Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

On The Way Out Of Orthodoxy

As if world Jewry didn't have enough to worry about, apparently amidst the general turmoil in the Middle East, the ongoing low scale intifada, concerns about economic disparity and the worries about ties with the United States there is actually a real crisis occuring - the advent of Open Orthodoxy and the need to determine whether or not it's actually Orthodox.
For those late to the party, here is my biased summary.  Rabbi Avi Weiss, a YU grad and student of the Rav, zt"l, has started his own religious movement.  Calling it Open Orthodoxy he and his colleagues advocates for women clergy, more egalitarian rituals and consideration of acceptance of homosexual marriage in Jewish law.  His insistence on making these the identifying features of his movement while calling it Orthodox have raised the ire of the more traditional leaders of the Orthodox community, both the Agudah and the Rabbinical Council of America.  In recent weeks both groups have issues statements condemning Open Orthodoxy and labelling it as non-Orthodox.
Me?  I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.
Does Open Orthodoxy defy the traditional definitions of Torah observance and obedience?  Despite repeated claims by its leadership council to the contrary, the answer is clearly affirmative.  Their number one posek openly writes about his view that the Torah is not a Divine document and that the historical events and people detailed within it are all fictional.  That, in itself, takes Open Orthodoxy out of Orthodoxy in general.
But here's where it gets murkier.  Does Open Orthodoxy pose a threat to the Torah observant community?  I would venture that it doesn't since the population it's reaching out to is not one that fits into the more right wing Orthodox population.  The OO leadership isn't concealing its aims and beliefs.  Rabbi Asher Lopatin is open about his opinion that Jewish Israel should be replaced by a binational Jewish-Arab state.  Others write about changing the siddur and litury to bring it into line with secular liberal values.  Unless one is not paying attention when the chazzanit starts chanting the Kabbalas Shabbos service one is not likely to miss that there is something very different about this form of "Orthodoxy".
The concern is often raised that small town shuls looking for an Orthodox Rav might instead hire an OO rabbi.  I can, in response, point out that most small shuls might have an Orthodox set up but don't have an Orthodox laity.  Yes, giving women aliyos is beyond the pale of acceptable ritual behaviour in the Torah observance community but if most of the congregation drives home after Mussaf on Shabbos morning, is that really such a big deal?  And if the incoming Rabbi asks if her husband can also use the local mikveh that should be obvious enough what kind of clergy the place is getting.
Missing in all this is the underlying concern.  Social movements, as I've written before, always arise in response to a need.  OO is one such movement and given its slow growth in size one must ask: what are its adherents looking for that they're not getting from the traditionally Torah observant?
On the negative side it's probably a big of selfishness.  We live in a society where rights and entitlements define a person's needs.  "I want" and "I need" become equivalent and JFK's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" becomes "I ask what my country can do for me and my country better not ask for anything in return".  The moves of OO to become more egalitarian serve the segment of the community that says "Unless you adjust Orthodoxy to my wants/needs, I'll leave and go fulfill them elsewhere". 
On the positive side, that same desire can be seen in a positive light.  A few generations ago Jewish life was much simpler.  It's not so longer ago, relatively speaking, that women weren't even given a primary education or taught to read on more than a basic level if at all.  Now women are educated as much as men and have shown what anyone paying attention could have expected: they are just as accomplished and capable as men.  This leads to women wanting greater participation in the ritual life of Torah observance.  It also begs the question: if a woman studies the same semicha curriculum as a man and passes the same exam as a man, how is it conceivably fair that he is granted a degree and title while she gets nothing?  This is, in my opinion, a valid question.
So where did Orthodoxy go wrong fo this to occur?
I would suggest the following: the four basic foundational areas of Torah observant Judaism are kashrus, Shabbos, taharas mishpacha and chesed.  One can live in a small town and be an observant Jew just fine without a shul but not without Shabbos, kosher food or a mikvehChesed is a defining principle of Orthodoxy as well since imitatio Dei is an important value for us and we achieve this by acting kindly to others and spreading that kindness around.  Most importantly, all of these are home-based mitzvos where the family is the centre and responsible together for maintaining their proper observance.
