Archive for May, 2007

May 11, 2007

What the F is the Point of This?

by Gedalyah Reback

The controversy about religion for many people is its habit of making you do seemingly mundane things and then calling them “holy.”

As if a lit candle had some inherent spiritual component, or our organs glowed every time we ate kosher food, or deteriorated a little every time we cut into a piece of pork.

The reality is that innate in their existence, the laws that tell us to rest on the 7th day, eat kosher food, not cut our sideburns, avoid razoring our beards, and so forth are relevant to the experience of a people apart. The Jewish people, are designated and portrayed by the Torah and our people’s own experience as a unique facet of humanity – no better and no worse than the peoples that live around, with and against us – but at its core a very different feature of human existence.

The Jewish people are the constant variable in a sequence of world events which are never ending, with the Torah even declaring we are an eternal people. The unique laws that we are required to perform play into this reality. Judaism does not require the conversion of non-Jews, in fact even declaring that the Jewish people will forever remain a small people. Not everyone in human existence will know the experience of being a Jew – being a member of the Covenant of Abraham.

The Jewish people are supposed to be here. It would not matter if this people was born out of the struggles of war or natural disaster rather than slavery. It would not matter if this people were born out of Africa, out of South America or out of Asia rather than Egypt, the Sinai Desert and Israel. We are a product of God that was meant to be a mainstay in human history, a guiding light and a feature of humanity’s staying power.

While we are told not to deviate our principles and our laws to right, nor to deviate our principles and our laws to left, we are that feature of stability for humanity. We are to make sure humanity does not deviate to the right, nor does it deviate to the left. As God as provided a constant to us in Halakhah, he has given humanity a constant X factor in the Jewish people. We are beyond just plain rhetoric, meant be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

So, that observance of law helps to mold who we are as a people, unique amongst the nations of the world. Our presence here, in some form, is necessary for the others. Maybe they are supposed to emulate us, or perhaps be influenced by us. But the course of human events would not be the same if it were not for the Jewish people maintaining this set of principles and this order of laws.

It keeps us disciplined, and focused on our lives and existence. I don’t think we should be absorbed by these laws, and isolate our communities to better maintain them. I think we should absorb the laws, and not be afraid to be challenged by the world around us. We did not become a faithful and trustworthy people on secluding ourselves and avoiding the problems the world throws our way. No person, Jewish or not, has ever solved a problem by avoiding confronting it.

These laws are a reality for us. It should be seen as ironic that the people who complain about the seemingly mundane rules are actually focusing on those seemingly MUNDANE rules. It only throws people off, rather than makes them curious. If someone were taking a test and did not understand a certain question, they would skip it and work on the other questions, coming back to it later. Not so many people these days are willing to give the strange questions within Judaism the same value or the same attention.

So while you are learning about how Judaism views heaven and hell, the messiah, the land of Israel and God, do not forget about the “little” things. You never know when the answer to those “big” questions are going to find themselves in the heart of the “little” things. Stopping yourself from turning on the TV on the Sabbath, or making sure a package has a kosher symbol on it are part of a bigger picture, and no puzzle is ever complete without all its pieces.

May 4, 2007

Land of Confusion

by Gedalyah Reback

Building on the idea that Israel needs to control more of its own destiny, the country needs to realize it is going through profound changes at a time of three competing powers attempting to exert their influence upon the whole of the Middle East.

Israel, against the stereotypes of many, is beholden to American influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now rising powers in the region, involving a Saudi backlash to an Iranian insurgence in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq.

Israel has been resigned to a position of proxy in the eyes of Arab states, and confidence in its own military’s ability to execute has lowered for most Israelis. The country is extremely tense and depressed because of its Prime Minister’s ability to disappoint an increasingly disillusioned public. More so than a war being characterized by poor decisions, the onslaught of corruption scandals and the ability of the corrupt to get away with their improprieties is gashing the collective surface of Israeli society’s skin.

But there is a cap on a pressured euphoria. The disillusionment with alternative agendas, thanks to the corruption and inhibitions of Kadima’s leadership and the failed venture of the Gaza Disengagement, have Israelis thinking more conservatively.

The ultra-left Peace Now organization criticized Thursday’s Tel Aviv demonstrations as lacking an alternative solution to the state’s ills, rather than a simple demand for Ehud Olmert to step down. The movement is taking an unusually misplaced stance on the political upheaval, trying to defend Ehud Olmert and his government’s deserving to stay in government.

Peace Now fears the support for withdrawing from the West Bank is waning. The reality is Peace Now is only joining a chorus made up of current government ministers and Kadima parliamentarians who are committing political suicide by attempting to save Ehud Olmert.

When Olmert resigns, the euphoria that will have been uncorked will provide Israelis with an opportunity to install a practical vision for Israel’s future into power. The sad thing is there is no profound party, nor candidate, waiting for the votes to implement this installation.

