Thursday, October 25, 2007

Benefits of Public Self-Criticism

There was a discussion on this thread about the issue of Ramat Beit Shemesh fringe-element zealotry. Someone termed such discussion "Charedi bashing".

The other side of the issue is that if there is silence, people might say that the Charedi world:

1) does not care about its own image

2) allows itself to be taken hostage by fringe elements

3) is not open to honest self-criticism

We would then have to apply the same standards to all other groups--Jewish or non-Jewish-- if and when they are defensive about discussing and responding to outside criticism. Yet most people, at least political conservatives, argue that all communities need to take responsibility with " the buck stops here " attitude, and that denying responsibility and shifting blame is no option.

It is true that there are distinctions between the Israeli situation and certainly some of the situations in the previous paragraph, and also that the Charedi community has strong and healthy points. There is also complexity to Ramat Beit Shemesh fringe zealotry, which includes factors such as different groups and the secular-religious kulturkampf, both of which I would guess, make a quick solution difficult.

But if the default Charedi response is to not take a strong public stance, then it becomes harder to argue any cogent pro-Charedi position. Without appropriate self-criticism, Charedi defenders wouldn't be able point to honest, public self-reflection as part of a larger position which they have staked out.

This is in addition to people within the Frum/Charedi world--children and adults-- who will question, saying, "what in the world is going on?".

Perhaps there could be an interactive session with rabbonim and lay leaders, where people can honestly debate, ask questions and offer suggestions without fear of criticism, given that the issue is as important as any other community issue to Klal Yisrael and Kvod Shomayim.

Americans can apply pressure, which will help those who wish to thwart the zealots, but there is a need to harness that collective power and work with the rabbonim in Israeli community.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Power of a Mitzvah

There is beautiful and inspiring story about Migdal Ohr posted here:

While the scroll was carefully laid on the table next to a special pen and ink, Rabbi Grossman addressed the soldiers. "My holy ones! I am going to bestow upon you the merit of a holy mitzvah, which can be considered a once in a life time opportunity. Each one of you will complete a letter in the Torah scroll. While you are executing this holy task, each one of you should pray the prayer of his heart and request from G-d that the merit of the letter he has completed will protect him in battle. Holy sparks will emanate from these sacred letters and disperse around you, creating a protective shield which will keep you safe and bring you home safely.

"Mother!" cried one of the soldiers into his cell phone, "you wont believe what I have done! I have written a letter in a Torah scroll! Mother, are you there? Can you hear?! Me, a Shmutznik (a member of a non- religious Kibbutz), who can't differentiate between Shabbat and the rest of the week, who has not seen tzizit (ritual garment) in my life. Me, I wrote a letter in a Torah scroll! I can't believe it. I can't believe it. "

At the end, Rabbi Grossman concludes:

Two weeks later, around midnight, Rabbi Grossman received a phone call. "Rabbi, your blessing has come true!" exclaimed the commander over the phone. "Everyone is safe and we are on our way to you. We will be there by two 'o clock in the morning"....

"I felt as I had never felt before," recalls Rabbi Grossman. "Each one told me his personal miracle. "One soldier, a kibbutznik and a lawyer in civilian life, relayed an incredible miracle. A group of soldiers were gathered in an empty house in a Lebanese village when one of them forgetfully lit a cigarette. Hezbollah terrorists immediately noticed the light and fired an anti-tank missile at the house. Coincidentally, two horses from the village ran in front of the house and were hit and killed. The missile, deflected by the horses, veered away from the house, landing elsewhere. Incredibly, the horses miraculously saved the soldiers inside the house.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Accepting Criticism Gracefully

Rabbi Yaakov Salomon has a very insightful article about books that he had written( I first read it in this book).

I quote in part:

I wrote a book.

I wish I could say that it doesn't matter to me if you buy it, read it, or like it. But I'd be lying. It does matter to me. A lot.

Am I proud that I feel that way? No. Does it mean that I am insecure, vulnerable and on wobbly terrain? No. It means I am normal (at least in this area of life). All of us, to varying degrees, are concerned with the opinions that others have of us, especially when we display and disclose our feelings, skills, beliefs, activities, and idiosyncrasies to the public eye. That's how we are wired.

