Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Portfolio, "Internal Struggles" and my Villainous Family

So, what's more important? For Calvin to truly have "fun creating" and come up with absurd or innocently villainous and murderous (his snowmen, for instance) stories? Or for him to fulfill the teacher's requirements and to hate writing?

At Templars, we had an assignment at the beginning of the year (eleventh grade), a Portfolio, as it were. The purpose of a Portfolio is to encourage self-discovery, soul-searching, or, for those less theologically inclined, to put together a pretty collage of you and your friends alongside happy verses from the Tanakh talking about the fact that "two heads are better than one," and so on and so forth.

The Portfolio had to include an Introductory Essay that was supposed to state your desires and goals, a Name Essay that would discuss who you had been named after and why, a Birthday essay to discuss that day in the Jewish year, and a Final Summary that was supposed to sum up how much you had changed from the beginning of the Portfolio to the end. In addition to this, you had to include at least one verse from Tanakh which you connected to, five non-original selections, an original contribution, and a book report on an appropriate Jewish book.

I wasn't bothered by the Portfolio; I enjoy writing and would have enjoyed the task. I was bothered, however, by the teacher who would be reading the Portfolios- I felt there was no way I could possibly tell the truth if she would be the one to read and grade them. In fact, very few people did. A lot of my classmates laughed over the fact that they had stated their dearest wish was to go to seminary, get married, have ten children, and have a husband in Kollel- and that they had been believed. Needless to say, this rubbed me the wrong way. I had no desire to lie, but, on the other hand, I couldn't exactly tell the truth. I compromised, and wrote the following essay:

    Who am I? I am Chana. To those who know me, the name strikes a chord (shall we hope?) deep within their souls. Chana? Ah, I know Chana. Chana is the one who never backs down, is rather stubborn and enjoys expressing opinions even if they may be (as they usually are) contrary to traditional and accepted views. Chana is the one who likes to embark upon quests for knowledge that lead us into unconventional lanes and different types of thought. Oh yes, Chana is the element that is lacking on the periodic table. She is the child who brings the joy of life to a high, which means that her sadness is also deeply felt. She is the one who knows that she is not perfect and revels in her knowledge. She thrills herself each and every day, attempting to make her life fun, or at the very least, different. In the same way that all others wish to be, Chana strives to be an individual. Does she accomplish it? We cannot know.

    What does Chana want? The question is a hard one; she seems to disperse craziness and oddities as though they were largess, but what is behind her peculiar manner? Chana wants what every healthy person wants. She wishes to do well in school, to excel in life, to earn a diploma of wisdom when it comes to practical doings. She wants respect and honor because as human beings, we social animals cannot do without attention, and Chana certainly manifests this. She aspires to fulfill her potential (in the way she deems most productive), and is still idealistic and young enough to believe she can make a difference. In other words, Chana wishes to be a dazzling adult. Will she fulfill this goal? We can only wonder.

    What will Chana do in the future? Everyone waits with baited breath; suspense fills the frozen air. Will she be a mother? Yes, this is expected. Will she, as Rabbi remarked, wed the Rosh Kollel? Doubtful, although this remains to be seen. What school of thought does she belong to? Definitely her own. (“What!” shrieks a crowd of spectators, “how egotistical!” Yes, precisely. Chana enjoys her ego.) Will she wear a platinum-blonde shaitel? I think not. In other words, Chana cannot know what she wants to do until she does it. It’s only after she commits the action that she learns whether or not it was an appropriate one (sad, I know, but this is one of the drawbacks of being Chana.) In any case, Chana is Chana, will always be Chana, and bears the surname of _____ proudly (although sometimes she does wish she were called first rather than last). So who is Chana? The enigma. There only to pretend to be seen.

This is a versatile essay- serious or lighthearted, depending on how you read it. I can see it as being lighthearted, mocking the assignment slightly, being somewhat amusing (at least to me) and not meant to describe all the important things about me. (I should also point out, when I said that I only know whether the action is appropriate or not based on the punishment- that wasn't really a reference to everything I do, but to Templars itself.) Then again, it could be serious- the outlook of a student who would like to do well at the things that are important to her. It was written from the third person because it was meant to suggest an outsider looking in- if someone else were to see me, what would they think of me?

Still, please read this essay carefully before you move on to my next section. Evaluate it as you would any teenager's essay. Does it fulfill the requirements- talk about myself, hopes, goals and dreams? Is it threatening? Is it playful? Is it happy? Unhappy, or neutral? Please make sure you have come to your own opinions about this before continuing.

The teacher who read/ graded my Portfolio took the essay very differently than the way I intended it.

It was meant to be amusing, a little daring; even, if you took it seriously, an attempt to say that the assignment itself was not something I valued. However, Mrs. Portfolio took it as a (in her own words) "cry for help." What ensued, then, was a two-hour conversation about anything and everything under the sun. Why, you ask? I shall tell you.

During recess, the PA system/ speaker announced that I (along with another student) should come downstairs. Mrs. Portfolio quickly awarded the other student her grade (10/10) and then showed me mine (10/10). Yet while the other student was allowed to leave, I had to stay behind. Mrs. Portfolio peeked into the G.O. office only to see that it was occupied, and instead requested that I follow her into the davening room. I did so, slightly worried.

This is when I was informed that I had an "internal struggle with hashkafa," my paper was a "cry for help," and Mrs. Portfolio felt it was her "achrayus to help me." I tried to dance around the issue, telling her this wasn't so, but she simply wouldn't accept it. So then, I figured- where's the harm? I would be completely open to her questions, every single one of them, and I hoped that through doing that, I would demonstrate once and for all that I did not need her to come to my rescue.

However, my plan didn't work the way I thought it would.

The following is an angry response to what happened, written after the fact (probably the day after.)

    Tales of a Demented House of Learning And its Inhabitant

    Namely, myself.

    Ah yes, this Portfolio.

    So what is the purpose of the Portfolio? To reflect who I am. As a discovery of the person I am, to uncover where my introspection leads me. In other words, the truth about Chana.
    Big news! Front page headlines!

    Or maybe not.

    So I am told that assignments build up and hence it is a good idea to try to get them done beforehand, and I write my Portfolio Essay, giving it in on perhaps the second week of school.

    But it is this past Thursday when I am summoned downstairs by the intercom/ loudspeaker/ PA system/ noise device.

    “Hodel Sparks and Chana, please come to the front office.” And we go.

    And who is there but Mrs. Portfolio?

    Who proceeds to show Hodel her grade and give her her essay, but who takes me into the Davening Room after establishing that her little alcove is indeed unusable, in order to speak with me.

    About what, pray tell?

    Not about my essay, for I got a 10/10 on that. No, about Mrs. Portfolio’s perceptions of my paper.

    So, I wish to reveal the secret of a lifetime to you.

    I have an “internal struggle.”

    With “Hashkafa.”

    There is a “conflict” in my family.

    Someone is putting “pressure” on me- she doesn’t know whether it’s “academic, hashkafic, or perhaps family?”

    Notice the lovely stress on family.

    “I could be totally off the mark, of course, but I don’t think I am.”

    I suppose it doesn’t really matter that I think she’s gone bonkers, does it?

    And hence we talk- or perhaps, rather, I am talked at- for the rest of my Division and a good portion of Mrs. Portfolio's class (Navi). I attempt to evade her questions. I dance around the answers. She insinuates that my parents are confusing me, that they don’t follow the Hashkafa of the school, that perhaps they are strong and when I come home with the Hashkafa of the school they say “well, this is not our way, and we don’t follow it, and hence we don’t need to know it.”

    Because, according to Mrs. Portfolio, “if there were all these speeches, and you weren’t even hearing a word of them- if you were blocking them out- it would be a chaval!”

    Terrible, terrible.

    Then comes the, “I really want to finish this conversation and talk to you but I have to go to class- it’s not nice you know? So what do you have next period?”

    English. Joy.

    “Do you have to be in that class?”

    “Er…not really.”

    “So I’ll talk to her and we’ll finish this conversation.”

    This is how I end up missing English, AP Psych and part of History in the midst of a terribly engrossing discussion with Mrs. Porfolio.

    About my internal struggle.

    Which I claim I don’t have.

    But she claims I do.


    Now, it’s hardly necessary to explain what it was Mrs. Portfolio talked about, but I’ll list a couple of topics.

    Speeches, Teachers, Mussar, Orthodox and Less Orthodox Schools, her own personal conflicts growing up (she tried to make me feel close to her that way), Socialization between Boys and Girls (the eleventh commandment), the “Solidarity” Melave Malka and why only Bais Yaakov schools were invited, on the fact that because there were Gedolim their way of life is valid and I must respect it and understand it, blasting the Reform Movement, Labels, etc.

    As you can see, I certainly took her off tangent. Then there were some repartees of mine she couldn’t really answer (so unfortunate) and so she sputtered and attempted to explain her thoughts. Dear, dear. These included Homosexuality- the word “to’aivah,” Labels, how to go about Proving that Judaism is the true religion, etc.

    What did she ascertain?

    That I am an intellectual (ah, I didn’t pour my heart out to her, so flattery! Hurrah!)

    That my reaction is “different” from other girls because I am “three steps ahead of the speaker” and I get “caught up on one little mistake instead of trying to see the big picture- even if they didn’t say it, what they meant to say.”

    That I’m “extremely sensitive” to the way things are presented

    That I’m judgemental/ critical

    And we discovered that she couldn’t exactly name what my internal struggle was about after all. Interesting, no?

    Some statements from her:

    “Your paper was a cry for help..I felt it was my achrayus, my responsibility, to rise to the challenge- so here I am.”

    “You couldn’t pay me to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut!” (and then she quickly adds, “Not that I mind people who do.”)

    “I would send my children to public school before I would send them to Solomon Schechter.”

    “If it was a choice between MO elementary school and public school, I would have to send them to MO Elementary School- the lesser of the two evils- not that MO elementary school is evil, of course.”

