Appropriate and Inappropriate Kulos, Good Chumros and Bad

It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities [caused by the Holocaust and the subsequent displacement in geographic location] that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.

- R’ Dr Haym Solovetichik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy” Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994)

This is how R’ Dr Soloveitchik concludes an essay about a shift in the relationship to halakhah caused by the Holocaust. Before the war, he writes, halakhah contained a much stronger mimetic component, a notion of halakhah-as-lifestyle, seeing “what the people do”. Now, with the rupture in culture caused by the war and subsequent relocations, we rely less on mimeticism and more on textualism, referring back to the formal sources of halakhah, halakhah as a legal code.

Since the publication of that essay, they caused a bit of a backlash. By giving a motivation to the rise of chumros in post-WWII orthodox, he unintentionally gave a tool to people for implementing the equal and opposite reaction. Just one example:

It is true that in pre-war Lithuania, it was common for married women not to cover their hair. In the hands of some, this becomes “mimetic tradition”, following the culture of the observant community, and therefore an argument in favor of preserving that norm.

Interestingly, many of the same people argue in favor of ordaining women on textual grounds: Since semichah today has no real halachic significance, there is no reason that ordination be limited to men. Anyone with the skill to learn how to advise others ought be declared competent for “Yoreh Yoreh”. On the one hand, finding leniency despite the sources; on the other, finding it despite the leniency causing drastic change in Jewish lifestyle.

As I hope the reader can tell, I find both approaches problematic: Both the search for chumros and that for kulos.

I think both problems emerged from something overlooked in the essay. The fall of mimeticism was much earlier, back during the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The culture was lost, and Orthodoxy split into movements, each group seeking a rationale and motivation to continue keeping to the Sinaitic Covenant. What happened more recently, then, was not the loss of a mimetic tradition, a living Torah culture, but the loss of this ideological alternative. Whereas in the 19th century communities were built on ideologies, today all that is watered down. I discuss this two-stage shift in my entry “The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road“.

(There was one special case, I didn’t discuss then, Hungarian Orthodoxy. The Chasam Sofer took the ruling banning new grain, “Chadash assur min haTorah — the new is prohibited by the Torah”, and turned it into a motto for tenaciously holding on not only to the halakhah, but the culture as it existed at the time the ghetto fell. They therefore rejected all of these up-and-coming Orthodox movements, writing polemics against both Chassidus and Mussar. However, it too was an innovation. There is a fundamental difference between unselfconsciously following a living and changing culture and deciding to set out to preserve a given snapshot of it.)

What I would seek is not a return to the pre-emancipation mimetic Orthodoxy, but the movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries. They provided not only a communal structure that supported observing halakhah, but also the tools to engage one’s mind and heart. That was my focus in the earlier entry; now I want to look at the halachic implications.

The rise of the “Chumrah of the Month Club” is a product of a number of factors. Today’s greater affluence and free time give more opportunity to follow new practices. However, one factor we ought to seek to change is living without a well-articulated basis.

Disconnecting our ideological basis from our mitzvah observance contributes to chumros in two ways:

First, it leads to a religious vacuum. Someone who hungers for a connection to the Creator will seek to do more of the one thing he associates with that connection — more mitzvos ma’asiyos, more actions. This doesn’t really address his need. Rare is the observant Jew whose religious need is caused by not spending enough of his day engaged in religious action. He is really seeking a connection between his soul and that action, but is unaware of the gap. So, misdiagnosed, he instead chooses more action. Which leaves him still hungering, so as soon as the newness wears off, he seeks the next practice and the next one…

Second, without being grounded in an ideology, our practice lacks a value system by which we can assess various positions. The “Brisker Chumrah” has gained such currency in the current generation. In it, one avoids a machloqes, a disagreement in halakhah, by “being chosheish (concerned) for” both opinions. In Brisker thought, halakhah is only based on halakhah. This is a stark contrast from innovative practices based on ideology. The Chassid who started wearing a gartel rather than relying on a belt when davening did so because the separation between upper and lower was more fundamental to his worldview than that of his father. The Mussarnik is more likely to accept a chumrah of avoiding something not required by the letter of the law, not to do something not really mandatory. But the same rationale applies: Every new chumrah adopted was done so because the effort was deemed to be outweighed by the payoff, the chance to further inculcate a value into oneself.

