Sunday, May 07, 2006

Beauty and the Beast

She stood shivering and I wanted to lend her my sweatshirt. Nights are still cold in Jerusalem, and I craved the heartwarming "kol areiveim ze l'ze" smile that politely rejects, then smiles, then accepts my small act of hesed. But I also knew that such an act was an impossibility- that inside my head, a black-on-white poster of social mores told me "this is not done." Young, married, Haredi women don't take hooded sweatshirts from strangers.

Waiting at my bus stop, I realized that something was very out of place about this Haredi women next to me. She was strange all alone, shivering in the night- clutching her covered arms to herself, shifting her weight like it would somehow make her stammering legs stop- and at the same time quite charming. Oh! How silly of me not to realize! Of course she stands out of place! She is, dare I say, beautiful.

You see, the #1 Bus is an observatory: a place where boys that go to HaKotel watch Haredi Jews . . . go to the Koysel. I'm told that its best to avoid flash photography.

My time in the Jew Zoo- both the #1 and Israel as a whole- has revealed the utter lack of aesthetic beauty within Ultra-Orthodox society. The neighborhoods are famously drab, a piece of Eastern Europe better left behind. The men, rounded by a life-long Shalosh shedos, or bent and crooked by years of study, fail by western standard of masculinity. A recent article in Ha'aretz (I know where to go for Haredi-bashing, thank you) noted the recent findings of an Israeli sociologist: Haredi men avoid confrontation, are trained not to raise their voice, hold themselves close-legged, and learn to view sports and physical activity as Greco-Roman evils. Such is not the way of Western man; such is not the way of beauty.

On the other end of the gender gap, perhaps the most basic beauty of them all, Woman, is wrapped away behind a code of social reservation and navy suit-sets. Despite how most every aspect of their life is dictated by sex, the apparent goal for the Haredi woman is a sort of refined, regal masculinity. O how they dress neatly!: cropped, plain, and in moments of gasp-like daring, checkered. Can we even invent a better image than the bride- the paradigm of womanhood- shaving off her hair- that sweet-smelling, flowing symbol of all that feminity has to offer (boys like me). FOR THE LOVE OF G-D! Do something real and heartfelt, not held back by the all-powerful cultural bubble! Reveal but a hint of sexuality! Let beauty run like wine pouring down a kiddush fountain. For until you do, we can most safely say: Haredim are ugly.

But uglier than Haredim, is the American, Western, Hellenistic, and . . . modern (as in Orthodox) need for beauty. How much of the stigma- in every non-Haredi stream of Judaism- stems from this simple fact? Even if the hate is founded in the worlds of idea and policy, MO aesthetic revulsion is a constant reminder of our self-righteous inherent superiority. I think myself not nearly crass enough to voice it, but the classic piece of propraganda- the oily, pock-mocked face, with the nose of a crook and the facial hair of a yak- pops to mind upon nearly every Kotel visit. Maybe those anti-semites are on to something. Granted, we've brought charts and graphs of every moral argument and source of tension that lies between us. But rarely do cold political disputes translate into such negative feelings.

Negative feelings?! Hatred!! Hear my story: I detest the dogmatic approach to questions not necessarily Halakhic, despise the disregard for scientific and historic truths, and loath how the randomly selected culture of Eastern Europe ala nineteenth century has been codified into a religious marker, Humrasized ad infinitum . . . but, alas, these questions of religio-intellectual perspespective do not satisfy.

For whichever way Haredim perhaps sacrifice intellectual honesty- I don't hate the spiritual, fundamental, simple faith of so many!
For my personal, unlearned opinion that they distort G-d's word- I don't hate Reconstructionists!
For whatever political or economic harm my mind can invent- I don't hate the average Palestinian!

I've been struggling to cut out this malignant growth on my Neshama. When I pass Haredi kids playing like rats in the street, I replace the velvet with srugi and mush under the cuteness. When a skinny young bachur provides an accidental hip-check on the way through security, I see through his black hat to a purple beret and immediately understand that sometimes, people are in a rush. When I think of Haredim as selfish, "mitzvah" hungry machines too obsessed with their own Olam Habaah to remember concepts like Hesed or community, I try to focus on the poll recently published in the Jerusalem Post: the highest level of volunteerism is found . . . in the Haredi population. (If we worry that Haredim outdo our "Dati," it would be an absolute disaster if they also better our "L'umi.") When I think about the money extorted from the pocketbooks of taxpayers to the Hadar Ochel of the Mir, I remember how sit-down restaurants don't exist in Bnei Brak- afterall, how can you consciously sit and pleasure-bait your money away? And lastly, when I fail to find beauty in the trash-scarred streets of Meah Shaarim, I ask myself, "who cares?"

