Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living In Moshiach's Times, Part I : Social Interactions

I've been giving some thought to what life will be like after Moshiach's arrival. Almost certainly the world order as we know it will cease to exist and be replaced by some other model. This will probably affect everyone at every level, from the worldwide and national down to the very personal.

Over the next few months, I hope to try to examine some of the issues that we might expect to face, when we are all living according to the Torah in Eretz Yisroel. I think that this kind of examination is necessary simply because the lives that we lived when we last lived under these rules (almost 2000 years ago) are far different than the lives we live now; and I'm not so certain that laws that worked well 2000 years ago can suddenly and swiftly be re-instituted without causing major and drastic changes to the lifestyles that we currently lead.

Today's post will cover the world of social interactions with regard to the laws of tumah and taharah. It's difficult for most of us to imagine living under such a system since these laws have not really been in force for so long and our lives have evolved to the point where we would not be able to observe the societal norms that we do under the laws that once governed us.

The system of social interaction that we currently know would be thrown into chaos if we suddenly had to return to the laws of t'rumos, ma'aseros, kadoshim, tumah and taharah. A simple exercise such as shaking the hand of a person whom you just met would be fraught with all sorts of problems. A kohen would really have problem if he had t'rumah in the house... how could he shake hands with anyone when the person might be an Av HaTumah? His kids can't play with other kids because they might touch kids who are Avos HaTumah and become able to transmit tumah to the t'rumah and other foodstuffs in the house.

Having guests over is another problem. A woman who is a niddah can present a big problem: do you want to invite a couple over to your house when it's possible that the wife (or teenage daugther) of the couple is a niddah? A niddah can transmit tumah to utensils (or people) through touch. Heaven forbid she touches your china bowl or plate that you use for food -- the only way to purify it is by breaking it! Presumably your wife has touched every utensil in your house while she was a niddah -- or would couples need a set of "niddah dishes?"

Another consequence of returning to a system of being careful with tumah and taharah is that the paradigm that we have now, where a woman's niddah status is strictly between her and her husband (and the mikvah lady), would have to be abolished. A woman's niddah status would, as a practical matter, *have* to be known. Can a wife of a kohen risk having her friend touch her because she's a niddah? The friend won't render the kohen's wife a niddah, but she will make her a rishon (rishona?) l'tumah, capable of causing foodstuffs to become tamei. Of course, it's possible for her lie and says that she's a t'maiah for some other reason, but considering the fact that most women (absent any birth control) are usually a niddah close to two weeks out of every month, I think that most people would come to recognize that when a woman says "t'maiah ani" to another person, it usually means she's a niddah, even if she claims otherwise.

Of course, the whole issue of tumah and taharah *really* becomes an issue with regard to formal social functions. Catering halls with constantly have dishes that are tamei, simply by dint of the fact that hundreds (and at some affairs, thousands) of people touch the utensils at such affairs and certainly a good portion of the women (and a percentage of the men as well) are tamei. Even a matter as simple as chairs by a wedding becomes a real big problem. A niddah who sits on a chair causes the chair to become an Av HaTumah. Anyone else who subsequently sits in that chair becomes a rishon l'tumah. Will they have dedicated "niddah chairs?" Well, if we've thrown out the concept of a person's niddah status being private, then I suppose it doesn't make a difference... the niddah women will sit in the "niddah chairs." However, care will have to be taken that the chairs don't get mixed up with each other. Can a kohen (or someone who wants to remain tahor) ever hope to retain his taharah while attending a social function?

Of course, similar problems would exist with any food establishment. Restaurants could not possibly hope to keep an establishment in the confines of taharah. Women cooks would present problems two weeks out of each month and even men would have to stop working if they become tamei. As with the social hall, seating would be problematic as well, as all the benches or chairs would quickly become tamei from a niddah sitting on them. Even if a restaurant owner decides not to admit people that are tamei, how does he enforce this? At least with kashrus, the restaurant owner has the advantage in that he controls all the food coming into the establishment and can hire professionals to ensure that his establishment meets the necessary standards for kashrus. But for tumah? There's no way to enforce compliance and make sure that the establishment remains tahor.

