Tuesday 25 November 2014

047) Who Killed The Baal Teshuvah?

A Baal Teshuvah is usually defined as someone who was not brought up in a religious home, yet as a result of either internal searching or external influence, he or she becomes religious. Today we have many thousands of Baalei Teshuvah who have merged and blended in to established religious communities throughout the world.

In the lives of many of these Baalei Teshuva there remains an inner conflict that often gets suppressed. While they were still searching, they were made to feel welcome and important. They were the focus and spotlight of the slick machine of Kiruv (outreach) movements. The talks they attended highlighted and contrasted the evils and baselessness of the secular world, as opposed to the flawless functioning and depth of religious communities. The smiling facilitators always had a sense of humour, and as a matter of course, also showed great openness and tolerance for other views.
However, when the spotlight moved on to the next candidate and the Baal Teshuva graduated to a real community with real people who didn’t always smile, weren’t so tolerant, and didn’t abound with a sense of humour; there may have been a possible moment of frustration. When they questioned what they saw, they were told (possibly for the first time) that ‘all people’ and ‘all societies’ have their share of good and bad. This made sense to them, so they continued trying to fit in till they lost any semblance of their previous lives. Now their parents, old friends, old schools and universities suddenly vanished, and they spent an inordinate amount of effort pretending they were always like they are now.

This is sometimes the last time they ever exercise those same inquiring minds that had characterised them till now. Gone is the ceaseless searching and challenging that so defined them when they started on this journey.

Why is it at this point that the Baal Teshuvah dies?

Why can’t he or she continue to challenge and rebel against the aspects of the new society that are less than appealing, and resemble those of ‘all other people’? They showed that they had the strength and courage to do so in the past, but seem to have lost the will to affect any further change. Why? Are the peer pressures of religious life more powerful than those from whence they came? Is there some unspoken fear or apprehension they no longer have the strength to withstand?
The Kotzker Rebbe became a chassid because he saw it as a movement that challenged the sluggish mainstream. Yet he later rebelled against it when he realised that it had simply replaced one mainstream with another even more perfected mainstream.

We need our Baal Teshuvas of today to stop trying to stop being Baal Teshuvas. We need them to remain searchers and challengers so that they can take the religious community and not just live in it but advance it. They bring with them a set of skills they need not be ashamed of. Our Tradition teaches that a Baal Teshuva is greater than a perfect Tzadik. Let them champion and promote the beauty that sets our religious communities above other communities. But let them also speak out against the flaws they were told are found among ‘all people’. They have already shown that they do not want to be like ‘all people’, and there are now enough of them to have a voice and to be heard.

Let them attempt to root out those flaws as only they know that the religious community no longer suffer the same maladies as the people in the societies the Baalei Teshuva thought they were leaving behind. 

Wednesday 12 November 2014

046) The Faith Stalkers

Jay Lefkowitz[1] recently wrote a personal account of what he calls ‘The Rise of Social Orthodoxy.’ He is a self confessed religious Modern Orthodox Jew, who shares his experience of a new phenomenon gaining momentum in the community called ‘Social Orthodoxy’.

What is Social Orthodoxy? It is a term used to describe Jews who observe Torah practices and rituals, yet grapple with internalizing and translating these practices to the faith level. Jay describes himself as follows: ‘I start my day each morning by donning tefillin...I occasionally find myself stuck in cities on a Friday far from home because I cannot travel back to New York City in time for the arrival of the Sabbath. I go to synagogue each week and celebrate all the Jewish holidays. My children go a Modern Orthodox day school...I would appear to be the very model of an Orthodox Jew... But...I root my identity much more in Jewish culture...than in faith and commandments. I am a Social Orthodox Jew and I am not alone.’[2]

He certainly is not alone.

But there is emerging, even a more extreme type of Social Orthodoxy compared to the one described by Lefkowitz:  -Philip Gallagher[3], an academic sociologist, uncovered a significant sector of the Orthodox community who ‘...identified as Orthodox, but may not stringently observe the laws of Kashrut and Shabbos...(they) worked to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance. Activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath...are accepted because they were out of the public eye.’ Often social pressures and the desire to belong play a more important role than theological doctrine.

My own experience of the community bears testimony to the emergence of Social Orthodoxy. Compared to twenty years ago, in many circles it is now considered ‘hip’ to be religious. A woman told me she was seriously considering to become, in her words, ‘shoymies’ (a new word for shomer shabbos), because all her children’s friends were ‘shoymies’. It was clear that she had no desire to understand anything about Shabbos as long as she could be perceived to conform.

The apparent widespread texting on Shabbos that takes place between Social Orthodox youngsters, certainly does not resonate with religious observance. Nor does popular attendance at learning programmes seem to get translated into practice, but this is overlooked as long as the attendees are seen in the right places. Perhaps we are witnessing the birthing and emergence of a new movement: The Ultra-Social Orthodox.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein writes a fascinating critique on Social Orthodoxy, saying it blemishes the image of Modern Orthodoxy. In particular, he challenges Jay Lefkowitz’s article, even though Jay employs none of the deviousness of the more ‘social’ followers of the Social Orthodox.  Rothstein has difficulty in admitting someone of ‘questionable faith’ into the Orthodox camp, and poignantly compares it to omitting the ’I am the L-rd your G-d’ from the Ten Commandments. He believes we may have over stepped the mark by creating welcoming religious communities, which tolerate and allow for such deviation. He writes; ‘The Talmudic view (adhered to for hundreds of years) was that we could not pray with nonbelievers[4]...Only over time, and especially after the rise of Reform...did rabbis find ways to justify treating deviant Jews with less than the full opprobrium (disgrace) halachic practice until then required...A person who does not subscribe to the faith-claims of the religion...cannot claim to be practicing Orthodoxy.’[5]

I do acknowledge that Social Orthodoxy may have become a little too social. (Although that’s probably not the worst crises to befall the Jewish People, and sometimes I wish our communities would be even more welcoming). But I have to disagree with the notion of us excluding someone who appears to ‘lack faith’. Actually, Lefkowitz never said he lacks faith, he said he is ‘rooted more in Jewish culture than in faith’.  In Kotzker philosophy, Doubt is part of the very fabric of Faith. And even if he did say outright that he lacked faith, that honesty itself would be an act of faith.[6] How, in practice, can we ever be so arrogant as to sit in judgement of another’s faith? Even if someone says they have no faith, it does not necessarily mean they have no faith. They might not use the same definition of faith as we do, and unlike halachic observance which can be readily evaluated, we have no way of evaluating faith.  While two people can keep the ‘same Shabbos’, no two people can believe in the ‘same G-d’. Each person’s faith is coloured by an infinite number of other worldly nuances that even they, never mind us, could never accurately articulate.

I too do not believe in the G-d an atheist doesn’t believe in. His perception of G-d is not the same as mine. The Kotzker Rebbe once said that he ‘does not want to believe in the same G-d any dirty old man believes in’. I too do not want to believe in the same G-d, some people I know, believe in.
If bad weather, for example, prevents you from travelling somewhere, and your companion turns around and says that it’s just as well because maybe something bad would have happened – that’s not an act of faith. It’s an act of irrational belief in random causality.

Many people believe in a G-d of their own creation, spawned by their own fears and superstitions. The astonishing thing is that they tell everyone they believe in G-d - and everyone is happy -  and they are permitted to enter the camp. Yet why do we want to punish someone who because of his honesty, has intellectual difficulty in believing in their G-d?[7]

Halachic observance can be observed. Maybe that’s why it’s called observance. But how can we subject another person to observation and inspection of their faith component?
When we do, we become Faith Stalkers.

[1] A senior policy adviser to the George W. Bush administration. Served as Special Envoy For Human Rights in North Korea, and currently a lawyer in private practice in New York City.
[2] Commentary Magazine January 2014.
[3] As quoted in: Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy, by Alan Brill.   2014/08/13
[4] It’s interesting to see that Kol Nidrei night, when we are permitted to pray with ‘sinners’, is an exception to this rule.
[5] See ‘Torah Musings. If the Social Orthodox had been in Egypt, would they have been redeemed?’
[6] This is because the foundation of faith has to be honesty. Emet VeEmunah – Honesty then Faith.
[7] The Ten Commandments say: ‘I am Your (not The) G-d’ - leaving room for different perceptions of G-d.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

045) If You Can't Think...Follow

Religious independence is not for everyone. Many turn to, or continue to practice religion because they have a need to be nurtured. Independence is something of an anathema to the archetypal spiritual seeker. This type of personality is, typically, non-threatening and even beneficial to all religions that need their traditions transmitted to future generations. Judaism included.

But Judaism must be more than the mere mechanical process of transmission of texts and traditions. Surely, as long as the commitment to Halacha remains sacrosanct, Judaism must be capable of withstanding and incorporating a strong component of freedom of spiritual thought. The Kotzker Rebbe championed this concept of spiritual independence, probably more than most.

The story is told1 about an amazing interaction between two of his teachers, the Yid HaKadosh and the Chozeh of Lublin; The Yid felt some kind of premonition that he was going to die and mentioned it to the Chozeh. The Chozeh or ‘seer’ responded by saying that if the Yid spent Rosh HaShana with him, he would surely live. Strangely the Yid chose not to stay in Lublin but instead decided to move away from the Chozeh. The Yid said that he did this because had he stayed, he would have become so influenced by the Chozeh that he would have lost any sense of autonomy. He would take his chances and even die rather than lose his independence and individuality. In Kotzk a teacher is important, but independence is more important. The teacher must teach the student independence.

Only when the ‘I’ is clearly defined, can the relationship with any ‘other’ be sustainable. Otherwise who is initiating the relationship? I can't relate to G-d till I know who I am.

The Kotzker had a novel take on the well known Pesach story. The Torah says that one must take a lamb as a Passover sacrifice. Rashi comments2 that ‘one who has’ (i.e. a man of means), should take (a lamb) from himself (i.e. from his own flock) – while ‘one who does not have’ (i.e. a poor man), should simply take from the market.  But the Kotzker sees this as talking about something much deeper than the historical paschal lamb.
The expression; ‘One who has’, refers to one who has the ability to think for himself. Such a person is quite capable of taking from his own intellectual stock. Whereas ‘one who does not have’, refers to one who does not have that ability, or is afraid to use his independence. Such an individual should simply take from the marketplace of scholars who are looking for dependants, and become subservient to them.3
This is one of the great challenges of modern Judaism. Everyone knows the theory and principle that as long as you observe Halacha you are free to form any Hashkafa or weltanschauung you wish. Sadly, we only know it. We don't practice it. In reality we frown upon any thinking that is not akin to how we have been taught to think. We also seem to miss the irony that the more we progress to an openness of mind, the more we are in keeping with our ancient tradition.

Thinking can’t be taught, it has to be thought.

1. Niflaos HaYehudi 86
2. Shemos 12:21
3. Amud HaEmet p42, par 5

Thursday 23 October 2014

044) All I Want...Are My Two Front Teeth

I always believed that we humans have 32 teeth. I do understand that from time to time there may be variations in the number, and that there is a dental condition known as ‘hyperdontia’, but as a general rule we have 32 teeth.

I read with great interest a responsum from one of the most revered leaders of a significant segment of the contemporary Torah world (Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky), in which the following astounding statement is made:
“A non-Jew has 31 teeth while a Jew has 32…” 1
This, he says, is based on the Midrash Talpiyot2, from which he quotes. However, upon examination of this source, while it does say that Jews have 32 teeth, it mentions that non-Jews actually have 33 teeth (and not 31 as he quoted above3). Furthermore the Midrash Talpiyot says this is a tradition it received, but also mentions a different view that there is no physical difference between Jews and non-Jews (except of course for the Bris which is a man made distinction).

The actual question that spawned this responsum was whether Jews are more susceptible to healing than non-Jews4 - to which came the reply “Nachon” (correct). And then a further difference between Jews and non-Jews was pointed out – that concerning the number of teeth5.
Forgive my irreverence but the question begs; if someone converts to Judaism, do they or their children grow or lose a tooth?

It is well known that often our mystical tradition draws parallels between the human form and energies or channels these forms are said to represent. For example, the right hand represents Chessed or kindness, while the left represents Gevurah or restriction. Similarly in our case, the 32 teeth may represent the 32 roots of wisdom6. The problem with this responsum is that the author is not referring to an esoteric allusion or mystical parallel. He is stating a ‘physiological fact’.

This is strange because often our rabbis tell us to consult with experts in the various secular disciplines particularly when it concerns medical matters. What’s even more disturbing is that he chose this particular view from his source, as opposed to the other demonstrably verifiable view (from that very same source) that all people do have an equal number of teeth. He also seems to believe that Jews are, empirically, more prone to recovery from illness than non-Jews7.

The Kotzker Rebbe writes that indiscriminate quoting, without logical analysis, is tantamount to a ‘gift’ to those who are waiting to make fun us.
“[Yaakov] took whatever came into his hands as a gift to Esau…” – If a person takes ‘whatever comes into his hands’ and does not ascertain if it is good or bad, while he may think he is doing a mitzvah, he is simply feeding the ‘other side’. A pious person needs to constantly be aware of how he is going to be perceived.” 
(Emet VeEmunah p 28 par 2)
The point is this: For at least the last two thousand years we have known that Homo sapiens have 32 teeth.8  Every school child knows this. So how does a modern day Gadol and leader of multitudes stand up and tell us that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth?

The answer is simple. We allow it to happen.

1. Derech Sicha, p 227. Bnei Brak 5764 (2004)
2. By R Eliyahu ben Shlomo Avraham, published around the 17th century
3. In another place (Asiach p 396), he ‘corrects’ this by saying that non-Jews do indeed have 33 teeth
4. Because of the expression in Shmonei Esrei: ‘Rofeh cholei Amo Yisrael - G-d heals the sick of His people’
5. Incidentally, there is also ‘anecdotal evidence’ allegedly attesting to a different number of teeth in the mouths of Jews and non-Jews, and it’s based on rather devious Gematriyos or numerology. One example gleaned from the verse; “They are a nation that shall dwell alone [LEVadad – LEV =32] and not be [LO=31] counted among the nations”. Another example from; “He did not [LO=31] do so for any nation, such judgements they know not [BAL=32]’
6. This kabbalistic concept is actually the catalyst for the discussion in the Midrash Talpiyot
7. I did, however, find it fascinating to discover that during the Black Death of the 14th C, which annihilated nearly half the population, Jews were indeed less affected than the rest of the population. This was possibly due to their laws of hygiene and their isolation in ghettos. Sadly the price they paid for surviving, was further persecution after being accused of poisoning the wells
8. See the writings of Galen 129-199CE

Thursday 2 October 2014

043) How I Remember Rabbi Bernhard

Rabbi Norman Bernhard passed away and was buried today.

Throughout most of the seventies, Rabbi Bernhard was the real life hero of my teenage years. This may sound strange, for what important rabbi in his early forties would spend time with an acne faced upstart who wasn't even a member of his congregation? Yet, at the time, the two of us developed a genuine friendship. He irreversibly impacted and influenced my life. He was the inspiration for me to want to be just like him and I decided to switch careers and become a rabbi.

Now, you have to remember, these were the seventies. It wasn't popular for a young man to want to be a rabbi. Most of the rabbis of that era were staid, old, incredibly boring and conservative. Not Rabbi Bernhard. He was different. He made the rabbinate exciting. His mind was so vast and open.
I recall how he told me that most people spend too much time sleeping their lives away, so he didn't sleep much. He and I spent many nights awake and learning for hours in chavrusa. I never knew anyone who could make chumash so exciting. We once stayed up an entire night at the Game Reserve, a place he loved dearly, learning, talking and taking close up photographs of hyenas.

He loved cars and so did I. He wanted an American muscle car and got close by driving a Hornet, which had expanded wheel arches and a fast back, and he was so proud of it. He had an interest in guns and so did I. We spent time shooting targets at a mine dump, cleaning our weapons and discussing the possibility making our own bullets.

Many rabbis advised against reading Buber. But he read Buber and lent these books to me (with the ‘veiled’ proviso that I only read the stories and not the philosophies. But I did and we did discuss them. He introduced me to Rebbe Nachman (his namesake) at a time when few knew about Breslov. He told me of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach before he became a legend. He read Soloveitchik. He loved the Lubavitcher Rebbe and in the fullness of time, became more and more involved in the movement till he later became one of its cornerstones.

He had the most amazing library and loved spending time in it. When you sat there it felt as if you were in a holy place. He was the unofficial Chief Rabbi of South Africa. If anyone needed anything and provided your cause was just, Rabbi Bernhard could and did facilitate it. His mere presence commanded respect no matter where he went.

In keeping with the spirit of those times, I wanted to go to the then Soviet Union and help Jews. No one knew about it but he introduced me to a man who had secretly flown a planeload of Jews out of Russia and who knew how to get in and out of the Iron Curtain.  Rabbi Bernhard also introduced me to someone who worked for Simon Wiesenthal, and arranged for me to do surveillance on an old Nazi who was hiding in this part of the world. Rabbi Bernhard knew how to operate and was extremely effective as an activist for Jews. He was also a great campaigner for social justice.

I remember him telling me that a modern religious Jew has two options. Either he cloisters himself from the world or he embraces it. Both are legitimate pathways. But the latter involves more risk. He said he actively chose the latter, fully aware of the possible dangers for himself and his family. He also explained that his view of Judaism was that it was like playing sport. As long as you are ‘within the lines’ it doesn’t matter where the ball is. Even if close to the sides it is still in. One should never just remain standing on the centre line, but instead make use of the entire length of the field. This is a lesson of his I have never forgotten.

These are some of my recollections of the younger Rabbi Norman Bernhard, who was probably one of the most powerful influences of my young life. He got older, my acne disappeared and life got in the way. I never saw him as much as I wanted to. Sadly I couldn’t find the time for him when I got to my forties, as he had for me as a youngster. I wish I would have told him that I thought about him often and that he was so integral to my life. I wish I would have told him how much I value what he taught me and that our special relationship was one of the most precious I have even known.

Friday 19 September 2014

042) What They Forget To Tell Us - Reforms of the Ultra-Orthodox Part 2

So now the three Israeli students who were kidnapped and killed, were according to some, a punishment from above, for the new draft law requiring Haredim1 to serve in the army2. In a similar spirit, Haredi leader, Rabbi David Zicherman, threatened the Israeli authorities with ‘suicide squads who will give their lives for the Torah’3, if they were forced to join the army.

This is the way the religious far-right is beginning to think. I feel compelled to write about this, because many unsuspecting and well meaning Jews are pressured into supporting, financially and otherwise, institutions aligned to this way of thinking. And the fundraisers forget to tell the whole story.

Recently, Mishpacha magazine4 described in headlines, what it called the utter financial collapse of the Haredi world. Haredi children, it said, are starving and hundreds of marriages cannot take place because there simply is not enough money. Learning institutions have had to close, because donations are just not coming in as much as they used to. Haredim themselves blame this on Israeli politics, but the fact that many of them choose not to work, is probably the main contributing factor. Many Haredim believe that it is the duty of everyone else to support them.

It should be pointed out that much of Israeli Haredi funding comes from American Haredim, who generally have a different mindset to their Israeli counterparts.  American Haredim, to a large extent are more open to secular education and many do believe in working for a living. But they too are feeling the financial pinch, and are no longer able to offer as much support as they have till now.

Pardon my cynicism, but there may be another way to combat this financial crisis. Take a look at the net worth of some of our leading rabbis (in descending order): Rabbi P Abuchatzeira 1.3 billion shekel, Rabbi D Abuchatzeira 750 million shekel, the Gerrer Rebbe 350 million shekel, the Belzer Rebbe 180 million shekel, Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi 100 million shekel, Rabbi Ifergan 90 million shekel, Rabbi Pinto 75 million shekel.5 

Mishpacha magazine6 interviewed social workers from the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, who reported that ten percent of their teenagers were no longer interested in being religious, and that many others become addicts or even criminals. A new Sefer7 has had to be published, expounding laws for people who are in prison. Laws for people who break laws.

Coca Cola has Rabbi Landau’s kashrut approval. It ran a campaign where it printed people’s names on the bottle labels. Some Haredi communities asked Rabbi Landau to put pressure on the beverage company, not to distribute bottles with names of women, to their areas. I have seen pictures of bottles of coke that had the women’s names covered by pieces of paper, before they would use them. Religious intimidation is a tactic often used by some Haredi communities. Their leaders published a letter saying that according to Torah authority, or ‘daat Torah’, a certain Rabbi Rubenstein should be the next mayor of Bnei Brak. Of course this is what happened, and the new mayor got voted in unanimously. Someone, however, filed a criminal complaint, saying this was intimidation because it deprived people of their democratic rights, and was therefore illegal.8
The Shas religious party had come up with a clever life insurance policy for kollel students, at a cost of 30 shekel a month. This was opposed by Rabbi Shteinman who said that the ‘merit of giving charity to widows and orphans is what is saving this generation from destruction9”.The Toldos Aharon Rebbe said that if one finds a ‘non-kosher’ cell phone on Shabbos, one may destroy it even if it necessitates the desecration of the holy day (and furthermore, there would be no need to pay damages). The Satmar Rebbe offered to pay 100 dollars to anyone not voting in the Israeli elections. All you had to do, was hand in your identification documents to one of their offices before the elections, and the money was yours.

I have a copy of a Decree from a Beth Din in Jerusalem stating that ‘It Is A Severe Prohibition To Walk In A Public Space With One’s Wife’. It goes on to state that ‘because of the power of Torah, we know that all problems are caused by husbands walking in the street with their wives’.
The Skverer Chassidim have published a new Chumash for girls, that omits the entire portions of Bereishit and Noah. This is because the contents raise too many theological and moral questions. It also censored Lots affair with his daughters, the story of Yehuda and Tamar, and the incident between Yosef and Potiphar’s wife.

A Haredi magazine10 (I call it a Haredi magazine even though it was banned by other Haredim11), featured a cover story about the Boyaner Rebbe. Yet although going into great detail about his family history, it concealed the fact that the Rebbe’s father and brother were modern orthodox. His father, Rabbi Brayer is a doctor of psychology, who taught at Yeshiva University, while his brother holds a PhD and works for NASA. This information was considered too sensitive for its readership.

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, spiritual leader of Shas, published a letter12, prohibiting women from academic studies, saying ‘students should not even consider going to learn academic studies in any setting, because this is not the path of Torah’. This raises the interesting question of who will support the family if the husband sits and learns while the wife is not allowed to further her studies. In December 2010 a ban was issued against listening to the radio, any radio, even those with ‘kosher’ stations13.

It’s interesting that the Chazon Ish referred to the ‘Kanaim [fanatics] of Yerushalayim’ as incarnations of Jews who lived before the Torah was given, because they were motivated by zealousness and not by Torah. Rabbi Berel Wein said; ‘I do not believe that the Torah wished to create an entire society that is unemployable.’14

In the Kotzker Rebbe’s view, one who can cross over to the secular world and do productive work is greater than a scholar. 

Nonetheless, from the few contemporary examples cited above, it is clear in which direction Haredism is moving. What will happen to our Yiddishkeit when these voices become even more radical, and when their followers begin to outnumber the mainstream? Haredim have one of the highest birth rates in the world and, at present, number about 15 percent of the Israeli population.  However, as much as one-third of children of school going age, are Haredim. This means, that soon, one-third of the population will be Haredim. What kind of society will we have when such huge numbers of Israelis will not work, will not have qualifications, and will not want to serve in the army?

Not all Haredim share these radical views, but a significant number do. Are our fundamentalists mapping out a new de facto norm for future Judaism, or has it already been created? 

If moderate voices are not heard, speaking out against what is arguably an abuse of ‘daat Torah’, then they too may be guilty of perpetuating this abuse. If it’s not already too late.

Sunday, 31 May 2015



The following is an extract from a recent pamphlet distributed by Kupat Haír, a charity endorsed by many contemporary Gedolim: "..when you give a poor man money - you feel great, but....With Kupat Ha'ir you get to be part of feeding tens of thousands of poor people, each a evyon mehudar...We're not talking about people who need a bit of assistance...we are referring to twenty-five thousand people who truly lack bread to eat." 
What amazes me is that notwithstanding what is being described here as a humanitarian disaster and tragedy by any standards, if you were to offer these 25 000 people the possibility to work - how many of them would accept your offer? Any way, their leaders forbid secular studies which to a large extent precludes the possibility of ever being able to earn a living. Is it really such a mitzvah to help people who refuse an opportunity to better their lives and instead opt for charity in the first instance?
And the crowning insult to humanity is calling these poor people 'mehudarim' (glorified).

Counter this attitude with someone like Rabbi Soloveitchik who rejects views held by religious thinkers who see no religious significance in participation in secular society. He was fascinated by space exploration, established Yeshiva University and encouraged religious people to get degrees and professions. He said; "I hardly believe that any responsible man of faith, who is interested in the destiny of his community and wants to see it thriving and vibrant, would recommend the philosophy of contemptus saeculi (contempt for the secular)."

Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us that the concern should rather be for secular man, not secular knowledge.
He also warns us not to confuse religious faith for religious culture.

It now seems as if modern day Belzer Chassidim have inadvertently aligned themselves with Saudi Arabian ideology, which imposes a driving ban on women. The fifth and present Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has thrown his weight behind a directive to expel school children in London’s Stamford Hill, if their mothers drive them to school. This is because in his view, women should not be allowed to drive, as this transgresses the Torah laws of Tzniut (modesty). The Belzer dynasty is no small insignificant sect. They number among the larger and more powerful of international Chassidic movements, with strong communities in the West, including Great Britain, Canada and America.[1]

In 2013, Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak, a leading Sefardi Hareidi, cited HaGaon HaRav Shmuel Halevi Wosner (considered by many to have been the Posek HaDor or leading Halachik authority of the generation), who also said that it was forbidden for women to drive. This, said Rabbi Amnon was forbidden by Rabbi Wosner, “Betachlit HaIssur” (as an absolute and serious prohibition). He further said that “this is halacha because it is not tzniut for a woman to be a driver”.[2]

This is yet another example of the reform and radicalization of Judaism slowly moving across the globe, and an utter misrepresentation of genuine Halacha.

Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, said; “If there is a student with an iPhone, thgen he needs to be kicked out of the yeshiva...” He went on to say that he had in fact told a student who had such a device, to bring a bowl of water to class and “...I put it inside, it bubbled and was gone.”  He further claimed that he did not have to pay damages to the student who, he suggested, could go to the Beth Din if he had a problem with the decision.

This, however is not a new innovation of the Chief Rabbi. Even the illustrious scholar Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said; “It is forbidden to be in possession (of an iPhone) and one must burn it.”
Rabbi Kanievsky was asked by a businessman if he could use such a phone for his urgent business, and he replied; “It is forbidden to own one, and one is obligated to burn it. It cannot be sold to a non-Jew under the prohibition of selling weapons to a gentile.” [3]

1. In this article, the term ‘Haredi’ refers, for the most part, to the extreme far-right of the religious spectrum.
2. Yeted Ne’eman June 18 2014.
3. Jewish Press. Com Feb 9 2014.
4. May 2014.
5. According to Channel 2 Israel.
6. January 2014.
7. Asurei HaMelech by R Mordechai Agasi.
8. Kikar HaShabat April 2013.
9. Mishpacha quoting R Shteinman Nov 2011.
10. Mishpacha April 2013.
11. Yated Ne’eman Dec 30 2011.
12. Kikar HaShabat June 2014.
13. There may be some uncertainty as to whether this was a repeat of an earlier ban. Some of these bans can be viewed here .
14. Rabbi Wein’s weekly blog Aug 2014.

UPDATE; 16 June 2015

Talking about the growing shift to the right, this is what Rabbi Berel Wein says about the institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel:

"Another organization, which is seemingly bent on self-destruction, is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel... The haredi section of Israeli society has long abandoned the rulings and personages of the official Chief Rabbinate of Israel. (Yet) it has successfully infiltrated that institution, which it regards in contempt and derision, and has gained control - granting itself power, patronage, jobs, money and an entrenched bureaucracy. This is a remarkable achievement since it loudly proclaims that it does not support the institution itself nor even deem it to be legitimate.
Because of the ineffectiveness of the Chief Rabbinate and its disattachment from Israeli society, it also has very little influence or presence in Israeli secular society. Except for official marriage and/or divorce proceedings, the secular Israeli has no connection whatsoever to the institution of the Chief Rabbinate." (Rabbi Wein's Weekly Blog 6/11/2015)

Thursday 11 September 2014

041) The Reforms Of The Ultra-Orthodox - A Short History Of Haredim

A strong impression has been created that Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, are the true custodians of ancient and authentic Judaism. However, when one studies the fascinating historical origins of Haredim, a very different picture emerges. The movement may not be as old as is commonly believed.

Haredim entered the stage of history at about the same time as two other movements were being birthed, namely Reform and Orthodox.

In the non-Jewish world, during the era characterised by the rise of nationalism, Jews began to wonder where they belonged. Although they didn't yet have a homeland, they could still align themselves with their own ideological movements. The age of Enlightenment led to the founding of Reform. This new movement became so popular in Germany that, by the middle of the 1800’s, the more traditional Jews had actually become a minority.

In response to Reform, a counter movement was born. This was spearheaded by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and become known as the Orthodox movement. (Certainly, orthodoxy and traditionalism always existed, but now it was crystallised into a movement). However, while keeping strictly to tradition, it embraced elements of the secular and modern culture in which it was nurtured. Rabbi Hirsch introduced secular studies into his Torah schools, and German was accepted as the language of Torah instruction (much like English is the language of Torah transmission in the Anglo-Saxon Jewish world, today). This was the dawn of centrist and modern Orthodoxy.

Now things get very interesting. In response to Orthodoxy, yet another movement is born, this time in the poorer regions of Hungary, and its adherents become known as Haredim. They positioned themselves to the far right of Orthodoxy. This new movement was created by a trio of fervent devotees, Rabbis Sofer, Lichtenstein (and his son-in-law) Schlesinger. They were fearful that Torah values would be undermined by the recent relocation of Jews from rural areas to the cities, and the new legislation requiring compulsory secular education in all schools (there were 300 Jewish schools in Hungary at that time). 

But strangely, for what was supposed and alleged to be a continuum of an ancient tradition, this new right wing movement began with a signed manifesto. It is known as the 1865 Psak Din (Rabbinical Decree) of Michalowce and targeted the Orthodox rabbis of the time. The document includes the following points:
  • It is forbidden to deliver sermons in the language of the nations of the world.
  • It is forbidden to listen to sermons delivered in the language of the nations of the world.
  • It is forbidden to enter choir synagogues.
  • It is forbidden to place a chuppah in a synagogue.
  • It is forbidden to study Torah from a rabbi who teaches in a foreign language. Appointing such a rabbi is tantamount to idolatry.
Many of these rulings were inspired by the teachings of the Chatam Sofer (no relation to Rabbi Moshe Sofer of the 1865 manifesto), who had passed away a few years earlier. He was so against secular education that he went so far as to condemn the signing of one’s name (in non-Jewish script) even for secular affairs, and threatened to fire a shochet for reading secular literature.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Schlesinger taught that it was forbidden to undergo any form of secular education, even for the purpose of making a living. He taught that the function of the non-Jew is to master science and invent useful technologies, while that of the Jew is only to study Torah (while he is permitted, however, to make use of non-Jewish technology).

According to him, maintaining a Jewish ‘name, language and dress code’ were literally tantamount to the entire Torah. 
He also believed that it was ‘good to elevate a prohibition’. From this, his followers deduced that a rabbinic law could be elevated to the status of a Torah law, and a custom, to a rabbinic law. The authority of aggadic literature (the stories or non-legal aspects of the Talmud) was according to Rabbi Wechsler, to be elevated to that of orally transmitted halacha. This view was vehemently opposed by Rabbi Hirsch.

We now had to fulfil not only the mitzvot of the Torah, but also ‘even the most trifling customs.’ The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law), according to Schlesinger, ‘is equal to the Ten Commandments.’ In time 71 rabbis signed the Haredi manifesto of Michalowce. They even coined the phrase ‘Yahadut’ or 'Yiddishkeit' (Jewishness) to describe their ‘ancient and authentic’ practices.

With regard to the prohibition of wearing contemporary modern clothing, as opposed to the long frock coats of the Haredim, the alleged biblical infringements mysteriously grew from four (in 1853) to eight (in 1865).

The manifesto also argued that changing any custom was ‘tantamount to eating pork’. The condemnation of any language other than Yiddish, inspired a very creative theory as to its evolution.  The new Hareidim claimed that certainly the earlier rabbis understood German, but had intentionally ‘corrupted’ it, to form a new language, so as not to have to speak a language of the gentiles.

Of course, mainstream Orthodox leadership opposed the radical views espoused by this new group. The Maharam Schick, who became one of the leading halachic authorities of Hungarian Jewry in the 1870’s, argued that to issue such innovative interpretations was against Halacha, and he refused to sign the manifesto. In principle, though, he accepted the general sentiment of the proposals - only as temporary and emergency measures – but not as an escalation of Halacha. He certainly couldn't condemn the synagogues of his day as ‘houses of idolatry’.         
The Kotzker Rebbe, although living in Poland and having passed away six years before the Manifesto of Michalowce, felt the rumblings of this new movement. He referred to its adherents as ‘mindless followers of Frumkeit’(in this sense, fanaticism). He was also clearly outspoken in his opposition to the emphasis on the minutiae of law, and the adoption of dress codes (or as he referred to it, ‘the wearing of white socks and fur hats’).

Notwithstanding (what has been called) ‘the invention of a tradition’, and the subsequent growth of Hasidism, it was only about a hundred years later that it evolved into the movement it has become today. This took place after the Second World War when the movement gained renewed impetus as many saw it as the best way to re-establish the destroyed communities of the Holocaust. All in all, it cannot said that their roots go back to ancient times. Their history is a relatively short one.

Today Haredim are often characterised by their dress, militant stance to religion and uncompromising attitude to even the religious societies in which they live. They number about 15% of modern Israeli population and have one of the highest birth rates in the world, with 25% living below the poverty line.

The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy by Michael K Silber.
The Making of Haredim by Rabbi Natan Slifkin.
The Manifesto of Ultra-Orthodoxy (1865) translated by Dov Weiss.

Friday 5 September 2014

040) Soulless Scholars and Spitting Mystics

It’s amazing how, even a very small number of religious people behaving badly, can have a direct impact on our view of religion. Oh yes, our sophisticated spiritual leaders tell us to look at the system and not at the people who represent the system – but we are still social creatures, very much influenced by our immediate society. When we are confronted by individuals who are visibly extraordinarily religious, with flowing robes and the like, especially when out of geographical context, they do draw very much attention. They may not realize it, but they should.

If they want to stick out against their immediate surroundings and lose their societal camouflage they must behave, or expect to be fair game. Otherwise they bring mine and your religion into disrepute, and I don't see why we have to sit by idly while allowing that to happen.

When an ordinary person does something wrong in public view – that’s bad. When a Jew does something wrong - that’s embarrassing. When a religious Jew does something wrong – that’s inexcusable. When a highly decorated religious Jew does something wrong, it’s time to educate them. If they spit in the streets, push or assault others, send their children out to beg, and then still expect to be entitled to be provided for – something has gone horribly wrong. To find oneself in need, is unimaginably traumatic. To put oneself in need and then fall upon the mercy of a caring community, is criminal. To not educate one’s own children so that they can at least try support themselves when they get older, is child abuse.

I believe that this type of antisocial behavior may sometimes be cultural. But it may even be a result of an exploitation of our mystical tradition.  Mysticism was popularized at a time when the average person never travelled more than 30 kilometers from his birthplace, married someone from his own village, rarely saw beyond the horizon, and felt extremely disempowered. Suddenly there was a system that created wings which could transcend time and space, providing global reach which extended to eternity. Mundane actions and words could bridge the practitioner to Forever. The here and now was no longer real. Reality was always somewhere else and illusive. A beautiful brilliant system when used as prescribed. But a pernicious one when abused.

If my actions are imbued with a type of messianic magic, if my leader’s every actions are world changing and world saving – then why do I need manners?  Why must I prepare for tomorrow, if tomorrow the reality of the world may change? Why should I care about how you perceive me, if I am cemented to something infinitely bigger than you?

Historically countering the mystic, was the scholar. The scholar was either only concerned about acquiring further knowledge, or about becoming a better person and creating a better social environment. In the latter sense, he had to be in touch and interact with his environment in order to affect positive change. This type of scholar followed the rationalist\moralist approach where every action had to create a better here and now. A brilliant system when used as prescribed. But a soulless one when abused.

If my actions are only to create a better society, and if I understand and control the full extent of my reach, then why do I need a spirit or a soul?

The Kotzker Rebbe spoke about Emet Ve Emunah, truth AND faith, rationalism AND mysticism. Good mysticism allows you to become inspired and to be inspiring. Good rationalism allows you build institutions like Hatzollah.

In the politics of the 1970’s you were either right wing or left wing. In today’s politics, aligning oneself to one or the other may be considered a little extreme.  The world is currently so complicated that a thinking person finds himself sometimes leaning a little to the left and sometimes a little to the right. Perhaps we need to do the same with our theology. Those of us locked too tightly into one or the other religious systems exclusively, may find ourselves becoming soulless scholars or spitting mystics.

Thursday 28 August 2014

039) Tzedakah - Corner Stone or Stumbling Block

No one can debate the fact that giving charity or Tzedakah is a cornerstone of our religious system. Much has been written about the topic and it is not necessary to reproduce the copious wordage that has been expended in that regard.

Sadly, not everybody writing on the importance of giving is as concerned about the giving as they are about the receivingI personally know of one particular author who wrote a book on Tzedakah, who told me that his organization desperately needed funds and he had to impress upon his readership the importance of giving. Sure, he was expounding Torah. But he lost my buy-in.

I also knew a famous Meshulach (fund raiser for Torah institutions) who because of his astute professionalism took 80% of the money he raised, for himself. Sure, he got people to fulfill the great mitzvah of Tzedakah, and in a perfectly legal manner also filled his own coffers. What a clever man. What a win-win situation.  But I could never give my money to such a person.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov warns us not to just give money to anyone who requests it, no matter how many times they tell you it’s for Tzedakah. Money, he says should only be given to an Oni Hagun (someone whom you know for certain needs help). Indiscriminate giving is not an act of kindness, but an indication of how you have been duped into falling for the oldest trick in history. Don’t think you have always performed a great mitzvah every time you have been relieved of your money.

But never before have I ever come upon such (spiritual) trickery and (financial) thievery as when I read a pamphlet accompanying Jewish Life, a mainstream orthodox magazine in my community recently. This was an appeal by a well known international charity, known as Kupat HaIr which collects money for poor Torah scholars. This organization is endorsed by whom they call ‘Gedolei HaDor’ (Rabbinic Giants of our generation). By contributing money, these great rabbinic leaders will sincerely offer up heartfelt prayers on your behalf. And then:
 The poor will finally know what it’s like to be wealthy, and children will began (sic) applying themselves industriously to their learning to the point where mothers will rub their eyes in disbelief and excitement… 
Once-a-year…Maranan Hagaon Harav … shlit”a,  Maranan Hagaon Harav … shlit”a, and Hagaon Harav … shilt”a – each in his own shul- will recite the same tefillah [prayer]…on your behalf as a contributor to Kupat HaIr…you will merit to raise your children easily; you will merit having all your physical and spiritual ailments cured…less doctors…less worries…
During the holy moments when the aron [ark] is open…they will pray for you, contributor to Kupat HaIr….we want the best for our contributors…in recent times the number of children born…has grown so large that the burden of proof is no longer upon us. People counted out one hundred and four perutos [coins] – twice the numerical equivalent of the word ben [son] – gave them to poor and humble Torah scholars and merited…one child or more – the following year…the segulah has the power to change a persons mazel for the better… to merit parnassah [wealth], medical cures, and the like…
 After reading this arrogant deception and open manipulation, the frightening things for me are:
  1. That such incredulous claims are made by so called leaders of our generation.
  2. That the impossible is promised only to those who pay.
  3. That this superstition is endorsed by a normative publication in a modern orthodox community in 2014.
  4. That people actually fall for it and contribute with great expectations that a few dollars can create miracles. 
The Kotzker Rebbe says:
Ten Righteous men may have been able to save Sodom. But fools who follow even a great leader, can reduce that leader to a fool himself.
(Kochav HaShachar p 85, par 4)

If I had read that leaders of another religion had made such claims as those quoted above, I would have laughed. When I read that leaders of our religion make and endorse such ridiculous claims, I want to cry.

Are we following fools, or are we the fools the Kotzker refers to, who are reducing our leaders
to becoming fools themselves?

How did such a noble mitzvah as Tzedakah go from being a cornerstone of our faith, to become a stumbling block for the ignorant and gullible?

If I have to give money for someone to pray for me, I’m sorry but I don’t want their prayers.

They are not praying for me but preying upon me.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

038) Rather Make The Wrong Decision And Be Right

One of humanity’s great questions is: At what stage do we sacrifice self-principle for self-gain? Almost everybody trades principle for benefit at some stage. Some people are able to hold on just a little longer, while others hardly entertain the notion of principle at all.

How important is principle and why does it always get in the way of things we really want to do?

The Kotzker Rebbe has a profound and rather novel way of looking at the concept of principle. Instead of being that self-righteous ‘nerd’ that always rears its ugly head every time we want to do something exciting or advantageous…principle itself can become just as useful and beneficial. There is a special satisfaction that comes with living a life based on principle. And this satisfaction can often outweigh the advantages of unprincipled gain.

Of course, not everyone can perceive the pleasure and tranquility of living a life based on high standards of principle and integrity - but some will. Knowing that one has the strength to stand by one’s principles is probably one of the sweetest tastes that life has to offer. But it is an acquired taste.

The Kotzker Rebbe says: 
No matter what, never ever regret a decision one made based on principle.
(Amud HaEmet)

This reminds me of something I think Winston Churchill once said: “I'd rather make a bad decision and be right than make a good decision and be wrong.”

Principle becomes a currency that has a value. It becomes a commodity that, through its acquisition, enriches the soul.

It’s no accident that the Kotzker was also one of the greatest proponents of personal independence and freedom, that the Jewish world has ever known. He abhorred the mindless followers of mass movements. These movements had become extremely popular, as numerous Chassidic groups began infiltrating Poland at that time. Their reach and popularity had become almost unprecedented in Jewish history. In his view, being a part of any overbearing and dominating system, albeit Halachically sanctioned, spelt the end of intellectual individualism.

And, in the world of Kotzk, intellectual individualism and independence was at a premium.

It was the dominant currency of Kotzk.

Freedom and independence were also integral to the primacy of principle – because only ADHERENCE TO PRINCIPLE BRINGS TRUE INDEPENDENCE.

As Winston Churchill once did say; “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Monday 18 August 2014

037) Off With The Sheitel

I was quite surprised when I heard that a family friend had recently decided to stop wearing her sheitel (wig). She said that she never felt ‘spiritual’ wearing something heavy on her head all day.

My wife then made a rather profound observation, although it took a while to resonate with me. “The reason we wear a sheitel is not because of spirituality,” she said, “but because of tzniut (modesty)”. At first, I had difficulty in comprehending her comment because surely everything we do in Judaism is spiritual? And then a host of teachings flooded my brain and it started to make sense to me. Let me share some of these teachings with you.
The Kotzker Rebbe, comments on the verse; “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy”. He says: ‘Kedusha’ doesn't mean ‘holiness’. It means ‘preparation’1A human being cannot be holy. He can only prepare to be holy. ‘Holiness’ can only come from G-d.
(Amud HaEmet, p71, par 5)

It seems as if many people are under the illusion that if they observe certain practices they will become more spiritual. Most of us would like to think that that is indeed the case. But the Kotzker tells us that we cannot become spiritual, we can only prepare to become spiritual.

In a sense, it may perhaps be compared to falling in love. You may indeed fall in love with someone, but until they love you back you do not yet have a relationship with them. Yet you could quite conceivably live your entire life under the illusion that you do. Similarly we too could live our entire lives under the illusion that we are ‘spiritual’. But spirituality, like love, is a two way street – “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy.” Spirituality, by definition, needs to be reciprocal.

Ironically, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the master of all things spiritual, makes a fascinating point in relation to prayer:
“Davening”, he says “is meant to be a ‘chiyuv’ - an OBLIGATION - and not necessarily an UPLIFTING experience.” 
(See Sichot HaRan2For the uplifting experience, he reintroduces us to the ancient concept of Hitbodedut; where, in addition to formal prayer, we speak freely to G-d in our own words and in our own time and way.)

This idea is further reiterated by the Kotzker in a most surprising and poignant teaching.
The Kotzker Rebbe once remarked to one of his students: “Cheshbon HaNefesh (meaningful introspection), must be done on the way to shul. Not at shul. At shul we simply get down to the business at hand – Torah study and prayer.”
(Amud HaEmet p 75, par 2)

Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we transform into ethereal lofty spiritual beings when we pray and observe mitzvot and wear our sheitels. If davening is essentially an ‘obligation’ (Rabbi Nachman’s words, not mine), then there is no need to feel that something is wrong should we be left emotionally cold after the experience. I'm also confident that we are guilty of no sin if we complain that our sheitels are sometimes uncomfortable and uninspiring.

Rather let there be full disclosure from the very outset: By keeping Torah and Mitzvot we are only preparing for spirituality. We do not suddenly shed the bonds of earthliness and morph into otherworldly beings.

When spirituality gets misrepresented and over dramatized, as it commonly does, it’s not surprising that so many feel let down when their unrealistic expectations are not met. This is when the sheitels start coming off.
Rather wear a sheitel for ‘modesty’ than for ‘spirituality’. 

Understanding this may help us grapple with the frustration of wondering why we don't hear a choir of a hundred angels singing to us every time we don our sheitels or go to shul.

Our reach into the realm of holiness can only go as far as preparation and groundwork. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

1. Kedusha lashon Hazmanah
2. The great modern halachic authority, R’ Moshe Feinstein was asked if it is better to daven with a minyan (even if it may be a little distracting), or to pray at home with more kavanah (fervor)? He responded that it is more important to pray with a minyan, which is an obligation, even if one’s ‘spirituality’ is compromised. (Igros Moshe O.C. 3;7)

Thursday 14 August 2014

036) Created Or Inherent Spirituality - Which Is Stronger?

