Sunday, July 27, 2003

The Sieger Divorce

I've received so many emails asking what I think about the Bobov divorce case, that I guess I should at least say something.

The truth is, I don't know enough about it. Based on the article I'm really tempted to accept Mrs. Sieger's version, but I'm a bit disturbed that most of the article is just based on what she says. I find it very peculiar that no one in her community sides with her. Although Chasidim definitely have a problem with discrimination against women, it is rarely such that even one's own children distance themselves from their own mother to such an extent. There is obviously more than is being made known.

But on the other hand, Rabbanim have been known to be rotten and corrupt, so it's not really such a surprise. For a Heter Meah Rabanim to be issued, and for the husband to actually go and marry before divorcing his wife, shows that something smells really bad on the husband's side. The investigation into the rabbis' bank accounts and financial transactions further substantiates Mrs. Zieger's cliams. It is possible that Mrs. Zieger is using these disturbing facts to gain sympathy with the public while hiding some other crucial aspects of the case.

I just hope the truth comes out. Meanwhile, as wrong as it may be to do so without knowing all the facts, I'm rooting for Mrs. Zieger. I can't help but feel she's been given hell by a bunch of swine.

Journeys of Faith

I found an interesting observation about me in Alexander Mann's Journal (H). In a discussion about Yoshev al Hageder's blog (H) between Yoshev and a journalist named Ido Hartogsohn, Ido pointed out that, unlike my blog, Yoshev's tends to be one sided against Orthodoxy and fails to recognize any good aspects in Charedi society. Yoshev defended his approach with a number of arguments, but one point surprised me: "Apparently, Hasidic Rebel is at the beginning of his journey."

I'm sure that some, especially the fervently Orthodox, would take objection to Ido's characterization of my blog as objective. But what struck me about Yoshev's remark, was that it matched a pattern I've seen in many who were formerly Orthodox and some who still practice it but don't believe in it. Since they've been exposed to new and open-minded ways of thinking, many of them tend to assume that all who think differently have not properly examined the issues and must be at the beginning of their journey toward enlightenment. This, I thought, might be worth commenting on.

There was a time in my life, a number of years back, when I came to the conclusion that those who profess religious belief suffer from a mild form of mental illness. After thinking long and hard about much of what I had been taught, I could not believe that rational, perfectly sane people could accept some of the seemingly absurd teachings found in many or all religions. Having had no training in philosophical studies, I was only vaguely aware that others had already filled libraries of books on the subject. But even without knowing any of the classic or modern philosophical arguments against religion, I had my own questions that were enough to fill a book.

Here and there I would come across some material put out by Orthodox outreach organizations that targeted secular people and tried to convince them to embrace observant Judaism. Much of their material relied on people's predisposition toward belief in G-d and their quest for a meaningful life by whatever path was offered. Others took a more supposedly rational approach, attempting at least to use modern methods and scientific findings along with philosophical discussions to prove the truth of G-d's existence and the Torah as his revealed word. But I never found any of it very convincing. It all seemed forced, and I believed they were being intelectually dishonest in many of their arguments. With time, I found myself practicing Judaism without believing a shred of it.

I was disturbed most by the claim that G-d would obligate humans to serve him in a prescribed manner, without making it clear to all, in a form that would be unquestionable, what those practices are. It is hard enough, I believed, for humans to follow these laws once they knew them. To additionally require that the faculties of reason and logic be discarded in favor of blind acceptance of a doctrine handed down generations, goes against nature. For humans to be required to follow a certain path, it would need to be instinctively understandable like the sins of murder and theft and the virtues of kindness and compassion, or there would have to be some sort of continual revelation through the generations.

I was further disturbed by the inplausibility of G-d desiring rituals that happened to be in vogue in ancient cultures. It seemed too primitively human to require animal sacrifice, grand temples with uniformed priests, separation of menstruating women, and most of all, the requirement to kill each and every man, woman, and child of their rival nations.

Reason then became my religion. Whatever couldn't be proven logically, was invalid. I believed that with reason we could precisely determine right and wrong. Religious faith was outdated and irrelevant in this day and age. Religious differences, distinct cultural identities, and nationalisms were at best primitive ideas, and at worst sources of evil that should be removed.

