Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Societal Madmen

While reading Veronika Decides To Die, which is a beautiful book by Paulo Coelho about the search for meaning in life, I came across the following excerpt:
    You say they create their own reality,' said Veronika, 'but what is reality?'

    'It's what the majority deems it to be. It's not necessarily the best or the most logical, but it's the one that has become adapted to the desires of society as a whole. You see this thing I've got round my neck?'

    'You mean your tie?'

    'Exactly. Your answer is the logical, coherent answer an absolutely normal person would give: it's a tie! A madman, however, would say that what I have round my neck is a ridiculous, useless bit of coloured cloth tied in a very complicated way, and which makes it harder to get air into your lungs and difficult to turn your neck. I have to be careful when I'm anywhere near a fan, or I could be strangled by this bit of cloth.

    If a mad person were to ask me what this tie is for, I would have to say, absolutely nothing. It's not even purely decorative, since nowadays it's become a symbol of slavery, power, aloofness. The only really useful function a tie serves is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off; you feel as if you've freed yourself from something, though quite what you don't know.

    'But does that sense of relief justify the existence of ties? No. Nevertheless, if I were to ask a madman and a normal person what this is, the sane person would say: a tie. It doesn't matter who's correct, what matters is who's right.'
It occurred to me that those who claim to use logic and reason as the final arbiters in any sort of religious debate, and who happily claim to have been following the dictates of science and reason when denying God or otherwise doing away with religion, nevertheless act inconsistently. Because they have no problem doing absurd things (such as wearing a tie) as long as they are socially absurd, not religiously so.

At that point, one can easily answer that it is different to wear a dangling piece of cloth around one's neck (or high heels, if we are looking for the female equivalent of torture) because socially it is seen as a dignified way to dress, and to believe in a religion which advocates killing Amalekites, for example. And you would be correct, but you would also be admitting your own bias- I use logic and reason for certain things (i.e. the things I don't like and that don't square with my morality) and put them aside for other things (i.e. socially acceptable absurdities.)

However, if you yourself live inconsistently, because you do not use logic as your final arbiter, but selectively apply it where you wish, how can you claim that religious affiliates, whom you might also see as selectively applying logic, are close-minded or otherwise flawed? You yourselves admit that there are places to push away logic for the sake of something greater- and here it's only due to social rules, and the opinion someone might have of you were you to show up without a tie! How much the more so were someone to claim that though it may not logically make sense to them that homosexuals cannot practice the act within Judaism, they will accept a logic above their own.

I am not arguing that illogic immediately means something is true. I am simply pointing out the hypocritical nature of anyone who chooses to claim that religion specifically is at odds with reason, but has no problem with the fact that society is as well.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Introduction to Haredi Philosophy Part 2

With the utmost thanks to Jordan, who is my guide and radiates light in every way.

What is the proper way in which to approach our texts? How does one serve God, and how does one find Him? Most of those within the Modern Orthodox world would approve of any method being utilized, any method which would seem to bring us closer to God, whether it be historical analysis, psychological readings or any sort of outside tool which will aid us in our understanding of Tanakh and the Torah. Yet it is not necessarily so simple. Our assumption is that those in the Haredi world who do not make use of the most innovative and creative outside tools are doing so out of either ignorance or a stubborn decision to cling to old, outdated and otherwise outmoded methods. Why do they not apply theory to the Torah, read it as literature and extract everything useful from it via that method? Why not read the Torah through using the methods which have become prevalent in our society- why refrain? It can only be out of a stubborn persistence to cling to what they know, to what is unthreatening and otherwise established, a refusal to see anything in a different way. They are afraid; they are foolish; they are blinkered, and this is the reason they do not make use of other methodologies and introduce them as ways in which to study the texts.

And yet this is not so. And what is more surprising, this is not so, not only in the opinion of the Rabbis who openly affiliate themselves with the sector of our society that we might call Haredi, but in the opinion of our very own "father of Modern Orthodoxy," Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Yes, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes in no uncertain terms, in extremely harsh terms, even, of the divide between what is true and what is false, what comes from within and what comes from without. What you see above is an article published in Light Magazine in Kislev 5736-1976 entitled "Surrendering to the Almighty" that includes his consolidated and concentrated remarks on the topic, but I am going to quote from a text which claims to be a transcript of his exact speech:
    What does kabalas ol malchus shamayim require of the lomeid hatorah,person who studies Torah? First, we must pursue the truth, nothing else but the truth; however, the truth in talmud torah can only be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only by joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah [11]. Itis ridiculous to say "I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn't know, the Ktzos didn't know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge, Ihave discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which iscompletely new." One must join the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah --chazal, rishonim, gedolei achronim -- and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei hatorah [12] and must not judge the chukei mishpatim[13] in terms of the secular system of things. Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of torah umesorah, and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism, no matter how good the original intentions.
Read the words and you will see for yourself. These are the Rav's words, and he states in no uncertain terms the exact principles and precepts that you will see embodied in the Haredi movement.

"The truth is attained from within, in accord to the methodology given to Moses and passed from generation to generation."

How does one learn Torah? One learns Torah from those who have been taught Torah, in a chain that began with Moses and has been tempered by tradition, in the way that Torah was always taught, and not through the use of secular methods applied to the text. As the Rav states later on in his speech:
    Kabalas ol malchus shamayim -- which is an identical act withtalmud torah -- requires of us to revere and to love and to admire thewords of the chachmei hamesorah, be they tannaim, be they amoraim, be theyrishonim. This is our prime duty. They are the final authorities, and an irresponsible statement about chazal borders on, I don't like to use theword but according to Maimonides, the heretic.
This is the Rav speaking. The Rav! And yet there are those who will come forward and claim that the Chachmei Chazal were simply 20th century personalities, that they too were mortal men like us, and therefore shared the same flaws in behavior and errors in thought that we share. We would like to identify with them and therefore determine that they must be similar to us, that they must share the errors in judgment that we currently possess, that perhaps they were privy to the pressures and influences that would cause us to fall. Yet the Rav adamantly explains that such thoughts are heretical, that they are absolutely false. The Rav explains:
    Why did he add v'hamach'chish magideha --whoever denies the authority of the scholars, the chachmei hamesorah? Apparently the Rambam says that under the category of kofrim batorah [16]are classified not only those who deny for instance that nisuch hamayim[17] or avodas beis hamikdash [18] is required, or those who deny the torah she b'al peh -- there is no doubt about it in those cases. Butmoreover, even those who admit the truthfulness of the torah she b'al pehbut who are critical of chachmei chazal as personalities, who find fault with chachmei chazal, fault in their character, their behavior, or their conduct, who say that chachmei chazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the halachah; nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer.
So why is it that so many of us do not tremble with fear to make such statements? Why is it considered permissable to explain away Chazal by claiming that they were men of their times, that many of the precepts and laws which they created were simply those that mimicked the social conditions of the time, that the status of the woman in antiquity must be researched in order to determine the way in which they would have ruled about her? Halakha is not influenced by the status of a woman in antiquity! Halakha is divine; halakha comes from God. To suggest that Chazal were prejudiced, that they were merely men of their times, is to border upon something unmentionable, something unpardonable. And who is it who writes this, who defies anyone to think that these men created laws based on anything other than what they saw as the absolute and implacable Truth? Rabbi Soloveitchik himself; Rabbi Soloveitchik, the presumed founder of Modern Orthodoxy.

