Jewish caused me duing my medical training came from other Jews who were quite happy to insist that I should be scheduled to work on Shabbos because they didn't keep Shabbos and didn't see why I should.  In contrast, my gentile colleagues were always very accomodating.
So I've never really encountered a true Jew hater.  What bothers me is that this guy isn't the typical stereotype.  He isn't the elistist WASPish snob, nor is he the uneducated white trash guy in the wife-beater getup.  He's a nice guy, educated but not aloof and very friendly, yet he hates what I hold most dear and has common cause with the dedicated enemies of my people.
It probably won't be much of an issue.  I generally work overnight shifts which means I work alone ("plays nicely with others" isn't a comment I got too much on my report cards growing up) and I will not bring up politics at work, like I wrote about.  But he is a stark reminder that the friendly face a Jew runs into throughout society might be hiding some of the most ancient hatred plaguing mankind.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Elections Are Bad For Judaism

The municipal elections for mayor in Israel are happening today and reading the ongoing saga of the election campaign from out here in golus has been truly frightening.  Perhaps it's because I'm Canadian and just expect a certain level of civility but listening to the tactic various candidates have use to promote themselves is really scary.  Tearing down one's opponent's signs is bad enough but in this case it's the most benign strategy being used.  Did a Chareidi newspaper really print a picture suggesting that the non-Chareidi candidate in the Beit Shemesh race would put Chareidi children in to concentration camps?  Did more than one "Gadol" threaten those who don't vote for the parties they recommend with death?
For as long as I can remember elections in Israel have been a rancorous affair.  Possibly that's because there's so much at stake.  In addition the various parties have real differences in their platforms in terms of the direction they want to take their electorate in.  As opposed to Canada where the biggest distinction between party platforms is the colour of the cover page of their policy book, Israeli politics generates meaningful discussions and real passion. 
Too much passion sometimes.  Am I the only person who remembers the mid 1980's Likud convention (I think it was 1986) that had to be cancelled because of fist fights and thrown chairs?  Or the election campaign in the mid-1990's where multiple postal workers were fined for refusing to deliver campaign propaganda from parties they disagreed with?
All of this would be fun to watch were it not for the involvement of the religious parties.  For all the Chareidi PR machine tries to convince us of the holiness and purity of that community the behaviour of its political representatives easily smashes that image.  Whether its the ongoing disgrace that is the mayor's race in Beit Shemesh or the lack of any campaign in Bene Beraq since only the "Gadol approved" candidate is allowed to run, the face of the Chareidi community these cretins display is very discouraging.
One concern is, of course, the demographic time bomb.  A majority of young Jewish children in Israel are Chareidi.  Even with a strong OTD rate the community's representation in Israeli politics is going to continue to increase.  Even if it doesn't at the national level the number of towns now Chareidi controlled is increasing.  This is no longer a fringe phenomenon but a national concern.
And what can we expect from this ongoing development?  What will a dominant Chareidi political establishment look like?  Contempt for the masses, supreme power to "the Gedolim" and real power concentrated in the hands of their handlers who will decide what anouncements these sages will make and what they will expect from the people.  Non-compliance will be dealth with by threats of violence and death.  Freedom of expression will be a thing of the past.  Only think what you are told to think, only do what you are told to do and don't ask any questions.  How dare you expect "the Gedolim" to explain themselves to a maggot like you?
Worse than that will be the backlash from the general public.  For people for whom freedom of expression (as long as you agree with me, otherwise we'll have to argue loudly) and belief are cherished values the idea that a group of old men, wise as they are, controlled by power-hungry askanim will dictate their lives to them is unacceptable.  This is the impression they will get of Torah: we frum types are just like the Iranians and Saudis except we wear different outfits.  Is that not a chilul HaShem of the highest order?
From what I've read the Chareidi response has broken down into two groups.  One group is sick of this behaviour. A major sage calling for his opponents to be killed sickens them.  They love being Chareidi, they love all the great positive things the community possseses in spades, they love the fervour of the worship and the intensity of the Torah learning but they can't stand the people who are making their look like the Jewish equivalents of Muslim fanatics.
Then there are their counterparts who cannot comprehend even questioning "the Gedolim".  If Maran HaGaon Rav X says people who don't vote for the right parties deserve to beaten and die they'll line up at the hardware store to purchase a crowbar (during men's shopping hours) to eagerly participate.  They will see their subsequent idiocy as a mitzvah performance of the highest order.
