Achdus=Unity or Sloganeering?

We have emerged from an intense month. Starting from the Ellul lead in, through Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, onto Succos/Hoshana Rabba and culminating in Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. I use the word culminating, because in a pristine existence, it is meant to be a culmination after which ויעקב הלך לדרכו, the newly inspired and invigorated Jew “goes on his way”.

In the days of old, when distractions of worldy existence were minor and inconsequential, and when tomorrow was simply a new day, it was arguably less of an issue to exult in finishing the leyning of the Torah. (It wasn’t always the case that we completed the Torah each year, but I digress).

I fondly remember dancing the night away at (the Religious Zionist) Mizrachi Shule only to arrive in the late evening at (the Chabad) Yeshivah Centre. We were young, restless and more daring back then and attempted to hijack the singing by introducing “Tziyon Halo Tishali” (a Satmar tune for those interested in trivia, and one which connotes sadness vis-a-vis Kinos on Tisha B’Av). This song, was akin to a Religious Zionist anthem, and we were determined to show that “we have arrived” and perhaps, just perhaps, we could all sing together. We got away with it, and the singing and dancing continued in the usual uplifting vein.

Rabbi Groner ז’ל  together with other “elder”  Chassidim, hosted all with a classic Farbrengen on Shmini Atzeres. Regaling us with stories of his youth, and more, we sat spell-bound for hours. Snippets of Chassidus were spoken, and anyone could pipe up and say something. Some interloping comments were interesting whilst others displayed the result of someone who was less able to hold their liquor. There was, however, a feeling of Achdus and inspiration.

In later years, Rabbi Groner would be wheeled in, but the Farbrengen continued as long as he had an ounce of strength left in his body. To be sure, there were other significant iconic Chassidim of yore, R’ Zalman, R’ Nochum, R’ Chaim Serebryanski,  to name a few. It was like a pseudo-pantomine. They often criticised each other, under the influence of some Mashke (alcohol) and although we sometimes witnessed Rischa D’Orayso (heated interchange, for want of a better description) it was never acrimonious and, importantly, nobody pulled rank. Indeed, Chabad is a binary system as far as people go. There was the Rebbe and then the rest. It was, as in the beginning of Parshas Nitzavim: from the Rosheichem, the leaders, right through to the water drawers.

Mashke was a lubricant. It released the inhibitions. It facilitated an ability to dispense with the Tirdos (worries) of Olam Hazeh, the world we live in, and temporarily immerse in something more corporeal. In short, it was a means to an end. It was never an end of itself. Personally, I found that as I got older, Mashke helped me to “lose” the relative trivia that might be occupying my neurones and focus. It sounds contradictory, but it’s the reality. Mashke is sufficient, but it is by no means necessary, so to speak.

Fast forward. It’s Shmini Atzeres. Nusach Sfard and Chassidim perform Hakofos in Chutz La’aretz. There is a Kiddush (in the Chabad Yeshivah Shule where I have davened for eons) and many said kiddush (in the Succa) ostensibly to resume Hakaofos, somewhat liberated by the Mashke. In the last few years, I have felt decidedly uncomfortable going into the Succa for this preparatory libation. I do not refer to the issue of under age drinking. That is a separate item and not the topic in this post. The atmosphere of late, especially this year, seems to have become one more akin to a tavern/pub (lehavdil). Many never return to Hakofos, and the kiddush on mashke, has become an end, and not a means to an end. It is true, that my attention was also somewhat “distracted” as I was learning about Cohanim, Air Planes, Tumah, Moving Tents and floating carpets, and came to the realisation that I was close to clueless about the intricate Dinim of Tumas Ohel and Kelim, so I could be described as “preoccupied”.

The next day, as a Cohen, I duchened. I was somewhat psychologically affected by a Halachic question I had been reading from R’ Oshry ז’ל regarding a Cohen in the Ghetto whose voice box had been dismembered by the Nazis, may their memory be blotted forever. I felt strangely inspired to “give it my all”. I had a voice box. I wasn’t tormented. All I needed to do is have thoughts of אהבה and ask Hashem to give everyone everything they needed.

We then retired to the Shmini Atzeres farbrengen. I made kiddush, and then a little more, and waited with pregnant excitement to hear words of wisdom. It was probably me. All I heard was sloganeering and seemingly parroted thoughts that I had heard so many times before. There was no “git vort”, no “geshmake mayse”, not even a new Chassidic insight into the day we were meant to be only happy.

I began to question things being said our of sheer frustration. Perhaps if I hadn’t been exposed to the “good times” or had been more tolerant towards this somewhat more mediocre experience, I would have stayed silent.

