Shira Chadasha: a confused reconstructionist stream based on human definitions of social justice

There are two ways to approach Judaism: you accept it for what it is, or you consider it a piece of plasticine that you can mould according to a human (or humanistic) philosophy that you already believe in, based on societal values or your own philosophical catechisms.

My feeling, from encounters with some who attend Shira Chadasha services, is that they are more aligned with the latter than the former. Even acceptance of unambiguous Halacha seems to depend on the influence of values and opinions of society in 2015. “It doesn’t matter if the pants don’t fit; we will make them fit.”

We just read Acharei/Kedoshim where the Torah unambiguously and without any prevarication deems the homosexual act by men as an abomination, to the extent that if the Beth Hamikdash was still standing, stoning would have been the punishment meted out. It’s a charming thought in 2015, but that is the fact. On the matter of female homosexuality, whilst not explicit in the Written Law, it was always considered forbidden by the Oral Law based on Egyptian sexual mores which were not acceptable.

Shira Chadasha pin their “orthodoxy” on permissive opinions of Rabbis. No amount of Daniel Sperber or other `academic style’ Rabbis which Shira Chadasha cling to, can with any ounce of historical or societal ‘need’ under the single mantra of ׳תיקון עולם׳ expunge these halachos (to which the אומות העולם are also constrained from the Noachide perspective) and simply will them away, debate them, or place them in a ‘too hard basket’.

Let us not forget the words that follow לתקן עולם in the עלינו prayer : במלכות שקי. If a homosexual asked one of the doyens (I don’t know what word to use to describe the managerial hierarchy in Melbourne) of Shira Chadasha whether they have committed an abomination by having a sexual affair with the same-sex, and the doyen could not or would not say “I’m afraid so”, then the doyen is an halachic fraud. Yes, one can continue with other words, but the Halacha is unambiguous both to Sperber or Mendel Kaplan or anyone they wish to rely on for their new prayer mode.

Yes, there is more than one way to address people who find they constantly sin in this way, or have a predilection which is responsible for such. It is also possible that there  are markers that may predict the predilection, but it certainly doesn’t require some false notion of equality or rights for others to behave like a mensch towards people who were born with such a tendency.

Hungarian Charedim and Litvak types will likely not give an aliya to anyone who sins perpetually, whatever the sin might be. They speak of whether someone is Shomer Shabbos. If not, they will ignore them and consider them as lepers.

I remember at Elwood Shule they used to bring this argument up to Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’ל all the time. They would ask him

‘how can you give so and so an Aliya, he drove to shule

What I can tell you is that at the end of the service or kiddush, Rabbi Gutnick used to stay in his office and wait until everyone had left. Only then would he begin walking home. Why? In this way, he never saw anyone openly sin. All he would see is someone coming to shule, and from his perspective, the minute they came to Shule they were at least a בעל תשובה and he had no reason to instruct a Gabbai not to give them any honour. (there were other factors, but let’s not go into that period of history).

The fashionable terminology of our time is ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’. What does that mean in the context of someone’s sexuality? Clearly one cannot treat all equally as some are committing a sin which has absolutely no technical out (unlike the halachic calisthenics used to create the strange creäture that is the Shira Chadasha- anti-mimetic, and a poorly supported stance of a great minority of Rabbis, none of whom are considered broad enough from a halakhic point of view to create the changes inaugurated in the services they have conjured. Now that’s the Jerusalem version where many are quite frum and consistently so. I won’t even go to the Melbourne incarnation which seems to have more holes than swiss cheese.

With this in mind I read about a function that was presumably held in the Shira Chadasha Kiddush

Finding Your Way Out of the Closet
On Saturday, 18 April, Shira is proud to welcome Wayne Green to speak after the kiddush.
His talk will be an exploration of one’s journey through discovering life as a Jewish and Gay man. Navigating how to be connected to the community, to Judaism and one’s self against that which the odds are stacked against.

Wayne Green is a passionate leader and contributor to advocacy and equality for LGBTI rights in the Jewish Community.
Wayne works full time in the State government in management in client services. Wayne also works in the evenings doing early detection and prevention for HIV in the wider Melbourne community.
Wayne is also the Founder of JAG Melbourne (Jewish and Gay), which is a social group in Melbourne connecting young Jewish LGBTI adults.
JAG provides a range of social activities as well as community advocacy, education and engagement for inclusion and acceptance of diversity.

