Monday, August 23, 2010

Euphemisms, Shema, and Paradigms

Nothing groundbreaking here, just something that’s been rattling around inside my head for a while.

When I was a kid, my mother would say Shema with my brother and me before we went to sleep each night. When my wife puts my daughter to bed, she does the same. Lately, my daughter has been asking me to say Shema with her when I put her to bed (which is most nights).

Shema has a central place in Jewish prayer. It is one of the first tefillos we learn as children, and it is supposed to be the last thing we say before we die. Along with Shemoneh Esrei, it’s what daily davening is built around. It is generally taken to be a statement of Hashem’s monotheistic supremacy. Yet anyone who takes a moment to read it literally can see that it makes little sense as such.

I think most people in the frum world, perhaps even in the religious Jewish world, never read Shema literally. As a kid I was taught that Shema translated as, “Hear Israel, Hashem is Hashem, there is one Hashem.” But this is not what it says. It says, “Hear Israel, Yahweh is your god, Yahweh is one.”

It’s read the first way and not the second way because Yahweh and elohim are thought of as synonyms for “Hashem” when in fact Yahweh is a name and elohim is the equivalent of the English little “g” god. Shema is not monotheistic statement about the singular magnificence of God, but a monolatrous definition of a god named Yahweh. It is telling the nation of Israel that Yahweh is their god, and that Yahweh is only one god despite the widespread practice of worshipping his different aspects under different names.

This is something that would never have occurred to me when reading Shema with a frum worldview. It was only after learning about ancient religions that I realized how strangely Shema is worded – which then led me to the realization that it’s not strangely worded at all if you accept that it means exactly what it says.

You may not have noticed, but the post’s title forms the acronym ESP. Too bad I couldn’t think of a clever way to relate that to the post’s subject.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Big Brother is Watching You…

I first heard about Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel’s new policy a little over a week ago from a friend who has a kid in the school. I wanted to write a post about it, but didn’t get around to it and let the idea go (as I do too often with ideas for posts). Yesterday DovBear posted about it, and I’ve become fixated on the outrageousness of it. I tried today to get supporting documentation from my friend for this post, but he said he’d have to look for the letters I want, and I figured I should write a post before this becomes old news in the blogosphere.

For those who may not have heard, Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel (the Brooklyn branch of the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva system) sent a letter to their students’ parents about a week and a half ago explaining their new internet policy. (Scans of the letter can be seen at DovBear’s post.) As of at least last year, the yeshiva’s policy has been that students are not allowed to access the internet for any reason, or even to look at the computer screen when someone else is online. (citation pending) Their new policy demands, on pains of expulsion, that parents install filtering and tracking software. The letter is careful to point out that the yeshiva doesn’t have access to the logs of your web browsing: these are instead to be sent to a “chaver” of the parent’s choosing. The yeshiva does, however, receive a list of families that have purchased the tracking service, and demands that parents buy and maintain a monthly subscription if they wish their sons to remain in the school.

Given the yeshiva’s already-standing draconian internet ban for its students, this new policy can only be predicated on the premise that parents are hopeless at maintaining good relationships with their children and at monitoring their children’s activities. Only the yeshiva is able to ensure that their students don’t stray, by enforcing a policy that imposes parenting practices on their parent body. This is a gross overstepping of bounds.

A school's job is to educate children, not to raise them. We send our kids to school to learn their ABCs and Aleph Bais, math and chumash, literature and hashkafa. We do not abdicate our responsibilities or rights as parents when we enroll our children. What happens in our homes is none of the school's business.

That said, yeshivas have been intruding into their student’s home lives for years. The schools dictate where our kids can hang out on motzei Shabbos, forbid them to go to theatres or video stores, and forbid us to have TVs in our homes. I remember a story a few years back of a couple of girls who were expelled from a Bais Yaakov because someone reported to the school administration that they had been swimming at a Florida beach during their vacation in non-tznius (that is, typical) bathing suits.

As outrageous as all of the above restrictions are, Tiferes Yisroel’s policy forges into new territory.

This goes beyond dictating what students may do. This is the yeshiva reaching into the homes of their students and setting a system in place to monitor the family’s activities. This is reducing the parents of their students to children who need a watchful paternal eye and a firm hand to guide them. This is only a step or two removed from the yeshiva inspecting student’s homes the same way they inspect the dorms. This is nothing short of an invasion of privacy dressed up as the yeshiva virtuously saving us from ourselves.

The whole thing reeks of Big Brother, from the monitoring of the family’s internet activity to the problem the monitoring is meant to prevent: that students may see porn. And why is porn evil? Because in the yeshivish world, any semi-erotic thought is a thoughtcrime. Perhaps more ominous is the thought that blogs like this one represent exactly the sort of subversive ideas that the Thought Police guarded against in Nineteen Eighty Four.

This is just the latest of the outrageous policies that routinely come from the right wing of Orthodoxy. Normally when I read or hear about what some rov said or some yeshiva did, I may find it distasteful or ridiculous, but I don’t identify with it. It’s something THEY do: the fanatical Chareidim is Israel, the chassidim in Williamsburg or New Square, the ultra-yeshivish in Lakewood. This hits much closer to home. I know people who went to Tiferes Yisroel, I know people who have kids in Tiferes Yisroel, and had things gone a little differently fifteen years ago, I might have gone there myself for high school. The insanity is knocking at my door, and I find myself wishing I had better locks.