Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why Should I Care When People Attack Belief?

Recently, I shared on Facebook a New York Times article entitled: Is Belief a Jewish Notion? The article addressed different patterns of belief among Jews (both Traditional and non-Traditional). I found it extremely thought provoking (irrespective of whether I agree with everything that was said there), and hope to devote an entire post to it.

That, however, is not the reason I 'shared' it. I shared it because of the post that brought it to my attention, and the discussion that it engendered. Briefly stated, these people actively celebrated the idea that Judaism has 'matured' beyond the need for an Omniscient, Omnipotent God. Jews are much too sophisticated, it was argued, to have to believe in the historicity of the Torah, and the God who (ostensibly) gave it it. Much ado was made by these posters of a recent article in Commentary, which celebrated something called 'Social Orthodoxy,' which is religious observance based on sentiment, tradition, and/or national identification. It celebrated, and the commenters on Facebook and elsewhere rejoiced, at Judaism without God, as Jews have believed in Him for almost four thousand years. (Never mind that 'Social Orthodoxy' has another name, Kaplanian Reconstructionist Judaism.)

I had a very visceral reaction to the comments, to wit:

I am proud to be a primitive believer in an Omnipotent, Omniscient God, who created Heaven and Earth, who brought Israel out of Egypt, gave us the Torah, and brought us to the land He promised to our father, Abraham. I would rather, much rather, struggle with my primitive belief and accept the vastness of all that I cannot comprehend, than to find myself among those who would sophisticate themselves to death, and eviscerate the Torah and the Jewish People while doing so.

After publishing this, I was asked: Why are you being so defensive? It was a good question, and I thought about it over the next few days. Why, indeed, should I react so strongly to such a discussion? After all, I am well aware that myriads of people are atheists, agnostics, pantheists, deists, and what have you. After all, I read what many of them have to say, and I've studied all types of religions. Nothing should surprise me.

So, why did I get so emotional? 

Last Shabbat, I realized that I reacted as I did because the participants define themselves as (and claim to represent) Orthodox Jews, and thereby distort the Torah and undermine its viability from within. Judaism cannot survive without God, who sanctifies us with His commandments and (thereby) sanctifies us. To assert otherwise is, and I really don't like to use the word, heterodoxy. Such positions may be principled, reasoned, logically consistent, and coherent. They remain, however, heterodox.

The question remains, though, why the hurt? Why didn't I get indignant?

The answer came to me, when I recalled a passage in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (56a). The Mishnah and Gemara there discuss the procedure by which one tries a blasphemer (מגדף). The rule is that a blasphemer is not definitely liable for the death penalty unless he uses God's ineffable Name (Tetragrammaton). Out of deference for God's honor, when describing the acts of the blasphemer during the trial, the witnesses use a euphemism for God's Name.

The Mishnah states:
The entire day [of the trial] the witnesses are examined by using a substitute for the Divine Name, as in ‘May Yossi smite Yossi’ (Where the blasphemer actually used God's Name instead of Yossi). When the trial is over, the accused cannot be executed on this evidence. [At this point], all persons were removed from the court, and the chief witness was told: ‘State exactly what you heard.' At that point, he does so [using the Divine Name]. The judges then rose and tore their garments, a tear that may not be resewn.

Now, it makes sense that the proceedings be carried on with a euphemism for God's Name, so as not to repeat the blasphemy over and over. It makes sense one who hears a Jew maliciously blaspheme against God that should tear one's clothes (Sanhedrin 60a). In addition, it makes perfect sense that prior to voting for or against convicting the accused blasphemer, that the judges must hear precisely what he is alleged to have said. But why do the Judges then have to tear their clothes? The witnesses weren't blaspheming! They were simply reporting what they heard.

I recall that Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל deduced from this odd situation that it is not the malicious act of blasphemy that requires tearing one's clothes in response. Rather, simply hearing blasphemy reported requires that one tear one's clothes in mourning (לא המעשה גידוף מחייב בקריעה, שמיעת דברי הגידוף מחייבים בקריעה).

The Rav's observation lead me to understand why I reacted to these discussions as I did. We really are supposed to be sensitive to God's Honor, and to experience an encounter with disbelief, emotionally (even if it is not malicious in intent). There is nothing wrong with, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of, blanching and hurting when one hears that which one holds most holy attacked, or more insidiously--- blithlely dismissed (and its dismissal celebrated). It's incredible that it needs to be spelled out to ostensibly Orthodox Jews that there is no Judaism without the Holy One, blessed be He, Creator of Heaven and Earth. There are no מצוות without a מצווה. Indeed, mitzvot without a מצווה become mere ceremonials; and ceremionials, Rav Soloveitchik taught us, are fundamentally pagan.

I know that I am not alone in this conviction, and have been pleasantly surprised over the past few days to read calls for to the critical need to restore God to the center of our religious universe

Pesach is all about renewing our covenant with God. In doing so, we would do well to try to implement, in this world, the ideal that Hazal described as achieving its full realisation in the next (Ta'anit 31a):

Ulla Bira'ah said in the name of R. Eleazar: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will hold a chorus for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said, And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.         

Friday, February 14, 2014

Of Halakhic Integrity, Halakhic Change and Kavod ha-Torah

It is the fate of careful thinking to be the victim of ever shorter news cycles. That is probably for the best, as the types of polemics the engulf the Jewish World, generally, and the Orthodox Community, in particular, generate far more heat than light. It is, in my view, better to let things calm down and review this dispassionately; thereby fulfilling the dictum of our Sages: הוו מתונים בדין.