Manly Torah

Tamar Ross' book on Feminism and Orthodoxy has tainted my religiously-inspired, Torah-motivated, "Shanah Bet Material" mind. Like any good Chakira, my entire world is effected- and explained- by this new perspective. Now that I've been enlightened to the male-dominated, male-focused, androcentric religion that is Judaism, I can't stop but see the same phenomenon in the Yeshiva system as a whole. Three patterns that put the man in Yeshiva mannerisms:

Beit Medrash Envy: Size matters.

Every time a camp or YULA friend visits the HaKotel Beit Medrash, the first reaction is always the same. Responding to the question that everyone's testerone seems to ask, they announce to the world in their most macho . . . "Oh, ours is bigger." The first time I experienced this ritual I thought it strange, unnecessary- immature. Now I just think it instinctive. As the rush of chemical activity came to its peak and enzyme reacted to fired nerve ending, my chest expanded and I looked my competition in the eye: "No way. Mine is much bigger!"
Be not mistaken:
Reishit- You're like HaKotel's little brother. Eretz HaTzvi- Say hello to the Alpha Male. Netiv Aryeh- I guess there is enough room for the both of us in the Old City. Gush- Hmm, Its hard to tell. You don't really appreciate the Rumpa until you've been back there for some bittul. Tzorich Iyun.

The Hierarchy
Nothing beats the "my Rebbe" story. We don't want to hear about the Vilna Gaon, or Reb Moshe, or any Hacham or Baba- but if its a Rabbi Tarragin in KBY, or Rav Elon in Mercaz . . . its like a drug. I guess that impressionable Shanah Aleph's like myself just want to feel part of a hierarchy: I want to know who is above me and then see them pushed higher and higher by the stories surrounding them; for if they are Gadol material- well, God damn it- I mean, B'ezras ha'shem yisbaruch, so am I!
Which explains the tingly feeling in the pit of my neshama in the presence of a rebbe's own rebbe stories. (Heretofore referered to as the Super-rebbe.) Every tale of the Super-rebbe justifies my existence: the Beard and Glasses whom I struggle to emulate has his own Super- Beard and Glasses (albeit super-whiter and super-thicker) looming in the impossible distance. The journey is not futile and the system does work- by putting in enough time, energy, and most importantly rebbe stories, I can one day be the Super-rebbe to a new generation of competition-minded talmidim.

Makom Identity: Learning isn't about the knowledge in your head, but the pricetags on your table.

Each row in the Beit Medrash communicates dozens of silent social messages. The right sefer informs the pack of your strength and status (and, with G-d's help, a front row seat in shiur), whereas even the wrong writing utensil pencils "Ramaz" all over you. In effect, a entire language of unspoken words indentifies each talmid and places him into one of the many subdivisions within the Hesder beit medrash. A guide to the man behind the bookshelf:
Mikraot G'dalot- I'm interested, motivated, and wonderfully naive. My goal for Shanah Aleph is "to learn how to learn." However, I don't know which seferim to buy, and there's no way I can really learn all this. Two volumes on Nach . . .what was I thinking. What is a Chagi? Maybe I'll get to it after Smicha.

Tehillim- I'm the nicest guy on this row. When my mother sends cookies- everybody gets. There is a special place in Heaven reserved for people like me. Also, I send out mass emails.

Shita Mekubetzet- That's right, I went on NCSY Kollel. I remember things from 11th Grade shiur; does that intimidate you? I have a large assortment of blue and white patterned shirts and they all match phenomenally well with my black srugi WITH srugi stripe, thank you. My long term goals include several photo appearances in YU paraphenalia and getting psyched before applying for the Torah scholarship.

Moreh Nevuchim (in English)- I am going to have to know these things when I attend the Ivy League university of my choice. Now, it's been said that I keep secular books at my Makom. Like Moreh Nevuchim, they were purchased on a date at Barnes and Noble.

Full-set Orot- It was either purchasing these books, or enlisting in Tzahal. I figured this was the more tzioni choice. See, most sforim are black, or navy- can you say HAREDI! But not my full-set of Orot; she's as white as my Shabbat srugi. If only Rav Kook wrote in English.

Dozen-volumed Shas- Because I bought it, it's like I learned it. Everytime I look at this baby, I am overwhelmed by the sweetest of Shanah Aleph feelings: fake accomplishment. Afterall, if I hadn't accomplished so much, would I buy a Shas? I chose the one that's broken into so many volumes because they will be easier to carry when I start learning while waiting for the morning bus to the Mir. Oh, the maarei makomot calls for a Gemara in Krisus . . . this is gonna be sweet!


Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Expecting more from Others

I am embarrassed that I have to write this:

How should bright, morally aware, modern* Orthodox Jews respond to the unjust suffering of non-Jews? On the plane of ethics and values, how do we relate to their tragedy? For example, let's say that a mass genocide was taking place against innocent, unarmed civilians who want nothing more than to seek peace and be left alone- heck, lets say that it was happening next door and that if you wanted you could at least partially stop it . . . what should your neshama say?