Diversity Statement
At Shira there is a respectful and welcoming attitude towards those who form minority groups in our society. Therefore, Shira seeks to find ways of understanding our texts and traditions in order to give full dignity and equality to all LGBTIQ Jews. Shira supports the ‘No to Homophobia’ Campaign

Firstly there are no “rights” for LGBTI in the Jewish Community anymore than there are rights for Pork eaters or Sabbath breakers. What are these rights? To be considered as if they are not committing acts which the Torah explicitly calls an abomination. It doesn’t matter what type of tree hugging ‘Diversity Statement’ one creates with an 11th commandment, an abomination is an abomination and cannot be willed away by cutely worded and beautiful statements.

What is the advocacy that they wish to allow on their premises? How does abomination equate to acceptance of diversity and equality. Why promote JAG ? Is there a need to also have a group of ‘Jewish Thieves’ and give them rights and social activities? In Poland, there really was a Shule of Thieves. I kid you not. That was their profession. Before the war, the Gabbay was Hersh Feivel Gottfried and his wife was known as Channa der Fresser. She being a lot taller than Hersh Feivel, forced him into high healed boots. On Shabbos, they did not steal. They had the best Kiddush/lunch in Warsaw. As soon as Havdalah was made, they began pick pocketing continuing their profession.

What has this to do with sexuality? If someone is Orthodox, then they know there are two sides of the ten commandments, there are also Mishpatim and Chukim, but above all they SUBMIT to the will of Halacha as the authentic expression of Judaism. They don’t go on some journey re-interpreting texts to make an abomination an equality of diversity.

Now, I have a number of acquaintances who are gay; others who eat pork and are married to non Jews, and one who is married to a self-proclaimed non-Jewish witch! I treat then with the same hello as I treat anyone else, and in fact the most recent homosexual who has had two IVF boys from his ‘marriage’ to another male felt that I showed him no disrespect to the extent that he bought me a bottle of wine when he left the work place. He had no problem coming to my office and chatting about the problems of bringing up his two ‘sons’. As uncompromising as I am about forbidding “white out” to be used on a Torah, I can and do still treat people as human beings.

There is, however, no place for the institutionalisation of abomination, groupings based on abomination, or even Jewish public rights in this regard. If I am a compulsive liar, I don’t create a Jewish liar’s group and expect equal rights because they find a part of my DNA which indicates a proclivity to tell untruths.

I do understand Shira Chadasha’s support for such meetings and talks. Perhaps it will morph in time to giving Reviii to a homosexual to make them feel ‘wanted’ and they will say that this is how they will convince a person not to sin. We all sin, and all have strong tendencies. Why make an issue of this one? Why offer a platform for sin? Does it really need to be highlighted?

There is another way. Have a weekly Shiur in Mussar, Jewish Ethics and learn about desirable character traits and perfecting one’s own personality. There is no need to promote a talk in the same way as a boxing match.

I don’t know Wayne Green. If I met him, I do NOT need (or want) to know that he is an habitual sinner of type a, b, c or d. That’s none of my business. It also should not be important for Wayne to promote himself as such anymore than Hersh Feivel Gottfried or Channa der Fresser should wear t-shirts saying “THIEF”. I’m unaware of where the Rambam or any one of that ilk advises that one should publicise their problems and demand acceptance of abomination while being stoned.

It all sounds like at best temporal tree-hugging feel good stuff and at worst a dilution of Judaism where abomination is somehow translated into תיקון עולם or social justice and where these do gooders can be the only ones to make an “understanding parade” out of sinning and still include it in the rubric of Halachic Judaism.

I think they may have the wrong address. Alma Road and Temple Beth sounds like a reform place where you can make a blessing over anything that goes. Orthodox Judaism does not have those degrees of freedom. Period.

The Admor of Amshinov, Rav Sholom Shimon Kalisch זצ’’ל

In another blog I was asked to post the picture by a commentator, but I can’t recall the article! Anyway, I have in our dining room a picture of the Rebbe זי’’ע. I just took a picture of it with my iPhone. He was very well-known. In Lubavitch he is known because the Rayatz instructed his Chassidim, when the Rayatz was in hiding from the authorities, and unable to respond to their questions to only ask R’ Sholom Shimon. In addition, at the wedding of the last Rebbe, R’ Sholom Shimon walked into the Simcha in the wee hours of the morning while the Rayatz was saying a Ma’amar Chassidus. He must have sensed R’ Sholom Shimon had come in, because in a very rare occurrence, he actually stopped saying the Ma’amar Chassidus until the Rebbe from Amshinov had sat down. In Amshinov, there is also a tradition which I have seen written, that says there is only one sefer that has to be learned to understand all Chassidus, and that is the Tanya of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Interestingly, I heard Rav Schachter saying that a Scholar is now working on an important Sefer comparing the Tanya to the Nefesh Hachaim of R’ Chaim Volozhin, the prime student of the Vilna Gaon (who did not sign the Cherem against Chassidim). The word is that he finds the thoughts and approaches close to identical. I also heard the Rav (Soloveitchik) say this, although he qualified it by saying that the differences are advanced and he doubts many actually understand the differences. The Rav was unique of course in the sense that he knew both those Seforim inside out, and had been taught Tanya by his Lubavitcher Melamed when a boy (but that didn’t matter because the Rav had a superior intellect, as is well known).