Another consideration is that there are certain types of people who will be, in essence, permanently tamei. In the past, the only such people were grave-diggers. However, in today's world, there are far more people who would be permanently tamei -- doctors (or nurses, or administrators, or janitors, or anyone else) would work in hospitals would just about always be tamei. People who work in funeral homes is another obvious one. Gynecologists are probably always touching women who are niddos and obstetricians certainly are (as a women is always a t'meiah after giving birth). People who work in places that handle non-kosher meat (pet food manufacturers come to mind) also have a problem (although if they only use non-kosher meat from properly slaughtered animals then they should be okay -- but I don't know how much of that is really available).

For most people who aren't kohanim, this probably isn't that big a deal. After all, as a non-kohen, I can eat food that is tamei with no real consequence... it's not like I'm going to want to eat t'rumah or kodashim most of the time. For a kohen, or someone who wants to maintain a tahor standard (or for anyone within a week of the Festivals) all this can cause major chaos. Unless one secludes himself (and his wife and children) from all neighbors and friends, never goes out to eat and never goes to social functions, I don't see how one can reasonably expect to remain tahor.

(Yes, I know that I left out the other sources of tumah that a person can contract, from semen to sheratzim, to all sorts of other items. I tried, however, to keep the post to things on the level of an Av Hatumah or higher -- since that's the level that can impart tumah to other people.)

The Wolf

Sunday, November 25, 2007

100,000 Hits!

Well, it took two and a half years, but Wolfish Musings has finally received 100,000 hits. Of course, it seems like some people get 100,000 hits every time Rosh Chodesh comes around, but then again, they post far more often than I do, so I really can't complain.

Nonetheless, I think the fact that people have logged onto my blog 100,000 times shows that at least some people like what I have to say. I'm very grateful that I have this opportunity to discuss issues that are important to me (and, I believe, most of the Orthodox Jewish community) and I want to thank each and every one of you for logging in and commenting, and hope that you will continue to do so.

The Wolf

P.S. The lucky 100,000th hit came from a Road Runner customer in Flushing, New York using IE at 6:57pm. Thank you!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jewish Historical Fiction

A while ago, I asked the readers of this blog for book recommendations. I've been slowly going through the list (not in order) and have found some real gems there.

One genre that seems to have caught my attention is Jewish Historical Fiction. I recently read two books that fit that genre and a third about a year ago -- and greatly enjoyed all three.

Chana recommended Sarah by Orson Scott Card. I was a bit wary of this choice. I loved Ender's Game, but felt the other three books in the series (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind) didn't quite measure up to Ender's Game. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised. It presents the story of Sarah in an interesting fashion, trying to fill in details that the Torah is silent on. For example, he has several chapters dedicated to the time that Sarah spent in Pharaoh's palace (he places her there for a year, something that I'm fairly certain most Jewish commentaries would deny). It also portrays her childhood and her first meetings with Abram and his family. Overall, it's an extremely well-written book.

However, as good as that was, I was blown away by the next book that I read, Rabbi Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf, recommended by "Just Me." As A Driven Leaf is a historical look at the life of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, more commonly known as the heretic Acher. Rabbi Steinberg takes the historical sources and accounts about Acher and weaves them into a tragic tale of his life. Aside from the sympathetic light shown on the character and the intellectual struggles that he goes through, the book also gives the reader a very real sense of what daily life was like in Israel during the period of the Tana'aim. This was truly an excellent book.

About a year ago, a friend recommended James Michner's The Source. The Source is a series of short stories held together in a frame. The frame story centers around an archaeological dig at a tel in Israel known as Makor (the Source). The archaeological team digs through the tel and finds various artifacts from dates ranging from the Israeli War of Independence to over 9000 BCE. Michner then goes and tells the story of each artifact and how it ended up at the tel. I wasn't all that interested in the frame story (I didn't care which one of the archaeologists the girl ended up with), but I found the historical stories fascinating. It was quite interesting watching the society evolve from a simple stone-age cave dwellers, through pagan pantheism to the Judaism of the Patriarchal era and onward through the long history of the land of Israel and to see the differences in the daily lives of the characters over time.