But if you look at the Torah observant community today, where does the emphasis lie?  On ritual, ritual and more ritual.  As I noted in my acclaimed (at least by me) series, Ritual Ubber Alles, Orthodoxy today is completely defined by the superficial.  We have created a community system whose centre is the beis medrash/beis knesses, not the home.  The family is pushed to the side and the centre of authority, the parents in the traditional model, is replaced by the Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva or "Gadol".
Observers have long understood the rush towards egalitarianism taken first by the Reformers and then the Conservatives.  Having dumped most personal observances from their list of "Thou shalts" all that's really left to them is what goes on in their synagogues and temples.  If that is pretty much their entirety of their religion then it's not shocking that women would want to play an equal part in what goes on there.  Orthodoxy, in contrast, used to emphasize that Jewish life is rich and multifaceted with shul and ritual only a small part of the whole which mean that women were valued and important contributors.  By drifting towards the Reformative position and empahsizing ritual over everything else we fell into the same trap. 
There is also the matter of authority.  Here's something that should not be a shock to anyone with knowledge of the subject: Rabbis today don't have any real authority.
No, really.  The position of Rav holding authority in a binding fashion ended when genuine semicha died 1600 years ago.  Yes we still grant the title to those who pass their exams and yes, since we respect and honour Torah knowledge, we defer to those who have demonstrated a superior mastery of it but at the root of it the system is voluntary.  All the titles are just that, titles without a direct connection to Sinai which is where real authority is derived from.
As a result we do submit to the authority of our rabbinic leaders but there is an element of consensus and agreement to be led amongst the masses that underlies this.  A person with the title Rav simply cannot show up in town and issue orders simply because he has the title.
And yet that's exactly what's happening.  Whether it's the Moetzes of the Agudah styling itself as the central legal authority of the Jewish people in North America or the ranks of the "Gedolim" in Israel issuing psaks even without be asked the shailos first, we are incresingly being ruled and without our ongoing consent.  How else to explain that I need to know what Rav Eliashiv's, zt"l, last psak was on an issue?  He wasn't my Rav and I never asked him a shailoh.  Yet his askanim insisted he paskened for the entire Jewish people.  Did I miss the election for Jewish Pope?
Perhaps understanding this also helps us understanding where Open Orthodoxy came from.  In a shul-dominated culture women are excluded and shoved to the periphery.  In an autocratic leadership system people who are educated and used to having a say in how their lives are run will feel resentment.  Both these factors have led to Open Orthodoxy and until the traditionally Torah observant leadership understands this and addresses these needs in a proper halachic fashion, OO's appeal will continue to grow.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Pitiless and Pathetic

The recent terrorists attacks in Paris have led to quite a reaction in the Western world.  The death of a few hundred French have raised a stir that the deaths of tens of thousands of Arabs failed to accomplish.  Until recently the ongoing turmoil caused by the Islamic State in the Middle East was a limited news story, something happening to "them" that didn't very much involve "us".  The notion that the IS can strike in the heart of a Western capital with great success has changed that belief.  Speaking shortly after the attacks, French president Francois Hollande made his intentions very clear.  France would wage open war with the IS and they would be "pitiless".
One would like to be encouraged by this development.  Until recently the IS was operating freely with only token opposition by the US to slow it down.  Despite posing a threat to multiple countries and despite the presences of armed forces in the region like the Kurdish Peshmerga willing to strike back if given the right arms and support, the West seemed strangely disinterested in attacking the IS.  President Obama, with his usual cluelessness, referred to them as a junion varsity team and, quite naively on the morning before the Paris attacks, implied in an interview that their most effective days were behind them.  But now the combination of bombing a Russian airliner and attacking Paris has seemingly awoken the fury of both the French and Russian militaries, something no ragtag group of thugs might want to do.
