Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Exercise in Self-Righteousness

There was recently a post here where the commenters, ostensibly members of the yeshivish community, displayed a complete certainty that the right-wing yeshivish way of life was the One True Way and that they were morally superior to anyone who is more “modern” than they are.

The comments on every site that linked to this post expressed the polar opposite reaction – a certainty that the hard-line yeshivish posters were nuts.

Is one group any more justified in their sentiments than the other?

(I’m talking about large groups of people here, and so I’m going to be making gross generalizations.)

The first group (yeshivish people) takes it as a given that their interpretation of the Torah is the only correct one, and anyone who interprets it less strictly than they are is only doing so because they are looking for excuses to do as they please. As such they regard other interpretations as excuses and those who are less stringent than them as weak willed at best and more probably morally degenerate.

The second group takes it as given that those who adhere to (and seemingly go out of their way to find) the strictest possible interpretation of the Torah are ignorant, indoctrinated, self-righteous xenophobes who know nothing of science, philosophy, or history; do what they do blindly because someone with “Rabbi” before his name told them to; and look down on anyone who is different than them.

I think that the second group is the more justified of the two. (Surprise!) Not so much because their characterization of chareidim is unbiased and objective truth (which it probably isn’t) but because this characterization, by and large, was arrived at based on experiences. The first groups’ characterization of those who are less stringent than themselves, on the other hand, is like nearly everything they ascribe to derived from seforim, which in turn derive their conclusions from scripture and maamrie chazal. What is physically real is unimportant: if it says it in a sefer, it must be true.

More than anything, it is this difference in epistemology that separates the two groups. The chareidim are certain they are right because they have it on the authority of scripture, revealed wisdom. Even if it were demonstrated that most modern and secular people are not morally degenerate and have legitimate reasons for their beliefs (or lack thereof), a fundamentalist cannot accept anything that contradicts revealed wisdom, and so cannot change his mind.

The “moderns” and skeptics, who base their opinions on their own and others experiences, are at least in theory open to changing their views. If experiences with right-wingers were to change, if it became common to find most chareidim were well-educated, accepting of those different than themselves, and open to the possibility that they were mistaken about some of their beliefs, then opinions among the second group would change accordingly.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Condemned to the Fiery Pits of Shul

I dislike going to shul. How bad it is varies from time to time, and shorter periods are more bearable than longer ones, but it’s never a pleasant experience.

There are a number of reasons for this. In no particular order: Its boring; I don’t socialize easily and so usually have no one to talk to; often the back-and-forth between the chazzan and the tzibur has the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard; shuls are often stuffy and I find that uncomfortable (when I was a teenager I often got dizzy in shul); I’m not always sure what I’m supposed to be doing; and my childhood experiences in shul were often unpleasant.
This is all without even touching the issue of whether davening serves any purpose.

When I was a kid my father davened in a shteible that was hot with the air conditioners running. At that age, I was about half the height of the adults, which put my head just about even with an adult’s waist. The man who sat in front of me had stomach problems.

Picture it. Shabbos morning. I stood up to daven shemoneh esrei. The men around me are shuckeling away, the tzitzis on their taleisim whipping around their waists. I try to simultaneously look at my siddur and avoid getting hit in the face. Then the man directly in front of me relieves the pressure on his aching stomach, and those nearby are treated to his, ah, perfume.

This happened every. Single. Week.

Is this why I dislike shul? Probably not. But it certainly didn’t help.

My dislike probably has more to do with not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing. I remember coming late to shul with my father for mincha one Shabbos afternoon when I was ten or eleven. My father hung up his coat and went to his seat. It took me a minute to find an empty hook, and then I hung up mine and went to join him. I was surprised to find him looking upset, and after a minute he asked me why I had walked across the shul during kedusha. Didn’t I know better?

I hadn’t even noticed.

That was, and is, a problem. I don’t pick up social cues easily, and no one ever really taught me what I was supposed to do in shul. I was supposed to just pick it up from being there.

Then there’s the sensory overload that is being in shul. People everywhere, constantly moving, constantly mumbling. Even worse is when the chazzan says something and everyone else responds with a roar that is like fingernails being dragged across a blackboard.

I find that the tune used for Rosh HaShanah and yom Kippur annoy me even more than those used other times of year. Between that and the long, long time davening takes, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur were pure agony.

While a lot of factors contribute to my dislike of shul, I think the biggest problem is that it’s incredibly boring. Most people I’ve asked tell me that they go to shul as much for the social as for the religious aspects. As I said, I don’t socialize easily, so what I’m left with is mumbling a lot of nonsense in a language I only half understand directed towards a being Who I seriously doubt is there.

