Category Archives: Minhagim

The Costume

    Consider the absurdity of the following statement: “I know an Orthodox Jew who works on Shabbat, eats pork regularly, never wears tefillin or prays or learns Torah, is unfaithful to his/her spouse, walks bare-headed in public, or eats on Yom Kippur.” One would rightfully ask, what is it that makes that person an Orthodox Jew?

Yet, we occasionally read these days of “Orthodox” Jews who molest, steal, rob, murder, assault, spit and curse at women and little children, set fire to businesses they disfavor for one reason or another, eschew self-support, brawl, intimidate and terrorize other Jews, or are otherwise genuinely disagreeable people. So what is it that makes those people “Orthodox,” or, even holier in the public mind, “ultra-Orthodox”?

The costume they wear.

It is a mistake that is made not only by a hostile media but also by the Jewish public, including the religious Jewish public. To our detriment, we define people by their costumes – e.g., long black coats, white shirts, beards and sometimes peyot – and we ourselves create expectations of conduct based on the costume that is being worn, as if the costume necessarily penetrates to the core of the individual and can somehow mold his character and classify his spiritual state – as if the costume really means anything at all.

If the events in Bet Shemesh or elsewhere in Israel rectify that mistake once and for all, some unanticipated good would have emerged from the contentiousness.

This is more than simply stating that any “Orthodox” Jew who sins is by definition not an “Orthodox Jew.” In truth, that statement is flawed and illogical, because all people sin; the truly “Orthodox” Jew might be one of the few who still actually believe in sin – stumbling before the divine mandate – and still seek to eradicate it by perfecting himself and struggling with his nature.

But the Torah Jew is defined by a core set of beliefs, principles and religious practices. One who subscribes to that core set is Orthodox notwithstanding any personal failings he has, failings which according to the Torah he must strive to reduce and diminish. No Jew – Rabbi or layman – is allowed to carve for himself exemptions from any mitzva. That is why deviations like the female rabbi, the dilution of the bans on homosexuality, the purported officiation by an “Orthodox” rabbi at a same-sex wedding, the relentless search for obscure leniencies in order to rationalize improper conduct, and other such anomalies drew such swift and heated reactions from the mainstream Orthodox world. The violent and criminal excesses in Israel have drawn similar rebukes but the thought still lingers: why do we even expect decorous and appropriate conduct from people who are perceived as thugs even within their own community, and who have literally threatened with violence some who would criticize them publicly? Because of the costume they wear.

Many of the brutes of Bet Shemesh have been widely identified as part of the sect known as Toldos Aharon (Reb Arele’s Chasidim).* The thumbnail sketch by which they are known always includes the declaration that they “deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” which in today’s world should be – and largely is – identical to being a member of the Flat Earth Society. They are “devoted to the study of Torah,” reputedly. Really ? What is the nature of their Torah study ? Are they Brisker thinkers, analytical and questioning, or are they more akin to another Chasidic sect, whose rebbe famously discouraged learning Torah b’iyun (in depth) because he claimed such distances the student from Divine service ? (That rebbi preferred a superficial and speedy reading of the words of the Gemara as the ideal form of Talmud Torah. And it shows.)

But what most identifies Toldos Aharon is…their costume. This, from Wikipedia: “In Jerusalem, married men wear white and grey “Zebra” coats during the week and golden bekishes/Caftan (coats) on Shabbos. Toldos Aharon and Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok are the only groups where boys aged 13 and older (bar mitzvah) wear the golden coat and a shtreimel, as married men do; however, married men can be differentiated by their white socks, while the unmarried boys wear black socks. In other Hasidic groups, only married men wear a shtreimel. All boys and men wear a traditional Jerusalemite white yarmulke. Unmarried boys wear a regular black coat with attached belt on weekdays, unlike the married men, who wear the “Zebra” style coat.

Does any of this sartorial splendor have the slightest connection to Torah, to Orthodoxy, to living a complete Jewish life, to true divine service ? Memo to real world: there is no such concept as authentic Jewish dress. The Gemara (Shabbat 113a) states that Rav Yochanan would call his clothing “the things that honor me” (mechabduti) – but the Gemara does not see fit to even describe his clothing in the slightest fashion. Jewish dress is dignified and distinguished, clean and neat.  We are especially obligated to wear special and beautiful clothing throughout Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 262:2-3). But beyond the tzitzit and the kippa for men, and modesty for all, there is no such thing as Jewish dress, the prevalence of contrary popular opinion notwithstanding. We are never told what Moshe, Ezra, Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam wore, and we are informed that one reason the Jews merited redemption from Egyptian because “they did not change their garb” (i.e., they did not adopt Egyptian styles) – but we are never informed what kind of clothing they did wear. Why ? Because it doesn’t matter one whit.