So now you will question. But why? Why can I not question these men, men who lived in certain societies and who were doubtless influenced by their times? Why cannot I believe that they would have been prejudiced to think of women as chattel due to their time period? Because to do so is to limit these men, to limit them to men like ourselves, to the people that we have become. It is the highest form of apologetics, to claim that others must be like ourselves because those are the sort of people whom we are able to understand. And it is also because we do not realize that these men were more than human; they were vessels for the Torah. What we respect in them is not necessarily the man himself, but what he represents, a vessel for the Torah, the man who transmits tradition. It is what the man exists for that we honor, even more than his own personality.

But why cannot we use our modern methods to understand the Torah? Why the strict statement that Torah is to be learned from within, and not from without? Because Torah is a discipline, taught by the masters, and as any discipline, it must be studied in a certain way. Suppose that a certain indecipherable code were in existence, and there was an alphabet which provided the key to that code. This is the alphabet that one would use to study that code, to study everything written in that code, this and no other! It is not a question of excluding other forms of knowledge, of being willfully ignorant, of desiring to blind oneself and close one's eyes to the ideas of others. It is simply a question of how to learn, the correct way to learn. And there is a correct or an incorrect way. For assume that one day a different man, from the outside, suggests attempting to crack this code with a different alphabet, a different language. What, is he mad? the masters will laugh, completely incredulous. It makes no sense! And yet this man will pursue his slow, torturous attempt at cracking the code, and perhaps he will even have some legitimate sentences to string together to show for it. But what of the rest of his code, which will be incredibly garbled? And what use will he make of that?

What people cannot understand, because this has not been taught to them correctly, is that this isn't a question of selectivity, of a people selectively choosing to use these tools and not others when all will yield the same results. On the contrary! The tools used yield different results, and the amount of effort placed into attempting to determine these results is immaterial. The man with the different language may put a tremendous amount of effort into attempting to decipher the code, and yet he will fail! And why? Because he is not using the correct alphabet, the alphabet that has been transmitted since the beginning of time in order to understand how to crack the code, how to decipher the text. In our example, he is not using the Mesorah.

And what of the philosophy that so many dislike, the philosophy of yeridas hadoros? There are so many of us who assume that this was an evil ploy on the part of Chazal to maintain power for themselves, to allow themselves to appear as Masters while all others suffered. We assume that there is some personal grudge or hatred here, that man in his desire to seize power ruled, and that is the reason they have instituted an idea and a philosophy of our knowledge and ability to grasp certain ideas has waned over time. We assume it is a question of blame; we believe it is a question of our own mental prowess and we are offended, incredibly insulted. And yet, this is the furthest thing from the truth! Rather, think of this as a guild, a society. One joined a guild in order to learn a craft. There are those who would join the glasswright's guild, the goldsmith's guild, the blacksmith, the carpenter- whomever it was from whom one desired to learn. So let us consider this the Scholars Guild, if you like. And when one joins a guild, how does that guild operate? There are levels of learning! First one is an Apprentice, a rank novice, learning at the feet of one's betters, trying to grasp every scrap of knowledge. After a time, when one has mastered a certain amount of information and completed certain tasks, one is appointed to Journeyman. Only after a great deal of effort has been expended, can one be awarded the rank of Master. And so each person progresses through the ranks, mastering the lore of others, being taught humbly and guided by them, before he himself can attain the rank of Master.

And let us assume that the lore was lost. For whatever reason, whether it be the fact that these Masters died before having been able to appropriately train their successors, because wisdom departed from the world, because the manuscripts upon which this lore was written were themselves mysteriously stolen or taken away. If the lore is lost, then no matter the efforts of the man who attempts the rank of Master, he will never be as great as the one who came before! Different, yes, he may certain be innovative; he may create; he may certainly create different works. But he will not have the same mastery as the one who knew the lore, the ancient lore which was transmitted from mouth to mouth and person to person in this ongoing process. This new goldsmith would be an inventive goldsmith, a creative goldsmith, but he would not know the ancient patterns and could not master the ancient ways. And even should he one day discover a treasure trove of manuscripts, rediscovering the ancient lore, who is there to interpret for him? Perhaps this lore was transmitted in a foreign language, or perhaps there are indecipherable abbreviations. Is it his fault? No! Can he still be creative, a deeply creative and innovative individual? Yes! But can he compare to the greats, the ancients, the ones who created and mastered their craft in every way, before that knowledge was lost, before that knowledge even had to be written down in order to be transmitted accurately; can he compare to those who were smiths of the sort that knew every material by the eye, by its touch and smell and feel, who lived their craft, artisans of such a rank? Of course he cannot! And it is not a question of blame, of assigning or apportioning blame, or a matter of intelligence, of mental prowess, of feeling offended that we are lesser and others greater. For it is not a matter of greater and lesser. It is a matter of who is the true Master, who knew the ancient lore and ancient secrets. And in this case, it is precisely those men of whom we speak, the Chachmei HaMesorah, who were the true Masters, and we humble pretenders must realize what it is we do, and how small are our efforts in comparison to theirs. Valiant, yes! Intrepid, yes! But nevertheless, the goldsmiths of today do not compare to the goldsmiths of yesteryore...

Much of the problem lies in our inability to see a man as a whole person, to see him altogether and not to see him as a mere part of what lies within him, a portion of his knowledge. It is our wont to try to classify people and tear them down, to find whatever it is in the man of which we know more or an area in which we have more experience. We look at the scholar and claim that we have come further than him, we have intuited more, we live in a more progressive society and therefore our thought has advanced; our ideas are more charming. Yet this is not so. Our ideas are important, and they are creative and could very well be true, but that does not negate the greatness of the man of the past, nor of the incredibly impressive status he had, as a Vessel of God. He was the Mage, commander of all magics, and his students gleaned what they could from him, but are merely poor imitations, magicians who cannot command the winds and the sky as he could. It is not their fault. It is simply what has occurred.

