Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Forgetting The Advice of Pirkei Avos

One of the common customs of the frum community between Pesach and Shavous is to read Pirkei Avos, one chapter a week.  Avos, as is well known, is not a halachic tract but full of ethical and practical advice from the fathers of the our nation, Chazal.
The problem with this custom is that, for many, the reading of Pirkei Avos becomes yet another ritual.  The person reads through the chapter of the week like he reads through davening instead of paying attention to the words and trying to internalize their deeper meanings.  Perhaps familiarity also plays a role and eventually people who can recite the entire tractate off by heart fail to realize when a situation they're in calls for the advice in one of the mishnayos there.
This seems to be the case of the recent outburst of the Novominsker Rebbe that is making the rounds in the Jewish blogsphere.  At an official Agudah dinner, with the mayor of New York in attendance, the Rebbe decided to unleash a diatribe against the Reformative and Open Orthodox forms of Jewish practice.  Despite revisionist attempts to tone down the remarks or limit their intended targets (do these people not realize we can watch the video and see for ourselves?) there is growing outrage against the Agudah for allowing this attack to happen as well as against the mayor of New York for sitting there and not responding to the hateful comments.
Now let's say that the apologists are correct: the Rebbe was attacking the practice of the target groups, not the practitioners themselves.  On one hand I can appreciate the Rebbe's concerns.  Demographically it has long been established that Reformativism is a path to assimilation and disappearance.  Frankly, if it weren't for the Agudah's community supplying all the OTD's who knows how many non-religious Jews would be left.  I can also appreciate his concerns with Open Orthodoxy.  I'm not going to be as generous as Rav Harry Maryles in this regard.  From the new head of YCT on down there are massive problems with OO's theology and they frequently cross the line into non-Orthodox territory.  It must therefore be very frustrating for a "Gadol" who believes that to be really Orthodox you have to look and dress and speak exactly like him to find a group totally offside with those ikkarim who insist on calling themselves Orthodox. 
Having said that,the mishnah from Avos comes to mind: "Sages, be careful with your words!"
Years ago the Chareidim in Israel held a massive pro-Shabbos rally in Tel Aviv, the highlight of which was Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt"l, quoting the posek: One who desecrates the Shabbos shall be surely put to death.  One of my chareidi friends told me how proud he was when Rav Ovadiah announced this.  That was telling 'em!
And then I questioned him: who was Rav Ovadiah speaking to?  Chareidim and other frum Jews don't need to be threatened with death to keep Shabbos.  We do it happily and willingly.  Non-religious Jews aren't interested in keeping Shabbos even at gunpoint.  So other than coming off as an ayatollah-like figure to the unaffiliated exactly what did he accomplish?
The Novominsker Rebbe needs to be asked this question.  All the people on that dais with him wearing the black hats don't see Reformativism as a legitimate expression of Jewish religious practice and have their doubts about Open Orthodoxy (assuming they've bothered to research the subject).  The mayor of New York probably doesn't understand the difference between Torah observant Judaism and the other "streams" and thinks them all equivalent, the way people don't judge between Catholics and Protestants.  The average Reformative Jews has never even heard of the Agudah, let along the Novominsker Rebbe and will see this story as yet another "Orthodox Jew says non-Orthodox Jews aren't real Jews".  Not a great achdus building moment. 
So like I asked my friend all those many years ago, who was the Novominsker Rebbe speaking to?