    And many comments about “Reliable Rabbeim” and what distinguishes them from the unreliable sort.

    So how did this little meeting end? Rabbi walked in. She was embarrassed, and I said, “Rabbi- I’ve just been psychoanalyzed; the verdict is not yet in,” while smiling graciously. After which we left, and she told me that she’s “always there for me”and if I need “clarification” I should go to her.

    But of course.

    Obviously, I did not enjoy this experience.

    So what is the answer?

    I do not want to lie in my Portfolio. If it is meant to be about me, then it should be about me. It should be that which I find fascinating, interesting, etc. That which makes me think. I do not want to include that I am a Bais Yaakov maidele whose dream is to go to Seminary, marry a Kollel Bachur, and be a Shaitel-Macher. I do not want to include poems about Mashiach and the greatness of the Imahos.

    I do not even want to include neutral poems about flowers, sunshine, and beauty if that’s not what/ who I really am.

    I want to tell the truth- not violently, not to dash into their faces, but the truth as I see it about who I am- mildly. Which is what I (thought) I did. That which I find beautiful and inspiring.
    The trouble is, they won’t understand it.

    So what is my choice? What do I do? Do I lie and present myself as someone other than who I am? Do I tell the truth and request for Mrs. Portfolio to leave me alone? Do I pretend to be perfect and do all the insipid things the others do- include pictures of this one’s Sheva Brachos, and that one’s Vort, and this one’s Slurpee, etc?

    And if I do something different, and I am blamed for it, are the consequences really so terrible?
    I wish, I wish, I wish they would leave me alone. But apparently they still desire to save my soul.

    What to do? What to write? What to say? And how shall I lie, when I so hate lying? How shall I lie when it will be a denial of all that I believe?

    I could have been _____'s pet if I had only parroted her opinions back to her. But I cannot, I will not do that.

    I will not be Mrs. Portfolio’s pet and claim I find a Lashon Hara movie inspiring. I will not!

    But what option is there?

    There is no option, unless I want to face the music- which wouldn’t deter me, except for the repercussions and the idea that I am a germ capable of corrupting all others with my diseased Judaism.

    It’s evil.

    There’s nothing for me to do.

This is an angry response. And when I look back at it now, I see the anger in it, along with the sense of being a cornered victim, fighting back. Or maybe even more than that, maybe even a sense of looking down upon the very ones who misunderstood me. Feeling that I was smarter than them, when in truth it was a matter of understanding rather than "smarts." I was upset by the ridiculous logic they employed, especially when I had no idea where this was coming from.

What had I possibly said that gave rise to the ridiculous notion that I had "internal conflicts" and that my parents/ family were at the heart of the matter? Why did Mrs. Portfolio feel obliged to tell me all about how she had been raised as part of a Mizrachi family and had gone over to the Agudah? Why did she feel I was in the same situation as she had been?

She did point out one sentence to me, and then asked me the most astonishing question.

"She is the child who brings the joy of life to a high, which means that her sadness is also deeply felt. "

Mrs. Portfolio looked at me and asked whether I was depressed.

In order to understand how ridiculous a question this is, you would have to know me. I am so full of life, dancing with vitality, writing messages on all of the teachers' chalkboards wishing them a good day or other happy nonsense, skipping around the school, smiling, that it is simply ludicrous to think of me being "depressed." What I intended by that sentence was simply that I can feel joy- true joy, pure and blinding- to the same extent that I can feel sadness- a paralyzing sadness, unhappy and cold. But that was not meant to suggest that I was depressed!

I went home that day, rather upset, and told my parents I had wasted two hours of my day in conversation with Mrs. Portfolio because she wouldn't listen when I told her I didn't have "internal struggles with hashkafa." They called the school up and firmly stated that Mrs. Portfolio was not my psychologist, they'd thank her not to remove me from classes to talk to me about philosophical viewpoints/ my philosophical "issues," and they'd prefer her to leave me alone. She, in her defense, stated that I dragged out the conversation so that it took two hours. That was true. I wanted to prove to her that I didn't have internal struggles/ conflicts, and hence wanted to discuss all kinds of issues in an attempt to show her I was very open/ willing to talk about these things/ state my opinion as opposed to being closed to anything she had to say.

As I write this I am calm, but when I returned home that day I was frustrated, angry and irritated. If I had gotten a 10/10, then why was there a need to cross-examine me? Why the desire to give me hashkafic/ halakhic help? Just because my viewpoint is different from yours doesn't mean it isn't valid! (This is where the discussion of Gedolim and "Reliable Rabbis" came up...)

There was one question in particular that I addressed. Mrs. Portfolio had very effectively told our class that one was not permitted to brush one's teeth on Shabbos. Since we do/ my family does, I brought in the source that states that not only are we allowed to brush our teeth on Shabbos, we can even put toothpaste on the brush! I found it mentioned on the Avodah mailing list, then looked up and found it mentioned in Nefesh Harav. I brought the sefer into class and presented it to Mrs. Portfolio. She read it, thanked me, but- note this- did not inform the class there was more than one opinion/ an alternative opinion about the matter.

During this two hour marathon discussion, I asked her why she hadn't told them.

She said that it would be too confusing for teenagers to be faced by multiple sources/ opinions (the same reason she gave for why Templars could only have one official hashkafa= the Agudah, instead of multiple ones/ allowing many). Teenagers, alas, are confused as is, and if *gasp* they would find out that different sources say different things about certain issues, they wouldn't know what to do!

Needless to say, I was not impressed by this response.

We discussed some other issues- another interesting one was the "Solidarity Melaveh Malka" which only included the Bais Yaakov schools. It didn't include the Lubavitch high schools or the Modern Orthodox Coed highschool. I asked her why and she said that the Coed Modern Orthodox highschool has "ideas that are not like ours...our girls don't watch movies, are not like them, it would confuse them..." (i.e. corrupt them) By the way, the majority of girls at Templars do indeed watch movies, so that's hardly an issue. As for the Lubavitch schools, well, apparently the husband of the principal of the Bais Yaakov school in Chicago had spoken out against Messianic Lubavitch beliefs (believing the Rebbe was the Mashiach.) I almost laughed out loud. "So? I don't believe the Rebbe is the Mashiach, either!" I said. "Does that mean we have to exclude the girls who go to that school? And even if you couldn't invite that Lubavitch school, why didn't you invite the other (non-Messianic) one?"

She had no answer to that.

(I am very pleased to say that the next year Templars updated its policy and said that any Jewish Orthodox girl was welcome to their Melave Malka.)

And there were more...

Once again, there's no easy way out of this. My teacher was fully convinced that she was helping me, aiding me, coming to my need when I had been "crying for help." She persisted because she felt that the reason I was denying it wasn't because I really didn't need her help, but rather because I was scared to tell her- and in truth, still wanted her to help me. I disagree with her here- no means no. If she had good reason to think I was psychologically ill or distressed then she could talk to my parents (then again, she thought my parents were at the heart of the problem, "knocking Templars' hashkafa") and take further measures, not decide that I am supposed to trust on her. But she meant well...

Now that I'm not there any longer, it's easier for me to judge calmly, to see problems for what they are. When I was there, all I felt was rage- rage that she wouldn't listen, anger that she didn't believe me, that she persisted when I told her enough, and then more anger simply because of her illogical answers and opinions. So much emotion exhausts a person...and by the time I left Templars, I was mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhuasted.

But this was just the beginning- and a mild one at that. There's more to come, much more....beyond the Portfolio.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Cedar Palace and the Tent

וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֶל-נָתָן הַנָּבִיא, רְאֵה נָא, אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵית אֲרָזִים; וַאֲרוֹן, הָאֱלֹהִים, יֹשֵׁב, בְּתוֹךְ הַיְרִיעָה.
2 that the king said unto Nathan the prophet: 'See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains.' (a tent)

Samuel II 7:2

    Moodiness in Religion

    Judaism resents moodiness even in the field of religion. We have never attributed much significance to the impulsive religious emotion, to the impetuous onrush of piety, the sudden conversion, the headlong emotional leap from the mundane and profane into the sacred and heavenly; we are reluctant to accept all kinds of precipitate moods as genuine expressions of God- intoxications of the soul. Judaism i s interested in a religious experience which mirrors the genuine personality, the most profound movement of the soul, an experience which is the result of true involvement in the transcendental gesture, of slow, painstaking self-reckoning and self-actualization, of deep intution of eternal values and comprehension of human destiny and paradox, of miserable sleepless nights of dreary doubt and skepticism and of glorious days of inspiration, of being torn by opposing forces and winning freedom.

    Therefore, Judaism has always avoided bringing man to God by alluring him with some external magnetic power or charm. It does not try to gain entrance to his soul by creating around it a soft, gentle and serene atmosphere, full of quieting beauty and tender charm, in which it should almost spontaneously feel relieved of all its worries; nor by suggesting the idea of the numinous and mysterious through different artistic means, in order to render the soul docile and submissive; nor by a display of majestic glory and splendor. Man, according to Judaism, must meet God on realistic terms, not in an enraptured romantic mood, when the activity of the intellect and the free exercise of the willpower are affected by hypnotic influences.

    That is why the Jewish service distinguishes itself by its utter simplicity and by the absence of any cultic ceremonial elements. It lacks the solemnity and magnificence of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox service, the moment of awe-struck wonder of the Roman Catholic Mass of transubstantiation,a nd the rhythym and streamlined quality of the Protestant church ceremony. It is nothing but a dialogue between God and man, a conversation- ordinary in its beginning, simple ni its unfolding and unceremoniously organized at its conclusion. There was never an attempt to use architectural designs (like vaulted halls, half-dark spaces, and lofty gothic sweep), decorative effects (such as the stained glass through which light filters, losing its living brightness and mingling with a magical darkness), or tonal effects (from the hardly perceptible soft pianissimo to triumphant hymn singing), in order to suggest to the worshiper on the one hand the great mystery, and on the other hand the heavenly bliss, of the God-man encounter.

