Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sanhedrin - OK?

A bunch of alter talmidei chachamim get together and form a Sanhedrin in Israel. They present some reasonable hashkafas and some typical chredi fuming. For example of the latter, see point 3 on their condemnation of the Gay Parade in November:

We are calling on the Israeli Police Force not to provide a permit to this parade, to avoid violence. The manpower the police will invest to validate the parade, together with additional security, will paralyze thwarting attacks. If the parade will not be canceled, there will be a great need to create an investigation committee to investigate the attacks and violence. The results will pale in comparison to the Lebanon War II.

For example of the former see my previous post.

On the subject of General Naveh, they seem torn between a reasonable pleading and threat. They grant that Naveh is a prosettlements guy. OTOH, they disqualify that and threaten him, albeit very cagily, for allowing even one settler in a temporary trailer to be prevented from returning, even implying that, given druthers, the court might have sentenced him to death, "theoretically". Indictments don't make them look good or reputable. One of the prime movers has already been taken to task by the Israeli courts.

So they are reasonable radicals, is that it? On the one hand, they take a rationalist approach to hashkafa, confounding today's yeshiva's. While they stick to some wobbly apologetics, they clearly mean to soften the literalist hashakafas that we have seen. The very fact that they have brought back smicha, in the original sense, and formed a Sanhedrin, implies that they reject the mythical superman interpretation of the ancient sages, and they feel that they, and the people that they elect, are capable of reaching a similar level. So much for Daas Torah, yeridas haDoros, emunas tzaddikim, and the rest of today's Jewish Catholicism. Shteinsaltz is Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik. I can't say that I am disappointed, but it is shocking. The rebel court.

OTOH, they are pushing the same radical political line that is typical of the funadamentalist right wing. It clings to the unreasonable vision of the future of the state, the one that sees the Palestinians driven out to the last person. (I do not object to the morality of it so much as the practicality. It is never going to happen and condemning Israel to eternal war until it does is just ludicrous.) On the Gay Parade, they intimate that they condone violence, that the parade is just cause for the violence against the parade that will follow inevitably. Again, this says nothing about the morality of the parade itself.

So are they fundy wing nuts, or are they rationalist rebels? Or are they BOTH????!!!!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Mi Amar

Another blogger is on the loose, your typical J-Blogger, who believes in fallible Rabanim and nodding to modernity if modern science conflicts with sagely wisdom. Here is a short excerpt:

We find in the Jerusalem Talmud that one Tana brashly tells Rabbi Akiba, who was the greatest of the Tanaim, that he was mistaken. Thus in Taanit chapter 4, is stated, “Rabbi Akiba, when he saw Bar Cochba would say that he was the Messiah; Rabbi Yochanan ben Turtah responded, Akiba, even when grass will grow from your cheeks the Messiah will not have arrived”. Even the Sanhedrin can err. The first two chapters of Tractate Horayot deal with this topic. It has been stated concerning the Rambam, “From Moses until Moses no one as great as Moses has arisen”. Nevertheless, many wise sages have stated that the Rambam erred. Moreover, Rabbenu Saadiah Gaon states that we do not have to accept the opinion of our sages concerning nature and medicine if it does not agree with our present knowledge. We find a similar statement by Rabbi Avraham the son of the Rambam

Apparently the “error” is the great advantage of creation. There is here a paradox: It is forbidden for you to err, but the ability to err is what gives a value to your deeds and your opinions. Many of the medicines and discoveries have come about from errors. A similar statement can be made with respect to errors of the sages. These errors are essential for the development of a successful Jewish viewpoint that can adapt to the varied cultural realities, so as to absorb, digest and convert them to a Godly idea. An opinion of a Tana or Amora can possibly be entirely invalid at a particular place and time, and yet be completely valid at a different place and time. The Ramhal states in “Mesillat Yeshorim” chapter 20, that the law is forever in accord with Beth Hillel. However, we have a tradition that the law is at present according to Beth Hillel, but in the distant future the law will be in accord with Beth Shamai, which seems nowadays to be impossible, just as is a statement that a mouse is half soil. Possibly in another 50 years it will be possible, or it will then become clear that what was said will become relevant and in place. It seems that that is the explanation of the saying of the sages (Berochot 34:) “Rabbi Abahu said: the position of repentants is more worthy that of the completely righteous”. This means that an error corrected by a repentant makes him better than one who has never sinned. In some respects this is similar to the idea that certain particles in the universe behave at the same time as solid materials and as waves. A perfect item does not belong in the living world. We have not as yet sufficient information and understanding of the world and of the Creator to unerstand such paradoxes.

Sounds kind of like ... well ... me. But it is not. So what is the justification of basing halacha on what is ... in many cases ... error?