There was an elementary school rebbe I had who described gehenom to us as sitting in class with the clock at one minute to recess and never moving. As a kid (before I learned to read clocks) I was constantly asking my father how much longer was left to shul. He would tell me there was another twenty minutes. After what seemed like an eternity to me, I would ask him again, and he would tell me, “About twenty minutes.” (It must have been annoying for him.) When I was a little older I would watch the clock.

I often wondered if I were dead and in Hell. It was always a bit of a surprise when davening ended and I discovered that I was, in fact, still alive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Would A Yeshiva Do?

This morning on the news there was a story about a kid in Ohio who took his girlfriend to her school’s prom. It seems this violated the Christian school’s policy, which prohibits dances, and the student was suspended and will miss his graduation.

I couldn’t help thinking about what a yeshiva would do in the same situation. It’s a given, of course, that a yeshiva bochur shouldn’t have a girlfriend. But suppose he did, let’s say a girl from a modern school, and he went with her to a school function. Chances are he would be expelled.

The boy from Ohio and his family plan to sue the school. His stepfather says that he agrees that while students are in school they should adhere to the rules, but that the schools do not have the authority to extend those rules outside of school hours.

I remember after graduating high-school going to the video store to rent movies for my brothers. They would have gotten in trouble if they were caught renting movies. Yeshivas also hold they hava the authority (perhaps the duty?) to dictate what students can and can’t do no matter where they are, as long as they are enrolled in the school.

If the family wins the lawsuit, I wonder what it will mean for the yeshiva world. Not that I expect any earth-shattering changes, but it will set an important legal precedent regarding the limits of a school’s authority.
You can see the story here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why is Faith a Virtue?

Once again, I find I am prompted to post in response to something I read over Shabbos. This time it is an article about Holocaust survivors and what we can learn from them. The article was well written and quite moving. As I read it, though, I noticed two implicit assumptions made by the author.

The first was that suffering has a purpose for its own sake. This was expressed in with a quote from a rav who said that he did not say Kaddish for relatives who had died in the Holocaust because they were already sitting next to God and did not need any more merits. I think this idea probably owes a lot to the human need to find purpose. If everything has a purpose, and the victims’ suffering served no obvious purpose in this world, it must have served them in the next world.

The second was the assumption that faith is a virtue, perhaps the greatest virtue, and that the more unreasonable it is to hold onto faith the more virtuous it is to do so. The conclusion of the article was a statement that we must learn from the remaining survivors what it means to have faith, particularly what it means to have faith in nightmarish conditions.

But why is this a virtue? Faith is trust, in this context trust in God. It is often compared to the trust a child has in his parents. Even if the parent forces the child to do something unpleasant, the child still trusts that the parent loves him and knows best. I see this with my own daughter. If I let her she would eat cookies all day. When I tell her she can’t have any more cookies she gets very upset. Sometimes I have to force her to do things that are good for her, like changing her diaper when she wants to play. Yet she seems to quickly forget these indignities.

For most children, this faith in their parents is justified. Their parents really are doing what is best for them. It is often argued that God, like a parent, must sometimes do things to us that are unpleasant but are what is best for us. We are like children compared to God and shouldn’t question His judgment. This works if we assume that a) God is all-knowing and b) God is a loving parent Who wants what is best for us.

What if God is really an abusive parent? Children who are abused often also love their parents. They take the blame for the abuse on themselves, claiming that they deserved to be hit because they were bad. Similarly, when bad things happen to people they often say that it is because of their sins, and God is justified in punishing them.

Several years ago my cousin was killed in a car accident. A rav from the community who came to be menachem avel told my aunt and uncle that she had died because they had not tried hard enough to do the mitzvos properly, that she was a korban for klal yisroel’s aveiros. My uncle found comfort in this. I was horrified. This rav had just told grieving parents that their daughter’s death was their fault!

It seems that God fits the abusive parent profile better than that loving parent. Yet holding onto faith in Him, especially in horrific conditions, is considered a virtue.

I think part of the answer is evolutionary. In general, we consider virtues those things that have helped our species survive and develop complex civilization. Not killing those close to you is a virtue. Helping those in your family and community is a virtue. These things help your family’s genes survive and help to build a community. Trusting your parents also helps you to survive, and similarly becomes a virtue. Trusting those who are close to you, your family and close friends, is usually considered a virtue. This trust is extended to the Parent in the sky, God.

Part of the answer also relates to the first assumption in the article, that all suffering ultimately has a purpose. This strengthens faith under adverse conditions. For one to lose faith while suffering means that one’s suffering has no purpose. So suffering can actually increase faith.