    Judaism sees in all these esthetic motifs, which are designed to intimate the greatness and ineffability of God, merely extraneous means of creating a fugitive mood which will disappear with the departure of the worshipper from the cathedral into the fresh air and sunshine. Instead, Judaism concentrates on feelings which flow not from the outside, but from within the personality, on emotions which are exponents of much more deep-seated experiences, enhanced not by external stimuli but by the inner existence awareness...

    Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pages 169-170 in Out of the Whirlwind

I have some difficulty with this concept.

On the one hand, I do not think it is proper that the only source, or the main source, of one's inspiration come from "effect," the draped curtains, the stained glass, the gothic structure, the uplifting music, or any other sort of staged production. If prayer is truly a meeting between man and God, such staging is quite ridiculous, similar to the way a Seer like Professor Trelawney (who has correctly prophecied twice, but does not remember either occasion) might set up her classroom (lots of dangling charms, a crystal ball, hazy smoke and incense, and so on and so forth) because she knows she cannot really foretell the future, and hence the student must be made to feel as though s/he is experiencing something supernatural.

On the other hand, I do not think it is right for a synagogue to be ugly. It is difficult to pray to God when one stares at drab walls, peeling paint, dust or grime-covered interiors. Even a synagogue that is perfectly serviceable but which is furnished in the manner of an operating room- stark, sterile, with harsh flourescent lights- bothers me. A synagogue should ideally be a comfortable place, a place where there is enough room for everyone, the walls are painted a cheerful color- a place a person can go where they feel safe, included, able to approach God in prayer.

I think a synagogue should be beautiful. It is a house of God, and while it is true that God is everywhere and accompanies us in our suffering (God in the thornbush while Israel was in Egypt) it is easier for people to reach out to Him if they are inspired by the beauty of their surrounding. The Beit HaMikdash itself was a beautiful place, filled with tapestries and golden and silver adornments, each ornament and utensil designated for its own special purpose for the glory of God.

Indeed, in Ezra we hear about the mixed reactions over the construction of the second Temple.

    Those Jews who had seen the glory of the First Beis Hamikdash wept because the second one seemed to be so much smaller. Although more than half a century had passed since the destruction of this Temple, the weepers, whowere all already at an advanced age, represented the majority of the people present at this scene for it was the sound of their weeping which overpowered the sound of joy and was heard far away.

    Horiyos 6a, taken from this site

And in terms of synagogues, we hear of the beauty and grandeur of the synagogue in Alexandria.

    He who has not seen the double gallery of the Synagogue in Alexandria of Egypt, has not seen the glory of Israel. . . . There were seventy-one seats arranged in it according to the number of the seventy-one members of the greater Sanhedrin, each seat of no less value than twenty-one myriads of golden talents. A wooden pulpit was in the centre, upon which stood the reader holding a Sudarium (a kind of flag) in his hand, which he waved when
    {p. 227}

    the vast congregation were required to say Amen at the end of any benediction, which, of course, it was impossible for all to hear in so stupendous a synagogue. The congregation did not sit promiscuously, but in guilds; goldsmiths apart, silversmiths apart, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, embroiderers, weavers, etc., all apart from each other. When a poor craftsman came in, he took his seat among the people of his guild, who maintained him till he found employment. Abaii says all this immense population was massacred by Alexander of Macedon. Why were they thus punished? Because they transgressed the Scripture, which says (Deut. xvii. 16), "We shall henceforth return no more that way."

    Succah, fol. 51, col. 2.

    Taken from this site

So we see there is a precedent for beautiful buildings in which to serve God, buildings that inspire joy and happiness. Buildings that are made of precious metals, the walls hung with beautiful tapestries.

Why, then, are so many shuls- particularly Ashkenazic shuls- so lacking in physical beauty?

This is not to say that all of them are, for some are indeed exquisitely beautiful. But there are so many- or at least I have seen so many- that are useful, practical, but nothing more. There are seats, some tables, a shtender, a bimah- and what more do you need? Nothing, it is true, to pray to God- for one can pray anywhere- and yet I do not like, actually like praying in this environment. I feel uneasy, cramped, unhappy. I cannot concentrate.

Today I went to a beautiful Sephardic shul in our neighborhood, referred to as 'The Persian Shul.' I enjoyed the experience so much, mostly because it was a sensory experience in addition to being a spiritual one. There are several things I particularly liked about the shul.

1. The physical layout. Sephardim sit facing the bimah- they utilized all three sides of the shul, where there are long cushioned benches, and the men are seated on these.

2. The mechitzah. There was no curtain, no lacy confection or velvet frippery, in some misguided attempt to prevent the women from looking in. Rather, the mechitza was waist-high, and the entrance to the shul (for both men and women) meant one had to walk on the path that went through the middle of the women's section. The mechitza comes from the idea of an Ezrat HaNashim in the Beis Hamikdash. It was not created so that men and women should not look upon one another, but rather so that they should be physically separated. The mechitzah in many other shuls prevents the woman from seeing the Rabbi when he speaks, hearing the Rabbi when he speaks, seeing the Chazzan or Ba'al Korei, and basically serves to wholly exclude women by placing them "behind the curtain." I'm not bothered by the fact that I may not sit next to my father, but I really see no need to go beyond the law and prevent women from watching the service.

3. The prayer for those who are sick (mishaberach l'cholim) was not said at the Torah, but rather before, when they opened the Aron to take out the Torah. The speaker addressed himself to the actual Sifrei Torah within the Aron, as though imploring God to listen to him. And, moreover, the name they said aloud in the prayer (before the other people silently inserted their own list of names) was 'Ariel Sharon.'

4. The 'taking-out' of the Torah- in most shuls, specifically Ashkenaz shuls, the men get to kiss the Torah, but the women are totally excluded (well, they are behind the curtain, recall...) Here, there was such joy in the shining eyes of both the men and women as they reached over to touch the Torah, and the man walked through the women's section as well. It was the first time in about eight years that I have been able to kiss the Torah.

5. The physical decorations. The lamps were globes of opaque glass; the curtain on the Aron was embroidered with many different colors. The seats were beautiful, and two large windows cast quite a lot of light upon the congregants. The Torah scroll itself (it is a 'stand-up' Torah, as all Sephardi Sifrei Torah are) stood in a silver and velvet case, and multicolored shining fabric hung from both sides. The Aron itself was flanked by two flags, one the American flag, the other the Israeli flag, in addition to two tall, electrical menorahs/ candelabras.

If you contrast this shul with the cramped closeness of a small building, painted entirely white, where I am thrust behind a series of curtains that do not even match, cannot see the Rabbi or any of the proceedings- then I suppose you can see why it is that I prefer 'The Persian Shul.' Aside from the fact that I feel most Sephardim are genuine people as opposed to many (although by no means all) Ashkenazim I know, who engage in a kind of phony religion that I observed at Templars and find distasteful, I simply feel that the Sephardi synagogues are decorated in a way that is very pleasing and appealing visually, while Ashkenazi shuls generally are not.

(If you are wondering why I have ventured into both types of shuls, it is because I am half-Sefard and half-Ashkenaz.)

This may, of course, also be specific to Chicago, where I live, and if I ventured to another state, it could be that the Ashkenaz shuls are also adorned beautifully. I would not know...

So it is difficult for me to totally agree with/ understand Rabbi Soloveitchik here. I feel that what he advocates is the ideal, but I do not think it is bad if a shul is beautiful. Possibly what he refers to is when something goes too far, in which case I could indeed agree. Moreover, if I live in a house that is furnished beautifully, isn't it logical that, as King David said, the shul must be at least as beautiful?

I have noticed that this preference I have for beautiful surroundings does not only extend to synagogues. My former school, Templars, was a very depressing place simply because of the way it was decorated. The bathroom doors were dark maroon, the lockers dark green, an olive green air pervaded the place, there was some black and white mixed in, but that was all. My new school fairly bursts with color- everything is clean and cheerful, there are yellows, reds, blues, every color under the sun dancing about the place. Also, we have many student-produced paintings (copies of master work, original paintings, those made by art teachers) gracing the place. The effect is very welcoming, and I believe that this is another reason I feel happier here.

I'm fairly sure the effect of color/ decoration has been psychologically proven to improve or subdue one's mood, based on the color choice... Why, then, would we not utilize this so that people may feel happy or uplifted when they pray to God?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Opinions Masquerading as Facts: Magic, Sorcery, and Religion

In the end, no matter the vocabulary, illustrations, drawings, and conclusions, this paper is flawed- because it is based on one fact that Calvin made up himself.

Quality, not quantity. The truth, not the carefully disguised falsehood.

With this in mind, I wish to bring to your attention an all too common trait nowadays. Namely, to authoritatively speak about ideas they know nothing about.

For your edification, I bring to you an article from the Summer 5761/ 2001 issue of Horizons.

I have tried to find this article online, but since I cannot, I will simply reproduce it below. Please understand that is article is in no way my own, being taken or stolen by me, and is simply being used here so that I can honestly explain what it is that I find to be disingenous and intellectually dishonest about it.

The article was published under a heading titled 'Viewpoints: Perspectives on Contemporary Issues.'

    Hooked on Harry: Bad for our Children!
    by Chaya Brodie

    I'm a third-grade teacher at a Bais Yaakov in Flatbush, and, believe it or not, at this young age my students are already hooked on Harry Potter. Initially I could not understand my coworkers' opposition toward this series. I had always enjoyed "magic stories" as a child. However, since I had not yet (and still haven't) read any of the books, I felt hesitant to voice an opinion. I'm glad I didn't. My views changed drastically after the following incident.

    It began as an innocent conversation between my students about the latest H. P. book. One of my students piped up, "You know, my brother said magic isn't fake. There really is such a thing as witches."

    I watched my students' reactions. Some of them oohed gleefully; others looked scared. Yet another acknowledged, "I think they live someplace in India."

    What ensued was a discussion about the thrills of magic, what caused it, and how it worked. Some of the girls wanted to be witches when they grew up!