He goes on to discuss the roller-coaster of emotions, and quotes the Kotzker about a dichotomy which is related to this area.

I thought of this yesterday as I was speaking to two people about my previous post. The first, an acquaintance of mine who I sometimes show my writings to, was unhappy with it, as he felt that it might be understood the wrong way. I then discussed this with another person who gave me the advice to extract the valid criticism, but he also asked me why I thought it had merit to be posted. I came to the conclusion that the core of what I've written does have at least some merit, but it could have been presented and framed differently.

There is a balance here, because a person who isn't open to other's advice and opinions, will never learn anything new and beneficial. On the other hand, one needs to know where one is correct, and this balance is an art which we hopefully all can learn and practice.


Monday, October 15, 2007

The "Neo Haskalah" and the Need for an Individualized Response

The purpose of this post is neither to give support to any specific books of Rabbi Slifkin(as I made clear in the actual post), and certainly not to support a movement of "Neo-Haskalah", if such indeed exists. My own inclination, is a rational and a thoughtful one(at least I try on that end), and my response to the topic raised by the Jewish Observer was to further examine the question of "Adults at Risk" in a psychological, historical and intellectual context. The points could be developed further, and other people probably will respond with their own ideas elsewhere ; I hope that those will indeed be printed in the Jewish Observer.

Following up on part of the focus of the Jewish Observer, which was that there are thoughtful people who think about issues fundamental to Jewish belief, I wrote of a need for them to have an individualized approach which Rav Dessler spoke about. I also hoped that people would get chizuk and inspiration from this current posting.

The general point of an individualized approach which could help people, and which includes previously acceptable opinions of Gedolim, should not have anything to do with to do with ideology--Centrist, Charedi, etc. Be that is it may, I do not make decisions for the tzibbur or for individuals, and obviously the post is merely to stimulate thought. If anyone has other ideas about what an "individualized approach" for Science/Torah issues should consist of, or if it indeed it should exist at all, please share that in the comments.

A commentor by the name of "Frum Guy" wrote the following(see link) about the Jewish Observer article titled "Adults at Risk" , which I quote from in part:

..We may be on the verge of a Neo-Haskalah. I'm not even sure what it would entail, but it's going to be something. The cover story of this month's Jewish Observer is about this Neo-Haskalah; they just call it "Adults at Risk" ...

"Frum Guy" raises an interesting historical comparison between Volozhin and the contemporary Charedi milieu. Perhaps history works in cycles, and there is a comparison(and differences, of course) between the European Haskalah and today, both in terms of the issues themselves, as well as the social milieu which cause vulnerability, like a risk to a disease.

At least some "Adults at Risk" need an individual approach. According to Rav Dessler(Michtav M'Eliyahu, IV, page 354) the Rambam wrote the Moreh Nevuchim for people who needed an individual approach. Rav Dessler says that this approach was acceptable for them as long as it was not against the Halacha. What is the equivalent of such an "individual approach today" ?

The approach of publicly stating that previously acceptable opinions are kefirah, while it would benefit many people, would not seem to help someone struggling with questions. Such people, indeed, need an individualized approach which is different that that which the multitudes require. I think that such calculations, indeed partially depend upon how one understands the causes of "Kids/Adults at Risk".

Two views are presented towards the end of the following Jerusalem Post article about what is bothering contemporary Frum youth:

"Some Jews will be scared away from Orthodoxy," said the anonymous rabbi. "I believe people should be allowed to retain their individuality. They should not be asked to behave like robots. I don't expect books like Slifkin's or Nadel's to become part of normative haredi Judaism. But these ideas should be made available to those who ask the questions."

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 have no idea about what the numbers are, but one should not downplay the intellectual factor. And if indeed there are people who are questioning, they would need an individual approach, just as in the Rambam's time. While not answering every question, having a shittah such as Rav Avroham ben HaRambam, while eschewed for the multitudes as a result of some statements connected with the Slifkin ban, can be invaluable for the "individual approach".