In the end, I highly recommend all three books.

By the way, in case anyone hasn't noticed yet, you can keep track of what I'm reading. Thanks to Psychotoddler, I've become aware of Library Thing and have added it to my blog's sidebar. As I read new books (which happens very frequently), I'll add them to my library. Feel free to click on my library to see my comments on the books I've read.

Lastly, please feel free to recommend more books. :)

The Wolf

(Full disclosure: if you click on the links to Sarah or As A Driven Leaf, or any of the pictures in the Library Thing sidebar and buy something from Amazon, I earn a few cents.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Road To Hell...

I read with interest the Letters To The Editor in this week's Jewish Press. Many of the letters were in response to Rabbi Horowitz's excellent column "You Might End Up Dead." Most of the letters (including one from Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum) supported Rabbi Horowitz's point regarding extremist violence from some Hareidim. However, there was one letter that, while not condoning the violence, seeks to mitigate it. Here's the letter:

I am amused by the sanctimonious expressions of outrage directed against those individuals who attacked that lady on the bus in Israel. While I cannot condone taking the law into one’s own hands, there is an incontrovertible point to be made that one of the Jewish tradition’s important messages to the world is that men and women not married to each other should not mingle with each other.

Rejecting violence is one thing, but let’s not indulge in political correctness at the same time. The young men in question obviously burn with the love of Torah. Their hearts are in the right place, even if they overreacted in their determination to enforce the standards and morality of our Holy Torah.

Yitzchok Melnick


In short, he's saying that the extremists deserve sympathy because "their hearts were in the right place." Sorry, but that's not good enough for me.

Firstly, there is the question of Mr. Melnick's premise -- that men and women should not mingle with one another. While I'm grant him the obvious point that the Torah truly does discourage mingling of the sexes, there is the very significant question of what represents "mingling."

I travel by public transportation in New York City just about every day. There is mixed seating (and standing) in the subways, but I would hardly call what happens there "mingling." Over 99% of the time I have no interaction with any other person in the subways and buses, despite sitting next to or standing in front of them. Certainly no one has *ever* started up anything that could even remotely touch upon what the Torah would legitimately look upon as inappropriate mixing of the sexes. (Now that could be because I'm short, fat, balding and somewhat dumpy looking, but my general impression is that this is the case for most people.) I don't think that sitting next to a woman on the train or bus is any more "mingling" than passing her while walking in the street. If it were, there would be people seeking to have a p'sak passed that riding on the subway is forbidden. To my knowledge, no one has even attempted such a thing. Thousands of Orthodox Jews ride the subways every day without any question of whether or not it is considered "mingling."

In addition, while in this case, the chayal and the woman weren't married to each other (and weren't even companions), I doubt that even if the couple were married (where we can all agree that "mingling" is allowed) that the extremists would have left her alone (provided, of course, that the husband looked like the type who wouldn't/couldn't fight back). I'm fairly certain that had they been in a situation where no one could question the propriety of them sitting together (husband/wife, son/mother, etc.) that the extremists would have made trouble if they could.

Lastly, I want to address Mr. Melnick's point about their "hearts being in the right place." In this, he's dead wrong again. They weren't "enforcing the standards and morality of our Holy Torah" but rather their own extremist version of it. While they may have thought that "their hearts were in the right place" and that they had "good intentions," we all know where that road goes...

The Wolf

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wolf's Law of the Variance of The Start of Shabbos

It doesn't matter whether Shabbos starts at 4 o'clock or 8 o'clock -- you'll only be ready for Shabbos fifteen minutes before it starts.

Corollary to Wolf's Law of the Variance of The Start of Shabbos:

It doesn't matter whether it's 6:30 or 11:30 -- you'll be zonked fifteen minutes after the Friday night meal ends.

The Wolf

Monday, November 05, 2007

What Is Happening To Us?

There have been several news stories over the past few months (and general trends that are observable over the last few years) that have me wondering where we are going as a people.

