Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Worldliness, Walls, and the Haredi World: On the Money Interview

I just finished listening to Steve Savitsky's OU Radio interview with Dr Aaron Hirsch Fried, a psychology professor at Stern College who is part of the Chasidic community, and has been involved in education in the Chasidishe community for many years. I also link to the Hakirah article that was the focus of the interview, but I highly recommend that one listens to the OU interview, as there are a number of responses that I found absolutely fascinating and refreshing.

As part of the Charedi community, Dr. Fried certainly appreciates its strengths, achievements, and beauty, in addition to being respectful of its leadership . However for me, his views are a breath of fresh air, and are certainly not what one hears, at least for the most part, in public.

On the positive side, Hamodia and Torah Umesorah have both asked him to share his views with their audience; he has already done so with the latter, and his talk was well received.

The following description by Steve Savitsky(about 16 minutes into the interview) sums up the contrast between the approaches of building firewalls against secular culture, versus dealing with it head-on, and teaching a person to use his or her intelligence to see which aspects of secular society one can accept, and which one needs to reject:

Do you want people to think or not think?... If we create a world where no one thinks-- everything is done by rote, it'd done because this is the way it's done-- then you never have any problems. Once you open that little genie of , " let me get you to think", you start thinking about everything…And what you[Dr. Fried] are really saying is that people who are intelligent-- and we are intelligent people, baruch Hashem-- they are going to think anyway, whether you like it or not.

One should note that there are variations in the Charedi world, and that no society is all or nothing, as far as using either of the two approaches. For example, positive mention should be made of Haredi weekly magazines that have practical and scientific information for both children and adults.

According to Dr. Fried(about twenty minutes into the interview), besides an estimated 15% of children at risk,

there are also a lot of people who are on the "outside", towing the line, living the life, walking the walk, talking the talk, but "inside" have lost it--have lost the values, have lost the beliefs and are a bit cynical.

On page 62, Dr. Fried writes:

There is an unwritten but whispered rule amongst Bais Yaakov girls that, “If youhave some really serious questions, whatever you do, don’t ask yourteacher, not unless you don’t care what it does to your shidduch chances!” This attitude towards thinking and questioning drives away some of our brightest and most honest young people. It also flies in the face of Rishonim like the Mabit who insist that it is imperative that we learn to think and to question and to chase down answers on our own.

I agree with the Mabit(not that he needs my haskamah), because the Rambam and other great figures in our history no doubt made use of the capacity to question and of their rational faculties, as part of the process in their growth and development as Torah personalities(see this post as well). On the other hand, we should also recognize the accomplishments of our Yeshivos and Beis Yaakov's in raising generations of committed Jews.

In the article(pg 47-48), Dr. Fried quotes from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch zt'l at length:

Finally, it would be most perverse and criminal of us to seek to instill into our children a contempt, based on ignorance and untruth, for everything that is not specifically Jewish, for all other human arts and sciences, in the belief that by inculcating our children with such a negative attitude we could safeguard them from contacts with the scholarly and scientific endeavors of the rest of mankind….

You will then see that your simple-minded calculations were just as criminal as they were perverse. Criminal, because they enlisted the help of untruth supposedly in order to protect the truth, and because you have thus departed from the path upon which your own Sages havepreceded you and beckoned you to follow them. Perverse, because by so doing you have achieved precisely theopposite of what you wanted to accomplish.

For now your child, suspecting you of either deceit or lamentable ignorance, will transfer the blame and the disgrace that should rightly be placed only upon you and your conductto all the Jewish wisdom and knowledge, all the Jewish education and training which he received under your guidance. Your child will consequently begin to doubt all of Judaism which (so, at least, it must seem to him from your behavior) can exist only in the night and darkness of ignorance and which must close its eyes and the minds of its adherents to the light of all knowledge if it is not to perish.

To shift to my own thoughts, which do not represent those of Dr. Fried, I recently heard someone whose opinions I respect, and who has far better Charedi credentials than myself, say that he was(at least initially) "torn asunder by the Slifkin issue".

