Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Saying "Merry Christmas" without the Neurosis

I used to wish my Christian friends a very reluctant "Happy Holiday" when Christmas rolled around, feeling like saying the word "Christmas" meant acknowledging and giving honor to the birth of "that man", whom they erroneously call the "Christ/Messiah", giving tacit support to avoda zara, the belief in a "man-god". It's the same reason I used to feel my skin crawl if I somehow found myself stuck inside a Reform shul during services - that I was betraying Torah, giving my unspoken approval to foreign and wrongheaded practices.

But today I gladly, without any hesitation whatsoever, extended a warm "Merry Christmas" to a Christian friend of mine. Of course I reject the "man-god" concept as ridiculous. But I acknowledge that holidays for most people have very little to do with the theological/conceptual package, and everything to do with family, memories, songs, traditions, food, joy, more down-to-earth concepts like "goodwill towards men". Holidays are packed with meaning and personal/family significance - THAT is what I honor when saying "Merry Christmas". I honor the person by acknowledging what is deeply significant to him (in this case a "him"). Just like he'll wish me a "Good Shabbos" even though he doesn't believe in a literal seven-day Creation (and even though as a non-Jew he's "chayav mita" if he keeps Shabbat) - because he knows that Shabbat as Jews experience it has nothing to do with all that.

And of course what helped make my more respectful, more human greeting possible is the fact that I reject not only the man-god, but also the God-god. I've made the move to "clean house" entirely by trying as best I can to sweep out the door (and not just under the rug) untenable beliefs not only of other people's traditions (which is all too easy to do) but also those within my own tradition. We can argue over who's got "crazier" beliefs, the one who holds by the virgin birth or the one who holds that the sea split, the one who holds that God incarnated in the form of a man or the one who holds that God inscribed His will word by word in the form of the Torah, the one who holds that belief in Jesus as savior brings eternal salvation, or the one who holds that the dead will one day literally rise from their graves and roll their way to Eretz Yisrael. As I say we can argue but we'd be foolish not to see that there's a bit of "crazy" in each of us.

So ok, if I can take Judaism's craziness with enough of a grain of salt to actually devote a huge part of my life to religious observance and Torah learning, then I can take Christianity's craziness with enough grain of salt to wish a good friend a "Merry Christmas" - that is, providing I also get to wish a hearty "Mazel Tov" on the bris come January 1.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook and Jihad

Before I start, I feel I need to let you know where I'm coming from. I live in Israel. I believe we need to pursue the peace process with the Palestinians. Their plight weighs on me. I've personally expended considerable time and effort to reach out to Muslims, Palestinians, online and in person, to dialogue with them, try to find common ground and discuss solutions. I'm not a typical "right winger". I'm open to any number of possible political solutions, providing it "works" - i.e. provides people with freedom, security, self-determination, and makes for a more safe, stable, successful future for everyone here.

With that, on to "Sandy Hook and Jihad"...

First off, I can't even begin to imagine the utter anguish that the families of the victims in the Sandy Hook massacre are going through right now. What an absolutely devastating loss.

I'd like to talk about something that came to mind for me in the wake of the massacre. I was reflecting on how hard it is to fathom that anyone could walk into a school and deliberately shoot up whole rooms full of precious little kids. If you had to conceive of the worst thing a person could possibly do, that would just about be it. As people have been pointing out, this suggests a case of severe mental illness. Now whether the murderer (I don't want to give him the posthumous pleasure of saying his name) had a diagnosable "DSM" mental illness I don't know. He may have just been a sicko, with an ultra-narcissistic, sadistic evil streak that ran away with itself. But either way, I'd classify that as "mentally ill" for all practical purposes. He was a person not fit to be in society. And unfortunately we didn't find that out until it was too late.

Now as I stated above, I live in Israel. A Sandy Hook-type massacre is not something that's ever happened here, where some random person just walks into a school and wantonly kills kids for some unknown insane personal reason. HOWEVER... We have experienced very similar horrors, where a Palestinian gunman walks into a Yeshiva, a private home, a bus, a restaurant or along a crowded street and deliberately murders as many innocent men, women and children as possible. The weapon of choice could be a gun, knife, hand grenade, bomb strapped to the chest - the point is to inflict maximum carnage.

Here's the main difference as I see it between Sandy Hook and Israel. In Israel, it's not "random". While it always comes as a shock, it's not completely out of the blue. Because we're not talking about one person's internal psychotic breakdown, some sort of sick personal vendetta. No, here it's "b'shita" - it's part of a methodology, a cold-blooded widely-disseminated philosophy that believes it is good to kill as many Jews as possible, and to take oneself with them if necessary. (Actually, not even "if necessary" - it's deemed a "mitzvah" to die while killing Jews.)

If we knew about the Sandy Hook murderer's mental health issues ahead of time, we could have saved all those lives. We could've been spared all the horror, all the anguish and mourning. Yet here in Israel, we have a mental health EPIDEMIC that we're all well aware of. It's not in the DSM, but it should be. It's called "Jihad", militant Islam, a movement which is breeding people, training them in droves in fact, to commit precisely the kind horror that the Sandy Hook murderer did, to want to slaughter innocent civilians, to make the streets run with blood. How? By deluding people into crossing out the word "innocents" and writing in "infidels", "pigs and monkeys", "devils". By deluding them into thinking it is the "will of Allah". I suppose then it is a clinical diagnosis - a kind of paranoid delusional psychosis, only on a mass scale.

Children from an early age are taught to believe in martyrdom. It is spoken about explicitly in mosques, broadcast with pride over television and other media. Jihad is a culture that is actually gleeful over the slaughter of innocents, where people pass out candies to celebrate a terror strike - at the very same time that Zaka volunteers are sorting through body parts. There are actually governing bodies in the world (Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran) which have identified themselves and their political/military platforms on the basis of this mental illness and use whatever power they have to advance its agenda.

Again, think about the worst thing a person could do, to murder as many innocent people as possible, and then think about a culture which is mass-brainwashing people to do just that. By any standards of normality, this kind of thinking would be considered completely and dangerously psychotic. And yet it is talked about as part of a "conflict". It is rationalized as part of a "struggle". But if we can't recognize Jihad for what it is - a "Sandy Hook ideology", psychotic and insane, then that makes us partly insane ourselves.

Ok, so let's say we call Jihad the dangerous mental illness that it is. That's a good first step. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Here's where we get to the tricky part. If we try to stamp out the epidemic by targeting the political/religious leaders espousing it (an ostensibly reasonable strategy), this only incites more craziness, catalyzes further madness. And by doing this we also alienate the reasonable people on the Muslim/Palestinian side who might otherwise be our allies and partners. On the other hand, it's a philosophy that thrives on weakness and passivity, on the naive good will of the infidels, the people they perceive as their enemies. It thrives on doves and gets worked up by hawks.

So then aside from bombing one another to smithereens, or packing up and moving to Brooklyn like Spielberg would have us do (see the movie "Munich" for that suggestion) - or simply putting anti-psychotic meds in the drinking water, what are we supposed to do? The only solution I can think of is to work on building more alliances with the sane majority of Palestinians and Muslims. And then hope that through these connections the realization will develop that it's better to align oneself with people who want to make something out of their lives than with psychotic killers - and maybe, just possibly, we can start an epidemic of sanity.

What say you, readers?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Women's Participation in Shul: A Reaction

A few weeks back, Rabbi Zev Farber of Atlanta wrote an article on Women's Participation in Ritual. Here's how I'd sum up his basic thesis:

We need a paradigm shift regarding women's participation in shul rituals, so that instead of non-participation being the default, participation is the default. The need arises because:
  1. A significant number of women "feel excluded and marginalized" in shul, and even in "the best of shuls" the efforts made to include them are insufficient. 
  2. Rabbis don't take the initiative to look out for women, which means that women who want to participate have to approach their rabbis and risk "humiliation and disappointment".
  3. (His main point) The argument of kavod hatzibur ("honor of the congregation") is based on sociological factors which no longer apply. Since women now have equal access to positions of power and respect in the public sphere, and it's no longer considered a "breach of etiquette", this should also reflect in Jewish life, so that the presumption is equal access to participation in rituals unless there's a specific Halachic reason to forbid it.
I first heard about R. Farber's article in a post from blogger Garnel Ironheart, When Only the Mechitza Is Left, which offers a critique on the article. I'd like to address his post because I think he presents an argument that many frum Jews resonate with. Here's how I'd summarize Garnel's argument against the "paradigm shift" proposed:
  1. The need for change is unfounded. A problem is being invented where none exists. R. Farber assumes that inequality means inferiority, and that's not the case.
  2. The motivation for change is inauthentic. It's not based on Halacha but on secular liberal values. Women don't really want to daven - they just want the same "rights" as men.
  3. The focus is misplaced. Shul is not the center of Orthodox Jewish life. The main thing is not access to a sefer Torah but access to a Torah sefer, and that's something every woman has. The greatest honor isn't getting a kibbud in shul - it's raising a Torah family.
Here's where I agree with Garnel: I don't think there is necessarily a problem. I think he's right that liberal values play a strong role. And I also think he's right in terms of the overall priorities of Judaism.

