Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Magic Silver Blade

We've seen all kinds of strange segulos being marketed, from silver rings of power to witchcraft charms of ruta sprigs and pouring lead to eating pulverized pig's testicles. The latest high-profile offering, taking up a full-page advertisement in Mishpacha magazine, is a silver knife. "Immersed in purity with the seal of Kabbalah," this wondrous blade has allegedly been proven to bring "success and prosperity" to "thousands of people." While until know this silver blade has been "secretly passed among mekubalim," it is now being released for the good of the general public - in exchange for a suitable donation to a charity that helps the poor.

Personally, I'm not sure why this "secret tradition" has only been released now - why did they wait so long to solve the problem of poverty? Furthermore, if they want to help the poor, isn't it more effective to give them silver segulah knives?

At least the profits from this are going to a worthy charity rather than to someone's pocket or to perpetuating the kollel disaster. But we have yet another manipulative shtick that promises salvation in exchange for an expensive placebo. Marty Bluke at The Jewish Worker, who brought this to my attention, laments that Mishpachah is too frum to print a picture of a woman but is willing to print this nonsense.

Yet while I detest much of what is printed in Mishpachah, overall I do rate it as a positive influence. And they do have to somewhat accommodate the likes and dislikes of both their readership and the powerbrokers in charedi society, or else they would not be able to be effective. Thus, I do not think that this advertisement is necessarily cause to criticize Mishpachah.

Instead, I think that this advertisement, especially in light of the recent brouhaha over women's pictures, is revealing of a disturbing weakness in charedi society. Printing pictures of women is considered to be so dangerous in its risks of leading people astray that there is a blanket ban on it. But printing all kinds of advertisements that seek to take people's money by offering false promises of financial or marital salvation is not considered to be dangerous and may not be questioned.

We are approaching Rosh HaShanah. We will declare that good deeds are what we should be striving to put under our belt - not silver swords.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Putting Women In The Picture

Given the continuously unfolding debate about the absence of pictures of women from Orthodox publications, I would like to present some challenges to certain people on both the right and the left.

With his customary zeal for right-wing causes, Rabbi Avraham Gordimer defends this practice as follows: The religious prohibition regarding men arousing themselves by staring at women equally applies to staring at pictures of women. Hence, religious publications legitimately avoid printing pictures of women so as to avoid ensnaring men in this prohibition.

To them I ask as follows: If this argument is legitimate, then why would it not equally apply the other way too - that women should not go out of the house, so as not ensnare men in this prohibition?

At the other end of the spectrum, some are apparently claiming that there are no differences between men and women when it comes to their desires towards the opposite sex.

To them, I would like to point out the fascinating statistics revealed by the hacking of the Ashley Madison adultery website. It turns out that the active female users numbered just fifteen hundred, whereas the active male users of the website numbered over twenty million!

Judaism recognizes that the problem of wandering eyes and thoughts apply more to men than to women. On the other hand, it does not maintain that as a result, women should be banished from sight. They are to do their share by maintaining a certain degree of modesty, and the rest of the onus is upon men to suppress their thoughts, not to suppress women.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Wrestling With Burqa Babes

A while ago, Mishpacha magazine ran a lead story wrestled with the topic of the women commonly known as "burqa ladies" or "burqa babes" - the increasing number of Orthodox Jewish women who wear burqas (and sometimes even gloves). The article presents interviews with several such women. It's fascinating to read about how these people think.

But the article is also fascinating for another reason. Usually, the charedi media reflects a very clear set of values. Torah = good. Evolution = bad. UTJ = good. Bayit Yehudi/ Yesh Atid = bad. Gadol = effectively infallible. And so on. But it's very hard to tell whether this article is siding with the Burqa ladies or with their critics - or perhaps with neither, which would be remarkable. The vast majority of the article is sympathetic to their approach, and so are all the pull quotes (the sentences that are printed in huge letters alongside the article). On the other hand, the very last column of the article is critical of them, stating that they are effectively drawing attention to themselves, and being ostentatious in their religious approach. I find it amazing that a charedi publication is so ambiguous about such an issue.