I, myself, try hard to be positive about the future direction of the Charedi community, but sometimes I find it hard to do so, as I think that the Slifkin issue is just one part of a general approach of bans and of building higher and thicker walls, as an ongoing response to secular society.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be more positive and note the balanced and nuanced aspects of the Haredi world, and continue to fervently hope that it will balance itself out, both in America and in Israel(both two different types of communities). Perhaps there are hopeful aspects in this regard which need to be magnified, and to be brought to public attention.

Listening to the interview with Dr. Fried indeed gives one renewed hope that balanced and moderate voices in the Haredi world will be given a chance to speak. In either case--- as many people wrestle with the uncertainty of the future direction of the Charedi world-- there is room in the different feeling--both positive and negative-- manifested by that struggle, itself, for growth, as the Midrash and Ramban discuss about "nisayon" bringing out latent potential( which we will read in a few weeks on Rosh Hashanah). Indeed, directly facing the strengths and weaknessess of a particular approach, rather than providing full defenses of Haredi positions and policies is, paradoxically, the best answer for some people.

I once had a chavrusah who had a rather demonstrative way of expressing himself upon seeing an explanation in the gemera or rishonim that he particularly enjoyed. He used to kiss the sefer and say from Mishlie(24:26) , sefasayim yishak meshiv devarim nechochim, " [it is fitting for] lips to be kissed[or for one to become silent in the presence of] a person who gives a correct answer"(see Rashi and Tosophos to Gittin 9a).

I am more reserved than he was , and generally do not characterize my feelings in such a way. However, sometimes I am tempted to make an exception, such as when listening to, and reading the analysis linked at the beginning of this post.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Is it Dangerous to Kiss a Mezuzah ?

The Rambam in the sixth chapter of Hilchos Mezuzah writes :

Whenever a person enters or leaves his home, he will encounter the unity of Hashem's Name. He will then be reminded of his love for Him, and will be awakened from his slumber and the error of being absorbed in trivial activities. He will then know that only knowledge of Hashem is permanent, and will immediately return to his own awareness, and follow the paths of the upright...

I assume that the basis of the custom to kiss the mezuzah(I would appreciate any sources * regarding this) is to bring to awareness thoughts and feelings, such as those described by the Rambam.

The following is a link about one Conservative rabbi's ruling, which recommended not kissing the mezuzah, out of concerns of spreading infectious disease. Now, were the level of concern of a health hazard to reach a serious threshold, I assume Orthodox poskim would, as well, advise against kissing a mezuzah and categorize the act as "shachiach hezeika".

Practically, I don't know to what extent this ruling will be followed by Conservative Jews who have been observing the custom to kiss the Mezuzah.

* Note: See gemera Avodah Zarah 11a, as noted in comments.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Challenge of a Happy Haredi II (Concert Ban)

There is a good article by Larry Gordon in the Five Towns Jewish Times which offers clarification on the Israeli/Jerusalem Concert Ban. As always, please be respectful of Gedolie Torah if you are commenting here.


Slifkin in the Jewish Press II

Rabbi Dovid Kornreich writes in a letter to the Jewish Press:

But why are they challenged in the first place? Why is their faith in the sages’ mastery of all levels of reality so frail and their faith in science so strong? Believe me, I also wonder how to reconcile many fantastic statements of Chazal with empirical reality. The problems are quite perplexing, but they don’t challenge my faith…I humbly submit that it is completely counterproductive, in an attempt to strengthen faith, for Rabbi Slifkin to cater to a mindset (one perhaps shared by Rabbi Slifkin himself) that cannot accept, in principle,the real existence of a supernatural reality.

As I wrote previously(see comments to this post), the general question of how to approach tensions between Science and Chazal involves both a theological and an educational question. From a theological standpoint, there is a fundamental dispute whether the approach of the Rambam, his son Rav Avroham, and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch on Science and Chazal issues is kefirah, heresy. While one can try to limit the application of R Avroham ben Harambam sources, I think that the intellectually honest thing to do, is to at least admit that there was a significant change of public policy in the haredi world, and/or that even amongst charedi gedolim, there are significant differences whether such is kefirah(in cases when R Avroham ben Harambam may be applied).

