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.