So why am I not worried for the IS?  Well so far both Russia and France have limited their "pitiless" total war to bombing raids on the IS capital.  Sounds impressive until you open the history books and look for the list of wars won by airpower without an accompanying land invasion.  In fact, there is only one: NATO's illegal attack on Serbia in the late 1990's. 
Serbia is not the IS.  It's a second world country with a developed economy and a participatory electorate.  Bombing its army and industries had a definite effect on the populace and its government leading to a succesful conclusion to that campaign.
In contrast, the IS is not a country but rather a large terrorist group that controls territory.  All it cares about are the oil wells it has because of the money they bring the group.  Russia and the West could raze every city it controls to the ground without slowing them down. 
As Conrad Black pithily notes in his latest column in the National Post, there is a factor of Western malaise here that will prevent the West from actually defeating the IS in any meaningful way.  As he writes:
What ensued was a desultory effort to train the battered hulk of Iraq’s Sunni military and a Western air campaign in the tradition of the Yugoslav Wars: bombing from such high altitudes it was a war worth killing for but not worth dying for.

The Western refusal to actual insert a decent number of special forces into IS controlled territory means that all the sabre rattling from Paris and Moscow is merely that.  The fighters of IS are willing to get down, dirty and dead to win their war.  The French don't want so much as a spot of grease on their shiny uniforms. 
(I won't even mention that the list of important French military victories over the last 300 years is about the same length as the list of wars won by airpower)
In the end all that being said about attacking and destroying the IS is bluster. Bombs will be dropped.  Claims of degrading the IS' military power will be made.  Congratulations will be crowed.  And the IS will go right on killing and conquering left and right while the West returns to its habit of condemning Israel for every attempt it makes to defend itself against terrorists just as ruthless but much closer to home.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

More Flawed Definitions of Modern Orthodoxy

One of the side effects of Open Orthodoxy's slow but definite exit from Torah Judaism is its effect on the remainder of the Modern Orthodox community.  Modern Orthodoxy has been loathe to define itself in firm terms but Open Orthodoxy, by raising issues and producing defining statements on them, is forcing Modern Orthodoxy to begin seeing if it can develop is own terms of existence as a movement.
Into this fray comes a recent article that purports to provide twelve defining principles of Modern Orthodoxy.  While clearly well meant and heartfelt, it is my opinion that these definitions fall victim to the same flaws other attempts have made to define the movement.
To wit:

1. HalakhahWhile anchored in the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic tradition, Halakhah is shaped by, and responds to historical and cultural circumstances.
I am reminded of the classic comedy scene in which a runner spends time preparing, stretching, getting mentally ready and when the starting gun is fired he trips over an untied shoelace and falls flat on his face.  The statement on what shapes halacha is such a stumble.  It is exactly how the Conservative movement justifies all its violations of Torah.  Women rabbis?  Get with the times.  Homosexual rabbis?  Get with the times.  Totally egalitarianism?  Get with the times.  This is a dangerous attitude, one that has removed YCT from the bounds of proper Orthodoxy. Perhaps instead one could state that halacha is eternal, founded on certain immovable principles and is shaped to each generation's needs by the greatest poskim who are able to balance the immutable mesorah of Sinai with circumstances that urgently require addressing.  As opposed to the Open Orthodoxy and the Reformatives who allow secular liberalism to guide their acceptance of Jewish law Modern Orthodoxy should view any issues through the lens of Torah with all other values coming second.  As opposed to the Chareidim, the community should embrace the pattern of guided change that has characterized halacha over the millenia instead of pretending that what we do today is exactly what our ancestors did as little as a few centuries ago.
2. EthicsHalakhah demands adherence to the highest moral standards. Proper behavior is dictated by traditional Jewish values and modern ethical norms.
This one starts out better but again betrays a liberal bias.  What are modern ethical norms?  Let's look at medical ethics, for a start.  Consider the example of abortion.  Modern ethical norm dictate that a woman has a right to choose the fate of her unborn foetus.  Never mind the partner who contributed half the DNA, the decision is hers and hers alone.  This conflicts strongly with halacha in which a person has no true autonomy over their body and where medical needs are dictated by Torah law.  Yes, halacha demands we practice the highest moral standards but the moral standards encourage by Torah often conflict with what's trendy in surrounding society and there can be no question which gets pushed aside in case of a conflict between the two.