This morning, enveloped by a glorious Judean Erev Shabbat, I finally had the opportunity to review the recent Tefillin Controversy, and many of the attendant responses. Others, are going to address the halakhic particulars, so I would like to proffer some observations solely regarding the ongoing debate that was engendered by the two long statements that were issued on the subject by HaRav Hershel Schachter שליט"א.

I will start by stating that I consider Rav Schachter to be my teacher, by dint of the four years that I was privileged to learn in the Kollel which he still heads. I revere him as a גדול בתורה, the scope of whose knowledge, and the depth of whose sincerity and piety engender, for me and many others, both reverence and respect. Following in the tradition of our mutual Rebbe, Rabban shel Yisrael, HaRav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik זצ"ל, I maintain my own opinions on many issues; opinions that diverge from those of Rav Schachter. Nevertheless, these do not diminish to any degree the honor, respect and deference which is his due. Therefore, I must start by protesting in the strongest terms possible the arrogant, disrespect with which Rav Schachter was treated in the various threads that discussed his responses. I do not care how strongly one might disagree with him. אין זו דרכה של תורה. Period.

In his letters, Rav Schachter makes three basic points. 1) Not every learned person has the right to offer a normative Halakhic opinion. 2) The motivations, and the context, of those seeking radical changes in Jewish Law are legitimate halakhic concerns 3) Specific changes suggested by various Feminist advocates are legally problematic. Here, I will briefly address only numbers 1 and 2.

In principle, anyone with any reverence for Orthodox Jewish Tradition should have no issue, in principle, with any of these stated positions. They are bread and butter for כל בר בי רב דחד יומא. The question at bar, in my opinion, is the application of each assertion. And it is here, with all respect, that I find that my position diverges somewhat from that of Rav Schachter.

If I learned anything from the Rav, it was that a rav needs to make up his own mind, and bear responsibility for his actions. It is the responsibility of the מורה הוראה to do his homework, and rule based upon learning and the specifics of the case before him. Of course, assuming that one is qualified in learning, has practical experience, and posseses both יראת שמים and יראת הוראה). The Rav was wont to chide us for constantly asking him to decide for us, for that very reason. On the other hand, anyone who has ever read a responsum in his life knows that even the greatest Poskim consulted with colleagues on questions of significant import. There is a hierarchy of learning in the world of Halakhah, one based upon merit and scholarship. (Indeed, Rav Schachter notes a particularly poignant example involving R. SZ Auerbach זצ"ל and R. Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל). In addition, it was the Rav who admonished R. YY Weinberg זצ"ל, author of the שרידי אש, to consult with R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski זצ,ל before issuing a far-reaching allowance that would have facilitated Shehita in Nazi Germany. With no relation to the rabbis involved in allowing women to wear Tefillin in their schools (whom I both know and respect), the cavalier way in which many on Blogs and Facebook have discussed serious, repurcussive changes to Jewish Life is the antithesis of this.

There are profoundly committed, learned Orthodox Women who strive for ever greater Avodat haShem, and their aspirations can and must stimulate the search for (and discovery of) commensurate modes of religious growth and self-expression, from within the modalities of Traditional approaches to Torah and Mesorah (a word that has been abused by some beyond recognition). On the other hand, Feminism, Egalitarianism and Post-Modernism represent integrated world views which, in many ways, can or do contradict core Orthodox axioms. To blithely 'adapt' Rabbinic Tradition to their dictates would be a violation of the former's integrity, which we believe is rooted in the Word of God. This, after all, is precisely what the Rav referred to in his discussion of Korah, viz. the autonomy of Torah.

Learning how to engage them, to see to what degree they are commensurate and to what degree not, and knowing where to place the boundaries of that engagement, is a core challenge to the Orthodox World. Conservative and Reform Judaism are no longer the challenge to Orthodoxy that they were sixty years ago. The question is setting the parameters of Orthodoxy. It is my conviction that these are broader than many would have it, and narrower than many woould like. As the Rav taught us, at the end one must surrender to the Will of God. If a position is, as we say, אויסגעהאלטען, those who demur are duty bound to respect it. If the Torah can't accomodate a desired end or change, if one wishes to remain within Orthodoxy, then one is bound to bow to the Torah's verdict.

We live, the Rambam says (פ"ב יסוה"ת ה"א-ה"ב) in a dialectic of growth and withdrawal, audacity and surrender. The conditio qua non of all of this is יראת שמים,
שמתוך כך אתה מכיר את מי שאמר והיה העולם.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