To me it would seem to be the only appropriate grounds for their adoption. Going lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the line of the law, can only be based on having a yardstick and knowing what is beyond the line, and which not.

I’m reminded of one of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits”. Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind. As he puts it, “Before you climb a ladder, make sure it is leaning against the right wall.” Start with deciding where you want to end up, and decide your actions based on where they fit in achieving that goal. Without a definition of your own personal role in avodas Hashem (serving G-d), there is little way to make choices about appropriate action.

Covey’s advice on how to reconnect your day-to-day activities with your greater goals gives us an interesting variation on the theme of contemplating the day of one’s death:

In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.

As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended – children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.

Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?

Did you cry? II

(This isn’t my usual style or topic for this blog. But as it approaches the deadline, sitting here on Tish’ah beAv afternoon, it would be inhuman not to feel a need to share my thoughts on the subject.)The haftorah for Devarim also must awaken thoughts of current events. “Your country is laid waste, your cities are burned by fire, your land — strangers devour it in your presence, and it is laid waste, as overturned to strangers.” (Yeshaiah 1:7)Perhaps then we should look further at the haftorah, take to heart the message the navi find the navi relays.

In pasuq 10, Hashem calls the Jewish people followers of the inhospitable and cruel people of Sodom and Amora. He then continues (11-17) by rejecting our service of Him when we ignore the basics of interpersonal mitzvos. “What purpose do your offerings have to Me? … So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My ‘Eyes’ from you. Yes, even while you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” One is reminded of the mafioso, who assauges his conscience by giving major donations to the church from his ill-gotten money.

The Jewish People experienced something unique last week. Hundreds of thousands of Jews overflowed the Kotel Plaza and much of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the area outside the Ashpah Gate… Quite likely the largest gathering at the maqom hamiqdash since the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash. A wide variety of people, all stripes of the observant community, davening together.

And yet, is this the best we can do? Can we celebrate the unity of some small fraction of our people? I didn’t merit being anywhere near the Kotel that night. I was at the far end of an internet broadcast. But the descriptions I get from those who were consistently contain one distressing element.

Kelal Yisrael wasn’t at the kotel. It wasn’t Jews of all stripes, it was all stripes of observant Jews. One person emailed me about the rainbow of people present. But in truth, it was only Orange, maybe some “yellow” and “red”, if I can extend the rainbow metaphor. (Ironically, I mean the people who understand techeiles, not the Blues.) The majority of Kelal Yisrael thinks a prayer rally at the kotel is quaint and pointless, even in these troubled and troubling times.

We need to remember that. We’re one people. Yes, we should celebrate that the glass is “half full”. But not let ourselves get so carried away with it that we speak as though we’re unaware that it’s half empty.

Achdus: Not just a good idea, the only way out of this eimeq habakhah (valley of tears).

We aren’t at a moment of particular unity. In fact, the divide between the Blues and the Oranges (and the yellows and reds, who also showed at the Kotel) is one of the deepest splits in our history. Talk of civil war arises occasionally.

It scares me. The health of a relationship is sometimes tested by times of stress and tragedy. If a couple, G-d forbid, loses a child, it usually pushes them closer together. Surviving a struggle together; relying on each other. However, if the marriage is less healthy, it can push them apart in a cycle of blame and increasing anger. What does it say about us if that is the dynamic we’re following?

But both sides are pursuing what they believe to be noble. Both sides are concerned for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. One must be wrong, but that doesn’t make him evil. And yet, demonization and personal attacks are the tools of both sides.

Sin’as chiham — when we take a disagreement of ideas and make it personal.

I am really concerned about the focus on looking for who is guilty. I think I noticed because I am not as certain as the “theoreticians” that Sharon is an idiot or willing to sell out so many of his people for personal gain. But every single mail I’ve gotten from Israel has had some mention of which Jews are at fault for getting us to this point.

So let me clear that up, just as I did on another forum about a month ago.

It’s my fault. Mine, and every other allegedly committed Jew who didn’t settle Israel, who didn’t make retaining Gush Katif as much of a no brainer as retaining Maale Adumim. It’s that simple. I’m the bad guy; the one who isn’t living up to even his own definition of “right”. So make peace with that secularist in your office building, invite him for a Shabbos meal — and I invite the two of you to vilify me over some chulent. At least then there would be peace in the land!

Don’t take it out on Haaretz, Meretz or the rest of the Blues. They are at least trying their best to live up to their ideals and do what they think is best for their people and land. I can not say the same. Why are we demonizing each other? Why must Haaretz be a collection of dishonest reporters who only count who was there before the rally really began? Why must we assume that Ariel Sharon’s only interest is in keeping his scandals out of the paper? (Was that also Bibi’s excuse?) And why must we assume that when one of “our” r”l emotionally disturbed goes on a shooting spree, it must be some conspiracy and really “their” fault? Everything doesn’t have to get reduced to the question of which Jews one should get angry at.

People are disagreeing over ideas, and somehow it has to be turned into “they are evil”, “they are wronging us”. A discussion of davening at the Kotel has to turn into vilifying the IDF. They are wrong, not wronging. They are assimilated products of the west, not Nazis.

Can’t you see, the reason why Blue and Orange are at loggerheads is not because they’re different, but because of their similarities? Israelis are a passionate people. No one else would move there, and therefore few else will raise children there. The Blues are our misguided children who inherited our kashyus oref, our stubbornness.

Ironically, Hashem sends us a poignant and blatant “knife in the heart”. One needn’t be a prophet to hear the message of His destroying Jewish homes on the very day He let them destroy His. We haven’t learned the lessons of the 9 days — and we use his reminder as an excuse to increase the sin’as chinam?! Rachmanah litzlan, are we really that stupid? How much power do we rob from our tefillos by missing Yeshaiah’s message, by not first addressing our feelings toward our fellow Jews?

Yes, they’re wrong. And yes, we must not cater to moral relativism. Democracy isn’t a higher value than Judaism. Period. So cry for souls that are striving for aliyah, but are mislead by a map pointing in the wrong direction. They aren’t the bad guys. None of the kinos mention the Zealots burning the grain stores in an attempt to force their fellow Jews to fight a rebellion against Roman occupation. Instead, the kinos consistently focus on what we did wrong to warrant a lack of His protection.

Perhaps this is exactly why the rashei yeshiva and rabbis who supported the tefillah rally in Yerushalayim did not similarly back other rallies. Which should people be saying during the 3 weeks and 9 days: “We won’t let Sharon do this to us, he has no mandate!” Or: “We have no one on whom to rely, but our Father in heaven!”

Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d

Parashas Mas’ei opens with a description of Benei Yisra’el’s trip through the desert, and lists the forty-two stops made along the way. An oft-quoted Zohar identifies the stops in the desert with each of the letters in Hashem’s forty-two letter name. What’s the particular significance of the journeys and stops in Sinai that give them such cosmic significance?Jean-Paul Sartre, when asked to summarize the existentialist movement in philosophy, gave the following dictum: Existence precedes essence. What that means may be most easily explained by contrasting people to tables. With a table, you can study the plans for the table, the wood and other materials from which it will be built, and with a little math and science know everything there is to know about the table. The essence of the table precedes its actual existence. With human beings, it’s the reverse. I’ve existed since (at least) my birth. But who I am, my essence, is not what I was or even knowable back then. With human beings, our existence comes before our essence.Another existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, characterized his religion in a way we can apply to ours. The ideal is not to be a good Jew, but becoming one.

The same point was made earlier by the Kotzker Rebbe. The Kotzker asked his Chassidim, “If you see two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung and one on the tenth, which is higher?” The chassidim, probably knowing it was a leading question, answered the obvious, “The one on the tenth rung.” “No,” the rebbe replied, “he might be descending the ladder. It is the one who is climbing upward.”

When we stand for Shemoneh Esrei we do so with our feet together to emulate the angels. “Veragleihem regel yisharah – and their legs are one straight leg [each].” (Yechezqeil 1:7) Angels stand on a single leg, a pedestal, stationary. As Zechariah (3:7) repeats Hashem’s message to Yehoshua Kohein Gadol, “then I will give you to walk (mehalkhim) among these that stand still (ha’omedim).” People are mehalkhim, goers; angels, omedim, standing still.