A sect that obsesses so much on clothing that it distinguishes the married and the unmarried by the type of socks they wear, and insists that everyone wear the same two coats, is not practicing a form of Judaism, in that respect, that is either traditional or brings honor and glory to the Creator. It is a practice that is not designed to induce others to gush about what a “wise and understanding people” we are. They are rather fabricating artificial distinctions between Jews – likely in order to foster cohesion within their small group, ward off outsiders, and better exercise mind control over their adherents. It is no wonder that such a group is not responsive to any known Rabbinic authority – not even the Edah HaChareidis – nor is it any surprise that the sect’s deviations from Judaism can be so repugnant to all Jews and all civilized people.  Surely there is more to prepare for in marriage than simply the acquisition of different color socks.

One can search in vain the Torah, the Talmud, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch and the classic works of our modern era for any guidelines similar to what appears above. If these hooligans wore modern garb, we would not hesitate for a moment to denounce them, to agonize over how it is they left the derech, over the failings of their parenting and education, and probably over the high cost of tuition and the toll joblessness is taking on the Jewish family. That the reaction of many to this criminal behavior is less shrill is attributable to but one cause: the costume. For some odd reason, we expect more.

We assume the costume mandates fidelity to halacha and engenders considerate and refined conduct. It doesn’t. It is unrelated. It is irrelevant to spirituality. It says nothing – nothing – about a person’s religiosity. I have dealt several times with conversion candidates who insisted on wearing Chasidic dress – who had beards, peyot, long black coats, white shirts, would never wear a tie, and wouldn’t even hold from the eruv – but they were still non-Jews. In the shuls where they davened while studying for conversion, members wondered why these frum-looking men never accepted kibbudim (honors). They didn’t, for one reason: they were not yet Jews. They just thought they were wearing the costume of Jews.

All the lamenting and hand-wringing is partially warranted, and partially misplaced. Partially warranted because we have for too long tolerated discourteous, larcenous and vicious conduct among people who self-identify because of their “dress” as religious Jews – the consistent rudeness, the unseemly “bargaining” that occurs when a bill is due, and, as one extreme example, the recent arson at Manny’s. (Manny’s is a popular religious book store in Me’ah She’arim that carried a great variety of sefarim –  including mine – that was targeted by similar violent groups for carrying “disapproved books.” The store was set on fire a few months ago, and the owners largely caved to the pressure.) None of that is “Orthodox” behavior in the slightest. And it is partially misplaced because we play the game by their rules when we gauge people’s spiritual potential – or even spiritual level – based of the coat, hat, yarmulke, shoes, socks, shirt, pants or belt that they wear. It not only sounds insane, but it is insane, and it should be stopped. No one is more religious because he wears black or less religious because he wears blue or brown.

We would never consider people who habitually violate Shabbat, Kashrut, etc. as Orthodox. We should never consider people who are routinely brutal and abusive, or have disdain – even hatred – for all other Jews outside their small sect – as Orthodox either. They embrace certain Mitzvot and dismiss others, as well as ignore fundamental Jewish values. Certainly – traditional disclaimer – these goons are but a miniscule, atypical, unrepresentative, extremist, outlier group unrelated to the greater Charedi community that is only now awakening to the dangers within.

Nonetheless, even the greater community would benefit if they too began to de-emphasize the “costume” as at all meaningful or indicative of anything substantive. The Sages state (see Tosafot, Shabbat 49a) that the custom to wear tefilin the entire day lapsed because of the “deceivers.” (One who wore tefillin all day was reputed to be trustworthy, until the thieves learned that trick and used their “tefillin” to swindle others.) Those who reduce Judaism to externals necessarily exaggerate the importance of the costume, and naturally provoke those common misperceptions that cause the Ultra-Distorters to be deemed “Ultra-Orthodox.”

Would we make great progress in the maturation of the Jewish world if a blue suit occasionally appeared in the Charedi or Yeshivish wardrobe ? Perhaps. But we would certainly undo the inferences that attach to certain types of dress that leave many Orthodox Jews wrongly embarrassed and ashamed of the behavior of “people like us.” They are not like us. We must love them as we would any wayward Jew, and rebuke them as we would any wayward Jew. Even wayward Jews wear costumes.

