Thursday, July 26, 2007

Orthodox Judaism 2017 and Off the Derech Redux

Steve Savitsky at OU Radio has an interesting new series, "Orthodox Judaism 2017", which aims to address challenges and opportunities relevant to the future of Orthodox Judaism in the coming decade. He plans on interviewing people from different segments of the Jewish Community, whether modern or more Yeshivish.

I believe there is merit to such an open and diverse approach that includes trying to learn from different people. I think that it would be great if the Yeshivah World could show a similar openness, even if it would be a modified form, on it's own terms. Perhaps someone could come up with creative ideas as to how that could work in the Yeshivah world(part of the difficulty in the latter's being open to hearing multiple approaches relates to different limits of elu v'elu, but there are also some practical challanges that come with a diverse community makeup).

In the first interview Rabbi Michael Broyde identifies three levels of sets challenges facing the Orthodox community in the coming decade(one should listen to the actual interview, to get the full picture):

A) Social challenge involved in the decline of the Jewish community structure through intermarriage. More directly, the Orthodox community, despite it's growth, is affected by people defecting, even in insular Chasidic community.

B) Intellectual challenges that differ with each generation.

C) Inter-Orthodox schism, the concern that we possible could reach a point where shomrie Torah Umitzvos can not present a united front on certain issues, where we should be able to come together on.

Rabbi Broyde is concerned that any schism should not reach the level of the schism in Israel, where a united Orthodox front does not exist. Rabbi Broyde notes that "that which unites us is much greater than that which divides us", and that there already is cooperation within Orthodoxy, but that we need to build, publicly, on the behind-the-scenes type of cooperation already existing.

On the intellectual issue, Rabbi Broyde says:

One has to always be wary about fighting the wrong war, so to speak. The challenges posed by modernity to those who are of faith don't remain constant. The grand challenge to Orthodoxy 100 years ago which was the Documentary Hypothesis simply is unimportant in our time. Nobody leaves Orthodox Judaism over multiple authorship of the Torah, at least that's my sense.

But for example, as the Slifkin matter showed, this basic question of the compatibility of Torah with modern science, has proven to be an extraordinary important issue, and it's an issue that didn't strike a particular generation as crucial, but I think in our generation, this will prove a crucial issue. People will leave over the sense[i.e., their perception] that Torah is incompatible with modern science.

A different view, downplaying the Torah and Science issue, was presented in a Jerusalem Post article on the Slifkin controversy by Matthew Wagner:

The educator at Machon Lev agrees that answers should be provided, but believes the apparent contradiction between science and religion is not a burning issue for most religious youth.

"A century ago the contradiction destroyed the spirituality of thousands of Jews. But today there are many religious scientists and professors who have refuted supposed inconsistencies.
"I think what truly bothers contemporary religious youth is a much more personal, existential question. The real thinkers are concerned with why they were put on this earth and what they are supposed to do here."

I think the importance of Science and Torah, and intellectual issues in general, varies with the person.

More generally, and to refer to the Machon Lev educator's historical comparison, the question facing researchers into "Off the Derech" is how better, if at all, is today's Orthodox society than the previous European one. From a social perspective, based on issues like poverty and community structure, one might say that we are in a better position than the milieu of vulnerability of say, the 19th Century Volozhin Yeshivah, which had Haskalah activity within its walls (see Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter's, " Haskalah, Secular Studies, and the Close of the Yeshivah of Volozhin in 1892" in Torah Umaddah Journal).

There were always defectors from even the most insular Orthodox communities. Dr. Marvin Schik has written on Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels , that "there are more than a handful of hassidim who have left the fold. This phenomenon was evident in European societies that were far more closed than America's is…"

I will add this thought from a quotation mentioned in an
Avodah posting by Rabbi Bechhofer, which people will agree or disagree with based on their hashkafa(see thread there):

…the time is ripening for a new Haskalah movement to make new inroads precisely *because* our contemporary Charedi milieu is *not* emulating German Orthodoxy, but Eastern European Orthodoxy. V'hudavar pashut.

Also on the topic is Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried's Hakirah article "Are Our Children Too Worldly", where he addresses how strong and impermeable the fences built today are, and how to address the intellectual issues that seep through the fences of even an insular chasidic community.

From the essay:

The fences are in any case not impermeable, and building them higher and thicker will not help.

Gerry Albarelli is a non-Jew who taught “English” (i.e. secular studies) at the Satmar cheder in Williamsburg for five years and wrote a book about his experiences. In the book, Albarelli talks about his relationship with Mendy, the fifteen-year-old brother of a boy he had undertaken to tutor at home. Mendy would come home from yeshivah, often join in the tutorial sessions meant for his younger brother, and always insist on walking the teacher to the subway. Albarelli relates:

Then there are the questions that Mendy asks, walking me to the subway, week after week. He asks these questions as though everything depended on the answers:

“How they know the weather?” “What means geology?” “Who was Con Edison?” “Thomas,” I say, “Thomas Edison.” “No,” he insists, politely embarrassed by my ignorance. “Con, Con Edison.” We’re standing across from the elevated train. “Teacher,” he says, one day, “why is it we know from the Torah that the earth is five thousand years old but the museum have bones that are a million years?” “Oh. That’s a good question,” I say. “You should think about that question for a long time.”

Dr. Fried concludes,

If such questions come to children while they are in closed and protected communities, surely they will come to them when, as they must, they will one day step outside those communities. The reality is that you cannot forever keep children fenced in, and if so, you must provide them with the means to protect themselves in the future.

He notes in a footnote that:

Communities faced with these breaches in their walls usually respond by rededicating themselves even more zealously to building still higher and thicker walls. It does not work. They need to begin thinking about other measures that might work better. Perhaps they should be looking at educational measures.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Scare in Midtown Manhattan

I was in the Midtown Manhattan area today, and the scene was confusion. Apparently, a steam explosion near Grand Central Station had rocked buildings in the area. People were gathered outside buildings, and police were shouting at bystanders to move on, as emergency vehicles rushed to the area. There was a great plume of smoke rising to the sky. Hopefully, there were no people seriously injured.

I stood for a while watching reporters; I was standing next to an Associated Press reporter who was making arrangements to pick up someone's camera, apparently to use in a future story. Another reporter was taking pictures of the pictures taken with someone's cell phone. I decided to head home, especially as there might be an issue with the air quality.

Baruch Hashem, it was not terrorist related. Nevertheless it was a scare. As Lipa says, "ah be me leibt".

As the blogosphere returns to business as usual(actually, it never stopped), I am reminded that as important and vexing as issues we speak of are, perspective can decrease their intensity.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unity and Individuality

I once heard a story about a couple that was just married under the chuppah. The Rabbi had blessed, or advised them that "they need to become one" in order to live a happy, Jewish life together. Right then and there, they began to argue with each other over which one they should become, "he meant that you should become me !", etc.

One of the challanges inherent in unity is to maintain individual identity.

I quote Rabbi Emanuel Feldman:

Granted, there are differences in outlook and perspective between the MO and the YO, and these should not be minimized or disregarded. MO, for example, is not fearful that engagement with the outside world will somehow dilute its Jewishness; but YO is convinced that such engagement, beyond what is unavoidable, will inevitably result in such dilution, and is thus very cautious about crossing certain boundary lines...Only the naïve would expect that these and other differences can be airbrushed away. Nevertheless, it would be a serious dereliction of our duties as Jews if either group, busily tending its unique garden, diverted its eyes from the parlous facts of contemporary Jewish life.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes as well:

Despite the different paths of principle we may tread, the good will need not be—and, baruch Hashem, rarely is—left behind. That said, we must all work to ensure that it never is—that, despite our undeniable diversity, the unity born of ahavas Yisrael continues to envelop us all.

Also worthwhile, is this article by Rabbi Wein, described as "a most personal article and reflects my emotions and hopes about my beloved Jewish people", as well as a link to Moshiach's Hat.