    The student who had started the conversation interrupted, "Yidden can't be witches, because black magic fights Hashem. My brother said black magic is the Satan and he and Hashem fight!"

    How frightening that girls should think that there is a power that can, chas v'shalom, fight Hashem. Such a belief, in a thinking adult, would be tantamount to avodah zarah (idolatry.) Due to the Harry Potter phenomenon students are walking around with grave misconceptions. Some think that magic is wonderful and acceptable. Others have strange, mixed-up notions about it. Harry Potter is validating tumah (impurity) and avodah zarah. Fundamental hashkafos (Jewish perspectives) are being warped.

    I'm glad you decided to print Rabbi Orlofsky's article ("Harry Potter and the Values of the Torah Home," Horizons #27). As he mentioned, our children should not be reading about issurei d'Oraisa, By doing so we are actually instilling our children with fundamentally wrong hashkafos.

    There may be teachers and parents among your readers who would be interested in knowing how I dealt with the incident. Though I am a secular studies teacher, I felt I had to address the issue. Though my students are young and some were not able to grasp all the points I made, they did come out with two strong lessons: Hashem is One and only One, and He is the Almighty. And magic is tumah and it is wrong!

    I explained that Hashem gave a person the ability to choose between right and wrong so that He could reward us for our actions. Similarly, I explained that Hashem put two things into this world: kedushah (holiness) and tumah. If there were only kedushah in the world, we would have no choice but to do the right thing. Therefore, there must be an equal amount of impurity in the world. Then I stated loud and clear: Magic is preformed with kochos hatumah, and we are not allowed to practice any form of magic.

    I went on to explain that previous generations were on high levels of kedushah, and therefore there was also lots of tumah in the world. As the generations grow less holy, so does the tumah get less potent in the world.

    I also explained that nothing can fight against Hashem. That is an integral part of our belief, as we say each day: "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad." This discussion could have been carried further, of course, but there is a limit to a third-grader's capacity for understanding.

    Once again, parents, our children should not be reading these books. And, teachers, we have a responsibility to set our students straight should we find that they are mixing up the world of holiness with the world of Harry.

    The author is using a pseudonym.

Before I discuss the actual statements the author is making, I want to draw your attention to the most important flaw in the entire argument. I couldn't believe it when I read it. I reread the article, and then reread it again, and was shocked by the fact that this was actually published.

"However, since I had not yet (and still haven't) read any of the books, I felt hesitant to voice an opinion. I'm glad I didn't. My views changed drastically after the following incident."

Did I read this correctly?

This entire argument is based on the premise that the Harry Potter series is full of tumah, ideas that are forbidden and awful. That Harry Potter corrupts children. That it is antithetical to Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism. That it spreads notions that are simply wrong.

And the author of this entire article- the author who claims the book is wickedness in written form- has not even read the series.

Tell me, where does one get the authority to speak/ read/ write, especially if it is to write in a condemnatory fashion, when one hasn't even read the books? What reservoir of knowledge have you drawn upon? Where have you found your information? On what do you base this argument?

Wait- let me see if I understand-

This entire inflammatory, condemnatory reaction is based on one class's reaction. Because one third-grade class took the book to mean that witchcraft and wizardry might be appealing and entertaining, this means that we can infer this book is bad in and of itself. No Jewish children should or can read it! Corruption! Woe! Terror! Magic! Generalizations rule all high and mighty, let us bow to them.

I hope that you can appreciate how thoroughly ridiculous this argument is.

Unfortunately, it is not seen as being ridiculous. This idea is used in many Jewish highschools, and specifically at Templars.

People who are wholly unqualified, who have not read the books in question, or do not understand the subject matter presented, have no shame when it comes to postulating and theorizing about these ideas. Indeed, they even admit they are uninformed, lest it seem as though they were tainted by the ideas they deplore.

Where is the logic? I see none.

I have formerly presented an example of this in terms of the idea of Seventeen magazines. But let us spread this further. Templars is of the persuasion that everything on television, any and every movie, the Internet itself- in other words, anything that encourages open thought- is bad for the soul.

This totally negates the idea of free will and free choice.

We are not sponges. We are sieves. We all have the ability and/or capability to sift the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, the pomegranate seeds from the pomegranate (R' Meir reference.) I choose what affects me. Anyone who claims that "you are affected by what you see/ read no matter what," is being absolutely and totally intellectually dishonest. Who rules you? Do you rule yourself and your mind, or do your passions rule you? If I rule myself, then I have the ability to choose what to think about, how to understand different ideas, how what I read and see impacts me. This may be difficult, especially initially, at the first stage of thought- which is simply intake, before the processing and assimilation- but it is hardly impossible.

I am in command, not some outside entity that forces me to think or to take ideas in certain ways. This is my life, my mind, and my thoughts. People cannot be made to think in specific ways, especially when it comes to a book.

Shakespeare stated, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

In this instance, this is entirely applicable. The motivation, the intent, and the thoughts themselves are not what is wicked and bad, it is, as all things are, the way in which one understands these ideas, and moreover, the fear many people harbor against them.

Let's discuss the main gist of this woman's argument- namely, that magic is bad, Harry Potter talks about magic, hence Harry Potter is bad.

Before we make this leap of judgement, it would certainly be correct to actually explore some of the sources where witchcraft and sorcery is mentioned in Tanakh. To understand what the Tanakh determines to be witchcraft and sorcery as opposed to what J.K. Rowling innocently writes about in Harry Potter.

1) From Exodus 22:17

    יז מְכַשֵּׁפָה, לֹא תְחַיֶּה.
    17 Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live.

2) From Leviticus 19:31

    אַל-תִּפְנוּ אֶל-הָאֹבֹת וְאֶל-הַיִּדְּעֹנִים, אַל-תְּבַקְשׁוּ לְטָמְאָה בָהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
    31 Turn ye not unto the ghosts, nor unto familiar spirits; seek them not out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.

3) From Leviticus 20: 6

    ו וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר תִּפְנֶה אֶל-הָאֹבֹת וְאֶל-הַיִּדְּעֹנִים, לִזְנֹת, אַחֲרֵיהֶם--וְנָתַתִּי אֶת-פָּנַי בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתוֹ מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ.
    6 And the soul that turneth unto the ghosts, and unto the familiar spirits, to go astray after them, I will even set My face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.

4) From Deut 18: 10 onwards

    י לֹא-יִמָּצֵא בְךָ, מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ-וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ, קֹסֵם קְסָמִים, מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף.
    10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer,

    יא וְחֹבֵר, חָבֶר; וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי, וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל-הַמֵּתִים.
    11 or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer

    5) From Samuel I, Chapter 28:

      ה וַיַּרְא שָׁאוּל, אֶת-מַחֲנֵה פְלִשְׁתִּים; וַיִּרָא, וַיֶּחֱרַד לִבּוֹ מְאֹד.
      5 And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.

      ו וַיִּשְׁאַל שָׁאוּל בַּיהוָה, וְלֹא עָנָהוּ יְהוָה--גַּם בַּחֲלֹמוֹת גַּם בָּאוּרִים, גַּם בַּנְּבִיאִם.
      6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

      ז וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל לַעֲבָדָיו, בַּקְּשׁוּ-לִי אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַת-אוֹב, וְאֵלְכָה אֵלֶיהָ, וְאֶדְרְשָׁה-בָּהּ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ עֲבָדָיו אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַת-אוֹב בְּעֵין דּוֹר.
      7 Then said Saul unto his servants: 'Seek me a woman that divineth by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.' And his servants said to him: 'Behold, there is a woman that divineth by a ghost at En-dor.'

      ח וַיִּתְחַפֵּשׂ שָׁאוּל, וַיִּלְבַּשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים, וַיֵּלֶךְ הוּא וּשְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים עִמּוֹ, וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה לָיְלָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, קסומי- (קָסֳמִי-) נָא לִי בָּאוֹב, וְהַעֲלִי לִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-אֹמַר אֵלָיִךְ.
      8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: 'Divine unto me, I pray thee, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name unto thee.'

      ט וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁאוּל, אֲשֶׁר הִכְרִית אֶת-הָאֹבוֹת וְאֶת-הַיִּדְּעֹנִי, מִן-הָאָרֶץ; וְלָמָה אַתָּה מִתְנַקֵּשׁ בְּנַפְשִׁי, לַהֲמִיתֵנִי.
      9 And the woman said unto him: 'Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?'

      י וַיִּשָּׁבַע לָהּ שָׁאוּל, בַּיהוָה לֵאמֹר: חַי-יְהוָה, אִם-יִקְּרֵךְ עָו‍ֹן בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה.
      10 And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying: 'As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.'

      יא וַתֹּאמֶר, הָאִשָּׁה, אֶת-מִי, אַעֲלֶה-לָּךְ; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-שְׁמוּאֵל הַעֲלִי-לִי.
      11 Then said the woman: 'Whom shall I bring up unto thee?' And he said: 'Bring me up Samuel.'

      יב וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה אֶת-שְׁמוּאֵל, וַתִּזְעַק בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל; וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-שָׁאוּל לֵאמֹר לָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי, וְאַתָּה שָׁאוּל.
      12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: 'Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.'

      יג וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמֶּלֶךְ אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי מָה רָאִית; וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-שָׁאוּל, אֱלֹהִים רָאִיתִי עֹלִים מִן-הָאָרֶץ.
      13 And the king said unto her: 'Be not afraid; for what seest thou?' And the woman said unto Saul: 'I see a godlike being coming up out of the earth.'

    In these examples, we see a recurring theme- namely, that the practice of witchcraft is forbidden. The sorceress is not suffered to live, the one who practices the arts of necromancy, of Ov and Yidoni, is put to death. Even more telling is the response of the witch-woman to Saul, where she states, "'Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?" Once she actually performs the act- calls up the spirit of Samuel- it is then that she will be held accountable, but not before- it is that action which is considered the "snare for her life."

