Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

In The Culture Of Death

The most precious thing any of us have is our lives.  Just being alive and sentient is an amazing gift from the Creator of the Universe.  It also seems to be the one gift from Him that we take most for granted and often resent that we don't have ultimate control over it.  After all, we don't choose when we are to be born or die. The processes of conception and death occur independently of us and sometimes despite our best efforts and wishes.
Is it any wonder, then, that as society moves away from an awareness of God and sanctity towards a hedonistic, self-centered form of civilization in which personal pleasure is the highest personal goal, that we start to introduce voluntary death into our daily lives.
Abortion, for example, is already commonplace in society, so much so that we don't even think of it in terms of snuffing out a life but rather as a medical procedure done much of the time for convenience.  A human being, DNA and all, is destroyed and we argue instead over "right to choose".
It should therefore not be a shock to anyone that once we've established that a foetus can be killed with impunity that society would then turn its sights on someone else.  As a result we now have the efforts of some to declare that a person with a terminal, painful illness now has a right to demand someone help him die so as to end his suffering.
Recently the province of Quebec moved towards making euthanasia legal there when an "expert" panel recommended allowing mercy killing in certain limited cases.  Of course, they don't call it mercy killing but rather death with dignity, just like we don't call abortion foetus killing.  That doesn't change what it really is though.
Quebec is an interesting place in any case.  Originally a very religious population tightly controlled by the Catholic church, the mainstream went secular decades ago and has defined itself by being anti-religious.  If God says "X" then you can be sure Quebec opinion will be "We hate 'X'".  As a result the province has one of the highest abortion rates in Canada.  Interestingly enough it also tops the list for suicides.  No surprise then that mercy killing is something the population wants.
Now I do not want to gloss over the suffering some with terminal illnesses endure.  I've met patients with Lou  Gehrig's disease who are prisoners in their own bodies.  I've attended to patients racked with the pain of cancer eating into their bones and organs.  I know that there are some horrible diseases out there that don't take life quickly but slowly and painfully over months to years.  I do not claim that this suffering is tolerable or at all desirable.  Even with the best medical care people can still undergo significant difficulties on their final journey.
Years ago as a resident I took part in a discussion on mercy killing and was asked what the Jewish position was.  I pointed out that in Jewish tradition every instant of life has immeasurable value.  In addition life is a gift from God and only He is in a position to take it.  As a result any measures that specifically aim to shorten the lifespan of a person, no matter how much they are in pain, is forbidden and those measures would be considered murder.
Indeed the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch deal with the idea of terminal suffering and how to alleviate or shorten it without violating that rule.  This is a complex subject, not one that can be discussed standing on one foot.
Naturally my statement was met with a rolling of the eyes.  In the view of the secular culture where moral relativism is king anyone saying that they have a non-negotiable red line in their beliefs is automatically an unreasonable fanatic.  But really, without the red line what do we have?
For example, most physicians facing a patient with end-stage cancer who is going to die shortly anyway and is screaming with unbearable pain would not have much of a problem administering just a little too much morphine which would lead to respiratory arrest and death.  But what about a scenario in which the patient's pain is currently controlled but expected to spiral in the next day or two?  The patient knows he will be in agony and doesn't want to suffer.  He wants that injection of morphine now because it's too late.  Is that still okay?  If not, why not?  If the whole point is to minimize suffering then why does the guy rolling on the bed get the shot but not the guy who's going to be?
Heck, why is physical and not psychological pain the main criteria?  A person might, chalilah, receive a diagnosis of inoperable cancer and simply not want to deal with it.  The idea of waking up every day and knowing there is a dark force slowly eating away at his insides is intolerable to him.  Why can't he have the shot to relieve that burden?
To take it to the extreme a few years ago the local paper told the story of an elderly widow who wanted to have an assisted suicide.  She was in great health but was very lonely following the death of her husband and wanted to be with him.  She felt she was quite the candidate based on that.  Even the most dedicated proponents of mercy killing weren't in favour of this but if a competent woman like her reached such a decision why should she be denied the opportunity?
We live in a society in which "dirt" is not allowed.  We don't want to suffer.  We don't want to feel pain.  We don't want to wait more than 5 minutes for that burger we ordered.  We want what we want and we want it now.  The idea of being in pain is justifiably frightening but it is also part of life.  To treat one's existence like one's cell phone, as something that's fine for now but to be disposed of when no longer convenient, speaks to a shocking devaluation of the great gift.
Imagine a society in which mercy killings are as commonplace as foetus killings, where lobby groups fight to prevent anti-euthanasia groups from protesting, where the idea of even questioning the morality of mercy killing leads to screams of outrage.  Once upon a time abortion was a procedure undertaken with great care and caution.  Now it's a form of birth control.  Today we are told that mercy killing would only happen under exceptional circumstances.  Does anyone really believe that as time goes by it won't become easier and easier to get?