Rabbi Dr . Aron Hirsch Fried(page 62) writes about the value of intellectual inquiry in education :

There is an unwritten but whispered rule amongst Bais Yaakov girls that, “If you have some really serious questions, whatever you do, don’t ask your teacher, 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 and to question and to chase down answers on our own.

Rabbi Fried quoted the Mabit that:

"It is not fitting for a person, a human being, to neglect to research anything that is within his ability to grasp. For example: A person is told a novel phenomenon, and he believes it because it was told to him by a good and trustworthy person. If he has the ability to comprehend and know that phenomenon and he makes no effort to do so on his own, it is considered as slovenly laziness"

I don’t think I need to elaborate on the dangers of such an anti-intellectual atmosphere in our society and in our schools.

I also remember hearing Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb saying at the Slifkin book launch, to the effect, that we need to encourage questions and the exercise of the intellect. While I do not necessarily agree with the particular book, I do think favorably of Rabbi Weinreb's general point made below, and that anything which was acceptable by previous generations of Gedolim, should be preserved today as well:

Many of our Sages and leaders through the generations have had the luxury of “preaching to the choir.” Their constituents, followers, disciples, and students lived in the same intellectual world as they did, were willing to accept the teachings of their mentors without serious question, and indeed lived lives in which they were not exposed to ideological frameworks at odds with those of their master. However, throughout the ages, some of our leaders have had to cope with constituencies which did question them. These constituencies were exposed to different cultural and philosophical influences, often at odds with the core teachings of these great men. And so these men stepped forward courageously and often at the risk of their own reputations, to provide direction for those who were lost and answers to those who were puzzled, and even guidance and words of gentle rebuke to those who were rebellious and hostile.

The heroes of the latter category include Saadia Gaon and Rambam. In the post enlightenment era, the need for approaches modeled by Rabbeinu Saadia and Rambam, approaches which dealt head-on with
challenges from outside normative Judaism, increased many times over….

Today, too, there are leaders among us who are blessed with constituencies that are not exposed to ideologies alien to traditional Judaism, or who are oblivious, intentionally or otherwise, to the challenges of these alien systems. Fortunate are these leaders, for they can continue to teach and preach what they see as the unadulterated and pure message of the Torah. However, there are those among us who are confronted daily with Jews whose exposure to the culture and philosophy of our times stimulate probing and consuming questions about Judaism. Some of these Jews come from the ranks of the non-observant who wish to draw closer to Torah and mitzvos but who find it difficult to integrate the thought system with which they have grown up with the teachings of the Torah to which they are newly introduced. But also among these individuals are those who have been steeped from birth in a traditional education and in a traditional understanding of Torah but who are now confronted, either through formal secular education, general reading, or discussions with those in their everyday environment, with new challenges of doubtand perplexity.

I also wish to emphasize that the Jewish Observer article and Dr. Fried's point about validating and encouraging questions are unrelated to the merits of the Slifkin Ban or even the different opinions which were acceptable previously. Rather I am merely pointing out that according to Rav Dessler, many individuals may need special guidance, and assuming that such individuals exist within the FFB world, then having opinions which in previous generations were acceptable might be helpful.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the Chovos Halevovos in Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh discusses internal conflicts, including intellectual ones, that could turn a person away from Avodas Hashem; questions and doubts, are a human, and age old issue. Rav Yeruchem Levovitz(Daas Torah, V'Zos Haberacha) writes that it's possible that the Chovos Halevavos himself overcame such conflicts(similar to Rav Hutner's famous letter about the Chafetz Chaim and Shmiras Halashon), and therefore wrote about them. If it is true that the best of our people can, or need to, go through such a process in their spiritual growth, than their needs, at least in private, need to be taken into account.

I think that "it's the best of times, and the worst of times". In some ways the Charedi community is in a better position vis- a -vis 19th century Volozhin, but in some ways it is worse off. The historical comparison and contrast is probably a topic in of itself.

May we see the day when " the world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem as water covers the bed of the sea".


