Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Of Rebbe Stories

Despite being an important secondary character in a great fantasy fiction trilogy, I'm not exactly a story person.  To qualify, I love fictional stories about fictional characters but am less thrilled when presented fictional stories about real people and expected to believe they're true.
Maybe it's also my dislike of naturohomeopaths.  Have you ever noticed that, for all their hocus-pocus talk, they don't really have cures for anything that matters?  Oh they'll whip up something for that trick knee or persistent cough but when it comes to something real and substantial like, say, a heart attack or end-stage cancer they're all talk and it's up to real physicians to save the day.
As a result I've never been a fan of "rebbe stories".  You know the ones I mean.  The am ha'aretz goes to the Rebbe, needs a miracle and so the Rebbe prays for him and the miracle happens, usually in a way that confers a moral lesson.
Again, as a story they're cute.  It's when people say "And you know, it really happened that way!" that I get annoyed.
Sometimes it's a little different.  There's the story I once heard from the local Lubavitcher about how one of their Rebbes needs to be exhumed long after his burial.  Despite the prohibition of doing it, some of the handlers opened the casket because they wanted to see the state of the body.  After all, the Gemara tells us that the perfectly righteous do not decompose in the grave and their Rebbe had been perfectly righteous.  Naturally, as the story goes, his body looked exactly as it had on the day of his death, confirming the literal truth of the Gemara.
I pointed out to him that this story was clearly rigged.  Imagine, I told him, that you're one of the handlers.  You crack open the coffin convinced you're going to see a pristine body.  Instead you see some bones and leftover, mummified pieces of flesh.  What are you going to tell people?  That the Gemara is wrong?  That the Rebbe wasn't perfectly righteous?
What bothers me about the stories is that the miracles are never anything significant.  The poor guy gets an unexpected challah from Shabbos, an infertile woman conceives, all fell-good but small time events.  Why are there no stories about the local Polish overlord calling off a massive pogrom once it was underway?  Why nothing about relieving the massive widespread poverty of eastern Europe's Jews?  Why no Moshiach being summoned to bring our final revelation?
I thought about this even more when I recently read Joe Bobker's excellent book excerpt on the response of various rabbinic leaders to the Holocaust.  Now, there's a lot of people out there who believe they know two things about rabbonim and the Holocaust.  One, that many leaders told their flocks to stay put which led to increased slaughter.  Two, that some leaders took off and abandoned their flocks.
As Bobker cogently notes, we cannot judge since we have the benefit of hindsight and a lack of understand of the situation as it was for those rabbonim.  For example, many leaders thought that World War II would be a repeat of World War I, a few years of hellish fighting and then the resumption of regular society.  Staying put or fleeing a short distance was what worked from 1914-1918 so there was good reason to think it would help again.
Additionally we have to remember that, despite the bellicose threats of total extermination by Adolph Hitler, y"sh, few people took him seriously.  They expected oppression, pogroms and small scale murder but not the industrialized massacre that was being planned.  Even the Nazis, y"sh, didn't openly admit to their Jewish victims what they were doing.  Jews being deported to death camps were told they were being relocated, often told to bring belongings and provisions for the journey.  It is unfair for us to say "Well those rabbonim knew what were going to happen!"  No one knew, including them.
What caught my attention in the article, however, were two items I'd not heard before.  One was that the Chofetz Chayim, zt"l, was asked to curse Hitler and didn't on the assumption that what was happening as the Nazis came to power was God's will and couldn't be trifled with.  The other was that the Belzer Rebbe, zt"l, was asked to petition God to stop the Holocaust and also refused for the same reason.
On the surface it seems like both leaders were extremely cold and uncaring.  Jews were being slaughtered en masse and the answer is "Well God wants it that way so what do you expect from me?"
However, as I noted above this seems to put the "rebbe stories into their proper perspective.  Like the Lubavitchers opening the casket there's only so much one could expect.  Imagine the Belzer Rebbe, in full regalia with all his followers watching.  He lights the right candles, says the right words in Yiddish and Aramaic, and then... nothing.  The Nazis are still outside, the crematoria are still running.  What does he do next?  He's the tzaddik, the guy who says "jump!" and God asks "How high?"
Imagine the Chafetz Chayyim publicly cursing Hitler and his monsters using all the right incantations.  What does he do when nothing happens?
Perhaps these two saintly men knew this, that the stories are just stories.  Perhaps they knew that, if they were pushed into performing an actual miracle they would fail and that this would cause a loss of faith in their followers who had been educated and conditioned to believe that these men had God's ear and obedience, k'b'yachol.
Perhaps that's what I don't like the stories.  They are the result of a cultural need for simplicity and understandable connection to the Divine in a religion that simply doesn't work that way.  Is is so hard to get past such simple linear thinking?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Nightmarish Ideal

