Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Crocs Conundrum

I waited until after Yom Kippur to discuss this issue, in order to avoid needless controversy on the Eve of Yom Kippur.

By now, everyone who is interested is aware that a prominent Lithuanian authority has ruled that wearing crocs on Yom Kippur is halakhically permitted, but not adviseable. The reason, as reported in the Yeshiva World, is that the ordinance against wearing leather shoes is aimed at causing discomfort, and that the level of comfort afforded by crocs vitiates this requirement.

I find this ruling, במחילת כבוד תורותו, extremely difficult to understand.

First, I question whether it should have been published, since it was quickly transformed into an outright prohibition.

Second, I fail to understand the logic. The rabbis prohibited wearing leather shoes (נעילת הסנדל) as a way of fulfilling the Torah's requirement that we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur. Anything not made out of leather is permitted. Comfort, prima facie, is a highly subjective thing. For example, I suffer every year by wearing sneakers or synthetic sandals (including Teva Naot). My family can attest that after the fast, I change into real shoes (or leather Naot sandals) right after Havdalah and announce what a pleasure it is. For me, crocs are an affliction. Other people feel differently. They say that cloth shoes, slippers, Teva sandals and crocs are wonderful and leather shoes are comfortable. Indeed, they wear them all the time. So what is it? Everyone decides what's permitted and what's prohibited for themselves? Such an approach is in violation of Hazal's explicit rule: אם כן, נתת דבריך לשיעורין, ie you shouldn't make your rulings based upon such subjective criteria. This, it seems to me, is especially the case when by all accounts crocs are absolutely permitted, even according to the authority in question. אתמהה!

One could respond that this is a matter of religious policy. I'm willing to grant that point, but there are other considerations. What if wearing more comfortable, non-leather shoes prevents a person from other admirable behavior such as standing through all of the davening, or even walking to shul for Yom Kippur. Does an ascetic stricture trump either of these? אתמהה!

Furthermore, why does this become a public pronouncement? If this was a suggestion offered to one enquirer, who says it was intended to become policy for the entire world? In addition, such declarations play into the hands of sectors who are only too happy to poke fun at the Torah. In the age of the internet, that should always be a primary consideration (and one of the reasons that I am firmly opposed to SMS and Internet responsa). Certainly, that was not the Posek's intention.

Finally, Yom Kippur is an exalted day. It is a sublimely spiritual day. Its halakhic perameters were determined by Hazal. What is prohibited is prohibited. What is permitted is permitted. As the Aharonim point out, over and over again in Yoreh Deah, הבו להו דלא להוסיף עלה! Don't push unnecessary strictures. The Torah demands sacrifice, no question. It also demands we be allowed, within the requirements of the Law, to properly worship our Creator. והמבין יבין. As R. Akiva Eger was wont to say: ה' יאיר עיני.

[UPDATE: I am grateful for the learned comments that this posting generated. Such is the way of respectful discussion in lehrnen.

In the interim, I have been informed that מו"ר Rav Herschel Schachter שליט"א reports in Nefesh HaRav (p. 210 no. 2) that מו"ר the Rav זצ"ל advised against wearing sneakers with arches, in accordance with the view of the Rambam that the footware allow one to feel the ground underneath him (which Rambam maintains is a Torah consideration). Once again, the same considerations made above hold, even in light of this testimony. 1) The overwhelming number of authorities disagree with this ruling, and thus there is no way that the Rav would've said that such sneakers are forbidden. He advised that one consider the Rambam, which would be typical of him. 2) There is no way of knowing how the Rav would've ruled in a world in which sneakers all have arches, or whether he would today have taken other factors into consideration . (In general, there is far too much necromancy at work in deducing the Rav's possible rulings in contemporary circumstances. See the aposite comments of R. Meir Lichtenstein, here.) 3) The fact is that crocs actually do let you feel the ground under you.

