Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tie a pair of teffilin (round the old oak tree)

I am not much of a shiur (lesson) listener. I do not enjoy sitting and listening to someone expounding on a theme that sometimes has one minute of inspiration and has been padded out with another thirty or so minutes of brag. It seems a shame that if there was one thing we had to learn from our Lithuanian brethren it had to be the showbiz aspect of Torah.

What I hate even more is when some spark or other from one of the Baal Tshuva organisations comes and starts talking Hashkafa. I have spent excruciating hours sitting there listening to some or other pseudo-intellectual expounding on The Meaning of life According to Karpenkop (fish-head). Next to me some of my friends who consider themselves aufgeklärt will be nodding their heads in agreement with every laboured point; turning to me beaming their hope that I am impressed with the point made, but more importantly still their appreciation of it. Meanwhile my mind and soul silently scream out for Monty Python.

In fact some of the ‘proofs’ I have heard would not be out of place in Life of Brian. One famous ex-snooker player Maggid tries to convince us that there is a God because if not how comes the world works so perfectly? Art and culture can be conveniently belittled by referring the media as smellivision and all art as infantile scribblings. An ex underwear model assures us he has seen the world and we can take it from him that ours is the true path. If the world he saw is in any way similar to the way the world saw him I have no illusions as to why he should think so, but I am not convinced that is in any way relevant to most of us.

If I were a non-believer the last thing that would convince me is arguments as feeble as the ones I have heard so far. My worry is that if these are the guys that are bringing the lost sons home the wrong sons are being attracted. Are we really in need of trainloads of society’s misfits and dropouts, to swell the ranks of the depressed and hopeless we already have? After all, how long does it take before a new returnee discovers that his life is still all bent out of shape and all that’s really changed is the society he’s misfitting in?

In all honesty I sometimes look at the before and after pictures that these organisations like to print, and truly wonder whether it was a good idea to take some of those regular-looking guys and turn them into the bewildered, bearded and belittled individuals depicted being patronisingly ‘learned with’ by some fat ‘Rebbe’ who has proved his preparedness to accommodate the modern world by removing his jacket and exposing his enormous tzitzis.

As I have said before there are plenty of people, born into this gefilte-fish-cradle, who need help adjusting to it but who can be counted on to settle in and settle down. Let us spend our efforts on dealing with them instead of devising pathetic arguments to counter questions most have not even understood.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Ai du

The Torah is all for the marriage unit. The classical English translation of one of the first mentions of man reads; “…therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be as one flesh”. Apart from the fact that ‘cleave’ is hardly the word I would have chosen as the translation for ‘Vedubak’, there is no word in Hebrew for spouse so the question as to whether that works both ways remains open.

Chassidim will argue that the Torah has no need to tell a woman to leave her father and mother; she has to do that anyway. Indeed it is true that the laws regarding obedience to one’s parents do not apply to a married woman. She is supposed to give precedence to her husband at all times. In practice these are moot points in my opinion. The theories of dominance by right or subservience by law anyway are overridden by the plain family dynamic. I know families where the wife rules with a high hand and families where the husband is a true despot. Personality types and the atmosphere in the parental home seem to define the interpersonal relationships far more than what is taught in school.

What interests me more is the cleaving part. It seems that the Torah expects the couple to love and cherish each other in a way that is hardly possible within the rules and regulations we put out as law. The male of the species typically sits in kollel or goes to work for most of the day while the other half either works or looks after the king-size brood. In the evenings, most males will go back to shul after supper for Mincha Maariv (evening services) and are encouraged to learn some Torah then. When you remember that maariv in the summer can be as late as 11pm. it is clear that there is not much time left for cleaving.

With Yomtovs at the Rebbe taking a further bite out of any quality time and the separation of the sexes at weddings and functions now starting at the car park I sometimes wonder whether some of these couples would recognize their ‘other’ in a crowd.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten was the Rav of a yekkishe shul on the Hill and a great man. He would greet the ladies of the congregation, waiting to walk home with their cloven, with a polite Good Shabbes as he left the shul. With the Chassidisation of the Hill today, no Rav would risk being drummed out of town for that. In fact one the commenters on the previous post brought to my attention a paper urging women to leave the shul as soon as the davening ends so as not to be seen by the men when they leave.

In my opinion it is some of the elders’ obsession with visual temptation that is stifling the cleaving of many young families. I do not believe that the generations before us, where couples walked home from shul together, went together to sheva brachot and barmitzvas, that were celebrated at home and in rooms with no mechitza (partition wall between men and women), were more likely to cleave with the wrong mate than we who are so well insulated from any potential pitfalls. Nor do I believe that the reason five year old girls are no longer allowed to enter the men’s shul even on Simchat Torah is because there is a real problem of anyone being led astray by their good looks. I have never noticed any risk of cleavage with a five-year-old girl and if the strict segregation we practice leads to impure thoughts about kids then it might be high time we abolished either the rules or the kids