Then we can promulgate the new fashion styles – the new uniform – of the Torah Jew, where beauty, righteousness and piety are determined by what is inside – not what is on the outside – by deeds and Torah commitment and not by appearances.

May we never again hear someone say that “X looks frum.” No one can “look” frum; one can only “be” frum, which itself is not as admirable as being erliche. That lack of sophistication is atrocious, embarrassing, and corrosive to Jewish life and distorts the Torah beyond recognition. We know better than that, and we are better than that. In a free society, anyone can dress exactly like others or unlike others if he so chooses. But it says nothing about their values, only about their identification with one group or another. We should stop trusting people simply because they don black coats, black hats, and wear beards – or, for that matter, kippot serugot. All are costumes. None convey any real truths about the real person.

The true measure of every Jew – and every person – is always within.

RSP- For another perspective on this issue, please read the following at: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/12/29/welcoming-the-charedi-spring/#ixzz1iP31ZbUB

*I have seen one report attributing the violence to Toldos Aharon adherents, and another that Toldos Aharon is uninvolved. If they are indeed uninvolved, then I retract the reference to them and apologize. – RSP

“According to His Will”

     “This is the state of the contemporary Liberal world – the fear of giving offense has been self-inculcated in a group which must, now, consider literally every word and action for potential violation of the New Norms” (David Mamet, in The Secret Knowledge).

     That, as well as anything, explains the recent self-immolation of a colleague on the “Orthodox left” (perhaps, better, “left Orthodoxy”) who demeaned and denounced the daily blessing recited by men thanking G-d for “not having made me a woman” and opined that he has stopped saying it, in breach of a Jewish tradition that is several millennia old. Stealing from the non-Orthodox playbook, he castigated Orthodoxy for its “maltreatment” of women, and our “inherited prejudice that…women possess less innate dignity than men.” He even brazenly declared the blessing a “Desecration of G-d’s Name,” trampling any sense of propriety and humility and demonstrating the ability to leap over the spiritual giants of Jewish life in a single bound – quite a stupendous feat.

    To be sure, the condemnation of his remarks elicited from him a standard (and partial) retraction, apologizing for the stridency of the remarks but not their substance. This is the flip side of a fairly typical liberal criticism, the clichéd “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” when, actually it is the substance, often irrefutable, that bothers them. Here, not only was the tone repugnant, but the sentiments were equally abhorrent – and were not only not withdrawn but educed defenders from the “left Orthodoxy” who are adept at finding the one source that seems to support their views (even if it doesn’t) and are blithely contemptuous of Jewish tradition, history, custom and the wisdom of our Sages. It is impossible to read his remarks without sensing that he perceives the Talmudic sages and their spiritual successors down to our day as, G-d forbid, small, bigoted, and immoral people who are his moral inferiors. One wonders why he can respect anything that they say, being so flawed, and why any of his students or congregants should care to study the opinions of those hopeless misogynists. A rabbi must have enormous self-confidence, to say the least, to set himself up as judge and jury over the guardians and transmitters of the divine word, and he must also be inordinately sensitive to feel pain when none is intended.

     Some of my learned colleagues have written eloquent articles about the provenance of this particular blessing, starting with the Yerushalmi (Brachot, Chapter 9) that explains it as referring to man’s obligation in Mitzvot that are numerically greater than those of a woman, a servant and a heathen. (See, e.g., Rav Dov Fischer at http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/08/08/who-hast-not-made-me-a-liberal-rabbi/). Another distinguished colleague wrote beautifully of an encounter with a woman who said that she loved the female version of the blessing – a woman correspondingly recites a blessing thanking G-d “for creating me according to his will.” She understood it as follows: women were the last entity created during the six days of creation, and therefore represented G-d’s special creation – the only entity created perfectly, “according to His will.” It is the man who recites wistfully that G-d did not make him a woman. Not only is that interpretation clever, creative, respectful of Chazal, and reflective of a joy and contentment with life, it also echoes Rav Hirsch’s commentary that women are spiritually superior to males and naturally closer to G-d than men are. I don’t have to agree – I think men and women are spiritually equal before G-d but just given different roles – to respect her satisfaction with her station in life. That is true love of G-d and love of Torah – the exact opposite of the embittered assault on Torah and Orthodoxy (among other sins – batei din, agunot, the lack of female rabbis, etc.) that emanated from the quarters mentioned above. The task of the Rabbi is to teach Torah to the unlearned, not reinforce their basest stereotypes, and one who chooses an interpretation of Chazal’s words that put them in a bad light, as opposed to teaching the many traditional interpretations that are holy and positive, is defining himself and his biases rather than the Torah. Indeed, it is peculiar that a rabbi who claims to be concerned with women’s spiritual dignity would find that dignity not in a uniquely feminine role but in rank mimicry of man’s role.

