Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is a "competent posek" competent in all areas?

Cross-posted on DovBear

HSM recently posted on her blog about a problem between a lying mother and adult daughter. The subject matter is not relevant here, but suffice it to say that I agree with Hadassah and many of the commenters.

What I wanted to examine is the statement by several of the commenters that the daughter should bring her issue to a “competent posek”. This attitude is very common in the frum community, but I think it’s misplaced. Is it really the best thing to speak to a rav about the problem with her mother? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to ask a family counselor or psychologist? What makes a rav qualified to answer questions like this? He didn’t get training in dealing with such problems. He leaned gemara and shulchan aruch.

I would go to my rav for a question about whether a pot needs kashering. That’s his area of expertise. If I was having problems with a family member, I would ask advice from a therapist or family counselor. What’s behind the impulse to ask a rav about absolutely everything? I have a feeling that a lot of really bad decisions are being made because of this misplaced confidence in rabbanim.

Should we really be fasting?

I originally posted this on DovBear a week ago. Sorry it's a little late on my own blog

In an article in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer claims that it’s wrong to still fast on Tisha B’Av:

“Tisha B'Av was never supposed to be an eternal day of mourning…

“For the first time in the history of the Jews, a majority of them are choosing not to live in an independent Jewish state in Zion - of their own free will…

“Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.”
He definitely has a point, (despite his wrongheaded implication in the article that we should remove the mosques from the Temple Mount.) It’s ironic to see people who live in fancy houses in Flatbush, travel to Israel on El Al several times a year, and have full religious freedoms in America begging Hashem to “end the terrible golus!”

But there’s another way of looking at it, and it’s the way I choose to look at many of our traditions. What we commemorate on Tisha B’Av isn’t just the loss of the Temple. It isn’t just a yearning for the Beit HaMikdash to be rebuilt and for sacrifices and a monarchy to be reinstituted. As DovBear pointed out a few days ago, how likely, practical, or even desirable does that really seem?

Instead, we fast because we’ve fasted for 2,000 years. We mourn for the very real people who died for being Jews throughout our long history. We fast because our parents, their parents, and their parents fasted. Looking at the tragedies of Judaism, we also gaze at our rich and varied history.

There’s a myopia sometimes, in the way that many frum people look at Judaism. It’s a focus on a history that ended 2,000 years ago, and a focus on a future that has not yet come. There’s a lack of internalizing the richness of our history and of how Judaism (and Jews) changed and evolved and grew for millennia. It’s as if all of that time was just a holding pattern and is only religiously significant in terms of what came before and the hope of what will come.

The exile created the Judaism we have today. It’s a far different religion, and we’re a far different people, than what we were in the year 70 AD. Part and parcel of that religion is fasting on Tisha B’Av. It’s not just about the destruction, it’s about who we are now, who we were 100, 500, and 1,000 years ago. The kinot we read aren’t just about the destruction. They’re also about the time they were written in, the beautiful poetry of Eliezer HaKalir in the early medieval period or the ones written in the wake of the tragedy of our times, the Shoah.

It’s also about hope. Anshel Pfeffer claims that since Eretz Yisrael is under Jewish control and we could rebuild the Temple should we choose, there’s no need to fast. But as I wrote above, yearning for the redemption isn’t just about the Temple and the monarchy. Instead, it’s about yearning and hoping for a world at peace, where war and hate are no more. It’s a vision that can transcend sectarian differences and is unencumbered by petty differences of theology. Instead it’s about hope.

And that’s why we fast.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reform Judaism's 200th birthday

Cross-posted on DovBear

Reform Judaism is something new under the sun. It isn’t “real” Judaism and will disappear as everyone in the movement assimilates, right?

Well, it’s worth noting that this Shabbat, the 17th of July, will mark the 200th anniversary of the first Reform Synagogue. It was established by Rabbi Israel Jacobson in Seesen, Germany. 200 years is hardly a flash in the pan, and shows that despite the hopes of many frum Jews, Reform Judaism is here to stay.

This may sound like I’m celebrating Reform Judaism, and in a sense I am. More on that below. But I certainly have a lot of issues with it as well, especially as it was practiced in the beginning. My biggest issue was the expunging of the any hint of yearning for Eretz Yisrael. Reform Judaism was meant to show loyalty to the country the Jews lied in. And the temple was decked out to look and feel like as much as possible like a church.

Over the years, American Reform Judaism softened their anti-Zionist stance, and today are usually strongly supportive of the state of Israel.

Interestingly, there was no gender egalitarianism in that first temple in Seesen. Men and women sat separately. Hmm – separate seating and anti-Zionism… was that first Reform temple charedi? (Yes, I’m aware that “Zionism” per se didn’t exist in 1810. I’m using term for convenience.)

One innovation that shocked and appalled more traditional Jews was the use of German to deliver the sermon, instead of the more traditional Yiddish so that the masses could understand. Today we think nothing of hearing a drasha in English in the most Charedi shuls.

And Reform certainly changed traditional Judaism in far larger ways as well. Opposition to Reform brought rapprochement between the Chassidim and Misnagdim and created a new movement called Orthodox Judaism. This wasn’t merely a gathering together under a new name, but a crystallizing of disparate practices and movements into one. Thus, in a sense, Reform Judaism preceeded (and created) Orthodox Judaism.

I still have problems with contemporary Reform Judaism. I think that a Judaism devoid of ritual is far poorer for it and loses much of its Jewish character. (Though ritual has been increasing in the movement in recent years.) But I still feel that there’s much to celebrate about the movement as well, as I mentioned above.