Israel’s foreign and domestic policies are intertwined. All countries’ are in this region. Control over the environment is essential to counter both Saudi and Iranian influence in the Middle East, and to begin handling the mounting crisis of the Iraqi refugees flooding Israel’s neighbors.

With a solid control over the West Bank, Israel can control a massive reconstruction program that would put the keys back into the Israeli drivers’ hands. Being forced into an arbitrary withdrawal from the West Bank before security can be guaranteed for Israel is an impossible scenario. Israel would be in need to resolve itself to fighting more wars with a new and unstable state on its borders.

Throughout the peace process, Palestinian autonomy has been emphasized over Israeli security. The reality is that Palestinian autonomy is unsustainable without Israeli security, for whose lack of it would force Israel into new armed conflicts with Palestinian militias and rocket squads.

Israel’s strongest asset is its economy, having grown in spite of a major war that threatened a third of the state last summer. Considering this, Israel’s economic clout is essential to maintaining a peace with the Palestinians of the West Bank (and Gaza).

A focused campaign of Israeli-monitored reconstruction would enable Palestinians to jump-start their economy, and at the same time be intertwined with the Israeli investment into its rise. Economic interdependence would create a mutual incentive to avoid war, and provide Israel with the financial and physical security necessary to allow Palestinians more openness.

Additionally, Israel’s planned expansion into other regions of the country should enable it incentives for further environmental and technological research and development. This R&D will invite a new resurgence in scientific study in the country and a more active international element in the slew of studies the research programs at institutions like Ben Gurion University and the Weizmann Institute would conduct.

Israel’s numbers necessitate the creation of stronger financial networks throughout the region to enable itself to gain more in terms of resources, particularly water.

The country essentially needs a leadership that can consider all these factors and provide Israel with the ability to foster as a regional influence. Israel needs to consider its ability to develop better relationships with its Arab neighbors for future years, and in order to create investments and interests for itself in its immediate neighbors, particularly Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank.

It must become a state that enables all its citizens to contribute to the state’s growth, at the same maintaining its integrity as a Jewish state. This can be done without a problem, and it need not exacerbate already prevalent sectarian overtones in Israeli society. Avoiding the trap of restriction is vital to Israel’s ability to break the necessity to capitulate to problematic compromises which may itself hurt Israel’s own ability to grow.

Future Community in the Negev Desert

May 3, 2007

"Why are You Converting?"

by Gedalyah Reback

So as everyone knows, I am converting. The most frequent question is “When will you be finished?”

That is an interesting question but it is not the most important one for me.

“Why are you converting?”

I get the question about once a week. I enjoy trying to answer it, because it reminds me of what those reasons were to begin with. So much has gone into this decision and I would hope a lot of my thought and spirit in the last year. No matter how much I write in a particular journal entry about it, every time someone asks the question I will probably add on to my reasoning. Thus far, every person to raise the question has come to ask it from a different angle, making me make them understand my particular view on their particular concerns.

I am not JUST doing this to look good for the Orthodox. Some people have phrased their questions that way. That is either because they phrased their questions oddly, or their views of the conversion process are not as deep as they should be.

Conversion is not so simple as to smooth out the rough edges. It is the most sensitive issue in Jewish religious politics. Who is actually coming through the door that will contribute to our people – or your people – and who is trying to get in for the sake of marriage or self-absorbed “spiritual” quests?

I have a dedication to this people, and not only to myself. I believe in this religion and would not have put myself through this shaky and seemingly unending process if I believed in anything less. Believing in God the way Jews do is only part of the equation. Accepting the validity of our fundamentals is only an additional note.

It is accepting the laws and standards of this nation that I have to take upon myself to demonstrate this is the real thing. That is why “CONVERSION” in Hebrew is called “גיור,” which relates to the root that means “to RESIDE.” I am not entering into a one-on-one mystical relationship with God as so much as I am taking up RESIDENCE in a NEW COMMUNITY. This is not conversion, this is immigration. Showing your own personal dedication to this people is at the core of this process, and it is deliberately shaped that way to emphasize the responsibilities you will have once you enter this bond.

Our covenant with God is not to be taken lightly or passively as I so unfortunately see everyday as Jews who do not have to undergo conversion devalue this system of laws and values as if it were backwards and regressive – an ironic critique from a society that is struggling to maintain family as a credible institution, prevent teenage pregnancy and utterly failing at keeping overbearing corporations from maintaining a stranglehold and absolute monopoly on shaping American culture.

This is not about me as so much as it is about others. This is not so much about others as it is about God. And it is not so much about God as so much as it is about truth. In the end, none of that matters compared to what is right.

May 3, 2007

Yes, the Source of the Law Matters

by Gedalyah Reback

For anyone reading this note, you are about to get a quick crash course in Jewish law.