(I was very particular in employing the terms "bright," "morally-aware," and "modern Orthodox Jews-" I want very badly to include the kind of talmid that HaKotel caters to. However, if you are not bright, or not morally aware, or not a modern Orthodox Jew, please don't read this. It won't speak to you.)

Today, a boy at HaKotel's lunch table said, and I quote, "who cares?" in response to the current situation in Darfur. After realizing that slapping him- like a concerned mother potching her spoiled toddler- probably would not help, I resorted to an angry rampage followed by quiet resentment. Funny how that didn't work so well either.

This is the point: Jewish apathy for other people's suffering makes me want to puke tears.

I wonder how it came to be that words like "who cares?" follow after news of unjust death, torture, and rape. Is there such logic implicit in anything whatsoever Jewish? Did Avraham say "whatever" when he heard about Sodom? Maybe G-d commanded
שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם:
as a joke- get it "dam" and "adam" sound alike! What the gehinom, go ahead and kill!

In truth, the real problem is not the individual's twisted value system- who am I to complain if somebody's laziness, teivas, or lack of education leads them astray. Rather, the issue is falsifying Judaism's holy value system and forging it into an egel hazahav of mediocrity and amorality, or as I like to call it: "they're just goyim." G-d forbid that I should rape, but I won't protest the Muslim governments that pay militias to do it! In fact- I refuse to.

Where come this filthy thing? I have my guess. We've bastardized the concept of "the poor of this city come first,"** or in the language of the people: "so many Jews also need our help." The notion of focusing on ourselves first does not come to completely exclude others. Giving five hours of your time to Jews does not make five minutes of "goy love" assur. Similarly, but far more disturbing in nature, a practical focus on Jews does not mean a religious ideology of ignoring others. A preference for helping Jews is an added responsibility, not a philosophy of "G-d also does not care." Every kid who said that we have to give to Jews first (and I remember who you are) should have been saying: "I sympathize to the utmost with the cause you represent. When I hear of the tragedies taking place in our world I shudder, or at least wish that I stood on the level that I could. However, I think that a more effective way of combating Evil in this world is helping the Jewish people. In fact, the thirty shekel that you request have already been earmarked for Jews in need. If I had a free seven bucks that I would otherwise spend on a lafah I didn't really need or a cab ride I didn't really want- well, then of course I would give it to you. I am so so so very sorry I don't have any extra money on me. I wish that I could help you."

Anything less than this is sick. Next time you dwell on the fact that America did not stop the Holocaust in its tracks, when you feel the hate and the moral indignance surge through your bones, when you scream "WRONG!" at the world that sipped its tea and stood by- ask yourself if you are making the same Evil decision.

*The "m" in lower case is no mistake. Call me crazy, but I think it leads to achdut.
**I don't know enough Torah to discuss this on a Halakhic, legal level. Any help is welcome.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Some Good Brisk Politics

After publishing my first online post, I literally "posted" the paper on HaKotel's message board. A verbal battle ensued, as attackers pinned their ideas onto my original article, and defenders penned their ideas onto the growing stack of paper. One comment raised the point that Judaism does in fact include a political vision, thus defining one's rabbinate as a legitimate- if not sole- political source to follow. The following is my defense against an idea that runs much deeper than Amona . . .

I am not a gadol, I have never received s'micha, nor am I considered a talmid chacham. However, as a highly qualified am ha'aretz I still enjoy vocalizing my opinion. Anybody (I can hear the Shanah Bet's lickin' their lips) with more Torah background ought to have a field day with what I write. Ok, let's see what you've got:

Political decisions do in fact have a major Halakhic component. After all, Judaism does advocate a theocratic government, and our American bred obsession for democracy will be one of many sacrifices reduced to ash on the messianic altar.
As pointed out on the message board, yishuv eretz yisrael is likewise not just another mitzvat shmirat n'giah to break when convenient. Without doubt, there is a treasure trove of similar concepts to further prove this point. However, it is not to my person, my place, or my style to offer up more examples. Rather, I am going to skip that bekiut seder for a much more important lesson in iyun; the scope of religious interaction in the political realm must be defined, and an important hiluk is in order.

Every statement of Halakha- responding both to the theoretical case or the practical sheilah- contains two parts: a situation and a decision. Before a psak-decision can be handed down, the situation must be described in accurate and specific terms. It's no great surprise that a misrepresentation of the situation can lead to a faulty psak.
I recall the controversy in Los Angeles but a year ago, when a well-known American posek allowed Listerine mint strips on Yom Kippur; somehow the Rav received a completely inaccurate description of the strips, and only after the fast did all parties realize their mistake.