Sunday, 27 January 2013

What The Torah Lifestyle Didn't Give Them

One of the problems I have with mass kiruv organizations like Aish and Chabad is their pushing of the frum lifestyle as a panacaea to all one's problems.  Religious people have better marriages because the time-out of the niddah period acts as a refreshing break.  Religious people are more honest because the Torah forbids lying and cheating.  I well recall a chozer b'teshuvah friend of mine years ago recounting how she had found an item of considerable value in the hallway of her apartment building and put up a sign in the lobby asking the owner to contact her.  A few days later an elderly woman knocked on her door and claimed to be the owner.  Despite having no proof my friend handed over the item because, "well she was frum so I knew she must be telling the truth".
Uh huh.
I suppose one reason ultraOrthodox leaders have such a hatred of the popular press and blogs is because spending the day reading what's out there quickly shatters that illusion.  Decades ago David ben Gurion, a"h, predicted that once Israel became a state like all others it would have the same problems as all other states, like criminals, prostitutes, drugs, etc.  This was hardly an inspiring vision.  Unfortunately the Orthodox community has quietly done the same thing.  We are a community like all others.  We have saints and we have sinners.  We have inspiring leaders and twisted menuvalim.  We have people who are exemplars of the values the Torah espouses and we have others who have twisted God's word into a bacon-flavoured cheese pretzel.  Italians have the same thing, as do Poles, Germans, Chinese, and others.  No better and no worse.  We are just another ethnic group with a language, rituals and holiday costumes.
All this has recently been put on parade at the Nechemia Weberman trial.  For those of you still living in a cave, Weberman is a chasid whose views are somewhere to the right of Satmar.  He belongs to a spinoff group from Chabad that is now closely aligned with Satmar and the Neturei Karta because of their shared hatred of Israel.  His group is so frum that calling themselves Chasidim, "pious ones" isn't enough to describe how holy they feel they are.  Based on what they called their founding Rebbe they call themselves Malachim, angels!
You would think that men who call himself angels and pious ones would conduct themselves on the highest levels of sanctity and holiness.  Stuff like fasting on a regular basis, being extremely careful about speaking loshon horo, eschewing violence, even the threat of it. 
Not these guys.  As the JTA reports upon Weberman's sentencing:
Chasidic counselor Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison for sexual abuse of a teenage female patient over several years.
Weberman, 54, a member of the Satmar Chasidic community in Brooklyn, did not speak during the Jan. 22 sentencing in New York State Supreme Court. He had been sent to Rikers Island prison without bail immediately after his conviction in December.
He was found guilty on 59 counts of sexual abuse. The encounters started in 2007, when his victim was 12, and lasted until she was 15. She is now 18.
Weberman had faced up to 117 years in prison.
The girl's parents sent her for sessions to Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, at the recommendation of the child's school. The girl was referred for not meeting her sect's strict modesty guidelines regarding women's dress and asking questions about the existence of God.
The victim reportedly gave a tearful statement in court.
"I clearly remember how I would look in the mirror. I saw a girl who didn't want to live in her own skin, a girl whose innocence was shattered, a girl who couldn't sleep at night because of the gruesome invasion that had been done to her body," she is reported as saying.
The New York Daily News reported Jan. 19 that a new investigation conducted by the paper showed that Weberman had violated at least 10 other female patients.
At Weberman's trial, prosecutors said they were aware of six additional victims -- four married women and two underage girls. The newspaper reported that it identified four additional women, who do not want to come forward out of fear of being ostracized by the community.
Weberman victims, according to the new investigation, include four married women, three of whom he counseled, and six unmarried women, all of whom were Weberman clients.
According to the paper, sources close to the women abused by Weberman said he used patterns of grooming and nurturing to lure them. He showered outcast teenagers with attention, taking them on road trips and buying them lingerie, they said. The unlicensed counselor also cited kabbalah when forcing his victims to have sex with him to convince them his acts were allowed, once telling a victim, “I learned kabbalah and we were a couple in another incarnation.”
“The intimate acts he was performing were intended as a form of repentance for sins committed in their previous lifetimes,” Rabbi Yakov Horowitz from Monsey, N.Y., in whom other victims had confided, told the Daily News.
Five others told the New York daily that they were aware of Weberman’s misconduct with clients years before he was accused of sexual abuse, and sources said the anonymous victim who put him on trial came forward after friends told her Weberman “was a known pervert.”
What is not told in the article but was details in various news reports and on blogs over the last several months is the campaign of threats, intimidation and outright slander that these "angels" engaged in so as to protect one of their own.  It's one thing to proclaim one's innocence and announce the intention to vigorously fight accusations but these thugs went far beyond that, defaming the victim and anyone who tried to help her and presenting the face of a cult that seems to worship hatred in place of God.  The Chareidi community has a well-known "circle the wagons" mentality but this went far beyond with the perpetrator and his friends seeking to re-victimize the young woman that had already been damaged.
(To their credit the main Chareidi news blogs haven't starting Rubashkin-style ads calling for a pidyon shevuyim campaign for Weberman.  Matzav and TheYeshivaWorld seem to have totally ignored the trial while VisIzNeias is simply reporting the events without attempting to run the "He can't be guilty, he's one of us!" angle)
And what's amazing is that if I ran into Weberman tomorrow with my coloured shirt and knitted kippah he'd look down at me and think "Ach, a goy".
Living in a small community as I do I don't really run into folks like Weberman.  The only shtreiml-wearing guy in the neighbourhood is an Aish grad here to do kiruv and who has a good heart and happy attitude.  Even during my trips to Israel I generally don't find myself in those kinds of neighbourhoods.  In short, I can sit back and pretend that frum Jews are normal folks because those that around me generally are.  I hate being reminded that there are huge numbers of dysfunctional freaks running around out there who just don't get the bigger picture but think that Judaism is entirely defined by rituals and 18th century costumes.
After all, one can say that Weberman was a bastard.  We can't guarantee there are no evil people masquerading as frum Jews out there.  But the way his henchmen and the Satmar community mobilized and saw destroying the victim as a religious duty, that shows to me that this kind of Judaism has gone completely off the rails.
After all the swaying, shouting and praying, after all the lulav waving it's all about the clothes you wear and the rebbe you swear allegiance to.  At least for these guys.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Bigger Picture