Friday, October 12, 2007

Frum Grass Root-Level Discussion

I was very happy that Rabbi Horowitz opened for discussion on his website, the topic of the correct balance of open discussion in the charedi world. The following are my thoughts stimulated by two of his questions:

What percentage of the members in our community would feel “safe” to sign their name in a letter to the editor if they are writing about a subject that they feel passionately about?

Part of that issue is that we live in a close-knit community, and perhaps people do wish to be stopped on the street with questions about their personal views. But I think to an extent, it is a reflection of a fear of being criticized. What can be done about that fear, to the extent that it is based on reality?

When speaking about creating a "safe" environment for people to express themselves, whether in the media or in person, the difficulty is that one needs to satisfy people with different needs. Different communities have their own boundaries of what's "elu v'elu", who are Gedolim, and what's part of the Mesorah. Whatever differences(and of course there are similarities) exist within Orthodox groups, a given publication will need to create a line representing what's no longer acceptable, and one needs to accept that line, just as one needs to allow new publications to cater to those who don't find a voice within the given publications.

Nevertheless, within a certain acceptable range of "eleu v'elu" there can be room for more tolerance. It is not that I disagree with someone who may have a "frummer" opinion than me, but rather I think that there is sometimes room for the disagreement to be expressed with more tolerance. I am speaking now of disagreements even within what we call the "Charedi World".

"Are discussions of matters that affect our community helpful even if they do not result in swift, obvious positive change?"

The key is to be as positive as possible, whether of the community, or it's leaders. Even when discussing a problem, one can do it in a way which is not totally negative. Besides protecting oneself from criticism which will detract from one's message, it is also a correct thing, in of itself.

R. Yisrael Salanter says that an individual needs to know his strengths, which are the means to accomplish in this world, and similarly, a community's strengths can help it overcome its weaknesses. The problem becomes when one thinks that a given community, or a hashkafa, has only strengths or only weaknesses.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Adults at Risk: The FFB/BT Symbiotic Relationship

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz posts an interesting and important article written by Rabbis Mordechai Becher and Chanon Gordon, that appeared in the past month's Jewish Observer. I quote from the end of the article, in a section titled "F.F.Bs and B.Ts - A Symbiotic Relationship" :

Much has been written about the importance of ensuring that people from a secular background who have turned to Torah and have committed themselves to Yiddishkeit should aim to become integrated into the mainstream Orthodox community. To that end, the F.F.B community plays a significant function as role models and mentors.

Paradoxically in the case of the Adult at Risk, which occurs almost exclusively within the F.F.B. camp, Baalei Teshuvah can serve as the spark that rekindles the flame of inspiration in the established frum community. Recordings of shiurim by “kiruv” lecturers, reading materials that address questions F.F.B’s so often feel too embarrassed to ask, and the popularity of kiruv type seminars in the heart of frum communities are now common sights …

If there is any positive fall-out from the looming Adult at Risk crisis it seems to be the fact that as the kiruv and teshuvah movements mature and expand, the newly observant and the traditionally observant worlds are becoming more intertwined in a positive and mutually beneficial way … After all, at the end of the day, we all report to the same Boss!

The phenonenon of Adults at Risk has always existed--al t'aamin b'atzmacha ad yom mascha-- but it has different applications in different times.

As far as the connection of BT's and FFB's in this matter, it brings to mind, on a communal level, the passuk in Koheles: shalach lachmecha al pnei hamoyim ki b'rov hayamim timtzaenu(as well as kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh).


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Baseball as a Metaphor

In the spirit of October, I offer the following discussions about making use of baseball, or sports in general, as metaphors for more sublime purposes. This post(as well, I assume, the articles quotes therein) was written in a light vein for sports fans, and is not to be deemed an unqualified endorsement of the sports industry.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman has written that he always has

liked baseball, its non-violence, its patience, the solitary struggle of lonely pitcher against lonely batter. And consider its religious undertones: the goal is to circle the infield and then come back to the starting point, to return to beginnings. Unlike football or basketball, where the clock ultimately runs out, baseball is timeless: a tie game can theoretically continue until eternity.

There is even a lesson to be learned, as in here and here , from a saying which originated with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Parenthetically, on the subject of sports aphorisms, I once read an essay on the philosophical value of Yogi-isms.

