Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What Judaism Is About

What Judaism is...
... and what it is not about

Judaism is about making a real commitment to serving HaShem in the best manner possible by searching within yourself for ways to bring yourself closer to the Creator.
Judaism is not about putting on an external show of piety and inwardly assuming that no self-improvement is necessary.

Judaism is about passing the Torah and it's teachings from one generation to the next, about educating all of our children in the best manner possible to ensure that Judaism lives another generation and that the Torah is observed. It is about seeing the inherent value in every student and transmitting the Torah to them in a way that will cause them to cherish and value it for the rest of their lives.
Judaism is not about excluding children from schools because they don't dress the way you dress, speak the language you speak, don't sit and learn all day (as opposed to going to work) or hold the exact same hashkafic values that you hold. It's not about catering only to the "super-learners" who have kollel futures while ignoring those who cannot or will not reach that lofty goal.

Judaism is about a community coming together, supporting one another in times of need and crisis and celebreating together in good times.
Judaism is not about looking down at your neighbors because they have a TV or because your neighbor's hat isn't as black as yours. It's not about keeping your children away from others who dress differently because you are afraid of your children being "contaminated."

Judaism is about going to Rabbinic leaders for advice on halachic issues or hashkafic issues or even general advice on life, love and relationships. It is about seeking out the best possible advice for any given problem that one faces in life.
Judaism is not about assuming that Rabbis have advanced medical or scientific knowledge in the absence of rigorous training in said fields. It's not about assuming that Rabbinical figures of today or yesterday are infallible or that their words represent the absolute truth.

Judaism is about living up to one's obligations, both personal and communal. It's about providing for our families and about setting up communal institutions such as yeshivos, mikvaos, tzedakas, etc. that serve the community. It's about personal responsibility - just as one is responsible to make sure that he gets up in the morning and davens, so too is one responsible to see to it that (to the best of his ability) his family is fed and cared for, nurtured both spiritually and physically.
Judaism is not about abdicating responsibility. It's not about finding out how many government programs you can cheat your way on to, it's not about finding ways to avoid paying taxes and it's not about relying on the community to carry you. It's not about abdicating your responsibilty to do due diligence when facing life's many problems. You can certainly ask a Rebbe which funds to put into your 401(k) plan - and take his advice into account, but you are also required to research the funds for yourself and consult with financial advisors.

Judaism is about learning God's Torah, disseminating it and living by it. It's about innovative thought in halacha and hashkafah; about seeking out new ideas and new insights into Tanach, Talmud, Midrash and Halacha. It's about applying the Torah to the world we live in, and learning how to live our lives according to it's teachings.
Judaism is not about stifling thought and ideas. It's not about issuing bans on books because they recognize that even the greatest human beings can have faults and flaws and may hold of opinions that aren't mainstream. It's not about banning new innovations that have the potential as we've never had before to spread Torah throughout the world. It's not about hiding behind ancient texts and living in fear that a new idea may threaten to destroy the Torah as we know it.

Judaism is about being part of an extended family. We are all cousins, being the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. Satmar, Lubavitch, Bobov, Gerer, Yeshivish, "Modern," LW, RW, etc. - we are all one extended family. Like many families we may not always agree on all issues, but we shouldn't forget that, at the end of the day, we *are* family.
Judaism is not about refusing to marry into certain families because of perceived faults or trivial matters. It's not about rejecting someone because of misdeeds performed by other members of the family over which the applicant had no control. It's not about telling someone that they are unsuitable for marriage because their parents use a plastic tablecloth or because he wears laced shoes instead of loafers. It's not about rejecting someone out of hand because of some external labels or because the family they come from isn't "good enough" without getting to know the person behind the label or the family.

Judaism is about sanctfying God's name in this world. It's about setting positive examples for both other Jews and the gentiles in the world. It's about causing people to have respect for God and His Torah. It's about outreach programs and charity. It's about being involved in the world around you and causing others to acknowledge the goodness of the Torah.
Judaism is not about profaning God's name in this world. It's not about silly inter- or intra-factional rivalries. It's not about throwing stones at cars because they drive through frum neighborhoods on Shabbos. It's not about starting riots because a person is arrested and possibly charged with a crime. It's not about strong-arming your policies onto everyone else.