This, of course, is common sense- yet we blur the lines so quickly when it comes to political sheilot. Obvious: if the disengagement will only increase the terrorist murder of Jews while stunting the growth of emunah and religious commitment, its as assur many pretend it to be; but, if it births an authentic, long-lasting peace that ultimately lends to the flourishing of the Jewish people, it was not only mutar but a hi'uv.

So how can we possibly state our "Halakhic" question? "Assuming my personal political forecast, based largely on the newspapers I read and the social circle I was born into, are in fact accurate depictions of heatedly debated international issues, then is it assur to. . ." Even asking the sheilah assumes the Rav is either a navi or a reliable, well-tested political expert - two roles the rabbinate has yet to master.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable warning label this hiluk sticks on our most proudly held beliefs:
"Caution: your entire 'religious' outlook is based upon a few social assumptions!"
If Western culture really has nothing to lend Judaism outside higher assimilation rates and fading levels of commitment, our Haredi brethen are- oy veh- actually right. If our worship of Zionist symbols distracts us from the real importance of Eretz Yisrael, once again, we've been fooled. Most every religiously backed belief, is in fact, merely a function of world perspective.

But fear not! This does not limit or restrict our ability to form opinions within the Jewish community, adaraba, our ideas have been redeemed from the prison of religious thought. You know those cutie-tutie things R. Elon talks about, like "ahavat hinam" or "ahdut bein achim?" Removing the holy-war tension between the Left and the Settlers mends a tragic socialogical rift . . . even as the political debate continues! Ridding ourselves of the "holier than though" rhetoric makes us recognize the beauty and sincerity in both sides of the Haredi versus Modern Orthodox dispute.

Nothing I said leads to a fatalistic sense of halakhic relativism- "I can't ever establish a completely legitimate world outlook and therefore everything is wrong and right and unclear." All the excitement, energy, and stubborn will that Jews drive into political arguments should be just that- passionate but political, without a hint of religious taint. Go ahead and yell and scream and write and argue and reason your ideas- but don't pretend to spout G-d's holy message. You never know if you're actually portraying Him correctly, and He may not be so thrilled if you've gotten it wrong.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Disengagement from the Rational

I wonder what great Power can create a mind fitted to the complex analysis and intellectual skepticism of Iyun learning, yet equally as capable of rejecting this mode of thought when it comes to Israeli politics. . . like a fashionable trend, the righteous indignation spread throughout the Yeshiva, compelling the socially aware to declare their disgust at Israel's soldiers and spout the propraganda already spinning around, and I quote, "the massacre."

An important clarification: I'm comfortable blaming the IDF for the Jew-on-Jew violence. I think ultimately the violence was their decision. The pictures and the blood send a frightening tingle up my spine- one that I worry will soon return.

What surprised me was the rationale, or more accurately, stupidity, behind the epidemic of opinion. Where came the irrevocable fact that "they were hitting us out of rage and hatred for Jewish settlers?" How can so many intelligent kids compare one day of 200 injuries to six years and six million? How can we equate a government seeking peace for Zion with a nation seeking our permanent destruction?

And how can we get away with it? Thank G-d, R' Elon yelled at the yeshiva for three hours- but despite his efforts, I don't feel comfortable speaking out in HaKotel. Judaism, as practiced today, has a dirty habit of infecting its social, political, and cultural mores with the religious significance that should be reserved for Halakha. R' Elon is special for many reasons, and the heat he takes for distancing himself from the Mercaz HaRav world on this issue only highlights the sad political-theological situation on the other side: where is the multi-faceted perspective, social conscience, and love affair with the Jewish people that Rav Kook represented? Along with G-d and Judaism as a whole, R' Kook's name is being hijacked to justify the current political minhag hamakom.

Sunday's rally at Kikar Zion was civil- but it missed the point. A protest against unnecessary police brutality is a noble show of universal values; woe that it became a color war between Israel's right wing and religious parties: who can pollute the most fliers, raise the largest banner, or boo every mention of Ehud Olmert with the most Haman-style intensity. Clearthinking Jews should not take their cues from 1984's hate hour; we ought to be above the propraganda and comfort in blind numbers that typifies . . . our Arab brethren across the checkpoint. If only it had been a rally against the violence, and not against left-wing politics, if only the demands for a formal police investigation weren't overshadowed by the anti-Kadima rhetoric, if only this had been the unifying, bridge-building, left-right-center dati-chiloni event it so rightly deserved to be . . . we could have witnessed an event not only unique, but effective. Something that would make the Israeli public take notice of our message, instead of see through our immaturity.

True, I feel for the injured bodies carried out of Amona- but I fear for the diseased minds. One can only hope that this great Power fashioned us so, as with the broken arms and bloody gashes, the coming weeks will see these intellectual wounds as they slowly fade away.