And so, to open our mouths and to dare to critique they whom we cannot even understand, they whose power is impossible for us to fathom, whose very position sets them apart as members of the elect, of a society which is currently no longer in existence because it disbanded, and there are none who currently qualify to be part of it- pity us, and pity what has become of our nation! Look with joy to the future and to the creativity that resides in our hearts but pity us for the lore that was lost, the men who carried that lore inscribed upon their hearts who have perished. And look with love on those who were Masters, to learn from them and to glean from them, and not with the desire to disprove or deride them.

There are those who learn in order to discover the truth, to engage in a romance with the Creator and to meet Him fully, to determine what it is He desires of them and to offer themselves to Him as a sacrifice unto God. And there are those who fall into traps of pettiness, where their own stature matters more than what He desires, until they twist His will so that they assume he wishes them to attempt the impossible, to attempt to be men whom they cannot be. In the same way that God did not desire the Congregation of Korach, for men to serve as Priests who were not called to that duty, so does he not desire men to pretend to be Masters when they are not. He merely wishes each man to fulfill his function, each man to do his duty as best he knows how. And there is no need to tear down the other in order to fulfill my own duty, no need to claim that the former Masters were flawed so that I can go about my inventive or creative process. The two ought to work in tandem with each other; they need not be at odds with one another. We follow in the tradition of these masters; we work from within the tradition, not from outside of it. We try to recover the lost lore, where we can, to rediscover it or perhaps to come up with new and inventive ideas within the confines of that tradition. But to look from the outside in, to introduce a new language in order to break the code, to deride vessels of God in order to justify our own self-worth; no, this is something that we have only created today, out of our own misguided understanding. For no man desires to feel that he is small in the eyes of God, and no man wishes to be told that he is less than those who came before him. It requires proper understanding to realize that this is not his fault and it is not a question of lesser in worth; it is only that we have lost the lore we once possessed, and therefore we cannot use the secrets and mysteries that were once ours.

It is in this way that we learn to understand that one must learn from within, and not from without, that one must reverence and respect the words of the Chachmei HaMesorah, and may not look at these men as mere people of their times. For these men went beyond their times, for they were vessels for the truth, vessels of God, to whom God imparted his word and his desire. To deride such men or to mock their words is to demonstrate a lack of understanding and of comprehension in oneself, for who these men were and the power they possessed, power with which they were entrusted by God. Even today, to deride such a man is to demonstrate that one does not understand; it is embarrassing for he who mocks, but not for he who is insulted. For the man who mocks such a person, in doing so demonstrates that he does not understand who the person was, how he lived, the way in which he dedicated his life and the relationship he had with God. If he understood these things, he would not dare to mock. He would tremble in fear and awe before such a person, tremble before God, as the very word haredi means, to tremble with that understanding. To realize that simply because one desires the ability to voice an opinion does not mean one has that right, has earned that right, has understood enough of this world or of the times that came before to have such a right. One has the right to speak only when he realizes whom he is speaking to, and whom he is speaking of, and this is something that alas very few within the Modern Orthodox world understand- because it is not something they have been taught. The idea that everyone is subject to censure is rooted in our modern understanding, and it is wrong. For there are men who are more than merely men; there are men who are men of God, devoted to Him entirely and everlastingly. And to censure such men is to set oneself above them- and that is a very arrogant endeavor indeed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

Warning: There are major spoilers throughout this post.

So, desiring to attend a movie premiere for the first time in my life, and preferring to attend a good movie and a fantastic sold-out show, I went to see "The Dark Knight" last night. And it happened to be fabulous. What is it that made "The Dark Knight" so good? In very short, the movie has managed to redefine the meaning of the word hero, which I believe is a very valuable contribution to our society nowadays. The hero is not always the one who does something for which he is publically acclaimed or recognized; in fact, it is far more difficult to be a quiet hero, an anonymous hero, or to give up one's glory for the sake of the people. And yet, in a trend which I personally adore (see my other post, true heroes, for elaboration) Batman sacrifices his own glory by sullying his reputation in order to save that of a friend.

This raises many questions, because the idea seems to echo that of our dear Colonel Jessep, that people cannot handle the truth. People need to believe in something greater than themselves, the hero with a face, the martyr for a greater cause, and therefore everyone must cover up the evil things a different man (the fallen person, who changed from supporting good to becoming evil himself) did and pretend instead that he was a great man who lived well, and whom everyone ought to respect. All this while Batman takes the fall for this man's crimes. (Now, in the movie, Batman's taking the fall is made less strong because this man originally takes the fall for Batman at the beginning of the film. So it seems to come full circle.) But this too is an ethical dilemma and question- what is more important, the people's morale and belief, or the truth? And this is a question that can apply to Judaism as a whole, in addition to our world as a whole, in terms of what people are taught or fed- is it more important to give people something to believe in, or to tell them the truth...

The movie contains many ethical dilemmas; the problem is that they are major rather than being subtle. One of the clearest is a situation where there are two ships at sea, each of them wired with bombs. One ship is filled with criminals, while the other one is filled with civilians. The Joker has given a person onboard the ship the detonator to the other ship. So the civilians can blow up the criminals, and the criminals can blow up the civilians. The caveat is that if neither group chooses to blow up the other, the Joker will blow up both of the ships, whereas whomever blows up the other ship will be allowed to stay alive. Now, in such a situation, there would be mass panic, and whoever could push the button first definitely would. However, in the movie we allow for an organized vote where finally people find something good within themselves and refrain from killing each other.

I'm a fan of all the psychological problems or moral questions, so I also loved the scene where the SWAT team is originally aiming at the wrong people, because the hostages (from a hospital- Gotham had to clear out all their hospitals due to a threat from the Joker) have been given Joker masks while the criminals are walking around wearing doctors' uniforms. I love that Batman beating up the SWAT teams makes him seem like the villain when of course he is not the villain at all.

As for the Joker himself, and the great debate- who makes a better joker, Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson? I have to say that Heath Ledger does not have Jack Nicholson's distinctive, scary, high-pitched laugh, or his casually elegant portrayal. Nicholson is less brutal and more entertaining; Ledger is clearly unhinged. And since I truly love Nicholson's laugh, that's something I missed. But Ledger's portrayal is definitely psychotic and brilliant, and one gets the sense that this man really is a person who would just like to see "the world burn" for the hell of it, and who does not want anything out of the game. He enjoys anarchy and chaos, without any rhyme or reason to it...