To the layman it may seem that spirituality is, by definition, spirituality. It may seem that there can be no differential between one kind of spirituality and another. In truth, however, that would be like saying that art is art and there is no differential between one kind and another.
In broad terms, the Kotzker Rebbe distinguishes between two very different forms of spirituality. Essentially he differentiates between the type of holiness one is (potentially) able to achieve during the week, and between that which one is (theoretically) able to achieve on Shabbat:
During the week, the type of spirituality one achieves is predominantly a result of NEGATION of the physical.  Whereas on Shabbat, it results from the INCORPORATION of the physical. The latter is superior.
 (Amud HaEmet  p62, par2)
As a rule, the weekday spiritual encounter generally involves some form of battle against materialism. We engage in practices that remind us of our mission to try subdue the physical world. For example, we wear Teffillin to remind us that any contact with materialism has to be controlled and directed, so that we don’t become victims of a world that can very easily suck us under.
On Shabbat, however, the emphasis is completely inverted. For example, we no longer guard our food so much, because we eat big meals. We no longer guard our time so much, because we are encouraged to relax. Even sleep becomes more noble. We sing. We go for walks. We talk. Our study schedule is not so demanding. The holiness of Shabbat is therefore attained through incorporation of the physical, not through its negation. And strangely enough its holiness is superior to that attained during the week.
The Kotzker explains the reason for this:  During the week, whatever spirituality we find is mostly as a result of our efforts and our strivings to become better. On Shabbat, in contradistinction, the spirituality ‘descends’ upon us, almost as if it were a ‘gift’. The latter is superior to the former.
This distinction is an important one. Forget the weekday and the Shabbat for a moment, and let’s apply this principle more laterally: There are two types of spirituality we can experience. The first is the ethereal environment we create when we follow the rituals and dictates of the law. Don’t underestimate the power of this spirituality. It can be very tangible and very real. But it comes about as a result of some sort of fight which we win against the world around us.  Negative elements are identified and duly negated.
The second type of spirituality, however, involves no such battle. It results from a process that is far more natural. The holiness in the moment is identified and simply allowed to become incorporated within. Very little change is required. It is almost as if the spiritual beauty in everything around us suddenly becomes apparent and the need to fight simply goes away.
Put another way: The first type of spirituality is created by our religious laborsThe second is discovered and one realizes that it was there all the time. The first is created by observance. The second is discovered by observing.
Unfortunately, many who master the first category, have difficulty in mastering the other. Those who are masters of observance are often not comfortable to let go and allow the inherent holiness of the surrounding world to rain down on them. And those who see and trust the beauty and goodness even within the secular and the mundane, often do not see the benefit of ritual and observance.
To be truly spiritual means one has to be comfortable with both approaches.
Yet, in the Kotzker’s world (not that one should ever have to choose between the two – because the real Torah personality masters both), it seems that he believed that the second category was still superior.
NOTE: Someone read this blog before it was published and asked: Surely that which one achieves through one’s own efforts are worth more than something given as a gift? To which I responded: Yes. It is tempting and pacifying to think like that. Imagine a child who saves up a few cents. Very noble.  But in a real monetary sense, those few cents are nothing in comparison with a larger amount of money received say through an inheritance. So too in spirituality. The little one achieves is very noble and nice. But it pales into insignificance when compared to that which comes from the world of the Spirit itself

Monday 11 August 2014

035) Kotzk and Mashiach - An Unpopular View

Much of the Jewish world today is ablaze with talk of Mashiach.

Had the Kotzker Rebbe lived in our times, his views on Mashiach may have proved to be rather unpopular. Remember, ours is not the first generation to popularize Mashiach, and the Kotzker was well aware of similar messianic excitement in generations preceding his. 

He says;
It is better for people to remain unaware of the time of redemption and instead live in the tension of not knowing which times are more auspicious than others.
(Kochav HaShachar p 60 par1)

From this teaching it seems clear that instead of promising people an imminent end to their suffering (which may or may not be accurate) - it would be better for these same people to rather deal with realistic uncertainty in terms of the timing (not the concept) of Mashiach. Human beings have to dig deeper within their souls when faced with any type of angst, and it is precisely in states of profound uncertainty that we grow the most.

In a similar vein, the Kotzker writes about Eliyahu HaNavi, the prophet who is tasked with the official duty of announcing the arrival of Mashiach;
Regarding the custom of opening the door for Eliyahu on Passover night- don’t think Eliyahu really enters through the physical door of your house. Instead he enters through the doors of your heart and mind.
(Kochav HaShachar p 59, par 2)

Even here the Kotzker takes the edge off the immediacy and literalness of the famed mystical figure Eliyahu HaNavi, the great harbinger of Mashiach. He doesn't deny that Eliyahu will foreshadow Mashiach. He simply questions the popular perception thereof.

In another, and perhaps his most poignant comment about Mashiach, he says;
Why is it that Jews always cry out to G-d that He have mercy on us and send Mashiach? Rather we should cry out to ourselves to have mercy on G-d. And we ourselves effect the change that will be Mashiach.
(Kochav HaShachar p 59, par 1)

The Kotzker’s tenor in all these teachings is not to add to the hype by promising immediate and miraculous salvation which only tends to create confusion and inevitable disappointment. He reminds us that determination through uncertainty and not grand predictions, is the essence of spiritual growth. He directs us more inward than outward. He encourages us to think more conceptually than literally. And he tells us to become the miracle rather than wait for it.   

Thursday 7 August 2014

034) The Great Kotzker Contradiction - Either it Matters What Other People Think or it Doesn't

I have set myself the goal of trying to read every single Kotzker teaching I can get my hands on. In the process I have often comes across some interesting ideas and concepts. Here is one of them:

In one place the Kotzker says:
“And Leah’s eyes were weak…” Rashi explains that Leah cried a lot. She cried because people said that since Isaac had an older son (Esau), and a younger son (Jacob) - and since Lavan also had an older daughter (Leah), and a younger daughter (Rachel) - the older son could marry the older daughter, and the younger son could marry the younger daughter. This meant that Leah might end up marrying Esau, hence Leah’s tears.
The Kotzker is a little bothered by this explanation of Rashi, and asks:
Who were these people who were making these suggestions and talking like this? It was only Lavan and his wicked family. No one else. So why should Leah have been bothered by all this talk? - From here we learn that we should always be conscious and aware of what people say!    
(Amud HaEmet p26, par3)

In another place he appears to contradict this viewpoint:
When the spies returned from spying out the land of Israel, they said that the people living there were so big that they resembled giants, and that they [the spies] felt like little grasshoppers in comparison. The spies continued to report; “And so we appeared in their eyes.”
The Kotzker makes this observation:
It’s one thing to report how you yourself feel about a given situation. It’s another to extrapolate about the feelings others are experiencing in that same situation. One never really knows how another feels. Besides, it doesn't matter what other people think about you.   
(Kochav HaShachar p21, par 4)

So from two different books, we are presented with an apparent contradiction. Where does he stand on the issue of how seriously we should take what others think of us? Either it matters what others think, or it doesn’t. Did the Kotzker contradict himself?

I think there could be two answers:

On the one hand, let’s say he did contradict himself. That’s all the more reason why I would choose him as a teacher. It shows just how human he was. Perhaps when he was younger he didn't care what people thought of him. And perhaps with time he mellowed and took a different view. Or perhaps he started out worrying about how he was perceived by others, only to later on in life realize that life is there to be lived fully by the individual himself, with scant regard for those who opposed him.

On the other hand, let’s say there is no contradiction. We cannot live our lives constantly worrying about how everyone else is going to interpret our actions. If we do, we will never say or accomplish anything significant, for fear that someone might be offended. At the same time, one cannot just barge through life without caring about other the billions of other people we have to share this planet with. Victory has a bitter taste to it if it creates too many enemies.   

The solution lies somewhere in the delicate middle. We need to do what we need to do without allowing others to get in the way. But we don't need to get in the way of others either.

The art of living is to know when to be concerned about what others think, and when the time has come to push on regardless.