The Wolf

If Only It Were That Simple...

Emet/Truth posted a quote about Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:

I heard the Rebbe say, 'Why worry about livelihood. The only thing to worry about is that you may die of hunger if you cannot afford food. And if you die, what is so terrible? You must die anyway.

Alas, if it were only that simple. Dying is easy. However, I have people who depend on my being alive. My wife depends on me greatly. My children even more so. My death, while in the grand, cosmic scheme of things might be an insignificant thing, would be a terrible burden to them. *They* still need to eat, wear clothing, go to yeshiva, etc.

Simply dying would be extremely selfish on my part. *That's* why I worry abotu livelihood.

The Wolf

On Gangs And Turf Wars

Yeah, I know that this is last week's news... but I've been very busy.

Last week, an 18 year old was arrested in Kiryas Joel for throwing rocks at a car containing Chaya Teitelbaum, the wife of Zalman Teitelbaum. She was on her way to visit the Rebbe's grave in the local cemetary. The story was reported here (among other places). Of course, this is all just a part of the ugly battle that is currently going on within Satmar for control of the Hasidic sect.

However, I'm left to wonder what has become of us when we resort to throwing rocks at cars for the simple act of being in the neighborhood. Have we been so reduced by our petty factionalism that we now justify stoning cars with passengers simply because they belong to the "other side" in a dispute? Heck, it's not even as if she was being m'challel shabbos (not that I condone stoning cars being driven on Shabbos either) by driving through Kiryas Joel on Shabbos! She was simply going to visit her father-in-law's grave. Apparently, according to some, the fact that she had the audacity to show up on the "other side's" turf was enough to warrant physical bodily harm.

Sadly, this whole sordid affair is beginning to resemble a gang war. Between the violence expected at the funeral and upon several occassions since, one wonders where this is all headed - not in terms of who will lead Satmar in the end - but in terms of what either side will be willing to do and what violence will be perpetrated. What will be next? Will the Aaronites burn down a Zalmanite shul? Will Zalmanite gangs start beating up Aaronites they come across?

Maybe I'm exaggerating. I certainly hope so. But from my (admittedly, outsiders) perspective, this situation looks like it's becoming uglier and uglier. We pride ourselves on being an Am Kadosh (a holy nation); but the Chillul HaShem that comes from this situation belies that pride tremendously.

The Wolf

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Quote Of The Day

Over on ChabadTalk, I was persuing a long thread on the subject of whether or not Tzadikkim are infallible.

One poster said:

Did Hashem ever punish David HaMelech for doing anything wrong? Yes, more than a couple times. Nathan HaNavi went to rebuke David and David said one word - Chatati.

There should be no need to remind ourselves of these Jewish ideas-- that our most G-dly Tzaddikim are still human beings, not all-powerful and not all-knowing, and if they aren't vigilant enough, they can have a yerida (a fall). This is one of the first lessons in the Torah-- that a person on the level of Adam at the highest peak of wisdom and closeness to Hashem, if he is not careful, he can lose his level and fall. To reject these ideas, is to subscribe to a different religion.

In response to this, another poster responded (emphasis mine):

even if the general point you make is valid, about Tzaddikim erring etc, with which i disagree, the examples you brought are from Chazal and Tanach which seems to say the Tzaddik erred etc.
How relevant is this to our discussion, where ploni almoni wishes to give HIS own opinion that This or that Tzaddik, in his opinion erred, even to the point of saying his own "alleged" Rebbe erred. You call that another religion. I say that saying that about your Rebbe is kefira ( and dont ask me for the source).

Scary, isn't it? Saying that your Rebbe is fallible is not simply in error, but is kefira!


The Wolf

Sunday, May 14, 2006

It's Really G'naiva

I posted two months ago about Mordechai Ben-David "borrowing" music from Dschingis Khan for his song "Yidden."

Well, a fellow named Rob put together a video (click on the link below) by combining elements from the Dscingis Khan song and an MBD public service announcement. The production quality is quite low and he used a trial version of editing software (and hence the words across the front). However, the message is quite sharp.


The Wolf

P.S. The original MBD PSA can be viewed here.

