Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Allow Some Space For Criticism. Thanks.

Whenever I criticise the charedi community among friends and family someone will pipe up with the following "Why criticise? Why find fault? There are so many good things happening in the community; why not talk about those."

I find this attitude infuriating. Not because I disagree with the notion that many good and beautiful things happen in our communities. Of course I agree with that, how can one not? It infuriates me because when I am criticising I am focusing on those aspects that are not that good and not that beautiful. For heavens sake allow me a couple of minutes to do that; yes to criticise. When I criticise I am not denying the good and I am not denying the beautiful. But when I criticise I am criticising. Get it? Criticising. Do you not know what criticism means? Well look it up. Criticism is criticism and when I criticise I am criticising. Allow me to finish criticising and then we can go back to discussing the good and the beautiful.

Lots of bloggers are posting about Hella Winston's book Unchosen. I must admit I have not read the book. It is something I still have to do. But I have read book reviews and articles by the author. She does not sound to me as a person with an axe to grind. Rather she sounds (to me anyway) like an academic who has stumbled upon an interesting and unexplored topic as part of her doctorate in sociology. The subject is a difficult one to examine and she is giving it her best. Of course she will make the odd mistake, we all do, but broadly she is approaching the issue as an academic, not as journalist wanting to make a fast buck. (Yes I might change my mind once I actually read the book. Possible but not very probable. If I do you will be the first to know. I promise.)

Anyway, last week I managed to download the Zev Brenner show (a New York based phone in hosted by Zev Brenner), the one in which he interviews Hella (Ester, Esti, whatever). And of course you get the inevitable call berating Hella for focusing on people leaving the community? Couldn't she focus on the many people who are joining the community, the Baal Teshuvah revolution? Isn't that a good enough story. Why focus on the less than good when you could have focused on the good?

My answer:

We must get out of the habit of equating criticsm of a given issue within our communities, to a complete disdain for everything chareidim stand for. I am pretty certain that Hella Winston could speak at length about the many good things that she has seen in our community, about the many happy people, and yes about the Baalei Teshuvah. The two are not mutually exclusive. And listen to the interview. Again and again she makes this point. In her academic life she is focusing on a real story that happens to be unflattering. This is not because she hates the chareidi community but because it is also an important story that needs to be told. In her book she is in the business of exposing the less than good bits of chareidi life. Just accept it. That she has written a book about the 'Unchosen', does not in any way imply that she sees none of the good and beautiful in the community. Of course she sees it. She might well have another book in lined up called 'The Chosen'.

Let me reiterate, the two are not mutually exclusive. One can see beauty but still discuss the less than beautiful. One can see good but still explain the less than good. It takes a brave person to do so.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

From The NY Times to Mandarin Chinese

I try hard to be as realistic as possible and therefore, besides for apologising to Dov Bear for ruining his breakfast, I will not be reading too much into being mentioned in The New York Times. But I think a little gloating might be permitted.

For as long as I remember I have been a man with opinions. The problem was that so often those opinions did not find favour with its recipients. From early on I learnt that one has to be careful when airing opinions. I realised that opinions have to be filtered and altered to suit ones audience else one can find oneself in all manner of trouble. I remember clearly one occasion, I must have been fourteen, when the adults around me were discussing how terrible it was that blacks were moving into the area. I piped up and suggested that black people, are well, people, and they should be allowed to live were they want. There was a stony silence and I just knew that I had said something that was wrong. I figured I would understand when I got older; and I did.

I recall doing a school exam. That particular test was to be marked externally. No one in the school would be seeing it. For the first time I was able to write what I wanted, opinions that went straight from mind to paper bypassing my self-imposed filter. I got the best mark of my school career.

During my teenage years I craved knowledge and ideas. I had this dream of spending years in a bookshop surrounded by atlases and dictionaries and books on history and philosophy and economics and geography. But in truth I had access to very little. It would be great to be able to report that I used to make clandestine visits to the library. This would be untrue. I was not brave enough. I was frightened. Subconsciously I was also afraid of reading something that would place me beyond the point of no-return; and I had to return, where would I sleep? On the street?