As for me, I know nothing about either! The current Amshinover Rebbe in Bayit Vegan,  is well-known as one of the Tzadikei HaDor. He doesn’t get involved in politics, and is a truly incredible Oved Hashem. My only connection is a nostalgic familial one, because my grandmother, Toba Frimet Balbin ע’’ה (née Amzel), who I loved very much and was the engine behind the Balbin family, was from Amshinover Chassidim. She and my Zeyda Yidel are buried in Israel, and I still remember Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner ז’’ל speaking about her before her coffin left from Essendon Airport. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’’ל told me that she used to bring him a present every Purim. I never knew that, and he told me they were all around his house!

PS.  I got this picture from Chayi Glick (nee Rotter), whose mother I believe stems from Amshinov and whom I cajoled incessantly to bring back the picture from New York.


A miraculous reunion

Yesterday evening, after Mincha/Maariv, Rabbi Mottel Gutnick, after having read my pitput of yesterday, told me another incredible story. I subsequently remembered Rabbi Mottel’s father, R’ Chaim Gutnick ז’ל used to play chess with Mottel Kinderlerler ז’ל.

I knew Mottel Kinderlerer from the days that I used to daven at “Katanga“. Mottel was a fierce Zionist and used to sit next to my brother-in-law’s father, Emeritus Professor Louis Waller שיל’’א. I sat in the back row of the Shule, in the far corner for several years. Katanga was an “interesting” place in those days. The Mispallelim were known to be rather pugnacious, for want of a more diplomatic word, and coveted the Amud with somewhat more physical relish than one would otherwise expect.

Apparently, towards the end of the war, Mottel, who as I recall was a member of the Zaglembier Landsmanschaft, survived the camps with his elderly father R’ Elimelech Zushe ז’ל. Towards the last days, Mottel found himself alone with his elderly father and the Nazis (if I’m not mistaken) decided to separate father and son. R’ Elimelech found himself in the midst of a hay stack, hiding from those who wanted to end his life. Mottel looked on in horror as the brazenly cruel murderers, realising that Jews were in the haystack, raised their bayonets, stabbing into the hay with gay and wanton abandon. Depressed and broken, Mottel eventually survived the Holocaust, but without his beloved father.

A few years later, Mottel found himself in England. There was a certain gentleman, who made it his business to especially invite spiritually broken holocaust survivors to his home on Friday evening. There was always a large crowd of survivors, many of whom were orphans, wherein they partook of a welcome warm Shabbos meal in a hospitable atmosphere.

The English gentleman, made no demands of the survivors, save that they would each be asked to say Kiddush separately. I’m not sure why he did that. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone knows why he did that. Clearly, he could have made kiddush for all of them. Perhaps he intended to attempt to re-ignite the badly damaged Jewish souls that had suffered so, at the hands of the Nazis, ימח שמם וזכרם.

When it came to Mottel’s turn, he refused to say Kiddush. He could not bring himself to say anything religious to God. After what he had witnessed, especially the horrid stabbing of his father, one could hardly blame Mottel. The English gentleman, persisted and persisted until R’ Mottel relented. After finishing  Kiddush, the English gentleman approached Mottel and complimented him on the unique Kiddush niggun/tune that he had intoned. Strangely, he went on, there was an elderly gentleman who had said Kiddush in his house, in exactly the same way only two weeks earlier.

The rest is history. The old man turned out to be R’ Elimelech Zushe, who had miraculously survived the frenzied attack on that hay stack.

[Perhaps some elements of this story aren’t perfectly correct. No doubt, someone from the Kinderlerer family, who live in Melbourne, will update me with any inaccurate details.]

Pictures at the exhibition: personal reflections of Elwood Shule

A version of this article was written for Elwood’s 75th anniversary.