In an old post, Photoshopping Females and Knee-Jerk Reactions, I grappled with the question of how one can condemn "extreme" modesty measures while simultaneously maintaining a standard of modesty that would itself appear bizarre to most people in the countries where we live. I'm still very unsure about it, but I suggested that the problem is as follows: There are lots of things that can potentially lead to hirhurim - and yet Chazal did not prohibit them. This can lead to difficult judgments on a subjective case-by-case basis - but Chazal held that those judgments should indeed be made on such a basis, rather than simply broadly prohibiting everything. Now, individuals, and even communities, can legitimately have pious practices which are not halachah-based. But the problem is not that such people are maintaining a certain standard. It is that they are not maintaining a certain standard! They have abandoned the standard of their parents, and they have replaced it with a process, and a problematic one at that. It is a process of ever-increasing stricture, with each new pious innovation starting as a personal preference, and developing into an obligatory halachah and imposed upon others. The article quotes a burqa lady as saying that "desperate times call for desperate measures," and giving the message that the ultimate ideal is for a woman to never leave the house at all.

Also of interest is that the Mishpacha article does not show any pictures of these women, instead showing numerous pictures of a doll draped in a burqa. Somebody sent me a letter that they wrote to Mishpacha regarding this:
Dear Editor,
Thank you for reporting about women who misguidedly wear burka-type garments to cover over their form. They mistakenly believe that they can only be seen by others if they are totally covered. However it is interesting that Mishpocha Magazine goes further and feels that even fully covered they cannot be seen and hence no pictures of them in the article about them.
Sincerely,
Noson Yanofsky
As I wrote in my original blog post, in a society in which it is forbidden to show pictures of women, it is hardly surprising that women start to wear burqas. And if it's forbidden to show pictures of women even if they wear burquas, then the natural end result is that women will eventually see it as an ideal (and then an imposed standard) not to leave the house at all.

I will sign off with two ads for the maternity ward of Laniado hospital that appeared in the same week - one in Makor Rishon, and one in Mishpacha. See if you can spot the differences. (Thanks to reader Avraham Poupko's daughter Roni for noticing it.)

(A re-post from two years ago)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Photoshopping Females and Knee-Jerk Reactions

Here's a post that I wrote four years ago, and which is particularly relevant right now given the current arguments about the refusal of many charedi publications to include pictures of women. I would like those defending that practice to explain why they believe that the "burqa babe" phenomenon is wrong, or what would be wrong with people saying that women should not leave the house at all - after all, it is the natural extension of their arguments.

Scores of major media outlets have gleefully picked up on the story of the Yiddish newspaper which photoshopped Hilary Clinton out of the iconic White House picture. I found out about what the newspaper had done very early on, but I refrained from writing about it for three reasons (even though I was particularly incensed by their duplicity in describing how Orthodox Jews pray for the welfare of the state in which they live).

One is that it's all too easy to poke fun at crazy stuff that goes on in the charedi world. I could post new material on this topic every day! In fact, in the past, I discovered examples of photoshopping that seem to have gone unnoticed. In Avraham Fried's greatest album, the magnificent Im Eshkochech Yerushalayim, he is accompanied by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The CD includes a fold-out photo of the entire orchestra. But when I later saw the video, I was surprised to notice that some of the musicians were of a different gender from those in the picture. And upon examining the CD picture again, I noticed that several of the musicians were clones! Sure, it's silly and funny, but I don't think that it's healthy for either myself or my readers to constantly engage in mocking frum foolishness.

The second reason why I refrained from commenting on it is that it's not as though any of the readers here would ever do such a thing. So what's the point in criticizing it? It's just preaching to the choir.

The third reason why I did not yet write about this topic is that I was genuinely conflicted as to what to think about it. Sure, my knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss it as stupidity. But I am suspicious of knee-jerk reactions! And I always try to be cautious about issuing criticisms against those on my right which could easily be issued against me by those on my left (and vice-versa). That's why, with the ban on my books, I did not at all condemn my opponents in ways that most people did. Restricting freedom of expression? All religious Jews believe in that. Objecting to the views of Rambam? So would most people, if they knew what he actually held. Rejecting modern science? So does most of Orthodoxy, in some areas. Instead, my criticism was very focused: That they claim to have the greatest respect for the Rishonim (and condemn me for lacking it), but ignore or alter what the Rishonim actually say on these topics - which an understandable social policy for their own communities, but not something that they can make into the absolute Torah truth for all Klal Yisrael.