As Rabbi Kornreich points out, at some point, there is a need to accept supernatural reality. As indicated below in the Rambam's teshuva quoted by the Alter of Kelm, "wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational". Where to draw the line is a separate subject.

I quote from the Alter of Kelm:

There is really nothing new. Those who know what Beis HaTalmud is all about understand its lofty stature; those who do not will speak of it in the darkest terms. We are aware of the preciousness of the Rambams Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the Perplexed). In his Introduction to the same, and in his responsa, Rambam writes that his work will likely not help a thousand fools and it might even worsen matters for them. Yet, he writes, these thousand must give way to the single individual who lives as the more complete image of what Man should be, and who will be helped to live more completely by studying the Guide. So many people who did not fathom the positions of the Rambam distanced and banned those who supported his works! Yet truth, in the end, will prevail. This alone should quiet the complaints against us.

I will tell you this. I can point to an idea in one of Rambams responsa that is a central support of our yeshiva . He writes: With all our might we will attempt to bring Torah matters in synch with rational thought. Wherever we find this impossible, we will concede that the Torah matter belongs to the meta-rational. I have seen amongst Torah personalities those whose goal is to take all of Torah past and future and turn it into the inexplicable. They wish for everything to be foreign to rational thought. Rambam mocks them, and rejects them.

Those who know what our yeshiva is about know that we strive to allow Torah to appeal to reason, so that it can be well established within peoples hearts. This is particularly important for young people, the young of our generation, so that proper belief and attitudes become well-seated within them, with the help of G-d. One can easily understand how important this is. We endeavor to do the same even in the study of Gemara and its commentaries. I have written hurriedly, but it will suffice for the discerning.

From an educational standpoint, one can differ whether giving a student an alternative that the Rambam and Rav Hirsch accepted, is indeed, ultimately, helpful to them. Some feel, as quoted below from Rav Aryeh Carmell, that it is helpful. Indeed, people have been helped by that approach. It can allow a person to move on, and grow in emunah, although admittedly, it can be abused and be the beginning of a slippery slope.

Rabbi Carmell writes:

As the centuries progress we discover a curious fact. As modern science becomes more and more soundly established and more discrepancies appear between the words of our Sages and modern science, one would have thought more and more recourse would be had to Rambam’s principle — that the words of our Sages in aggada, are not always expected to be in accord with the facts.

But in fact the contrary is true. Rambam’s principle is ignored, for the most part it is not even known. A good deal of Orthodox education at the present time teaches that whatever the Talmudical Sages assert, in halacha and in aggada, is literally and factually true, and that it is part of our duty as Jews to believe this. There is no doubt that this viewpoint is attractive. It is simpler, and if discrepancies do appear, they can usually be dealt with by assuming that “nature has changed.”

The difficulty is that maintaining this viewpoint depends on the ability of the educators to isolate their students from all contact with modern science. In the world in which we live, it seems less and less likely that this will be successful. Rav S.R. Hirsch, who opened the secular world to the Orthodox Jew, dealt with this very question in 1876. He came down strongly on the side of Rambam and Rav Avraham his son. He rejected the other, seemingly more "religious” viewpoint, because of the disaster he foresaw when the student eventually realizes that he has been misled.

We may be standing before this problem today, when whoever has a cell phone has mmediate access to modern science.

Two final points:

As I pointed out in the previous post and comments, this is not a carte blanche endorsement of everything said by Rabbi Slifkin. The focus of this post is a particular shittah in the Rishonim, which although has recently become associated with Rabbi Slifkin becuause of the controversy(thus the title of this post and its predecessor), has been around for centuries. This post is aimed at the reader who thinks with nuance and can appreciate the distinction.

Lastly, I think that especially those who do allow Rav Avroham ben Harambam's et al opinion on Science and Chazal issues as a valid possibility, need to stress a belief in the greatness of Chazal as links in the Mesorah, and that there does exist reality which can not be perceived by our five senses.

