Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kiruv Styles: Intellectual Depth or Simplicity

A correspondent on Hirhurim blog claimed (paraphrased):

I think that if Torah Judaism is presented as having depth, profundity and having also survived the best and worst aspects of Jewish history, it can attract anyone. The real problem-the Charedi [and kiruv] world all work from this proposition as a given.

OTOH. many MO evince an inferiority complex by obsessive navel-gazing over the future of MO.

I responded, however: (somewhat expanded)

Actually, the Chareidi world just keeps its internal politics out of the UJA-distributed paper, so the non-O world knows little of it. Internal politics leading to fistfights and thuggery on top of the sexual and financial scandals would be just as damaging to the Chareidi image as MO obsession over its future portrays internal weakness – both indicate systemic problems.

MO depth/profundity is often indistinguishable from academia, hidden from the common man, whether through erudition, language or publication in expensive academic journals and books. Meanwhile the Charedim and other kiruv organizations provide predigested pap (I'm thinking of Aish Hatorah's 48 Ways, or NJOP's "Crash Courses") pretending it's profundity. But the real profundity, if any that isn't just rehashes of medieval ideas, is hidden, just as inaccessible behind the Beis Medrash doors - because in either case, the threshhold of knowledge is very high. Profundity is not just in hearing a simple answer to a complex issue, it's understanding why the issue is complex in the first place.

Face it, extremists are better at marketing than moderates. Having a simple message (not a profound message, but a simple, if extreme, message) is easier to explain than the life of tension between kodesh and chol that was the centerpiece of much of RYBS' writing. And, as one co-congregant in my old shul put it, "I like that the (L) rabbi has a plan, an idea. I may not agree with it, but I like that he has it." As opposed to the lack of focus other than politics in his previous C-nagogue.

Right there - the L are not presenting the profundity of chassidus. To really understand that takes years of study. They're presenting the beauty of the Orthodox lifestyle, and the simplicity of letting your will go, relinquishing much individual responsibility onto the rabbi's (or rebbe's) shoulders.

People join Orthodoxy because of emotional pull. They may need to intellectually justify some of the new ideas to themselves, as I did, but that’s a rationalization of the emotional tug. Yes, there are exceptions, like the fellow I know (through the Internet) who had been in a Christian seminary, then started learning Chumash/Rashi and Rashi’s answers made more sense to him than what he was getting in seminary, so he converted to Judaism. But I wonder if there was an emotional component as well – he was a child of intermarriage, his father was Jewish.

The Charedim are not selling profundity, they're selling simplicity, whether through existential* kiruv or intellectual. Really, so does NCSY, but the Charedim have embraced the kiruv concept much more than the MO.

*existential – through emotional appeals to the pintele Yid.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Single-Issue Blindness

Honest Reporting, often a good criticism site, defending Jews against negative media portrayals, has really gone overboard. They have been congratulating themselves for convincing Comedy Central to remove an online video game based on the show "Drawn Together".

What they don't get is that Drawn Together is, if anything, a giant Jewish inside joke, while being offensive to all kinds of groups (blacks, fat people, white racists, Christian extremists, gays, children's programming, Asians, etc.) at least in part. Here are my comments to them:

Responding to this thread, where they defend themselves from critics:

You guys are just blind. You can't tell the difference between a philo-semitic parody of prejudice, and true prejudice.

Yes, philosemitic - between Captain Hero's being traditionally ritually observant, even if a sexual deviant (and the juxtaposition pokes fun at the sex scandals among the Orthodox); and Wooldoor Sockbat being a victim who kills when he has to, who poses as a nice guy, like everyone's favorite tame Palestinian, Walid Shoebat (note the similarity of names), they are parodying issues generally considered internal to the Jewish community.

To quote from the Drawn Together Wiki:

Though never stated explicitly, it is strongly implied that he and his parents are Jewish, as he calls his mother "Ima" (אִמָא), Hebrew for "mommy" (also used in its plural form, "Imahot" (אִמָהוֹת) in "Little Orphan Hero") and has been seen to observe Sabbath rituals; this is part of a running gag of Jewish in-jokes throughout the series (creators Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein are both Jewish). Since Captain Hero is a parody of Superman, these jokes may also be references to similar hints of Judaism in Superman's background; like Jeser and Silverstein, Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were both Jewish. Captain Hero's homeworld is also called Zebulon which may be a reference to one of the ten lost tribes of the Israelites.

[end quote]


In "The One Wherein There Is a Big Twist, Part II" it is revealed that most of his people, the Sockbats, were murdered in a Holocaust perpetrated by the Sweetcake people (themselves parodies of Strawberry Shortcake), who turned to eating the Sockbats as a remedy for an economic crisis.

[end quote]

The Sockbat thing parodies the ambivalent position of Israel in the world, and the parallel to the Palestinians, given the poor hasbara in Israel these days - the Pal-Arabs have become the new Jew-victims, while the Jews have become the new oppressors, in far too much of popular culture. So too, Wooldor is both a victim and an occasional killer, as well as a Christian who poses as a Jew. He is also said to have been born in 5753, and holds a Bar Mitzvah as a fundraiser. So he's portrayed as Jewish, Holocaust survivor, but with the name derived from the tame Palestinian. Shoebat is a Christian as well, not Muslim Sockbat occasionally commits cowardly terrorist acts: stealing an old man's car then shooting him as he runs away, etc.

So much of it is an inside joke, and you just don't get it, because you can't or won't look past the surface of the skin of the covering of the concept.