    I would also like to point out that most of these examples describe necromancy, dealings with the dead, or if they do not, are juxtaposed to verses about Molech, where one sacrifices one's own children. This sorcery is a sorcery of death, at least in the literal sense (though Rashi goes on to expound about the various types of divination that are considered to be witchcraft.)

    These examples prove that the practice of magic is forbidden, but what of knowledge of magic?

    The premise of the aforementioned author's argument is that the children should not read Harry Potter lest they encounter tumah, wickedness and evil. Yet it is not the knowledge of magic that is a problem, it is the actual practice of magic. In fact, knowledge of magic was even a requirement in the times of the Sanhedrin!

      R. Johanan said: None are to be appointed members of the Sanhedrin, but men of stature, wisdom, good appearance, mature age, with a knowledge of sorcery,38 and who are conversant with all the seventy languages of mankind,39 in order that the court should have no need of an interpreter.

      Sanhedrin 17a

    Why must these men have knowledge of sorcery? So that they are fit to judge whether the sorcerer/ sorceress in question was actually guilty of witchcraft! If they knew nothing of sorcery, what good would they be to the court?

    There is another incident which makes it quite clear that the Sages were versed in sorcery/ understood witchcraft.

      The sage was immediately aware of his student's question. He said, "You must realize that Shimon ben Shetach is partially to blame for the tax collector's immorality, as well as for the immorality in Ashkelon in general. There are eighty Jewish women in Ashkelon who practice black magic and engage in all sorts of disgusting rites. Shimon ben Shetach once made a vow that when he became head of the Sanhedrin, he would rid the city of them, but he has never kept his vow."

      When the student awoke in the morning, the dream was still fresh in his mind. He hurried to Jerusalem, where he related it to Shimon ben Shetach. The sage realized that the message was correct, and immediately made plans to capture the eighty witches. From among his disciples, he chose eighty of the tallest and strongest men. Each one was given a large jar and a light cloak that would readily show the slightest sign of wetness.

      Shimon ben Shetach chose a stormy day for his expedition. It was raining so hard that it was almost impossible to go outdoors. He instructed his men to take their cloaks and place them in the waterproof jars, closing them very tight. At his signal, they were to come into the cave, and before the witches could see them, put on their cloaks. As soon as they approached the witches, each man was to grasp a woman and lift her off the ground. The women's occult arts would be totally powerless as long as their feet were not touching the ground. Occult powers come from the earth and are only effective when one is in contact with it.

      Leaving his disciples standing in the downpour, Shimon ben Shetach entered the cave of the witches. He was immediately challenged. "Who are you and what do you want?" "I am a master warlock. I have heard that you also practice the occult arts. I would like to compare notes with you." "Not so fast. Do you think that we reveal our secrets to anyone who walks in? Can you show us any evidence of your powers?" "As you can see, it is raining very hard outside. But with a word I can produce eighty young men to entertain you, and their clothes will be perfectly dry." "Now that's evidence that we would enjoy seeing. Do that, and you will be welcome."

      The young men had protected themselves from the rain under an overhang adjoining the mouth of the cave, where the witches could not see them. They had changed into their dry cloaks, and at their master's signal they came dancing into the cave. Each one grabbed a witch as if to pull her into the dance, and before the women knew what was happening, they all were on the shoulders of the young men. With the witches powerless, the sage assembled a court of law and passed sentence. All eighty were immediately hanged. It was to be an object lesson to all the populace to avoid such practices in the future. ...

      From this we see that anyone practicing the occult arts must stand on the bare earth in order for his practices to be effective. In the case of this plague, however, all the earth had turned into lice and vermin. The Egyptian wizards were standing on insects and not on the ground, and therefore they could not make use of their arts.

      (I am unsure of the Talmudic source (I think it's Sanhedrin); I found this on Jewish Gates.)

    Why is is that we cannot practice magic?

    One possible answer is that we are not meant to know the future. R' Hirsch postulates:

      Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (great 19th century Torah leader in Germany) explains that one who places his faith in "the realm of dark, unfree, mysterious powers" will abandon his belief in free will. He will conclude that the moral worth of his actions have no effect on his life and his destiny, and will, therefore, become degenerate in his behavior. As Hirsch bluntly puts it, "The whole moral degeneration of the Canaanite nations came from these things, which supported and were the mainstay of immorality." (Commentary on the Torah: Deuteronomy, p. 352)

      Found on this website

    If we agree with this reason, or at least allow it as a possibility, then we ought to be grateful to J.K. Rowling as opposed to voicing condemnatory views. Look at the beautiful way in which she stresses free will as opposed to an ultimate prophecy- similar to the way in which, in the Torah, we believe that a prophet's "good prophecies" ultimately come true, but if his "bad prophecies" (i.e., those that forecast sad or troubling times ahead) do not, it is not considered a problem on the part of the prophet, but rather as a good sign, namely, that the Jews have averted the prophecy through repentance. Hence free will does indeed reign triumphant...

      “But Harry, never forget that what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so. I told you this at the end of last year. Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him –and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him!”

      “But it comes to the same— ”

      “No, it doesn’t!” said Dumbledore, sounding impatient now. (…) “If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?”

      “But,” said Harry, bewildered, “but last year, you said one of us would have to kill the other –”

      “Harry, Harry, only because Voldemort made a grave error, and acted on Professor Trelawney’s words [i.e., the prophecy]! If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he have imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not! (…) Voldemort himself created his worst enemy… (…) He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he (…) handpicked the man most likely to finish him…” (…)

      “But, sir,” said Harry, making valiant efforts not to sound argumentative, “it all comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? I’ve got to try and kill him, or—”

      “Got to?” said Dumbledore. “Of course you’ve got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! We both know it! Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy! How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!” (…)

      “I’d want him finished,” said Harry quietly. “And I’d want to do it.”

      “Of course you would!” cried Dumbledore. “You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! (…) In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you… which makes it certain, really, that –”

      “That one of us is going to end up killing the other,” said Harry. “Yes.”

      But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew –and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents –that there was all the difference in the world.

      J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ch. 23, p. 512
      Taken from this site

    The prophecy does not commit Harry to a certain plan of action, rather, he himself chooses whether or not to face Voldemort, and whether or not to kill him. Rather than giving himself up to the hopeless "realm of dark, unfree, mysterious powers," which rule his life, Harry believes in his power to choose- free will.

    Fairy tales and magic are the child's guide to the universe. It is through fairytales that a child learns about justice and injustice, good and evil, the wicked and the pure. Magic as expressed in Harry Potter, far from being wreathed in evil auras, is actually a catalyst that allows children to think. Magic is simply an element; it is the wizard's choice to use it for good or evil. Voldemort chooses to use magic in an evil way. Harry, Hermione and Ron, combat him (and suffer/ make mistakes along the way) by using magic for good.

    When the little children in that woman's third-grade class said they wanted to grow up to be witches, I am extremely certain they were not referring to necromancers. How am I so certain? Because the average third-grader doesn't know what necromancy is. The concept of raising the dead doesn't occur to them. The glamour of magic- the ability to make the dishes wash themselves, to have chess pieces that move, to transform animals into cooking utensils and vice versa- this is what attracts them, not nefarious motives. Attributing such dark ideas to innocent third-graders is to do what the teachers at Templars do so admirably- project your own mistaken thoughts/ ideas upon others.

    I would also like to stress the relative confusion nowadays between the magic we associate with miraculous events during the times of the prophets as opposed to the sorcery and witchcraft the Torah opposes. To say that all magic is tumah is to totally confuse children who read stories such as the following in the Gemara:

      Solomon thereupon sent thither Benaiahu son of Jehoiada, giving him a chain on which was graven the [Divine] Name and a ring on which was graven the Name and fleeces of wool and bottles of wine. Benaiahu went and dug a pit lower down the hill and let the water flow into it13 and stopped [the hollow] With the fleeces of wool, and he then dug a pit higher up and poured the wine into it14 and then filled up the pits. He then went and sat on a tree. When Ashmedai came he examined the seal, then opened the pit and found it full of wine. He said, it is written, Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whosoever erreth thereby is not wise,15 and it is also written, Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the understanding.16 I will not drink it. Growing thirsty, however, he could not resist, and he drank till he became drunk, and fell asleep. Benaiahu then came down and threw the chain over him and fastened it. When he awoke he began to struggle, whereupon he [Benaiahu] said, The Name of thy Master is upon thee, the Name of thy Master is upon thee. As he was bringing him along, he came to a palm tree and rubbed against it and down it came. He came to a house and knocked it down. He came to the hut of a certain widow. She came out and besought him, and he bent down so as not to touch it, thereby breaking a bone. He said, That bears out the verse, A soft tongue breaketh the bone1 He saw a blind man straying from his way and he put him on the right path. He saw a drunken man losing his way and he put him on his path. He saw a wedding procession making its way merrily and he wept. He heard a man say to a shoemaker, Make me a pair of shoes that will last seven years, and he laughed. He saw a diviner practising divinations and he laughed. When they reached Jerusalem he was not taken to see Solomon for three days. On the first day he asked, Why does the king not want to see me? They replied, Because he has overdrunk himself. So he took a brick and placed it on top of another. When they reported this to Solomon he said to them, What he meant to tell you was, Give him more to drink. On the next day he said to them, Why does the king not want to see me? They replied, Because he has over-eaten himself. He thereupon took one brick from off the other and placed it on the ground. When they reported this to Solomon, he said, He meant to tell you to keep food away from me. After three days he went in to see him. He took a reed and measured four cubits and threw it in front of him, saying, See now, when you die you will have no more than four cubits in this world. Now, however, you have subdued the whole world, yet you are not satisfied till you subdue me too. He replied: I want nothing of you. What I want is to build the Temple and I require the shamir. He said: It is not in my hands, it is in the hands of the Prince of the Sea who gives it only to the woodpecker,2 to whom he trusts it on oath. What does the bird do with it? — He takes it to a mountain where there is no cultivation and puts it on the edge of the rock which thereupon splits, and he then takes seeds from trees and brings them and throws them into the opening and things grow there. (This is what the Targum means by nagar tura).3 So they found out a woodpecker's nest with young in it, and covered it over with white glass. When the bird came it wanted to get in but could not, so it went and brought the shamir and placed it on the glass. Benaiahu thereupon gave a shout, and it dropped [the shamir] and he took it, and the bird went and committed suicide on account of its oath.