Now let me explain what I mean and where I disagree.

When I say it's not "necessarily" a problem, I mean that R. Farber's article is effectively a condemnation of the status quo. So when frum people out there living happy, meaningful lives read the article, many may feel as if they're being attacked as doing something wrong - conducting themselves in a way that's oppressive and antiquated. And not only doesn't it match their experience - it's insulting. And it's intrusive - they feel like "discontent" and the "need for change" are being foisted upon them against their will. Frum women generally don't want to participate in shul, and they're more than happy to let the men do their thing, while they do theirs. To the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world, there is no problem. It's the proposed "paradigm shift" which is the problem.

(Mind you, I'm talking about shul participation. Things like the aguna issue, problems with husbands not giving gets, etc. are inequalities that I think a wider swath of Orthodox women are not happy about and would like to see change.)

However... Clearly there's a minority of women, particularly in left-wing Modern Orthodox circles, who aren't happy with the status quo in shul. They want to read from the Torah, go up for alliyot, lead parts of the tefilah - basically be counted as an equal part of the minyan to the extent possible. Some may only want to do that within the confines of normative Halacha, and others may want to see the Halacha change, or simply be bypassed. And yes, I think there's little doubt that part of what fuels that discontent is the influence of living in a free society where women have equal rights before the law, and where a person's gender doesn't determine whether they have something valuable to contribute in the public sphere. And this reality wasn't always the case, to put it mildly. Up until only very recently, it was a man's world. Laws regarding women and property ownership, marriage and divorce, access to birth control, equal pay, voting, holding public office - all of these were issues that women had to fight for. It may all seem like a vague memory now, but the world was very different in this regard only a few generations ago. And we consider it a bracha and a considerable upgrade to society that these changes have been enacted, not because we want "sameness" or to blur male-female distinctions, but because we consider it a more elevated, enlightened society where women's lives are not controlled by men, and where we judge a person's ability to participate and lead based on their capability, talent and desire, and not on their gender.

So naturally there are Jews who look at traditional Judaism, where women are not equal in Jewish law, and where women's leadership/participation in the public sphere is not welcomed, and they find this highly disconcerting (even if inequality doesn't mean "inferiority", which itself is debatable). Here they look to Judaism as a source of spiritual inspiration, and yet Judaism seems to be behind secular society in a very significant and tangible way. This fact weighs on some people's minds like a heavy cloud, and it disturbs their ability to derive full enjoyment and meaning from Jewish life. That goes for women who want to participate in shul, and yes, even for those who don't want to come to shul - it bothers them deeply. Just like if a city had a law on the books that said no Jews were allowed in a particular park - even if there wasn't a single Jew in the city who ever wanted to use that park, we'd understand if they were irked by such a law and found the city a less desirable place to live. And so for this Orthodox minority, there is a significant problem with the status quo, and a paradigm shift is not just welcome - it's overdue.

So here you have two very different positions, one which doesn't want to see a change, and one that does. But the thing is this - neither one is without its reasonability! And neither one particularly wants to be judged, let alone have its interests and aspirations blocked. So I'd prescribe a very simple solution:

Let people decide for themselves.

Let there be shuls where the minhag is that women participate, and shuls where they don't. And let people be happy doing what they want to do. Don't make traditional Orthodox women feel "antiquated" and "oppressed" for watching from the sidelines in shul, and don't make women who want to be included in shul ritual feel like they're being "whiny feminists", merely wanting to imitate secular society without having any genuine spiritual motivation.

As for the argument that R. Farber's position is illegitimate because it's rooted in liberalism, I think that's the wrong approach. The point is not what "motivates" the desire to change - it's whether Halacha can accommodate it. If Halacha is flexible enough to allow for changes that make a segment of the Orthodox community feel more "at home", that comport more with their conscience and create a more enjoyable and meaningful experience, then why oppose it? To take strong opposition to something that's Halachically permissible and which would improve people's lives strikes me as a sign that one is taking their guidance not from Halacha but rather from the visceral attachment they have to a particular set of norms and taboos.

The idea of having a woman open the Ark and take out the Torah is something that strikes 99% of Orthodox practitioners as deeply wrong. And it's not because they can quote siman/se'if in the Shulchan Aruch. The reaction has nothing to do with Halacha. It's just somehow... wrong, unnatural, bizarre, out of place. Well, that is what we call a "taboo". It's an emotional gut reaction based on something we're not used to experiencing. And that is every bit as "non-Halachic" an influence on what we do or don't do as liberalism or feminism, or any "ism". But... I would also say that it's a legitimate reason to do something or not to do something in Jewish practice. There's no "mitzvah" to make every person in shul cringe just because something is permitted in Halacha. In fact there's a mitzvah against causing that kind of discomfort. It's called ona'at devarim, not saying or doing something which causes another person to suffer emotionally. Which is what would happen in 99% of shuls if a woman came up and took out the Torah. People would be upset. I'm not apologizing for it - it's just a fact, and it's something we need to be sensitive to.

That said... In a shul where that taboo doesn't exist, where the majority wouldn't cringe, and where if anything the prevailing discomfort comes from the lack of women's participation, we have a very different situation. If there's a way to arrive at a solution within Halacha* for women to participate, then gey gezunt! Let people live and be well and do their thing.

*(Now, as someone who doesn't ascribe divinity to Halacha, I'd go further and say there's no problem whatsoever with bypassing Halacha completely if it goes against our conscience. But we have to recognize that there's always a price to pay by going outside the system, so we need to think about whether it's worth it in a given situation. But for purposes of this conversation, I'm assuming the more normative Orthodox view of Halacha as sacrosanct and therefore something which most religious Jews don't want to bypass.)

So I've touched on the first two points I enumerated regarding Garnel's critique, the need for change and the question of authenticity and liberalism. About the third point, misplaced focus in Judaism, I agree that shul isn't the center of Orthodox Jewish life (even though it does have a very central communal role). And getting a kibbud in shul is certainly not the biggest "honor" to strive for as a Jew. However, I can be cognizant of these priorities and yet still appreciate an alliyah in shul. And I assume that a woman is every bit as capable of doing the same - and it doesn't mean she's misprioritizing or taking the kibbud out of proportion any more than I am. And lastly, a mussar point: It's for me to shun my own kavod (honor) if I so desire - but it's not for me to shun someone else's kavod. It's not for me to tell someone what kind of kavod they should or shouldn't seek. That goes for shul-related kavod, and it goes for men as well as women.

What's my point with all this? It's a suggestion - that we stop expending so much effort trying to delegitimize one another's practices and preferences (whether they're liberal or traditional or anything else), and simply see our main "avodah" (job) as looking out for people's happiness and well-being. If we can do that, I think we stand a much better chance at arriving at solutions that work for people, and we'll be a happier, healthier people as a result.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Weberman's Defenders & the Role of Dogmatic Belief

Like many, I've been following the developments of the Nechemya Weberman trial currently underway in Brooklyn. In short, he stands accused of sexually abusing a schoolgirl over a three-year period, starting at age 12, under the guise of "counseling."

One of the more disturbing things to watch as this case came to light has been the Satmar community's overwhelming support for Weberman, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his "defense fund" (which apparently was initially used to try and bribe the girl to drop the case and leave the country), as well as the constant harassing and bullying of the girl's family. In my mind, the girl's strength to persevere with her case under these circumstances is simply incredible - and incredibly inspiring.

The question I want to ask is this: Does having a culture of supernatural belief and metaphysical dogma make it more likely for a community to defend people like Weberman?

