Tuesday, May 24, 2005

 

Torah values

We all have heard the term "Torah values". Most of my readers probably are aware this term often is used to promote Conservative agendas, including ideas and concepts of the Christian right in the United States and other countries, in a Jewish ways. Of course, this is controversial. If someone asks for abortion to be banned when halacha sometimes even prescribes it, or people speak out in favor of death penalty when the Gemora clearly states it is basically impossible to apply it under Torah law, that leads to questions. But of course, this has been discussed already, it's also rather a political question. What I want to write about is what are real Torah values, based on Torah shebichtov and Torah she baal pe.

In modern 21st century Europe, how is Torah still relevant to us? 195 years ago, the first Reform synagogue opened and provlaimed Torah was outdated. The Orthodox answer was and is that Torah is eternal and its application alone depends on current circumstances. Torah makes no difference between "ritual law" and laws that concern interactions between people. Thus we should note that eating pork is just as wrong as badmouthing your neighbor. But still, I would like to present a list of values that directly hail from Torah and constitute important guidelines for behavior today.

- Be consequent in your attitudes, peaceful in your means. Accept you don't own truth but there might be several legitimate ways to see things.

- Even if you strongly disagree with another position, discuss it in a civilized, polite manner. Do not badmouth others, whether in public or behind their backs. Do not intimidate them and allow their positions to be heard.

- Remember we should be solidary, since we are one. No one should promote open hatred against his fellow Jew. Instead we should stand united.

- Goyim should be respected as human beings just like Jews. Human rights should be essential, as the Gemora states that human dignity is greater than halacha.

Why am I blogging this? The Jewish "blogging scene" is experiencing a closing down of many blogs critical within as well as of Orthodoxy. None of the major Chareidi blogs seems to close down. The debate of Reform Judaism on DovBear's blog for example was brought to fail by disturbing Chareidim. On the other hand, also more critical people sometimes commeted in polemical ways, including myself. I hope there will remain blogs of different streams of thought so there can be a differenciated public discussion. I did offer some possible guidelines on this, please feel free to comment and disagree. But two things should be made clear:
1) This blog is not shutting down.
2) This blog will continue to present both critical and unusual thoughts.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

 

L'chaim !

For 60 years, Jews in Europe have now been having the right to life. But the best way to talk about this is not to state my own opinion, but to cite how people who were alive back then actually experienced it. Since they are alive now, they were still young back then.
#1:An older gentlemen for a village in Luxembourg told me he had been forced to join the Hitler Youth since they were considered Aryans and Hitler annexed their country to the Reich. The war years were no fun, his older brother had to join the Wehrmacht but he says as far as people shut up about politics they were treated correctly. When the German military left, the commander formally said goodbye and the liberators, a French unit arrived. They seemed to have bad manners and discipline and people couldn't wait for them to leave and the Luxembourgian state to be restored. They just wanted to be left alone, since they were neutral at first and didn't understand how they got into the war anyway.
#2:He still was a child during the war and lived in a German village. His family were convinced social democrats and secretly gave food to inmates of a nearby concentration camp. When his father was drafted into the Wehrmacht, he deserted and hid in a forest, risking his life. He sais his family never liked the Nazis so this might have influenced his perception of things, but when it was over, everyone was glad. At first the area was liberated by soldiers from French North Africa, and a former French forced laborer, who was treated well in the village's only major industrial company and had decided to stay and get married to a local farmer's daughter spoke in their favor. Later they came under American occupation. He said the children of the village often got candy from American soldiers, espacially African Americans. They also collected tropical fruits that had fallen off American trucks, the first ever to come to the village. He said all people were glad the war was over and his generation has the time immediately after it in good memory.
#3:He was one of the French soldiers in that very same area. A Sefardi Jew, he was from Algeria. For him, his first thought after the war was over was to help surviving Jews. He and his unit managed to give them food immediately, even though they couldn't eat that much since they weren't used to it anymore. Contact with the local population was sparse but he remembers that in the time of occupation immediately following the war, he managed to get around the area and see many sights in there. When his duty was served, he went back to Algeria and later fled the civil war and Algerian independence to Paris. Though it's only 600km (400 miles) away from this area in Germany, he never visited again.
#4:He was an Ashkenazi Jew from Alsace, France, which was also annexed to Germany in 1940. All Jews in there were deemed French and evicted to the Vichy zone. When the Germans also occupied this area, his family managed to flee to neutral Switzerland. There they stayed till the end of the war. When it ended, they wanted to go home immediately. When theycame home, they found their furniture across the non-Jewish household of his village. Since not enough Jews were coming back to keep a community running in the village, his father didn't take his rabbinical post of the village back on but took one in the next major city, where Jews from that city and surrounding villages rebuilt the community.

Friday, April 29, 2005

 

Judaism and Freedom

Pesach is the celebration of Jewish freedom. Of course we all know this and are yawning already that this blog brings up the subject again. But what is freedom? Is it the mere absence of slavery?