     We are living through a period of history in which “sensitivity” has become so acute that every word and deed is scrutinized by self-appointed moralists for even the possibility of offense, and in a world in which we try to co-exist with numerous individuals who are always taking offense about something or other. Some people are just thin-skinned, but today there are many who have no skin at all; they are just a bundle of raw nerves, claiming either victimhood or an unrestricted license to protect potential victims as they see it, and using that status as a club with which to beat the less-enlightened who do not share their views. There is little that, read a certain way, does not give offense, so here’s a brief list of blessings that the fastidious might also consider omitting:

     Blessed is Hashem…Hamelamed Torah l’amo Yisrael (who teaches Torah to His peopleIsrael) – might offend the world by singling out the Jewish people for our special relationship with G-d;

 …hamachzir neshamot lifgarim meitim (who restores souls to dead bodies) – might offend those who r”l die in their sleep;

She’lo asani goy (who did not make me a heathen) – might offend non-Jews;

She’lo asani aved (who did not make a slave) – might offend the working man;

 …pokeach ivrim – (who opens the eyes of the blind) – might offend the blind;

 …matir assurim – (who unties the bound) – might offend the incarcerated;
 … zokef kfufim – (who straightens the bent) – might offend the hunchback;

 …she’asa li kol tzarki – (who provides all our needs, i.e., shoes) – will offend Shoeless Joe Jackson;

… hameichin mitzadei gaver (who prepares the steps of man) – might offend the lame;
 …Ozer yisrael bigvura and oter yisrael b’tifara (who girdsIsrael with might, who adornsIsrael with splendor) – really offends non-Jews who apparently were not so blessed with might or splendor;

hanoten laya’ef koach (who gives strength to the weary) – will offend the exhausted who nonetheless wake up every morning;

Yotzer ha’meorot (who formed the luminaries) – offends evolutionists, and sounds too much like the claims of those right-wing creationists.

Habocher b’amo yisrael b’ahava (who chose His people Israel with love) – offends…well, it is obvious. There are many others. It is not that everyone will be offended by everything; it is rather that someone might be offended by some of them, and the sensitivity police will be on the case, poseurs all.

     And, of course, noten Hatorah (who gave us the Torah) – will offend those who do not believe that G-d actually gave us the Torah but assume it is a man-made ball of wax that can be shaped as they wish in order to conform to the prevailing political correctness of every generation.

   But I suppose that is the whole point of this exercise. My colleague prefers to abstain from this blessing citing the Rabbinic dictum “Shev v’al taaseh, adif” (“it is preferable to sit and not do…”) Of course, that dictum is our general recourse when we confront a conflict of laws – when an action will simultaneously fulfill and violate different commandments; it is does not at all relate to a case in which one chooses not to fulfill  mitzva because he has shamefully construed it as a “sin.” And what really is the source of the alleged sin, to add to Mamet’s quotation at the top ?

     One of my distinguished colleagues recently called attention to the introduction of the Steipler Gaon to his work “Chayei Olam.” The Steipler writes that too many Jews are spiritually perplexed – either a consequence of intellectual confusion or uncontrollable desires whetted by what they see in the world around them – and usually because they have gazed in the works of free-thinkers whose words are impure and transmit impurity, and this nonsense is retained in and shapes their minds. And then he writes (translation mine): “It is appropriate to respond to these confused individuals that do they really think that they are the first people ever to have these questions and doubts ? Does it take some genius to be thus confused ? Rather do you not understand that thousands of the giants of Israel in every generation wrestled with every possible question, doubt and angle – and yet their faith remained perfect and complete, in force, and they all served the will of their Creator with fear and reverence because their souls were pure and in the light of their understanding they saw the truth clearly – what is true and what is false and counterfeit… From the simple faith of all our Rabbis, you will be able to understand that for every question and doubt there are clear answers….”