So faith becomes a virtue through evolutionary programming and is strengthened because it gives people’s suffering purpose. Faith is a virtue because it allows people to endure hardship and helps to build society. The greater the evidence to the contrary, the stronger faith can become and the more virtuous it is.

[The question of why faith is a virtue really needs a much longer discussion, but this was inspired by a particular article and mostly addresses the points brought up by that article.]

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eating is Sexy

As you may have heard, one of the three boys caught smuggling drugs into Japan was sentenced this past Thursday. The following letter from one of the boys’ mother, written before the sentencing, appeared in my local Jewish newspaper this past week. The letter begins by thanking everyone who has been donating money, davening, and doing other mitzvos on the boys’ behalf. Then comes the interesting part of the letter. (I’ve tried to reproduce it here with the original spelling, grammar, and punctuation.)

…our children need a tremendous yeshua in every aspect, so that they can be set free. Out of sheer desperation Harav Hatzadik Rabbi Yakov Meir Shechter was approached and questioned as to what more can be done for the three bochurim. The tzadik’s answer was precise: An ‘hisorrerus’ [awakening] in Tznius will surely be a big z’chus for the yeshua!

Dear sisters I approach you with a trembling body and shattered heart. Heed the cried of young innocent children who are yearning to taste freedom again. The commitment of righteous women, to improve in any area of Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined. Your contribution in the form of a personal undertaking can be the deciding factor in their fate. Who can remain idle at this time?

Yoel Zev ben Mirel Risa Chava, Yakov Yosef ben Raizel and Yosef ben Ita Rivka, are counting on YOU. Please do not let them down. Since we started this Tznius campaign we have seen incredible siyata dishmaya in easing the plight of the prisoners somewhat. Let the merit of your kabalah give rise to the ultimate release of our children, and may the collective zechus of Tznius improvement, result in the geulah shleima for all of Klal Yisroel, amen.

  • Sheitel is refined [within parameters of halacha] and does not attract attention.

  • Refrain from wearing excessive make-up and perfume in any public areas

  • Refrain from wearing attractive or excessive jewelry in any public areas.

  • Refrain from brisk-walking as a form of exercise.

  • Refrain from eating/drinking in public areas, especially where men are present.

  • Skirt is at least four inches past the knee.

  • Neckline properly adjusted in all clothing.

  • Turban/tichel covering all hair at all times during the day.

  • Secular newspapers and all fashion magazines kept out of the house.

  • When in public [street, stores, buses, waiting rooms,] Cell phones vibrate silently and phone conversations are kept short and quiet [out of earshot of bystanders]

  • Shoes/heels/ fitted with a rubber sole.

  • Exercising discreet and low-key behavior in a shared sitting area. [apartment building lobby, doctor’s office, chasuna hall, shul mechitzah, bus stops, standing in line at checkout counters, etc.]

  • Learning Hilchos Tznius daily.

  • Refrain from brisk-walking in a public area.

Your undertaking will provide us with the strength and stamina we so desperately need at this time. We cannot adequately express our appreciation to all who are accepting upon themselves to enhance their current Tznius standards so that our children can have hope to see the light of freedom again.

Before I comment on the letter I want to say that I do not mean to belittle this woman’s pain over her son’s situation. I can’t imagine what I would do if something similar happened to my child. What I am doing is questioning the details of this letter.

Let’s start with Rabbi Shechter’s statement. Hopefully this is an excerpt from a longer conversation, but as quoted it is strange. What is the connection between tznius and the guys in Japan? Unless this is a way to rack up brownie points with God and thereby get Him to intervene. If that’s what this is, though, why tznius? Wouldn’t any mitzvah do?

In the next paragraph his statement that tznius would help is somehow taken to mean that “Tznius carries more weight than all efforts combined.” This is followed by an appeal to women to get personally involved by accepting chumras in tznius. What a great way for people who feel for this poor mother to feel like they’re doing something useful to help. The feeling is bolstered by the assertion that “Since we started this Tznius campaign we have seen incredible siyata dishmaya in easing the plight of the prisoners somewhat.” This of course is confusing confluence and causality. Things improving a bit for the boys at the same time that the tznius campaign got going doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

Then comes the incredible list of tznius rules participants are to take upon themselves. I don’t know where the list came from, if it was compiled by a rov, gleaned from seforim on tznius, or made up by the author of the letter. But it seems the thrust of these rules is to minimize women being noticed. The ideal, it seems, is for women to be invisible. I think that’s disgusting.