יהדות ארה"ב: קהילה על סף טמיעה

            בחודש שעבר, התכנסו מנהיגי יהדות צפון אמריקה (על זרמיה) בבנייני האומה בירושלים. הם הגיעו לאירוע המכונה 'האסיפה הכללית' (GA) של הפדרציות היהודיות. האסיפה היא שנתית, אבל כל ארבע שנים היא מתקיימת בארץ הקודש. התוכנית הייתה מגוונת מאד, ודנה בשלל נושאים הקשורים לחיים היהודיים בגולה, מחד, ויחסיהם עם מדינת ישראל, מאידך. הופיעו בפני הצירים גדולי ושועי האומה והעם: הנשיא פרס, רה"מ נתניהו, שרים, ח"כים, אנשי ציבור ואנשי רוח כמו הרב הלורד יונתן זקס, הרב הראשי לשעבר של בריטניה. האווירה ששררה במסדרונות ובאולמות השונים התאפיינה בעוצמה וסחבקיות אירגוניות, כמיטב המסורת היהודית האמריקאית.
              אולם, למרות אופיו הנוצץ והמרהיב, ריחפה עננה שחורה מעל המתכנסים בבנייני  אומה והעיבה על כל הדיונים. לעננה קרואים דו"ח מכון פיו (Pew).
               הדו"ח מכיל תוצאות סקר רחב ומעמיק שבוצע במשך השנים האחרונות ע"י אחד ממכוני המחקר היוקרתיים ביותר בעולם, במגמה לשרטט את קלסתר פניה של יהדות צפון אמריקה (בעיקר ארה"ב). הדו"ח הכניס את יהודי ארה"ב להלם. מהממצאים עלתה מסקנה ברורה ומפחידה. קהילה יהודית זאת, המונה יותר מחמישה מיליון נפש, הולכת ונטמעת בתוך המרחב הלא-יהודי. כמעט רבע מהנשאלים טענו שהם אינם מזדהים כיהודים מבחינה דתית (הקריטריון המוביל בחו"ל), ועוד 34% סבורים שאפשר להיות גם יהודי וגם להאמין בישו כמשיח מושיע. שיעורי נישואי התערובת מגיעים לכ71% מכלל המתחתנים (לא כולל האוכלוסייה האורתודוקסית והאגף השמרני של התנועה הקונסרבטיבית). במקומות שונים, השיעור נושק ל90%. זו"ע, מחקרים שבוצעו בעשרים השנים האחרונות מוכיחים שזיקתם של ילדים הנולדים לזוגות כאלה לזהות יהודית בעלת ערך מהותי, שואפת לאפס.
            במקרה, דווקא בשבועות שקדמו לפרסום הדו"ח התנהל ויכוח ער, לוחמני ומנומס (מהסוג שרק אמריקאים יודעים לנהל) סביב שאלת המענה הראוי והרצוי לנחשול זה של נישואי התערובת. היו כאלה שצידדו בהקשחת עמדות והתויית קווי הגנה מסביב לקהילה. אחרים טענו שחייבים לבוא לקראת זוגות מעורבים, לכלול אותם כחברים מלאים בקהילות היהודיות למיניהן, מתוך תקווה שאלה יגדלו ילדיהם כיהודים מזדהים, ואולי אף יתגיירו (באיזושהי צורה). תימוכין לעמדה האחרונה מצאו תומכיה בנתון המדהים והמלבב שיותר מ90% מכלל יהודי ארה"ב וקנדה הגדירו את עצמם 'מאד גאים' ביהדותם. מעוז ההתבוללות, קיוו שתוציא גאווה יהודית את מתיקות ההישרדות.
            לדעתי כהיסטוריון (וכיליד ארה"ב), ההתמקדות בהיבט הדמוגרפי היהודי מפספסים את הנקודה העיקרית. נישואי תערובת ושיעורי ילודה נמוכים אינם מהווים את הסיבה להתכווצות הקיצונית של הקהילה. הם אך מסמנים תהליך הרבה יותר עמוק. יהודי ארה"ב תולים את יהדותם והמשך קיומם על בלימה.
אסביר את דבריי.
כשנשאלו לגבי המרכיבים העיקריים של זהותם היהודית, הרוב המוחץ של הנשאלים השיבו: פעילות לצדק חברתי, חיים מוסריים, זיכרון השואה, וחוש הומור בריא (41%). נתונים אלה מאד מאלפים ויש בהם משהו מאד עמוק, אמתי ואוטנטי. בשורה התחתונה, כל מרכיבי הזהות הנ"ל הם אוניברסליים במהותם. אין בהם שום דבר המיוחד ליהדות. הדברים נכונים, במידה משמעותית, אפילו לגבי זיכרון השואה הפושטת בהדרגה את הייחוד היהודי שבה,לפחות בשיח המערבי הכללי. כך, בסך הכול, הסקר מוכיח שהרוב המוחץ של יהודי ארה"ב הפנימו את האתוס השלט במערב הפוסט-מודרני, הנקרא 'אתוס ההכלה.' אתוס זה, בין השאר, שולל הבחנות בין אנשים וקבוצות מכל סוג שהוא. הוא מקדש את היחיד על פני כל שיקול אחר, ומקדם מגמות סינקרטיסטיות בתחומי הדת, המוסר, והזהות. האוניברסליות המוחלטת היא אמונת היסוד של התפיסה הזאת, והיחסיות התרבותית חרותה על דגלה.
מסקנה זו מתבררת כנכונה עוד יותר לאור עוד ממצא, לפיו מרכיבי זהות יהודיים סגוליים (בעגה המקצועית: פרטיקולריסטיים) הולכים ונעלמים מהחיים היהודיים. ליתר דיוק, רק 19% מהנשאלים סברו שקיום מצוות התורה ו/או רכישת אוריינות יהודית על גווניה, מהווה מרכיב חשוב בזהותם (בהשוואה ל41% הסבורים שחוש הומור הוא אבן יסוד לזהות יהודית!). לאור האמור, התכווצותה הקיצונית של יהדות אמריקה לגמרי מובנת. המורשת היהודית מיועדת לשימור העם היהודי כחטיבה לאומית-דתית מזוהה, מבוררת וסגולית. לכן, זה בכלל לא מפתיע שיהודי ארה"ב מתרחקים דווקא מתורה ומצוות, מזיכרון ההיסטוריה היהודית המיוחדת ומזהותנו הפרטיקולריסטית. דברים אלה, שהם חיוניים להמשך קיומם של היהדות והעם היהודי, עומדים בסתירה מוחלטת לאתוס האוניברסליות הדוגמטית שמאפיין את התרבות המערבית השלטת. אחרת, למשל, קשה להבין את התפיסה ההולכת ומתחזקת בקרב צעירים יהודיים בצפון אמריקה, לפיה העדפת בן זוג יהודי היא לא פחות מגזענות טהורה.