When I was home I used to listen to the radio and read any newspaper or book I could lay my hands on. In yeshiva I didn't even have access to that. Whenever I was able I would go into a newsagent to buy, say stamps, and on my way out steal a look at the front pages of the laid out papers. I remember one Friday doing that. I saw a picture of a plainly shocked young Chinese man. The headline said that he had been sentenced to death. Something to do with a student revolt. Tiananmen something. The photograph haunts me unto this day. I suppose that was something that I should have organised. A student revolt. But then again I don't think I would have achieved much more then those Peking students.

As yet I have not managed to fulfill my desire and go to university to study the ideas of great men and woman. I might never be able to materialise my fantasy of becoming an academic and specialising in an area of philosophy or history. The blogging revolution has allowed me though to have a space where I can express some of my thoughts. A space where I can practice at writing smallish articles and hopefully get better with time.

It is fantastic for me to know that I am being noticed. That some people (and yes lots of people probably hate my style) think that I write well and that I do a good job of expressing the subjects I choose to focus on. It certainly gives me the motivation to carry on. Not even necessarily on this blog. I have other interests and could start a blog on some other issue. Maybe I should discover what really went on those days in 'Tiananmem something'. I am sure there is yet lots to learn and discover. Let me dig out that book I once bought in a hurry, from a train station stall, entitled 'Learn Mandarin in 30 Days'.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Those Who Must Not Be Named

As everybody is no doubt well aware the chareidi community and the constitution of the United States of the Americas share a common value. A value that is the envy of many a people who until this day live in whole or quasi dictatorships. The value I speak of is, that all people should be free to express any idea and free to say anything they so wish. In the common parlance this is known as ‘freedom of expression’. President Bush goes on and on about it; admittedly Rav Eliashev a little less often.

Of course if one does opens ones mouth, or one does express a ‘wrong’ opinion one might find ones children getting kicked out of the school they attend. One might find oneself being asked to leave the shul/shteibel that one frequents. These are I suppose minor inconveniences.

OK story time. Two Jews go fishing together. A secular Jew and a chareidi. The chareidi catches nothing. The secular Jew catches more than enough to share among the members of his bridge club. When the chareidi Jew asks his colleague what is the secret of his success the secular Jew answers “ah well my fish are allowed to open their mouths”.

I find it very revealing that of the many blogs I read, which orthodox Jews own, the vast majority are written under pseudonym. How many of them reveal their real names? Almost none. Even a blog like DovBear who tries pretty hard to ride along a straight and narrow path finds it necessary to hide behind a cuddly (or is it grizzly?) pseudonym.

So lets ask some questions. Who is Frummer? Who was Mis-nagid? Who indeed is DovBear? Who is he that calls himself The Sheigetz? Who are all these people whose names must not be spoken? Why do all these people feel they must masquerade behind facades of many a kind? It is noteworthy that the only one who is upfront is Shlomo Leib Aranovitz, and he has completely left the community as those who read his blog will well know. Is this the price one has to pay for coming out?

I am not a ‘yachner’ (chatterbox) and its not that I really need to know who these people are in the flesh. I am noting the phenomenon. I am noting a pattern of non-disclosure, a pattern of deliberate attempts to put trackers off the scent.

Only a couple of weeks back he who sometimes is and at other times isn’t, The Godol Hador, went through several days of intense panic when he thought he was about to be ‘outed’. His normal rational, cool approach turned into something that was a lot less cool and a lot less rational. Behaviour well suited for one being persued. Why?

Let me put my sociological hat on and begin to analyse it. Yes it fits so here goes:

Why is this necessary? One could understand if some were doing it; but all of them are at it. Why? We have a pattern here. It must be saying something about the community they live in? Words like Stalinist and dictatorial spring to mind? Is that right. Hmm, I think I need to do some more research on this. Let me go back to those blogs and reread them critically; are there signs of fear, dissent? Wait, this might be a good subject for my doctoral dissertation. Yes it is a fantastic subject. But now I do need to meet these people. I am going to need to interview them clandestinely. So The Sheigetz when are you available? DovBear can I come over? I will be in a white car with tinted windows at the bottom of your street. Just get in.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

In the Footsteps of A Great Patriarch

Our great grandfather Avrohom Ovinu (our patriarch Abraham) as understood in the chareidi world was not a romantic. One might not want to go as far as calling him an empiricist, but he was certainly a man of logic, the original Maimonides.