There is no sympathy in any culture for the idea that it is possible to claim that the spiritual leaders have erred. Such an attitude lowers the respect for the statements of the leaders. Has anyone ever heard that any country broadcast the statement that their High Court has erred? Moreover, the creative and mental expertise of our sages was in the fields of justice, thought and faith. In general the sages developed their expertise in science as a result of legal problems that were brought before them in the fields of agriculture, zoology, physics etc. Nevertheless, you will find in our culture, a culture of truth without any partiality, that we learn from the Torah that errors are attributed even to our sage Moses. Rashi states concerning three passages (Lev. 10 16; Num 20 10-11; Num. 31 21), that Moses because of anger made an error.

OK, not great, but not the silly, bombastic, condescending apologetics that we are used to. But can this guy's kids get into a yeshiva today? Will his daughter ever get married? Is he some modernishe like Hersh or Carmel Chas v'shalom? He is clearly saying that the Torah sh'beal peh erred in places on science, and that the only reason we follow it today is because we do it out of respect for the system, and in confidence that the system will eventually fix itself. Read his website. Yes, this guy is a throwback and a radical. He even proposes that he would form a group today to examine and correct the words of our holy, saintly, omniscient, ... er ... infallible ... Of those who follow the mystical approach of daas Torah and halacha psak making a new physical reality, he will have none of it. Who is he?

Or, who are they?

Friday, January 19, 2007

They're not cute anymore

Adin Shteinzaltz and company formed a "Sanhedrin" about 2 1/2 years back, trying to bring Moshaich closer, in the mind's eye if nothing else. They have made some quiet rulings without causing too much stir. One of their number was instrumental in the famous dud death curse on Ariel Sharon. Shayn, they were cute and little wacky, but harmless.

If the title linked article is the direction that they are headed, this Sanhedrin must be opposed by every Jew. Ruling that someone is a moser, and that they should be killed, even without a true Sanhedrin, is just scary. They even quote a Rambam (which they will be quick to tell you, we do not pasken like, if this were a kiruv shiur). While I heard nothing from them on the subject of the Neturai Karta, the nutjobs that side with Iran on the subject of wiping out Israel with nukes, they feel General Naveh is handing Jews directly into the hands of oppressors, so much that he is worthy to be killed, because he did not side 100% with settlers in every case. Of course, they do not advocate murdering the general, of course not. That is just what they said, not what they meant. Don't let anyone get the wrong idea.

Thank G-d that General Naveh has an army, and this collection of fundamentalist (keyword: mental) psychopaths does not .... yet.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Did the Rebbe know me?

As many of you know, I spent many years in the heart of Chabad, in Crown Heights, on shlichus, in 770, in the mosdos of the Chabad Rebbe. The Rebbe spoke volumes, stood at dollars lines for hours, and he spoke to gatherings every Shabbos, again for hours. He danced on Simchas Torah. He waved to the crowd. But did he ever know me? Did he ever put my name on a din v'cheshbon together with a face?

When I was in Chabad, the usual thought was that the Rebbe knew everyone, magically and omnisciently, like G-d Himself. We had no yechidus, no personal interaction, but Chabadniks envisioned yechidus in certain matters:

1) Between sichos, the Rebbe would nod at the crowd and answer l'chayim presumably. It was difficult to see or hear the Rebbe from much of the shul, but my mashpiyim were certain that the nod was a form of yechidus.

2) After yom tov, the Rebbe would make havdalah and give out kos shel brachah. If you could hold back the tide behind you or the mazkirim pulling you away, you might say something to Rebbe and he might even respond with a few words. Did he know the person or was he just responding to the request. My mashpiyim were certain that even the Rebbe's standard word in passing was yechidus.

3) If one were wealthy enough to donate $20,000 per year to Chabad's Machne Yisroel "millionaire's club", the Rebbe would spend a couple of minutes with the "gevirim". Here he might address a personal question. This was as much "yechidus" as anyone would have.

4) On the line for dollars, pamphlets, or whatever the Rebbe was handing out, again, one might stop in the line for a moment, but mostly, people just took the dollar and walked on. Again, this was yechidus.

5) On erev yom kippur, the Rebbe would have yechidus with the bachurim. This was more of a sicha than a yechidus.

6) On Simchas Torah, when the Rebbe danced, my mashpiyim told me that the Rebbe looked at each individual and that this was a yechidus.

7) In reponse to invitations to simchas, the Rebbe would sign a form letter for the vast vast majority. Even in response to a mailed question, if he answered at all, it would be a response to issue of the letter, usually, rather than a "yechidus". I was told that this form letter was personally crafted for each and every person, and that his non-response to a letter was just as much a response as an actual response.

I'll note here, that I am not blaming or criticizing the Rebbe for this. I would have no desire to try and make a personal connection and respond to the mail of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands. I am sure that the Rebbe made a monumental effort in this regard, and his visibility on the dollars lines and kos shel brachah proves that well.