              כיליד ארה"ב, בוסטונאי דור רביעי (אומנם בן למשפחה שגורשה מארץ ישראל ע"י הטורקים), ראיתי בשנותיי המכוננות (שנות ה-60 וה-70) איך שהנאמנות היהודית-האתנית של דור הוריי הלכה והתפוגגה בקרב בני דורי (ועוד יותר בדורות שלאחר מכן). סנטימנטים למזרח אירופה (משם היגרו רוב יהודי ארה"ב) פשוט לא היו ברי העברה, או שלא היו מספיק חזקים לעמוד בפני הסחף של תרבות הרוב, הפוסט-אתנית והרלטיביסטית. התוצאה הייתה כפולה וטבעית: האצת קצב ההתבוללות וזינוק שיעורי נישואי התערובת.
            למה טבעית? בגלל שהתבוללותו של מיעוט אתני-תרבותי בתוך רוב היא תהליך נפוץ, נורמלי וכמעט בלתי נמנע שעברו אותו מאות ואלפי עמים וקבוצות במהלך ההיסטוריה. אין דבר מתבקש יותר מזה שמיעוט ירצה להצטרף ולהיות מקובל אצל רוב מושך ומשגשג. הטכניקה להשגת יעד נכסף זה הוא יחסית פשוט: החלפת דיסקט. מחליפים את הזיכרון הקולקטיבי ואורח החיים הקודם באלה של הרוב. לשם דוגמא, אציג סיפור אישי. כשהייתי בכיתה ד', קיימנו מופע לרגל ימי ההולדת של הנשיאים לינקולן וושינגטון (שנולדו ב-12 וב-22 לפברואר). הצגנו את חתימת הצהרת העצמאות האמריקאית, וכל ילדי הכיתה היו לבושים כמו האבות המייסדים, עם כובעים משולשים וכדומה. היה מאד נחמד ומאד מרגש. שנים אחר כך, כשהתחלתי את דרכי כהיסטוריון, נוכחתי שכל חבריי וחברותיי לכיתה היו צאצאי מהגרים שהגיעו לארה"ב לא לפני אמצע המאה ה-19 (חוץ מילדה שחורה אחת שאבותיה מן הסתם הובאו לשם כעבדים). למרות זאת, כולנו הזדהינו לחלוטין עם האבות המייסדים. זו הייתה התבוללות במיטבה וכך היא פעלה בכל מקום ובכל זמן.
            בסיפור זה של התבוללות וטמיעה, לפחות עד למודרנה, היוו היהודים החריגה הבולטת. המשך קיומם, הן בצל הצלב והן בצל הסהרון, סותר את כל כללי הדימיקה הבין-קבוצתית ונחשב כלא פחות מחידה. כפי ש ציין עמיתי, ד"ר שמחה גולדין, פיתרון החידה טמון בכמה גורמים משתלבים: אמונה בקב"ה, התעמקות בתורה ובמורשת היהודית, הצבת הקשר לעם ישראל בראש סולם העדיפויות הציבורי, והמוכנות להקריב נוחות אישית לטובת הכלל ושרטוט מרחב חיים יהודי ייחודי בתוך המרחב הכללי. זאת אומרת, שהמשכיות יהודית, פרוות הזהב של יהדות ארה"ב, מושתתת בדיוק על אותם מרכיבים שמהם מתנערים יותר מ-80% מיהודי ארה"ב. לאור מציאות עגומה זאת, תוצאות דו"ח פיו היו צפויות.
            יהיה מי שיציין, בצדק, שישנם סימני עשייה ופריחה יהודיים בארה"ב. יש יצירתיות רבה בתחום הפולחן והדת, האמנות והמוזיקה. מגייסים מונחים מהמורשת היהודית, כמו 'תיקון עולם' ומציבים אותם בראש סדר היום של הקהילה. אולם, כפי שהראה מזמן החוקר פרופ' ג'ק ורטהיימר, חלק הארי של העשייה הזאת מהווה ניסיון לנכס את הלך הרוח הכללי במלואו דרך קישוטו בסממנים יהודיים. בקיצור, ובאופן אירוני, ניתן לתאר את המצב הזה בדימוי משירו של טשרניחובסקי 'לנוכח פסל אפולו,' בהפך המכוון בו במקור: 'ויאסרוהו ברצועות של תפילין.'
               כמי שעלה ארצה לפני יותר מעשרים שנה, ולמרות היותי מעורה בנעשה שם, אינני מתיימר להכתיב לאחיי מעבר לים איך להתנהג. אולם, בניסיון האמריקאי יש לקח ברור עבורנו בארץ, והוא נמצא בניגוד הבולט בין המצב כאן למצב שם. כאן, בצורה פלאית, מתחוללת בעשור האחרון תחייה יהודית עוצרת נשימה. דו"ח גוטמן האחרון המחיש את ההתרשמות הקיימת מזמן שהציבור יהודי מחזק ומעמיק את זיקתו למורשת היהודית ( תופעה ברוכה כשלעצמה, אפילו כשביטוייו אינם מסורתיים). במקביל, יהודי ארץ ישראל מחשלים את זהותם הלאומית הסגולית. ההיסטוריה היהודית מלמדת שדווקא חיזוק אושיות היהודיות של הציבור היהודי מאפשרים מפגש מפרה עם תרבויות החוץ. כך היה בספרד המוסלמית, וכך היה באיטליה בתקופות הרנסנאס והבארוק. בשני המקרים, המגע עם תרבות אחרת עוררה יצירה יהודית פנימית מזהירה, בלי שהציבוור היהודי יוותר על יושרתה המהותית. בעולם שבו ההתבצרות מהעולם איננה אפשרית, ולדעתי גם איננה רצויה בכלל, חיזוק המגמה הברוכה הזאת תאפשר העצמת קיומנו הלאומי בארץ אבות.
          לבסוף, אולי בכל זאת נקווה שיהיו כאלה בין יהודי ארה"ב שיחקו את המתרחש אצלנו. אירוני ככל שזה יישמע, העשרה פנימית ושרטוט גבולות בינם לבין הציבור באמריקאי יבטיח גם את המשך קיומה של קהיליתם. אולם, כפי שהדברים נראים כעת, בפעם הראשונה באלפיים שנה, הולכת להיעלם קהילה יהודית המונה מיליונים. גם אז, בשלהי התקופה הרומאית, נעלמה יהדות האימפריה המערבית בגין בורות יהודית, סינקרטיזם דתי, וערעור הזהות הלאומית. איך אמר פעם הפילוסוף ג'ורג' סנטיינה? 'מי שאינו זוכר את העבר, נגזר עליו לחזור עליו.'
[מאמר זה הופיע במוסף שבת של עיתון מקור ראשון, בתאריך: 31.1.2014]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thoughts on the Great Tefillin Controversy