Highly recommended- go see it, and then we can discuss all the ethical dilemmas and other fun situations.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How To Love Every Jew

Reb Nathan asked me a good question, and I'd like to try to answer it if I can.


How does one learn to love every Jew? In what magical way can we transcend boundaries and labels in order to make that happen, loving people for what they are and not for their affiliation? How can we look to see the person rather than the trappings; how can we see further than the symbols that immediately occur to us?

I think the answer is to consider what it is we love in people to begin with. I believe that we love sincerity, authenticity, what is genuine and true in a person. We love whatever it is in them that leads them to practice in accordance to their ideals, to seek and to search out the truth, no matter where it may lead them. We love their honesty, their passion, the fact that they have risked everything as far as that is concerned. And so, in order to love every Jew, ideally, we must meet a Jew of each sect who embodies this passion, this idealism, this search for the self and for God. We must meet Jews who are pained, anguished by their choices, but who could not choose differently. And it is at this point that we learn to love every Jew, because we have learned to appreciate in them something beautiful, and through that, we have learned to understand them.

I have been privileged to meet Jews of the main divisions who fulfill this every criteria. One of my best friends is a Reform Jew, and he humbles me in his dedication and desire for the Land of Israel, and the pride that he takes in his Jewish identity. He has many times told me of the pride he feels in being a Member of the Tribe, and every time that I am with him I can see it in his face, the joy and the grandeur that it is for him to be Jewish. And so, from him I learn the importance of pride in my people, my destiny and my heritage. From him more than anyone else do I see it displayed. I see his concern for his fellow Reform Jews who have no or little respect for their heritage, having survived their Hebrew School Education, they have forgotten the meaning of the word. And I see, too, how it flames in his face. To me he is the epitome of the words that Rav Kook are supposed to have said, "The holy feet that kick the holy ball," when speaking of Jews who play soccer on Sabbath. It is my firm belief that people such as my friend serve God as well, in their own way, to the best of their ability. The fact that he has determined to live in Israel if possible, that the land inflames him with passion and brings him joy, that no dark clouds can settle upon him in the "land of milk and honey," that in every way he identifies with Jewish culture and with every Jew who is important to him- whether it be poet or musician- all this to me demonstrates his sincerity and his love. And thus it is easy to love him, and by extension to love all Reform Jews. Because there is also the question of taking into account the opportunities offered these people. One cannot blame someone who is Reform for the redactions made by those who are their leaders. They were born into Reform Judaism, and like most people, they remain where they were situated. With the knowledge that they have and the ideals that have been cultivated in them, some will shine and some will live their normal lives, but each person has the ability to be sincere in his own fashion, and I have met one who is sincere.

My cousins are Conservative. My Scarsdale cousins, of whom I have written so often, are Conservative, and beautifully so. They are absolutely beautiful people, with a relationship to people which astonishes and moves me. They are always willing to help me, and what is more to help others. They are respectful of my family and our religious practices. I cannot count the number of times they have hosted us for Shabbat, making sure that everything was newly purchased or set on paper plates so that absolutely everything was kosher and available per our expectations. My cousin Yechiel is the leader of a USY Group and clearly identifies with his religion, desiring at some point to join the IDF. Another cousin of mine, Pamela, graduated from JTS after having done extensive work in the field of Jewish Studies. Pamela has affiliated herself with many different causes and charities, working for Children of Chernobyl and participating in danceathons in order to raise money for others. Her uniquely social personality does not in any way negate her strong Jewish identity and Jewish pride. The same can be said of my cousin Josh, who attended Brandeis after having been extremely active in USY and other groups. And this is to say nothing of any kind of Bnei Akiva involvement, or other outside activities. The ability to affiliate as Conservative and nevertheless take pride in one's Judaism and one's service to God is absolutely there. I have seen it with my own eyes. So it is easy to love anyone who is Conservative as well.

Now we venture into perhaps more familiar territory for many of you, the realm of the Modern Orthodox. Here, one is conflicted, because there are so many different types of Modern Orthodox. We have the philosophically Modern Orthodox who adhere to the ideals espoused by the various Rabbanim, and we have the culturally Modern Orthodox who participate in a socially acceptable form of Judaism. And oddly enough, I can love both of these people, even while I disagree with the way of living of the cultural set. The way to love people is to identify in them something that they have to teach you, a lesson that you must learn, something which you are unable to find in yourself. When you realize what that is, you will love them at the very least, out of gratitude, for they have taught you something you did not know before. If you are unable to find a point of commonality that way, the next thing to do is to try to look at the person to see what it is that bothers you about them, what flaw they have. You will often find that you either share or have shared that flaw yourself, which is why you are able to identify it. If not that, one simply reflects upon oneself and realizes that one has other flaws, just as this person is flawed, and that is not a reason to hate anybody. Once one recognizes the point of commonality, it is easy to love. It is also easy to love anybody who is trying. One of the most important things to keep in mind, and this was a lesson that was modelled for me by my parents but said to me most explicitly by my friend Marc Fein, is that people do not come from the same set of opportunities. I may have been given the opportunity to study and approach my Judaism in an academic forum, with all the questions I wanted to ask, and all the ideas at my disposal, but that does not mean many others have been. And so for me to immediately dismiss them because I do not like the way they practice means I am judging them as I would myself, a statement I would often use in defense- "But I wouldn't do it." Yet it is necessary to judge people in a completely different manner than one judges oneself, for they haven't had the opportunities you had, and they are doing the best with what they are given- they are trying their absolute best with what they have. And in that capacity, I respect every effort that people make, even if I believe it to be mistaken or misguided.

From Modern Orthodox we reach those whom one would term Haredi. Now, even within the Haredi community there are thinking and non-thinking members, those who adhere to the current for philosophical reasons and those who adhere to it simply because they are comfortable in that stratosphere. Since most of my exposure to that community has been to the latter, I had originally formed a rather negative opinion of it, especially due to my penchant of desiring things to be explained to me. But all it takes is one person, and once you meet one person who embodies the ideals of a community in a thoughtful manner, you are able to judge everyone else favorably. For me, this person was Jordan. Jordan lives the ideals of the Haredi community, whether it be in his service to God, his learning, or the way in which he explains his beliefs, and I respect all those who live by their ideals, and practice in accordance to them as well. In Jordan I could find the sincerity, genuineness and authenticity that enables me to respect others.