Monday, May 08, 2006

On The Fear of Heaven and Honesty

I have, for a long time, had aspirations of becoming a sofer. Being a long-time ba'al kriah, I've seen a wide variety of sifrei torah and megillos and have come to appreciate the craft and work from a close-up perspective. Alas, time and lack of someone to teach me has kept me from following up on this task.

One prerequisite for being a sofer, however, is being a Yarei Shamayim (one who fears Heaven). This isn't mere religious blather - there is a very good reason for wanting someone who has the fear of God on him. Specifically, there are errors that one can make while writing tefillin or mezuzzos that will invalidate the writing and yet never be noticed by anyone. For example, there is a well-known halacha that tefillin and mezzuzos have to be written k'sidran - in order. If a sofer were to finish making a set of parshiyos and then realize that in the first one he left out a letter - he cannot go back and fix it. Doing so would cause the tefillin to become pasul (unfit). A sofer who was not afraid of Heaven might be tempted to go back and fix it, knowing that the error would never be known by anyone. That's why we want people who are Yarei Shamayim to do safrus - since they know that God will know why the buyer has been putting on pasul tefillin for years.

Which brings us to my experience yesterday.

My oldest son (S1) is currently twelve years old. Since he is getting closer to his Bar Mitzvah, he needs a pair of tefillin to wear. So, yesterday I went to the sofer (actually a safrus shop) in Brooklyn to commission the writing of a set of tefillin. The store clerk showed me a several different parshiyos and, finding one with nice k'sav (script) and in a price range that I can afford, I went ahead and placed the order. I asked him about the sofer who would do the actual writing (he's not employed by the shop but is an independent) and about how long it would take.

We then went to the counter where I was going to place a deposit on the work. I pulled out my credit card (actually, a bank debit card) and gave it to the clerk. He said to me:

"You know that with a card I have to charge you tax?"

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know the sales tax regulations off the top of my head. But my hunch is that the purchase of religious items in New York City is subject to both state and local sales tax. The fact that the clerk was willing to let me get away without paying sales tax if I paid with cash bothered me very much. If he was the actual sofer, I might have actually walked out the door without making the purchase. Even so, considering the fact that when it comes to safrus we essentially rely on the word of the sofer and safrus dealer (do I *know* that the parshiyos are written k'sidran?) I found it unsettling that there was this public acknowledgement of dishonesty and that it was so casually displayed without any shame or remorse. What should have been a happy occasion left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I've never lied or cheated before - I'm only human and, like every other human, I've had my weak moments. But at least in public I try to maintain the highest standards of honesty; and, I try to make it a point to raise my children to be scrupulously honest. For example, my nine-year-old daughter had been saving up for quite a while to buy a Build-A-Bear. She scraped together all her pennies and silver and bills and finally announced that she had enough. So, I took her to the Build-A-Bear center in Manhattan. She found a bear she liked, had it stuffed and bought an outfit for it. She took it to the "dressing room" and put the outfit on the bear. Then we went to the cash register. The clerk rang up the purchase and quoted me a figure that was suspiciously low. I realized that while she rang up the bear, she did not ring up the outfit that was on the bear. I could have just paid for the bear and gotten the outfit for free. Nonetheless, I said to the clerk "Are you sure that's right?" She thanked me for finding the error (it could have cost her her job, she said). Afterwards, while we were eating lunch, we discussed the incident and, thankfully, she did not say to me "Daddy, why'd you do that - I could have gotten the outfit for free?" Rather, she understood that it would have been stealing and that it would have bothered her every time she looked at her bear.

Again, I understand that people aren't angels and that they are sometimes tempted to do things that are dishonest. But it was the open, flagrant dishonesty (even if it's a "widely accepted" dishonesty) that I found distressing.

The Wolf

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On Chai Rotel

Both Orthonomics and DovBear have posted about Rabbi Horowitz's excellent letter concerning people who give to causes such as Chai Rotel rather than to more urgent, pressing needs in the community. However, in his comments, Lakewood Yid (who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite posters to pull apart now that Heshy is gone) suggests that this isn't necesarily the case. Concerning the examples that Rabbi Horowitz bring, LY suggests that perhaps the people who should have received the money that went to Chai Rotel should have given to Chai Rotel for yeshuos!