I, obviously, have no objection to people being strict with themselves. I have my own Yom Kippur humros, too (which are between me and my Maker). My objection is the categorical imposition of humros upon an entire population, especially when they bear in their wake such negative implications as those outlines here and in the comments.]

The Component Parts of Modern Orthodoxy: The Question of Culture

Sometimes, it amazes me that after three millennia this issue still has to be thrashed out. All one has to do is review the discussions in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures in order to realize how rich and vital a case has been made for the integration of 'secular studies' within a Torah curriculum. (In the Israel context, I must say that it is nothing less than tragic that this volume, and others like it, are not available in Hebrew. Anyone who undertakes such a translation, or sponsors such an undertaking, would be performing an invaluable service to the cause of Torah in Israel.)

In any event, it is a fact that the value of secular knowledge has not penetrated the rabbinic or Jewish educational world in Israel, much as religiously observant academics all too often treat the world of Torah learning with barely disguised contempt. The result is that the Torah is perceived by those Western educated as (חלילה) 'primitive,' while the Torah community sees the former as a wast of time (at best) and out and out dangerous (at worst).

Both positions are seriously flawed.

Contrary to the supercillious judgements of some, there is no flaw in the Torah. There are, however, serious flaws in the way it is often approached and, a fortiori, the way in which it is presented. There is nothing new in this. A galaxy of medieval scholars can be invoked who inveighed against the puerile interpretation of Hazal, which leads to the Torah being treated with derision. The most penetrating comments come (not unsurprisingly) from the pen of Maimonides. Twice, in the Introduction to פרק חלק and in מורה נבוכים III, 31, the Rambam inveighs against those who present the Torah in a way that will not command the respect (never mind the assent) of the intelligent person (Jew or non-Jew). That assumes, of course, that the Torah is understandable in an idiom that is universal. In order to do that, one must acquire the cultural and intellectual tools to intelligently interpret and understand the Torah's manifold wisdom. Anything less is, let's face it, a Desecration of God's Name (רחמנא ליצלן).

However, secular study is not merely an apologetic, or pedagogic, tool. It possesses intrinsic value for the observant Jew. In an article I published many years ago in the now defunct British Journal L'Eyla (Spring 1989), I argued that a large section of what passes as 'secular studies' (and not confined to Math and Physics either) should be seen as an integral part of Torah (along lines set by Maimonides in הל' יסודי התורה פרק ד הלכה יד and הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק א הלכה יד). How this wisdom should be used in a Jewish Religious context is discussed by R. Aharon Lichtenstein in his magisterial essay in the 'Encounter' volume. However, he was preceded in this by the way in which Professor Twersky characterized the R. Soloveitchik's זצ"ל use of secular studies. It is used masterfully, and judiciously in order to elicit the deeper, highly sophisticated, levels of Torah spirituality and insight. Furthermore, in a world in which the Jew is bombarded with alternate cultural models, it is an absolute requirement to courageously and forcefully engage those models.

Engagement does not betoken surrender. On the contrary, all too often the absence of a sophisticated engagement with the West (for example) abandons the Torah to the 'graces' of those who would distort it in order to decorate an a priori surrender to general culture.

Mastery of Western Culture (music, philosophy, belles lettres, history, art etc.) provides depth of thought and sensitivity, as well as precious tools to illuminate our Tradition (מסורה), for the sake of our own minds and souls. Not everything outside is acceptable, or valuable. Sometimes, though, even from those things we are forced to reject, we arrive at a deeper sense of who we are.

As I've written before, all of this is predicated upon an all too rare quality: intellectual and spiritual humility. It is lacking both among western intellectuals and among too many rabbis.

That discussion, though, will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MA/PhD in Contemporary Halakhah and the History of Halakhah

In response to numerous requests, the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Post-Talmudic Halakhah (which is under my direction), is pleased to announce an MA and PhD track in the History of Halakhah and in Contemporary Halakhah. The program, which is guided by the normal criteria for advanced degrees, will be tailored toward the acquisition of the specific skills required for these two disciplines.