Quick question: why do some folks seem to think wearing a black hat while davening is mandatory?  Superficial answer: Because the Mishnah Berurah says you have to.
Deeper answer: No, it doesn't.
Look carefully at the part of the Mishnah Berurah where hats during prayers is mentioned and you'll see that the Chofetz Chayim, zt"kl, says something different.  He points out that where and when he lived hats were part of daily formal wear.  If you wanted to dress neatly and formally you wore a hat.  Therefore, since during prayers we strive to appear appropriate before the Ribono shel Olam and since if you were to stand before the local governor or king you'd wear a nice suit and hat, when you daven you should wear a nice suit and hat.
This is quite different from what people think after a superficial reading.  What it means is that whatever is considered neat and formal in any given place and time is what is appropriate for prayers.  The point isn't the black hat.  The point is standing respectfully before God.  When we focus on the former we risk forgetting the latter.  When that happens we have a cultural devolution where not only is a hat a di rigeur requirement but also a sign of religious allegiance.  Forget everything else, the hat you wear determines the type of Jew you are, not your actions, not your neshamah.
Here's another quick question: if the reason we don't take medications on Shabbos is because of the prohibition of grinding (back then a 'script from a doctor meant going to the local apothecary and having him grind up your personal recipe) then what's the problem with taking pills nowadays?  Big Pharma doesn't care when I take my acetaminophen (paracetamol for my Israeli readers) and doesn't change their assembly lines based on my usage.  Yet if there is no sakkanah then I am not to take acetaminophen on Shabbos.
The answer is given by the Nishmas Avraham and fits in perfectly with my thesis.  The taking of pills on Shabbos in non-dangerous situations is forbidden.  Our Chazal, when faced with having to categorize this prohibition, stuck it under the heading "Grinding" because back in their day that's where it went.  But even nowadays when that classification no longer fit we still avoid the pills because, in the bigger picture, that's what's forbidden.
This bigger picture is something often missing from our Judaism today.  We are, as people go, petty and small-minded.  We therefore focus on petty, small-minded things.  We segregate people by accent, by type of kippah, by how much swaying one does while learning and the like.  We seek truth but only from those with whom we already agree.
Consider something I've heard a couple of time.  There is apparently a school of thought out there that says that unless you're using a Vilna Shas format in your Talmud study that you're not really learning Talmud.  I first heard this when, while sitting in a yeshivah in Israel waiting for someone, I cracked open a Steinsaltz Talmud I'd just purchased.  "Ah," said an unhelpful passerby in an uninvited comment, "you know you're not really learning if you use that, right?"
But if the point of learning is to develop a great knowledge of Torah, to engage in the religious requirement to learn and to come closer to the Ribono shel Olam, and if by using the Steinsaltz Talmud I do all that then why doesn't it count?
What is the purpose of being a Jew?  To create a dveikus between oneself and the Creator.  To bring His holiness down into this world and make it a better place.  Since Matan Torah this has meant performance of the mitzvos and the learning of Torah.  If one is doing that properly then where does this attitude of "one size fits all" come in?"
We all of us need to remember the bigger picture because it brings more meaning to our learning and our mitzvos performance.  Without it we start to do things without deeper intention and by rote, something we all need to avoid.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Real Holy Spot