Well, it's certainly not required. Think of the OJ Simpson case, and how whites tended to believe he was guilty and blacks believed he was innocent. We tend to rally around people who are "like us". It's human nature. And think of the mafia and its policy of "omerta", the code of silence where people do not hand "their own" over to the police. The latter is similar to mesira, literally "handing over" a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, which in certain circumstances is prohibited in Halacha. In other words, you don't need supernatural belief to create a culture that protects its own. From an evolutionary point of view, it's probably built into us as part of our survival strategy.

But there's a difference between Satmar and the mafia. In the mafia, the idea is to protect your own even when you know they're guilty. It's a "family business" and it stays within the family. Now, the Satmar community has this mentality too (as do other insular Orthodox communities). But the difference is this: Not only does Satmar protect its own - they also believe them to be innocent. Mafia communities are not nearly so naive.

I would venture to guess that the knee-jerk "Weberman is innocent" reaction has partly to do with the dogmatic absolutism that "The Torah is from God and therefore perfect". And so it is impossible for Torah - or anyone connected and committed to it - to ever be wrong, or to ever commit such a heinous wrong. So the Satmar mentality is this: Weberman is a person who lives a "Torah life" (I know it's hard to stomach, but go with it), and in particular who holds the beliefs and stringencies of the Satmar world (which is seen in that community as the "true" Torah). Therefore anyone who challenges the "absolute truth" (and innocence) of this world is necessarily a liar and a rasha (evil person) who is against God and His Torah. So my hunch is that the community believes it is literally impossible that Weberman is guilty.

Now again, blacks defended the innocence of OJ. But that's arguably a reaction to years of victimization and unfair prosecution/persecution at the hands of whites. (That, and plain old racism, just like whites believing he was guilty.) Moreover, blacks would not take "offense" at the idea that OJ was guilty, as if it were a "sin" to say so. They would not think it would be logically "impossible" for him to be guilty. They wouldn't brand the prosecution as "anti-God".

So that's my thesis here: The belief in the Torah as God-given and "perfect" enables a mentality wherein anything or anyone connected with Torah is unassailable, thereby aiding and abetting accused sexual predators the likes of Nechemya Weberman. I say "enables", meaning even if you hold that the Torah is perfect, it doesn't necessarily follow that you'd believe people are perfect. However, the one belief enables the other, such that if you took away the magical "Torah can do no wrong" dogma, you'd undermine the magical idea that people connected with Torah can do no wrong.

Now I'd like to know: What do you think?

I also want to add that, assuming Weberman is found guilty, I hope that his case gives other victims the strength to come forward, and that it helps to prevent such horrific abuse from taking place in the future. As for the Satmar community engaging in any genuine introspection or "apologizing" to the victim and her family, I for one am not holding my breath. That's the frightening power of religious dogma. No "secular court" or evidence or truth can ever hope to prove it wrong.

UPDATE: (Dec 10, 2012) Nechemya Weberman was just found guilty on 59 counts, including sustained sexual abuse of a child, offenses which have the potential to land him in prison for decades. The defense plans to appeal the decision, and sentencing is scheduled for January 9th.

I imagine I'm supposed to be feeling happy, or at least relieved. But I find myself feeling decidedly melancholy, quiet, reflective. There is no "happy ending" to this terrible case. As I said above, I hope it results in less abuse, and I hope it gives the victim in this case (as well as other victims of abuse) a measure of solace.

UPDATE: (Jan 28, 2013) On January 22, Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Romney's Concession Speech: "Praying" for Obama

I was relieved to hear Mitt Romney's concession speech, on a number of levels. First, that he even made one last night, meaning that the election was decisive, rather than devolving into law suits, vote recounts, etc. That would've been a nightmare. Second, I thought it was gracious, as in:
"His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters."
Given the often biting tenor of the campaign season, to bow out gracefully and wish your opponent well is a very welcome change of feel.

Third, which gets to the title of this post, there's the issue of prayer. Romney states:
"This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
And at the end:
"I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader. And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation."
Contrary to what you might expect, I was actually pleased to hear Romney invoke the language of prayer here. I'll tell you why. Just as in my previous post, where I explained how one can rationally say "thank God" as an earnest expression of gratitude, so too one can say "I pray for" or "I pray that" as an expression of solidarity.

The line I particularly liked was "Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him". Meaning, rather than come out and say something like, "The election is over, but we will keep fighting!" or say other things to the effect of "this is not my president", he instead invoked language of solidarity with the president, as if to say, "This is one country, with one president, and we're all together in this."

In a similar vein, Romney spoke about working together and getting past partisan politics:
"The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work."
True, there's no reason to believe partisan bickering won't just continue as usual, but even to hear this "sentiment" coming from someone who was so involved in the bickering for the better part of the past year, is again a relief. It's a message that bears repeating - and taking seriously.

Now for a Jewish tie-in. Related to getting beyond partisanship, beyond extremist tendencies and toward moderation, I was thinking about the language and content that people tend to give over when talking "to their own" versus talking to people outside their circle. For instance, and this drives me nuts frankly, when frum Jews say the most preposterous, extreme and/or offensive things when they're speaking to a frum crowd. That includes of course rabbis and people in leadership positions. Bring these same people to an audience of non-frum Jews, or non-Jews, and they would not dream of making similar remarks. They'd be forced to articulate themselves in a far more reasonable, even-keeled, judicious, pragmatic way.

That is part of the problem, it seems to me, with partisan politics. When politicians on the left and right speak to "their crowd", they're less reasonable, less even-handed. They appeal to the more extreme sentiments in order to garner support, which ends up locking them into more extreme positions that they now have to fight for. The result is not a "reach across the aisle" mentality but a "knock 'em down and grab as much as you can" mentality.

What's the solution? Well, you can't keep politicians from speaking to their own crowds. But certainly it would help if they were forced to speak more often to the "other side", because the more people do that, the more reasonable thinking and policy-making is engendered.

Or how about this as a radical idea... When it comes to say, presidential primaries, we say as follows: If you're a registered Republican, you vote for the Democrat of your choice. And if you're a registered Democrat, you vote for the Republican of your choice. That way, Republican and Democrat politicians have to appeal to the opposite side of the aisle and not take extreme positions, and we end up with a field of candidates - and maybe a political atmosphere - which stands some realistic chance of working together toward solutions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane "God"

First off, I want to say that my heart goes out to those people who have suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy. I'd like to make two points, one brief and the next I'll try to keep as brief as I can.

1. Thank God more people weren't killed. And when I say "thank God", I mean thank the fact that we live in the 21st Century, with the infrastructure and communications that enable us to prepare for and weather storms of this magnitude. And thank human beings for actually devising and building the technology that makes this 21st Century reality possible. Because given the immense destructive power of this storm, the loss of life could have been much, much worse - and it would have, had the same storm hit 100 years ago.

I say this because this thought did occur to me, and also to illustrate how a non-believer can say "thank God." It's essentially a way of expressing gratitude in cases where there's no one "person" or "factor" to whom to direct it. "Thank God" is an expression of general thankfulness. It doesn't have to mean anything more than that. And to those who reply that it's disingenuous, I'd say that a true and from-the-heart expression of gratitude, however you express it, is far more genuine than a "thank God" or "baruch Hashem" which is said as a perfunctory religious statement with no real emotion behind it.

2. I can't say that I was surprised, more pained and embarrassed, by this video making the rounds where a certain Rabbi Leiter blames hurricane Sandy on gay marriage. The sad thing is that the charedi establishment is not even at the level of Pat Robertson, who at least had the good sense to keep quiet this time around! Though I have to say, I find this rabbi's words far less frightening than I do the kind of virulent hate that gets spewed out in YouTube comment sections, in this case calling for Jews to be killed, thrown out of the country, etc. For all you kiddies out there... Yes, there really are monsters in the world.