It is therefore imperative that the outside community reach out to the reasonable part of the Chareidi community and offer them what will be an uncomfortable choice: are you with us for fairness and rationality or are you with them because they're your buddies?  Are you interested in a Torah community that represents intelligent thought and action or with the primitives who still see drunken Cossacks around every corner?
The problem with politics is that it is a mudpit.  Even the greatest "Gadol" with all his learning and purity gets covered in mud when he jumps into it.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Vanishing Jews

The recent release of the Pew Report on American Jewry has excited lots of comment.  Before jumping to any conclusions one would be wise to heed Samuel Clemens' famous observation: "There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics."  With any large study people will first jump to conclusions and then look at the data relevant to those conclusions.  The Pew Report will not be any different.
What fascinates me about the report is how it highlights the possibly irreconcilable divide between Torah-observant Jews and our non-observant brethren.  In short, it seems to imply that for the non-observant we're not really brethren at all.  While from an Orthodox perspective Judaism is a nationality with religious content and the definition of "Who is a Jew" is a legal one from the non-Orthodox perspective there seems to be no iron-clad definition at all.  Hence the categories in the survey called "Jew of no religion", "Jewish not by religion" and my personal favourite, "Not Jewish".  Apparently the latter includes folks who love what they think is Judaism and therefore consider themselves Jewish without any actual legal tie to the Jewish nation.
It all seems to boil down to the difference between American Jews and Jewish Americans.  For the former the "Jew" in the identity is the primary factor.  I am a Canadian Jew, therefore I am kin with English Jews, Russian Jews, etc. through our joint shared nationality.  He is a Jewish Canadian, therefore the main part of his identity is shared with other Canadians, not so much with other Jews.
The price of this lack of proper understanding of their Jewish heritage comes with a high price.  A scandalously high percentage of non-observant Jews don't fast on Yom Kippur which might not sound so out of place for a group of people who also don't keep Shabbos or kosher but fasting on Yom Kippur, outside of its strictly legal importance, has always been one of the last things a failing Jew does before giving up entirely on his connection to Am Yisrael.
Similarly the percentage of Jews who don't participate in a seder on Pesach raises alarms for the non-observant community for the same reason.  Interestingly I download a pdf of the report and searched the terms "circumcision" and "brit milah".  No results came back.  I'm happy with that because I don't want to know what percentage of Jews have abandoned our most ancient ritual.
Perhaps this is why the Chareidi sector of the Torah-observant community doesn't take the non-religious part seriously.  On our side being Jewish is the core of one's identity and comes with very specific requirements and responsibilities.  The idea that one could claim to be a proud Jew while also an atheist is laughable.  We are the people of God, banim laShem.  On the non-observant side, however, it's not a contradicition.  Being Jewish is like being Italian.  It comes with ethnic foods, ethnic slang and ethnic behaviours, nothing more.  A proud non-observant Jew would see no conflict between his feelings for Judaism (as he defines it) and marrying a non-Jewish spouse of either gender.
Another concerning statistic that seems to pop out of the survey is the Orthodox proportion in the total Jewish population.  Now one should take the number with a grain of salt.  After all, this is a study in which a percentage of people who were identified as "Orthodox" intermarried!  But on the other hand the overall number, 10%, bears looking at.  Over the last few decades there have been repeated studies on the American Jewish population and for some reason Orthodoxy always winds up at 10%.  Now the true number might be larger if one excludes from the study all those non-Jews who someone wound up in it but it still forces one to question the famous kiruv statement that Orthodoxy is the future of all Jews because the non-religious will assimilate out and disappear.  This line has been in currency for 50 years and during that time the 10% number hasn't budged.  This is the starkest warning of the size of the OTD crisis, in my opinion.  After all, even if assimilation rates for the Reformatives are overstated the sheer fecundity of the Orthodox population should have led it to dominance by now.
I am certain that many secular Jewish organizations will study this report and convene committees on "the Jewish future" and "Jewish continuity" because of the alarming numbers regarding assimilation and marrying out.  Like the last dozen times we'll hear about calls for more free trips to Israel, more Holocaust education, more social groups for Jewish youth as the cure to what ails us.  This will all happen despite a 50 year track record of producing no results.  The thought that education Jews to be Jewish through halachic observance and through a sense of connection to 3500 years of history all the way back to Matan Torah will simply not occur to them and, if suggested, will give them a feeling of revulsion.