3. Torah StudyTorah study is a primary Jewish value. Such study should almost always be pursued in conjunction with self-sustaining employment. Full-time Torah students are not automatically entitled to financial support by the Jewish community.
There is much to agree with but again, a few changes are necessary.  Torah study isn't a primary Jewish value, it is the primary Jewish value.  The ideal Jewish, as I will mention again below, is to be able to sit and learn all day long.  The material needs that come with living in this physical world make that lifestyle unattainable for the majority but that doesn't change its status as the true ideal.
4. WorkWork is an ennobling pursuit. Work should not be viewed as a necessary evil whose purpose is limited to earning a living.
This is another point of strong disagreement.  Does work have value?  Yes, as Chazal tell us that any Torah without accompanying labour goes bad.  The Gemara abounds with examples of our Chazal extolling working for a living.  And yes, it's not a necessary evil but one most ask what it is if not that.  Work in and of itself for the sake of work is also worthless.  We were not put in this world to labour for a pay cheque.  The answer is to remember that the Torah is full of laws regarding the worker and how to conduct himself in his occupation.  Work is an expression of the application of Torah values.  Work has worth inasmuch as the Torah Jew brings Torah laws to his occupation.  Therefore we can say that work is a chance to apply the laws that God gave us in a practical and material sense.  It is there that work has its true value and a strong rejoinder to those who see it as a necessary evil.
5. Secular Knowledge and CultureThe best of secular learning and culture has inherent value beyond any economic benefit.
The only knowledge and culture that has true and eternal value is Torah-based culture.  Shakespeare in isolation, da Vinci in isolation, Star Trek in isolation, have no real value.  Secular knowledge and culture can benefit Torah knowledge and culture but it is always a supplement, not an independent entity for us.
6. Science, Creation, EvolutionThe earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. The account of creation in the Book of Genesis is religious, rather than scientific. Since the Torah is not a scientific work, scientific fact and theory neither conflict with nor confirm the Torah.
This is one of the things that bothers me.  I hate simplistic reactivity.  The Chareidim say we have to read Bereshis literally and believe that the world is 5776 years old.  This means, for the author, that a fundamental principle of Modern Orthodoxy is that we must believe it's not?  We must look beyond the simple argument and see the bigger conflict: the current official Chareidi position on understanding the first chapter of the Torah is that it must be read and understood literally.  We must believe that all true Jewish authorities over the centuries all the way back to Chazal held this to be an important ikkar emunah and if we find authorities who differ then we invoke the Eliashiv principle: They could say it, we can't. In other words, the current Chareidi position is to read the Torah through a len of dogma and ignore its true depth in order to maintain an ideological uniformity.  That's what Modern Orthodoxy should be fighting again.  It's not about how old the Earth really is, it's about how to read Torah and understand it.
7. TheodicyTheological justifications of evil — e.g., the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation — are wrong and offensive.
When the Second Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt) one in three Jews were killed and the entire land of Israel was laid waste.  Yet a few centuries later Chazal were able, in their wisdom, to explain the moral failings of our ancestors that led to this tragedy.  One day we will be able to understand why the Holocaust happened but right now it's too soon.  It may turn out that it was because of assimilation, Zionism, anti-Zionism, Chareidism etc.  We cannot say at this time but we know that the good and evil both come from Above.  ts just we are still too soon after the horrors of the Shoah to discuss it.
8. Zionism and IsraelBoth secular and religious Zionism are legitimate ideologies. The State of Israel is the fulfillment of religious and secular aspirations for an independent Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.