While speaking with a prominent and wise Rav the other day, the topic of the Kosel came up and he shared an interesting insight with me.  He pointed out that the Kosel, as important as we all perceive to be, is not a real holy site.  Rather it's the elevated piece of ground beyond that is the actual prime spiritual real estate, the Temple Mount.
Now let's leave aside the argument over the permissibility of going up the Har HaBayis.  As this Rav noted, and I agree, we seem to have forgotten that the Kosel isn't the centre of Jewish world but a poor substitute because of the current occupants beyond.  We shouldn't see praying at the Kosel as an end unto itself but as an expression of the desire to one day prostate ourselves before the Shechinah in a rebuilt Temple (may it occur speedily in our day).
Yet habit and time seem to have robbed us of this awareness.  Consciously or not, we don't see Har HaBayis as the place prayers need to be offered from.  That belongs to "them" while we have the Kosel.  That's good enough.  Or is it?
This is what makes all the kerfuffle caused by the Women of the Wall so absurd.  They show up at the Kosel plaza dressed to instigate.  They succeed in getting the attention they want and then they shout that the Kosel isn't a Chareidi synagogue, that they too have the right to worship as they see fit, and so on.  And no one points out that while the Kosel isn't a Chareidi synagogue it's also not a synagogue in any sense of the word.  It's the one remnant of the outer wall of the Second Temple.  When that Temple was standing no one stood at its base tearfully offering prayers.
What's even more ironic is that, were the Temple to be rebuilt tomorrow, it would reinstitute worship that would be extremely class and gender segregated.  Women would be restricted to a small part of the Har HaBayis.  Non-Kohanim would also be limited in their movements and imagine the guards checking for one's tumah status.  For all their screaming about an inclusive Judaism that respects everyone, we would finally know that Torah worship is, in fact, very formal and rigid on what it allows.
Why is all this important to mention now?  As the Israeli election campaign careens to a close the story has broken that a candidate for Bayit Yehudi has been caught on video saying that he thinks it would be great if the Dome of the Rock were to be blown up.
The Tzipi Livni Party announced Saturday that it planned to request from the Central Elections Committee that a Bayit Yehudi candidate, who spoke of the Dome of the Rock being “blown up” in a video clip, be disqualified from running in Tuesday’s election.

