Friday, January 13, 2012

So confused

What kind of bizarre alternate-universe have I stumbled into? Dennis Prager wrote an article for the Jewish Journal explaining why he's not an Orthodox Jew and it actually... makes sense? I feel ill...

given that I believe that the Torah is from God and that the Jews are the Chosen People, and because I have values similar to Orthodox Jews, I am often asked why I am not Orthodox. My standing-on-one-leg response consists of three Hebrew words: Yom Tov Sheni. That’s not my only reason, but it’s shorthand for rabbinic law not changing. 
The Torah commands us to observe Passover for seven days — an important number, since seven symbolizes Creation — but the rabbis added a day (Yom Tov Sheni) for Jews living in the Diaspora, because at one time Jews outside of Israel were not certain of the calendar. Though we have been certain for thousands of years, the added day has remained (though there was never a day added to Yom Kippur, which leads one to believe that the calendar was always known). 
...we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change. We are told that we are not on the moral or spiritual level of previous generations (I have no idea on what basis this claim can be made — the generation that was present at Sinai was on a considerably lower level than many Jews today) and that there is no halachic authority that would be able to change halachah (which simply restates the problem).

My God, I actually... agree with Dennis Prager. Someone take my temperature, I must have caught some terrible disease from my students! One of the bad ones, no doubt, like Brain Leprosy.

But surely there's got to be some explanation, some assurance that the world still makes sense? Let's see, here's a recent article he wrote for WND...

Only a fool believes that all those with whom he differs are bad people. Moreover, just about all of us live the reality – often within our own family – of knowing good and loving people with whom we strongly differ on political, religious, social and economic issues. 
That said, I have come to believe that the more committed one is to leftism, the more likely one is to become meaner.

Hey look everyone, Dennis is back!

Thank Gob, Dennis is still a twit and still believes that you can yell about people being mean and making huge generalizations one minute, and then use one or two examples to make sweeping generalizations about people the next... and that this is all logically consistent.

leftism fills many of its adherents with contempt and hatred. It takes a person of great character and self-control to continually imbibe and mouth the mantras of the left – that everyone on the right is sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, racist and bigoted – and not become a meaner human being. If I believed just about everyone with left-wing views was despicable, I would be meaner, too. 
In a previous column, I wrote about Thomas Friedman making one of the classic anti-Semitic libels when he wrote that the reason the Senate and the House gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing ovations was because “that ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” 
How does a Jew write an anti-Semitic libel? Because he’s on the left.

It's nice when the universe makes sense...which, of course, means Dennis doesn't.

A Conclusion/Hypothesis: Could it be that Dennis adjusts his op/ed persona to match the forum he's being printed in? So Dennis is slightly more reasonable, for instance, when writing about Jewish pluralism to a Jewish audience, but when writing for political readers, feels free (or required) to let his stupid all hang out? So many questions...

4 comments:

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

The Yom Tov Sheni argument is an old, decrepit one. Even the Gemara deals with it since the fixed calender was already in use by then. They themselves ask the question why can't we go back to one day?
You know what the bottom line is? It's tradition. You want a one day Yom Tov? Move to Israel. I don't think it's anything deeper than that.

Anonymous said...

If he lived in Israel, he wouldn't have to worry about Yom Tov Sheni, so he would then admit to being Orthodox? And, btw, believing that the Jews are the "Chosen People" is not among any of the criteria that I know of for Orthodoxy. Besides, there are two things here: Prager says he believes in Torah sh'baal peh, but can't handle d'rabbanan. This is a classic Reform position. [And was the basis of the Karaite approach, too]. This raises problems of its own, as the Torah is simply too vague in places to be a daily living guide without commentary.

the rabbis added a day (Yom Tov Sheni) for Jews living in the Diaspora, because at one time Jews outside of Israel were not certain of the calendar. Though we have been certain for thousands of years, the added day has remained (though there was never a day added to Yom Kippur, which leads one to believe that the calendar was always known)."

~~~If one knows the original method by which the calendar was regulated--that two witnesses had to report the sighting of the new moon to the Sanhedrin, it is no wonder that calendar regulation was difficult. Not to mention the 7 times in 19 years that there is an intercalcated month. At the very beginning of Sholem Asch's "Kiddush HaShem", a Jewish innkeeper in a remote location literally has problems knowing what day of the week it is, let alone when holidays arrive. As for Yom Kippur, I rather doubt that many Jews could handle an absolute fast for 48 hours. Since Yom Kippur falls 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the calculation of RH is essential, but RK is therefore not in dispute.

we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change.

~~~Except that it does. All the time. Even today Responsa are being written in all sorts of areas, as new situations present themselves. For instance, there is no mention in the Torah of reproductive medicine, but there are many new decisions in this field, especially in the situation of surrogacy. For example, if Jewishness is decided by the status of the mother, is an egg donor who is not Jewish, or the woman who undergoes IVF and actually bears the child, the deciding factor? If a surrogate mother is not Jewish but both the sperm and egg donor are Jewish [i.e. the embryo has two Jewish parents], is the person with the uterus more or less important than the DNA of the embryo?