There are three main types of laws practices in Judaism – those taken or derived from the Torah, those legislated by the Rabbis over the last 2,000 or so years, or customs which are maintained by families & communities and are so authoritative they become law.

Unfortunately, those who practice all these laws actually have problems remembering from where these laws derive. It is not an error on their part. Being a religious Jew is a lot like going to law school, and it is not easy to remember the direct source for everything.

Understanding how to practice and maintain Judaism is done through understanding the details of every law that Judaism and its legal structure mandate you maintain.

So naturally, for anyone who is entering into Orthodox practice, he or she will have to become quickly learned in the ins and outs of the legal system. Consequently, you are going to have to delve into where we are getting all these laws and their exact sources.

Over the last few years, there has been an effort to delegitimize Rabbinical laws and popular customs, in an effort to make Judaism less restrictive – or, to put it simply, easier. This effort has not been taken kindly by those who maintain all these laws without prejudice to where they come from.

In Judaism, all laws, no matter their source (Torah/God, the Rabbis, or long-maintained custom) have to be kept. Rabbinical laws are actually mandated by the Torah itself, in that it commands we have to listen to our leaders and judges (for the sake of maintaining societal stability).

Asking whether something is ‘of the Torah,’ ‘of the Rabbis,’ or ‘custom’ will not always get you an easy answer. There is now a reactionary portion of Orthodoxy which will see the question as ‘irrelevant’ because in the end, “you have to follow it anyway.”

This is totally wrong, and detrimental for anyone who is trying to understand all the intricacies of Jewish law. It ALWAYS matters what the source of a specific law is (firstly, its status as Biblical, Rabbinical or Customary), and then on top of that more specific details (secondarily, where in the Bible it is written and what context it is in, which Rabbis enacted the law and why did they enact it, or from which people did this custom start?).

Why does it matter? Well to be a devout Jew, you inherently have to be following the actual law as you know it, devoutly. You cannot truly do this unless you make the concerted effort to determine every single relevant detail of a law, and from that you will be able to analyze the accuracy of any aspect of any law.

Now consider you are not sure if a law comes from a divine mandate – from the Torah, or a human mandate – from the Rabbis. It makes a major difference now. This is because there is:

1) more leniency in regards to keeping Rabbinical laws because these laws are fallible. There is, inherently and always, circumstances in which Rabbis would find it acceptable to break a Rabbinical law.

The best example is when one has to choose between breaking a Torah law and breaking a Rabbinical law. If this choice were to come up, which may or may not come up that much, you have to keep the Torah law. Why? – because it is infallible, and a Rabbi’s authority is *almost* ALWAYS superceded by that of God.

2) a degree of fallibility for Rabbinical laws. Laws from God cannot be overturned. Unless God decreed we can break it in certain cases, there is no way to tear up a law straight from the Torah.

(for example, in the case of emergency you can and should break Jewish laws that would otherwise interfere with you attempting to save someone’s life).

Rabbinical laws however are man-made, and are enacted for a reason. Firstly, Rabbinical laws cannot break Torah laws, otherwise they are invalid. If a piece of Congressional legislation violates the cornerstone concepts of the Constitution, it is thrown out – the same with Rabbinical laws to the religion’s cornerstone laws from the Torah.

If the reason for enacting it no longer applies, then that specific law itself can come into question, as to whether or not we still need it. There are more details to consider, but this would be a major detail in these cases.

Plus, a Rabbinical law can be enacted to benefit the community. If the enactment is no longer beneficial, then the law can be brought into question.

So, if the law is Rabbinical, we need to be able to know this innate characteristic about the law’s source in order for us to determine if it has a degree of leniency, if it contains any errors, its continued relevance, necessity and benefits.

Then, there is custom. Customs have to be strongly adhered to in order to become binding. They are not legislated, and they do not have to have reasons for being initiated though many do: for symbolic value, respect, not being sure about something, etc.

When dealing with a custom, it is important to remember customs are carried on through family traditions and the traditions of the community in which a person is living. If someone moves from one community to another, it is – well – customary to take on the traditions of the people making up that particular community.

And just like Rabbinical laws, if they are against Torah law, they are illegal. If a custom is detrimental to a community, there is a strong argument in order for it to be nixed.

So there: it is always important to know where the law is coming from. Understanding whether or not you can do this or that thing, in this or that way, comes directly form your knowledge of which laws are made obligatory by God or by man. If you ever want to argue the validity of a law, you will not be able to argue something from God, but certainly you will be able to scrutinize something from the Rabbis or their interpretation of laws God may have phrased ambiguously in the Torah.

None of this means you will be able to overturn any major Rabbinical enactments, but trying to will get you a better understanding of the laws and principles they are built on then never exerting the effort for yourself. It is not that “it does not matter” where the law comes from because one would have to follow it anyway, it ALWAYS matters.

%d bloggers like this: