Sunday, January 27, 2008

Modernity and Orthodoxy

One of the books that I have read at the beginning of my journey was "As a Driven Leaf" by Milton Steinberg. If you have not read it, then read it. In the meantime have a peruse through some of the reviews at Amazon, to give you an idea.
"As a Driven Leaf", is a sourcebook for Reconstructionist Judasim (Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan). As a FFB I was brought up to believe that the Reform and Conservative are evil and they have caused a spiritual annhilation of the Jewish people. We were taught that it is forbidden to enter their temples, and of course to attend their services. Having dabbled a bit, I think their theology is far more convincing, but in practice, their communities and lifestyles are just not comparable to an FFB "Jewish" experience.
One issue that Steinberg brings up is what happens when formerly frum raise their children as skeptics. The protagonist of the novel wanted to make sure that his child was free of jewish guilt and psychosis and was able to be a true Greek, albeit at a steep price.
The conflict with modernity is the eternal problem of Judaism. MO claims it is possible to achieve synthesis. Torah and Madah, yadda, yadda. There is a tremendous amount of literature explaining how it is possible to maintain the delicate balancing act. The apologetics rival the Christian trinity logic. On the other hand, my chareidi Rabbi once told me that if you stand in the middle of the road you get run over. As a frum skeptic it is in some ways easy to be able to cross to either side of the road, as you have the strong Jewish background, but are also a free thinker, and can feel comfortable in both worlds. Who cares if it makes you bi-polar.
But how about the next generation. If you raise your children as skeptic non believers then you have basically stopped the Jewish line, for better or worse. I am not sure how much I believe in the guilt argument about how our forefathers sacrificed so much just to see you throw it all away. An interesting case study is Alan Dershowitz, who is FFB, went to YU, and is the champion of Jewish causes yet has numerous non-Jewish grandchildren. Alternatively, raise children frum, let them be able to know their heritage, master jewish texts, and let them live in a life of blissful faith. If they become skeptic, so be it, at least they know how to shake a lulav.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A few good men

Many times frum people think that people go OTD because the individual is seeking a gashmius/hedonistic life filled with physical pleasure. They think that the person is weak or lazy and just does not feel liking keeping mitzvos and halacha. If only he would put more effort into his learning or davening, then he would be able to fight the yetzer haraa (evil inclination).

But I would like to add a different reason. It is is not always the cute girl in the miniskirt or the cheeseburger. A major challenge is the encounter with people who are of good character and morals, yet are not Jewish, religous, and sometimes even agnostic or atheistic. The world is filled with many good people. People who have positive outlooks on life, help others around them, and prove to be honest and decent human beings. Meeting these people and learning from them shows that it is possible to grow as a person without being shomer torah and mitzvos.
Of course in OJ there are many great people, baalei chesed, tzadikkim and others who we can gain inspiration and wisdom from. But these special people are not unique to OJ. True they are one of our own, and we should connect with them. But they exist in other communities, and other faiths, or non-faiths as well. Take Warren Buffet for example. A vocal atheist who is well known for his integrity and fairness in business dealing. He has given all of his wealth to charity, much of to fellow non-believer Bill Gate's foundation. All I am arguing is that OJ is not the only way to improve ones midos or even find spirituality (but that is a subject for another post).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Membership has its privileges

Sometimes I am amazed by how many privileges one gets access to by putting a small piece of cloth on their head. Once you have a kippah on your head you automatically become a member of a worldwide exclusive club which entitles you to innumerable benefits, much more so than lets say American Express. If you are stranded in a strange city, all you need to do is find another yid, and you automatically get a hot meal and a place to sleep. If you are looking for employment, the network will give you lots of contacts. But most importantly because you have shared beliefs,values, experiences, family, friends etc. you are on the same side, and you become connected to the person in a matter of minutes. This transcends geographical boundaries and languages, OJ's just have so much in common and they instantly recognize and look after their own.

So why I am I stating all of this rather obvious state of affairs, because this is a main reason for orthopraxy. The cost or downside of going OTD is losing many of the fringe benefits. Playing the game allows you to get the numerous privileges and benefits of OJ. Why rock the boat. The kugel is warm, kids are safe and happy. This is also kind of where XGH gets a bit fuzzy, because he enjoys the lifestyle too much.

But by dressing and acting frum, you are implicitly communicating to your coreligionists that you actively believe in TMS, that is the divinity of the torah and oral torah. There is no ifs, ands, or buts. You are a walking advertisement for OJ, despite your neo-OJ philosophy.

I once heard Rabbi Sherwin Wine say in a lecture "Life is too short to sacrifice your integrity." Is this true? Maybe its better to just shut up and enjoy the kugel.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

working on shabbos

Shabbos is a time of rest and relaxation. It is a time for family, friends, sleep, and taking a break from the always connected, everywhere, all the time, modern world. So on a conceptual level it is hard to find fault with the idea of shabbos and it does have its good points. For more on this train of thought, go to or your local kiruv website. But for the sketpics out there, come aboard the S train.

I would like to discuss the common complaint of the nitty gritty halachos of shabbos, the contradiction of halacha with shabbos, and the difficulties of living as a frum skeptic/orthoprax.

My general belief is that halacha has robbed people of individual autonomy. In effect rabbinic Judaism has removed the responsibility and or ability of the individual to interact with God in what David Hartman calls a "covenant relationship" ( , a mature adultlike relationship between two parties. Again, this is is not my chidush, many greater and smarter people than me have analyzed this issue. My more practical but of course, petty issue is when halacha observance causes shabbos to be not a day of rest.

From 39 malachos of shabbos, there are thousands of laws covering anything and everything; have a read through "shemiras shabbos chilchoso". Now lots of people get all excited about the intricacies of how to clear the table on shabbos, or how to change a diaper on shabbos, and it works for them. The definition of works and relaxation is mandated by halacha, with absolutely no room for individual autonomy or reason. But let me show you a few cases where this does not work.

  1. House alarm goes off repeatedly on shabbos in the middle of night; scaring everyone out of bed throughout Friday night. Halacha prevent you from manually overiding the system to shut it down to allow you and your family much needed sleep. You are beyond tired.

  2. The mother of young children who is housebound on shabbos , because there is no eruv (the family does not hold by it), while her husband get to shmooze in shul 3 times during shabbos . She is a prisoner.

  3. Staying at a hotel on shabbos, walking up 20 flights of stairs because you are not allowed to push a little button. Your back and legs hurt for days.

The list is endless. The mentality instilled in our children is that the smallest infraction is grounds for stoning. We have the hero stories of those who refused to destroy the sanctity of shabbos by calling the fire department while their house burned down. Shabbos is taken way to seriously and reduces smart intelligent, mature adults into mindless slaves.

There is also the forest/trees situation going on, where people have lost the big picture of what shabbos should be. In my old shul there was a popular caterer who used to cater shabboses for family simchas in the shul social hall. Many of the yeshiva guys would work as waiters for him over shabbos. Now waitering is hard work, these guys would setup, serve and clean up for 3 meals for the extended family, not to mention the large kiddush for the "olam". And this is all over a 24-hour period, which probably means they have probably violated state laws regarding maximum hours worked by a minor. But more importantly these guys are working on shabbos. Nobody seems to have a problem with this. Everyone is happy eating the chulent, the Rabbi doesn't see the contradiction (I asked). I have to shout now - These guys are WORKING on shabbos for MONEY (and only on shabbos I might add, I dont buy the "they are only being paid for the preparation before shabbos"argument). I am not looking to start a public campaign, I am just trying to show how gross the contradiction is. The shul hall is filled with hundreds of people, and frum jews are working their guts out on shabbos for money, but no one seems capable of recognizing the fact that a frum jew is working on shabbos, and it is staring at them in their faces stuffed with kugel. Someone out there tell me 1+1=2 not 3.

An Israel BT story

Years ago I spent some time in Israel in a yeshiva. During the summer they had a kiruv type program for students from campuses around the US. As part of the program one night they had a speaker come in to talk about the Israel-Arab situation. There were about 100 or so guys in the room, who were happy for the change of pace from the normal learning day. The speaker was a presented as an academic from somewhere, but did not appear Jewish, possibly even Arab. Well for the next hour or so he presented a very pro-palestinian/leftist diatribe against zionism and Israel. The students began to question him, a fierce debate ensued regarding all the hot issues of the middle east. The academic continued with his propoganda, meeting all challengers. Then... in the midst of it all, he pulls out his tzitzit, and puts on a kippah. It was a sham. The whole speech/show was to show students what is happening on campuses around the world. His dramatic subterfuge was brilliant and everyone including myself was totally fooled; hook, line and sinker. He gave some tips about dealing with propogandists and fighting for Israel on campus. All was fine and good.

But, after the talk, a few of us gather around him for questions. One student made the following statement. "I am a law student and a month ago I came onto this program. During this time I have learned alot about Judaism. I have spent 10-12 hours a day on the course, spent shabbat at wonderful families, davened, kept kosher etc., to the extent that I have already decided to become more observant when I get back to the US . But now, having seen that even as a law student at an ivy league, I can be fooled by your presentation, so easily and quickly, I realize that the past month is just as much a sham. Now I see how easily I have been had, and how easy I can be led along without question. The speaker did not have an answer, and I am sure he never expected this type of outcome.

I have always had a similar complaint regarding the "torah codes"- at the time they were the "slam dunk" proof that the torah is true. The kiruv clowns went to town with the codes (good rhyme). Now it has been proven that Moby Dick has the same level of prophecy.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

I needher

"For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh."
Genesis 2:24

I have a hard time with the laws of niddah. Now I know as a man this is a common complaint, and yes this is a rant and I might be exaggerating, but I really cant stand niddah time.

Some might adopt the holier-than-thou attitude and say you must curb your animal instincts and rise above them by immersing yourself in holiness. The kiruv clowns would say the niddah time is when you develop your communication with your spouse and open up your relationship to new dimensions beyond the physical. But that was not biblical intent, the torah did not say abstain from your spouse because you will be a more loving attentive person to your spouse or promise a long and happy marriage to those who do the dip. There are millions of happy marriages that have lasted for life without the joy of nidah. The biblical intent is a law of ritual purity, concerned with a physical discharge, and absolutely nothing to do with marital happiness.

Before you think that I am totally against niddah, I will qualify my opinion. I think my beef is more with the chumra of bnos yisrael that made a 5-7 day break into a 14 day+ unhappy time for many couples, with absolutely no physical contact whatsoever. This is not normal. Two people who love each other should not spend half their lives in physical islands. Yes, there is the absence makes the heart grow fonder argument, and you can, and most probably will have great sex after 2 weeks apart. But again this is not the reason for niddah laws and is only a nice tantra-marital psychology style reason. More to the point bibically, men did not have this problem, as numerous wives, pilagshot and prostitutes were available.

Having learned hilchos niddah very well before my marriage, I (and my wife) know all the specific halachos about having a siman on the table, not sitting on the same bench, not handing things to one another (including babies), avoiding intimacy etc. After many years of keeping to these stringencies, in my personal opinion, these do not enhance communication or help marital relationships. Now as a skeptic, who understands that it is all man-made, why on earth should I follow such silly rules which have tremendous bearing on my and my spouses daily life and happiness.

I think I can also add that many women are stressed out by mikvah night preparations, where no matter how busy that specific day is, they have to come prepared to face the mikvah lady.

How about an erev shabbat rule. For example lets say a women is scheduled to go to the mikvah on Monday night. Current halacha says the follows: the preceding shabbas and weekend when both husband and wife are not at work, relaxed, well fed, and have plenty of time, they have to sit on their hands. But come Monday, kids back to school, commutes, deadlines and meetings at work, back to life, this Monday night is the night. I would argue that consenting adults could agree that that mikveh night should be before shabbes, and it can be brought forward a few days without guilt.

Obviously this is my opinion and my blog rant, my wife is still committed to the cause, and out of respect for her wishes, I obey. But sometime life is too short to live your life around these seemingly minor rules which are by no means minor, once you add them up.