      Benaiahu said to Ashmedai, Why when you saw that blind man going out of his way did you put him right? He replied: It has been proclaimed of him in heaven that he is a wholly righteous man, and that whoever does him a kindness will be worthy of the future world. And why when you saw the drunken man going out of his way did you put him right? He replied, They have proclaimed concerning him in heaven that he is wholly wicked, and I conferred a boon on him in order that he may consume [here] his share [in the future].4 Why when you saw the wedding procession did you weep? He said: The husband will die within thirty days, and she will have to wait for the brother-in-law who is still a child of thirteen years.5 Why, when you heard a man say to the shoemaker, Make me shoes to last seven years, did you laugh? He replied: That man has not seven days to live, and he wants shoes for seven years! Why when you saw that diviner divining did you laugh? He said: He was sitting on a royal treasure: he should have divined what was beneath him.

      Solomon kept him with him until he had built the Temple. One day when he was alone with him, he said, it is written, He hath as it were to'afoth and re'em,6 and we explain that to'afoth means the ministering angels and re'em means the demons.7 What is your superiority over us?8 He said to him, Take the chain off me and give me your ring, and I will show you. So he took the chain off him and gave him the ring. He then swallowed him,9 and placing one wing on the earth and one on the sky he hurled him four hundred parasangs. In reference to that incident Solomon said, What profit is there to a man in all his labour wherein he laboureth under the sun.10

      And this was my portion from all my labour.11 What is referred to by 'this'? — Rab and Samuel gave different answers, one saying that it meant his staff and the other that it meant his apron.12 He used to go round begging, saying wherever he went, I Koheleth was king over Israel in Jerusalem.13 When he came to the Sanhedrin, the Rabbis said: Let us see, a madman does not stick to one thing only.14 What is the meaning of this? They asked Benaiahu, Does the king send for you? He replied, No. They sent to the queens saying, Does the king visit you? They sent back word, Yes, he does. They then sent to them to say, Examine his leg.15 They sent back to say, He comes in stockings, and he visits them in the time of their separation and he also calls for Bathsheba his mother. They then sent for Solomon and gave him the chain and the ring on which the Name was engraved. When he went in, Ashmedai on catching sight of him flew away, but he remained in fear of him, therefore is it written, Behold it is the litter of Solomon, threescore mighty met, are about it of the mighty men of Israel. They all handle the sword and are expert in war, every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.16
      Rab and Samuel differed [about Solomon]. One said that Solomon was first a king and then a commoner,17 and the other that he was first a king and then a commoner and then a king again.

      Gittin 68a and b

    Solomon captures Asmadei, the King of Demons, through the use of a chain engraved with the Divine Name? Solomon looses Asmadei, and Asmadei ousts him from his position of power, throwing him 400 parsangs and seizing the crown in Solomon's absence? Asmadei has the clawed, webbed feet of a chicken, and hence has relations with Solomon's wives in his stockings? Asmadei visits women during their time of the month, and moreover calls for Bathsheba? Solomon has the power to recapture Solomon with the golden chain?

    Do you know what this reminds me of? A Russian fairytale that is exceedingly similar- in fact, this idea is prevalent across the entire genre- namely, "Koshchei the Deathless."

    Look at what happens by Solomon:

      Solomon kept him with him until he had built the Temple. One day when he was alone with him, he said, it is written, He hath as it were to'afoth and re'em,6 and we explain that to'afoth means the ministering angels and re'em means the demons.7 What is your superiority over us?8 He said to him, Take the chain off me and give me your ring, and I will show you. So he took the chain off him and gave him the ring. He then swallowed him,9 and placing one wing on the earth and one on the sky he hurled him four hundred parasangs. In reference to that incident Solomon said, What profit is there to a man in all his labour wherein he laboureth under the sun.10

    Now look at what happens by Prince Ivan:

      He couldn't help doing so. The moment Marya Morevna had gone he rushed to the closet, pulled open the door, and looked in-- there hung Koshchei the Deathless, fettered by twelve chains. Then Koshchei entreated Prince Ivan, saying:

      `Have pity upon me and give me to drink! Ten years long have I been here in torment, neither eating nor drinking; my throat is utterly dried up.'

      The Prince gave him a bucketful of water; he drank it up and asked for more, saying:
      `A single bucket of water will not quench my thirst; give me more!'

      The Prince gave him a second bucketful. Koshchei drank it up and asked for a third, and when he had swallowed the third bucketful, he regained his former strength, gave his chains a shake, and broke all twelve at once.

      `Thanks, Prince Ivan!' cried Koshchei the Deathless, `now you will sooner see your own ears than Marya Morevna!' and out of the window he flew in the shape of a terrible whirlwind. And he came up with the fair Princess Marya Morevna as she was going her way, laid hold of her and carried her off home with him. But Prince Ivan wept full sore, and he arrayed himself and set out a- wandering, saying to himself, `Whatever happens, I will go and look for Marya Morevna!'

    In both cases, the Prince/ Warrior sets loose his greatest enemy, and suffers because of it- Solomon because he himself is replaced on the throne and becomes a commoner, Ivan because Marya is stolen away from him. In both places, it is curiousity that is their downfall- Solomon because he wishes the answer to a question, Ivan because Marya has forbidden him to enter that specific room. This idea is one carried across many traditions, occurring specifically in the Arabian Nights, for instance.

    The difference between these two scenarios? Very little. However, one is considered a magical fairy tale, the other one is the truth according to the Gemara.

    This is yet another reason that one cannot be so quick to dismiss worlds like those of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and Diana Wynne Jones. These authors succeed in allowing us into a realm of magic, a place that is both beautiful and terrible, where there are the wicked and the kind, humanity in a different form. One cannot write off magic as being evil in and of itself; rather, it is a tool- something which can be used for evil or for good.

    The Torah distinguishes between sorcery/ witchcraft and miracles, which to us (especially nowadays) certainly seem like magic. Splitting the red sea? Water from a rock? These are miracles, but in our world, they too exist under the subheading "magic." Sorcery, on the other hand, is continously linked with necromancy. According to the series 'The Midrash Says,' Laban used terafim, which was really the oiled skull of a human child, to communicate with the dead. We have a specific example, in the form of the Witch of Endor, of witches calling upon the dead. But there is another kind of "magic," as we would think of it nowadays- the magic of God. The Urim Vetumim, which was animated by a scroll containing the special name of God, and which operated through illuminating the particular letters (out of the tribes' names) that provided the answer. The ability of God to rain manna down upon the Jews, according to the Midrash, manna that was mixed with jewels. This is not considered magic by the Torah/ Tanakh, but nowadays the word is used interchangeably, and refers to everything that is out of the ordinary/ miraculous/ unpredictable.

    Indeed, the Merriam-Webster definition is:

      Main Entry: 1mag·ic Pronunciation: 'ma-jikFunction: nounEtymology: Middle English magique, from Middle French, from Latin magice, from Greek magikE, feminine of magikos Magian, magical, from magos magus, sorcerer, of Iranian origin; akin to Old Persian magus sorcerer

      1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces b : magic rites or incantations
      2 a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source b : something that seems to cast a spell : ENCHANTMENT
      3 : the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand

    Definition number one seems to be the definition of the sorcery/ magic discussed in Tanakh, where human influence is required. Definition number two, however, could certainly be used to describe God- is He not a supernatural source?

    The concern of the teacher- to worry that children may mix up the "world of holiness with the world of Harry" is totally unfounded. Our Torah and Tanakh is filled with colorful, rich references to miraculous and magical occurences. When innocent third-graders discuss the powers of magic, they refer to the thrills of flying on brooms, waving wands amidst shining sparks, looking at photographs that move, or immobilizing people with one word- not the idea of forcing their brother or sister to walk through fire, or calling down the dead. Even in books that discuss magic, calling down the dead is an unfavorable practice. Sabriel, by Garth Nix, is the one that most stresses this idea, but J.K. Rowling's Inferi, and Lloyd Anderson's Cauldron-Born are certainly disturbing as well. Although this is different from the Tanakh's treatment of the subject, where Samuel asks why Saul disturbs his rest, it accomplishes the same effect- distaste for the idea of raising the dead.

    The idea of magic- if presented correctly- is not a hinderance to Judaism, but rather an asset. It is through close observation of various stories and tales from Tanakh and the Torah that I am able to notice the myriads of allusions, ideas, and stories that are based on them or are similar to them. Magic allows children to enter a world of imagination, enjoy themselves, think creatively, and still understand the difference between good and evil- in this case, between Harry and Voldemort. Good and evil are very similar, even as Harry and Voldemort are; there is a thin line that separates them, and that is their choices- similar to the (albeit physical) idea that, "There is but a hair's-breadth between Gan Eden and 'Gehinnom." (Source here)

    Magic, especially Harry Potter, is essential for children. My brothers have learned so much from J. K. Rowling- her series has caused an interest in so much more than magic. Magic is attractive in that it is glamorous, but it is the eventual faceoff between Harry and Voldemort that is of the most interest. To prevent children from reading these books on the basis that magic has the ability to taint them is to completely forbid them access to the ideas encased in our own Torah, tradition and Gemara. For it is not as though Harry advocates killing, murder, Molech, necromancy and beastiality- he is the very antithesis to/of this! Harry also demonstrates the fact that no matter the predictions made about you, the prophecies people have stated- it is free will and choice that rules.

    In a very, very entertaining twist (especially in light of the woman's argument), Firenze (a centaur who acts as Divination teacher) spends his time teaching the class that even centaurs (who are most skilled in this area) can misread the signs in the stars, and that, moreover, the whole idea is a very shaky business.