-Antigonos

Anonymous said...

We are told that we are not on the moral or spiritual level of previous generations (I have no idea on what basis this claim can be made - the generation that was present at Sinai was on a considerably lower level than many Jews today) and that there is no halachic authority that would be able to change halachah (which simply restates the problem).

~~~This is pure ignorance. It has nothing to do with the generation of Sinai, who did not compose the Mishnah, the Gemara, or any of the multitude of commentaries since the redaction of the Talmud onward. The Orthodox Jew of today follows halacha because he believes this is the way God wants him to live his life, and by so doing, he not only honors God but converts his very life into a ceaseless form of worship, NOT because it is morally better. As Herman Wouk wrote in "This is My God", it doesn't surprise him that what God wants of him actually results in his being able to achieve a higher spiritual, moral, and ethical plane and even to be healthier, but that is not, a priori, why God instructs him to perform mitzvot. And I wonder if Prager has ever heard of either Rabbi Soleveichik or Moshe Feinstein, who both wrote extensively and paskened all their adult lives, when he says there aren't any Gedolei Torah in this generation who haven't got the guts to make changes [however, to be fair, there are many rabbis who do not feel themselves qualified, or are too humble, especially among the ultra-Orthodox].

I have to say that the more I read what American Jews think is Judaism, the more unhappy I become, because so few American Jews really have the background to make informed decisions. The level of ignorance outside the Orthodox community is quite staggering. Personally, I don't classify Jews by level of observance, although I do think that Orthodoxy is the "gold standard" against which all the other streams of Judaism must be measured. Prager is a Jew because he was [I hope] born to a woman who is Jewish according to halacha. He can be an observant Jew, or not, as he pleases.

-Antigonos

Friar Yid said...

Hi Garnel & Antigonos,

I don't want to give the impression that I think there's no value in tradition or the rabbinic commentaries. I think the harder question is what is the (or a) appropriate relationship that rabbinic/Talmudic tradition/precedent should take in one's life and personal practice.

Personally, I think that part of original purpose of the Oral Law was, as Antigonos said, to help the Torah be a sustainable living document (and to make it applicable to daily life in a practical way), and one of the challenging results of it being codified, systematized and studied the way it has is that it has become its own form of dogma. I think there is an intellectual challenge for modern Jews to take Torah d'rabbanan seriously when the supposed rationale for some of the rabbis' decisions no longer seems relevant, or in some cases appears to actually be based on incorrect information. My knowledge base is obviously limited, but my impression is that it is a challenge within halacha to just outright change things or declare that a previous way of doing something no longer applies, even if you have a good reason. There just don't seem to be as many mechanisms for modifying or updating old rulings as there are for imposing new restrictions. (I freely admit I may be mistaken here.)

While there is plenty of continuing innovation within the Orthodox world, most of it continues to operate within (to an outsider's POV) an extremely closed system, rather than asking radical but honest questions as to whether parts of the system may no longer be valid. To use a silly example, rather than rabbis re-examining the (rather controversial, from a physics standpoint) question of whether electricity is actually fire, someone invented the kosher lamp.

There have certainly been important modern gedolim, but everything I've read about the frum community says that the bias is consistently against innovating too much, and that social precedent plays a huge role in determining what boundaries can or can't be crossed. It may be that this is more common among the Haredi community, but it seems to be having a sizable effect on the MO/dati leumi communities as well.

Personally, I think there's a real danger in elevating the opinions and perspectives of necessarily fallible human beings to the level of "Torah from Sinai." To me it runs the risk of creating an intellectual ossification, where the focus shifts from personal wrestling with the Torah to being overly-focused on following rabbinic halacha. I'm not saying that either halacha or the rabbinic system are bad or should be abolished, but I view them as a separate, if related, component of Judaism along with the Torah, whereas the Orthodox worldview seems to assume they are all foundationally intertwined.

(This particular question is rather academic for me, as I do not believe in the Divine Authorship of the Torah or follow halacha in any serious way, but I relate to the argument for why some Jews choose not to be Orthodox.)

I have to say that the more I read what American Jews think is Judaism, the more unhappy I become, because so few American Jews really have the background to make informed decisions.

It's worse than you think; this is coming from a guy who makes a living as a perceived "Jewish traditionalist" and attended MO day schools from grades K-12.

I agree that lack of Jewish literacy is a huge problem for the non-Orthodox movements. However I think that at the bottom of Prager's very facile argument, there is a kernel of truth about the Orthodox position towards modernity. The perception is that all frum people these days subscribe, to various degrees, to the Chatam Sofer's, "Anything new is forbidden" mantra, and that many parts of Orthodox belief and practice are unchallengable because we are not as smart, holy, etc as previous generations. That's a hard weight to take on.