Let us hope for the time when the entire month of Av will be one of happiness!


Thursday, July 12, 2007

new lows in jewish hagiography

Other blogs have circulated the story of R’ Chaim Kanievsky shli”ta knowing how many times the name Moshe appears in the Torah while a computer database miscounted. But, protested many, R’ Chaim’s gabai said no such story every happened! The publisher of the story I think in answering this question establishes a a new low in Jewish hagiography.
“Now, while it may very well be true that the story never happened, it certainly could have.”
Lots of things could happen, but reporting these possible happenings as fact usually crosses some line of journalistic ethics. Baruch recently wrote regarding gedolim biographies, “I therefore think that we should simply accept the genre for what it is: a slice of reality which is meant to inspire.” If delivering a well trimmed slice instead of a broader picture that more accurately captures a person's life is acceptable in the name providing inspiration, why not go to the next nevel and dispense with "reality" altogether - if the possible (i.e. fiction) serves to inspire better than the actual (i.e. fact), who are we to quibble over such minor distinctions? But the writer is not done, and this week reports a new story in the same of R' Chaim's son:
But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “You probably want to hear a peledikeh story. I’ll tell you one that happens daily. Every day, when he finishes eating his meal, my father [R’ Chaim Kanievsky] asks my mother which brocha acharona to make, because he doesn’t know what he ate!”
V’kan ha'tam shoel: if R’ Chaim does not know what he is eating, why does he ask about the bracha achrona and NOT THE BRACHA RISHONA?

I guess I will have to wait for next week’s article to find out.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Daas Baalei Batim

Rav Hershel Schachter humorously writes:

In fact, in Lithuanian yeshivas there was such an exaggerated disdain for baalei batim, the “story” went around about two elderly gentlemen – baalei batim of course – who were both hard of hearing and made up to learn gemorrah together. One was using a gemorrah Eruvin while the other was using an Erchin. The chavrusa went very well, until they reached the forty-third daf, when one was already making a siyum on the smaller volume (Erchin), and the other still had another seventy blat to go!

This exaggerated attitude is the basis of the very fundamental philosophical question that bothered many of the Lithuanian yeshiva bochurim: why did the Borei Olam create baalei batim at all? We know that he didn’t create anything that has no purpose!?

Needless to say, all of these exaggerations are ridiculous. The Sema never meant to say that the sechel of baalei batim is always the opposite from sechel haTorah. A layman who is not familiar with the intricacies of physics or biology will often be mistaken if he will apply common sense to those disciplines; and the same is true of the self-contained discipline of Torah. But very often we will use common sense in establishing halacha! The Talmud tells us that by way of sevorah we can establish a din de’oaraisa!

I found R. Schachter's approach very satisfying. Our chachamim say, who is wise, he who learns from every person... If one says that there is wisdom amongst the nations, believe him. The Rambam says, accept the truth from whomever states it. There are other statements as well, showing that our sages appreciated all knowledge.

How, then, are we to understand the statement that daas bale batim is antithetical to daas Torah ? I belive that stories along this line must be taken with a grain of salt. It is true that a rosh yeshiva may eschew a superficial, "balebatish" explanation, which on the surface answers a question neatly, but comes without the proper, deeper thought-process that a lamdan must develop, the latter requiring perseverance and mental energy. So some balabtishe type of thinking may be the opposite of daas torah. But certainly not all. Also, historically, the connotation of a "baal habaas" may have connoted someone who was anti-Torah(perhaps like the term "am haaretz" in times of chazal), as opposed to just meaning a "layperson".

I recall reading an obituary in the Jewish Observer about Rabbi Moshe Sherer, where a Rosh Yeshiva praised his ideas, even if they were not followed in the end as a matter of public policy. I would therefore advise taking these stories with a grain of salt(like any other strange story), and understand them to mean , that by examining the thought process of Bale Batim, one can, at times discern a superficial approach to gemera learning or to Torah thought, and use that to contrast such an approach with a deeper, analytical one.