      It was the most unusual lesson Harry had ever attended. They did indeed burn sage and mallowsweet there on the classroom floor, and Firenze told them to look for certain shapes and symbols in the pungent fumes, but he seemed perfectly unconcerned that not one of them could see any of the signs he described, telling them that humans were hardly ever good at this, that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs' knowledge, was foolproof.

      'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 27, Page 603

    This completely conforms with the Judaic idea that one's fate (although it is arguable whether this refers to all or only Jews) is not predestined or written in the stars...remember the incident with the snake?

      From Samuel too [we learn that] Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Samuel and Ablat were sitting, while certain people were going to a lake.5 Said Ablat6 to Samuel: 'That man is going but will not return, [for] a snake will bite him and he will die.' 'If he is an Israelite,' replied Samuel. 'he will go and return.'7 While they were sitting he went and returned. [Thereupon] Ablat arose and threw off his [the man's] knapsack, [and] found a snake therein cut up and lying in two pieces — Said Samuel to him, 'What did you do?'8 'Every day we pooled our bread and ate it; but to-day one of us had no bread, and he was ashamed. Said I to them, "I will go and collect [the bread]".9 When I came to him, I pretended to take [bread] from him, so that he should not be ashamed.' 'You have done a good deed,' said he to him. Then Samuel went out and lectured: But charity10 delivereth from death;11 and [this does not mean] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.

      Sabbath 156b

    All this goes to show that one should not judge a book without reading it first. I do understand that as this author's article was published in 2001, she had not yet seen the further developments of the Potter series, but even in the first book, there are no examples of the kind of witchcraft and sorcery the Torah deplores. Or, if very, very technically there are (based on the Rashi to Devarim) the desire to be wicked is not what draws third-graders to the book. And the "world of Harry" is not antithetical to, and may even supplement, the "world of holiness."

    Generalizations are bad on any occassion, but they are especially bad when one hasn't even read the subject matter in question and is making statements based on the reactions and misunderstandings of third graders. Recall, it was a certain child's brother who said the Satan warred with God, not J. K. Rowling. And even if the child had been drawn to some strangely disturbed conclusion, J. K. Rowling is only responsible for the content of her book- not for the way other people choose to view it/ misuse it/ misread it/ misunderstand it.

    Read the book in question, and then, if you choose to, pontificate.

    But you can hardly attack a fantasy book through the use of generalizations, misunderstandings, ideas engendered by the confusion of children, and the fact that you have refused to read it, lest it taint you.

    This is only one example. The reason it stood out was because the article had actually been published, as opposed to having been an opinion merely spoken aloud. But this kind of idea- opinions turned into facts on the whim of some person- has been used, to very bad effect, at Templars. Perhaps the most infuriating time this happened was during History class, where Mrs. Jellybean happily taught us all the ulterior motives Israel had in creating Yom HaShoa and Yom HaAtzmaut, the fact that Joseph Aaron suffered from various problems during his childhood, which meant his word was not to be trusted, and that any Jew who went to see 'The Passion' was a traitor to his religion because Mel Gibson's father denied the Holocaust. Oh, and that there was no such thing as an Orthodox Jewish Democrat.

    Opinions are opinions. Facts are facts. If you are going to state an opinion, make sure you can prove it. Support it with facts. Or, as I could otherwise state it, if you're going to write about a book, make sure you've read the book.

    Thursday, January 12, 2006

    Off the Derech

    Let me fall
    Let me climb
    There's a moment when fear
    And dreams must collide

    Let Me Fall
    by Josh Groban

    There is a moment in time when each person faces a choice. We come to the end of the road, as it were, and face different paths. It is then that we ask ourselves- why are we religious? Why am I a Jewess? Why do I believe?

    If we are simply Jewish because of our blood, and we know no other reason, or if we are faced by ideas that seem extremely contradictory and receive no clear answers, if our questions are not acknowledged or are answered inadequately, if, in effect, we find ourselves in spiritual difficulty- and who has not?- the choice is not so simple.

    There are those, based on many premises- whether intellectual, moral, emotional or religious- who choose to abdicate or to forgo the responsibility, others who desire to follow their dreams and moral beliefs- ideas that are not substantiated by Judaic law. There are some who present scientific arguments, others with intellectual arguments, some who base their decision on the way in which they were treated while within the Jewish community- oftentimes with scorn or derision, even intolerance, close-mindedness or anger. There are some who simply do not believe in organized religion, no matter the kind.

    These are the ones who make a choice- reasoned, impetuous, irrational or logical- to step off the path.

    This step is different for everyone. Some may whistle, cheerfully placing one foot in front of another as they dance off the path. Others may step forward tremulously, hesitantly embarking on a path that is totally different from all they ever knew. There are still others who march as a soldier unto battle, people who are strong and believe in the strength of their choice. And of course, there are the many within these various spectrums.

    Many times, the ones who choose to step off the path have valid concerns. They have been exiled by the Jewish community in certain ways, perhaps, or maybe religion was never presented to them in a meaningful context. There may be others who were forced into religion too soon and against their will and therefore resent it. There are still others with carefully constructed arguments that delve into the Biblical texts themselves, or describe the many ways in which scientific theory appears to differ tremendously (and possibly even negate) ideas mentioned in the Torah. All of these are questions and concerns.

    There are others who are disturbed by the moral implications of the Torah. Why is homosexuality impermissable? Why would we voluntarily involve ourselves in genocidal warfare against Amalek, especially since we have experienced the Holocaust? Why are men who seem cruel, who sold their own brother to traders, the forerunners of the 12 tribes? Why were we told to wipe out the seven nations of Ca'naan? Why is a woman's testimony not valid in court?

    These, too, are valid qustions and concerns. Indeed, the great majority of issues brought up in the Skeptic's Annotated Bible are not simply issues that trouble them, skeptics and apostates alone, but rather issues that ought to trouble us all. There are many ethical and moral dilemmas that we are presented with. Differences in gender roles. Questions about love and mercy. The reiteration that our God is vengeful, jealous. So many questions, in so many different forms.

    As I have stated, there are many reasons that one might choose to step off the Judaic path. I do not wish to state the obvious- namely, that if we were open to questions, accepted them as valid, and at least attempted to answer them, there might be fewer youth (I say youth in particular) who would find it necessary to step off the path. But I hardly believe that this is the solution. Indeed, I do not know that there is such a thing as a "solution."

    Because a person's choice can hardly be viewed as a problem; it is a choice, one that man made for himself in keeping with his beliefs and values. The question that I believe is more important, then, is not necessarily the reasons for stepping off the path, but rather, the response on our part. The reaction. The stigma. In short, what the words "off the derech" convey.

    Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, made a statement that I regard as being true:

      Actually it is a very difficult thing to even define a Jew. The closest that I can come to describing it is to ask you to visualize a snail. A snail that you see at the ocean consists of the body that is snuggled inside of the house which it always carries around with it. But let's picture what would happen if we lifted the shell off of the snail. Would we not still describe the unprotected body as a snail? In just the same way, a Jew who sheds his faith along the way, or who even picks up a different one, is still a Jew.

    I find this statement to have great depth.

    A Jew is a Jew without his faith, even as a snail is a snail without his shell. He still exists among us, amidst us, despite his views and ideas. He is not to be shunned, to be hated, to be exiled. He is not to be despised.

    Some common reactions to finding out that one has stepped off the path are:

      Stony silence. Regarding the person as totally forfallen.
      Anger. Confusion. Even hatred.
      "Why are you doing this to me?"
      "Your grandparents died for this faith! How do you, an American with a perfect life, have the right to deny it?"
      "You are not going to live in this house if you do this..."
      An inability to admit the person has made a life choice/ decision. Instead, thinking that the person will "come round" if you ignore what they say/ choose not to see it.
      Sending the person to a Rabbi/ therapist/ counseler.

    I think these reactions are understandable, but not helpful. I do not want to judge the people who say/ do this. I am not in their position, and what I propose is what I mentally find to be correct, and not necessarily what I would do (although I hope I would) if I were in the same position.

    I asked my parents what they would do if I would one day decide to leave my religion. I did not do this because I am actually considering leaving, but rather for guidance with regard to their response. My parents believe that the person who makes this choice must be treated with love. We may differ- intellectually, theologically even- but should keep the channels of communication open. Instead of accusations or anger, my father (very simply) said he would ask me "Why?"

    This "Why" would not be condemnatory, an angry thrust, a pointed barb. It would be a true question. What is it that persuades you Judaism is wrong/ incorrect? It is possible that I too, Chana, your father, share the same questions as you, and am also looking for the answers...

    My mother believes in unconditional love, and would want to be an involved part of my family anyway- attending celebrations and various joyous occasions. She could not write any of us off- we are her children. There is a bond that connects us, through all of our searching, no matter where it may take us.

    A person has merit even if he has chosen another path. He is not suddenly stupid or foolish or simply wrong. The main preoccupation of Orthodox Jewry is trying to get those who went "off-the-derech" to come back on. There's so many organizations that wish to accomplish this. While I think their intentions are good, I believe that the focus may be wrong.

    Before we tell others to come back, to join us, as it were, oughtn't we to listen to their reasons?

    If the only reason you speak with someone is to refute him, and not to learn from him, how can you possibly answer reasonably?

    If someone has made a life decision- particularly if the person is learned, and has thought about intellectual and logical parameters- one can hardly begin to debate him if one does not understand his premise. And even those who leave based on emotion- the fact that they feel stifled, or are angry with their parents/ school system- have something to say within the anger. You must listen before you can argue. You must desire to hear what they have to say.

    There is also an assumption that the person is instantly wrong when we say that he has "gone off the derech." In truth, this is wholly situational. An adolescent who has decided to engage in something harmful to his body (drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc) and rebel may also step off the path as part of his rebellion. But this is also viewing a situation very simply. There may be more to the "rebel" kid just as there may be more to the intellectual premise. It would be best not to make assumptions. We state that there is a "correct path" and that others have strayed from it and our mission is instantaneously to bring them back to it. This is like putting blinders on one's eyes. To them, we are not on the path...