But on the brighter side, I was very much  heartened by this article by R. Shmuley Boteach wherein he lambasts the presumptuousness of religious people who assert that such-and-such disaster happened "because" of such-and-such wrong behavior on the part of the victims, as a form of Divine retribution. (Yes, he has a book coming out on the subject that he's also promoting, and yes he's currently making a run for Congress, but I'm not so cynical that I can't appreciate the article for its content!). Let me pull out a few choice quotes, starting from the top:
"What was G-d thinking when he sent Hurricane Sandy and what could have been its purpose? In truth, I don't much care..."
Beautiful! Now, personally I would say that the question is a non-starter, because I wouldn't assume that God sent Hurricane Sandy in the first place. But... If you're going to take the common religious position that everything happens in the world because God wills it, then this is a MUCH healthier attitude. Yes, God did it, and must have had some reason in mind, but I don't know what it is and frankly I don't care... Much, much better. He continues from there:
"...because our role as humans is not to understand G-d's plan in the face of horror and tragedy, but to challenge God and demand that human life always be protected and preserved."
Again, I wouldn't presume any plan on the part of God, no less "demand" anything from God. But for believing folks, it is MUCH healthier to get angry at God for not doing a better job protecting us than it is to rationalize or as he says "divine the mind of God" in the face of tragedy. It's better for the same reason that Iyov's position (bitterly claiming Divine injustice) is preferable to that of his visitors (self-righteously claiming Divine justice). It's better because at least it's not constructing an absurd reality whereby anyone who suffers is being somehow punished for their sins. Ok, next quote:
"I have grown weary of those who say that suffering is somehow redemptive, that it carries with it a positive outcome. I do not deny that this is at times so. Those who suffer can sometimes emerge humbler, wiser, gentler. But let’s get real. There is nothing beneficial that comes from suffering that could have not been achieved far more effectively through a positive means."
Too true! Even for those who suggest that suffering makes us better people, I agree that it's time to stop romanticizing suffering. We don't need it, and we don't want it. (And I have a feeling this is what his new book title "Fed-Up Man of Faith" is hinting at, a bit of a jab at Soloveitchik's "Lonely Man of Faith", getting away from the idea of romanticized suffering and existential/theological angst as a part of religious life. As he goes on to say:
"It is time we human beings agreed to wage an all out war on suffering so that it is never excused as something blessed again."
Yes - thank you for saying that! Because we do need to make meaning out of our suffering. And one of the best, most constructive ways to do that is to take one's suffering as an occasion to try to REDUCE the suffering in the world. THAT is fantastically meaningful - and not just to oneself but to others, in a very real and concrete way.

So would I have written this article differently? For sure. Aren't the points I picked out from the article ones that should simply be obvious, self-evident? For sure. But for a traditional, God-believing religious Jew to say this I think is a beautiful step forward.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The First Rashi - Thorny Theological Territory

Rashi's very first comment on the Torah quotes the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat Bo), which says the Torah should have started in Shemot 12, where the mitzvot instruction of the Torah gets underway:
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: It was only necessary to begin the Torah from “This month is to you,” since this is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded in. And what is the reason [the Torah] opened with "Bereshit"? Because of [the verse], "The strength of His works He told to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Tehillim 111:6).
End of the Midrash citation. Rashi then adds his own words:
For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations," they say [back] to them, "All the earth belongs to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. He created it, and gave it to whomever was fitting in His eyes. By His will He gave it to them, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us."
Clearly, Rashi felt this would be an effective retort. He was coming from 11th Century France, at the time of the First Crusades. The Crusaders were people who held of the divinity of the Bible, and yet as evidenced by the fact that they laid siege to Jerusalem, slaughtering Jews and Muslims alike in their quest for control of holy sites, they contested Jewish claims of being the "rightful inheritors" of the land. But how can one believe in the Bible and dispute what's written in black and white, the theme that runs throughout the entire Torah, and especially the book of Bereshit, that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews? That's how I interpret Rashi here.

Two comments on this:
  1. Even in Rashi's time, would this really have been an effective response? Wouldn't Christians have simply said in reply: "Well, once again, God took it away from you and gave the land to people more fitting in His eyes - the ones who accept His one and only Son, our Lord and Savior!"
  2. In our time, this response would be considered circular reasoning, a laughable line of argumentation. A person hears this today and says: "So what? Your ‘proof’ that the land belongs to you is in your own religious text? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
When I look at this Rashi, while I understand the desire to underscore our connection to Eretz Yisrael, historically and emotionally, what I dislike is the language of theological justification. Ironically, it is precisely Rashi's "retort" to the nations that provides the justification for the Crusades. Even the most horrific bloodshed can be justified if it's deemed as being in accordance with "God's will," whether that "will" is identified in Scripture, commentary, by clerics or prophets. As soon as we go down this road, what results is a battle of justifications, what my god says vs. what your god says.

Regarding the land of Israel, of course there is a legitimate Jewish claim on the land. Do we have to defend that claim? Unfortunately yes. Is it an "exclusive" claim? No, and that's part of what makes it a tricky issue to work out. But if we have any hope of working it out, we have to stop using language about what God "wills", who God "likes" better and wants to give the land to. It's a conversation that holds no possibility of different sides coming to an agreement. It's a line of discussion that necessarily ends in killing. It's just a question of which one thinks their Messiah will come and magically work everything out, and which one thinks the way to bring the Messiah is to start the slaughter.

To sum up, using theological reasoning to feel an attachment to Eretz Yisrael - if that's your thing, fine. But to brandish theological justifications about our "God-given right" to a piece of real estate - this is an exceedingly bad idea. It's what I'd call "anti-TED", an idea definitely not worth spreading.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thank You Torah Temimah!

I was looking at the Torah Temimah over Shabbat, which cites passages in the Talmud where verses in the parsha appear, and offers some commentary on the Talmudic statements. Devarim 28:46-47, in the middle of the infamously long section of curses, says: "They (the aforementioned curses) will be a sign and a wonder upon you, and upon your descendents, forever. Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and with gladness of heart, from an abundance of everything."

About this verse, the Torah Temimah cites Arachin (Erchin) 11a: "Where do we derive the requirement of the song (shira) of the Levites from the Torah?... Rav Matna said: From here - 'Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and with gladness of heart.' What service is done with joy and gladness of heart? You must say it is song."

Now, there's nothing whatsoever about Devarim 28:47 which by any stretch of meaning would point to the Levi'im or their song. It's obvious that Chazal had in mind the joy and significance of the shira (singing), and one of the sages looked at this pasuk, made a mental association to the Levi'im, and eventually it made its way into the pages of the Talmud. In other words, there IS NO reference to the Levi'im singing in the Torah. But there IS a tradition about the singing, and for whatever reason (actually we'll see the Torah Temimah's reason below) Chazal felt it was important to hang that tradition on a pasuk in the Torah.

And there's nothing wrong or disingenuous about this - so long as one is honest about it and acknowledges that it's merely a pedagogical tool. I say "merely" but I don't mean to diminish its importance. It's a fantastic teaching tool! The problem is when "frumkyte" starts to demand that we all believe that the Torah itself is telling us about shira, when clearly it's not, or that this drash is "built into" the Torah, that Rav Matna received this tradition from Sinai, when clearly many/most/all of these drashot were developed by Chazal as memory tools. Why is it such a big problem to hold this erroneous belief?
  1. Because it ups the ante on what one is required to believe in order to be considered "frum", incorrectly identifying people who don't believe it as "heretics". 
  2. Because it's not true even from a traditional Torah standpoint, and why should we encourage a misconception of Torah? 
  3. Because when you feed people notions that are untenable, the mind starts to regurgitate, and it's things like this which make people roll their eyes at the Torah tradition and make them want to distance themselves from it.
But you don't have to take my word about drashot being pedagogical tools created by Chazal. Take it from the Torah Temimah (R. Baruch Halevi Epstein) himself!
"We have already written a number of times in our treatise about the question of Aggadic drashot (interpretations) like these, where the intent of Chazal is not to explain the plain meaning of the text [and] to instruct regarding this interpretation literally. Because the truth is that no Scripture ever goes out of its plain meaning. Rather it is that the method of Chazal in holy [writings] is to juxtapose (l'hasmich) every matter that is received [in the tradition] and pass it down from generation to generation using some word(s) in the text of the Torah, so that this matter will have a hint or sign [in the text]. Because according to the law it is forbidden to write down matters within the Oral Torah, and therefore it is good and proper to give each matter that is taught in the Oral Torah a hint and an associated-text (asmachta) in order to remember the matter, since this is the nature of memory, where if there is something with which to associate a matter, it will remain in one's memory..."
That's the Torah Temimah's comment on the Gemara in Erchin. Chazal didn't want to write down oral traditions like the shira of the Levi'im, so they attached such traditions to the Torah text. The system of drashot was a fantastic creative project of associative thinking and memorization techniques. Thank you Chazal for creating it, and thank you Torah Temimah for saying it straight!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Teshuva for Believers and Non-Believers

I was reading Rabbeinu Bachya's commentary on Ki Tetzei over Shabbat. Devarim 22:1 talks about "hashavat aveida", returning a lost object to its owner. R. Bachya puts it simply: "Each person should desire the benefit/welfare of his friend." And he goes on to say:
This is what is meant by: "You may not hide yourself" [so as to ignore the lost object and not return it]. Don't understand this as referring to a lost object only; rather this is the law regarding ... all the other benefits that a person has the ability to bring to his friend, or to remove and push off damage from him. He is obligated in all of them, as it says: "You should love your neighbor like yourself."
It struck me after reading this that regardless of whether you're an atheist or a believer, THIS IS WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT Jewishly - namely, simply wanting the best for one another, not wanting to see them suffer, and actually taking action to improve one another's welfare, and to prevent them from incurring harm. And it has nothing to do with the issue of "belief". If we have any commitment or love for Judaism, THIS is the foundation. This needs to be the focus, the essence of our spirituality as Jews.

