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.