But, my thought is rather, according to my mashpiyim, I had many personal yechiduses with the Rebbe and many other opportunities. Now, years later, I wonder if I ever even met the Rebbe. I wonder if he ever knew my name, my ideas, my potential, my feelings about anything. As I think of it, he never used my name in conversation or response. He never referred in a letter to anything I had said or mentioned outside the letter. Most of the time, it was a form letter response. When I gave the "duch", did the Rebbe see me walk by and think, that was the guy who put tefilin on Jews here? That was the guy who came from this place and became frum. Did the Rebbe ever know why I was there? Did he know of or care about my concerns, my dreams, my fears, my feelings? I know it sounds like chick stuff, but bear with me.

Certainly, I knew details that were recounted in the official record. I know basically what made him tick, but there was a lot more I wanted to hear. I wanted to know what bore and drove his amazing vision, his grand ideas of what Judaism could be. I wanted to know what he would have us do to bring Moshaich and why he was dedicated to that single goal. I wanted to know what he feared most and what gave him the most nachas. I wanted to know the person. But alas he spoke volumes, but in riddle form. In all the years, sichas, dollars, letters, I never got an inch closer to who this man was.

Did he know who I was? Did I ever even meet him? I guess I will never know for sure.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Is the Rabbinate Headed for Irrelevance

On the Main Line, linked in the title, has an excellent essay on what the Rabbinate expects from us little people. He is commenting in turn on this guy. A blogger seems to think we should be awed by current RW leaders, that we little peons have no business bashing them, criticizing them, analyzing their priorities and decrees, why, we are not even in the same league with these giants. We should accept their fiats without prejudice and with the humble understanding that we are cannon fodder.

Update: Upon further review of the play, it seems I have misunderstood the original point. Here is a restatement. A blogger seems to think we should be awed by current RW leaders, due to their learning prowess and some perception of his that they have interest in the individuals in the Jewish community. We little peons have no business disrespecting them, though we may analyze their priorities and decrees, even though they seem to be out of touch, at best, why, we are not even in the same league with these giants.

My point is still as ever, that respect as a Talmid Chacham can be earned by learning. Respect as a leader, can only be earned by leading. Respect as someone who take an interest in teg-teglicher Jewish life ... Well, you get the idea. I personally do not see anything that qualifies these "Talmidai Chachamim" to lead the Jewish community or to have their fiats received with fawning reverence, no matter how impractical, obtuse, or out of touch. I can agree that polite discourse can be had, provided that it is polite on both sides, and discourse, meaning two way. I'd even take a representative type discourse over a personal one, as prefereable to what exists today.

This is my response on On the Main Line:
How long has it been since the average person owned books, a couple of hundred years, tops? Then there was a period where "Jewish books" meant Beis Yehuda. Today, the average 12 year old learns Baba Metziah, and everyone has a copy of the text, and they even have learning guides, learning aids and linear translations, aids to learning mefarshim, un azoi veiter. Yesterdays students did not have these resources.

The challenge to the rabbinate is as it has always been, to LEAD. The biggest problem is that the rabbinate wants to lead in the 16th century, not in the 21st. They refuse to acknowledge that the average has changed, that technology has made the average person more learned and that cultures of democracy have made it impossible to lead by fiat, the only method that current RW leadership thinks is appropriate. Until they learn this, until they step up to the challenge, they are lunging headlong toward polite irrelevance.

Since they need to justify leadership by fiat to democracy tainted people, they had no choice but to invent the "mystical approach", a magic world where rabbanic proclamations and decisions make a new physical reality, where they have Torah granted superpowers and where the average highly intelligent layman is to be convinced that he cannot begin to understand their deep wisdom.

If this is their plan to lead Judaism into the future, (and I believe it will be until they are forced to see real reality), then there is likely little need to plan a future for Judaism.

The New Chabad Militancy

Whereas traditional Chabad had avoided much of the fundamentalist militancy of other groups, recent outbreaks of violent righteous indignation in Chabad-ianity are disturbing. Official Chabad quickly tries to disassociate itself from these incidents as the work of unstable individuals. But one cannot ignore the increasing number of these "accidents" and the complete inability of any authority to stop them or even denounce them unequivocally.

Sadly, this trend seems to have begun (in America anyway) with the vicious attack on Chana Shneerson Gurary, 20 years ago. The person who ran upstairs and committed the attack was declared (by the Chabad Psychiatry Association?) to be unstable and the incident was quickly sanitized, spun and the perp was whisked out of the country. The crime of the victim: She sided with her son and against the Rebbe in a family dispute over her father's book collection.

Lately, at the annual convention of shluchim, a band of one or two dozen "unstable" zealots threw benches at the participants. The victims' crime: They do not openly believe or promote Chabadianity.

Just this week, an "unstable bachur" ran an elderly magid shiur out of the room, to the amusement of his fellow "unstable" students. In fact, there does not seem to be anyone stable in the room.

Today, 770 has become a divided house. Downstairs, is the nut house, a ward for yellow fever, enforced by a small army of the unstable, and unchecked. Upstairs the yeshiva continues to function like a rudderless ship. Monuments, museums, and plaques adorn the area around the HQ of the once vibrant movement. The hopeful look to history to provide comfort where the present cannot. But one thing is certain, the instability ruse is grwoing mighty thin.