But it wasn't long before I realized that belief in secularism wasn't exactly as rational as I had thought. People committed to secular ideals, it turned out, unknowingly based much of their value system on premises that had not been proven. The age of reason brought a whole slew of ideas and philosophies that discouraged religious belief. But many of those philosophies were only ideas worked out by men whose followers accepted their teachings with as much faith as one accepts religion. Kant, Nietzchie, Marx, Spinoza, and others thought up brilliant new ways of understanding reality, metaphysics, and morality. But much of it seemed to me as speculative as the philosophies that supported religion. Their ideas were not such that could be proven in labratories. Darwinism, which was heralded as capable of striking a final and decisive blow to religion, has by now been dissected and examined more critically, and many aspects of his theories are the subject of sharp debate. But even when it was still accepted in scientific and academic circles, it was never more than a theory. It never had the force to disprove religion, and at least the way I saw it, it was only more rational than religious belief for those who were biased against religion to begin with.

So ultimately, I realized, I would have to choose a value system based on my intuition. I couldn't prove one to be true. Even modern humanistic values could not be proven to be "right". As far as I could tell, they were only beneficial because society recognized them as such. In other times, society recognized different ideas as worthy. With the spread of Communism many had been convinced that a hierarchical society divided into classes was as evil as slavery. That concept has now been rejected for the most part by most of the world. It is conceivable that in a future time, the mainstream might very well accept that eating the flesh of animals is evil, but it is still accepted now as being well within the bounds of morality. Many who reject established religion, still believe in a supreme being or power that drives the forces of nature. But these people are also accepting an unproven notion, that might very well be strongly influenced by the idea of G-d.

My intuition led me to believe in the existence of G-d, one supreme creator of the universe who cares about each human being and listens to our prayers. I established my personal philosophy that humans have an ability and an imperative to lead spiritual lives through prayer and contemplation of G-d and his creation, and by adhering to the universally recognized good deeds. I believed that distinctions between good and evil and between right and wrong were within each human's conscience if they are truly sought out. And I believed that no ideology's truth can be so wholly absolute as to require its adherents to compel everyone else to join.

Having accepted the above, I found that a number of religions provided a good enough framework for those conclusions, at least in their more modern interpretations. I felt that, at least in their essence, all three major religions had a great deal of spiritual truth, and I accepted the possibility that G-d desires the service of all humans in different forms, and different perspectives of truth were made available to different groups. For me, though, my natural choice remained Judaism, the religion I was born and raised with. Although I still had many disturbing questions about Judaism, no system was able to provide me with a complete, unquestionable ideology.

To return to my fellow blogger Yoshev's comment mentioned above, I am still indeed at the beginning of my journey. This journey will last a lifetime. But I don't think that at any point will I come to see Judaism through the prism of his lens. That stage is one I've already long passed.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Doggerels

Speaking of Herman Wouk, I can't help but quote a delightful gem I came across at the beginning of This Is My God. Many, I'm sure, are familiar with the old doggerel:
How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews
Well, in a little footnote, Wouk lets us know of a great doggerel retort I've never heard:
Though not as odd as those who choose
A Jewish God and spurn the Jews
I couldn't help laughing out loud at that one.

On Herman Wouk

I've just finished reading This Is My God by Herman Wouk, after having first finished his later book The Will to Live On. These two books impressed on me strongly. His understanding of Judaism is one I can strongly identify with, and many of his thoughts I have held previously on my own. To find someone with views so uncannily similar to mine has been amazing. Wouk's love for Judaism and the Jewish people shine through every page. His appreciation and respect for Chasidic teachings and values were especially illuminating.

Wouk is an observant Jew who studies the Talmud regularly, but is just as well versed in secular culture and learning. His understanding of the Torah and Jewish law in a non-fundamentalist way was especially appealing. Like me, he is also a skeptic. But he shows how to accept religious belief in a manner that is rational and non-dogmatic, while still recognizing the value of faith. He is as comfortable with the Rambam and Rabbi Joseph Caro as he is with Kant, Spinoza, and Nietzschie. At the end of it all, though, the wisdom of Chazal and their timeless teachings guide his life. It's the sort of philosophy for which I had long been seeking a formulation.

Wouk's approach is probably nothing new to anyone raised in the modern Orthodox world. But as a Chasid, I have had little opportunity to explore much of that world. I've never before found a succinct outline of Orthodox Judaism that can be synthesized with modernity.