I wanted to say something. It was to be my attempt to steer the ambient discussion towards some Tachlis. It had been on my mind during davening, and while there could have been an opportunity to do so in the good old days, and did, it sadly had no place anymore.

The shutters were up. The Arba Minim are meant to signify a unity and tolerance of all types of people and philosophies. Call it a symbol of Achdus or Unity, the personification of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. I felt that it was relegated to sloganeering. There was no action. One kind soul, attempted to assuage me

Isaac, if you were sitting in a Belzer Succah, do you think they would allow a non Belzer to say a Dvar Torah?

It was then that I realised he was right. This is, sadly, what we have become (in most places). We have compartmentalised to an extent where everyone thinks they have the (sole) mortgage on the truth. It’s my way or the highway. There seemingly can no longer be more than one path to serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Eventually I left.

As I walked home, I reflected on the words of the first Amshinover Rebbe, R’ Yaakov Dovid ז’ל

The Rebbe asked about the well-known Passuk in Tehillim:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting also together

The verse should have read:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים יחד

Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting together

The word גם—also—is superfluous and misplaced. The Rebbe explained that there are many occasions where brothers (and sisters) sit together. However, it’s only good and pleasant when they are also together, sharing a commonality.

I wondered how each original Rebbe, who was a student of the Magid of Mezeritch sat around the same table. They had nuanced differences in their outlooks. Were they together? Of course they were. In our day, each Chassidic group is basically in its own cocoon. The same is true of non Chassidim.

On Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, one would have thought that the uniting element, the Torah itself, would have the pulling power to create the גם יחד.

Maybe next year. I’ll be positive. There is no other choice.

Responses to Zealotry

Some definitions:

Extremist:  a person who favours or resorts to immoderate, uncompromising, or fanatical methods or behaviour, especially in being politically radical

Fanatic: refers to persons showing more than ordinary support for, adherence to, or interest in a cause, point of view, or activity.

Zealot: stresses vigorous, aggressive support for or opposition to a plan or ideal and suggests a combative stance.

Taking stance that is “not the norm” can be viewed as extremist. In a community of meat-eaters, a vegetarian who is uncompromising may be seen as adhering to an extremist view. Once a community comprises more vegetarians, they cease to be called fanatics. Their behaviour becomes an acceptable norm, albeit of a minority view. In either case, some vegetarians are more vocal than others. We accept the views of someone who is passionate about their vegetarianism. We don’t have a problem with the existence of vegetarian-only restaurants. There are lines, though. Where does society draw those lines?

  • It would be unacceptable to enter a vegetarian restaurant and demand to eat meat.
  • It would be unacceptable to enter a meat restaurant and demand that they cease serving meat.

Why is it unacceptable? Simply because we recognise the right of free choice: an inalienable right; a God-given right. Free choice is the basis of our existence as humans and is the eco-system through which we are able to rise or fall.

Kosher-style restaurants or take-aways are not kosher. It is forbidden by Halacha to eat food prepared in such establishments. Yet, some people on the fringe, do so. You find yourself in an environment where Kosher-style is presented to you. The food is unacceptable and yet your host insists that you partake. They cannot understand what is wrong. There is no pork. It’s supposedly a kosher fish with side salad. What can be wrong with the dressing? You decline. Your host may well be upset, yet you may not be in a position to adequately explain why you cannot take part. Your host may not be in a position to understand or accept your stance. It would be wrong for your host to become angry. Equally, it would be wrong for you to show anger towards your host. There is a gap between your views and theirs. You may also both be somewhat fanatical in your views. You may not understand each other. You may both even be somewhat fanatical in not accepting or understanding the rationale; but there is still a line. This line is the glue which keeps society together. When that line is crossed, we are in danger of falling apart as a unit. The line is crossed when someone is a zealot. You become a zealot when you take an aggressive or combative stance.

Sometimes, in rare cases, a Jew is commanded to sacrifice their life and not compromise their ideals. This is קידוש ה, the sanctification of God’s name that is wrought through death. It is a form of passive aggression. We aspire, though, to live. In regards sanctifying God’s name through living our lives, the Talmud in Yoma quotes a verse and interprets it as follows:

ואהבת את ה’ אלוקיך you shall love Hashem, your God. [This means]

שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך that the name of Heaven [God] should become beloved through your hands [actions]

Ultimately, your actions need to be ones which cause the name of God to remain/become beloved through the mode of your adherence to Torah and Mitzvos. The Talmud then provides some examples:

  • Your business dealings should be honest and upright
  • You should adhere to righteous Jews and learn from their ways and their Torah
  • You should speak with pleasantness

This list is not exhaustive. Clearly, there are many other things that have the potential to both sully or exalt respect for the practice of Judaism. The resultant potential love of Heaven is induced thereby.

