Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Halachic standards in Orthodoxy today - it's never been done before

Observant Jewish life used to be much simpler. We lived in cloistered communities where notwithstanding our rose colored nostalgic glasses, Jewish literacy wasn't high. Halachic observance was cultural, not legally-driven.

But nowadays, when understanding of what halacha apparently demands of us is part and parcel of the education of most Orthodox kids, there's an obsession with "getting it right". Of course culture plays a huge role now, too. But the culture is more informed by a strict legality and everyone is trying prove themselves within that context.

But here's the thing - it's never been done before! In prior times, Jewish observance was much more flexible and relaxed. People did what they were taught by their parents, not what they learned at Yeshiva. Not everyone got it "right", and there was far more variety in practice in different communities than the insistence of one-size-fits-all halachic Judaism of today.

So of course it's obsessive and rigid now, and insists on ever more unobtainable standards.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Avinu Malkeinu? How do we relate to God with modern sensibilities?

Much of our liturgy and classical literature focuses on obedience and worship of God with the analogy of subjects relating to a king. This is often the case even when the analogy is not explicit.
Such analogies worked for most of Jewish history, when the prevailing cultural context was subservience to human rulers who were often believed to rule by divine right. Thus, a similar worship of God came more naturally.

But since the rise of the enlightenment, democracy, individual autonomy, it's harder to relate to God using the old ideas. And the more one is steeped in western ideas, the harder it is to profess utter subservience to another being, even if we fully believe in God. I for one, find many of the words in the long prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur hard to relate to.

What's needed are new paradigms to relate to God that really resonate with a modern mind. But what would those paradigms be? Friend, Partner? How do we reconcile that with traditional ideas about God?

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ten years blogging!

Actually, that was back in February. I only realized now that I missed noticing that milestone.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Iran deal revisited

I was just having an email discussion with a friend who was incredulous at Jewish support for the Iran deal and for supporting Obama's efforts there. Here was my response:

I said at the time, and I still believe this, that yes, the Iran deal was a bad deal. But that's because any deal with Iran would be a bad deal. There was no possibility of a good deal. So the question becomes, was a bad deal better than no deal at all? I tend to lean towards answering yes. The deal wasn't meant to be an absolute guarantee that Iran wouldn't develop nuclear weapons, it was meant to slow down that program dramatically, and at the same time bring a rogue nation into the sunlight of international diplomacy, which would gradually move them towards some kind of relative moderation. Simply ostracizing them would have caused them to work harder to get a bomb and they wouldn't have much to lose by threatening its use later.

You can disagree with Obama's reasoning, but he wasn't just being naive - he had a method to what he was doing, the belief that diplomacy, even in the cases where such diplomacy will be tough and take years, is the only thing that will guarantee peace in the long term. I agree with that approach, even if I sometimes disagreed with Obama on details.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The OU pronouncement on women clergy

I'm surprised at how little I find myself caring about the OU pronouncement. 10 years ago, I would have been angry and posted about it extensively here. Now, I just shrug and go "meh". I think I've stopped caring what the establishment Orthodox community does, since I don't really consider myself beholden to them. I just carve out my own comfortable niche, and that's where I live, religiously.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Obama's legacy on Israel

Now that Obama's term is almost over, can we finally put to bed the preposterous notion, advanced by many of my more right-wing co-religionists, that "Obama is the worst president for Israel ever"?

Obama's actually been a pretty good friend to Israel, having her back at the UN, increasing military aid, and never, ever pressuring Israel financially like Reagan and George HW Bush did. His relationship with Netanyahu has been frosty, but the blame for that lies more with Netanyahu than with Obama.

So what was Obama's crime? Apparently it was criticizing settlement expansion and pressuring Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. At best, Obama has been accused, in the words of one recent critic I exchanged comments with as "[approaching] the peace process with complete naivete, and many assumptions that are simply not true".

Obama approached the peace process exactly like his two predecessors did. Perhaps that that doesn't work anymore, but Bill Clinton and George W Bush both did the same things, so Obama's approach was hardly unprecedented. They all pressured Israel to negotiate and to freeze settlements. They all criticized Israel publicly, albeit mildly, when Israel did things they deemed unhelpful.

Perhaps the peace process, as begun with the Oslo agreement (driven by Israel herself, not the US), is a failure and a new path needs to be expored. Perhaps Obama's "crime" was continuing longstanding American policy when the Middle East was changing drastically. But keeping a steady hand on the tiller hardly equates to throwing Israel under the bus.

History will judge the Jewish right-wing's hand-wringing over Obama's relationship with Israel as overblown partisan hysteria. I hope that our community can have a calmer, fact based view in the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Is the trend towards chumrot driven by a more halachically literate Orthodox laity?

A common criticism (which I have repeated myself many times over the years) is that the Orthodox community has trended towards ever more stringent chumrot because the shul rabbi, who understands the needs of the laity, has been replaced as as posek by roshei yeshiva, who are in the ivory tower, so to speak, and don't understand those needs, thus are less likely to look for compassionate kulot.

I still believe there's truth to that, but as I was reading this piece by Aryeh Klapper on gedolim, one sentence really struck me:

"The eclipse of shul rabbis occurred because they were less capable than the roshei yeshiva of serving a more educated and more observant generation of Orthodox men and women".

I never thought of it that way before, but he does have a point. The Orthodox laity is far more halachically literate than at most times in Jewish history, fantasies about shtetl life aside. People kept halacha culturally, and asked the community rabbi their she'elot. Girls didn't have formal religious education at all, and most boys had only cheder before going off to work.

Today, K-12 day school education is the minimum for Orthodox children and teens in most communities, and as a result, they have a far greater understanding of halacha than their ancestors. Rabbi Klapper's suggestion is plausible. The natural result of greater halachic literacy may be a demand for greater adherence to firmer standards, and that may be reflected in the responses given to she'elot.