Meanwhile we Orthodox will continue creating large families and educating them in Torah and mitzvos observance.
Many years ago I posted the following comment on the Cross Currents blog (back in the days before I was banned from it) and I think it's still relevant today: They have conferences, we have babies.  Let's see who wins.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

YCT Is The Agudah's Fault

The Agudah has long been trying to trademark Orthodox Judaism and make its definition "He who is Orthodox like us".  Through its PR efforts, publications and kiruv work the folks at the Agudah have been trying hard to convince the rest of the world that they are the genuine form of Orthodoxy and anything else that claims to be a Torah-observant is either a deviation or step down from the real thing.
It therefore seems to be infuriating to them to have the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah crowd come along with their "Open Orthodoxy" and "Morethodoxy" initiatives and announce to the world "Hey!  We're Orthodox and we're cool!"  It flies in the face of everything the Agudah has been trying to achieve and only leads to confusing questions like "If they're Orthodox why don't they wear black hats?"  It leads to repeated attacks by the Agudah's PR folks repeatedly pointing out the obviously flaws in Morethodoxy's ideology.  And, of course it has lead to rejoinders from the YCT crowd and ongoing attempts to justify their new form of Orthodoxy.
The problem with all this back and forth is that it misses the real point which is a tremendous flaw in Torah Judaism today.  In fact I would suggest this flaw has become de facto Torah Judaism today even though it's destructive to real Torah observance but it is so entrenched that no one even sees it.
In short, ritual has replaced reason.
Those who denigrate the Reformatives for their ongoing egalitarian watering down of Judaism sometimes fail to remember that for the non-Orthodox Judaism is a lot like Chrisianity.  Saturday morning services and the occasional holiday party are pretty much the extent of their Judaism just like for Chrisians Sunday morning services are about the only religious behaviours they indulge in.  And as been noted exhaustively before, if all your religion has is a service of public rituals and this service excludes women then the religion itself comes to be seen as patently unfair.
Let's extend this to Orthodoxy.  Yes, I know that for the Torah-observant Judaism doesn't begin or end in shul and its already well-established that the three cardinal behavioural mitzvos, kashrus, Shabbos and taharas mishpacha are women-dominated but Orthodox doesn't seem to revolve around that anymore.
Look at the right side of Orthodoxy.  Far from dominating it, women are increasingly being relegated to non-existence.  We have mehadrin buses, the burka babes of Beit Shemesh, Photoshop(tm) efforts to remove women from any public photos and a general attempt to make them seem that all women are sources of sin and temptation that need to be buried from public view.  The more one distances women from one's reality, harei zeh meshubach!
On the other side we have YCT and its ongoing efforts to create Egalitarian Orthodoxy.  Other than the mechitza there is a hardly an area of synagogue ritual that the Morethodox haven't altered in order to be more "inclusive" if not halacha-obedient.
But behind all the various justifications for these initiatives is the missed point.  Jewish observance, the learning of Torah and the performance of mitzvos are about developing a relationship with God and bringing His Will into this world through our actions.  If I keep an extra-special bit kosher it should be motivated by my desire to come closer to Him, not just to keep up with the Jonesteins or because it feels right to be machmir for the point of being machmir.
This is, however, not what is happening out there.  On the right side the stringencies are increasingly becoming the defining factors of Orthodox Judaism.  It's not tzedakah, chesed or rachmanus that are being stressed but what we wear, how much Yeshivish we speak and how much we avoid interaction with the opposite gender that are the gauges of Orthodoxy.  We pride ourselves on being an intelligent people but for many in the Orthodox world it is the mindless mumbling of the mantra "I only do what the Gedolim tell me to do and never dare think for myself" that is repeated over and over.
And again on the other side YCT doesn't seem to be so much motivated by a genuine desire to connect to the Divine as a dynamic that suggest that secular liberalism is the Divine will so the closer Orthodox Judaism comes towards it the more true it will be.  Their mantra is quite similar: "I do what secular liberals tell me to do."