And now we reach the group whom I perhaps love best, the skeptics, atheists and those who went off-the-derech. I know this group intimately well, for the simple fact that I understand the thought behind such a process. There are different types of skeptics, atheists and irreligious Jews, of course, and far be it from me to force them all into one category. However, I believe I understand the two main derivations. Those of you who left our religion due to the cruelty you had practiced upon you, the stifling nature of its constituency, the negative experiences you had and the fact that you were taught as a rule that you could not fulfill your dreams within its bounds, I have been you, and still am you at times. And those of you who left after intellectual inquiry, having been persuaded by the science of our times, or the history, or whatever else it was you found which did not seem to stand before the Torah, I respect you. Because to me what this means is that your religion mattered enough for you to struggle, to invest the time and the energy into working through it and trying to prove it right, or more importantly, trying to follow wherever your search took you. And I believe that when you go up to God, you can honestly say that you tried your hardest to discover Him, and that your search was not an apathetic one, but a passionate one, fraught with meaning, and yet you did not. And so perhaps to the skeptic or atheist most of all, religion has meaning, for it was the fact that it had meaning which led him to question it and finally to leave it.

So how is it possible to love every Jew? It is possible to love the part in them that is pure, that is good, the burning ember as the Maggid of Dubno would term it. It is possible to love every Jew for whatever it is they have that I would like to embody myself, whether it be pride in their Jewish identity, the kindness they show to others, the passion and fervor with which they infuse their observance (or lack thereof), the truthful nature of their search. Every Jew has something to teach me, something which I have yet to learn, and can only learn from them. And this is to say nothing of people in general, for I believe it is quite possible to love the majority of the world, which includes our gentiles as well. It is possible to love every person who tries, who strives to be a good person in the best way they know how, who desires in some way to come close to a form of meaning in their life- and most people do. We will not all find the same path, and we do not all have the same route to God, but there is no doubt in my mind that we all desire that meaning, and we find it as it comes to us. There is beauty in everyone, and each person embodies a different facet of that beauty, no matter whether he be righteous or a sinner, perfect or flawed. It is easy to love everyone if one sees them as an extension of oneself, whom one loves most of all. And especially with Judaism, this is only the truth- I am an extension of you, and you are an extension of me, and hence, if I love what is good in myself, I will search for that good in you as well, and love you for it even as I do me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


To me, Moshe symbolizes purity.

By this I mean purity of the soul, purity of his search for truth, purity in the way that he strives after his God and his religion, the way in which he second guesses himself and tries to ensure that everything he does is for the right and the good. Moshe is not the sort to take, but rather to give. He has had an absolutely beautiful journey, and the process has taken its toll on him. But Moshe exists in the here and now to give, to illuminate, to shed light upon others and to redeem them from the suffering that looms ahead. Moshe exists to be a saviour.

It is in this way that the Moshe I know in many ways reminds me of the Moshe in the Bible. Unassuming, humble and truly modest, what is most important is the quest he has had, the fight for the truth while at the same time retaining his tolerance and appreciation for all others. Moshe grew up in a black-and-white world, a world where ideas were clearly delineated and fell into camps of true and false. Growing up under the auspices of such a world, where all was regulated and understood, he experienced much that was beautiful. Moshe learned to serve God with a passion that he still retains, to pray before him and learn in a service that took all his mental acuity and caused him to smoulder with caring. The way in which he relates to God, the meaning behind his very religion, is something that has been taught and modeled for him by people whom he respects, despite the fact that he has chosen to live a lifestyle that deviates from theirs.

Moshe is courageous in that he had the ability to stand firm, to work it through and choose the philosophy which he believes is true, the one by which he will lead his life. But what is far more beautiful about Moshe is his caring and reverence for those whom he still honors and respects, for those who have been important and influential in his life. There are many who believe that they owe their parents nothing, they owe those who have helped to form and transform them nothing, so long as they themselves are happy. This pursuit of happiness is ultimately doomed to failure, for it is a pursuit that does not take into account others, that does not demonstrate to them how integral and important they have been in the process, in the very journey that has made them the person that they are today. But Moshe takes all that into account. And in this way, Moshe reminds me of the Moses in the Bible, the one who was forbidden to hit the sand or the water due to the concept of gratitude, for it was the sand and water that had saved his life even as a child.

Moshe practices gratitude in a way that puts others to shame. He is very aware of the different influences upon his life, and the different worlds that have created him. Born in what I shall loosely term the Haredi world, Moshe has steadily moved into more of the Modern Orthodox realm. But in reality, he has that rare power and ability to walk both worlds. One would initially think this a blessing, but in truth it is more of a curse. Part of both camps, able to see both sides, Moshe does not want to betray either one- he does not wish to hurt those he loves, but at the same time he does not wish to give up his ideals. And so he walks the tightrope, and prays he does not fall.

There is so much that goes into the making of a person, so much that transforms and creates him. There are the worlds in which he lives, the ideas to which he is exposed, his family life and structure, and what is perhaps most important, the others who touch his life. Moshe has taken everything he can from his meetings with different people, always striving to see what is unique in that particular individual and learn from them, perhaps wishing to possess the quality that comes so naturally to them. He has done his best to see all that is cheerful in the world, in the hopes that he might cheer another person when they are down. The very profession that he has chosen, that of medicine, allows him to be a saviour in yet another form. There are different kinds of doctors- those who know what it means to be human, and those who have hardened, and no longer see their patients as people with lives and backstories, only as subjects. Moshe is the sort who sees his patients as human, and whom I believe always well. He has an exquisite ability to feel pain and to feel compassion. And it is this, perhaps more than anything, that allows him the unique insight into the lives of others that causes him the pain which has created him.

What can one do if one is Moshe? Here he is, watching the world, observing it, allowing it to touch him and affect him. The world is not a disconnected entity but part of him, part of what causes him to live and breathe, to make him move, to cause him to feel. The sun rises and Moshe feels joy- the touch of nature in the world, the greenery, the summer day with its lazy breeze- all this invigorates Moshe, allowing him access to part of the beauty that exists in our world. And yet, all this is forgotten when Moshe is at work and sees a patient who is being eaten alive by cancer- a sight so awful that he will almost cry. And this is because Moshe has not forgotten what it means to be human, but chooses to keep hold of it, chooses to remind himself that every person he sees is a man, a man to be respected, understood and to whom one must listen, a man who is an exquisite creation of God's. It would be easy for Moshe to accustom himself to the dead- to treat the cadavers as simple subjects, to make callous jokes about them. But Moshe forbids himself this luxury, because he prefers to feel the pain of what it means to be human.