Chazan Levy z”l did not look at all well.  Despite his ubiquitous gentle smile, he suddenly assumed a worrying demeanour that was a portent to his passing on Rosh Hashono over a year later.  A year prior to his Petira, Elwood approached me to assume the role of chazan over the high holidays. The persistence of Fred Antman and my father eventually swayed me. Leading the prayers is more than putting on a Tallis and indulging in an operatic odyssey through traditional liturgy. One becomes the shaliach (messenger) of the congregation and on these days of awe, that responsibility continues to rest heavily. Acclimatisation to the role is probably contraindicated.

As a member of second-generation holocaust survivors, my psyche is hopelessly infused with the existential tragedy of Jewish history. Elwood Shule was and remains a potent source of concentrated post-holocaust trauma that cannot be excised from my id. Booba Toba ע’’ה had posed the first halachic question to the newly inducted Rabbi Chaim Gutnick z”l, standing at his door with a freshly slaughtered chicken in tow. Over 50 years ago, the young un-bearded Rabbi Gutnick’s first official wedding at Elwood was that of my parents. He later also served as the sandek on my bris. Our familial ties to Elwood are entwined through a vibrant tradition.

Those were the days.

On the high holidays, holocaust survivors packed the shule. It was standing room only. A veritable cornucopia of characters paraded like “pictures at the exhibition”, as they ascended to shake Rabbi Gutnick’s hand, followed by that of my beloved teacher Chazan Adler z”l. It seemed that an assessment of each persons success, health and nachas over the past year was dissected among those hallowed pews, mimicking the judgement that was ironically taking place in heaven at that same moment. From the ostentatious, to the miserly gvir, and from the nebach to the do-gooder, we trembled as Chazan Adler

Chazan Avraham Adler ז’ל

intoned those ancient tunes. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick expertly captured the moment with his unique emotion-laden oratory. In those days, congregants had an innate sense of holiness, irrespective of their level of observance, having been infused with a quality traditional Jewish education that equipped them to comfortably navigate the words of the machzor with sincerity and conviction. On a regular Shabbos, the array of characters was no less interesting to this lad.

Pacing back and forth in the Beis Medrash the tall, hunched and sad man who seemed to sleep at Shule, was engaged in a frightening, surreal, and animated discussion with an SS officer threatening to abduct his wife and children. I was to learn that this traumatic experience was true and had led a once highly intelligent man to be reduced to a haunting figure who “talked to himself.” An indelible picture was etched.

The shorter man, dressed in a stained, dark, and sombre suit, lived in a bungalow behind the shule. Davening with the aid of a magnifying glass, we were terrified with his angry countenance, not to mention the acidic yiddish invective that materialised if we got “too close”.

The “political cabinet” consisting of a set of quasi ministers (aka mispallelim) sat at the back of the shule. The State of Israel and its geopolitical place was the inescapable weekly topic. From the mayvens who were never wrong, to the quiet observers who occasionally piped up with a solution to the problems of the world, shabbos davening functioned as a social event, where survivors from different parts of Europe were drawn together at the back of a Shule in Elwood, in free Australia.

My public singing probably began at Chedva. I vividly recall Reb Shmuel Althaus z”l himself an accomplished Baal T’filla, encouraging me to sing “Moscow Nights” as I was hoisted onto a table to the delight of a fashionable array of diners. Rabbi Groner z”l was another source of inspiration, and I was to become a soloist in the Yeshivah Choir. My first “gig” was singing with the Italian band Los Latinos at my cousin Leiba’s wedding, perched on my Uncle Ya’acov’s  ז’ל shoulders.

It was time to begin the preparation for my Bar Mitzvah. I could never have imagined how that experience would unfold. My father, knowing that I was blessed with a voice, approached Chazan Adler ז’ל to instruct me. I had learned to play violin for several years and acquired an appreciation of music. Many of Chazan Adler’s tunes had  found a home in my subconscious iTunes library. We used to meet in the boardroom. The lessons were uneventful. Somehow, as Yom Tov approached, I found myself having lessons at Chazan Adler’s flat in Dickens Street. It was small and cosy. The Chazente, Mrs Adler ע’’ה was always cooking something aromatic. We seemed to run through the Bar Mitzvah lesson quickly. After that, Chazan Adler would search among his folders of chazonus. He never used his “full” voice, always practising in falsetto. On occasion, he would insert magic spray into his throat. For a little boy, this scene bordered on the comical. The Bar Mitzvah lesson had effectively ended; what was I still doing there?