The greater test is to stay an honourable, practicing and believing Jew during one’s life. As incredible as Isaac’s preparedness to allow himself to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham, the test for Abraham, who would have had to live with what he did for the rest of his life, was greater. The test to go on living is usually protracted and far more stressful. Similarly,causing God’s name and Judaism to be loved by one’s actions is greater and more challenging through the mode of one’s life and the way one lives.

I am convinced the events of the last few weeks involving a section of the ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist, community in Israel have caused the name of God and the image of Judaism to be severely tarnished. Halachically,

  • one does not spit at little girls (or anyone for that matter)
  • one does not ask a woman to move to the back of the bus, whether she is dressed according to one’s own acceptable levels of modesty or not.
  • one does not throw stones at people who are not keeping Shabbos
  • one does not yell at people who don’t adhere to a certain standard of dress, even in one’s own backyard
  • one does not compare Jews to Nazis—ever.
  • one does not use the holocaust in an abhorrent pantomime to advance an agenda

To be sure, the anti-Zionist zealots, comprising so-called Sikrikim, Neturei Karta, Toldos Aaron and the others believe that they are “defending” God’s honour. They are, of course, wrong. Their behaviour is nothing short of odious and against Halacha. These zealots  do not act alone. They receive the silent, or “behind closed doors” blessings of their Rabbinic leaders. They will not listen to anyone; we are all Treyf. In their mind, they have a complete mortgage on the truth.

What can we do?

  • We must recognise that there is a sizeable number of “black hats” and “thick stocking” style people, who are also disgusted by this thuggish minority of misguided individuals.
  • We must ask our own Rabbis, yes, each and every one of them, to explicitly make a statement in writing and in sermons to their congregations rejecting the ideology of the zealots as outside the pale of normative Judaism. Statements should be without prevarication. There is no need to speak about anything else. For example, the statement by the RCA is sensibly crafted, whereas the one from the Aguda is disingenuous.
  • There is a group in our own community, constituting a section of Adass Israel Congregation, who fully agree with the philosophy of the zealots. A few days ago, I was accosted in the street, next door to my parents’ house, by a brain-washed boy , who yelled at the top of his lungs “Zionists are Pigs” (in Yiddish). Do not forget that this group of zealots are in our midst. Pockets exist in most Jewish communities around the world.
  • When asking for a statement/response from your Rabbi, it is important to not only include members of the Rabbinic Council of Victoria or the Organisation of Rabbis of Australia. One should also approach the Rabbis of Adass, Beth HaTalmud and other non-affiliated congregations and ask specific questions with no wriggle room. In particular, ask if it is ever appropriate to demand that a woman “move to the back of the bus” even if she is on one of those bus lines where such an pseudo-mechitza is implemented.
  • When a collector comes to your door, ask them the same question. If you don’t like their answers, give them less and someone else more.
  • Avoid apologetics. There is absolutely no justification for this disgraceful anti-halachic behaviour.

Let me end with a story about a true sage, R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ז’ל. In his neighbourhood of Sha’arei Chesed a lady persisted in driving through the otherwise empty streets on Shabbos. Surrounded by the “holy” ones, he was asked, “Surely you have a Torah obligation to protest against this desecration of Shabbos?”. R’ Shlomo Zalman responded that indeed he did have a responsibility to express his dislike for what was occurring. He advised them, however, that throwing stones, or surrounding/blocking the car and/or yelling “Shabbos” achieved nothing. It only served to further aggravate the situation. “So in what way are you protesting?” they asked. R” Shlomo Zalman was quiet. Over the next few weeks, rather than accosting the women who drove through the neighbourhood, they observed R’ Shlomo Zalman as he walked in the street after Shule and came face to face with the car. A look of genuine pain was seen on his face. The lady noticed this look from R’ Shlomo Zalman’s face over the next few weeks, and apparently decided that she didn’t want to cause any angst to this old and pious man. If you are respectful to people, they will also respect you. Don’t cross lines.

We Jews who also try to keep Halacha to the best of our ability must vehemently reject and ostracise this group of unsound zealots and let them know that we are not with them in any shape or form, and that their corrupt version of Judaism is simply an invalid aberration.

Enough is Enough.