The clip, which was first revealed by Channel 2, shows the 14th candidate on the Bayit Yehudi list, Atlantanative Jeremy Gimpel, addressing a group of Christian Zionists in Florida in November 2011. Gimpel states in the clip, “Imagine today if the golden dome, I’m being recorded so I can’t say blown up, but let’s say it was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the Temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine what would be? None of you would be here. You would be going to Israel. It would be incredible.”
Well you know what?  I also think it would be great.  I have no plans to make it happen.  I would oppose anyone who said they intended to make it come about.  I am sure we as a people are not ready for it and the needless bloodshed that would follow such an event would be incredibly tragic.  Having said that, yes I don't think the Dome belongs there.  I don't like that it's a non-Jewish place of worship.  I would much rather have a Temple there run by the right people acting as a central source of identity and unity to our nation.  I don't think that's anything to be ashamed about.  It's certainly not racist because the identity of the occupants of Har HaBayis is irrelevant.  It is our property, our spiritual centre and we belong there.   Frankly, what frum Jew wouldn't think that?
We need to remember the bigger picture, we need to remember the goal of history and we need to be as possessive of our property as other people pretend to be of it.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

In Praise of Anonymity

It began on Cross-Currents as a challenge to those in the Chareidi community who have such a distaste for blogs and the multitude of anonymous personalities that populate them.  The post, submitted by Dr/ Yoel Finkelman tried to explain why anonymity is so important when dealing publicly with issues within the Chareidi community.  In brief, he voiced the well-known concern that the high degree of conformity demanded by the Chareidi lifestyle, combined with the social pressures that conformity brings with it and the small-minded mobs of askanim who are the true rulers of that society.  The piece was relatively short and very accurate.  Naturally it demanded a response so Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein decided to provide one.
Unfortunately after a polite and eloquent introduction, Rav Aderlstein immediately goes to work with his usual style.  First he says:
I am not an apologist, neither professional nor amateur

Then he says:
Very few of us can say and do whatever we want within our professional world. Company policies, social conventions, the exigencies of diplomacy all limit our ability to express ourselves as we may want. We have to be polite to coworkers we may dislike, because the alternative would be horrible. We realize that these restrictions serve a positive purpose, even if we chafe against them.

The charedi world is much the same. People in it may grumble (some more and some less) about their inability to share their opinions and concerns, but they understand that this is the price of membership. The strategy of imposed uniformity may be good, bad, or terrible, but even those rugged individualists who find it most objectionable can understand the fears, insecurities and needs of their neighbors who perpetuate it. This makes it easier to live with. Those who have difficulty with it can also often (but admittedly, not often enough) find ways around the rules.
Which makes him sound like an apologist to me.  He then goes on to (accidentally?) confirm the worst suspicions of those on the outside.  Who's running the Chareidi community?
To the extent that they are being led, who is doing the leading: the most responsible and mature segments of the community or irresponsible and immature kanaim?” This is probably the question asked most often within the community. The answer is nuanced, but simple: it is a mixture of both. The challenge is finding out what is coming from the minds of the leaders, and what is coming from the gatekeepers and the kanaim.
Now one might claim that any religious or social community could have a similar structure.  The problem is that one of the defining features of Chareidism is an absolute loyalty to their "Gedolim" and the magical "Daas Torah" they possess.  How long was it that a certain prominent personality announced at the Agudah annual conference that to even ask the Gedolim for the reasoning behind their rulings was to demonstrate a terrible lack of faith in God and Torah?
To say that dictates to the unwashed masses don't always originate from those Gedolim or that the askanim have perverted the situation to the point that anything other than a direct televised statement from the Gadol in question is suspect leads one to imagine a society in which any trust in the leadership is misplaced.  Why should I care about what Rav Shteinman or Wosner say?  I didn't hear it directly from them so therefore it shouldn't count.  If the leaders are so disconnected then they aren't real leaders.

I don’t think that hypocrisy is the issue, especially given the strong background in Torah texts in the yeshiva world. The gemara is replete with strongly-worded statements, that to the untrained eye seem exaggerated or simplistic. We learn that such statements are part of a style, and we look for – and value – the latent message more than the manifest one. The charedi community understands (at least many people understand) that when they see a sign heaping invective upon some behavior that it may not mean anything more than “this is really not such a good idea.”