    People who gain a child/ adolescent's confidence in order to cajole him into reaccepting religion disturb me. This is treating a child shabbily indeed. Even people who propose extremely simplistic arguments undermine our intelligence. For example, my Rabbi at Templars (one of the good ones, if you can believe it) once stated during a Machshava class the idea of Pascal's Wager (though not in those words):

    Rabbi: So if you keep the Torah and the mitzvos, then you go up to Shamayim and if there is a God, you receive Olam Haba! And if there isn't a God, well, then, you've still lived a good and moral life. So you might have missed out on some things, on pleasure mostly, the pleasures of [gives a list], having fun, but in the long term, what's better? I'd gamble on Hashem!

    Chana: But your whole life would have been a lie!

    Rabbi: But you would be dead, so you wouldn't realize that.

    Chana: You can't just say that we're only "missing out" on pleasure if we keep the Torah! There are so many other things that are worth thinking about/ debating...

    Class: (Jumps on Chana= attack Chana time.) The Rabbi's right...it is too pleasure, it's TV and movies and pritzus and untznius clothes...what do you mean?....I'd rather have Olam Haba...and either way, you'll still have been a good person...

    Even if the class accepted this argument, I still think it insults an adolescent's intelligence to state this. I believe that if we were grounded in the basics of our theology/philosophy/religion, and understood it from an intellectual premise rather than from an emotional "feel-good" premise (the common argument- I love Shabbos! I get together with friends; it's wonderful! Yeah- but, as I read somewhere, maybe even on one of the blogs- Shabbos was also extremely hard for my grandparents to observe, due to the fact that they would lose their job if they did so- is the "feel-good" philsophy going to hold up under that situation? No...)

    Someone who steps off the path may have some very valid points. This person deserves thinking, questioning discussion, not an idea that we have all the answers and , in an effort to save his soul, must be "mikareiv" him.

    Look at Elisha ben Avuyah, in Chagiga 15A.

    R' Meir continued to learn from R'Elisha, because Elisha did not suddenly lack in knowledge of Torah. He was brilliant, an extremely erudite scholar! Yet he chose to leave Judaism, and later on, was under the impression that he could not return. He tore a root/ radish from the ground on the Sabbath for a prostitute; she was shocked by his actions and decided he was Acher- another. Even so, R' Meir listened to him and learned from him.

    There is a wonderful story mentioned there- Elisha, riding his horse on Sabbath and R' Meir, walking alongside him, spoke of Torah until they reached the techum, where Elisha stated that R' Meir could walk no farther. R'Meir implored him to return; Elisha stated that he could not (he believed he had been forbidden to do so.) Others had the option, but not he.

    When I was in Israel over the past summer, I visited a certain site (I cannot remember exactly where it was, I think perhaps within the Talmudic Village) where a certain introductory video played. This story, of Elisha ben Avuya and R' Meir, was enacted on screen; the two of them speaking together about Judaic law even as Elisha rode on his horse. Then, the screen switched to a modern-day scene. A man with a black hat, long earlocks and black gaberdine, walked next to a totally secular Jew driving a car on Shabbos. The two of them were deep in intellectual discussion, engrossed in a fascinating argument.

    This struck me immensely. Why is it that we never see this happen? I have never seen a religious Jew and one who has walked "off the derech" discussing Torah together, let alone as one broke the law through driving a car on the Sabbath! I have heard of people who throw rocks at those who drive cars on the Sabbath, totally antithetical to what the very Gemara seems to say.

    If one has the ability to discern between good and evil, to take the wheat and discard the chaff, to sift the good from the bad, then one has much to learn from one who goes "off the derech." In the limited sense, one can learn the person's reasons. In the larger sense, if the person is a scholar, it may be that you can even learn Torah from him...

    One of the most fundamental laws of Judaism is that we must love one another.

    I do not think it is love to persuade people back onto the path through false means. It is something they must choose to accept, knowingly and understanding what they do. One cannot lie and emphasize the "feel-good" ideas, the peace of a Sabbath meal or the psychological benefit therein. At times it is hard, very hard indeed to keep the laws, and what do we do then?

    Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as part of his lecture on the Role of the Rabbi, stated (and this may be found in Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book 'The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik', page 54 onwards):

      Judaism must be explained and expounded on a proper level. I have read many pamphlets that have been published in the United States with the purpose of bringing people closer to Judaism. There is much foolishness and narrishkeit in some of these publications. For instance, a recent booklet on the Sabbath stressed the importance of a white tablecloth. A woman recently told me that the Sabbath is wonderful, and that it enhances her spiritual joy when she places a snow-white tablecloth on her table. Such pamphlets also speak about a sparkling candelabra. Is this true Judaism? You cannot imbue real and basic Judaism by utilizing cheap sentimentalism and stressing empty ceremonies. Whoever attempts such an approach underestimates the intelligence of the American Jew. If you reduce Judaism to religious sentiments and ceremonies, then there is no role for rabbis to discharge. Religious sentiments and ceremonies are not solely posessed by Orthodox Jewry. All the branches of Judaism have ceremonies and rituals.

      This is not the only reason why we must negate such a superficial approach. Today in the United States, American Jewish laymen are achieving intellectual and metaphysical maturity. They wish to discover their roots in depth. We will soon reach a point in time where the majority of our congregants will have academic degrees. Through the mediums of white tablecloths and polished candelabras, you will not bring these people back to Judaism. It is forbidden to publish pamphlets of this nature, which emphasize the emotional and ceremonial approaches.

      There is another reason why ceremony will not influence the American Jew. In the Unitesd States today, the greatest master of ceremony is Hollywood. If a Jew wants ceremony, all he has to do is turn on the television set. If our approach stresses the ceremonial side of Judaism rather than its moral, ethical, and religious teachings, then our viewpoint will soon become bankrupt.

      The only proper course is that of Ezekiel's program for the priests: "And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" [Ezekiel 44:23] The rabbi must teach his congregants. He must deepen their appreciation of Judaism and not water it down. If we neutralize and compromise our teachings, then we are no different than the other branches of Judaism.

    People are smart- they are academic, intellectual. They need to hear true answers, intellectual answers, textual answers, not ideas about emotions and ceremonies. If someone steps off the path, you will not persuade him back through feel-good Judaism. You must listen, think of what they are saying, hear their words and arguments, and then, if itis possible....respond...

    The most chilling words in the entire 'Fiddler on the Roof' are from the following scene:

      Chava: Papa.
      Papa, I've been looking everywhere for you.
      Papa, stop!
      At least listen to me!
      I beg you to accept us.

      Tevye: (reverie)
      Accept them?
      How can I accept them?
      Can I deny everything I believe in?
      On the other hand,
      can I deny my own daughter?
      On the other hand,
      how can I turn my back on my faith,
      my people?
      If I try and bend that far,
      I'll break.
      On the other hand...
      No. There is no other hand.
      Tevye: (angry) No, Chava! No!
      Chava: But, Papa! -
      Tevye: No! No!
      Chava: Papa!
      Tevye: No!
      Chava: Papa!

    According to justice, to true justice, there is no other hand...but Tevye's denying his daughter is one of the most emotional scenes- the scene that makes people cry. Not because they find Tevye intolerant and ignorant, but because they understand his dilemma, the terrible choice with which he is faced. Accept them? He cannot.

    One of the most terrifying things for a parent to think about, for any relative or friend to think about- is not the fact that what the person is doing is "bad or wicked" so much as what his punishment may be. If one truly believes in God- in the God of the Torah- we see that He metes out measure for measure, justice with mercy, but He is a Judge above all else. If we believe in this God, we are terrified for the member of our family, friend or community who does not, or worse yet, mocks Him. What will happen to this person? What will God say to him? We do not want anyone we love to be hurt or punished by God in the next world. We want the best for them- we want them to enjoy the beauty and richness of Olam Ha'ba, the World to Come. We want only good for them. We want their lives to be filled with joy, with happiness...

    If I believe in God, and I believe in justice, then it follows that I believe that each person is judged based on whether he is what he could have been. I do not want those I love to have to undergo a judgement or even a purificaton of souls that may be harsh. I want those I love to be protected...

    Those who chose this path or step will avow that this is totally their own choice and that they do not need you to worry about them. And this is true...Yet while I will not force anyone to rejoin Orthodox Judaism, while I do not think it is right to impugn on someone else's views, and I certainly do not think "feel-good" arguments will prevail, I do love so very many people within my community and even within the blogosphere. I only want good for them. And since I believe, it is not so much that I want to "save thier soul" from being damned so much as I do not want them to be placed in a position where they might be judged unfavorably.

    There are some who care only for appearances and for the shame of having their child go "off the derech." There are some who feel this is a deliberate slight or the American mentality at its worst. But at the core, what I truly believe motivates people (albeit, at times, in incorrect ways) is that we love so fiercely and so passionately, and we do not want our children/ relatives/ family members/ friends to suffer. We do not want them to be hurt in any way. In some ways, we are scared for them.

    I admit that I feel this way. I don't want to force ideas upon people. I don't want to infringe on others' lifestyles. I understand many of the reasons behind the step off the path.

    But loving you, I want your life to be pleasant, beautiful. I want you never to know anything bad.

    This is why, I believe, people are concerned about those who go "off the Derech." This love is misdirected, for there are those who often smother people in it, choke them on it, try to force them to change. That is wrong. People take responsibility for their actions. They make their own choices.

    But to love Jews- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Atheist...all Jews...is also to fear for them.

    If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't care about your life choices/ decisions.

    But I do.

    Know, then, as you suffer the multitudes attempting to persuade you or change you, that it comes (or so I think) from a misguided depth of feeling for you that is so strong that it cannot be mentally broken.

    This is our people, Israel...at least our people as we could be. People who care about one another. People who love one another. People who feel directly affected by the choices of others...

    A loving people.