I believe that these stories, if told simplistically without trying to understand them or the greatness of their subject's , do harm to the concept of daas Torah and k'vod chachamim. In general, if I hear a strange story about a gadol, I try to understand it in context of other facets of a gadol's personality and of Torah. I quoted in Stories with Educational Lessons, how Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach did not accept a simplistic, strange sounding story he had heard regarding Rav Akivah Eiger.

Indeed, respect for Torah wisdom is enhanced by emphasizing that the wisdom which exists in all mankind can enhance our understanding of Torah, and that our chachamim were open to learning from all people.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Intra-Orthodox Skirmishes, The Three-Weeks, and Blogs

Three comments on a recent Hirhurim thread:

" I have been in both MO and chareidi institutions. I have never heard anyone in a chareidi institution talk about any MO individual or rabbi in the way MO individuals talk about chareidim. The chareidi may say that the MO act in ways that are non-halachic or that a MO rabbi does not know how to learn - but these things have been said about chareidi rabbis too.

I have been witness to adhominem and vile attacks on chareidim from lay leaders, educators and the rabbis. I have even heard the following statemnt from a MO educator - "I hate, hate, hate chareidim" - and noone in the vicinity protested. I've learned about bigotry and antisemitism from the MO. Take this as what you will but I'd rather hang out with chareidim who had issues with one or two of our leaders than a population who hates a broad group of people for no reason."


"In my 4 years in a MO high school and 5 years in YU, I can't recall ever hearing someone MO say anything bad about Chareidim. Ever.

The only thing I can think of is when someone said that he doesn't think that people in other yeshivos know how to learn. One guy said one thing, once, and it isn't particularly bad. And everyone else thought that he was crazy.

My experience in the Charedi world is that the word "Modern" is equivalent to "barely frum" but that might just be an issue of terminology. "


"So what's the lesson here? Each group feels that the other hates them?"

I think that the lesson is that are fair and reasonable people in both groups whom one can talk to, as well as the fact that when you have human beings involved in dispute, there will be indiscretions on both sides. Groups are no different than individuals that have "fights", whether in marriage or in friendships.

If one is involved in a "fight", at least the machalokes should be as civil as possible. Again, on the individual level, I think that Rav Pam zt'l said that couples going through a divorce should remember the bercahos which were directed at them during the Sheva Berachos and be amicable as possible, under the circumstances. One might say the same regarding ideological disputes.

Regarding intemperate remarks made on both sides, I think that we should distinguish between what I would call "internal-talk" or "locker-room talk" ("Mikvah-talk" ?) whose content may include flippant, off-the- cuff remarks that aren't nuanced, versus actual strident language and speech, which sometimes appear in polemics. As an example of the first type, boys(or men) might talk amongst themselves that women have a tendency to "blabber on the phone", and there might be a reverse type of comment from the other gender(I've heard that as well !). While that might not be nuanced, sensitive, or totally fair, I would not call it "vitriolic", if one says "blabber" instead of "effusive" or "demonstrative".

To bring a personal example of this in intra-Orthodox matters, I remember a Centrist person saying something, that while it could be construed as highlighting the strengths of his own group, could also be understood as stereotyping people in the Yeshivah World. I, personally, thought that statement in question was unfair and a stereotype, and should therefore not have been said, but I understood the remark in the context of the communication that was taking place, which was one aimed at highlighting the strengths of his own group, to his own audience.

In fact, this person had previously spoken about appreciating the positive in all groups, and that was what convinced me to introduce myself to him months later, when I met him at a different event. We had a interesting, enlightening, and pleasant conversation, but I would never have thought to do that, had I had not been convinced that he was genuinely respectful of all groups, and that he would not look down at me, as being a stereotype of the "other group".