I must be very clear on this point: Secular Zionism was a tool in the hands of the Creator to initiate the first flowering of our redemption.  Any Jewish ideology that lacks obedience to Torah and halacha at its core can be useful but not legitimate.  The legacy of Secular Zionism, a state in which the majority of the Jewish citizens are ignorant of the amazing nature of their heritage, is not a pretty one to behold.  The opposite ideology, Chareidism, begs us to ignore God's intervening hand in history and pretend that the greatest things to happen to our nation since the destruction of our Temple is a coincidence or worse, a maaseh haSatan.  It is therefore Religious Zionism that emerges as the proper ideology with which to appreciate the State of Israel, influence its citizens and encourage its progression to a Torah-run state that can properly receive Moshiach tzidkeinu, speedily in our days.
9. Non-JewsAll human beings are created equally in the image of God. The Jewish community must work in fellowship with its non-Jewish neighbors towards the betterment of society.
I think this point needs more emphasis.  With the triumph of the Chasidim in influence Chareidi society we are seeing more and more a focus on the difference between "us" and "them".  "They" are all savages, hate us and have no spiritual worth.  We can lie to "them", cheat "them" and steal from "them" with impunity.  This must be opposed.  The Modern Orthodox Jew sees all humans as a creation of God with intrinsic worth and our moral behaviour must be extended to them as much as to our own brethren.
10. Non-Orthodox JewsThere is one Jewish people. We share a common destiny and many religious values with non-Orthodox denominations and we must cooperate on issues of mutual interest.
This is once again a fundamental value position that I think is being mis-stated.  Yes, there is one Jewish people but there is also only one Torah and one set of rules for interpreting it.  One sine qua non of Judaism is that God appeared at Sinai and commanded His Torah to us.  That is the basis for the authority of halacha.  Ultimately we do what we do not because it's a good idea or sounds nice but because God said so.  Thus a Jew who visits someone in hospital because it's nice to do so is not demonstrating the same set of religious values as a Jew who wants to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim.  A rabbi who keeps a strictly kosher and shomer Shabbos home but who believes that humans wrote the Torah centuries after the events it depicts is deviating from the fundamentals of Torah Judaism.  He may act just like a Torah Jew but he isn't because the root reason for his performance is not the command of Sinai.  Yes, we must treat the non-Orthodox with respect and kindness and certainly cooperation with them in areas of communal need is critical.  What's more, we have an obligation to act with the highest Torah ethical standards in order to refute the contention that being observant interferes with one's ability to participate properly in modern society.  But we cannot share religious values unless those values are based on Sinai.
11. DressDress is a matter of individual taste, within the bounds of propriety determined by local custom.
Chazal tell us to know God in all ways that we think and act.  I have written before that one of the neatest things about Chareidism is their concept of a uniform since that means even when they dress they are performing a religious service.  Modern Orthodoxy has reacted to this by developing a sad trend towards emphasizing modern, non-Jewish dress and pushing the boundaries (crossing them sometimes to) of what is appropriately Jewish wear and what isn't.  We would do well to learn from the Chareidim that "the clothes make the man" and bring our dressing choices into the realm of obedience to and awareness of God.
12. WomenWomen are free to pursue careers of their choice. They may attain the highest levels of Torah scholarship and assume leadership roles within the Jewish community.
In one position statement the author shows what is concerning about the YCT way of adjusting halacha to accord with secular liberalism.  The first part of the statement, about pursuing careers of their choice, is fine as is the second.  One of the defining features of Modern Orthodoxy is that women study at the same levels as men as per the instructions of the authorities of the movement back the Rav, zt"l.  It is the final point that slips in and ruins the position.  The idea that women can assume leadership roles  within the Jewish community is terrible vague.  It could mean that women are allowed to lead female study groups or work as Yoatzot.  Alternatively it could mean giving them the title "Rabba" or "Maharet" and handing them their own congregations.  It is something that would have to be clarified and certainly the pre-existing bounds of halacha must be the basis for that clarification.

In summary the author has started a discussion and Modern Orthodoxy would certainly benefit from that but we must move beyond "We do this" and "We do that" to look at the underlying principles that motivate us.  If that happens then worthwhile advances will happen.