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.