What is really frustrating is knowing that this simply isn't true.  Would Rav Adlerstein also have us believe that the rioters in Meah Shearim are  screaming insults at the Israeli police and calling them "Nazi's" because they're trying to be nuanced and they don't really mean it?  A few months ago some of his Chareidi compatriots paraded in Yerushalayim wearing mock concentration camp outfits to protest the Israeli government's plan to draft them.  Were they really trying to pass on a more subtle message?  When Chareidim in Beit Shemesh spit on 7 year old girls who don't pass their uber-tznius expectations are they really saying "Oh child, why cannot you be more pure?"  Please, no one in the Chareidi community really believes this.  When they scream with hatred they are doing just that, not imitating the gemara's style.
In short, the community that defines itself by absolute loyality to its Gedolim is led by Gedolim who can't lead unless they go in the direction the community is always heading.  And in the background are the askanim, always looking for dissent so they can neutralize it and maintain the fiction that all is well.
However, as apologetic as Rav Adlerstein was, his response was far more civilzed than what came next.  As usual, Rav Yaakov Menken proved all the inital assertions raised by Dr Finkleman were correct.
Put succinctly, I think the use of pen names has reduced the overall quality of comments and level of dialogue of this journal. This is not universally true, but I believe that if one weighs the cost and benefit, anonymous comments have done more harm than good.
First of all, Cross Currents is not a journal.  Despite all its aspirations to the contrary it's just a blog.  A popular one, a well-read one but just a blog.  What's more it's a censored blog run by a bunch of rabbonim who are interested in presenting their point of view without the inconvenience of having to defend it.  In this group Rav Avi Shafran is the only really honest one.  He simply refuses to have comments about his pieces posted.  Whereas he has no problem giving the middle finger to his critics, Rav Menken and friends allow comments but limit them to those that either agree with them, congratulate them or raise such weak rebuttals that slapping them down is easy. 
No wonder Rav Menken is against anonymous comments.  His buddy Eytan Kobre, a man whose grip on the truth is sometimes less than firm, was bothered by the negative feedback to his pieces.  Perhaps people were so busy pointing out his mistakes that he began to have self-doubt and wanted to avoid this progressing to actual self-awareness?  I can only imagine the stuff that Menken himself has to read and how many times a day he has to shake his head in disgust at the people who dare to disagree with his "correct" view of things.  DovBear himself also recently brought a very relevant example of why anonymity is so important when commenting on some blogs as he showed how the great Rav Menken, the man so concerned with proper and upright behaviour, slandered a negative commenter on Cross Currents after doing a Google search on him.  The only catch?  The search turned up someone else who had the same name!  And the stuff that Rav Menken excoriated him over?  Hardly controversial.  In short: you disagreed with me, therefore you are stupid.
There is plenty that is positive about the Chareidi community. Unfortunately its PR people are not one of those things and the more they try to defend the fictional perfection of the community the more the opposite impression seems to become cemented in people's minds.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

When Is Something Wrong?