One of the recurring words that come from the PR hacks in the UltraOrthodox world is "mesorah". Mesorah is trotted out time and time again to explain inflexible positions on certain issues or opposition to innovative ideas or suggestions on controversial subjects.  We are assured that the mesorah has already spoken on such things and that there is one position, one only, that is the correct one.
Did you ever wonder what the ultimate incarnation of the mesorah would be according to these guys?  Their fantasy Jewish society in which everything happens by the book, their book?
Two recent articles in two major Chareidi magazines might be giving us a strong hint of that that dream is and if you're a thinking person it should scare you silly. 
The first is a recent article in Mishpachah Magazine, usually touted as a moderate Chareidi publication as it admis the existence of non-Chareidi rabbonim without automatically denigrating them.  As detailed by JewishWorker it contains a description of life in the American Chasidic village of New Square:
The piece emphasized the total conformity in New Square in every aspect of life. Here are some example:

1.There are no restaurants, bakeries, prepared food stores in all of New Square. The only supermarket sells only basic items, no prepared food, no national brands. Everyone eats the same few staples

2.Everyone eats the exact same food on Shabbos. For example, the menu in every family in New Square for the Friday night meal without exception is

1.Gefilte fish

2.Chicken Soup


4.Fruit compote for desert

3.There are no individual simchas. Every Shabbos there are approximately 10 aufrufs and ten bar mitzvas, they only throw candy at the end for everyone and there is 1 small kiddush after davening

4.There is only 1 shul with only 1 minyan. On Shabbos morning at 8AM they start saying Tehilim for 3 hours, at 11AM they start Shacharis which takes over 3 hours

5.There are 3 tishes every Shabbos which everyone must attend

6.All the men dress exactly the same down to the boots that they all wear.

7.There is complete separation between men and women

1.separate sidewalks, one side men one side women, married couples aren't allowed to walk together
2.separate waiting rooms at the doctor
3.mechitza buses
4..women leave shul after kedusha so that when the men leave there isn't a woman around

Another aspect mentioned in the article is the fact that the Rebbe is in total control of the town. The mayor, city councilmen, city workers are all appointed by the Rebbe and nothing happens without his say so. Since, the Rebbe is the absolute focus of the town, before anyone does anything they consult the Rebbe. Consulting the Rebbe is not cheap, first you have to pay the Kvitel writer, then there is a Gabbai in charge of the door to the Rebbe's room, you have to pay him as well. Last but not least you need to leave money for the Rebbe himself when you finally meet him
Charming, yes?  And lest you think this is a one off phenomenon, Ami Magazine recently features a piece on those lovable Canadian misfits, the Lev Tahor cult.  As detailed by the Bray of Fundie and Rav Harry Maryles the writers did not come so much to critically assess the cultists as to defend them.  Other than opining that the burka probably isn't a great idea there was apparently little in the article about the midn control, malnutritions, health issues and child abuse that are the defining features of this group. 
What the two articles seem to have in common is this: both want to present communities in which there is no freedom of information, no freedom of thought, no freedom of movement, no freedom of education, and complete dictatorial control by a single man who thinks he's God's personal representative on Earth as "nice Jewish communities".
Is this the true face of the mesorah the Agudah would like us to believe in?  Is living a Stalinist life of complete conformity the ideal Jewish experience?  Check your brains at the door and just say "Baruch HaShem" when you're told to?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Amalek, Amalek, Amalek