Every Jew in the world thinks that he is normal, that those on his right are crazy frummed-out meshuganas and those on his left are insufficiently Jewish shkotzim. If you want to critique those to the left or right, it has to be something that the others can't legitimately use against you. Most Orthodox Jews refrain from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex, as well as having a certain dress code for women - and this would be likewise be ridiculed by those who do not share that standard. I know many Modern Orthodox Jews who have been offended at how certain Hollywood personalities dressed for Jewish events, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center's honor awards - and no doubt the Hollywood stars would think that they were being ridiculously prudish and primitive. So who are we to laugh at the Chassidim?

These are the reasons why I didn't write about this story. But I've finally sorted out my thoughts on this topic (I think!), and in the wake of many Orthodox writers commenting on this story, I would like to share my thoughts - with an open invitation to be corrected!

It seems to me that the correct approach to this story is a measured one. Many of the accusations being leveled against the Chassidic newspaper (and by extension, to all religious Jewry) are unwarranted - and these should be countered. The approach of the Chassidic newspaper is not evil, nor completely ridiculous. The same sensitivity and understanding that we apply to the Amish, and that we expect secular people to apply to us, should be exercised by us to others. We live in a morally decadent society, and it legitimate for people to want to protect themselves, and understandable if they draw broad lines rather than judging each photo on its own merits.

But such a defense of the Chassidic newspaper should not be voiced without simultaneously explaining why their approach is wrong. One can understand where people are coming from, while simultaneously pointing out that they are mistaken. But it's important to correctly pinpoint why they are mistaken - otherwise, as noted, the same criticism can be used against all Orthodox Jews.

After some reflection, it seems to me that the essence of the problem is as follows. First, note that the Chassidic newspaper talks about "Jewish law" prohibiting such pictures. But these things are not a matter of halachah at all. One need not go far back in history to find examples of not only Litvish but even Chassidic publications showing pictures of women. There's simply no halachah against it. There are lots of things that can potentially lead to hirhurim - and yet Chazal did not prohibit them. This can lead to difficult judgments on a subjective case-by-case basis - but Chazal held that those judgments should indeed be made on a such a basis, rather than simply broadly prohibiting everything.

Now, this alone is insufficient reason to object to it. After all, individuals, and even communities, can legitimately have pious practices which are not halachah-based. But I'm not done yet.

The problem is not that they are maintaining a certain standard. It is that they are not maintaining a certain standard! They have abandoned the standard of their ancestors, and they have replaced it with a process, and a problematic one at that. It is a process of ever-increasing stricture, with each new pious innovation being not a personal preference, but something presented as obligatory halachah and imposed upon others.

In my home town of Ramat Bet Shemesh - originally developed as a mixed community - one sees how this progresses. My wife noticed a man scratching the labels off shampoo bottles in the supermarket, because they showed a woman's head. She complained to the manager, but he was helpless, due to the scare tactics that these people employ. And then there are the so-called "Burqa Babes of Bet Shemesh." They are following the natural progression of this approach and even insisting on gloves.

The Burqa Babes were too much even for the extreme Charedi Rabbonim here. They issued a condemnation of them, citing the passuk of "Do Not Be Overly Righteous," pointing out that it leads to disrespect for parents, and causes others to have an aversion to tzniyus. But the weakness of this condemnation is obvious, since all these are criticisms that can equally be applied to the widespread Charedi modes of dress. One can easily see the Burqa becoming the standard mode of dress within two or three generations.

Of course, I am not so naive or intellectually dishonest as to think that halachah itself in these areas is a timeless, unchanging, objective standard. But it does have a much greater degree of stability. Furthermore, it is something that all Orthodox Jews agree to abide by.