     Part of humility is deference to those whose wisdom, deeds and moral attainments were greater than ours, and teachers of Torah should attempt to inculcate that deference – rather than affect an air of moral superiority. This most recent effort to impose the fleeting morality of modern times on the eternal values of Chazal does more than disparage generations of Jews – men and women – who properly understood the intellectual depth and moral goodness of our Sages; worse, it ordains every individual to pass ultimate judgment on every aspect of the Torah, filtering every detail through a subjective moral code that will differ from person to person. Such lacks more than just humility; it undermines the unity of the Jewish people, our faith in Torah, and our acceptance of the “yoke of the divine kingship.”

      Many have traveled down that road; few have returned. The substance is as shallow as the articulation was disgraceful. Both should be withdrawn, and the honor of our Sages and their formulation of our daily prayers, and the spiritual dignity of men and women, affirmed.

Dating Self-Help

(This was originally published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, on July 8, 2011.)

A recent piece posted on Matzav.com signed by “A Crying Bas Yisroel” chillingly lamented the plight of a young single woman, with fine personal qualities but without any family money or yichus, who sits forlornly waiting for her phone to ring with calls from shadchanim. Alas, the phone never rings, and for her, the shidduchsystem is an ongoing nightmare.

     Not coincidentally, but perhaps surprising to some, almost all the weddings I attended this past month were those of couples who had “long-term” relationships. They either met in high school or when high school age, or in Israel or their early college years, and almost all of them met on their own. They did not use shadchanim, but met the old-fashioned way: in healthy social settings where young men and women mingle naturally, without the pressure of “potential spouse” hovering over every encounter. That is not the norm in Jewish life these days, but perhaps it should be.
     That is not to say that the shidduch-system is failed, or failing, or broken. Too many people work too hard on setting up unmarrieds that it would be incorrect and insulting to say that it is broken. So it is not broken – but perhaps it should be a b’diavad (post facto) and not a l’chatchila (ab initio) system. L’chatchila, it would seem, Chazal emphasized that we should find our own mates. The Gemara (Kiddushin 2b) cites the pasuk “When a man takes a woman [in marriage]” and explains “darko shel ish l’chazer al ha-isha,” it is the way of men to pursue women [in marriage]. It is not the way of men, or shouldn’t be, to enlist a band of agents, intermediaries, and attorneys to do the work for them. By infantilizing and emasculating our males, we have complicated a process that should be simpler and made a joyous time into one of relentless anguish and hardship for many women.
    This is reminiscent of the life story of a pathetic man we recently encountered in the weekly Torah reading – Ohn ben Pelet. The Gemara  (Sanhedrin 109b) states that “ishto hitzilato”his wife saved him from the clutches of Korach. Ohn was an original co-conspirator who is not mentioned again after the first verse, because his wife explained to him the foolishness of his conduct (Ohn loses if Moshe wins and gains nothing if Korach prevails), prevented him from joining his fellow conspirators, and, as the Midrash adds, held onto his bed to prevent the ground from swallowing Ohn and then dragged him to Moshe to beg forgiveness. Ohn was a sad excuse of a man.
     Mrs. Ohn, in effect, saved her husband not only from Korach but also from himself. The problem with Ohn is that he perceived himself as an object, and not a subject or an actor. Ohn wasn’t a leader – he was a born follower, just an object for others to use, He just allowed himself to be yanked along by anyone – for evil and for good. He was just part of the crowd, the personification of the personality of weakness, dependence and self-abnegation. He took no responsibility for his own destiny.  An object is a tool of others; a subject is the master of his destiny. In the realm of dating and marriage, we are breeding Ohn’s by the thousands by freeing men from their obligation to pursue their potential spouses, and thereby relegating women to the dependent role of passively waiting to be the chosen one. Why do we do that, and is there a better option ?
    Some will argue that the shidduch system spares our children the pain of rejection – but part of life, and a huge part of parenting, is preparing our children for a world in which they will experience rejection at some point. That is called maturity.
     Others will argue, with greater cogency, that we prevent young men and women from sinning. Relationships that begin when couples are younger, or friendships that start outside the framework of parental supervision, can induce or lead to inappropriate behavior. That possibility is undoubtedly true, but can be rectified by applying a novel concept called “self-control,” which in any event is the hallmark of the Torah Jew. We do not tell people to avoid The Home Depot even if one wants to buy a hammer lest he shoplift some nails, nor do we admonish others not to shop in Pathmark because one might be led to sin by the aroma of non-kosher foods. Self-control and discipline are routine components of the life of a Jew. And, even granting that “there is no guardian for promiscuity,” it should still be feasible for a young man to talk to or display his personal charms to a woman without assaulting her.