[I have been wary of getting involved in the latest polemic, this one surrounding the decision by SAR and Ramaz to allow women to wear Tefillin to the school minyan. However, after following the various postings and threads on Facebook and elsewhere, I decided to briefly (with an appropriate amount of adrenaline) summarize my thoughts on salient aspects of the issue. As you can see, I view the specific question as almost secondary to broader issues.]

This issue has generated so much anger, so much frustration been fed by so much prejudice and ignorance that I don't know if a reasoned discussion is possible. Still, a few points to consider:

1) For those who buy into thoroughgoing, radical egalitarianism and reject Judaism's gender distinctions there is nothing to discuss. They will aggressively defend any move in that direction and will vilify anyone who disagrees. Orthodoxy will, I suspect, find that with those of such opinion there is only a dialogue of the deaf.

2) There has been much discussion of the description of women who don Tefillin in public as being guilty of מחזי כיוהרא. This phrase does does not mean 'appearance of arrogance,' but of being presumptuous (just as מחזי כמבשל doesn't mean cooking, but appearing to cook which will lead to people suspecting one's actions or possibly leading one to cook). Demonstratively practicing a mitzva that one is not obliged to do, according to Tradition, impugns others who do not do so. That, for example, is why R. Israel of Brunn (Resp. Israel Bruna no. 96) forbade wearing one's tzitzit outside of one's clothes. The category has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with the questioning the motives of the individual. It does question the sensitivities of the individual who is ipso facto making a statement about others who do not accept their new practice. Did anyone ask other women if they are put off by women putting on Tefillin, with the implied judgement that they are less spiritual or less committed?.

3) For the same reason, there is more reason and room to allow women to wear Tefillin in private, not because it is wrong (necessarily), but because doing so keeps their act of piety pure. That is true of every Humra, and rabbis should condemn people who use any personal Humra for self-aggrandizement.

4) I am stunned by the persistent, superficial equation of Black Hats and Tefillin. Yes, black hats are frequently arrogant displays (and prove my point about מחזי כיוהרא).  However, wearing a hat has no religious significance, though it is socially significant as a sub-group marker of identity. Adding religious obligations (whatever the legal mechanism in force there, נדר or חובה) is a deadly serious question. Those who dismiss it in the name of spiritual self-fulfillment only show that they are insensitive to the long term issue of sins of omission, when these same women may not be able to maintain their newly found personal obligation. And the reply that there are men who aren't fastidious in their observance is myopic. Since when do we justify religious lassitude by pointing out that of others?

5) I have spent thirty years fighting for the right of learned rabbis to have their own halakhic opinion, contrary to some Rashe Yeshiva who deny them that prerogative. After seeing the half-baked, uninformed and revoltingly disrespectful way in which Facebookers and other Commenters treat Hazal, the GRA, the Rema, the Arukh HaShulhan etc. I begin to wonder. Orthodoxy maintains a balance between deep reverence for Tradition and Gedole Torah, alongside the need to confront new questions and challenges. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l used to predicate his hardest decisions on the agreement of colleagues. He was a giant of Torah and Piety and Humanity who was attached to the entire Jewish People, from Haredi to Hiloni. Still, he was cautious and responsible when he ventured into new territory. Yet here are people filling the Blogosphere, the Newspapers and Social Media who blithely toss out established halakhic categories as if they were so much detritus because 'it makes no sense to me.' As my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל once said, innovations are the lifeblood of the Torah, but they occur within its autonomous sphere. You engage the system. You don't violate it by judging it because it doesn't fit superficial, media driven ideologies.

6) At the same time, there is no room in principled Halakhic discourse for base vilification of either side. Hence, the insidious attacks on Rabbis Harcstark and Lookstein are equally contemnable.

7) I have no idea if Rashi's daughters wore Tefillin. I actually doubt it, because Tefillin was a largely neglected mitzva in medieval France, and Rashi actually was against women reciting blessings over mitzvot that they weren't obliged to fulfill. If they did, I am sure they did not where them in Shul.