Of course, everyone knows about the violence on the buses in Israel. Last year, Miriam Shear was beaten on a bus for refusing to leave a seat that she was legally entitled to keep. This year, we have another story of a woman who was beaten for not leaving a seat (I don't know if this was a "mehadrin" [separate seating] bus for not, but even if it was, there is no excuse for beating someone up over this anyway), and an Israeli soldier was beaten for coming to her aid.

We have stories of vigilantes who go around destroying clothing they find offensive and torching people's businesses for selling items that they find offensive.

We have stories about ever-more extreme steps being taken to separate the sexes to the point where concerts are banned even when they have separate sex seating. We take away almost every opportunity for adult singles to meet each other and then we complain that there is a "shidduch crisis." In some circles, adult singles aren't even allowed to meet until the prospective date is vetted out for every possible detail from the truly legitimate avenues of inquiry to the downright silly questions of tablecloths and loafers versus laces.

We have stories where boys are told to extort large sums of money from their future fathers-in-law, even when they can't afford it, because the yeshiva's prestige is more important than the father-in-law's finances and shalom bayis.

Whereas once we were a people proud to be educated in all areas of endeavor, we now seek to become a people who shun all knowledge outside the daled amos (four cubits) of Torah. Women's education programs were banned in Israel (where, in Chareidi circles, women are the main breadwinners of the household) and those who already completed the program have found themselves blacklisted from employment in their chosen field of teaching. Instead of recognizing that there are matters that can be disputed within Judaism, we now seek to outright ban anyone who doesn't toe the official party line.

We've become a people who are so afraid of anything that isn't 100% Jewish in origin that we seek to ban pizza shops or mobile restaurants who dare to operate in our neighborhoods.

We've fostered an environment where not only is it not acceptable to simply "stay out of trouble," but we've defined "trouble" as not actively learning Torah at any given moment. Sporting activities, day trips and the like are now ruled out in many communities because the boys should be learning Torah and not wasting their time with recreation. My Rav recently refelcted on the fact that when he was a boy, there were Saturday night "fun programs" of sports and the like to keep boys out of trouble; now it's all learning programs, when, in fact, young boys (for the most part) are not really capable of keeping up such a schedule. In his words "they should be playing, not learning."

We've set up a society where everyone scrupulously follows all the rules, not because they want to, or because they think the rules are correct; but because they know that if they don't, it will be held against their children when it comes time for shidduchim. Everyone struggles to keep up with the chumra (stringency) -of-the-month club so that they shouldn't seem like second rate Jews.

We've created an environment where people are no longer trusted to be able to police and think for themselves. Cell phones with text messaging has been ruled assur (forbidden) because people might use it to contact others of the opposite gender. Schools have tried to institute policies where parents cannot have Internet access in their house on pain of expulsion on the pretense that they are protecting the children (which, if it were truly the case, then they should just ban the children's use of the Internet). I'm kind of surprised that no one has tried to say that it's forbidden to sleep in the same house with one's wife when she's a niddah.

We have set up a world where "work" has become a dirty word. For thousands of years, from the time of the entry into Eretz Yisroel until recently, the vast majority of our people earned their living while learning part-time, while the truly exceptional scholars among us were supported by the community in full-time learning. Now, it seems that everyone is *expected* to learn full-time and that people who work because they have to either face an economic reality or because they have the maturity to recognize that they aren't capable of full-time learning are looked down on and discriminated against in shidduchim.

We have a community that judges you more by the material that your yarmulke is composed of than the contents of your neshama (soul) and where the material that your skirt is made out of is more determinant of your observance than how well you actually observe the mitzvos (commandments).

With all this currently happening in our midst right now, I shudder to think at where we'll be in twenty to thirty years if nothing changes.

We need to stop leaning always to the right and return to a centrist position. In the sea, a ship that lists too far to the right or the left will eventually sink. Only a ship that is even and upright can survive the voyage. If we don't, the challenges we face in the next generation will be far worse than those we face now. The "teens-at-risk" and "adults-at-risk" situations didn't happen in a vacuum -- they came about at least partly because people have found that Orthodox Judaism has gone so far to the right that they no longer have a place in it. The further we go to the right, the larger these problems will become as more and more people will feel alienated in their own religion.

The Wolf