Good, pat yourselves on the back for stopping a bunch of JEWS from writing SELF-PARODY. Whoopee.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Maharats

I finally read the thread on Gil's blog starting from R' Kenny Brander's "clarification" of R' Herschel Schachter's lecture at the RCA convention. And I agree with it, for the most part - the issue regarding women's ordination is socio-historical, not halachic. But I have some problems with the shiur as described, and with the thread in general.

First off, many people made the main issue into one of reportage. There had been rumors that RHS had used terminology like "Yehareg v'al yaavor" in his lecture, that this was a situation where one should accept martyrdom in preference to ordaining women. IOW, that women's ordination is comparably serious to idolatry, incest or murder - the Big Three sins for which one must always allow oneself to be killed rather that be forced to violate.

RKB's report did not use such extreme language, although it did use an apparently rare Hebrew term, harisas hadas, the destruction of the religion. Gil had similarly used a rare/late term, "chikui haminim", giving strength the the heretics' cause, in earlier critiques of women's ordination. Harisas hadas, according to a Bar-Ilan search, only appears in the 19th century, and only in the 20th century is it used to describe heterodox inroads on Orthodox society.

Many commentators thus called for a tape or transcript of RHS' original speech be released, so that it could be compared to RKB's precis. I suspect, though, that given the rumors, what privately excited this call was a desire to see how RHS had put his foot into his mouth this time. After all, in a TorahWeb post, he had compared women to "parrots and monkeys". And he has had other choice words for women who wanted to expand their communal contributions within Orthodoxy. So I'm dismissing that call. Let's just deal with RKB's precis.

RKB/RHS apparently dismisses serarah, the Rambam's concern that women not be placed in any position of power, as insignificant (and R' Steg Belsky points out that in an earlier shiur, RHS had noted that serarah was not a real impediment to women's ordination) compared to the change to the fabric of Orthodoxy.

It is not just an issue of a particular halakhic issur; it is the challenge to the fabric of what defines Orthodoxy in contrast to other movements. Therefore it requires a response which is reflective of more than dealing with a particular issur.

And that's the heart of the argument for me. While RHS, who has been moving in more RWMO/Daas Torah circles, chose to frame the argument around a quasi-halachic term, so as to give it some of the trappings of Daas Torah, I feel that this is not the proper mode to convince people who are not already convinced. The Moderns characterize themselves in contrast to the Chareidim by disbelief in Daas Torah, the mystical authority granted to Torah sages to pronounce decrees on non-legal subjects for which they have no direct training.

Rather, since it is a non-halachic argument (and there really are no insurmountable halachic obstacles to women's ordination as yoreh yoreh, while there are a few rishonim/acharonim who actually support it), it should be made in non-pseudo-halachic terms.

We see this issue arising in American Protestant society in the late 19th century. As women move into leadership positions in the churches, men come to regard church as a women's realm, and stop going. Mark C. Carnes (Secret Rituals and Manhood in Victorian America) has noted that men seem to have an innate need for ritual; this male exodus from the churches fueled a rise in highly ritualistic fraternal orders, such as the Masons. For Catholics, this began to happen in the 13th-14th century, as church rituals shifted to a "bride mysticism", portraying the man/church relationship as bride/groom. Men didn't want to be cast in the role of the bride, so they left, while women's orders were on the rise.

My wife has argued that she does not like the idea of women's ordination for a similar reason to her dislike of partnership minyanim and, to a lesser extent, women's tefillah groups - it's a distortion of Judaism, in that it demeans the women's role, and promotes the men's role as the only proper role and goal for women. I'm aware of Simone de Beauvoir's critique, where there are women's roles and people's roles, and when women try to take on people's roles, they are accused of wanting to be men. But to flip that on its head, in traditional Judaism, which is largely predicated on the existence of different classes of people with complementary responsibilities to the community, to promote only the men's role, demeans and dismisses the women's role, which distorts the whole fabric of Judaism.

This shift has already happened in the heterodox movements - as women are admitted to the rabbinate and cantorate, male applications and admissions to the rabbinic and cantorial schools diminished, until in some cases, there are more women than men training for these positions. (See some statistics for JTSA - now majority women) In part this can be attributed to the general shift in perception of "women's work." As various job categories shift from men to "equal opportunity", they become "women's work," and thus not a suitable career for a man. Take bank tellers - they used to be all men, and a fairly high-status job with a lot of responsibility and trust. Then they let women become bank tellers, and today they are almost all women, and the job has become a low-status job. This is already happening in the heterodox movements.

Experience shows that such shifts will happen. Admitting women to the rabbinate will, willy nilly, disrupt the fabric and society of Orthodox Judaism. Whether this is a good or a bad thing can be debated, on halachic or social bases. But if it happens, history will probably repeat itself. And I'm not comfortable with that happening to Mod-O, the type of Judaism to which I have aspired and worked on myself to accept.

My wife thinks that this will continue the trend towards a total realignment of the Jewish movements. Mod-O will split between the Left and the Right; UTJ has fizzled, Conservative is becoming less halachic and more Reform, the right wing of C will join with an "egalitarian" LWMO under R' Avi Weiss or his successors, and the black hats will continue to grow. The Chasidim have become more Misnagdish, after all, who really follows the path of the Baal Shem Tov any more? while the Yeshivish have become more Chasidish, imbuing their leaders with a Chasidic infallibility and intimacy with God. And the melting pot of Judaism will continue to stir, queasily.

On an individual level, I can't say anything. The program exists, if someone believes that this is the right thing for them to do, and it follows from their principles, then more power to them. People should certainly maximize their opportunities and abilities. But I worry about what it will do to us as a community.