8) Rashi's daughters were, on the other hand, learned. This brings me to another example of herd-like thinking on this issue. There is no such thing as 'The Forbidden City' of mitzvot from which women are barred and that must be conquered. Each mitzvah, each obligation, has its own parameters and dynamic. Talmud Torah for women is easily allowed. Mitzvot from which women were exempted and for which there are larger reasons to continue that exemption, are another story. It's not all of one piece, unless you are determined to impose an egalitarian, leveling agenda on the Torah. Such a position is, frequently, no longer Orthodox because it denies the integrity of Halakhah and lacks the intellectual and spiritual modesty and humility that are its essential ingredients.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Bell Tolls for American Jewry: Thoughts on the Pew report

If the media and social media are any indication, the Pew report on the state of American Jewry and Judaism has sent the Jewish Community into a tailspin. The response is more than appropriate. The Jewish Community, in both the United States and abroad, will long be pondering the implications of the report's findings. [The full report is available here. Fairly full summaries are posted here and here.]
The major conclusion, masked by some of the headlines (and perhaps not), is that American Jewry (with the exception of Orthodoxy, and the more traditional wing of the Conservative and post-denominational world) is gently committing mass suicide through assimilation. Intermarriage among the non-Orthodox has topped 71% (and is close to 90+% in many places), and the proportion of children that are raised with any sense of Jewish identity is inversely related to the intermarriage rate.
However, as borne out in a fascinating discussion in last month's Mosaic Magazine, intermarriage is as much a symptom as a cause. It is a symptom of the dissolution of basic Jewish ethnic and religious allegiances, in favor of absolute loyalty to oneself as a sovereign individual. It is a symptom of the stunning trivialization of what being Jewish means. For how else can one explain the fact that 41% of American Jews think that having a sense of humor is more important to Jewish identity than Jewish observance (a mere 19%)?
On the other hand, there is something profoundly authentic in this statistic. Humor is a universal gift, and homogenized universalism (together with the beatification of the individual) is the hallmark of contemporary Western Culture. Jewish Law and Lore, History and Collective Memory appear to be the polar opposite. Judaism protects and values the individual, yet it also makes demands upon him. It demands that the individual contribute and sacrifice for his or her people, beliefs and, yes, for God. Its vision is simultaneously particularistic, narrow and parochial (on the one hand) and universalist, broad and encompassing, on the other. The two are so enmeshed as to be inseparable, much as Jewish national and religious identity have always been. American Jews have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish Tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores. [The process is brilliantly described by Professor Barry Rubin in his classic book: Assimilation and Its Discontents (available free for download here).]
In the end, that is precisely what assimilation is; the substitution of one set of values (usually, that of a minority), in favor of another set (usually, that of the majority). It's a perfectly natural process. It has affected every minority group throughout history; every group, that is, except the Jews (at least since the massive assimilation of the Jews of the Western Roman Empire during the first Christian centuries). Jews have refused to go that way. Our continued existence has been, as my friend and colleague, Dr. Simcha Goldin of Tel Aviv University put it, an elusive enigma. That enigma, though, has been predicated upon precisely those values that American Jews have decided (consciously or unconsciously) to abjure: belief in God, immersion in Jewish Law and Lore, dedication to the Jewish People before others, a deep and abiding sense of Jewish collective memory (that far transcends the kind of ostensible Holocaust awareness that the Pew study identifies), and a readiness to sacrifice of oneself for the whole. The Pew study shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that no more that 15% +/- of American Jews subscribe to any of these values. The result is a foregone conclusion.
I am, at the same time, thunderstruck by the stark contrast between the Pew Study, and the most recent Guttman/IDI Study of Israeli Jewry. The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80%). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong. Anyone, who lived here through the Second Intifada, or the various wars and campaigns since then will readily attest to this fact. All that my American brothers and sisters have so readily jettisoned, is held sacred by the Jews of Israel. No wonder that we speak so often at cross purposes. The two communities organize themselves around different value systems.
I write this column with a significant measure of pain. I am a fourth generation Bostonian. America has been incredibly generous to my family, and to me. The education and upbringing that I received was uniquely Jewish and uniquely American. I am very much part of both countries, as are my peers here. I cannot, will not, express any type of cheap triumphalism. At the same time, every year when I visit the graves of my forbears on the Mount of Olives, Hovevei Tziyyon who trekked from Volkovisk Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1882, I am painfully reminded that of their hundreds of descendants, no more than fifteen in my children's generation can be identified as Jews.
So, I was really not surprised at the report's findings. As an historian, as a Zionist, as a committed Jew of faith I knew this was coming. As with the tolling of every bell, it came much too soon. Hopefully, the tolling will galvanize the American Jewish remnant to sacrifice (but really sacrifice) in order to save what it can.

[This column was first published on the Times of Israel on OCTOBER 2, 2013]       

Friday, June 07, 2013

Meeting the Angels: A Lesson For Public Life and Leadership

The past twenty-four hours have been extraordinarily stressful for me. The stress is not because of work, or family. I suppose it's because I care, and care passionately: about God, about the Torah and three millennia of Tradition, about the Jewish People and its qualitative survival as a worthy descendant of a 'Kingdom of priests and a Holy People,' and about the continued safety and ongoing growth here, where God desires us to be, in the Land of Israel.

The stress is because all around me I see this people, in this Land, about whom I care so deeply, pulling in radically opposite directions, aiming for extremes; extremes both of which I feel in my deepest being are destructive, and belie much of what I have been taught or come to believe that the Torah teaches. On the other hand, I identify with the fundamental probity and correctness of both sides of this divide. It is the pell mell rush to the extremes that leaves me dizzy and hurting. I walk around burdened by the awful truth once expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson: '"A foolish Consistency is the hobgoblins of little engage in the most dangerousminds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines. With consistency, a great soul simply has nothing to do." All around me, good people, thoughtful people latch on to slogans that deny life's complexity, and run with them.