Besides Wouk's philosophy that appealed to me so strongly, I was taken by his writing. It is insanely beautiful. I find myself wistfully looking over the pages, wishing that I too could construct such beautiful, flowing literary creations. Alas, it is way beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve.

Anyone who is interested in Judaism, and needs a novice's guide to what it's about, should waste no time and get both these books. You won't regret it.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

The Music Lover's Guide to (Chasidic) Hitchhikers

Chasidic Yeshiva students, and many others in Chasidic communities, often don't drive or own a car. The reasons vary, but primarily because almost everything they need can be found in the confines of their shtetl-like communities. But what's a Chasid to do if he's got to travel to another Chasidic community? He hitchhikes. Chasidim in almost every community in New York are familiar with certain street corners and highway ramps where a sympathetic Chasidic driver is likely to pass. From Kiryas Joel to Williamsburg; from Williamsburg to Boro Park; from Monsey to all the above; each location has its own hitchhiker stops. So naturally, always striving to be a good Chasid myself, I've always tried to be on the lookout for fellow Chasidim in need of a lift.

All was well and good for a number of my driving years, until, along with my increasingly free-thinking tendencies, I developed a liking for some non-Jewish music, especially oldies. Now non-Jewish music is considered a big no-no among Chasidim, and to a lesser extent even among Orthodox non-Chasidim. My experimentation started with the Beatles, who seemed quite harmless to me. I loved the 60's beat, and Paul McCartney's melodic voice got me swooning. I fell in love with the Beach Boys after listening to a couple of songs I got off the now obsolete Napster, and soon after someone at work introduced me to ABBA songs and I was totally hooked. Elton John I was never crazy for, but Billy Joel makes me go wild. From there I became a regular FM radio listener, something no good Chasid should ever admit to.

But listening to FM radio posed a problem with the hitchhikers. I had to choose between declining a ride to a Chasid in need, or turning off the radio. My morning drive to work required me to pass a usually well attended hitchhike stop and every day I wrestled with the decision. Should I pretend I'm not going to the Chasid's destination? But that would be so unkind. Who knows how long he'll have to wait before the next opportunity comes along. On the other hand, I can't be listening to Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi with a Chasid sitting beside me, let alone female singers, my favorite of which is Lee Ann Womack.

But after I discovered classical music, a world which I would never have known had I not chanced upon a Classical Music for Dummies in my local library, I thought my troubles would be over. Although most Chasidim don't listen to any non-Jewish music, and that includes classical, I figured this couldn't possibly be bothersome in any serious way. What could be disturbing with Beethoven's 1st movement of the 5th symphony, or the 4th movement of the 9th? How could one not be moved by the stirring notes of Bach's Air for the G String? Or not be excited by Bizet's rousing March of the Toreadors? I couldn't fathom how that might be.

So one morning, with my classical music CD already playing, I drove confidently in the direction of the usual hitchhikers location. Smilingly, I stopped for a Chasid with a wide-brimmed hat, long beard, and a Sefer, a book of Jewish learning, under his arm. He got in and I started off. Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was playing gaily, and I was sure it wouldn't cause any problems. I actually thought it sounded vaguely similar to a Chasidic song I've heard often at the Rebbe's tisch. But aparently, real Chasidim aren't fooled so quickly. We hadn't been driving for five seconds when I noticed he had a puzzled look. His inquiry wasn't long in coming.

"Vus iz dus?" he wanted to know. What's this?

Oh no. It's happening, I thought to myself. Here we go, all my hopeful expectations down the drain. "Dus iz classishe musik," I said to him. It's classical music. "It's really wonderful to listen to," I added with a smile.

The Chasid beside me smiled uncomfortably. He looked around, and then in a wonderful stroke of acting genius exclaimed, "I just realized, I forgot something! I'm going to have to get out here and run back. You don't worry. I'll find another ride."

I couldn't help but be charmed at the Chasid's attempt to avoid embarassing me. It was a flash of non-judgmentalism that is a bit rare where I come from. I couldn't help striking a gracious tone. "It's perfectly okay," I said with a knowing smile. "I'll put on something else."

He tried meekly to protest that he really forgot something, but he quickly saw I wasn't buying it. He relented while I looked for some Kosher listening material. I found an old cassette of Modzitz songs with Bentzion Shenker. It's the closest Chasidim will ever get to classical music, I thought to myself amused at the irony.