So as three year olds listening to the parsha (bible portion of the week) we are taught how Avrohom, born into a pagan world, would engage those he met, in debating the veracity of the varied deities, that those ancient peoples respected and feared. We hear that Avrohoms father owned an idol shop; whether he had a small boutique or an emporium we are not told, but he definitely sold statues and graven images to those who required them. On occasion Avrohom would be asked to manage the business. A punter would enter. Avrohom would ask him penetrating questions. How can you justify serving a terracotta model? How can you pray to a stone statue that was fashioned but yesterday? The punter would be flummoxed by these questions and walk out with his head spinning but no idol.

One such day when Avrohom was in charge he smashed every idol in the shop except the very largest one. Avrohoms father was understandably furious and demanded an explanation. Avrohom told him that the biggest deity had demanded respect from all the lesser ones. When this respect hadn’t come the big one simply smashed all the others to smithereens. When his father angrily responded that statues neither speak nor move around, Avrohom retorted that if that was indeed the case why did he bother serving them?

And then we learn that Avrohom, with his phenomenal mind had, already by the age of three, deduced by a very simple logical method the existence of the one and true God. The reasoning is so simple that I feel that I can repeat it here. Initially Avrohom had thought the earth must be a diety. But no, the earth is not all-powerful; does it not depend on the heavens for rain? And so Avrohom decided he shall prostrate before the king of the firmament - the sun. But come the night and the sun vanishes to make way for the moon. Avrohom reasoned that the moon must therefore be divine. But the moon shines only by night. And so finally by observing the regular rhythm of day and night, of the seasons and all the natural laws, Avrohom inferred the presence of an omnipotent and wise creator. How do the Heavenly bodies rise and set at an appointed time? There has got to be a higher intelligence directing them.

And so to all you sceptics who question the basic tenets of chareidi Judaism I have the following message. Know that from the beginning our theology was born through a process of observation and deduction. Ours is not a religion based on raw emotion or primordial senses. Our way of life is rooted in a philosophical approach and logical thought. Any objective observer would agree that we are deserving descendants of our trail blazing patriarch.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

You've Had Quite Enough Already

It is axiomatic to those who have benefited from a good orthodox Jewish education that Jewish law is absolutely perfect. It is not like any other system of laws. Secular law is man made and merely reflect knowledge and values at the time the given law was enacted. Torah law on the other hand is divinely inspired and reflects eternal values. Values that never change.

Over the last few years I have moved on a little and I see that after all, 'Halocho' (Jewish Law) is not all that perfect; many a time it is downright crazy. In this post I shall write about a Halocho were the more I think about it the less I can understand how anybody with even a little bit of humanity could have ever come up with such an insensitive ordinance.

OK so here goes.

Jewish Law forbids any sort of sexual relationship outside marriage. In fact Jewish law forbids any sort of relationship with the opposite sex outside marriage. In fact Jewish Law forbids a teenage boy to even think about a girl outside marriage lest something terrible happened. A good frum (religious) teenager may do nothing that might in any possible way excite his natural urges. I could go into even more detail but it's too embarrassing.

So let us imagine a young frum boy aged twenty and a half. His name is Yoinoson. Yoinoson Schreiber. He is about to get married. Throughout his teenage years Yoinoson has been really good. He has tried really hard not to look at girls. He has tried even harder to banish any 'evil thoughts' from his mind. Whenever Yoinoson, God forbid, thinks about a girl or a 'bad thought' crosses his mind he quickly diverts his attention to something else. But today is Yoinosons big day; Yoinoson is getting married. The chuppah has just been and hey presto Yoinoson is legally a wedded man. Together Yoinoson and his bride walk to the yichud room and there once the doors have been closed Yoinoson gives his new wife a kiss on the cheek. The first time he has ever kissed a girl. The first time he has ever so much as touched a girl in a loving way. So far so good. The wedding dinner takes place and a good time is had by all. The newly weds are now on their way to their flat for the night. Really romantic. Now in case you have forgotten allow me to remind you once again, this is the very first time that, Yoinoson, this good frum boy has had any relationship with any girl. Well as I say the happy Yoinoson and his wife go home and do what they do (hint,hint), and believe it or not, Jewish law again forbids the couple to even touch each other for another two weeks (and due to one thing or another is normally more.) So to sum up, they have kissed, done a little more than kissing (hint,hint) and Yoinoson is now forbidden by Jewish Law to even touch his wife for several weeks.

Now doesn't this reflect the beauty and sensitivity of Halocho? Answers on a postcard please.