Now, I don't know if the "yeshuos" that the Chai Rotel people promise are real or bunk (although, admittedly, my bunk-o-meter is in the red zone). Nonetheless, I'm willing to keep an open mind about this. Therefore, I'm asking Lakewood Yid (or anyone else who wants to step up to the plate) for something to back up the claims of the Chai Rotel people. Specifically, I'm looking for one of two types of evidence:

1. A study showing that people who give to Chai Rotel have their wishes fulfilled more often than those who don't. (Please note that anecdotal stories do not make a study) Studies must show the methodolgy used to be considered.

2. Some source in classic Jewish literature showing that giving Chai Rotel for people to drink in Meron on Lag B'Omer conferrs "yeshuos" to the one giving. Preferably, such source should be over 100 years old. Such sources will not automatically be considered authoritative, but will be evaluated accordingly.

Any takers? Or is Chai Rotel just a modern scam?

The Wolf

Monday, May 01, 2006

On The Definition of Reality

Sometimes a poster or commentator says something in such a clear and succinct manner that at once you know he's managed to capture the very essence of what he's talking about in one sentence.

Lakewood Yid did just that on Friday. His statement:

The backbone of charedism. Believing in the "metzius" defined by the Gedolim.

If that's the backbone of charedism, then I'm want no part of charedism.

Let me make it clear that I respect Gedolim when it comes to their knowledge of Torah and Halacha. I certainly can accept the fact that they know more about such subjects than I do.

But that's not what LY is talking about. It seems to me that he ascribes reality-altering powers to Gedolim - to the extent that if they say it, it's so, regardless of any independent outside validity or verification.

Just to give one example that I've used on this blog before: the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system. I've had it out with Jewish fundamentalists (not LY) over whether the sun is the center of the solar system and that the earth (and other planets) revolve around it or whether the Earth is the center of the solar system. One of the proofs that they brought was from the Rambam (Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 3), which describes a geocentric model, with the Earth in the middle, being orbited by (in order from closest to furthest) the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the stars.

As proof that this model is incorrect, I showed him the picture at right. This is a picture taken from Mars on Jan 12, 2005, which shows Mercury (that little black dot) passing in front of the sun. Now, in a strict Platonic system (as described above), such a picture should be impossible, as Mars and Mercury are on opposite sides of the sun from each other. There is no way Mercury could ever come between Mars and the Sun. (For a heliocentric example, think of Jupiter coming between the Earth and the Sun.) This is fairly clear proof that the model of the solar system described by the Rambam is flat out wrong.

Nonetheless, my disputant didn't buy it. His basic approach to the matter was that proof doesn't matter - if the Gedolim said it, it must be so.

While I haven't argued with LY about this particular item (I'm curious what he holds as a model for the solar system), he nonetheless seems to take this approach whereby the Gedolim determine reality. This, of course, is simply ludicrous. The Gedolim determine the current state of Judaism (within reason). They determine the current state of halacha. But they do not determine reality.

There are people who will quote to you the famous Midrash on the pasuk of לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ--יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל (you should not turn from the words they [the Rabbis] tell you right or left - Duet 17:11) that you should listen to the words of the Rabbis even if they tell you that right is left and left is right. However, there is also a Yerushalmi (Horiyos 1:1) that says just the opposite:

יכול אם יאמרו לך על ימין שהיא שמאל ועל שמאל שהיא ימין תשמע להם ת"ל ללכת ימין ושמאל שיאמרו לך על ימין שהוא ימין ועל שמאל שהוא שמאל. (I might think that if they [the Rabbis] tell you that right is left and that left is right that you should listen to them, the verse, "to go right or left) comes to tell you that [you should listen to them only] when they tell you right that is [really] right and left that is [really] left.

The point is that there is a source that advocates listening to the Gedolim only when what they say is grounded in reality. If they were to tell you something that is completely counter-factual, you don't have to believe them. If they tell you that the Mercury and Mars orbit the Earth, you don't have to listen to them. Of course, one must still respect them for their knowledge of Torah and halacha. If they are known to be paragons of middos tovos, that, too, must be glorified and learned from. But blind alliegence on matters that are not Torah-related? No.

The Gedolim do a lot. But they don't define reality.

The Wolf