Much of life is lived in pain, for pain is transformative, and it creates people. Moshe has had his share of pain. How could it be otherwise? Loving his parents and his family, he nevertheless chose to pursue his dream and his calling, living by a set of ideals which are more true for him. At the same time, how could this not feel like a betrayal? And how could it be possible for him of all people to perpetrate this upon someone else, to cause another to suffer, to cause them any unhappiness? It has not been easy for him. But Moshe is not the sort to focus upon the difficulty caused him- on the contrary, it is the pain he believes he has caused others which occupies his mind. Moshe would never desire to cause anyone he loves any kind of hurt; it is the one thought that wounds him. He has never desired to be and never would want to take pleasure in another's pain, even to do something self-serving, where he will benefit at the expense of another.

Moshe gives, and he gives whole-heartedly. I personally know of people whom Moshe has driven to their destination and back, all with a smile, without the faintest touch of resentment or the least desire to receive something in return. I know of times where Moshe has made time he did not have, created an opportunity to listen to someone despite the fact that it required rearranging his schedule. I know of his humility, his sweetness, his caring, his thoughtfulness. I know how refined and pure a soul he has, of the ways in which he has struggled in order to retain that purity. And I know, too, that he has had his own descent into darkness, and he has also had the wherewithal to withstand it, and to look past its seductive lure.

To be a doctor requires one to understand pain, to understand human suffering. If you do not understand, how can you serve the needs of others? How will you stand before your patients and see them for who they are, despite the way in which they might behave, despite the testiness, anger or irritation they might exhibit? For Moshe, this will not be a problem. For Moshe is an empath, a man who truly feels for others in pain. He feels so deeply that at times he must not show it, lest he break. These are the times when he must take refuge in something else, anything else, so as to escape from his own mind and his thoughts, the sadness that holds him captive.

It is difficult to be extraordinary. It is not a task that is assigned to everyone, nor a burden that is placed on everyone. Not everyone has the capacity to tolerate that much confusion, the mental indecision and the ultimate realization that one must fight through everything important, create a mentality and worldview that is binding, after thinking and rethinking to ensure one has not made mistakes. Not everyone has the ability to care so much for those whom they have, in the eyes of others, abandoned due to their choices. Not everyone walks around shouldering the burdens of others, and not everyone makes it his life's work to give to others, to give to them in every way possible, through every action, at every moment. But there could be no more fitting profession for Moshe than that of physician. Because there is no man more suited to give, to serve his people and his God in this way, to cure the ailments which torture him, to bring a little joy into a world which has its share of darkness. Moshe was born to be extraordinary, and it is a task which marks him, creates him as someone separate, someone special, someone different, someone chosen. It is never easy to be chosen.

But there are some who have no choice.

Moshe, the path you walk is difficult, and if there could have been another way, another way in truth, that you would honestly feel to be true, you would have taken it. But you can only walk the road that you see as true, and do your utmost while on that path, to dispense kindness to all, to teach as many as you can, to give in every way possible, to cure to fulfill, not only the oath you have sworn, but the deep need within yourself to do so. You are one who must make the world a better place tangibly, so as to give himself purpose and meaning. You exist for this.

And due to your existence, the world has been made more beautiful, brighter, a place in which I and many others feel welcome. For we have been touched by the hand of a saviour, by the light of a smile that never fails to warm. On behalf of all of us- and for myself most of all- I thank you for that. When all else fails, we still have trust in you. For we believe in you during all the times you do not believe in yourself. You shall be blessed and only blessed, for you live your life for the sake of truth, and strive for God in your every action. It is difficult to be extraordinary- but you handle it with aplomb. Your eyes are those that can see into many different people, from many different backgrounds and many different worlds. But what is more important, you can identify the commonality between these people, and in this way, bring them together, make them closer, create the world as it should have been made, a world of loving-kindness where you fulfill the function of seer in order to give back.

The empathic doctor whose only creed is loving-kindness- yes, this is Moshe, and I am proud to be his friend.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

An Introduction to Haredi Philosophy Part 1

With the utmost thanks to Jordan, who is a beautiful person and a fantastic teacher.


The difficulty with being a Modern Orthodox Jew attempting to understand the Haredi community lies in our mostly knowing its negatives. When one thinks of the Haredi community, one generally thinks of extremism. The anecdotes that come to mind revolve around the Tznius Police in Israel, a focus upon obedience and guilt-tripping, all that which is distasteful or forced upon constituents who either submit to this brainwashing or abhor it. We cannot understand the allure of an insular community, have difficulty comprehending the concept of people who choose to be isolated and live outside of the tenets of our secular world, and this is all aside from the fact that if we choose to be honest, it is quite possible that we are embarrassed by people who make themselves so distinctly different, wearing their black and white garb proudly, without the faintest desire to fit in or otherwise agree with the customs of the times.

Such an approach fails to take in the absolute beauty of the Haredi lifestyle, all that which is pure in it, much of which it would be important for those who refer to themselves as Modern Orthodox to implement within their own lives. This is not deliberate; it is simply that our exposure to Haredi people is so limited and seems so uncultured in contrast to our own lifestyles that we cannot comprehend the beauty within the culture until it is shown to us so vividly that we no longer have the ability to deny it.

The first point is that ideally there should be no labels. Ideally, there ought to be no distinction between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jew, the only question there ought to be is whether or not one is a practicing Jew. There is right and wrong, and this is defined by the Torah, the guide which we claim to follow. If this is so, the only question that remains to us is whether we do right or wrong, whether we choose to obey or disobey the law. But with the understanding that the society we currently live in greedily clutches at labels, we shall assume there is a difference, and attempt to dissect it.

Perhaps the greatest distinction between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox philosophy appears with the idea of Torah u'Mada. Torah u'Mada suggests an equation, Torah and Science, by which we mean everything secular- secular studies and the like. We use the phrase without thinking about it; it has become a catchphrase, something easy, but what does it really mean? Does it mean to equate Torah and secular studies, and suggest that the same amount of value is to be found in both of them? Does it mean to suggest that secular studies are a form of Torah? Does it simply refer to the fact that one ought to be allowed to study secular studies alongside Torah? What in the world does the phrase mean?

It seems logical to begin at the beginning, in which case one refers to the Rav, the alleged founder of Modern Orthodoxy, for clarification. He states very clearly:
    I have heard criticisms against the Yeshiva that we have not yet achieved the proper synthesis between Torah study and secular endeavor; between fear of God and worldliness. We have not achieved what the German Orthodox Jews called "Torah with derekh eretz [worldly occupation"] [Avot2:2]. I claim that the true greatness of the Yeshiva is that it does not have this synthesis. The truth is that there is no real synthesis in the world. If there is a contradiction between Torah and secular endeavor, then synthesis is not possible. If there is a thesis and an anti-thesis, then no synthesis is possible. In general, a synthesis is very superficial. It is apologetic, it imitates others and the individual loses his uniqueness. In synthesis, no one succeeds. Even our great teacher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides] did not succeed in his attempts at synthesis. The greatness of the Yeshiva is that it is a real Yeshiva and on thesecond level a proper academic institution. Both divisions function without synthesis and compromise.