There is a well-known gemara in which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's students are surrounding him as he lays on his deathbed.  They ask him for a blessing and he tells them he hopes they will fear God as much as they fear man.  "Not more?" they ask.  He replies by pointing out something obvious.  When a person sins he looks around to see if no one saw him but forgets there is an all-seeing Eye recording his activities even in the most hidden of locations.
The Torah itself repeats the phrase "V'yareisa meHaShem Elokecha" multiple times, especially when dealing with actions that are sins but which can be presented as proper.  Remember, the Torah is telling us, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can't fool God and there will be an accounting for this.
The idea that we are constantly accountable for our actions to an objective external authority seems to stand in direct contrast to the current reigning secular morality in which the golden rule is "It's only illegal if you get caught".  In truth, the Chazal noted this when they described how everyone is pretty much involved with gezeilah to some extent.  We borrow things and forget to return them, we walk off with someone's pen and assume he won't notice or care.  We take someone's time for no good reason when  they're busy.
All these are little things but there is no boundary in today's society.  When one reads the news it seems there is one item after another involving someone who stole in one fashion or another getting caught.  And the question always seems to be: "What were they thinking?"  After all the high falutin' explanations are given there is a simple one that no one ever offers: "Well I didn't think I'd get caught."
This may work for people like Eliot Spitzer and Chris Spence but should Torah observant Jews hold the same view?  Is believing that it's only illegal if you don't get caught in consonance with the Jewish belief in an all-knowing, all-seeing God?
With all the hoopla in some parts of the Torah observant community around external values, about the pernicious effect of the internet and smart phones, the hysteria over gender separation and ever unrealistic standards of modesty in dress for women, no one seems to notice that this value has crept in and taken hold. For all the mussar stuff that's out there, does anyone stand back and say "If you're a real yirei Shamayim then be very afraid that God is watching you when you do wrong!"?  Why does it always seem to be about something else?
I believe the answer is something I've commented on elsewhere a long time ago.  Simply put, it is always easier to blame someone else for your problems, so much so that one eventually loses insight into one's role in one's issues.  Why address problems and make changes in the way you do things when it's really an external locus that is the cause and which, if it goes away, will solve the dysfunction?
As children we internalize the value of something being wrong only if you're caught.  One of the things that is supposed to happen when one grows up and matures is to realize that there are things which are inherently wrong.  They aren't done not because of the fear of getting in trouble but because they are wrong.  This does not seem to have happened in Western society for a few generations now and it is also evident in our culture.  Is it possible that it's tied to the idea that a man, when he grows up, gets to avoid his real duties in life forever in exchange for a permanent high school-like existence?  Is it just selfishness run amok?
Veyareisa meHaShem Elokecha.  As Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai noted, we fear the disapproval of other men.  How much is the black hat a symbol of religious observance versus how many times it's worn so people won't look at one and say "Tsk, thought you were frum"?  So much of our observance is based on keeping up with the Jonesteins, not out a sense of real connection and meaning.  This goes all the more so for the bein adam l'chaveiro component of halacha which really takes abuse nowadays.
Whenever someone cheats as gentile and says "Ah, but it's only a goy" the attitude is there.  Whenever someone says "Ah, but he wasn't convicted by beis din but only by the goyisher courts" that attitude is there.  And like all bad middos, what starts with a limit soon exceeds it.  We start by not caring what "they" think and it doesn't take long to no longer care what God things, chalilah, despite our protests to the contrary.
In last week's parasha we are told that before Moshe Rabeinu killed the Egyptian striking the Jew he looked around and saw there was no man.  One possible way of understanding this is to see it within this light.  As the Torah narrates, life wasn't completely hefker in Egypt.  Even Jewish slaves could petition their mistreatment before Pharoah (even if they couldn't get a great answer).  Moshe Rabeinu at that point was a prince in the royal palace and yet even he was held accountable for murder.  But when the Torah says he looked around and saw no one around perhaps it's referring to this principle of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's.  What the Egyptian was doing was wrong.  Not wrong according to Egyptian laws but inherently and objectively wrong.  That no one was visible to Moshe's eyes to confirm this was irrelevant.  He did not seek out social approval or want to defy societal norms.  He simply sought to carry out justice.
This is a value we need to start reminding people of, as simplistic as it might seem to be.  Instead of whinging about mehadrin min mehadrin standards of food or claiming that not working for a living is a Torah value the emphasis must be on remember the true standard of behaviour that we, as observant Jews, are expected to maintain ourselves at, which means a constant positive awareness of the Ribono shel olam.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Another Example Of A Lack Of Unifying Ideology