Angels might be on a higher rung on the ladder, but since only people have the power to ascend it, we have the potential to be loftier.

This is because we have free will, the ability to make and remake ourselves. The power of teshuvah.

In short, life is a journey, not a destination.

And so, Mas’ei benei Yisrael, the journey and growth in the desert, was to imbue the Jewish people with the essence of being a nation of kohanim. Therefore, it truly is His Name, a representation of Hashem’s Presence in this world.

Did you cry?

This morning (Shabbos parashas Mas’ei) we read about the borders of Israel (ch. 34:1-12). We read that the southwest corner of Israel is to be Nachal Mitzrayim, Wadi el-Arish (R’ Saadia Gaon) or the Pelusium arm of the Nile (Rashi).Regardless of what you think about the correctness of pulling out of Azza, whether you feel it’s monumental insanity or as necessary as amputating a leg, the idea of Jews losing homes in our own land must be painful.

So how did you react when you heard these words during leining (assuming you understood them, of course)? Was the contrast painful? Did you cry?

How could there have been a dry eye in shul this morning? Are we really that disconnected from our fellow Jews, or is it that we are so uninvolved in Yahadus that we aren’t moved by the ideas it passes it projects upon us?

Chazal tell us “Mishenichnas Av mim’atim besimchah — when Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Today was not only parashas Mas’ei, it was also Rosh Chodesh Av. A day when we were to reduce our simchah.

Rav Saadia Gaon identifies simchah as the kind of happiness that comes from being connected with the underlying truth. (This idea is explored at far greater length in an essay I wrote for Mesukim MiDevash.) This is why Ben Zoma says in Avos, “Who is wealthy? One who samei’ach with his lot.” Someone who understands the reason for what they have, and that Hashem has an equally valid reason for what they lack. Therefore, they feel no lack.

Aveilus is a state of “aval — but”. We can have all the reasons and explanations, but when living through tragedy they simply don’t connect. We can only stand back and ask “Why me? How could this happen to me?” “Why would Hashem destroy His Beis haMiqdash and scatter His people?” “Why the Holocaust?” The question exists to be grappled with, not explained away. As The Rav writes in his essay “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”, the Jewish question about tragedy is not “Why?” Any explanation of the holocaust would be either intellectually dishonest or emotionally vacuous. The Jew asks “How am I to respond?”

What most of us witnessed in shul today was a lack of connection between our hearts and Judaism’s ideals. How can we experience aveilus, the jarring disjoin between our beliefs and our experience, the reduction of simchah that the season calls upon us even without current events if we do not being from a position of simchah?

Defining Anavah

(Copied from a “Der Alter” post of mine, but Der Alter seems defunct. I copied the time-stamp from there. -mi 1/16/2008)

Is anavah really “humility”?

The basic problem of understanding the difference between the Rambam Hil Dei’os ch 1 and ch 2 is not anavah, but ka’as (anger). With ka’as he explicitly invokes the middle path in ch. 1, and yet calls on you to eliminate anger entirely in ch. 2. But the Rambam makes a distinction at the end of ch. 1. He’s describing two different ideals: the chokhom (wise person) is one who seeks the mean. The chassid (pious person) is one who goes beyond that to reduce his own “space”. We could extend that resolution to anavah too. (This is discussed at length, here.)

Personally, though, I prefer a different approach to anavah. I believe that anavah is the middle path. The extremes are ga’avah and shefeilus (lowliness). That’s why the Rambam’s pursuit of the middle path includes total anavah.

So then what’s anavah? Der Alter told his students that they should always carry around two cards, one in each pocket. On one you write “Bishvili nivrah ha’olam — the world was created for my sake.” On the other, “va’anochi afar va’eifer — but I am dust and ashes”. The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished.

I would propose that anavah is a kind of mean between ga’avah and shefeilus by being a combination of both; a keen awareness of the gap between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, unlike shefeilus which says “Who am I to try anything?”, anavah is a powerful motivator. (See also anavah vs what I called “anvanus” in a discussion of 9 beAv and Purim.)