Some try to accomplish primarily the former of these two aims by saying "zogt de heileger gemera", or "de heilge Rambam". This is not new, and has a pedigree for example, in the phrase " devarav hakedoshim". Whether one does this practice or not(I've had roshie yeshivah who did not), educators need to get across to students in our day and age the concept of chazal's transcendence, integrity, and their role as transmitters of the mesorah.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Jewish Observer on Concerts

Rabbi Yosef C. Golding, who has been involved in JEP recordings and Suki and Ding productions, wrote an article about improvements that he felt needed to be made in both Jewish Music recordings and live events. Writing in the May, 2007 issue of the Jewish Observer, he has the following suggestions for the Jewish Music industry(he thanks Yisroel Lamm and Abie Rotenberg for constructive comments):

We urge the talented songwriters, perfomers, and producers to understand what a great impact they can have upon Klal Yisrael and we point out to them that they have an opportunity to use their music, regardless of genre, for a greater good.

The performer should not merely prance around on stage for an hour, mindlessly belting out tune after tune... To enhance the music, there should be dialogue, peirsush hamillim, a story, chizuk, inspiration, a plea for a greater connection to the Almighty through music, ...and we must be able to say wholeheartedly, tavo alav beracha--may he receive Divine blessings--for doing so...even if it isn't always the kind of music that you and I appreciate.

An evening of Jewish music should reinforce within the audience that music is a gift from Hashem with the potential to inspire the appropriate emotion of the movement, whether simcha shel mitzva, simchas hachaim, or longing to be closer to Hashem, or to return to Yerushalayim...and that the evening was well spent spiritually. Jewish music is a calling, not merely a way to make a living.

If everyone involved made it paramount that their audiences be uplifted overall...or better yet, if the audiences demanded that performers use their talents for that would go a long way towards bringing the true shiras Levi'im closer to realization.

I would note that the article wasn't discussing the issue of men and women attending the same concert in same or separate sections, nor was it discussing the situation of Israel specifically, in which the Jewish Observer's parent organization would, obviously, defer to Israeli gedolim. What the article did suggest, in consultation with contributors to the Jewish Music scene, were ways in which Jewish Music recordings and concerts(at least in America) could be improved.

In any event, the part that most impressed me was, " and we must be able to say wholeheartedly, tavo alav beracha--may he receive Divine blessings--for doing so...even if it isn't always the kind of music that you and I appreciate". Halevai, we should see more such tolerance, where the Haredi world acknowledges that some people need a different derech, and that not everyone is cut out of the same cloth!


Friday, August 03, 2007

on bans and beliefs - some questions on your reaction

Is there anyone out there who can say in all honesty that they will no longer attend a Jewish music concert because of the ban placed by gedolei yisrael? If such a person exists, I have a follow-up question: m'ikara mai ka'savar ul'b'sof mai ka'savar - what positive (or neutral) value did you attach to the concerts which originally made you attend, and how has the ban changed your view of the same experience? My chakira is: did you previously find the concert experience a mix of good/bad and felt the good outweighed the bad, but now the gedolim have changed your mind; did you previously think the experience was positive and now see all the negatives; do you still feel the Jewish concert experience is positive but are simply mevateil your da'as to that of gedolim?

For those who identify as chareidi and still will attend concerts, question: is this because you asked a shayla to your chareidi rav who openly took a position that the advice of these gedolim could be ignored, or you on your own made a decision to ignore their advice? If the latter is true, do you think ignoring the advice of gedolim based on your own assessment is consistant with the chareidi vision of da'as torah?

(Note: just to clarify in response to comments - by "chareidi" I simply mean those of you who otherwise believe the advice of gedolim in all areas should be unquestioningly followed.)


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Challenge of a Happy Haredi

The Rabbinic Ban on the concert in Israel is starting to make its rounds in the blogosphere, and I would like to share some thoughts on both the issue of Jewish music concerts in general, as well as on the meta-issue of satisfaction with Haredi life.

Personally, I am an avid fan of Jewish music, and I enjoy attending these concerts from time to time. I think that on a whole, they are a simple, kosher pleasure. I do agree that there can be issues and/or grounds for improvement, whether intermingling of genders that may occur at the events, hero-worship of performers, or the secular nature of the music.