But if YCT has any traction and is gaining any ground among possible adherent one can only blame the Agudah.  All its attempts to limit the definition of "Torah true" to its crowd and those to the right of it have led to countless observant Jews feeling disenfranchised or unconnected.  If you tell someone with a rational mind that he must surrender his independence of thought to "the Gedolim" and accept religious opinions that are patently contradicted by reality (for example, the age of the world and whether or not dinosaurs existed) if he wants to be Orthodox you will drive him from Torah observance.  Many folks recognize that the stringencies that exist in mainstream Chareidism are largely a result of a "holier than thou" attitude with many of them having little justification in halacha (separate seating at Shabbos meals, for example).
These folks don't want to leave Orthodoxy so instead they react.  Does the Agudah want us to believe that mehadrin buses are normative Judaism?  We'll bring in women to lead services.  Doese the Agudah hold that photoshopping women out of advertisements and newspaper photos is unexceptional Jewish practice consistent with our mesorah?  We'll give the women aliyos as well.  To a large extent YCT is simple an opposing reacton to the folks who have taken Torah observance too far to the right and is yanking left hard in order to keep it relevant to its followers.  Do the Chareidim believe that Jews are a Chosen People with a special relationship to God and subject to an all-encompassing halacha that affects our entire lives and defines right and wrong?  YCT will simply redefine Orthodox as one movement amongst many, equal and equivalent without any aspect of exceptionalism.  Does Cross Currents wants you to believe the Torah we have today is 100% identical to the one handed by God to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h without a single letter having changed over the millenia?  YCT will have its number one guy publish essays on the internet endorsing the Documentary Hypothesis!
The more the Chareidi community pushes to to the right the more outrageous YCT's antic will become.  The critical difference is that there seems to be no right border to Orthodoxy.  The most nutbar Satmars who think that burning the Israeli flag on Iyyar 5 is a tradition that dates back to Matan Torah are still considered Orthodox. But there is a left sided border to Orthodoxy and the time will come when YCT will cross it.  Then how will they justify themselves?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Let's Kill The Sick!

Dr. Donald Low, a Toronto physician who was a main player in the fight against SARS a decade ago recently passed away.  He was a real hero whose level-headed leadership during the crisis was decisive in local public health's containment of and successful struggle again the virus.  Beyond that he was am indefatigable teacher, prolific researcher and clinical, an inspiration to a generation of students.
Unfortunately life was not kind to him after that.  He suffered from cancer and after a courageous battle with his brain tumour he recently succumbed at the young age of 68.
But in his final days he also had a dark side.  Like too many unfortunate people who must struggle with painful illnesses at the end of their days it seems he seems to have decided that he should have had the right to end his life when the prognosis became hopeless and the suffering intolerable.  To that end an interview from the final days of his life shows him expressing the view that assisted suicide should become a legal option for people in Canada. In the interview he noted that he was frustrated that the system couldn't accommodate him like it would have had he lived elsewhere like certain European countries.  He lamented that the debate in Canada was so difficult to have on a "mature" level and opined that people who opposed him should have to live 24 hours in his body to see what real suffering is like.  And naturally the liberal crowd which supports his position chimed in to support him.
Without meaning any disrespect to the dead, could Dr. Low have been any more condescending?
Consider how he set up the discussion.  He implied that if you opposed him you didn't understand him.  He came out and stated that mature discussion was difficult which means if you oppose him you're not capable of having that mature discussion.  He felt that the last days of his life should have been enjoyable, something that all people wish for but so few get to have.
It is really not surprising that a significant number of folks in the Western world and especially in Canada are in favour of assisted suicide.  We live in a culture where unborn foetuses live under constant threat of being aborted for such deep reasons as "Oops, I forgot to take my pill like I was supposed to".  If the lives of the unborn are worthless and unprotected it is not a huge step to extend that kind of the thinking to the old and palliative.  It seems it's all about convenience.  We are used to unwanted babies.  Now we have unwanted sick people, so unwanted that they are undesired even by themselves!
I do not wish to minimize or dismiss the suffering Dr. Low and others suffering like him went and are going through.  As a physician I well know how much pain, nausea, confusion, sweating, shortness of breath and other disturbing symptoms the dying patient can go through.  I have seen people degenerate into unmanageable Alzheimer's states causing a horrible burden on themselves and their caregivers.  I have watched people linger away from chronic heart failure and lung disease.  People too often outlive their minds or bodies.  These are fates I would only wish on my worst enemy and I certainly want not even a taste of them in my life, chas v'shalom.
