Monday, June 21, 2004

Sex Change

I had a post about the salt levels in our food prepared for posting. I feel unable however to ignore what has been playing out in the commenting on the last post and I therefore find myself coming back to the issue of sex education.

There was a story a while back in Bne Beraq when some odious young man forced himself into the confidence of some newlywed Chassidic ladies as a Mashpiya (advisor in religious law and customs) and, using that authority, sexually abused them. I believe he got a long prison sentence. Rumour has it that the reason it did get so far is because there was a daughter of a highly illustrious family among his victims.

Any regular reader of the Charedi press will know that the list of subjects that do not appear there includes anything critical of our way of life and anything concerning sex. This story was therefore mainly followed in the secular press and in the hallowed halls of Hydepark’s Bechadrei Chareidim. What was perhaps most disturbing, if not surprising, was the almost total lack of any action taken to correct the situation that allowed this to occur.

In an age long passed it might have been praiseworthy to manage to bring a couple together until the day of their marriage still ignorant as to the existence of sex. In the Chassidic world stories still do the rounds of individuals who had to be brought a glass of water on the morning of their wedding day after the Rabbi clumsily broke the news as to what the climax of the day’s program consisted of. In fact I still look back fondly on the moment when I had to go through the ordeal of pretending to look shocked when I was gravely informed by my Madrich what I was expected to do. Probably mistaking my carefully rehearsed surprise for revulsion or shock, he patted me on my back and solemnly informed me that I need not be worried I would get used to it. He then proceeded to smugly assure me that he himself not only did it but thoroughly enjoyed it, effectively making any further need for false revulsion totally redundant.

I do not think many youngsters today reach the end of their adolescence in ignorant bliss. The youth of today is sexually more aware than many of their parents are. Yet the education of the playground and furtive sessions on the Internet are no substitute for thorough education and training in how to reject and resist unwelcome advances.

There is an even greater problem that I have come across on more that one occasion and that is of young people becoming confused as to their own sexuality because they might have had same sex experiences in Yeshiva or School and become mistakenly convinced that that makes them gay. All in all there is need for a comprehensive overhaul of what information reaches our youngsters and how. If the Rabbis are not interested in doing maybe there is no option but to set up some websites that will give the information out to those that seek it. In any event something has to be done and the sooner the better.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Sounds of the Underground

There is a tradition among frummers to be especially frum for others. Tradition has it that Adam, told by his maker not to eat from the tree, in his fervour told Eve that not only were you not allowed to eat from it but touching it was not allowed. The wily serpent pushed Eve causing her to trip and touch it. “See,” he then crowed, “nothing happens, I bet nothing would happen if you ate from it either.”

I would venture a wager that there is not a single brain between two peyos on the Hill that has not heard this story and the lessons that must be drawn from it. That did not stop the Rabbinate from proclaiming a recent frum concert to be forbidden. Did they honestly expect a full hall of posteriorless seats?

Among Chassidim it is common to ironically say about something very good that it must be traif. There is an acknowledged feeling that most things pleasurable, if the Torah itself has not forbidden it, the Rabbis will. By the reverse token I would say that these concerts have got to be kosher.

When I was sixteen my father found my stash of music cassettes hidden in my sock drawer. The forbidden delights included stars like Mordechai Ben David, Jo Amar and suchlike. The hullabaloo that ensued ensured that while those particular cassettes might have been confiscated I have remained a fervent music addict. My way of hitting back was to listen, from them on, only to goyisher music and whatever Capital Radio and LBC had to offer. In keeping with the shgatzim of the time I listened to what I now see were the excruciatingly cloying sounds of Abba and Blondie. We would not be seen dead next to a MBD or Avraham Freed

My taste has developed somewhat over the years and my collection today would be more likely to feature tzaddikim like Eminem, the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, yet I know that I have started to grow out of having to prove myself because I deign to allow the odd religious CD to share the shelf with my ‘real’ music.

I have many times agonized over my inability to give up my music collection even though I would be reluctant to allow my children to listen to many of the CDs I keep locked in the glove compartment of my car. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, but at least when I tell them I don’t allow them to listen I do not tell them it is because it is forbidden. I tell them that at their age they are too impressionable and that their schools would have them expelled, reasons I hope they understand are valid albeit unfair.

I hope that by the time they are my age the quality and quantity of Jewish music and the quality of religious education will have improved enough that they will be happy to listen to music just because they like it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Good Heavens!

One of the things that I think we really ought to adopt from society around us is the culture of questioning facts. Our system of learning discourages genuine questioning, but facts are not svorres (logical contortions in talmud), they can and must be verified before any judgements can be passed on any issue. This applies just as much to a kosher certification as to a person’s reputation in the face of gossip.

Sex, it is said, is unlike justice in that it does not have to be seen to be done. Puns aside, there is profundity in the implication that unless justice is seen to be done one cannot assume that it has. The issue of accountability is not one that comes up very often where the Beth Din (rabbinical courts) is concerned yet it should. In a court system where there is no right of appeal and no forced accountability it is more than likely that abuses will occur.