Last night one of the recurring shnorrers who come to my neighbourhood stopped by for a visit.  Despite being a Satmar chasid we've always gotten along quite well.  I'm not a fool to think that the cheques I give him aren't a fundamental reason for that but his visits have come to be more than just a quick drop-in.  He's always eager to exchange divrei Torah, enjoys reading my Rav Kook seforim (naturally his own shul doesn't carry those) and understands why I'm not interested in having a copy of Vayoel Moshe on my bookshelf.
During his visit last night he asked me my opinion of the ongoing draft controversy in Israel.  Of course he had been told by his community leaders all the standard lies the Chareidi leadership is spreading, about how the draft is part of the secular plot to destroy Torah in Israel and the like.
So I countered back that the draft would, if anything, enhance the position of the Torah community in Israel if the Chareidim would cooperate properly with it.  This would seem to go contrary to the assertion of the Chareidi leadership that this attempt to draft their young 'uns is equivalent to the worst anti-Jewish atrocities in history.  I pointed out that a life of poverty is a terrible thing to inflict on an entire community.  I also noted that at its height the kollelim of Europe had a few hundred men learning full-time and that full-time full-community kollel is a post-war innovation whose time seems to have come and gone.
He himself noted that in Europe you had to be an ilui to get into the system, that an average person showing up and announcing that he wanted to learn full-time would have been laughed at and told to find a job.  He also noted that the level of mesirus nefesh of those European learners far exceeds that of those nowadays who, despite the privations of their undesirable financial status still have living standards that far exceed those of our ancestors.
Then I mentioned that the army has bent over backwards to accomodate the Chareidim it will draft in terms of men-only environments, a mix of army duty and learning, a shortened service period, ultra-kosher food on the bases, etc.  I pointed out that with all the verbal abuse and threats coming out of the Chareidi community's representatives it is a testament to the innate kindness of the secular population that there hasn't been an attempt to mass-deport the Chareidim from the country.  What kind of people get called Nazis, Russians, animals and the like, get compared to the worst villians in Jewish history, get told they are trash after giving over billions of dollars for nothing in return and don't react strongly but instead try to find further ways to compromise?  In short, if Chazal believed that compromise in dispute was a noble goal, who's acting more observant?
My acquaintance seemed to understand that point.  He asked what interest the Dati Leumi had in all of this, if they were religious why were they supporting the draft?  I told him that there is no reason a religious Jew can't serve in the army and that the presence of so many religious Jews might just have a profound effect on the non-religious boys they come in contact with.  They have so much potentials to produce a huge kiddush HaShem how could they not jump at the opportunity?
Finally I pointed out that even many Chareidi authorities (although it is generally denied now) lauded the creation of the State of Israel as a show of kindness from the Ribono shel Olam, a great demonstration of His chesed after the horrors of the Holocaust.  To stand up as a community and say that they want no part in this divine gift, that they don't even recognize God's hand in it and what's more they will vigorouly fight against its ongoing success and refuse to contribute to it is an incredible show of ingratitude and a rejection of God Himself, no matter how much they want to delude themselves that they are the real upholders of His Will in this world.
This guy listened.  Unfortunately there are others out there who still have their heads in the sand.  Rav Yaakov Mencken, once again, exemplifies all those who give the rest of the Jewish world the impression that Chareidim are rude ingrates who have no appreciation or respect for "the other".  It is hard to decide what part of his article is most insulting.  Is it the part where he lionizes the yeshivah boy arrested for refusing to be drafted who then acts like he's really showed those nassssssty secular Israelis the true power of Torah?  Is it his praise of Rav Shmuel Auerbach who, until yesterday (it seems) was in the Chareidi doghouse for daring to defy the political opinions of Rav Shteinman and Rav Kaneivsky?  Suddenly he's a darling in the Chareidi community for his role in promulgating the "right" behaviour.
Maybe it's his use of the word "racism" in the title, one which betrays a complete lack of understanding of the word's meaning and cheapens it through its inappropriate use.  Perhaps its his conclusion in which he essentially calls anyone who disagrees with him "Amalek", a charge he then denies in the comments section as if we're idiots who can't read and need him to interpret his own simplistic scrawlings for us.
The best response to this dribble is from a post at Rationalist Judaism in which the guest author, one Rav Moshe Gold points out the obvious:
 In fact, I can't think of a single area in which you participate with the rest of Klal Yisrael. In one of my more aggressive moments I asserted that since the State and the IDF have been doing so well for 66 years without your prayers, let's better leave it that way. We don't want to rock the boat, you know.
Yes indeed.  One of the reasons this argument has gone on for so long is because we see the Chareidim as members of the Jewish family.  They aren't co-citizens or co-religionists. They are our brothers, our family dating back to Yaakov Avinu, a"h.  People are prepared to spend a lot more emotion and effort to help family than neighbours or strangers.  But there are limits, especially when that family treats you like trash and compares you to the worst scum of history.
Perhaps it is time to point out that we really don't need this abuse.  We've accomplished a great deal as a people in the last 60 years deespite the Chareidim, not because of them.  Maybe we should wait for them to come to us?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Olive Me