In addition, the Center will sponsor seminars in both Contemporaty Halakhah and the History of Halakhah. These will allow graduate students to learn from and interact with leading scholars in the field, and cognate areas of study.

The program is geared to Israeli residents, including retirees. Olim Hadashim are eligible for tuition subsidy by the Israeli government.

For further information, contact me directly woolfj@gmail.com .

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bar Ilan's Religious Zionism Conference: Proof of the Problem

Monday, I attended the Bar Ilan Conference on the Future of Religious Zionism. It was convened in response to a year that was filled with intra-mural crises in the 'sector' (the מגזר, as the Israelis say). The room was packed. The debate was heated. Indeed, there was more heat shed than light.

The first session, which I attended in full, addressed the charges made by R. Yehoshua Shapira of Yeshiva Ramat Gan, that there were irredentist elements within the Religious Zionist camp that are fomenting 'Neo-Reform.' [R. Shapira later claimed that his remarks were distorted, but I didn't see much difference between them and that which he said at the conference.]

R. Shapira reiterated his charges. He singled out a number of developments for excoriation: 1) The writings of Rivka Lubitsch, who has made a number of aggressive solutions for resolution of the plight of Agunot (see here, here and here.) were deemed a rebellion against rabbinic authority. 2) He excoriated the acceptance of gays in the religious community. 3) He condemned both delay of child raising by young couples and 4) the bearing of children by single women who have not found a mate. 5) He declared the Shira Hadasha congregation in Jerusalem to be outside the pale of Orthodoxy.

In order to back his claims that these phenomena are incipiently Reform, he quoted the Wikipedia (sic!)article on Reform Judaism.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Component Parts of Modern Orthodoxy

In the first volume issued be the renewed (and now, sadly, defunct) Kenes Lavie II, based on a suggestion offered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, I first set forth my ideas on the component parts of Modern Orthodoxy. As I still think they are largely valid, I will use them here to provide an overall framework for our discussion here.

Now, it's been objected that my entire premise here is a bit off base, because Modern Orthodoxy is a quintesentially Diaspora, and specifically North American, phenomenon. In brief, it can't be translated into an Israeli context. I strongly disagree. However, there is a lot of truth in this observation, and we need to carefully wweigh the differences between the Diaspora scene and the Israeli reality, in order to adapt the key elements of the Diaspora model to Israel.

Herein, therefore, are the key elements of Modern Orthodoxy:

1. Axiological Openness to Outside Culture
2. Advancement of the Status of Women
3. Commitment to the Jewish People at Large
4. Religious Zionism

A first glance at the list presents an interesting irony. These four points correspond to the major componentsof Religious Zionism, as advocated by te founder of Mizrachi, R. Yitzhak Ya'aqov Reines ז"ל. The irony is that Diaspora Modern Orthodoxy and Israeli National Religious Orthodoxy adopted three of these four planks. On two, numbers 2 and 3, they agreed (until the advent of the Hardali rabbinical phenomenon). They diverged on the other two.

Diaspora Modern Orthodoxy enthsiastically adopted number 1, while remaining largely passive regarding number 4. (In other words, the MO community passionately supported Israel, but has been pareve when it comes to Aliya.)

The National Religious community has, of course, internalized the overarching value of living in the Land of Israel. However, as opposed to the Diaspora, it has not adopted an axiologically positive atitude to Western (or any other form, of non-Jewish culture). This is especially true of the rabbinic and Jewish educational frameworks, from kindergarten to Post-Hesder. Consider, for example, the case of the flagship educational institutions of Religious Zionism in Israel: Merkaz HaRav and Bar Ilan University. The former is, essentially, a Haredi school that atributes messianic significance to the State of Israel. However, it split in two (and the community with it) over the innocuous issue of ataching a Teachers College to the Yeshiva. Bar Ilan, on the other hand, is a first rate university with the best Jewish Studies Faculty in the world. However, its parochial element is not central to its activities. [Another irony lies in the fact that Yeshiva University began as a yeshivah and expanded into a university, while Bar Ilan started as a university and only much later founded a Bet Midrash as an epicycle to itself.]