Shaitelgate is proof enough that the methods of research leave much to be desired. What bothers me more though is the lack of any sense of obligation by the Rabbinate to justify their decisions, even when they affect the lives and livelihoods of countless people who might not even have accepted their jurisdiction. The Rabbinic courts however are still models of rectitude when compared to some of the Rebbishe houses of today.

The tradition of going to a Rebbe for advice is as old as chassidus itself. In times of trouble a chassid would travel to his Rebbe and spill his troubled heart out. The Rebbe, in his infinite wisdom, would let slip some pearls of wisdom and, if necessary, rearrange the forces in heaven and hey presto all problems were solved. I am in no position to judge whether that still works today but I am sure that many still believe it does and I have no reason to deny those believers the comfort they derive from it.

I personally first became a little sceptical about the supernatural powers of the Rebbes when I went to visit mine many years back and he asked me what Masiach thought.
To say I was surprised puts it mildly. I mumbled a vague answer that I hoped sounded enigmatic enough to sound profound to Tzaddik who was on speaking terms with The Messiah. The moment I left the room I made a beeline to one of those in the know to ask what he could possibly have meant. I was given various interpretations of this mystical message and admit that I did feel honoured and special for while to be singled out by the Rebbe for my insights into the spiritual planes. It was only a couple of years later, when I discovered that in fact he had confused me with somebody else who was still childless then and was being treated by a man named Dr. Mashiach, that it all clicked.

It is possible that my very devout friends are right and it is not what the Rebbe thinks he means that is important but I what I think he means. I will admit that that story did have a profound effect on me and my behaviour at the time and it is possible that God wanted that. I do believe though that God may be used as a guide but not as an excuse. The laws of slander and libel should, nay must, apply to Rebbes, if not equally to mere mortals then more so. It is all very well to listen to a troubled heart and assure him that all will be well but when the actions or behaviour of others are part of the equation it can be the height of irresponsibility to pass any form of judgment without having heard another side to a story.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

DIY on the Hill

The Torah gives a father the right to marry off his daughter to whomever he wishes. Draconian as that sounds, relevant it is not, because that right is valid up until she becomes 12 years old. After that he can not ‘give her away’ a term that in this case is used literally, without her consent and in fact it is his consent that is neither asked for nor needed. The only limit that Halacha places on the choosing of a spouse is that a man may not marry a woman without seeing her (I suppose that works both ways but I have not seen it written).

I am all for arranged matches for those that want them. They do not seem to work any less well than the western, freestyle matches and many claim that they work better. I have to add that my wife was introduced to me a day before we got engaged. We met for an hour or so at the home of one of my now mother-in-law’s friends. Sitting in two overstuffed armchairs we talked about everything you can possibly talk about to a nervous looking girl of 18 who is biting her nails and blushing every time you recross your legs. Outside the door stood my parents and hers, mine feeling slightly guilty for allowing modernism to creep into our holy family in the form of a meeting lasting longer than 10 minutes. Hers were on best behaviour for fear of ruining their daughter’s chances by disappointing their potential mechutanim (in-laws). The tension could have been cut with butter knife. When, after the hour was up, the parents walked in on us I realised I had not yet heard a single intelligent word from the girl opposite and saw no reason at all to make her my beloved.

My parents were horrified. “You just sat with a girl for an hour and now you say you do not see any reason to marry her? You should marry her unless you see a good reason not to!” “Ok,” I said “If I can sit with a girl for an hour and leave with no wish to marry her, then for that reason I don’t like her.”

The compromise was that we would meet again the next day. I like to say it was my natural charm and winning ways that caused her to open up. She claims she would have said anything just to get the meeting over and herself a gracious exit to the ladies room before that become unnecessary. Be that as it may, I do not regret the accident of fate that got me married to my wife.

God works in mysterious ways. I do not believe there is any justification or logic in denying a couple the right to marry if they wish to and there is no legal or Halachic reason why they should not, even if their meeting did not occur in our time honoured traditional way. There might be a myriad of reasons for creating an environment where there is no likelihood of that happening but if and when it does despite all that, it can be no less His work than any other.

It is true that in our culture there is little respect for that ‘crazy little thing called love’. To be honest there is rarely any mention of it. Yet those who have proudly gotten through life without it are hardly qualified to advise those who are smitten on how unimportant it is. In any event it is certainly counter-productive, for anyone who has made its acquaintance, to hear it described as if it were some vile disease.

It seems to me that those who are most sanctimonious in their condemnation of the chinuch, family, and kehille of those who do decide to tie the love knot are the same ones you can see in every huddle in shul, maliciously salivating over every minute detail of the salacious gossip. It seems almost as if they think that, by ensuring that the blame is laid squarely somewhere, they and theirs will be guaranteed the same will not befall them.

It is also worth remembering that the gentleman Kalba Savua was probably justifiably angry when his beautiful daughter informed him she was in love with a shepherd. Neither of them could have known then he would turn out to become Rabbi Akiva