And unfortunately we look around and see that this is very often not the case. Disappointingly, we see that religious Jews all too often lack this basic foundation - being so hyper-focused on externals, whether relating to dress code or minute details of this or that ritual halacha, far more focused on perfecting "their mitzvah" and gaining "their Olam Haba" (or simply caught up in everyday life) than they are on desiring the benefit/welfare of people around them. It's not that frum Jews are any worse than others in this regard, but someone who is truly "frum" should positively excel in the area of concern for others. They should conduct themselves as if this is their very reason for being. Love for one another should ooze out of their pores. Because THAT is what it means to be religious. That is what it means to thwart the human tendency toward self-interest at the expense of others, the tendency that makes kids cruel to one another, and which makes adults look at one another in the street as "noise", people in the way, ahead of us in line, taking up space and resources, or as means to ends. If we don't combat that tendency and start looking at each other as people whose well-being we genuinely we care about, what exactly have we accomplished? How have we evolved or matured, and how can we possibly think of ourselves as "spiritual"?

But I bring this up not just to harp on frum Jews who aren't getting it right. I also have to say I'm disappointed in the skeptical "community" for often being shameless offenders in this regard. Not only is the tone of discourse routinely used in blogs and comment sections highly disrespectful, devoid of sensitivity, filled with flippant, sneering and cutting remarks, but there doesn't even seem to be an awareness that there's anything wrong with it! It has so become the norm that no one bats an eyelash at it, let alone speaks up and rejects it as immature, mean-spirited, and not in keeping with our ideals. There's no "conversational pressure" against it. And again, it's not as if the skeptical Jewish community is worse than others - indeed there's no corner of the internet where you don't see people ripping one another apart with shameless abandon.

I'm suggesting here that when we post comments, we try to remember that we're speaking to another human being. And if we want to think of ourselves as mature, sensitive, spiritual, evolved people, we should be every bit as concerned with that person's benefit, their physical and emotional well-being, as we are with the point we're trying to make. If we're in that head-space, how on earth would we say something designed to make them feel bad, feel stupid? Yes, there's a place to disagree - of course there is. And there's a place sometimes to be sharp. But as I've said before, people are more important than ideas. So we can try to destroy an idea, but don't destroy the person in order to kill the idea. That's a big mistake.

I'm reminded of a Gemara I saw recently, in Berachot 10a. There were some hooligans in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood, and he davened that they should die. His wife Bruria chastised him that he should daven that they do teshuva, quoting a pasuk that "sins will cease and there will be no more evildoers" - it says "sins" should cease, not "sinners". So Rabbi Meir davened for them, and they did teshuva. (Happy ending - halavai it were that easy!) Point being, even for the lousy people of the world, we should desire their well-being rather than their destruction. "Kal v'chomer" (all the more so) for the vast majority of decent people out there, we need to desire their well-being. We need to act on that desire, and we need to be vigilant about it.

And I'll say further. If Jewish skeptics/atheists don't conduct themselves in a refined, dignified, evolved, sensitive manner, all this does is feed into the idea that without God to tell us how to behave, we become a bunch of "behemas" (animals). So it's particularly incumbent upon such people to make a statement that this is NOT the case. How? By demonstrating that it's not the case, with our words and our actions. Yes, it is possible to be rational and uncompromising in matters of truth, AND to be of the finest character, highly sensitive and evolved. It is possible to reject the part of Torah that is worthy of being rejected, AND to enthusiastically embrace and fulfill the part of Torah that is worthy of being fulfilled and embraced.

That's the teshuva we all need to work on - skeptic and believer alike, Jew and non-Jew alike. So with that, a happy and productive Elul to one and all!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tearing Up the New Testament

Minister of Knesset Michael Ben-Ari caused an uproar this week when he publicly tore out and trashed pages of the New Testament in a Bible sent to him (and to all MKs) by Victor Kalisher of The Bible Society, a Messianic Jewish organization (i.e. Jews for Jesus). Two brief points I'd like to make on this:

1) I'm far more concerned about the "messianic Judaism" of Ben-Ari than I am about the group who sent out the Bibles. Let me put it this way - in the continuum of beliefs (from better to worse, in my opinion), we have:

a) rational/benign
b) delusional/benign
c) rational/dangerous
d) delusional/dangerous

Jews for Jesus are in the "b" category, as are most decent, moderate religious folks. But Jews like Ben-Ari earn a solid "d". Yes, sending the New Testament to Jewish MKs is provocative in its own right, but that is altogether different than reacting by publicly antagonizing 2 billion Christians by destroying their holy book on camera, inside a Knesset office with the Israeli flag in the background - and in so doing unilaterally damaging Israel's relationship with the Christian world.

I'm all for standing up for what's right even when it's unpopular, and occasionally being a bit radical if that's necessary to get things done (by writing a blog like this, I guess that's obvious!), but the priority always has to be people over ideology. And that requires the ability to be pragmatic and flexible, to work with people, to compromise, and seek out live-and-let-live solutions. By deliberately alienating, provoking and essentially "flipping the bird" to the entire Christian world in order to show everyone what he thinks of the New Testament and attempts to proselytize to Jews, Ben-Ari has proven himself to be ideologically narcissistic, a "kanai" (zealot), a loose canon who has no business holding public office or representing the State of Israel. He's lucky it was a New Testament, since Christians are by and large civilized folks who don't take to the streets in a frenzied rage whenever a stupid stunt like this gets pulled.

2) I also want to mention this article from yesterday's Jerusalem Post: Christian MK calls for legal action against Ben-Ari. What I find particularly unfortunate about this is, assuming any legal action is warranted here, why should it be that a "Christian MK" is the one who has to call for it? Is what Ben-Ari did a "Christian" problem, because it was an affront to Christians? Or is it something we all need to be concerned with and do something about? Jews generally have a good track record for defending the rights of others, standing up against tyranny, injustice and intolerance, even when it doesn't impact us directly. But in this case, out of 120 MKs, it's the one Christian who has to take the lead on this. I find that highly disappointing and frankly embarrassing given the fact that this is not simply a case of "the other guy" being intolerant - it's Jewish intolerance, of a highly charged religious variety.

Jews, and especially Jewish elected officials in Israel, need to stand up in defense of Israel's Christian minority, in the same way we'd want Christians to stand up in the 99% of other places in the world in defense of the Jewish minority (which for instance would have been appreciated in the recent ban on circumcision in Cologne, Germany). Because that, my friends, is how we're going to survive and thrive in this world. Decent, benevolent, good-willed people need to have each other's backs. We need to be willing to fight the other guy's fight, when that fight is righteous, as if it's our own. The same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The only way this situation is going to resolve positively and peaceably (again, in stark contrast to MK Ben-Ari's "Kach" approach) is for both peoples to adopt a "got your back" mentality. But that's another story for another time...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Don't I Feel the "Unity"?

I was reading the Jerusalem Post over Shabbat, and I found a writeup about a conference which took place in South Africa a few weeks back called the "Sinai Indaba" (indaba being Zulu for "business" or "matter"). The conference, arranged by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, featured an array of international speakers "from almost every walk of Torah-faithful Jewry".