We rode along, the Chasid looking into his sefer, while I tried in vain not to bother him by humming along with the tape. Suddenly the delightful Modzitz tunes awakened in me a renewed appreciation for the pioneer in Chasidic musical recordings. I was reminded of my Yeshivah days, when I would spend hours listening to the gems of Jewish music that nobody bothered to listen to anymore. Recordings by David Werdyger, the great Yossele Rosenblatt, and of course, Bentzion Shenker. They had all by then been replaced in popular Jewish music circles by the more modern styles of Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, and the boys choirs of Miami and London. But I hadn't forsaken them then, and only later did my tastes swing away to newer sounds and styles. But it was all coming back to me now, and I was grateful to the Chasid beside me.

"A groysen shkoyach, thank you," said the Chasid, getting out of the car at his destination.

"Thank you," I said.

"What for?" he asked puzzled.

I just smiled. A new familiar tune had just started playing and I was already humming along.

I'm sure many of you are wondering, what is wrong with non-Jewish music? But that I'll leave for a later post. If I'm not beaten to it by my readers in the comments, that is.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Storm after the Calm

Well, well, the Village Voice article generated quite a storm among the faithful. They're up in arms for all out war. The hate mail is coming fast and thick, and a new blog called, strangely, Yiddishkeit has been created for the sole purpose of battling fellow blogger Katle Kanye and yours truly. Alas, it is in Yiddish, so inaccessible to most of my readers, but here's a translated excerpt:
Our history has shown that an apostate Jew, one who has willingly discarded his faith, is a greater enemy to his bretheren than non-Jews. One of the primary reasons is the fact that non-Jews always relished watching Jews spat each other. So when a Jew happened to crawl into the church and started telling "school secrets", he found himself immediately surrounded by followers who bought his nonsense for good money. The sweet taste of it compelled the apostate to continue with his fanciful tales, pouring more salt and pepper than food into the pot. The more fantastic his stories, the more his fame grew, which in turn compelled him to continue further.

...In light of this, we can easily understand why the coward Hasidic Rebel went running to the Village Voice begging for an interview, in which he assured them he has many delightful, inside secrets to tell, tales that are similar in a metaphorical sense to those of the apostate Jews, such as the Talmud being full of mockery of Christians. It is also understandable why the Village Voice found it important to publish this nonsense. And most importantly, it is clear to us why the silly child Hasidic Rebel was so moved by how nicely the Village Voice portrayed him.

And for a lesson in Yiddish curse-words take a look here. For those who don't speak Yiddish, I am called there a lowly poisonous snake, an ugly castout, and the poisonous spit of a sick dog, among a number of other choice curses. He goes on to wish "a gruesome death to him and a burning hell on his head, a cholera in all his bones, a black year to him, he should be caught by the devil, he should bury himself alive, his eyes shuold be poked out, he should hang, choke, and suffocate."

The reason I mention these sick responses, is that it is unfortunately a fairly true representation of what passes for dialogue among many Chasidim. Of course, not all Chasidim resort to this sort of vulgarity, but the methods of dealing with dissent and controversy are usually of this sort. Disagreements are handled by using personal attacks and delegitimizations. Issues themselves are rarely addressed. The taken-as-fact assumption that I "begged" the Village Voice for an interview is quite telling of these people's argumentation methods. Not that it matters much, but it is of course patently false. William O'Shea, among a handful of other writers for various publications, requested the interview for the Village Voice. His was the first request and the only one I gave.

I am pretty sure that none of the above writers who criticize so vehemently, bothered to read even a fraction of my posts before commenting. They didn't have to. Jumping to conclusions is perfectly acceptable in their society. If they'd taken the time to read some of the posts on this blog, they'd have realized that I am neither hateful nor agenda-driven. This blog started as a deeply personal endeavor; to express my feelings and frustrations to whoever might care to listen. In fact, readers will recognize that I use plenty of insider jargon--although I sometimes try to explain them, merely as a courtesy--which makes it quite obvious that my target audience is not necessarily the "outside" community.