But moving back to the Jewish side of things(l'havdil):

Rabbi Baruch Leff, in a response to an internet article writes that

I wanted to utilize the Yankee loss to teach a powerful Torah lesson about arrogance. Along the way, I think I hit on why many non-Yankee fans dislike the Yankees. But the article is really not about the Yankees, it's about the evils of arrogance. I hope the reader can see that.

Lest one dismiss the above as making use of dubious non-Torah concepts for outreach or other mere mundane, utilitarian purposes, I conclude with Rabbi Aaaron Rakeffet's more comprehensive discussion of the pertinent and over-arching issue of whether one may gain mussar or moral instruction from sports, and if so, how? That is really the heart(and the heat) of the issue.

There’s no question that athletes become models, and there’s a lot to learn from a good athlete. Hopefully we can learn about fair play. From Joe DiMaggio, I don’t have to tell you how much mussar you can learn from a guy that always hustled. Halevai, we should daven, l’havdil, with the same feeling that he went to the ballpark every day. He was always running around on the field. He was asked in the late 1940’s, why are you running, what do you have to prove, you’re already well-known? He answered “there may be a kid who’s never seen me before, and he should know that I always hustle.” There’s a lot of bad in athletics. You see these guys are arrested for dog fighting, the drugs, the women, what happened with Rodriguez. This is ma’asim shebechol yom with the breakdown of society. Marriage is not sacred, a woman has become nothing more than an object, there’s no concept of love or subjectivity. Of course, a person has to differentiate. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be naïve. A yeshiva boy who goes to a ballgame knows he’s basically looking at non-Jews who are poor role models. He’s going for the sport. Shawn Green may be born Jewish, but he’s not yet the gadol hador.

It’s my feeling, and I spoke about this recently, that baseball has such a hold on our youth davka because it’s slow-moving and you can think. In other words, there’s inside basketball and inside football and inside baseball. It’s beneath the surface. What play are you going to use? In other sports it’s quick; you don’t play a role in it. But in baseball, left-hander, right-hander, pull the infield in, push the outfield back, give up the run, worry about the bunt, go for the double play, the squeeze, should he steal, what do you do, put him in scoring position, hit away. There’s so much involved that you have time to think. To me, if you have that Talmudic mind, it’s one of the reasons you like baseball.

I also want to state something else- that one of the most inspiring figures I’ve seen in my life was Jackie Robinson. There, you have enough mussar. Leaving alone the fact that he had a beautiful marriage, and his wife should live and be well, but what the man did to break the color barrier, to go against all odds, to be maledicted and not respond. You talk about Branch Rickey who never went to the ballpark on Sunday. He promised his mother, who was a pious Christian, some sect of Protestant, and to them it was, pardon the term, apikorsut to go to the ballpark on Sunday. So he never went. There’s so much you can develop and learn from all that. From that point of view, you do have what to learn. And it’s no different than the Gemara. The Gemara in Kiddushin talks about kibbud av v’em and says our greatest role models are gentiles who wouldn’t wake up their fathers to get precious stones or the Para Adumah. Whatever was involved, they wouldn’t wake up their fathers. So you see the Gemara didn’t hesitate to use gentiles as examples. So baruch Hashem we have role models, and a good rebbe can do a lot from baseball, or all sports.

Now, it may all be shtuyot, someone can be cynical and sarcastic. But, when all is said and done, I would say that over the years my knowledge of baseball made hundreds of kids into bnei Torah. You ask me how? I don’t say this applies to the kollel, because they’re older and they’re established. But you have no idea the effect it has on younger students when the rebbe knows baseball. You can ask them 20 or 30 years later and they’ll say “Rebbe you changed my life when you talked about Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.” Why? Because a kid comes into a rebbe’s shiur, and the rebbe knows how to learn a little, and beseder, he’s a yarei shamayim, and he’s living Torah. In the kid’s mind, who can be like the rebbe? He’s from a different generation. Suddenly the rebbe opens his mouth to talk baseball and he’s one of the kids. Now he can teach Torah.

This is not a sports blog, but 'tis the Season, and I suppose all bloggers have their moments of weakness.