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August 31, 2014 / 5 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Yeshiva Shaarei Torah’

Airbrushing The Past Creates Problems In The Present

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

There is an old rabbinic anecdote about a rabbi who was called on to deliver a eulogy for someone who had no redeeming social value whatsoever. The rabbi was hard pressed to think of anything positive to say about this person. So when he spoke he solemnly pronounced: “No matter how evil the deceased truly was, he was still a far better person than was his brother!”

Halacha allows for exaggeration in delivering a eulogy. But when this is liberally and untruthfully applied to Jewish history it becomes a dangerous threat to normative Jewish life. One of the great problems that plague religious Jewish life in our times is that a fantasy world – a completely inaccurate picture of European Jewish life before World War II – has been propagated and hallowed.

Because of this distorted picture of the past, a distorted view of present Jewish society has taken hold. And it is this distorted view that is responsible for much of the current dysfunction in religious Jewish societies the world over.

There have been attempts to somehow correct our hindsight but, in the main, they have failed because of the determined opposition of zealots who perpetuate inaccuracies and constantly create new fantasy stories to buttress their ideologically driven view of past Jewish life.

I am not in favor of exposing all the flaws of European Jewry and I am also willing to accommodate the many exaggerations about the truly positive aspects of that pre-World War II society. But without a balanced and somewhat accurate portrayal of what that society really looked like, it will be difficult for our society to move forward in a positive and constructive fashion.

There was a time when people believed pictures never lied and that one picture was worth a thousand words.That unfortunately is no longer true. Computers, airbrushing and other modern means of altering photographs have made pictures from the past suspect.

There is a famous photograph of the Chofetz Chaim sitting outside of his house talking to his eldest son, Rabbi Aharon Leib Poupko. In the original photograph the wife and daughter of the Chofetz Chaim are standing directly behind him. This picture has been reproduced in a new and completely hagiographic biography of the Chofetz Chaim – except that the women in the picture have disappeared completely from the scene.

This premeditated inaccuracy was mandated by the desire to make the past somehow resemble the imagined world of the guardians of current political correctness in our religious world. Once, many years ago in Monsey, my congregation’s sisterhood sponsored the sale and distribution of a generic vegetarian cookbook of exotic recipes. The cookbook contained an illustration of a young boy who was bareheaded. The ladies spent the entire night covering the boy’s head with a magic marker yarmulke.

I am also reminded of pictures of famous Eastern European rabbis who were forced to take passport or other official photos in a bareheaded pose. Those photos were later retouched (not very artfully at that) to make them conform to present accepted piety. This probably falls between acceptable exaggeration and unacceptable inaccuracy but it is indicative of the spirit of our times.

The inaccuracies and fantasy portrayals of the Jewish past are but one of the many symptoms of what I feel to be the major underlying malaise in much of religious Jewish society. That underlying problem is the insecurity of religious Jewish society in facing the new Jewish world that now exists.

This world is one of modernity gone rampant, of communication that is instant and all-inclusive, of a Jewish state with all of the social, political, theological and religious challenges that such a state entails, and of a completely different economic and professional work environment than existed a century ago.

Frightened by these immense challenges, unaccustomed to being a distinct minority in the Jewish world itself, and having been forced on the defensive by the attacks of the secularists, the traditional Jewish world has been loath to engage these problems. It prefers to repaint and revisit the past instead of facing the present. It is frightened and regressive instead of being confident and optimistic.

This is truly ironic, for today’s Jewish society and its demographics have once again proven, seemingly against all odds, the resilience of Torah and tradition in all sections and climes of the Jewish world. As such our education should be geared toward self-pride and optimism, reality and how to cope in our current world. There should be less emphasis on denigrating others and fearing their ideas and less trepidation of technological advancements.

The Reason For The Silence

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

The terrible controversy regarding social issues that has been aroused in Israeli society by the despicable behavior of a fringe group of the haredi community is very sad. It seems that it is always the extremists that drive the agenda in all conflicts, both national and internal.

In my opinion there is absolutely no excuse, justification or religious principle that justifies such behavior. It demeans the Torah and its adherents and is absolutely counterproductive to Torah values and to the strengthening of a truly religious Jewish society.

The response to this wicked behavior by most of religious society in Israel, especially in the haredi world has varied from complete silence to tepid disavowal of the behavior of the group. Mostly, it results in a counterattack pointing out the obvious and far more serious deficiencies of secular Israeli society and then portrays all of haredi society as being systematically victimized by the media, the courts, the government and the majority Israeli society generally.

I am not here to defend any particular point of view or to cast aspersions at the sides in this current struggle. It is part of a 150-year long kulturkampf that unfortunately has not yet run its course. However, I feel there must be an understanding of the root causes of the continuing angst in the Jewish religious community in Israel and worldwide over all types of social and political issues.

The two seminal events of recent Jewish history are the Holocaust and the creation of of Israel. Both of these events, undeniable in their gravity and importance, have caused the religious Jewish world, individually and collectively, faith and theological problems.

To the non-believer for whom God never enters the equation, these two events are digested as being historical facts and little more. To the believing and observant Jew these events are very troubling. All attempts to “explain” the Holocaust have proven to be inadequate, logically or religiously. We are left only with faith in the God of Israel Whose Will is inscrutable. But that causes a certain amount of tension and frustration in our community of believers.

Because of the potential danger to faith that this issue poses, it is rarely discussed in our religious schools, its secular commemoration at the end of Nissan is shunned and it becomes the hidden elephant that is omnipresent in the room of our lives. The extremists in our midst even travel to Iran to support the current main Holocaust denier. And the general religious community, though abhorring such behavior, nevertheless again allows silence to be mainly its response since we are unable to explain, even to ourselves, why the Holocaust occurred.

What results is a subliminal rage within us that explodes periodically through the behavior of the extremists and the general community is silent because we are also consumed silently by that repressed rage.

How could a Jewish state come into existence and have staying powers if its leaders and fashioners were opposed to all Jewish traditional belief and Torah practice? This was one of the basic reasons for the opposition to practical Zionism by most of the Orthodox world prior to World War II. Even after the state came into being many great rabbis predicted it would not last.

One of the great leaders of the haredi world at that time told his followers that the state would only survive for fifteen years; perhaps fifty at the most. The haredi world has never felt Israel is its state. Mainly it feels that we religious Jews are still in exile, this time an exile imposed upon us by our fellow Jews.

What follows from that thinking is that the anti-state activities of the extremists, no matter how wrong, foolish and vicious, are greeted with either silence or muted criticism that soon turns into accusatory rhetoric against the representatives of the state.

The haredi community has bedecked itself with the comforting mantle of victimhood and is loath to remove that cloak from its shoulders. By not really being part of the state it avoids facing up to the fact that somehow, again, our inscrutable God has behaved not according to our logic and expectations and has somehow allowed our little state to exist and prosper well into its sixth decade.

It will take a major change of mindset in the religious world before we are able to face down the extremists and not merely be silent in the face of such desecration of the Torah and God’s holy name.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-reason-for-the-silence/2012/01/11/

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