In all honesty, the Village Voice article did not accurately portray my feelings regarding Chasidim. In my blog I have numerous posts, as my regular readers will know, where I describe some of the beautiful and delightful elements of Chasidic society. The Village Voice article didn't touch on any of those. Whether it implies a hidden agenda or not, I don't know, but the fact is that in my criticisms there is not a single falsehood or distortion of fact. I tell it like it is, and of course, some will be outraged. That's the way of modern society, and I'm proud to be part of it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Hasidic Rebel in the Village Voice

I've been holding this in for weeks but now I can say it. I've made it into the pages of The Village Voice. (In case you're wondering, the illustration there is not me. :-) ) Never in my life did I think I'll be interviewed and written about in a major publication. For all my dear readers concerned about this getting to my head, don't worry. I know this tiny moment of fame too will pass, but I'm pleased at the prospect of some new people joining the readership. So let me extend a hearty welcome to all new visitors. I hope you find something interesting and visit regularly. And let me throw in a tip while I'm at it: make sure to read the user comments for each post. Between the raves and the rants you'll find some excellent tidbits that you won't want to miss.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Europe: Love it/Hate it

Allison just came back from a wonderful vacation in Venice, and I'm a little embarrased to say it, but Allison, you make me green with envy. For years I've been dreaming of touring Europe. The history, the culture, the art, the sights, the romance. Problem is, my wife doesn't much care for Europe, or any other place for that matter, besides our little Chasidic ghetto here. "What do those goyish places have that could possibly interest me?" she wants to know. "They're full of anti-Semites and don't deserve our tourist money. How can I go wander those places where the soil is drenched with Jewish blood?" But still, it's Europe! I can't explain it, but I want to be there.

But I do understand her point about anti-Semitism. Especially for me with my conspicuous Chasidic garb. I'll be honest, even if my wife agreed I'm not sure I'll book the next flight there. It happened once that I stopped in Brussels for a few hours on my way to Israel. It was morning, around the time when those lovely Belgian schoolchildren were on their way to school, and I was standing outside the Brussels Shul with a couple friends, all of us dressed in standard Chasidic garb. Some children noticed us from a block away. They started jeering and laughing. They started yelling to other friends to come quick and join the fun. More sweet Belgian children were gathering and they were all yelling, laughing, and pointing fingers obnoxiously. It may have been just children's play and nothing harmful, but for me it was a horrible experience. Those kids weren't tykes. They were 13-14 year olds, maybe even older. Whether it was anti-Semitism or just marvelling at these strangely dressed folks I don't know, but I tend to suspect the former.

But still I want to go to Europe. Am I crazy, or what?

Sunday, July 13, 2003

A Tragedy: Baal Teshuva Spurned by Chasidim

I've just come across a new blog telling the most tragic story about a young Baal Teshuva who committed suicide. My Cousin Jonathan is written by a woman, Deborah, whose cousin tried to join the Chasidic community but found extreme difficulty and heartbreak trying to do so, expecially when it came to finding a suitable marriage partner. The story is heartbreaking, and I wish every person in the Chasidic community would read it.

This episode highlights a tremendous problem. People who become Ba'alei Teshuva are sometimes misled to believe they could fully become a part of the community. Whether misled intentionally or not, the community is shirking its responsibility to these people by not being fully honest with them about their status. This problem is not unique to the Chasidic community; it exists among all the ultra-Orthodox, and to some extent the modern Orthodox. Whether this exclusionary behavior is justified or not is a complicated issue, but it is unconscionable that the Orthodox community encourages people to join them but then does not accept them fully.

I am hoping that this story can generate the much needed public awareness of this issue, and perhaps this can serve as a springboard for public debate and a call for action. Deborah, keep up the good work, and may the memory of your cousin Jonathan be a blessing.

Update: I should note that Avraham Bronstein over at Protocols had a discussion a few weeks ago on the topic of Ba'alei Teshuva and Shidduchim following some letters to The Jewish Press on the subject. I am reposting here what I posted in the comments on that discussion:
Finally, this issue is being addressed by the public. For years I've been hearing privately from Ba'alei Teshuvah how they had no idea that after making all the sacrifices for Yiddishkeit, it would still be almost impossible to completely integrate into the frum community, aspecially with regard to shidduchim. It's time people realized that yichus is nothing but an ego booster and has no bearing on the person's character or loftiness of his/her soul. After all, the Gemoro says, "A Mamzer Talmid Chacham is greater that a Kohen Gadol Am Ha'aretz."