Let me start off by saying I'm sure it was a productive, stimulating, enjoyable conference for all involved. It sounds like a great event, and I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the conference per se. That said... Let me quote from the Post:

The inclusive nature of the Indaba is a core element of Goldstein's aim to replicate the unity experienced by the Jewish nation at the foot of Mount Sinai, described by the sages as being "like one man with one heart." This unity is understood to be a prerequisite to the proper acceptance of the Torah, and is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing today's Torah world, in which partisan allegiance to particular brands of Torah often creates great schisms in Orthodox Jewry.

To overcome this challenge, Goldstein looked for the core commonality underlying the various groupings, around which he built the Indaba. He explained: "The common feature uniting the rich array of topics and speakers is the acceptance of the basic tenets of Judaism as defined by the 13 principles of faith set out by the Talmud and codified by the Rambam [Maimonides]. At the heart and soul of the Sinai Indaba is the principle that God gave us his Torah for all times, all places and all circumstances; and, therefore its breadth and depth are limitless, as is its capacity to inspire, enlighten and guide Jews in every generation."

A few reactions to this. First off, I have to admit I don't quite know what to do with the idea of "unity". It obviously has a powerful emotional appeal. I'm a sucker for tearing up when thousands of people are singing the Star Spangled Banner or Hatikva - it's something about people from different backgrounds coming together to stand for something, to express gratitude, affiliation, and yes, unity. And I recall very well the first few days following 9/11, there was a feeling of unusual goodwill among Americans, strangers on the street. People were more polite, more considerate - it was a sense of being "in it together". Of course this is a generalization, but the positive sentiment was palpable. That's a unity based on acute awareness of there being an "other" - which happens in times of war. Israel has had that kind of "unity" thrust upon it all too often. It's the one silver lining in the dark cloud of war.

Speaking of clouds, it would be easy to envision the Israelites feeling unified at the foot of Mount Sinai if indeed they all experienced the clouds and thunder, the ground shaking and fire consuming the top of the mountain, with the voice of God booming out at them. (Forgetting for the moment about the historicity of the story.)

Yet unity is something that makes me nervous. Unity can mean group-think. It can mean a North Korean-style "common purpose" whereby the value of the individual is based almost solely on their contribution to the collective. It's a kind of totalitarianism, like the Tower of Babel, where what looks like great unity of language and purpose ends up being the very thing that destroys them. I recall Dennis Prager once saying that we should be extremely wary when we hear people make calls for "unity", since too often what it really reflects is a person's desire for everyone to "unify" around their own position - "Things would be so much better if everyone would just think like me!"

My experience is that it's actually diversity, not unity, which makes us strong. That thought is expressed in the Torah tradition as well. For instance, R. Nachman of Breslov talks about "machloket" (disagreement) as the "ikkar briyat ha'olam" - the main ingredient for creation. Disagreement keeps us sharp, helps us refine our thinking. Diversity keeps us from being a homogeneous blob. The key is how you deal with that disagreement, how you live with that diversity. To me, that's where unity comes in.

So now let me get to the other part of the quote. What is the unifying factor of the conference, according to the Chief Rabbi? The "acceptance of the basic tenets of Judaism as defined by the 13 principles of faith". Well I feel positively left out! Not only don't I believe in all the 13 - I don't believe in any of them! Now, if there were God, I suppose I'd believe that God was "first and last". And I'd probably believe God has no body. But since I'm not particularly inclined to believe in God - and certainly not "with perfect faith", it pretty much puts me out of the running on any of the 13. So despite the fact that I'm an observant Jew, enjoy learning Torah, and am positively steeped in Jewish life and identity - I can't join the club. Unless I check my particular mind at the door and adopt this set of beliefs, I'm "michutz lamachaneh" - outside the camp.

Now of course, I'm sure the Chief Rabbi and others would have let me join the conference if I really wanted to go. I give him that benefit of the doubt. I have a feeling the "13 principles" notion represents an "official" atmosphere of belief that he hoped would permeate the event. But still, the notion of supernatural belief as a unifying principle is something that gives me pause. Especially when there is so much more within Judaism worthy of believing in - values of life and compassion and justice, freedom and peace and mutual responsibility, the list goes on and on. And I would imagine that in all likelihood it was precisely these kinds of values - and not belief in the supernatural - which comprised the actual core of the conference.

So I leave you with the following questions:
  • Do we really need a belief in the supernatural to be able to believe in and strive for all these other values? 
  • Does Judaism really fall apart without it?
  • Is unity of belief the right kind of unity to envision, or is it unity despite differing beliefs?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Knock knock. Who's there? Hashem!

I was at a "vort" (engagement party) this week, and one of the speakers suggested that the way to ensure a healthy and happy marriage is to "let Hashem into your home". At this point my wife and I looked over at each other and smiled. Neither of us is much into God-talk. And while Hashem may be "in our house" by virtue of the fact that we have a Torah home, and we're both kindhearted, ethical people, God rarely if ever enters into the conversation (except sometimes to point out the God-motivated craziness that goes on in the frum world), and neither of us does what we do out of a sense of reward and punishment or Divine scrutiny. We both simply see the value in being observant. So thank God we're basically on the same page! Because I know of situations where that's not the case, and it can be a terrible strain on the marriage. Baruch Hashem, we have a happy and healthy marriage - and without "letting Hashem in" per se.

That said, I understand what the guy was saying in his speech. If you let Hashem into your home, meaning you are living with an awareness of God's will, expectations, presence, and ever-watchful eye, this has some "potential" benefits:
  1. It focuses the couple/family on a common goal/ideal.
  2. It helps keep people from acting inappropriately or disrespectfully toward one another.
  3. (Related to #1 and #2) It helps one transcend everyday interpersonal frustrations.
Now I'm not naive. Certainly being "Hashem-minded" is no guarantee whatsoever of a happy home, or for that matter of any of the three benefits above. (In fact there are many ways that a religious mindset can be downright damaging psychologically and interpersonally in the home, but I don't want to get into that here.) But I do think it's fair to say that to the extent "Hashem" helps give people a common goal and gives the impetus to be "ba'alei middot" (people of more refined character), that's a good thing.

It happens to be that my wife and I find Hashem to be superfluous in this regard. The most critical part of being observant, as far as we're concerned, is treating one another respectfully, kindly, conducting oneself honestly, with integrity, and doing what we can to improve people's lives. You want to use Hashem talk? Ok, use Hashem talk. But the important thing is to walk the walk. I always maintain that I'd much rather have a neighbor who believes in fairy tales and is a gem of a person than a neighbor who's a rationalist purist but acts like a jerk. Hands down.

And come to think of it, that's probably part of the reason I like living in a frum community, even if the Hashem talk drives me bonkers sometimes. We live among so many fantastic families - true gems! That's the "ikar", the main factor in quality of life. Not believing in fairy tales - sure, that's also important, but in a sense I see that as arguably more of a "mehadrin" position.

Monday, June 4, 2012

"Torat Emet" for Atheists

First, a quick aside about the word emet. Emet is linguistically related to emunah, "faith". That is, emet does not mean "truth" in the sense of "ultimate truth". What it means is being "true to" someone or something, being faithful. Something is referred to as "emet" when it can be counted on to follow through, when it's reliable, trustworthy. A witness' words are "emet" when they are "true to" or faithful to what actually took place. The Torah uses the phrase "chesed ve'emet" in the context of brit, to imply doing kindness and being true to one's word.

I bring this up because the phrase "torat emet" is usually taken to mean that Torah = truth, in the "ultimate" or cosmic sense. So the more Torah we learn, the more we connect to ultimate truth. But this is not the meaning of the phrase. More accurately, torat emet means that Torah is true to its word, faithful, and therefore something we can rely upon. Now, whether or not that's "true" is something we can debate, but at least we should understand the terminology correctly, to know what the phrase means and what claim is being made.

Clearly, the Torah understands that being true to one's word is a value of highest import. To promise something and then not deliver is a blight on a person's good name. To make good on one's promises is the mark of emet. However, I don't want to completely discount the more colloquial meaning that emet has come to imply, meaning "truth" itself, as in "conformity with fact or reality". What would it mean to say that Torah conforms with fact or reality? That the world was created in six days? That Adam was formed out of dust and brought to life with the breath of God? That the Sea of Reeds split? That God said to Moshe [anything]? That X, Y, Z stories in the Chumash are "facts" in the sense of real events which happened? Someone who thinks reasonably and objectively will certainly conclude quite the opposite: If that's what's being touted as "emet", then what we have is a "torat sheker" - it's simply a lie.