In the coming posts, I intend to focus upon the definition of element number 1, its possible development in Israel and the consequences of achieving and not achieving that dvelopment. [We will return to the other components, after wards.]

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Israeli Modern Orthodoxy Part One:בלי חשבון

What would it take to develop Modern Orthodoxy in Israel? The question has been gnawing at me for a very long time. Of course, prior to asking that question, one must first ask: Do we need an Israeli version of that spectrum of Orthodoxy that developed primarily in the United States (with Frankfurter antecedents), here in Israel?

I believe that the answer to both of these questions is absolutely affirmative. We desperately require an Israeli version of the Modern Orthodox spectrum. I believe it is not only achievable, but eminently possible. In this, and the ensuing posts, I will set forth why I maintain this to be the case. Before doing so, however, I want to make a few points.

First, any legitimate interpretation of Torah must be based upon Love and Fear of God, upon קבלת עול מלכות שמים, and devotion to a life of שמירת מצוות. That means, inter alia, that there will be limits to where the Torah will allow one to go, despite one's burning desire to push further in the interests of a cherished ideal. It means that one must, at some point, admit the limits of one's understanding and surrender to the Will of God. This, it is true, will seem to some a matter of taste or judgment. It is, to a certain degree, that. However, I believe that there are objective limits to where Judaism (and Halakha) can go and still retain its integrity. The expanse is wider than many would admit. It is not, however, endless. I believe, that despite its polemical casting, that was precisely the Rav זצ"ל's point in the proem to his שיעור on Torah and Massorah.

Second, conviction requires a life of heroism and sacrifice. This sounds, perhaps, overly dramatic, and I suppose it is. What I mean is that devotion to Truth in Torah is a very complex thing. On the one hand, one should be open to respectful criticism and be ready and willing to engage other opinions and interpretations. He must be open to changing his mind However, one must never, ever surrender one's convictions out of fear: Fear of disapproval by those ostensibly more pious; fear of those ostensibly more progressive and trendy; fear of those who threaten social repercussions, who roll their eyes, who try to beat up with their self-important paternalism and so on.
I believe that the Rav זצ"ל once put this very clearly (cited by R. Lamm נר"ו). The Torah states (Gen. 32, 1): ויעקב הלך לדרכו ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לוקים. The first part of the verse is, prima facie, superfluous. Of course, Jacob went on his way to Eretz Yisrael! There is, however, a deeper truth here. Jacob pursued his own, unique mission in the service of God. He did not deviate from that path, his path, His path. He did not look to the Right. He did not look to the Left. He looked straight ahead, and on his way encountered God's angelic messengers. ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים.

Third, לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה. In the Modern Orthodox community, far too much time is devoted to debating the niceties of ideology and policy. That is not to deny the vital role of study and ideological exchange. However, these exchanges (courses, articles, debates, fora, caucuses and so on) are insufficient (though pleasant; מפגשי שבט we call them in Hebrew). Action is required. We need to do Modern Orthodoxy. We need to do Torah in the widest sense of the term (call it Madda, Hokhma, Derekh eretz; it doesn't matter). What that action involves will be a later subject.

Fourth, the path of Modern Orthodoxy is a חומרא. It is the harder, more worthwhile path. It demands more of the Jew than the alternatives. It demands spiritual growth, Torah learning in the narrow sense and Torah learning in the broader sense. A principled Modern Orthodoxy challenges its adherents, and vexes its opponents (be they secular or Haredi). Most importantly, a principled Modern Orthodoxy is תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם. Why מן האדם? Not because we seek כבוד. It is because we seek a life שיתאהב שם שמים על ידינו.