On the positive side, I would note that at a recent concert that I attended, one performer, who is a Ben Torah, performed in a very aidel(refined) manner. So, while people are welcome to criticize the Jewish Music industry, I would appreciate if some nuance is used in this forum, and also, if names of singers are not mentioned.

The Jewish Observer recently published an article, which as noted in the magazine, had input from two of the biggest names in the Jewish Music industry. While the author strongly called for an increase in the "Jewish" aspect in these concerts, to his credit, he recognized that people are on different levels. He thus concluded that if improvement occurs, even those who don't attend concerts on principle, need to be able to give a genuine "yasher koach" for the improvements made.

In practice, the Israeli ban is not relevant to many people. If one is Modern-Orthodox, these issues are not on the radar screen. In the American haredi world, no one is banning concerts. In fact, a prominent haredi Rav, recently recommended that an older, single, relative of mine attend Jewish music concerts(where there was separate seating), because he felt that it was important for her happiness.

Indeed, at Jewish music concerts, I often notice groups from Ohel Family Home attending these events; once, I saw an "out of town" eighth grade class with their rebbeim as well. I once took a recent baal teshuva whom I was acquainted with, who was alienated from his family, to a Hasc concert, and he enjoyed the evening, even though he never experienced Jewish music before. For some people, these events are, therefore, important.

I would also note that the Israeli Haredi world does have some type of Simchos Bais Hashovea concerts, although these are subject to Rabbinical oversight.

To shift to meta-issues of understanding the Israeli Haredi world, most secular, or non-Haredi perspectives would emphasize the arguable difficulties in Haredi life, as viewed by an outsider.

For example, the following was a description by Micha Odenheimer in Foreign Policy:

In Hebrew, ultra-Orthodox Jews are called haredim, which translates as “tremulous” or “fearful” and reflects the community’s claim to represent the last segment of Jewry whose behavior and commitment are centered in awe and reverence to God. It is an apt name in another sense, because fear of the relentless assimilative power of modernity has shaped ultra-Orthodoxy’s ideology and survival strategy since its inception. Ultra-Orthodoxy began in the early 1800s, when the secular humanism of the Enlightenment started to penetrate into the Jewish population centers of Eastern Europe. Key rabbinical leaders—revered by the faithful as towering scholar-saints—responded to the challenge by erecting a virtual firewall that they hoped would keep their flock from straying. Secular learning was banned, as were innovations of theology, practice, and style that were seen as reflecting modern sensibilities.

After the Holocaust, the shattered remnants of ultra-Orthodoxy that regrouped in the state of Israel were faced with the triumph of secular Zionism and the appeal of the new kind of Jewish identity it offered. In response, Israel’s haredim (America’s largely followed suit) created a religious culture more insular and controlled than had ever existed in Jewish history. A single kind of personality—the preternaturally pious, diligent, and ascetic Torah scholar—became the ideal that everyone was meant to emulate. Television and movies were banned, and the pursuit of higher education, unless strictly related to making a living, was frowned upon. So was internal debate and criticism, which could subvert the authority and ideology holding the nearly exterminated community together in the face of what it perceived as existential dangers.

As noted above, the Foreign Policy description is written from a secular perspective, and does not focus on an appreciation of the Torah accomplishments of the Israeli and American Haredi world. Having said that, would you agree with the above, that, " Israel’s haredim (America’s largely followed suit) created a religious culture more insular and controlled than had ever existed in Jewish history" ?

What do you predict as the future of such a trend? I would say that the future is a mixed bag; for example, Mishpacha Magazine, to my suprise, has advertised Lander College.

In addition, as I noted above, many(certainly not all) Israeli haredim are happy in their lifestyle, and accept as a package deal, Rabbinic Bans. It is also true that "the grass is greener on the other sides", and that some Modern Orthodox recognize the strength of haredim

On a personal note, I sympathize with anyone caught in between various segments of religious world, whether in Lubavitch, Religious Zionist world , or the Haredi world. This was poignantly brought out by Rav Nosson Kaminetsy's speech which I attended in Boro Park. While Rav Nosson was obviously pained by the ban on his book, he noted that his relationship with Rav Elyashiv had, ironically, become stronger after the ban, and he quoted from an unpublished work of his, that he would not dream of disobeying Rav Elyashiv, "whom he loves, nay adores".