Finally one must keep in mind that a position endorsing assisted suicide is a sure sign of a godless secular society where life is no more valuable that those shoes you bought last week.  Great to have around while comfy, easy to throw away when worn out.
And don't think that I'm exaggerating.  Only a few years ago The National Post carried the story of an elderly woman who was lobbying for assisted suicide for herself.  She was in perfect health but was recently widowed and in her grieving state couldn't stand the idea of going on without her husband.  It seemed perfectly reasonable for her to demand the right to commit suicide rather than go on alone.  For those who think that assisted suicide would be restricted to the very ill or elderly I would ask: how would you justify to this woman that she doesn't qualify?  How about someone who has just been diagnosed with an incurable illness?  If he says that he'd rather end things now way before he begins to feel any serious decline, will he be told he first has to suffer a little before being allowed to kill himself legally?
And that's why I have to state my opposition to Dr. Low.  For one thing, there is the bias he presents by being a member of the group he supports.  Yes, I cannot truly appreciate the suffering he endured but his enduring that suffering is exactly why he should not have been opining about the role of assisted suicide in Canada.  The decision should not be up to people who have already made the decision because fate has dealt them a lousy hand and they see killing themselves as the only acceptable option.  What's more, the decision should be in the hands of people who see some value in life.  Not lip service "Well of course life is important" folks but those, religious or secular, who truly see life as something more than just another commodity we're stuck with, who see being alive as bigger than them.
I'm sorry if Dr. Low thought that disagreeing with him means I'm immature.  I'd rather be immature and value life than be mature and live a meaningless existence with the thought of ending it the minute I couldn't have my self-perceived entitlement of a suffering-free life anymore.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Obtenez les grenouilles d'ici

One of the crowning achievements of Canadians society is the success of multiculturalism.  As a country we have taken in people from all corners of the globe and encouraged them to not assimilate upon their arrival here.  Instead of expecting them to adapt to local mores and customs we encourage them to continue to act as they did in their home countries.  When it comes to dress, language and behaviour we seem to send out the message that their becoming more Canadian would actually be a disappointment.
This is true for the entire country outside of Quebec.  Inside la belle province the story is quite a bit different.  The White French majority, fed on a diet of "We are under threat!" propaganda for the last few decades, is revolting against multiculturalism.  They have seen a future in which the burka replaces the beret and they're not going to put up with it.  While the rest of Canada does what it can to bury its English heritage (including the parts about hard work, honesty and quite civility) these Quebecois are determined to protect and enforce theirs.
Hence the recent introduction of Bill 14 into the Quebec provincial parliament.  To be charitable, it's a fascist law that forbids civil servants the wearing of religious garb of any kind while at work in public buildings.  Are you a Sikh who works in the Ministry of Transportation office?  Sorry, leave your turban at home.  Are you a Jew who works for the Human Resources Ministry?  Kippah off at the door, my friend.
Now, as others have  noted there is a reason for this bill.  It's called the niqab, the garment worn by some Muslim women that covered their entire body except their eyes.  Muslim immigration to Quebec has increased over the last few years and, like everywhere else, the number of women going around with their faces covered has gone up.  This has led to some valid concerns in a variety of areas.  Canadian law says that the accused has a right to see his accuser.  What if his accuser is a woman in a niqab?  Canadian law says that when you vote you have to present ID to prove who you are.  Well what about the woman who won't show her face?
The government of Quebec, faced with this challenge, pulled out a hammer to kill the ant.  Instead of creating a simple law that said "Public workers are forbidden from wearing face coverings while on the job" they reached for the far more fascistic banning of all religious symbols by those workers.  It's not hard to understand why.  Quebec has been anti-religion ever since emerging from centuries of reactionary rule by the Catholic Church.  Why just go after the niqab if you now have an opening to attack all religions?
We must also remember that the Quebecois consider themselves quite progressive.  This is, after all, the province with the highest rate of fetus murders in the country and also the first one to legalize the execution of the infirm elderly.  Isn't killing off the most helpless in your population a sign of how civilized you are?  One of the things a progressive society is not is racist.  If they were to just ban face covering the Muslims would scream "racism".  Better to attack a bunch of races all at once to avoid that.