Friday, July 11, 2003

Getting Beaten for Shabbos

Speaking of the Shabbos demonstrations on Bar Ilan reminds me of my visit to Israel about ten years ago. It was late one Shabbos afternoon, around Shalosh Seudos time, and I was walking with a friend right near Bar Ilan street where there had been ongoing weekly demonstrations. Suddenly I noticed a crowd running, apparently from the police. I panicked and started frantically looking for a place to hide. Suddenly a young Yerushalmi, who was obnoxiously staying right where he was, noticed me, and in a drawled Yerushalmi Yiddish said to me, "Vus iz, die Amerikaner? Hust moire tzie chapen klep far Shabbes?" (What's wrong, you American? Afraid of getting hit for the Sabbath?")

Somebody knocked this stupidity into these youngsters that they're somehow heroes if they resist the police and get beaten. I guess it's like the pride Arab kids have after getting hit by a rubber bullet for throwing stones at soldiers. It's a shortcut to heroism. It's not too harmful, and enough to show off.

Rosenblum on the Stone Throwers

Finally someone in the Charedi community is addressing the stone throwing sensibly. Yonasan Rosenblum, in his latest Jerusalem Post column, is first a little apologetic about the Charedi hooligans:
They answer to no rabbinic authority. Posters signed by the rabbinic leadership of the Eidah Haharedis have never deterred them. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the greatest living halachic authority, is as much their target as Lupoliansky himself. In the past, they have thrown stones at the nonagenarian sage, and are fully capable of doing so again.
That argument itself doesn't satisfy me much, but he then calls to task the Charedi community to stand up against it in strong and unequivocal terms:
At the very least, however, the condemnation of the larger haredi community must be loud and clear. Such condemnation is neither to condone driving on Shabbat nor to even to agree that alternate routes should not be utilized by traffic that now passes through exclusively religious neighborhoods. (In fact, the demonstrations reduce the likelihood of closing Bar Ilan Street to Shabbat traffic: Lupoliansky cannot afford to appear to be giving in to violence.)

To reject the tactics of the demonstrators is to condemn chilul Hashem, the desecration of Godís name. The Mishna, in Ethics of the Fathers, says of chilul Hashem, " Unintentional or intentional, both are alike with respect to chilul Hashem." Such a statement is made about no other sin. The imperative of saving a life overrides all the transgressions in the Torah, with the exception of the three cardinal sins of murder, sexual immorality, and idol worship. Yet two of the greatest rabbis of our time ruled that the imperative of saving a life will not justify chilul Hashem.

There can be no doubt that rock throwing by those wearing haredi garb is a massive chilul Hashem. How else can one describe actions that violate the most stringent prohibitions of the Torah, including that against endangering life and limb? Even apart from the explicit prohibitions involved, no one with a trace of sensitivity to the sanctity of Shabbat could contemplate throwing stones or refuse or pushing a garbage dumpster into the street on Shabbat. The mostly young demonstrators are clearly drawn more by the typical teenagerís lust for action than concern for the preciousness of Shabbat.
Although I disagree with him that the overall goal of street closings on Shabbos is important, it's good to see he's taken the responsible approach with regard to these despicable tactics.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

YU and Me

Since I started this blog, I've gotten a couple of emails from people doubting that I'm really a Chasid. They range from polite skepticism to hostile attacks. I've been accused of being an apostate Jew with some inside knowledge of Chasidim trying to lure Chasidim to rebelliousness. Many say that my writing shows knowledge of secular culture that is almost impossible for a Chasid to have. And most say my writing style is impossible without growing up in a secular environment. One reader wrote, "It's obvious you've had an advanced secular education." Wow! These people actually flatter me. If they don't want to accept what I say it's fine with me.

But it is sort of ironic. A couple of years ago, when I was just out of Kolel (rabbinical school for married men), I went to see a guy in my community who helped people get jobs. He gave me a resume to fill out and, not having much education or work experience, I didn't have much to say about myself. In my naivette, having no real standard by which to measure it except that of the Chasidim around me, I thought my command of English and my writing ability were quite good. So I put down "Excellent English writing skills."

The Chasid took the resume and looked it over. When he saw the bit about writing he handed it back to me and said gruffly, "How well can you possibly write? You've only been to Chasidic Yeshivas!"

I protested saying I didn't have much to compare it to, but I didn't think I was too bad.

"That's ridiculous," he said. "You may write well for a Chasidish yungerman, but compared to, say, a YU boy, you don't know anything."