Next Post: Component Parts

[NOTE: מפאת חשיבות הנושא, והעובדה שבכל מקרה הדברים מיועדים להיות מיושמים כאן בארץ, החלטתי להחיות את הבלוג העברי ולפרסם שם דברים מקבילים למופיע כאן בהאנגלית, א"כ בשפת עבר. הבלוג נקרא 'הגיגים' ומופיע כאן. אני מקווה שהמאמר הראשון יופיע בימים הקרובים.]

Friday, September 04, 2009

Women (and Girls) Aren't Hametz

Last Shabbat at dinner, the typically desultory conversation (you'd be amazed the wide range of topics that get discussed at our Shabbat table) touched on the Haredi/Hardali agenda of pushing women out of sight. As the smartest person at the table observed (i.e. my wife): 'They think that the Torah's prohibition is בל תיראה ובל תימצא.'

The point is well taken. Open up any Haredi paper and there are absolutely no women or little girls. (In fact, women are airbrushed out of any and all photographs.) There has been a move to stop females from carrying cellphones, because their talking on the phone in public is immodest. Women are banned from most hours of the Shavua ha-Sefer ha-Torani, from Bakeries on most days, and from Heaven knows where else. Dr. Sima Salcberg, in her brilliant expose of the situation that obtain in Ramat Bet Shemesh, reported that women are not only barred from the street (and a fortiori from sitting on public benches or taking children to the park), they are told to avoid the windows of their homes so as not to expose themselves to passersby (the reverse of היזק ראיה but these guys don't learn Daf Yomi). The Mehadrin buses are simply the logical result of a general trend.

The truth is that if this were merely a Haredi proclivity, I wouldn't care (except for the buses). It's not my community, not my problem. What concerns me is the way this kind of policy is insinuating itself into the Religious Zionist world. The trend is led by the Hardali rabbis (and aided and abetted by self-proclaimed Modern Orthodox rabbis who, as on so many other issues, lack gumption).

So let's get this straight. Not every event needs to have separate seating (e.g. weddings. including the Chuppa). Women can speak in front of men (especially in shul, with the proper arrangements). Women can teach men, and vice versa. Couples can socialize with each other. They can even study Torah together. And the world, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not run from Qiryat Moshe, Bet El, Qiryat Arba, or Elon Moreh (or from many of the 'Rabbinical' opinions offered in 'BeSheva' or 'Maqor Rishon').

[Torah UMadda post to follow.]

Liberal Teshuvah

[I've just finished wading through Jonah Goldberg's best-seller Liberal Fascism. It's an eye- opening, though somewhat flawed, book. Not unexpectedly, it left me depressed, especially as it heightened my awareness of the fascist themes that swirl around contemporary Western discourse (including the word discourse). It was, therefore, a relief to read that two prominent Israeli Leftists have undertaken reality checks.]

Civil Fights: Don't make me laugh

Sep. 2, 2009
evelyn gordon , THE JERUSALEM POST

There must have been something in the air last month: Two prominent Israeli leftists publicly acknowledged fundamental problems in the "peace process" that will make a deal unachievable if not resolved.

Aluf Benn, Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, articulated one problem in an August 7 column describing a conversation with a "senior European diplomat." Benn posed one simple question: How would a deal benefit ordinary Israelis? The diplomat was stunned. Wasn't it obvious? It would create a Palestinian state! After Benn pointed out that most Israelis care very little about the Palestinians; they want to know how peace would benefit them, the diplomat tried again: "There would be an end to terror." "Don't make me laugh," Benn replied.

When the IDF withdrew from parts of the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo Accords, Israelis got suicide bombings in their cities. When it quit Gaza entirely, they got rockets on the Negev. But the bombings stopped after the IDF reoccupied the West Bank, and the rockets stopped after January's Gaza operation. In short, the IDF has done a far better job of securing "peace" as Israelis understand it - i.e., not being killed - than the "peace process" ever has.

NORMALIZATION WITH the Arab world is also scant attraction, Benn noted; most Israelis "have no inherent desire to fly El Al through Saudi Arabian airspace or visit Morocco's 'interests section.'" And the downsides of a deal - financing the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers and "the frightening prospect of violent internal schisms" - are substantial.