    My students go from my shiur on the first floor of the Yeshiva building to their college classes on the third floor. In my class, they study in depth such talmudic topics as whether the signatures of the witnesses or the witnessing of the actual delivery make the get [divorce document] effective [Gittin 23a], or whether going over the writing on a get document can validate the get [Gittin 20a]. Then they go upstairs to their college classes, where they study theories in mathematics and physics. I am proud when my student is both a Torah scholar and a good college student. If there were a synthesis, both achievements would be weakened!

    In this concept, our Yeshiva is unique. It is not like other yeshivot. [...] The Catholics also have religious universities. I do not like to imitate others! We have a Yeshiva, and because the times demand it, we also have a university. These two divisions will not be synthesized. They will remain two institutions. It may be like a man with two heads, but it is better to have two heads than not to have one. [Laughter]

    The uniqueness of the Yeshiva is another reason why I am loyal to this institution. It is a reflection of my own thinking and commitment. (pages 229-231)

    ~The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, page 229.
The key statement here occurs when the Rav states, "If there is a contradiction between Torah and secular endeavor, then synthesis is not possible." Now we must define contradictions between Torah and secular endeavor. What is an example of that?

Well, there is a simple example of a play being performed on a Friday night. Simply due to the fact that one would have to act in this play on a Friday night (and use a microphone or otherwise break the rules of Shabbat), one would not be allowed to indulge in this secular endeavor. But of course, there are examples that are murkier than that, and delve into shades of grey rather than easy black and white. And this has to do with secular endeavor on a whole.

What exactly is a book like The Fountainhead to me? Before now, I would have said that it was a form of Torah, because Torah encompasses everything, which means it encompasses all secular studies as well, which leads me to the idea that everything true and beautiful would be found within it, including the subject matter of The Fountainhead. Yet, when I come down to it practically, am I going to live my life in accordance to the tenets of Objectivism as outlaid in The Fountainhead or in accordance to the Torah? Should these values conflict (and they do, perhaps most strongly in Ayn Rand's take on charity, which works within her black-and-white construct of a world, but would not work when applied to our society) then I must stick with the Torah values. This means that the Torah is my guiding principle when determining what kinds of secular endeavor are appropriate or accurate. In this way the easy phrase "Torah u'Mada" becomes meaningless. The phrase seems to equate the two, to place them on the same level. Yet even I as a Modern Orthodox Jew must acknowledge that in fact Torah is higher than Mada, Torah trumps secular endeavor because it is Torah that defines what in secular endeavor is accurate or pure. This suggests that on the simplest level, a Modern Orthodox Jew believes just as a Haredi Jew does, that there is a hierarchy, and Torah appears before secular studies do.

In that case, one must then wonder exactly what role secular studies fulfill. There are several options. One could argue that secular studies in and of themselves have intrinsic value due to their introduction of pretty concepts and ideas, which one can enjoy simply as entertainment (but need not apply to one's life.) Then again, one could also argue that secular studies enrich one's learning and approach to Torah, as I find is the case with me. There are many ideas I could not have thought up unless I had watched movies or read books first, for it is only due to reading those books that I was even allowed to comprehend such an idea. But this begs the question- someone like R' Aharon Kotler, who did not delve into secular studies- do I mean to suggest that such a person was lacking in his knowledge of Tanakh and Gemara? No, for shame! That cannot be. For does not the Torah contain everything, and would a person not be able to grasp everything contained within it? What I can suggest is that perhaps it depends on the person. Some people would be able to come up with such creative thoughts simply from reading the Torah itself, while others would only have such ideas suggested to them through outside means, such as reading English literature. But even then, one must wonder whether an entire philosophy can be based upon what is best for a particular person. This is all aside from the most basic fact that it may simply be better to be exposed to something secular so that one does not find the forbidden attractive and alluring at another point in one's life.

The point remains- there is a hierarchy here, and Torah trumps Mada. As the Rav makes clear, if there is a conflict between Torah and secular endeavor, Torah wins out.

This brings us to the matter of halakha. What is halakha? Halakha has been incredibly misrepresented. This is perhaps due to the way in which it has been taught to us in our elementary schools and high schools. Halakha is a subject, just as Machshava/ Hashkafa is, Chumash is, and Navi is. Halakha has been interpreted as being one part of Judaism, one facet of Judaism, but is not in and of itself Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be a practicing Jew is to keep halakha, to follow its tenets and its laws even when it makes demands on you that are absolutely horrifying to our ethically and rationally ordered minds. And this is what makes it so difficult to obey. We live in a Western society and for the most part we cannot help but be influenced by Western values. This allows us the illusion of thinking that something is morally or ethically right simply because it seems right to us. We are the final arbiter, the final judge, something is either logical or illogical to us. If something is distasteful, if we find something difficult, we do not hesitate to reinterpret halakha accordingly. Oh, some of us are less bold than others, and would not put it in such terms. But there is no doubt that that is what we are doing. We are recreating halakha to suit our needs, to suit the needs of the time, whether it be arguing that there ought to be women Rabbis, trying to come up with impossible loopholes in order to free agunot, or claiming that halakha on a whole is fluid rather than codexed, and that we have the right nowadays to take it further than it was hereto taken.

Why is it that we do this with halakha? What is the reason that we are not terrified, scared out of our wits to reinterpret it in this fashion? It is because many of us do not know people who truly live their lives in accordance to these principles, who function, live and breathe in accordance to halakha. To us, the concept is foreign. It is difficult for us to understand. We function as part of a society which promotes tolerance, the live-and-let-live approach. And practically, it is important that we do so. But it is similarly important that we realize that according to the tenets of the Torah, certain practices are permitted and others are not. My heart may bleed for homosexuals who wish to practice their homosexual behavior, but that does not mean that I can reinterpret this behavior as not being a sin simply because I do not want it to be so. The same goes with any other law, however it is derived. There is often (not always, but often) a distinction between the action and the person. One must have the ability to say that a person is not following halakha in a certain matter, but that does not in and of itself make them a less worthy person; one must be able to note the difference between right and wrong while still acting in a nonjudgmental fashion. And yes, this too is very difficult to do. But that does not mean that we must engage in apologetics in an attempt to allow for people to do what they want, simply because they want to do it. I too desire to do what I want, and sometimes I do. The difference is that most of the time I am very aware that I am simply doing what I want, rather than attempting to justify what I want and call it legitimate per halakhic practice.