While I do not have the relationship that Rav Nosson Kaminetsky has, I can say that I have met(as part of a group) some of the signatories of the ban, including Rav Elyashiv, Rav Sheinberg, the Gererer Rebbe, and Rav Shtienman. As is obvious from the pictures I have from some of the meetings, they gave me their full attention, and it was certainly an inspiring experience.

Similarly, a rabbi in the Centrist world whom I met at an event, echoed these feelings, and he told me that while he did not necessarily follow Rav Elyashiv as a final authority, he had met, and of course, respected Rav Elyashiv.

Comments on the concert ban are welcome, pro or con, but please be respectful, and focus on ideas, not people.


Slifkin in the Jewish Press

I do not agree with everything that Rabbi Slifkin writes, but neither do I think that he is automatically wrong on each issue either.

I did not fully read Challenge of Creation, although I browsed through it last year at the book launching held at Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills. I am therefore not in the position to critique Challenge of Creation any more than a Harry Potter-challenged reader can comment on the eye color of Albus Dumbledore or on other Harry Potter trivia. I imagine, though, that Rabbi Slifkin would be on firmer, although fiercely controversial ground in the Sacred Monster book, although obviously, I have not seen that, as of yet, either.

I note that Rabbi Yehuda(Leo) Levi has written, "in this particular book, the author has managed to avoid the many pitfalls awaiting anyone treating the intersection between science and Torah.” As always, consult with your local Orthodox Rabbi if in doubt on the halachic appropriateness of a particular book.

I think, though, that in the presentation quoted below, Rabbi Slifkin is both intellectually open and respectful, both to the opposing approach, as well as to the Torah authorities who disagree with him:

The final approach to these types of issues takes a different line. There are authorities who state that although the sages of the Talmud were towering in their Torah scholarship, their knowledge of the natural world was not something received at Har Sinai. When it came to science, they accepted the reports of the experts of their era, which included information that we now know to be false.

For example, the Gemara describes a mouse that, instead of being born from parent mice, grows from dirt. This was a prevalent belief in the ancient world, but modern science firmly rejects the notion that a mouse could grow from dirt. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that since the naturalists of Talmudic times reported of such creatures, the sages of the Talmud had no reason not to rely on these experts. Acknowledging that no such mouse exists is no reason to view the Talmudic sages with any less respect.

It is this approach that was recently branded as heresy by numerous distinguished rabbinic authorities in the haredi world. Their position is that every single statement in the Talmud must be understood as either received from Sinai or otherwise divinely inspired, even statements about the natural world. Accordingly, they would state that if the Talmud describes a mouse that grows from dirt, such a creature must indeed exist.

Be that as it may, I am writing for those communities whose rabbinic leaders follow the position of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and scores of other Rishonim and Acharonim over the ages who took the rationalist approach that Chazal were not infallible on scientific matters....

There are those who acknowledge that this rationalist approach has legitimate roots from a historical perspective but nevertheless oppose it on the grounds that it could be dangerous. They fear that if we teach our students that Chazal could err in some matters, they might start questioning Chazal on everything.

I do not discount these concerns, but it is clear to me that, for the communities to which my book is targeted, the dangers in the other direction are even greater. People who grow up in a world where there is exposure to modern science and popular culture might enjoy reading Rowling or Tolkien, but they know these monsters are fictitious. When they encounter statements in the Talmud or Midrash that run counter to their knowledge of the natural world, they are challenged in their faith. If their rabbinic leaders dismiss their questions or, worse, chastise them for asking, their difficulties become a crisis.

For such people, learning that the great Torah authorities of history did not see any need to accept Talmudic statements of science as being infallible is a great reassurance, and can be a lifeline for someone whose emunah is drowning. Precisely that approach which causes a crisis in rabbinic authority for some, rescues rabbinic authority for others.