I, as I'll try to show, live in the middle. I believe, as someone once noted (I don't know recall who- and neither does Dr. Google), that extremes are both logical and absurd. While living in the middle is a principled place, it forces one to engage in the most dangerous action: a two-front or three-front war. Of course, I could not do this. I could totally retreat back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but my conscience won't allow it (though there is time for research too). My soul won't allow it, and my sense of responsibility to my God, my Torah and my People won't allow it.   

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I was involved in two, very different, though strikingly similar debates. On the one hand, I was engaged in arguing the legitimacy of teaching Math and English in Haredi Schools, to allow students to break out of poverty and enter the work force. I was met, from circles that I thought were my home turf, not simply with rejection, some abuse, but more than that refusal to even engage that which I was saying. The points I advocated were hardly revolutionary, based upon a panoply of proofs from Gemora, Rishonim and Aharonim. But, it appears, the willy nilly run to the Right within the once Modern Orthodox community has gone so far, as to be nigh on irreversible. So, on this front, I was the rejected, suspected 'Liberal'.

Not long after, I heard that the Women of the Wall were determined to push their agenda and actions even further by bringing a Sefer Torah to the Kotel on Sunday. I dread the Hillul HaShem that will ensue. My thoughts on the controversy are mixed, and this is not the place to expand upon them. I will say, that (as with a lot of other issues roiling the Orthodox community in Israel, and abroad) I see a lot of screaming for rights, but not enough if any יראת שמים, or deference to tradition, to Hazal, to the integrity of the Torah. Too much judging of God, because what the Torah teaches doesn't jibe with post-Modern, anthropocentric relativism. In a word, while the concerns are legitimate, and the Torah can provide far more legitimate leeway, this side of the community has no brakes. And there are limits, serious limits beyond which we cannot go and still call ourselves God Fearing, Torah observant Jews. Greatness of vision, as the Rav זצ"ל taught, must be constantly tempered with Humility. גדלות מוחין and קטנות מוחין. If the first group runs with the latter, the former is intoxicated by the former. Neither is healthy, neither is legitimate. Only both together can work.

God forbid that Yeats (The Second Coming) should prevail :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is downed;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.

Actually, Rav Soloveitchik taught that Yeats' apocalyptic terror should not sidetrack a person. On the contrary, inner conviction- even between extremes- is the way to go. His point was made in an observation that he once made to Rabbi Norman Lamm, which Rabbi Lamm related to me.

A prominent rabbi came under attack, from Left and Right, for a series of positions that he had adopted. Beleaguered, he asked Rabbi Lamm to arrange for him to meet with Rav Soloveitchik to seek his advice. After hearing him out, the Rab told him the following (my paraphrase):  

At the end of Parshat Va-Yetze, the Torah tell us (Gen. 32, 2):  וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ-לֹהִים, And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of G-d met him. 

'Jacob,' the Rav remarked went לדרכו, on his own way, in the service of God- the principled way that was uniquely his own. He didn't look to his left. He didn't look to his right. Because he walked in his own way: ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים. He was met by angels of God. 

אמן, כן יהי רצון


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Kosher Siren

With Pesach behind us, we again enter the period of national mourning and remembrance limned by Yom HaShoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. Amidst the somber and painful recollections of both the darkest period in our history, and our grief over the price we have paid to be a free people in our ancestral homeland, there is one discordant note that is always played: the refusal of some to stand silent when the air raid sirens sound. Their justification is that the practice is prohibited by the Torah, as it constitutes 'walking in the ways of the gentiles' (Lev. 18, 3). Now, the Torah does prohibit the imitation of non-Jewish practices (especially those that are religious in origin and/or intent), but the type of actions that are proscribed are clearly laid down in the Talmud and subsequent halakhic literature. 

According to the dominant view (codified in Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah sec. 178 par. 1), two types of behavior are forbidden: a) cultic or religious customs b) immodest or licentious modes of behavior. Actions which are rational, reasonable and proper are totally permitted, even if they are obviously adopted from surrounding cultures. A second view, more restrictive view, was endorsed by the Vilna Gaon (ibid). He maintained that even actions that are reasonable are forbidden, unless they are 'written in the Torah.' This enigmatic phrase, which is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b), could mean one of two things. Either the practice in question is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or that it can be shown to be indigenous to Judaism. In either case, it could be argued that the idea of standing silent in memory of a disaster is, indeed, mentioned in the Torah. The Torah portion we read yesterday, describes the deaths of Aaron's elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, who offered a 'strange fire' before God. 'Then Moses said to Aaron: 'This is it what God has said: Through those that are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron was silent' (Lev. 10, 3). Apparently, standing mute in the face of overwhelming grief is written in the Torah. 

 In truth, however, there is no need for careful legal analysis. What all of these consideration have in common is that the practice in question must be derived from (or actively practiced) in non-Jewish society. [And, according to most, the practice must be adopted in order to assimilate into the broader culture, and not as a uniquely Jewish action.] There is no other country on earth, certainly none in Israel's cultural context, that mandates a siren for a nation-wide moment of silence. This simple fact is always highlighted by the foreign press when it reports on Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. So, the question, really, never gets off of the ground. 

 Israel is a democracy. People are free to act as they wish. They are free to memorialize the Shoah as they wish. However, I wish they those who refuse to stand silent as the siren wails would stop cloaking their choices in the mantle of Judaism. One less use of the Torah as a political football with dignify and sanctify the memory of our six million dead, our fallen heroes and our beloved ones murdered by over a century of Arab terror. 

 [This post was first published on the Times of Israel on April 7, 2013]

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pesach 5773


Friday, February 22, 2013

Mr Prime Minister, listen to the people!