After setting the key with his pitchfork, Chazan Adler would begin. Peering over his shoulder, I became aware that he was singing directly from notes. As if I hadn’t had enough of violin lessons; I was now confronted with another musical challenge. I learned how to warm-up my voice (although I use less conventional methods these days before and during a Simcha) and how to practice breathing properly.  I was blessed with a decent musical memory and still remember Chazan Adler singing Hasom Nafsheinu with the band at my own Bar Mitzvah. Although this was a new song that I haven’t heard since, I still vividly hear him. On one occasion, Chazan Adler began singing Odom Yesodo Me-ofor. I recognised the tune, as it had been used in the previous year. Instinctively, I began to harmonise, after which a broad smile broke out on his face. Mrs Adler was also listening at the doorway. Sadly, the Chazan and his wife were childless and I was to later learn from Rabbi Groner ז’ל, that this was a source of great pain for the Adlers. Rabbi Groner recalled he once covered for Rabbi Gutnick when the latter was overseas, and that Chazan Adler had indulged in a lengthy piece during Ahava Raba wherein the Chazan poured out his soul  with bitter tears because they were childless. Rabbi Groner remarked that he could still feel the hairs on his neck standing during that piece.

After cajoling and parental encouragement, I found myself at the Bima singing a few pieces with the Chazan on the high holidays. Chazan Adler was clever. I remember how he had me commence Unesane Tokef in my as yet unbroken voice. Normally this would have been at his lower register because of the octave jump at Ki Hu Noiro. Because I started the stanza, I could also sing the beginning at the top of my register, after which Chazan Adler could take over in a more comfortable key. During my own davening each year I still use this same tune, although I have to always remember to start low to achieve the octaval bump.

My Bar Mitzvah arrived. The Shule faced a different direction in those days. Putting on my Zeyda Yidel’s ז’ל Tallis, I nervously ascended to the bima standing on a wooden step so that my small frame was able to see the words of the Torah.  My job was somewhat easier because there were many extra aliyos, I had time to look at the next few verses and revise. It was only natural that our sons Tzvi Yehuda and most recently Yossi would also have their Bar Mitzvahs in the same shule and on the same bima. Happily, they both didn’t require that wooden step, being taller.

After my Bar Mitzvah I sang with Chazan Adler for one more year. Much to my father’s disappointment, I didn’t want to continue with singing lessons. Apart from lessons involving violin, school, gym and swimming, I couldn’t understand why I had to be different to other boys. Did they have singing lessons? Did they have to accompany the Chazan on high holidays? Footy, soccer and cricket beckoned. Chazan Adler was to later remind my father “I could have taught him more.” It never remotely occurred to me, back then, that I would be enlisted some 30 years later as the Chazan on high holidays. I still hear my father reminding me of Chazan Adler’s words as we walked the “long way” home every second shabbos.

Those walks were an experience.

We’d start with Kiddush at my great-uncle Avrohom’s ז’ל house in Avoca Court. We’d then snake our way to Zevke’s house. Zevke z”l, whose daughter was a pop singer, sold toys and if I was a “good” boy at Shule my father allowed me to go into Zevke’s house and see what was “new”. Every now and again, a toy found its way into our home, first at “The Avenue” and then at  “Rockbrook Road”. After Zevke’s, we’d drop off the famed butcher Mr Kramer, and the entourage would continue towards Carlisle Street.

The pace could only be described as “leisurely”.

Apart from the fact that my Uncle Ya’acov z”l had sore legs on account of poor blood flow, Carlisle Street presented shop-after-shop selling shmattes. We’d stop, and the entourage would peer at the stock and prices nisht shabbes geret and then take a few more steps. I was so bored! Why didn’t we go home directly? It was a privilege, in retrospect, when the unassuming Tzadik Reb Chaim Yaffe z”l would accompany us on those walks. He was a profound Talmid Chochom but he was an even bigger mench. As I reminisce, he reminds me very much of Rav Abaranok z”l another teacher of mine who was also a giant when it came to exemplary and unassuming menchlichkeit.

My last conversation with Chazan Adler occurred only a few days before his passing. Chazan Adler was living in a Jewish old-age home in Vienna. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick had just passed away a few weeks earlier.  Sitting in my office at RMIT, I impulsively rang the Chazan. After a few failed attempts we spoke. He was overjoyed to speak with me and asked about the well being of a host of congregants. It became clear in the course of our conversation that he had not heard of Rabbi Gutnick’s passing, so I had the odious duty to inform him. The Chazan’s pained krechtzing in response to the news forms another picture at the exhibition. Eerily, it was only a few short days after the phone conversation that I was to learn of Chazan Adler‘s own passing.

Chazan Adler lives on! I almost exclusively sing his tunes each year. These and other “pictures at the exhibition” influenced and continue to shape the thoughts that go through my mind.

Regards from Kuala Lumpur where Lehavdil someone is doing chazonus through a loudspeaker for a different religion and driving me bonkers.

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