I realized he may be right and I swallowed my indignation and my pride.

And now it turns out people are convinced I'm a "YU boy".

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

A Modern Day Korach

I am a skeptic. I tend to view most everything with detached doubt, whether by nature or as a result of reading too much contemporary literature. There is very little of which I am certain. There was a time when the existence of one supernatural creator who cares about all humanity, listens to out prayers, and with whom one can establish a personal, devout relationship was an axiom of my existence. I am no longer so positive, although in general terms those still are my beliefs. But there are a small number of things that I have managed to examine and analyze and have come to quite certain conclusions. Foremost among those is my view that today's Chasidic Rebbes are of no stronger moral character than the rest of us, the piety attributed to them is a farce, and their learnedness and scholarship is for the most part unimpressive.

For some readers, especially non-Chasidic ones, this isn't an earth shattering revelation. So what? they'll say. Most leaders aren't exceptional in character; they inhabit their position by virtue of their ability to lead. But there's a major difference between the Chasidic Rebbes and other leaders. Chasidic Rebbes are there because they inherited a position handed down from a father or other related figure. They are almost never chosen by the people out of recognition for some great accomplishments. But for some absurd reason, the followers suddenly start seeing in their Rebbe traits and characteristics that he had never been known to posess; testimony of his extreme piety, evidence of exceptional scholarship, and even tales of open miracles suddenly gush forth in a ridiculous show of fealty.

There was a time in my life when I believed my Rebbe was concerned only with spiritual matters. I had managed to convince myself, as do so many others, that he posessed immense scholarship, that his life was totally devoted to the service of G-d, that his blessings were worth receiving, and that being in his presence would benefit me spiritually and materially. I would sit with friends and we would warmly tell tales of the Rebbe's greatness and stories about miracles and wonders that he performed. Those were the innocent days.

As I matured I began to see disturbing patterns among all Chasidic Rebbes including my own. They seemed to all be preoccupied with power, wealth, and petty squabbles. Anyone who has any knowledge of Chasidic groups today knows that the ridiculously petty behavior among some Rebbes quite easily puts to rest notions of any kind of superiority. One glaringly common example are the never ending feuds about succession. Very few Chasidic groups--or courts, as the Chasidim like to call it--are free from these succession squabbles. When an older Rebbe dies and leaves behind more than one child, it is not long after that the descendants start bickering over who should take over the mantle of leadership, who should run the institutions belonging to this group, and who should inherit valuable heirlooms that had belonged to their predecessor. Sometimes the arguing starts way before the old leader passes on, as is the case in a well known group that I shall not name. Often these feuds last many, many years to the point where some even forget what the original squabbles were about.

The Rebbes and their children live in luxury and splendor while many of their Chasidim wallow in poverty. Their offsprings' weddings and other family celebrations are ostentatious public displays of glory, each Rebbe trying to outdo the other. They ride around in fancy cadillacs and the children are mostly spoiled immature boors. The Rebbes and their families consider themselves to be in an entirely separate social class. They interact little with the general population, and demand royal treatment. The child or grandchild of a Rebbe might be a bum or a lowlife, but rarely would they marry a common person. Marriages are almost always only with other "Rebbish" families.

Why do I bring all this up now? Well, last week on Shabbos, reading in the weekly Torah portion of the story of Korach who stood up to rebel against Moses, I was reminded of the one time I dared to raise criticism of my Rebbe to a fellow Chasid. It was a number of years ago but the incident is still vivid in my mind. I was chatting with a guy in Shul late one Sunday morning. I don't remember what the topic was and I don't remember exactly what I had said, but I let slip some harsh criticism about one of the Rebbe's children taking advantage of the Chasidim for his own benefit. The listener turned red with rage.

"Who do you think you are to criticize the Rebbe's children?" he asked. His voice was relatively low, but I could see he was getting himself worked up. "You don't have the faintest grasp of the holiness of these people! The Rebbe doesn't eat and drink like you! The Rebbe doesn't have children (a euphemism for sex) like you! The Rebbe's children are the purest of the pure!'

By now he was yelling. Some people started to gather around to listen. I wasn't sure where lay their sympathies but I had to respond.

"I don't care how holy somebody is," I said. "Unethical behavior is never excusable. That goes for the Rebbe's children and that goes for the Rebbe too!"