Full disclosure off the top: I worked in an Israeli olive factory for a year when I was in high school.  One of the entry level jobs for rookies was "the olive line" where workers sat and watched the product roll past them on a conveyor belt.  The job entailed grabbing those olives that looked defective and removing them from the belt to ensure only nice looking olives made it into the cans and jars to be sold.  Even with headphones tuned to the rock radio station in Jordan it was mind-numbing work but it did teach me one thing: the size of an olive.
I mention this because, like clockwork, the issue of how much matzah to eat at the Seder next week, has once again surfaced in the Jewish blogsphere.  This amount is, al pi halacha, the amount of an olive's bulk of matzah, a k'zayis.  Naturally Jews have to argue about anything so when it comes to this issue the argument is: how big is an olive?
You'd think that it would easy to end this discussion.  Olives come in a few varieties so find the biggest one and say "That's how much matzah you have to eat".  This is the one solution that, to my knowledge isn't considered viable by most people.  Instead we have a notion, based more on opinion than any real historical fact, that olives shrunk significantly in size somewhere in the last 2000 years which means our current k'zayis is way below the minimum amount necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of achilas matzah.
Rav Natan Slifkin has already dealt with this issue at length and I have nothing to add to his scholarship on the matter.  There are definitely different opinions and those of the great poskim of the last 1000 years cannot simply be dismissed due to lack of historical agreement with their positions.  They are the gedolei Yisrael upon whose words we rely.  But when people distort their words or amplify them we are in a worse position.
For example, the recent article at Yeshiva World by Rav Yair Hoffman does exactly that.  Rav Hoffman starts by presenting an opinion, that of following the maximum number of authorities with divergent opinions when performing a specific ritual, as a near universal practice.  While this occurs quite frequently there are many other times when we pick one authority or a minority and go with them.  Sometimes who we side with changes depending on extenuating circumstance in different eras.  Yes, fulfilling as many opinions as possible is definitely desirable but not when it leads to bizarre behaviour or contortions in logic to justify itself.
It seems, according to Rav Hoffman, that not only do we have to conform to the ever-expanding definition of k'zayis (once the size of an olive, eventually some bright young posek somewhere will declare it to be half a canteloupe) but we have to eat twice as much of it and all in two minutes!
Add to all of that the fact that the burnt oversized crackers we eat are not really traditional matzah but a result of hard necessity a few centuries ago.  Soft pita I could see shoving into one's month at a reasonable rate but spit-absorbing crackers?  Won't happen.
Here's my suggestion: Rav Chaim Volozhiner, zt"l, is, in all other respects, an important posek and a huge Gadol in the chain of halachic transmission.  If he says that an olive is an olive then I think we can rely on his formidable knowledge in the matter.  After all, he and his mentor, the Vilna Gaon, ztk"l, are not known for a lenient and superficial approach to p'sak.
There is a further reason to take this position, one that is often forgotten by most folks in their zeal to do "the right thing".  The Torah tells us to rejoice on our holidays. Now I've heard it said that this only applies to Sukkos which is called "chag" by the Torah which means that we are allowed to make ourselves miserable on Pesach.  I'm not sure that's really the optimal understanding of the verse.  We are meant to enjoy Yom Tov, the better to appreciate the bounty the Ribono shel Olam has given us, the better to allow His splendour to interact with us.