On this morning after...I see a lot of reason for hope. I pray to God that our newly elected representatives will have the foresight, courage and selflessness to seize the opportunity and make it a reality.
Three weeks later, it appears that the newly elected Knesset members upon whom I (along with so many others) pinned so much hope, are holding fast to their principles. The two harbingers of change, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, who together represent more than 25 percent of the Knesset, have joined forces to make sure that the new agendas (along with justice for veteran soldiers and young couples) are advanced. The new MK's are busy laying the groundwork for the 'something new,' for the 'future' they pledged to foster. One promising sign of the times was Dr. Ruth Calderon's unprecedented Talmud lesson in her maiden speech in the Knesset. Another indication of things moving in the right direction are the signs that the new parties will support the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav for Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi.
The bad news is that the Prime Minister and his minions are not listening to the message the Israeli people have sent. Netanyahu is busy playing by the old 'principles and values don't count, ministerial positions do' game. He would rather court his nemeses Tzippi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, than deal with Naftali Bennet. He would rather sell the country's soul and buy off Yahadut ha-Torah (and, one may assume Shas) than finally resolve the issues of conversion and Haredi national service; issues that are ripping the country apart and causing needless hatred of Torah at a time when 85 percent of the Jewish population (or more) is desperately thirsting for a qualitatively Jewish Israel. (Never mind the fact that by playing by the old rules, he's only hurting himself and Likud. Even the cynics in the media have remarked that they've never seen political parties stick to their principles in the way that Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid are doing.
I have no idea why he is conducting himself this way, when the soul of the nation is at stake. I only know that personally, I am deeply disappointed. I am a longtime member of Likud, with deep ties of affection and affinity for its founders. One thing that Revisionist Zionism taught was that Jews must have a deep, abiding and formative sense of Jewish History. Principle must not be blithely sacrificed for political convenience, or personal pique. If anyone knew and taught that lesson, it was the late Professor Ben Zion Netanyahu, the Prime minister's father. I had the privilege of knowing Professor Netanyahu. While he was far from being an observant Jew, as an historian with a panoramic view of our people's history, he would have been the first to agree that the strategic strength of the Jewish State is first and foremost in its Jewish awareness and knowledge. Yet, his son abjectly refuses to create a government which will contain those parties who are dedicated to precisely that goal. In stead, he is scrounging around to cobble together a government that includes Post-Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionists.
Mr. Prime Minister, the people have spoken. They want a qualitatively Jewish State. They want a state in which Torah is studied and respected, and where the representatives of the Torah respect the people. They want everyone to bear their fair share in carrying the State of Israel forward into the twenty-first century and beyond.
Mr. Prime Minister, Listen to the People, and form the government they demand!!!
[This first appeared in the Times of Israel on 2/19/2013] 

Monday, February 04, 2013

We have a great opportunity here


This morning, the fabled 'morning after,' the media is awash in speculation as to the implications of yesterday's elections. Most observers are focusing on the meteoric rise of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party, the less than impressive showing of Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, possible coalitions that PM Netanyahu can cobble together, or the return of the traditional Right-Left divide that characterized Israeli politics. It's going to be an interesting next few weeks (at least more interesting than the campaign itself).
I think that most observers are missing a crucial point. In the absence of any immediate change in our conflict with the Muslim World, the country has apparently decided to look inward and address the issues that impact directly upon its national and religious identity, its economic viability and its social cohesion. At the top of that list is Israel's Jewish identity, which was a serious sub-text of the campaign and found expression in the make-up of the various lists of candidates. Aside from Jewish Home (which significantly includes a non-Orthodox candidate, Ayelet Shaked), the major lists highlighted moderate, Religious Zionist candidates who are devoted to deepening Israel's Jewish identity. Three of these, all of whom I know personally and two well, were elected on Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid list: Rabbi Shai Piron, Dr. Aliza Lavie and Rabbi Dov Lipman. These, together with like-minded religious and non-religious MK's have an opportunity to make a long-lasting contribution to the stabilization of Israeli society, and toward resolving some chronic problems.
I'll just mention a few:
The Chief Rabbinate: As a few on-line publications (such as Tablet Magazine) have noted, yesterday's elections will directly impact upon the upcoming elections for the chief rabbinate. The new Knesset constellation has the ability to ensure the election of a Religious Zionist Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi (preferably, R. David Stav), who can start undoing two decades of abuse and alienation from Judaism while the rabbinate was a political football, used, abused and despised by those who control it.
Conversion: As I have argued before, the resolution of the conversion question is not only desirable, it is critical for Israel's survival. I deeply believe that we have an opportunity to set down the halakhic parameters for credibly and normatively resolving the Jewish status of thousands or Israeli citizens. This will not be easy, as it will cause tensions both with the Haredi World and the non-Orthodox community in the Diaspora. It can, however, be done and it should be done.
Deepening Jewish Education and Awareness: As I've said on numerous occasions: Israeli Jewry is undergoing a far-reaching and deeply felt Jewish Renaissance. Israeli Jews thirst for Jewish knowledge and self-expression. The new Knesset will include some stellar individuals whose lives have been devoted precisely to that end. In particular, one should note the election of two women, in particular, Dr. Ruth Calderon (founder of Elul and Alma College) and Dr. Aliza Lavie (author of the best sellers, Minhag Nashim – Women's Customs – and T'filat Nashim – Women's Prayer).
There will be more to say on all of these issues as time goes on. On this morning after, though, I see a lot of reason for hope. I pray to God that our newly elected representatives will have the foresight, courage and selflessness to seize the opportunity and make it a reality.
[This column first appeared in the Times of Israel on January 23, 2013]

Jeffrey Woolf

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