Now, I admit that many (most?) frum Jews have this conception of torat emet, and that they vigilantly maintain that everything in Torah is factually true, against evidence and against reasonability. I also understand why they do it - because it's considered sacrilege to say otherwise, because everyone else around them thinks that way and we're affected by our surroundings, because they've been educated that way from early on, and because once a person accepts other "magical" beliefs, to claim that the Torah is historically or factually true is not that big of a stretch anymore.

How do I personally understand torat emet? I'll say this: To call superstition, myth and metaphysics "emet" in the sense of conforming to reality, is a farce and makes a mockery of emet. But even the "softer" definition of "torat emet" - that Torah is faithful and reliable - I can't fully abide by. While I like try to give Torah credit for being remarkably relevant, usable and applicable, even 3300 (or whatever) years later, I don't believe for example that if I love Hashem with all my heart, and follow the commandments, that there will be rain in its proper time, etc. While I see the depth and beauty in Judaism, I look around and see very religious Jews, and I don't particularly see that piety translating into greatness. Of course there are great ones out there, but I'm saying that I don't see Torah as being entirely true to its word, that by keeping the mitzvot we necessarily have blessings rain down on us. Now in fairness to Torah, it could be like the first chapter of Yeshayahu, where he rails against Bnai Yisrael for being "pious" where it comes to Sabbath, festivals, sacrifices, etc., but that all these are meaningless - detestable in fact - when the people don't act in accordance with justice, kindness, compassion, etc. So perhaps that's what's going on. Maybe if we acted decently AND kept the mitzvot, we'd see the the blessings promised by the Torah fulfilled in spades. "Maybe", but as a person of reason, I don't believe in that.

So in essence, I'm left making my own construction of the term torat emet. And I feel comfortable doing that. If Torah is not a product God, but really a product of human beings and a package of teachings/directives for Bnai Yisrael, then as a human being and a Jew, I am absolutely unapologetic about making Torah "in my own image" when necessary. I don't want to be one of those who disingenuously "fudge" and claim that "their" Torah is really the one given to Moses (or whoever) umpteen years ago. No, Moshe had his Torah. Chazal had their Torah. And we must have ours. Torah is "instruction", and that instruction must be relevant to us, or else it is simply an Ancient Near Eastern Text that we've held onto as a national "transitional object" for way too long.

How do I reconstruct the term "torat emet"? I say that Torah (again, my Torah) can only accord with truth. It cannot contravene fact or reality. Therefore Torah must make no claims on any of its own content as being "true" historically. It is likely some mixture of history with a generous helping of myth, and we will probably never know the exact proportions of this recipe. Torah must repudiate any of its own claims of blessing and curse connected to mitzvot observance which assume metaphysical realities. (There are some aspects of blessing/curse which can be understood as natural consequences, in terms of reaping what you sow - but that's within reason.) Torah must reject those laws and teachings which are immoral in our day (and thus untrue in the sense of being "unfaithful" to our needs and our conscience). And it goes without saying that it has to unequivocally deny the existence of gods or God as depicted in the Torah - speaking to people, performing miracles, smiting sinners and enemies, etc. To frame it in the positive, Torah would say that truth and faithfulness are key - and therefore you don't say something that's false (let alone tout it as "emet"), and you don't make promises you can't keep.

In short, torat emet means that Torah puts such a great value on truth, that it is ready and willing to reject anything which falls short of the truth - meaning it is ready to reject parts of itself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Break the Mitzvot - SHATTER them!

The Talmud (Niddah 61b) states that it's permissible to make burial shrouds out of a garment that contains shatnez, a forbidden mixture of wool and linen. The implied question here is: How could this be allowed, because in the future (at the time of the resurrection) the person will "wake up" wearing a forbidden garment and will be transgressing a Torah prohibition! To which Rav Yosef answers:

"This implies that the mitzvot will be abolished in the future to come." 

In other words, it won't be a problem for the person to wear shatnez, because there will no longer be any halachic prohibition against it - or against anything else for that matter.

There's a machloket (dispute) among subsequent halachic authorities over which commandments exactly will be abolished, and when exactly this will take place. The Gemara however simply says "mitzvot" (in general), so the straightforward understanding is that all the mitzvot will be null and void. As far as timing, it's implied from the Gemara that there will be no more mitzvot at the time of the resurrection. But the Gemara didn't use the words "techiyat hameitim" (resurrection of the dead) - it said "le'atid lavo" - "the future to come", referring to an unspecified future era, presumably connected with the redemption. All the Gemara is saying is that the mitzvot will be abolished by the time of the resurrection, meaning that the actual abolition may happen well before that.

Fast forward a few dozen centuries. Here we are today, arguably having met the basic halachic criteria for the "future to come" in redemptive terms. The land of Israel has become fruitful, a substantial wave of "ingathering of exiles" has already commenced, much of the famous Mishna in Sotah has come to pass. And of course, since 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, we've essentially thrown off the "subjugation of the nations", which other Gemaras explicitly equate with Messianic times. The noted halachic authority R. Chaim Zimmerman indeed ruled that the State of Israel ushered in a new halachic era - atchalta d'geulah, "the beginning of redemption".

So perhaps we can say, even halachically speaking:

It is now the "future to come" and the mitzvot are hereby abolished!

Now, any savvy reader will know that I did not simply "deduce" this conclusion in a purely objective manner. I want it to be the case. I want the mitzvot to be abolished. And since I want it, I've found a possible traditional entry to say what I want to say. (And I think I'm in good company, since this is what frum Jews do all the time - i.e., find sources to justify positions they already hold. Only rather than disingenuously claim that my position came as a result of the sources, as people often do, I fully admit that I already held this position from the outset, and I'm merely looking for textual/halachic support.)

The question is, "why" do I want to abolish the mitzvot? Am I a pleasure-seeking hedonist who can't take the thought of not eating a bacon cheeseburger? Mmm, does sound tasty, but that's not it. Am I a self-hating Jew who wants to destroy Judaism? God forbid! I'll tell you why I want the mitzvot abolished:

Because there's too much judgment going around - judgment of oneself relating to the performance of mitzvot, not living up to God's or familial/communal expectations, and judgement of others - people overly fixated, anxious, angry, even belligerent over how or whether other people are keeping mitzvot. That is what I want to change - to pull the rug out from under that judgment. But where does that leave Judaism then, if there are no more mitzvot?

Ok, so now let me be clear what I mean here. When I say the mitzvot are abolished, I mean "mitzvot" davka - i.e., that it's specifically the aspect of Jewish practice being "commanded" which is abolished. But the practice itself remains, to the extent that we choose it. (Such an interpretation is in fact brought in the Sefer Ye'arot Devash - the mitzvot are abolished, but we keep them anyway.) What I'm advocating therefore is not the abolition of Judaism - it's the abolition of "compulsory" Judaism, i.e., as something commanded/obligated from On High.

Imagine practicing Judaism from a place of pure volition, as something that brings joy, meaning, and self-identity - without the guilt and neurosis, without it being a burden. Imagine being committed to Judaism out of the desire for national cohesion, positive, growth-oriented challenge, to infuse family life with a rich heritage of culture, ritual and thought - not because we're somehow ripping the spiritual fabric of the cosmos if we don't. Imagine engaging in Torah and mitzvot from a purely "lishma" place, with no motives other than wanting to learn and grow - not because we're being "watched over", not to obtain reward or avoid  punishment. (As the above Gemara also states, there will be "neither merit nor guilt" in the future.) Imagine having no theological/ideological basis to condemn others (or oneself) for not conforming to ritual practices. ("Do not steal, murder" etc. are another matter, obviously.) No, not "imagine no religion" - IMAGINE JUDAISM as a much better, higher, more mature, tolerant, peace-affirming, joy-affirming practice - without all the strings attached.

To tie this into the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the abolition of the mitzvot is ironically all about "Kabbalat Hatorah" (receiving the Torah). Only instead of the heavy-handed, har kegigit ("keep the Torah or else") experience of Sinai that's come down to us throughout the generations, in the future era - i.e., NOW, we accept only what we want to accept, receive only what we want to receive. The first Kabbalat Hatorah ended with Moshe smashing the tablets of the law. It's high time for us to once again "shatter the tablets" - to abolish the mitzvot as a set of compulsory "commands", and simply embrace the best of our great Jewish heritage as a matter of personal and national choice.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Shelo Asani Isha / Shelo Asani Goy

Yes, it can be dicey when talking to your kids about Judaism as a non-believing frum Jew. But sometimes I'm able to impart things which I feel particularly good about. Over this past Shabbat I had a such a moment.