The moment I said that I realized I blundered. As long as I kept it to the Rebbe's children I might be excused. But attacking the Rebbe was too much for these people to handle.

"You Korach!" he started yelling at me. "You will be punished just like Korach was punished! You think you're smart! You think you've got the right to question authority! You think you can be Mr. Ethical and criticize those whose actions are always correct! Well let me tell you, Korach had his downfall and now he's deep in the ground yelling out 'Moses is the truth and his Torah is the truth', and you will suffer the same fate! Just wait and see!"

Luckily it was late morning and the Shul was mostly empty. The few people who had gathered curiously didn't say anything, but I was getting nervous that some other nutcase might be lurking and I hastily made my way out of there. I worried for a few days that the gossip about me would start to make the rounds, but to my relief the incident seemed to have been forgotten by the few who had been there. But I learned to keep my mouth shut.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Workmen and Kids

Yesterday I had two men, neither of them Jewish, over at my house doing some work for me. One of them, tall and broad-shouldered like a basketball player, was concentrating on the work while the other, a short and stocky fellow, kept looking around. My kids were running around the house and the short guy seemed fascinated by the number of kids underfoot.

"Are all these kids yours?" he asked.

"Yup," I said proudly.

"Wow. You've got some brood." remarked the other, looking up from his work and taking in the scene. "Are you rich or somethin'?"

"In my dreams," I said. "In our community we consider each and every child a blessing." I was trying to look sincere and pretend that I never complained or criticized Chasidim for having such large families without the means to support them properly.

"Well I've got two kids," said the short one. "But I don't think I'm going to have any more. I'm no rich man. I have a boy and a girl and that's just right for me."

"I've got one and he's a handful," said the tall guy, turning back to his work. "It's more than enough."

I've often thought that having the number of children that I did was irresponsible, and I wished I'd have had the good sense to see it a while back. But now hearing these guys talk like that, I thought about what life would have been like had I said the same thing after my first or second child. It gives me a shudder. As difficult as children can be, and as challenging the financial responsibility, I cannot imagine life without my youngest few, and I don't want to. How could I ever live without my five year old daughter, who calls me every day at work to tell me what a wonderful day she had in day camp? That's the fuel that keeps me going. And my three year old boy strutting proudly alongside me to Shul on Shabbos with his adorable Shabbos outfit and perfectly curled sidelocks is the nachas of my life. The thought of him not being around is just unbearable. And when I come home from work and my one and a half year old comes running out with his toddlerish laugh and gives me a hug, the stress and tiredness of a difficult day at work magically vanish.

Of course these magic moments pass, and the hardships of life reappear harshly soon after. The bills need to be paid, the house taken care of, and the kids need to be fed and clothed. Silly children's squabbles need to be mediated, homework has to be done, and the badgering has to be put up with since children will be children. But those fleeting moments of indescribable joy make it all worth it. Whether the decision was right or wrong can be pondered, but thinking about it now I'm glad I made that decision.

My two cents on the Wilkie episode

I know I'm a bit late to weigh in on the brouhaha over Oxford professor Andrew Wilkie's rejection of an Israeli student's application. It's been covered from all sides by Allison, Ampersand, Roger L. Simon, and Kesher Talk among many others.

I have nothing profound to say about this particular incident that hasn't already been said, but the whole issue of boycotts against Israel refreshes my outrage at the views many--especially in Europe--take on the actions of the Israeli government. I have never been one to say the Israeli government has always done the right thing. They've made plenty of mistakes, many of them quite egregious. But on the scale of evils committed by governments Israel is at the lower end. To point out Israeli wrongdoings, calling it apartheid, racist, and immoral, without recognizing the threats to its security and existence, are gross exaggerations and willful distortions. I for one would take Israeli injustice over Arab justice any day.

Many are offended when they're called anti-Semites for harboring those views. But these views share the characteristics of anti-Semitism. As Herman Wouk writes in This is my God, "In every generation the faults of the Jews--and we are as full of faults as other men--have been publicized with exaggerations and lies." True, not every anti-Israeli is anti-Semitic--in fact many are Jews themselves. But when the malicious tactics that have been used against the Jews for centuries are employed against Israel, there is no practical difference if it's against Israel or against Jews. They're both just as wrong.

Whew! Got that off my chest, and I'm feeling better now. Hope this made some sense.