Finally one must consider that some secularists are just as fanatic about spreading their beliefs as some religious folks.  We see coercion is all religious societies.  Islamic countries and Chareidi neighbourhoods are excellent examples of how a fanatic fringe can control the behaviour of the more sensible majority.  The secular leadership in Quebec is behaving in a similar fashion.  They hate religious symbols and therefore they are going to ban them as best they can.  Goose and gander, mes amis.
What's really amazed me, though, is the public response.  A sizable proportion of Quebec's population, and a not-insignificant number of people in the Rest of Canada (RoC) support this law and many of them feel it doesn't go far enough, thinking that all religious symbols should be publicly banned.
Imagine that.  I'm walking down the street with my kippah on.  It doesn't affect you.  I don't walk over and try to impose my views on you.  But you think I should be forbidden to wear it because seeing religious symbols offend you.  Now who's intolerant?
And what about religious symbols worn for non-religious reasons?  If I, as a Jew, wear a turban will that also be forbidden because it's objectively a religious piece of clothing or will it be permitted because for me it has no religious significance?
Having said all that, I am strongly in favour of Bill 14.  As a long-time resident of Ontario I can confidently say that the Parti Quebecois, with their racist and idiotic ideas, has been the best thing to happen to the province I live in.  Every time they come up with another one of their pur laine initiatives many of the remaining Quebecers with have an ounce of sense in their brains jump into their cars and migrate down the 401 highway to us.  The influx has been especially good for the Jewish community of southern Ontario which was, until the first exodus from Quebec almost 40 years ago, a dull and colourless place.
Alors, allez, mes camarades fascistes. Apportez votre meilleur et les plus brillants de votre facture et de laisser venir de notre côté.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Maybe Extend Their Vacation A Little More?

For those not following the news in Canada, Tarek Loubani and John (not Dick) Greyson are two Canadian citizens recently arrested in Egypt.  Loubani is an emergency room physician and Greyson is a filmmaker. A few weeks ago both arrived in Egypt with the intention of going on to 'Aza.  Their intention was for Greyson to film a documentary featuring Loubani working in an 'Aza hospital helping out the locals.  After arriving in Egypt they encountered one of the regular anti-government riots and were arrested by the military when they swept through to end that particular protest.  Since that time they were held in an Egyptian jail under conditions that could generously described as unsavoury.  From the government to celebrities, the hopes for their well-being and the demands for their release were unrelenting.  Today the news is announcing that they've been released.  And all I can say is...
Gosh, couldn't the Egyptians keep them a little longer?
In case you think that sounds cold, well it's meant to.  Let me give you a little background on Loubani and Greyson.  Loubani is a so-called Palestinian who had made frequent trips to 'Aza and been involved in anti-Israel protests.  Greyson, on the other hand, can't seem to find enough anti-Israel causes to get involved in.  One report I read stated that the point of the documentary they were going to 'Aza to film was to "expose" how the Israeli "occupation" was negatively impacting the health of ordinary folks in the Strip.
The arrest in Egypt must have come as quite a surprise to them.  For one thing, they're "activists" and think that they are immune to the vicious whims of international demagogues.  For another they were on their way to 'Aza to film a documentary that would demonize Israel.  Egypt, recall, is a major international source for Jew hating literature.  Whether the government is Islamist or martial, bashing Israel is a common feature to keep the mobs there happy.  Sure they thought that having a common enemy would accord them red carpet treatment?
One can indeed imagine them screaming "But we also hate the Zionists!" as they were being dragged off to incarceration.
So unlikely my fellow citizens I didn't look at the them and think that two of my fellow Canadians were in a dangerous situation.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I was quite happy that two Jew haters who masquerade as human rights activists (human rights for all except Jews) were getting their comeuppance.  I just wonder why it couldn't be for a little longer.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Beyond Synthesis

A Guest Post From Rav Ben Hecht
When Garnel put up his post entitled The Necessary Synthesis (at, I mentioned to him that while I thought there was value in his overall objective, I also felt that there was a critical problem in his approach. While his argument is most true that Modern Orthodoxy needs a fundamental Torah construct that can encompass the differing outlooks found within its purview, I felt that the attempt at synthesis which he offered was not going to be the method of achieving this objective. What is really necessary is a further recognition of the basic principle that distinguished the Rav and Rav Kuk from others – and the need to articulate and express this principle as the true basis of this perspective in Torah. It is this basic principle that both these great Sages uniquely shared which distinguished them – albeit the vast differences that would still emerge from their thoughts – and it is this that must be articulated and celebrated as the essence of this derech in Torah. Garnel graciously offer to write a piece on this thought.   