Benn's conclusion from the conversation was shocking: Thus far, the international community has never thought about how a deal might benefit Israelis; that was considered unimportant.

But to persuade Israelis to back an agreement, he noted, the world is going to have to start thinking. For Israelis already have what they want most, "peace and quiet," and they will not willingly risk it for "another diplomatic adventure whose prospects are slim and whose dangers are formidable."

A week later, Prof. Carlo Strenger - a veteran leftist who, as he wrote, thinks "the occupation must end as quickly as possible" - addressed a second problem in his semi-regular Haaretz column. Seeking to explain why Israel's Left has virtually disappeared, he concluded that this happened because leftists "failed to provide a realistic picture of the conflict with the Palestinians."

For years, he noted, leftists claimed a deal with the Palestinians would produce "peace now." Instead, the Palestinian Authority "educated its children with violently anti-Israel and often straightforwardly anti-Semitic textbooks," failed to prevent (or perhaps even abetted) repeated suicide bombings in 1996, torpedoed the final-status negotiations of 2000-2001 and finally produced the second intifada.

But instead of admitting it had erred in expecting territorial withdrawals to bring peace, Strenger wrote, the Left blamed Israel: The 1996 bombings happened "because the Oslo process was too slow"; the talks failed because Israel's offers were insufficient; the second intifada began because Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.

In short, the Left adopted two faulty premises: First, "anything aggressive or destructive a non-Western group says or does must be explained by Western dominance or oppression," hence "they are not responsible for their deeds." Second, "if you are nice to people, all conflicts will disappear"; other basic human motivations, like the desire for "dominance, power and... self-respect," are irrelevant.

Strenger concluded that if the Left "wants to regain some credibility and convince voters that it has a role to play, it needs to give the public a reasonable picture of reality."

But the same could be said of the international community, which has also blamed every failure of the peace process on Israeli actions: settlement construction, "excessive force" against Palestinian terror, insufficient concessions, etc.

THOUGH BENN and Strenger were ostensibly addressing different issues, they are closely related. Leftists reinforced the West's habit of blaming Israel for every failure, because they are the only Israelis that Western politicians and journalists take seriously. And this habit contributed greatly to mainstream Israelis' view of the peace process as all pain, no gain.

First, because the world placed the onus on Israel, Palestinians never felt any pressure to amend their behavior, whether by stopping terror or by making concessions on final-status issues vital to Israelis. Israel has repeatedly upped its offers over the past 16 years, but the Palestinians have yet to budge an inch: Not only will they not concede the right of return, they refuse to even acknowledge the Jews' historic connection to this land.

Second, while Israelis care very little about relations with the Arab world, they care greatly about relations with the West. Thus a major attraction of the peace process was the prospect of enhancing this relationship.

Instead, Israel's standing, especially in Europe, has plummeted since 1993. Europeans now deem Israel the greatest threat to world peace. Anti-Semitic violence in Europe has surged. European and American leftists routinely deny Israel's very right to exist, and calls for sanctions and divestment are gaining momentum. All this would have been unthinkable 16 years ago.

And this nosedive in status is directly connected to the fact that every time something goes wrong with the peace process, most of the West blames Israel. Indeed, the fact that Washington (pre-Barack Obama) was the one exception to this rule goes far toward explaining why Israel's standing remains strong in America.

Because this knee-jerk response has remained unchanged for 16 years, Israelis are now convinced it will continue even after a final-status agreement is signed: The moment Palestinians voice a new demand post-agreement or engage in anti-Israel terror, the West will insist that Israel accede to the demand or refrain from responding to the terror, and vituperate it for not doing so. In short, Israel is liable to make all the concessions entailed by an agreement and still see its relationship with the West deteriorate.

The bottom line that emerges from both Benn and Strenger is that no peace deal is likely unless both the West and Israel's Left radically alter their behavior. The million-dollar question is whether anyone in either camp is listening.