We were taking a walk, and my teenage son asked me to explain the idea of the mitzvat aseh shehazman grama - usually translated as "positive time-bound commandment". I explained what it is, a mitzvah which is supposed to be performed at a specific time, and that women by and large are exempted from these mitzvot. I told him that given the domestic role to which women were routinely assigned until very recently, and the tremendous load of responsibility that went into that - especially in former times when there were no laundry machines, and you had to grow/raise a lot of your own food, weave your own clothes, etc., to obligate women to do time-dependent mitzvot would make their lives even more difficult than it already was. So Chazal (the Talmudic Sages) gave them a break - if a woman wants to do the mitzvah - great, but she's technically exempt.

He asked why it is then that men say "shelo asani isha" (the blessing of not being made a woman) if men are in a certain sense weighed down by being obligated in more mitzvot. I explained that the commentators say it's precisely for that reason that we do say "shelo asani isha", as well as "shelo asani goy" (not having been made a non-Jew) and "shelo asani aved" (not having been made a slave). Non-Jews, slaves, and women are obligated in fewer mitzvot, and Chazal wanted men to embrace their additional obligation as an opportunity for growth, rather than see it as a burden.

All standard, classical answers thus far... But then I went on to speak more personally about it. I told him that I frankly felt a bit funny, not right, about saying these brachot - at least "shelo asani isha" and "shelo asani goy". (Now I'm talking about the "content" of the brachot, mind you - I didn't get into "baruch ata HaShem" which is another issue altogether.) I said that even though there are ways of understanding these brachot positively, to the listener they have the potential to be insulting. It's like if your name was Bob, and someone next to you said the blessing "shelo asani Bob" - thank goodness I'm not Bob! Or even saying "shelo asani goy" in front of a non-Jew... I said I thought it would be a bit insulting. My son laughed - "A bit? That would be really insulting!"

A nachas moment! He really got my point. And what was my point? Basic Sensitivity. On several levels:

1. To women and non-Jews (or anyone for that matter). Even if the intention is 100% positive, if we know what we say is going to be taken otherwise, or if we'd be embarrassed to say "thank God I'm not Ploni" in front of Ploni, then we really need to think twice about saying it. That's actually my one-off lashon hara rule: If you'd feel embarrassed saying something about a person in front of them, don't say it. That's why I'm uncomfortable with these brachot.

2. To Chazal/the Mesorah (tradition). But I didn't want my son to think I meant to scorn the tradition. As much as I feel it's important to be sensitive to people about whom the brachot are said, I also want to give due honor and benefit of the doubt to Chazal, who penned these brachot. So I offered a bit of context.

Regarding "shelo asani goy", we have to remember that it was a far more brutal world back then, and the Roman Empire - which ravaged the Jewish people, enslaved us, mercilessly tortured us, destroyed our homes and cities and sent us into exile - was certainly no exception. So at that point in time, to say "shelo asani goy" would have made a lot of sense. The non-Jewish world was seen as cold-blooded and cruel, and we didn't want to be associated with that.

As far as "shelo asani isha", it's more in the sense of not being made a slave. Women at that time in history (and until very recently) were universally treated as second-class citizens. Even in the most advanced societies, women were not given anything close to what we'd call "equal rights". Some commentators on these brachot in fact point out that just as a slave has a "baal" (master), so is woman's husband called a "baal", a master. A woman used to be considered her husband's "property". So again, in this context, it would have made much more sense at that time to say "shelo asani isha" - because indeed being a woman was a very difficult lot in life, something like being born into slavery.

But there's another way to honor Chazal - to make changes where appropriate. I believe it gives no honor to Chazal to simply copy exactly what they did without question, acting essentially as robots and parrots, and effectively "freezing" Judaism like a museum piece according to the way life was 2000 years ago (or even 200 years ago). What would give Chazal honor is to think, reason, and behave according to where we are and what's appropriate today. Nowadays, when our experience with non-Jews is very often positive, and when women in free societies are treated equally before the law, these brachot come off as inappropriate and derogatory. I told my son that as sure as I am that the sun is in the sky, if Chazal were here today, there is no way they would have us say these brachot.

(Of course they arguably wouldn't have us say any brachot - because addressing and giving praise to a deity is well beneath our dignity as a reasoned people in the 21st Century. But that's another story.)

3. To the Kehilla (congregation). I also explained to my son that at the same time, I wouldn't hesitate to say these brachot when davening from the amud (leading the service). Sometimes it's important to be sensitive to where people are at, even if you don't agree with them. There's a place to disagree as a yachid (individual) and agree as a tzibur (community) for the sake of shalom. That said, there's also a place to respectfully disagree in the community context as well, so if I were davening I might have someone else say these brachot. No judgment against people, no making a fuss about it - just to gently and respectfully stand on principle if I feel it's truly important.

That's basically what I gave over. We had a good walk together, and it served as a chizuk (reinforcement) to me that if we try to be sensitive and reasonable, what appears to be a "paradox" of being a practicing non-believer is not only doable, but in fact also has the capacity to do a lot of good. True, I didn't "lay it all out there" from an atheistic point of view, but again it's about sensitivity - wanting to be sensitive to my son, to impart to him some of my thinking bit by bit, over time, and let him reach his own conclusions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Throwing off the imaginary shackles

There's no actual evidence for a Creator of the Universe. But it's not totally "unreasonable" per se to speculate that some sort of mega-intelligence is behind it all. However, where it comes to believing in the God of the Torah, claiming that the Torah is literally and/or historically true, that God came down in fire on a mountaintop and dictated the Torah word for word to Moshe Rabbeinu... This not only lacks evidence - it's completely unreasonable. A person who does a bit of research into the ancient world, and thinks openly and reasonably about the Torah in its historical context, will come to the inevitable conclusion that it's a myth. Not a myth in the sense of being completely non-historical, but that things that sound like a myth (e.g., splitting the sea) are indeed myths. I speak a bit about this in my book-blog, but the point of this post (really, this blog) isn't to make that case - it's to take as the starting point the fact that there's no demanding, overseeing deity whatsoever, and to see where we go from here.

The first conclusion we come to of course, is that there's no "contract with God" that we're beholden to. The yoke around our neck, the shackles which bind us to Torah and Halacha - they're all of our own making. We're the only ones who care whether or not we put on Tefillin or Tzitzit, how much of our hair or knees are showing. We're the only ones who care how thoroughly we clean for Pesach, how close to specification our Sukkah is built, or when exactly we light the Chanukiah. We're the only ones who care about how many hours it's been between meat and milk, how well the lettuce was checked for bugs, or what hechsher is on the packaging. We're the only ones who care how much of the davening we say, if we even daven at all, or how much Torah we're learning. It's just us. We're the only ones who care one single iota about it. 

I realize that I'm stating the obvious, but I bring this up because personally, even though I've known for many years that the mitzvot have no "Commander", I still find myself occasionally obsessing about this or that point of Halacha, getting upset or anxious at "mishaps". For instance, if someone throws a hot dairy spoon into the meat sink - yikes! If it's getting close to shkiya on Friday night and I still haven't gotten into the shower - yikes! If my beautiful etrog rolls off the table onto the tile floor - yikes! If it's Pesach and the backpack I'm putting our food into turns out to have pockets full of chametz - yikes!

What I'm saying is that despite my non-theistic frame of mind, despite my wariness of superstitious beliefs and associated neurotic behavior, I still have to keep reminding myself of the mantra: It's only us who cares about any of this. Calm down, it's okay... Point being, it's one thing to know that the shackles you're wearing are imaginary. It's another to actually throw them off.

The good thing about this struggle though, is that each time I come to my senses and stop obsessing - it turns into a fantastic moment of freedom!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hello and welcome

Welcome to the Atheodox Jew's blog. This is the companion blog to "Atheodox Judaism", which is more of a formal project (a book in blog-form) about the concept of Jewish religious observance without God. This blog will be more of a free-flow, where I post on topics as they come to mind.

In the meantime, feel free to check out this short bio and interview about me, posted on the Coin Laundry blog.

Cheers, AJ