On the other hand, there is also the category of actual strident language that goes beyond "internal-talk". One might argue that the Right-Wing, on the account of defending Torah principles, may be inherently more "at risk" for using intemperate language(which they believe to be justified, in order to defend a certain understanding of Torah). One should point out that parts of the Right, have learned from experience, and have become more nuanced and sensitive in some of their public communications. To the extent that this is true, we should recognize that as a positive happening, instead of only focusing on a laundry list of past, painful indiscretions.

On the other hand, the more modern group, is also human, and when attacked may also "get carried away", and respond in kind, perhaps months or years afterwards. I've heard a remark where a person from the Left, in order to defend his ideology, was "carried away" and said something which was clearly out of line, and which I felt deserved an apology and retraction. In the case I'm thinking about, however, I still thought to myself at the time, that the person making the remark was basically a decent person, but got "carried away".

Is the solution to have open communication between groups? Should differences be brought into the open, or be papered over? I would say, it depends. Sometimes, as in personal relationships, achdus(unity) is indeed best served by bringing up differences, and talking things through. On the other hand, if both sides don't make a concerted effort to display good-will, dialogues can turn into debates, and in such cases, achdus would be better served by not focusing on the differences. I suppose it depends on the situation, and on the people involved.

I will conclude that if a person or group takes the "high-road" when attacked, and resists the urge the respond in kind, they(or the group) come out better, both objectively, as well as in the eyes of the public.

I would also appreciate if on this thread, people keep things as general as possible, and do not bring up names, as I do not want it to, ironically, turn into a contest regarding which side made greater indiscretions.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

How to Be a Zealot

A few sources discussing zealotry:

Rabbi Berel Wein writes on this week's Parsha:

Pinchas and his behavior become the exception and not the rule in Jewish life and tradition. Zealotry is a very difficult characteristic to gauge correctly. How much are personal quirks involved in such zealous behavior? Jewish history and society is littered by the victims of religious zealotry who were felled by personal attacks clothed in the guise of religious piety and zealotry.

The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking others. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas in killing Zimri. Because of this, it is obvious that only God, so to speak, could save Pinchas from unwarranted criticism and public disapproval. But in so doing, God, again so to speak, warns us of the dangers of zealotry. He will not step in again to rescue the zealot from public and historical disapproval.

The Mesilas Yesharim in the chapter on Chasidus discusses that the motivation of zealotry originates from love of Hashem :

The third branch of the love of God is jealously - being jealous for the Holy One's Name, hating His enemies and striving to humble them as much as possible so that the service of the Blessed One will be done and His honor magnified. ….It is evident that just as one who loves his friend will not tolerate his being beaten or insulted, but will certainly rise to his defense, so one who loves the Name of the Blessed One will not be able to abide the desecration of His Name (G-d forbid) and the transgression of His mitzvoth. …This is the intensity of the love that one who truly loves his Creator should be able to display. As it is said (Psalms 97:10), "Those who love God hate evil."

Also related(further in the perek):

The true motivation, which is common to Saints, who have exerted themselves and persevered to acquire it, is to serve solely for the purpose of magnifying and extending the honor of the Master of Blessed Name. One will serve for this end only after he has grown strong in love for the Blessed One, and longs and lusts for the magnification of His honor, and is pained by anything which detracts from it. He will hope that he is at least doing his part towards magnifying the honor of the Blessed One and he will wish that all others possessed this aspiration. The shortcomings of others in this respect will pain and grieve him, not to speak of his own unintentional and accidental lapses and those resulting from his natural weakness, which makes it difficult for him to constantly protect himself against sin, as it is stated (Ecclesiastes 7:20), "A man is not righteous in the land, who will do good and not sin."

And finally, Rabbi Leff writes:

Rabbi Chaim Brisker pointed out that there are two types of zealots - one praiseworthy and one not. They can be compared to a housewife and a cat. The housewife and the cat both want to rid the the house of mice. There is only one difference: the housewife hopes there will never be another mouse to eliminate; the cat is hopeful that there will be many more mice.

Before we are zealous to attack the evils of the world, let us make sure that we are acting as housewives not as cats, so that we can merit through our ways of pleasantness to attract our estranged brothers to Torah and mitzvos.