One common refrain among Orthodox Jews is that Reform Judaism has been a huge gateway to assimilation. That may be true, to a degree. But let’s pretend that Reform (or the other heterodox movements) didn’t exist. Do you really think that those 1.5 million American Jews that count themselves as Reform would have anything to do with Judaism at all today? It’s unlikely that they’d all be Orthodox. If anything, Reform has probably helped more Jews retain a Jewish identity than they’ve helped lose. That’s 1.5 million Jews who might have been lost to Judaism entirely. 1.5 million Jews who care about Israel. Yes, some of their Jewish identity may be superficial, but frankly, that could be said of some Jews in every movement.

So Happy 200th Birthday, Reform Judaism!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Failing the homeless

Here's something I wrote on a discussion board this morning and felt was worth reproducing here:


Homelessness is the biggest example in America today of how unfettered capitalism and the unregulated free market has failed the poor.

We have a huge surplus of housing in America today. And we have a huge group of people who need housing. Why can’t one problem solve the other? Because people raise the concept of the free market and private ownership to the level of a holy religion, and they resist any “tampering” of those market forces. Those market forces represent something intangible. It’s not like 1,000 years ago, when at least wealth could be counted in sheep or gold. Today it’s bank balances. And in most cases, the funds are electronic, or even anything you can hold in your hands. So because of some intangible concept of ownership and free markets, the conservatives (and most of the rest of us, frankly) are letting people starve and wander the streets.

Not to say that I think capitalism is wrong. It’s the best system we have. Unfettered socialism has proven to be an even bigger failure. But there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy mix of the two. Some compassion for the poor and some redistribution of wealth in this country wouldn’t impoverish the rich. But it could certainly help the have-nots become at least have-a-littles.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rabbi Ginzberg;s article on Rabba Sarah Hurwitz

Harry Maryles and DovBear have both put up posts today about Rabbi Aryeh Ginzberg’s article in the Five Towns Jewish Times in which he expresses his outrage at Rabba Sarah Hurwitz’s being invited to be a scholar in residence at a shul in the 5 towns area. Here’s some thoughts I had when reading the article.

From Rabbi Ginzberg’s article:
"In this case, I know many will not be pleased, some will even possibly be angry at me for stirring the pot. But I have been asked by one of the senior gedolei ha’dor, as well as by several of my distinguished colleagues, to bring to the attention of the general community the great bizayon haTorah, the degradation of the gedolei Torah, that took place in our community this past Shabbos."
Who is this super secret godol hador? Why can’t he be quoted? This is what’s sickening about the whole “daas torah” system. People are expected to faint in respect when even an anonymous “godol hador” is referenced. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And who are the “distinguished colleagues”? Why can’t they be named? I guess it’s good enough to say that they’re distinguished.

"[This article has been reviewed and approved by several other community rabbanim as well, whose names will be available from the editor upon request.]"
OK, so it’s nice that the names are available upon request. Why can’t they just be mentioned in the article? What are they all afraid of? If I wasn’t at work, I’d call up the editor right now. Can someone reading this undertake that?

"one maverick individual, a rabbi from Riverdale"
Is this along the same lines? We all know he’s referring to Rabbi Avi Weiss. Is there some fear that by saying his name he’ll legitimize Rabbi Weiss? Maybe this way he doesn’t have to capitalize “rabbi”.

"This unified call for condemnation of the breach of tzniyus and mesorah was unprecedented in that similar calls were heard from the Rabbinical Council of America (albeit in different words) and from the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Seminary, led by the gaon and posek Rav Herschel Schachter, shlita."
See! I, Rabbi Ginzberg, bring in Rabbi Schachter, and call him a gaon (shlita!) in a brazen attempt to sway what I naively think is the modern orthodox world.

"The unprecedented public outcry at this breach in mesoras Yisrael that was heard from every Orthodox organization, including the National Council of Young Israel"
Another organization that R Ginzberg seems to think is Modern Orthodox, so drags in to bolster his case.

"Those words sent a loud and clear message to all who heard them: the unified words of our gedolei Torah and distinguished rabbonim mean absolutely nothing. The concept of da’as Torah, emunas chachamim, and kavod for talmidei chachamim are all ancient ideas that are to be tossed to the side, along with our ancient mesorah, all for the sake of feminism and perceived equality."
Right, deference should be given to a group of old, out of touch men who have no clue what it going on in the real world and want to just protect some idealized cloistered false version of the shtetl. Meanwhile, any rabbi who does support the Maharat program is automatically disqualified from being one of the “distinguished rabbonim”. Kind of a catch-22, no?

"Several months ago, when this issue came to the forefront and the gedolim all spoke in a unified voice as to the dangers that this brings to our community, some took a different position and publicly attacked the position of the gedolei Yisrael."
Who decided that those people (still unnamed) are the “gedolei yisroel”?

"I want to emphasize a thousandfold and to be very clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual capacity or even book knowledge of Ms. Hurwitz (whom I never met). She may be proficient in the entire Shach and Taz (which I have no way of knowing, yet I am highly doubtful)."
Notice that in the same paragraph in which he supposedly is trying to show his fairness to Rabba Hurwitz, he also insults her and all women by saying that he’s “highly doubtful” of her torah knowledge. On what basis?

"Unfortunately, with my Rebbe’s passing over two years ago, I don’t have him to consult with on these types of issues."
So I have to try to think for myself, a novel concept to me.