     Sad to say, there is a promiscuity problem, even among some of our high school youth and certainly in college, that cannot be swept away. It can be resolved if parents take responsibility and sit down with their sons and teach them how to respect women – and sit down with their daughters and teach them how to respect themselves.
    Something is not normal, and against human nature as Chazal perceived it, for men to be so diffident, so timid, so Ohn-like, and sit back comfortably relying on others to procure them dates. Young men who would not allow others to choose for them a lulav and etrog do not hesitate to delegate others to find them a spouse. This also unduly delays their fulfillment of the commandment of Pru u’rvu (procreation). And something is not normal, and frankly, unfair, that young women have to sit by the phone for weeks and months waiting to be contacted by agents. As well-meaning as the system intends, it must be demeaning and deflating – worse than even the rejection that happens after casual encounters.
    What is the solution, or the other option? For those people currently of age and in the system, or for communities that would accept only the shidduch­-system, there is no other solution but to redouble our efforts. They will reap the reward, and also, sadly, the misery of those who choose to be passive in life. Obviously, unmarried men and women should be seated together at weddings to facilitate more natural, pressure-free encounters; it is so obvious, it is surprising that it is even debated.
    But for younger people today – say, older teens – there has to be a better way. The paradigm of “don’t smile/talk/socialize/date” until one is ready for marriage constricts the capacity of our young people to assume responsibility for their own lives. Many will disagree with me, even among my colleagues, but if we wish to minimize the heartbreak of so many of our young people, we must find healthy ways of encouraging interaction between teenagers – in shuls, in schools, in youth groups. We have to de-stigmatize self-help and personal initiative. For example, at a shul Kiddush, it should not be construed as abnormal or off-putting if a young man approaches a young woman who has caught his eye, and asks her name, and “would you like a piece of kugel?” That should be normal; at one point, that was darko shel ish. Indeed, that should be even more normal among people of marriageable age, and would consign the shidduch­-system to its appropriate b’diavad status, for people who have not been able to meet on their own. Perhaps the young woman whose lament was featured above should take similar initiatives as well.
     Dating at too young an age is certainly problematic, but teenagers who learn to socialize in groups demystify the opposite sex and learn appropriate boundaries, communication skills and modes of interaction. Such contact makes males more sensitive, and helps them learn at an early age that a young woman is not a shtender, in the Steipler’s elegant phrase, or a vehicle for their own gratification, in the modern lexicon. It certainly helps prepare a couple for marriage if they know each other longer than three weeks or three months, and the recent spate of broken engagements and early divorces in the Jewish world would tend to confirm that. And conversely, the plethora of recent weddings of couples in our community who know each other for years would corroborate that as well.
      I am mindful of the opinions of the gedolim who proscribe any male-female interaction before one is ready to marry, and those gedolim who permit such contact in controlled settings. As a community we have other options than the false choice of isolationism or promiscuity, and we need to strengthen our young men with the inner confidence to guide their own lives. There are too many people walking around with Y chromosomes who are not men. They have an Ohn-like existence, sitting back comfortably and letting others plot their destiny in life. They will never be masters, only objects who cannot lead or build or create. That does not bode well for Klal Yisrael.
      May Hashem bless with success the work of all shadchanim. But we need to shift the culture away from the passive indifference of the well-connected to the active pursuit of spouses by all, and thereby mold more assertive men and more confident women. That is because more is expected of us – as a nation that is called by G-d for greatness not mediocrity, to be active not passive, to be followers of G-d and leaders of mankind.

Rubber Band

       The Torah is defined as flint, a hard stone that is sturdy and unbreakable. It is therefore ironic that 5770 saw the Torah stretched as a rubber band, with the extremes causing the fraying of the bonds of Torah and Klal Yisrael and with no respite in sight.