Now comes the question of people choosing to live in an insular community. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, the first argument that comes to mind is one having to do with the strength of Judaism. If Judaism is a strong religion, shouldn't it be able to flourish and function in any society, no matter the deterrents or the opposition? And in that case, living in an insular community is a suggestion that Judaism can only function behind closed doors, an extremely weak form of the religion! As an idea, this sounds very appealing, does it not? But then there is the practical approach these people are taking. Practically speaking, who is going to be exposed to less ugliness in the Torah sense of the world, people living in this insular community or people living outside of it? Those of us who live outside of it are inured to various images, words and statements that would make those who live inside this community shudder. Can you imagine never having seen someone being mechalel Shabbat, or never having seen a billboard with a provocative picture of a woman? Can you imagine having the ability to shudder at such things, to see God's word defiled and stepped on by others, even by those who are not necessarily aware of what they do? Does it make you cry to see a non-religious Jew marry a non-Jew, or are you so used to it that you shrug your shoulders and continue about your day? There is a certain purity in being able to live a life that is insulated so that you might practice God's word in a community that truly values it, in a community where God's word is so much your life that to see anyone disobey it comes as a shock and something deeply hurtful for you.

Those who live outside such a community might instinctively express scorn for such an approach. Oh, it is not the real world, they will say. They will claim the real world is the world where God's word is trampled, where one becomes accustomed to its defilement and ill-treatment. But who says one must trade in one's purity for such a world? How does such an argument hold up?

This is not all. There is the institution of learning, of kollel. Now, let us grant to begin with that kollel is not for everyone, that indeed there are people who are not serious and who would not devote the proper amount of time or effort to study, and in that case are simply taking from the community's funds without giving back. But what is learning, truly? You have not seen learning until you have seen someone from the Haredi community learn. Learning is their life blood, something beautiful and true, something absolutely gorgeous, a song that flows through their veins and makes them live more truly, more beautifully, something which identifies them and makes them them. What is most important is the ease with which your Haredi scholar learns, the facility he has with texts and different ideas. He has mastered this at a young age, and for him the Torah truly is his lifeblood, something authentic, genuine and true, his master and his teacher, his beloved in a way that is incomprehensible to anyone unless they have either seen or experienced it. It is not the lackluster learning that many of us experience because we are forced into it, or even the increased intensity one accesses upon spending the year in Israel. It is learning as a deep and abiding pleasure; it is learning as a dance; it is learning as fire in the veins, which propels and seduces the one who studies the text.

And what of those who are not so smart? There is still the beauty in their commitment- they wake up in the morning, go to seder, begin preparing with their chavrusa and learn away. They have committed themselves and their time to their God. Do you realize the simple charm that lies in such a commitment? The ease with which they practice it? This is simply their life; they are truly humble; they take no excess pride in what they do; it is simply what they have been taught to do. To love God's law and to learn it each day, in a rhythmic sort of sway and dance. The fact that they do this so simply, so easily- that too is to be admired! That too is something beautiful.

This is a community which desires to live Torah, which has no tolerance for apologetics, for dancing around the truth of an issue. Something is wrong or right, muttar or assur, in accordance to the noted opinions of the scholars. Doing things in order to keep friends and avoid enemies is frowned upon, making certain claims because they are easier or we want them to be true is also frowned upon. So why do we have so much trouble submitting to halakha? It is that many of us lie to ourselves and refuse to see halakha as codified, preferring to see it as fluid, something still malleable, able to be created and changed. Or it is that we truly have had no role models who live their Judaism truly and genuinely, with respect for halakha in their every act, who are truly passionate about desiring to be pure, desiring to be bothered by things they see which are inappropriate or against God's law. But most of all it is that we want what we want- we want God to be compassionate on our terms; I want God's law to make sense to me- for it to make sense for me to kill an Amalekite, for him to have actually harmed me before I do so- and this is not a luxury I am granted. And for that, for that, I struggle so, and I cannot surrender- unless I change something in myself, unless I humble myself abjectly and utterly, which is something I must strive to reach, and have not yet reached.

Every community has its problems, and it is certain that one could point out problems in the Haredi sector just as one could point them out in the Modern Orthodox sector, the Centrist sector, the Reform or Conservative sectors, and so on and so forth. But it is necessary to understand the beauty in such a lifestyle, genuinely and authentically lived, to realize what passion fires the veins of its constituents, to see the grandeur of such an approach to one's God and one's religion, the respect with which its members hold its Rabbis and scholars. There is something so beautiful in this. God, it is so beautiful! I am envious, yes, very envious, of the ability they have to integrate Judaism and halakha, to see those two things as one and the same rather than seeing one as a part of the other. God grant that I should see it, too, and be able to humble myself before You as I would like! God grant me strength.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jewish Olympians 2008

I find it odd that various and sundry Jewish leaders have told Jewish Olympians/ athletes to boycott the 2008 Summer Olympics and yet it seems humanly impossible to find a list of Jewishly affiliated Olympic athletes anywhere.

In frustration, I therefore turn to you, o' bloggers. Other than Israeli Olympians, which American/ English/ French/ other Olympic-bound athletes identify themselves as Jewish? If you could direct me to a list or even simply post names in the comment thread, that would be much appreciated.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Fairytales and Tanakh (Yiftach)

Taran pointed out that the haftorah to Parshat Chukas, which is Judges 11:1-33 is echoed in the Brothers Grimm fairytale "The King of the Golden Mountain:"
    There was once a merchant who had two children, a boy and a girl. They were both small and not old enough to run about. He had also two richly laden ships at sea, and just as he was expecting to make a great deal of money by the merchandise, news came that they had both been lost. So now instead of being a rich man he was quite poor, and had nothing left but one field near the town.

    To turn his thoughts from his misfortune, he went out into this field. And as he was walking up and down, a little black mannikin suddenly appeared before him and asked why he was so sad.

    The merchant said, "I would tell you at once if you could help me."

    "Who knows?" answered the little mannikin. "Perhaps I could help you."

    Then the merchant told him that all his wealth had been lost in a wreck, and that now he had nothing left but this field.

    "Don't worry yourself," said the mannikin. "If you will promise to bring me in twelve years' time the first thing which rubs against your legs when you go home, you shall have as much gold as you want."

    The merchant thought, "What could it be but my dog?" He never thought of his boy, but said yes, and gave the mannikin his bond signed and sealed and went home.

    When he reached the house his little son, delighted to hold on to the benches and totter towards his father, seized him by the leg to steady himself.

    The merchant was horror-stricken, for his vow came into his head, and now he knew what he had promised to give away.
Clearly, we have two fairytale scholars in the house...if not more!