As I've noted before, one of the problems with Religious Zionism is a lack of practical religious ideology.  The political is all there but when it comes to levels and types of observance, the Dati Leumi are all over the map.  Chardal'niks and congregants at Shirah Chadasha get lumped in together because of their Zionistic beliefs but the two groups are poles apart when it comes to so many fundamental Jewish issues that it's hard to see them in the same group.
One reminder of this lack of religious ideology came up recently when Rav Shlomo Aviner, a leading figure in the Religious Zionist world, issued guidelines for what he considers modest clothing for women.  for many people who automatically associated Religious Zionism with Modern Orthodoxy (and centre-left Modern Orthodoxy at that) his rulings came as a shock but really they shouldn't have.
Now for some background, Rav Shlomo Aviner is a top notch talmid chacham with an impressive stable of seforim so I have no doubt that his recent release is a product of much study and research.  But reading through the requirements leave one with a simple impression: "This guy is Chareidi".
But how is this possible with his big knitted kippah and his strong allegiance to Rav Kook, ztk"l, and his school of thought?  The answer is simple: Religious Zionism as a political and religious philosophy does not address large areas of halacha and hashkafah.  That's why the LWMO feminist from Shirah Chadashah and the right wing Chardal'nik can both be in the same camp when it comes to relating to the State.  That's why Rav Aviner can be a Dati Leumi leader but still sound completely Chareidi.  When it comese to matters such as tznius he is indeed part of that ideology.  As was, by the way, Rav Kook himself.
One of the problems with this system is that it has led to a fragmentation of the movement.  The Mafdal, once a meaningful player in the Knesset, basically no longer exists.  HaBayit HaYehudi, its inheritor, and its leader Naftali Bennett, are representative of a very specific type of Religious Zionist.  Would Rav Aviner, for example, feel more comfortable in Bennett's home or in the home of a Chareidi colleague in Bene Beraq?
It will be interesting to see how HaBayit HaYehudi does in the coming elections.  If it places well and doesn't turn out to be a flash in the pan (like too many other "great idea" parties) it may change the face of the Religious Zionist community and create something for the Dati Leumi to coalesce around.  Only time will tell but certainly addressing this gap in Religious Zionist ideology is something the movement must eventually do to prevent itself from splintering into irrelevancy.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What To Do With The Mystical

I've not yet had the opportunity to learn any kabbalah up close.  I've skirted around it, learned excerpts brought in other seforim like Nefesh HaChaim and the like, read about its importance and am aware of the huge amount of it out there but I've not yet sat down and made serious study of it.  My coming thoughts should be understood in this light.
I've always had a problem with the mystical side of Judaism.  Not because I don't believe it's not there, chas v'shalom.  It's quite clear there is much to this universe that is not physical, that is not quantifiable by physical means and which does not follow the laws of nature.  The easiest example I can think of is the subject of tumah and taharah.  It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that it is some kind of contagious affliction, especially the way physical contact or even close proximity transmit it.  But even a cursory study of the rules around tumah and taharah make it clear that we are dealing with something supernatural.  Why do sealed clay pots resist tumah?  Why is the sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah the only cure for tumas meis?  None of these things make sense from a simple, physical perspective.
I guess what bothers me is how it's presented.  The Zohar, for example, is something I've had issues with.  Leaving aside the ongoing debate on whether or not it's the genuine work of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai the biggest problem I've had with it has been how to fit in into the schema of Jewish law as I understand it.
Perhaps I'm just a simple person but for a long time I understood that God presented the Torah, both in Oral and Written form (but no apps) at Sinai.  The function of the Oral Law was to teach us how to understand the framework of the Written law and apply it in daily life.
Then along comes the Zohar which seems to me to exist as a parallel Oral Law for the spiritually special.  In other words, yes you could learn and follow the Talmud but if you really want to practice genuine Judaism it isn't enough.  You need to go a level higher and follow the Zohar. 
And what concerns me is the question: Why would God give us two parallel sets of laws, one for the unwashed masses and one for the special?  Doesn't the Torah emphasize there is to be one law for everyone?  Am I really doing my best to serve my Maker by following Talmudic law or am I just fooling myself becaise I'm really just doing a childish version of Torah practice?  And most annoying of all, if the Zohar is genuine Jewish law why is there almost no allusion to it in the Talmud, something like "And when you're ready for a higher level of observance..." or the like?
On the other hand I read an excerpt from the Yismach Moshe that might have helped my thinking.  After going through the whole PRD"S schemata he notes that different people, depending on their spiritual level, reach different levels at which certain expectations appear.  Some people function at a basic level and for them the Gemara is fine.  Some people, having built themselves up spiritually, develop a new type of relationship with the Ribono shel Olam and so for them it's not that it's wrong to follow the rulings of the Talmud but because of their enhanced level the rulings of the Zohar are more appropriate for them.
But then that got me thinking in a different direction.  We are all supposed to strive to connect to the Creator.  Does this include a desire to strive towards higher levels of spiritual understanding?  By not feeling a need to move beyond Gemara and embrace Zohar study, am I not fulfilling my purpose?
I'm still working on that one.