With the declining moral standards of the world in which we live, and the ever-increasing difficulties of isolating oneself from it, I can entirely understand the desire of some Chassidim to place blanket prohibitions on certain practices. I can understand and sympathize with it - but it's wrong, and it's important to know why it's wrong.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Perceptions Of Their Perceptions, Cont.

In yesterday's post, "How Charedim and Non-Charedim Perceive Each Others' Perception Of Them," I observed that some charedim do not imagine that some non-charedim actually believe themselves to be following the better path in serving God. Today I would like to elaborate on that with another anecdote.

A newly-charedi person once asked me who I think is living closer to God's will, a typical dati-leumi person or a typical charedi guy in kollel? He was utterly amazed when I told him, "the former." He couldn't understand how I could think that way!

I tried to explain that in our view, serving in the army, contributing towards the nation/economy, and raising your children to be likewise productive citizens, are really, really important, from Hashem's perspective as well as our own, and that these are fundamental activities that are much more critical than various other minor halachos. (I would further add that from a non-charedi perspective, practices such as only eating food with a certain hechsher can even be seen as actually wrong; cf. the Tzlach's responsa about not dividing the nation by having different kashrus standards.)

One person emailed me to express his resentment over yesterday's post, which he considered "a waste." Ironically, this was a person who has changed from being dati-leumi to being charedi. But that was my whole point. As one of the commentators said:
"It is very important for parents to emphasize that aspects of their non-charedi lifestyle are not compromises, or done because it is easier (even if it is), but that this is what they believe the Torah demands of them. A lot of the pull of the charedi world is the feeling that they do everything according to the Torah, whereas others do not."
If we are going to help and influence others to live their lives in a certain way, it's not just enough to explain how each individual aspect is correct from a Torah perspective. We have to also emphasize that the approach as a whole is the Torah-True Way. That term has been adopted by some as a Registered Trademark - we need to reclaim it.

As one minor example, consider how when listing the three broad classes of Jews in Israel, most people will say "secular, national-religious, charedi" or "charedi, national-religious, secular." This implicitly encourages the idea that charedim are further along the religious spectrum than the national religious. But if you are national-religious, then you should not be believing that this is the case! If you are national-religious, then you should be expressing that as the pinnacle of religious life.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Charedim and Non-Charedim Perceive Each Others' Perception Of Them

How do non-charedim perceive how charedim perceive them? Pretty accurately, I think. Non-charedim perceive that charedim perceive non-charedim as being less religious than them - as having a flawed theological perspective and being less committed to religion. I think that this is an accurate perception of their perception, across the board.

How do charedim perceive how non-charedim perceive them? I've seen some charedim who are under the impression that non-charedim see charedim as being more religious to them and living closer to God's will. That's definitely true of some non-charedim, but it's definitely not true of all non-charedim. Many religious-Zionist and centrist Orthodox Jews perceive charedim as being much further from the ratzon Hashem - as having a flawed theological perspective, and concentrating their religious efforts in the wrong areas at the expense of important duties.

This came to my mind when I recently heard a newly-charedi person lament that his centrist Orthodox parents were not enamored of his new path in life. He couldn't understand it - surely they believed in Judaism, and wasn't he being a better Jew? It did not occur to him that, no, they did not think that raising your children to only learn in yeshivah, to avoid army service and to be incapable and unwilling to support their families, makes you into better Jews.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Segulos, Magnets, and the Supernatural

The post about the strangest segulah ever led to much discussion about the history of Judaism's approaches to segulos. I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post a discussion on this from a few years ago, regarding the view of Rashba (a.k.a. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderes, 1235–1310). Rashba discussed this matter in the context of his disagreeing strongly with Rambam's across-the-board dismissal of all magic (and similar phenomena for which there is no rational explanation) as being nonsense and thus prohibited. Rashba points out that the Gemara is full of such things, which (unlike Rambam) he takes authoritatively, and he stresses that these practices are endorsed even though there is no rational explanation for them. Rashba later delivers what he believes to be the coup de grâce:

עוד יש לי מקום עיון בדברי הרב ז"ל שכתב אמרו בפי' כל שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי. רוצה בזה כל מה שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי הוא מותר וזולתו אסור. ע"כ. ואני שואל כמסתפק בדברי הרב ז"ל מהו הדבר שיקראוהו הרב ז"ל שיגזרהו העיון הטבעי. אם מה שיגזרהו עיון חכמי' שחברו ספרים בטבע כאריסטו וגאלינוס וחבריהם שחברו ספרים בטבע הסמים והמסעדים המועילים לפי עיונם וכל מה שלא השיג עיונם הוא בכלל איסור דרכי האמורי. לפי שעיון חכמים אלו שהשתדלו בחכמת הטבע כולל כל מה שאפשר להיות פעל כל בעל טבע בטבעו. ואצל עיון חכמים אלו יפסק מאפשרות העיון הטבעי. זה באמת מה שלא יקבלוהו השכל כי באמת הדברים הפועלים בסגלה אין פעולתם בפלא מהם אלא בטבע מסגל, רצוני לומר בטבע לא ישיגנו עיון החכמים ואפילו החכם שבחכמים לרוב העלם הטבע ההוא מכלל המין האנושי מצד שהוא אדם, כסגלת אבן השואבת שהברזל קופץ עליה ויותר מזה מורגל בירדי הים באניות תוחבין מחט בחתיכת עץ צף על פני המים ומראין לו אבן וישוט על פני המים עד שיפנה אל פני הסדן ושם ינוח - ולא ישיג עיון טבע זה כל חכם שבחכמים אלו של חכמת הטבע. (שו"ת הרשב"א חלק א סימן תיג)

Here, Rashba argues that it is impossible to claim that only phenomena for there is a rational explanation are real and permitted. His reason is that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah. Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Now, I myself, in my monograph on demons, argued that one cannot simply assert that those who believed in demons and suchlike were not rationalists. Things looked different in the medieval period, and some people believed in such things for rational reasons. Nevertheless, there is still an enormous gulf separating the rationalist Rishonim of Spain from the mystical Rishonim and from the non-rationalist Rishonim in Ashkenaz.

Superficially, Rashba's discussion appears not too far removed from that of Ralbag. Ralbag was an extreme rationalist, yet he likewise asserts that magnets can only be explained in terms of being a segulah. However, the term segulah as used by Ralbag (and Rashba) has been borrowed from pharmacology, where it refers to peculiar properties which cannot be explained in terms of its constituent elements (see Y. Tzvi Langermann, "Gersonides on the Magnet and the Heat of the Sun"). In applying it to magnets, Ralbag is claiming that the nature of the magnet cannot be grasped by the science of his day; but he is not explaining it to be a supernatural phenomenon, and he did not see it as reason to accept the validity of magic.

For Rashba, on the other hand, there is no distinction between that which science cannot currently explain, and that which it will never explain. Rashba's point is not that there are "empirically tested phenomena work through the principles of science despite the fact that we do not understand these principles." On the contrary; his view is that there are principles other than laws of science and nature that operate. Unlike Rambam, who realized that magnets are a solely naturalistic phenomenon, Rashba believed that magnets operate in a different realm - that of segulah. According to Rashba, the framework within which segulos work is precisely not the framework of science and nature. He therefore sees magnets as reason to accept belief in magic and all such phenomena. The lack of any conceivable scientific explanation for a phenomenon is no reason whatsoever to doubt its existence.

Now, it is true that even today, we don't really understand what magnetism, or gravity for that matter, actually is. We can measure and describe how it works, but we still don't know what it fundamentally is. Nevertheless, we are fully confident that it is a natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon. Rambam and even Ralbag felt the same way, which is why their inability to comprehend magnetism or other phenomena did not prevent them from dismissing other phenomena as clearly false. The line between science and pseudo-science is not always clear, but there are nevertheless many things that we confidently dismiss as non-existent. Rashba, on the other hand, did not believe that we can ever dismiss phenomena as scientifically impossible and false - and saw magnets as evidence for this.

It's nice, and very tempting, to think that whatever we believe to be the correct approach to Judaism has always been the approach of great Torah scholars. However, that is often not the case.