       Take the women’s issues, for one. On the left of the rubber band, Orthodoxy was stretched to the breaking point, and likely beyond it, by such non-Orthodox innovations as female clergy and female prayer leaders. The negative reaction from the Torah community was as swift as it was unequivocal (as unequivocal as a free-thinking, stubborn nation can ever get), leading to the freezing of both innovations for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. (Why do I have the sense that there is more coming ?) While the retreat was alternately portrayed as either tactical or substantive, the bottom line was the same: an admission by the innovators that such actions have no place within the framework of the faithful Torah community.

    While the leftists were inappropriately shoving women into the public domain, the Haredi community in Israel was inappropriately shoving women far into the private domain. The right of the rubber band was stretched (broken ?) so that the Torah became unrecognizable. The trends started several years back, but became exacerbated in the recent past. There are Israeli communities these days with restaurants that have no public seating, lest it lead, I suppose, to mixed eating. It is a terrible infringement on normal family life, part of which involves families eating out together or husbands and wives taking time together. The Mehadrin bus lines that have become popular furthered this trend, with separate seating for women in the back (bad symbolism, there).

     The latter entered the public fray again with the recent announcement that the new, long-delayed (and I mean, long-delayed) light rail in Yerushalayim will have Mehadrin cars as well, with separate seating for men and women. This prompted the usual litany of complaints about the encroachment of religious law in the public sector, and about the coercive nature of that community. In truth, I understand the economics of both: faced with a choice of the Haredim starting their own transportation system or accommodating their requests, Egged simply catered to their customers and gave them what they wanted – a Mehadrin line. That makes good business sense. So, too, the director of the new light-rail system said that if Haredim boycott the light-rail, it will fail – so, again, a prudent business decision was made, although it would seem more logical to me to have separate female and male cars on the light-rail, rather than force women to the back of one car.

    It is the religious imperative of such a setup that escapes me. Where exactly does the Talmud, the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch mandate such a separation in the public realm ? Rav Moshe Feinstein famously wrote that incidental contact even on crowded public transportation is sexually innocuous. Normal people are unaffected by it, and generations of pious Jews conducted themselves accordingly. One wonders what has changed. Just because something can be done – by sheer numbers of consumers – does not mean it should be done, and certainly not on a religious basis.

     Some argue that the Torah may not mandate such separations, but tzniut (Jewish modesty) always strives for higher standards. Yet, a group of Haredi rabbis recently prohibited the wearing of the burqa (only eye slits are visible), which a group of peculiar Jewish women in the Bet Shemesh area have donned, saying that Jewish law does not require such concealment. But on what grounds can it be prohibited ? The Torah certainly does not prohibit or demand it. As we have seen on the left side of the rubber band, just because something is not explicitly prohibited does not make it permissible, prudent, or sensible. There are customs and values that define the Torah community, and we twist and elongate that rubber band at our peril. Eventually, it snaps, and we become a people that are defined by our eccentricities rather than our wisdom, by behavior that is weird rather than rational, and by our segregation from society rather than by our integration in it and elevation of it.

     It is sociologically fascinating that it was the Edah Hacharedis that put the kibosh on the burqa, apparently sensing intuitively that this was beyond the pale. Certainly, nothing is simple, and the overreaction on the part of the Haredim can easily be seen as a response to the laxity in moral matters and relations between the sexes that characterizes much of Modern Orthodoxy, and of course the general society. In some quarters, tzniut  is openly derided, even as in other quarters it is taken to unprecedented excesses. And it goes without saying (all right, I’ll say it), that everyone fancies himself/herself in the sane, normal, mainstream, broad-middle of the Bell Curve. (My Rebbi used to say, accordingly, that each person feels that someone driving faster than him is a maniac, and someone slower than him is an idiot. Each person thinks he drives at the optimum speed.) But we do see how the extremes, right and left, dim the light of Torah and drive away Jews who unthinkingly perceive the Torah as having no real norms – subject to the whims of every generation and fad – or having no real limits in its demands on us.

    Rav Soloveitchik said it well, in “U’vikashtem Misham” (Ktav, page 54): “This is the tragedy of modern man: that, instead of subordinating himself to God, he tries to subordinate his God to his own everyday needs and the fulfillment of his gross lusts.” Or, said another way, in an exaggerated fear of his gross lusts. The Torah gave us the perfect prescription for all our needs – spiritual, moral, ethical, social, psychological and physical. As the New Year begins, it behooves all of us to reinforce the rubber band, find joy and fulfillment in the Torah we were given and not one we create ourselves, and find true service of Hashem in our subordination to His will.

With blessings for a shana tova, a good, happy and healthy year for all.