On the surface, the answer would seem to be obvious. Both of these individuals had a sensitivity for collective Israel beyond its halachic boundaries. Stated in a different manner, both the Rav and Rav Kuk related to Jewish communal entities even as these entities may not have reflected an allegiance to Torah. This was clearly a shared uniqueness that they both had. To clarify, there is no doubt that many, if not the vast majority of, gedolim, throughout the centuries, have advocated for the caring of all members of Klal Yisrael even as these individuals may not observe the directives of Torah. The uniqueness of the Rav and Rav Kuk, however, was that, while they also obviously shared this love of all Jews, they were unique in their willingness to relate to non-Halachic communal entities. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch was an adamant lover of all Jews – he was the essential pioneer of all kiruv – but he would have nothing to do with Jewish communal entities that operated outside the boundaries of Halacha. Similarly, the modern Chabad movement is constantly noted for its love of every single Jew regardless of his/her level of observance – yet they also will have nothing to do with structured Jewish entities that function outside of Torah. So we have an obvious point of connected uniqueness between Rav Kuk and the Rav – but what effect does this have on our quest? Is this shared uniqueness enough upon which to develop and promote a different derech in Torah? I would say the real question is: why? Why did the Rav and Rav Kuk develop this position? It is the motivation that led the Rav and Rav Kuk to take such a stand that I believe is the uniqueness that needs to be articulated as the vary basis of this derech in Torah.
It is my belief that the distinguishing mark of these two gedolim was their perception of the dynamic nature of life and Torah. What I believe they both acknowledged – and it marked their complete approach to Torah – was a recognition that humanity – and, as such, the Jewish People – are constantly in a dynamic flux. By extension, this would also mean that Torah, in its relationship to the Jewish People, is also in a resultant constant dynamic movement. This is all, of course, within the parameters of Halacha – in fact, these very parameters of Torah actually further add to the dynamic nature of this process. Albeit that they responded to this inherent dynamic nature of life differently, this is what I believe marked the Rav and Rav Kuk as unique. They both dealt with life -- in itself and in its relationship with Torah -- in movement.
This dynamic perception is actually what is at the basis of chiddush and intellectual aspirations. It is the question that breeds further understanding. It is the challenge that demands new perspectives. On a certain level, in that chiddush is inherent to Torah, what I am proposing as unique to the Rav and Rav Kuk actually must be inherent in any thinker within Orthodox thought. Part of the very nature of Torah study is that we always find something new. Rav Kuk and the Rav, however, expanded this concept. In seeing life in dynamic flux, they inherently recognized that Torah must, in parallel symbiosis, also be in such dynamic flux. And then, from this recognition that Torah must also demand of us to see things anew, they looked again at life anew. This dynamism permeated their entire Torah thought.
Let’s look at Rav Kuk’s view of the early settlers in Israel. Here were individuals not generally following halachic practices who were devoting themselves, absolutely selflessly, to building up the Land of Israel. How can one view, from a Torah perspective, such contradictory behaviour? The uniqueness of Rav Kuk was that he saw this question.
Let us look at the Rav’s break with Agudah. Klal Yisrael went through the Holocaust and now was re-establishing itself in Eretz Yisrael. Something was happening albeit not in any manner that was previously predicted (which, I should mention, Rambam states, is all speculation anyways). How, though, is one to view what is happening – such dynamic movement in life -- and understand it from a Torah perspective? The uniqueness of the Rav, again, was that he saw this question.
I heard that it was once said about Rav Kuk that when he was asked what he thought about Darwin, he said that he appreciated Darwin’s works for it further explained Ma’aseh Bereishit. Not a challenge but seeing anew. It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that for every measure of secular knowledge that one is missing, a person is missing manifold measures of Torah knowledge. Secular knowledge is constantly expanding. Life is essentially, as such, dynamic. Torah, in the true process of Torah study and not with apologetics or compromise, is to parallel this process of new insight as we relate to the body of Divine Wisdom. The Rav and Rav Kuk’s conclusions were vastly different in the process. That is Eilu v’Eilu Divrei Elokim Chayim. Both, however, shared this vision of the process – of how we are to interact with Torah. It is this dynamic nature of this interaction that should really be marking Modern Orthodoxy.