Balance and Tolerance in Religious Education

It is entirely natural and expected that a school advances a particular leitmotif . Indeed, some would argue that a school that doesn’t have or project a particular bias is like a body without a soul, wandering aimlessly from issue to issue, approach to approach, without a guiding rudder. Parents choose a particular school for their child, and apart from the expected quality of education, another ingredient contributing to their choice is the compatibility between the philosophy at home and the Weltanschauung  imparted by the school.

In Melbourne, the so-called religiously inclined schools are arguably four:

  1. The Hungarian Charedi, Adass Israel Schools
  2. The Chabad Chassidic, Yeshivah Beth Rivkah Schools
  3. The Mizrachi Religious Zionist, Yavneh College
  4. The Misnagdic/Lithuanian, Yesodei Hatorah School

I am sure that some educational leaders of Mt Scopus College would consider Scopus  a religious school, however, this is not the popular street-view. There are a number of other secular-oriented Jewish Schools in Melbourne and of course elsewhere, but these aren’t the focus of my thoughts.

The Melbourne experience is not atypical. In Israel and the USA one sees more choice but I’d suggest that the choice  is generally an expansion of different shades of the same broad categories above.

My issue with many schools is that they do not promote balance or tolerance. To be specific, I’ll describe some topics which I think would not be dealt with adequately, or at all, within  the above schools. I’m not so much focussing on the particular schools in Melbourne, but rather the type of school.

  1. A Hungarian/Haredi style School would not cover
    • the approach of Torah im Derech Eretz per R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. They wouldn’t even do so in the context of הרבה עשו כרשב’י ולא עלתה בידם.
    • a rejoinder on the שלש שבועות and an understanding of the philosophy of religious Zionism
    • Chabad Chassidus
    • Torah for women
  2. ָA Chabad Chassidic style School would not cover
    • a comparative study of the Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer HaTanya
    • an understanding of the philosophy of religious zionism
  3. A Mizrachi Religious Zionist School would not cover
    • the philosophy of the Satmar Rebbe ז’ל vis a vis ויואל משה
    • chassidus (although that has changed of late with the emergence of חבקוק (but not in Melbourne)
  4. A Misnagdic/Lithuanian would not cover
    • anything that remotely resembled Chabad
    • an understanding of the philosophy of religious Zionism
    • Gemara for women

Now, you might say that’s a short list of items. They aren’t exactly fundamental issues. There are more important things to focus on. What’s the big deal?

The topics above are just indicators—sign posts. The general issue of balance and tolerance runs deeper than these specific matters. In fact, what prompted  this post relates to none of the aforementioned issues!

Our youngest daughter, who attends a respected Chabad School, was learning the halachos of women wearing a head  covering. Sadly, the lesson style was not a textual study, even though the girls are in year 12. The teacher adopted a more informal—Balabatish—study based on short essays and articles on the topic. I chanced upon the material at home and read it with interest. This material, which the girls passively read in class and then discuss, is comprised of

Warning against those who wear a Sheytel

What struck me about the coverage, however, was the complete and perhaps wilful omission of the not insignificant opinions of those who consider the wearing of a Sheytel to actually be forbidden! This view is held, of course, by Chacham Ovadya Yosef  at one end of the spectrum and various Chassidic Poskim at the other end, who held that if one does wear a Sheytel it needs to also include a hat or kerchief. Others who are against Sheytels include: R’ Yaacov Emden ז’ל, the Vilna Gaon ז’ל, the Chasam Sofer ז’ל, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz ז’ל and R’ Shlomo Kluger ז’ל. Maharil Diskin ז’ל and Rav Elyashiv are opposed to particular styles of Sheytels (those that are “too real”) whilst in Beis Ya’akov Schools I am told that a teacher who wears a Mitpachat (a Tichel instead of a Sheytel) will not be admitted. In Charedi Leumi circles, full tichels are the order of the day, and unlike the claim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, many women simply do not remove their tichels.

I urge you not to misunderstand me. I am decidedly not taking any sides here in the debate about proper modes of hair covering. Indeed, when we were married, many moons ago, I told my wife that she should use whatever style she was comfortable with. I was never about to dictate the style of hair covering; I felt it was a difficult enough thing to live with and there was really no concensus.

What I am against, however, is imbalance and lack of tolerance in education. The children should have been exposed to alternate Torah-based views even if they aren’t the views of the School. Sure, the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל was very pro-Sheytels and anti-Tichels, even in the house, but if a teacher is going to teach children about the concept, why wouldn’t she also cover the sizeable alternative views?

There seems to be a lack of balance, let alone tolerance, in our school systems. It cuts across all the four broad types of schools I mentioned above.

Do you agree with me?