One of of the sedarim we were invited by Sefardim who had relatives from a major island in Europe visiting the mainland. For 25 years or so they have been living in the chareidi community of X. By now, they are doing all the weird things chareidim do, including wearing peyos. They are even sending their kids to Yiddish speaking school. One of the sons exchanged a few words with me in Yiddish but we mostly spoke in English, a language that I speak well, according them. The father seems to loves Ashkenazism, he even came to daven at the Ashkenazi shul part of the time. The mother of that family though seemed to be less happy. She was glad I appreciate certain Sefardi foods, she actually still cooked them, wore a Sefardi headcovering etc., and she told me she really preferred the Jewish community of Y on the same island, which is, though orthodox, less fanatic.

While we discussing then whether Gefilte fish is better with or without sugar, I thought of this blog. I remembered the racism discussion, and Ruthy citing the terms "frum" and "frei" in earlier comments. This choice of terms in the Chareidi world never was one I could agree with. If "religious" is the opposite of "free", that would mean it to be synonymous to "unfree". But a Judaism whose practice would mean being unfree could never be mine. Guess I am a Pesach Jew then. I believe G-d gave us Torah so we could really be free, handle freedom effectively. We don't have a Pharao to tell us what to do anymore. But as we freely make decisions, we risk becoming slaves again. Sometimes we rather follow our low-level desires than to do the best thing possible. This is where Torah comes into the game: It clearly contains, given from G-d what actually is the best thing possible to do, so we wouldn't be left in confusion. It also clearly states the risks in not doing so (i.e. intermarriage, galus etc.).

But whereas freedom needs Torah, Torah also needs freedom.This is why Pesach comes before Shavuos. G-d doesn't force Torah on us. He offers it to us and our free will enables us to follow or to reject it. By consequence, this also means that you only really follow Torah if you do so by choice. This is also why children under the age of 12/13 years aren't obligated to Torah yet. They do so because their parents taught them and they aren't able to decide on themselves yet. In an additional step, according to Gemora, the real consideration of your deeds before G-d starts at the age of 20, when you're really aware of your own acts and their consequences.

But what are we to learn from all this? If we are convinced Torah is true but we could do more mitzvos, we should attempt to do them. Because we know it's right and following your laziness, convenience etc. is not right. If we do mitzvos, but we are not convinced of them, we should still do them, because sanctifying ourselves through action will help motivation. But we should also study them in particular in order to improve our understanding. Because eventually, mitzvos aren't meant to be done to please your family, but out of conviction. And most importantly, if we are responsible for others, as rabbis, teachers, or parents: Don't force others to do mitzvos. This is not a spirit of Torah. Teach them about it so they'll understand.

This brings us back to the Sefardi family mentioned above. I don't know how they actually feel, and who would I be to judge others? But as far as I know X and its Chareidim many people feel their Rabbonim have imposed issurim and and halachic decisions many people feel uncomfortable, even unfree with. There are well-known examples of this, but for the sake of not exposing X, I avoid mentioning them here. But to bring up kitniyos again, they as Sefardim daren't eat kitniyos anymore since they're over there. People in this community will spend lots of time in their lives studying. They will follow halacha in a stringent way and do many mitzvos. But an atmosphere of pressure remains. One where people are told they have to do certain things, and not just do them, but do them the way the community expects them to do, even if other interpretations are just as valid, otherwise they'll "go to hell" (sic) or, rather implicitely, they will become outcast by their environment.

Let me finish this post by repeating what I said before, what in my humble opinion is the lesson of Pesach: Torah and freedom are mutually dependent. Thus by forcing Torah you destroy the original concept. Favor independent though and help people understand Torah instead. This is a great mitzva.

Gut Yuntif to all of you.


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

 

Kitniyos

Back in the olden days, when students were still allowed to wear a kipa at school and a wise king ruled in France, when there was no corrupt republic and no aggressive Arabs, Judaism was flourishing, Rashi invented the famous kosher French wine and wrote the famous commentaries. In the following generations Tosfos wrote some of the most sophisticated oeuvres in Judaism, be it on Torah shebichtav, Gemora or Halacha.

It was in this environment that they decided to ban kitniyos, i.e. cereals such as rice, corn and beans. Why? Apparently flour made of them could be confused too easily with wheat flour and thus they didn't hesitate to ban it all, whether it is flour made out of these or pure rice etc.

It went the way things go and although many rabbis opposed the ban, not only back then but throughout the centuries, people were superstitious and stopped eating kitniyos. And after, even many who realized there wasn't any real reason to do this, though it was a tradition and so they just did it. Nowadays many say it's a tradition not to eat them but since there's no risk of confusion anymore, you can as well keep them in your house and feed them to your pets and Sefardi visitors. As the Sefardim were clever enough never to accept the ban, they still have the right to eat kitniyos now but as our ancestors did they are doomed to do it forever. Oh, and of course you can eat quinoa because that counts as a "grass". Whther its flour can also be confused with wheat flour doesn't make a difference.


Am I the only one to think there's something wrong in here? Actually, no. The Jerusalem Post published an article calling Israeli Ashkenazim to eat kitniyos: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1080796256619&apage=1

Now let me point out why I eat kitniyos on Pesach:

Nowadays Kashrus supervision has reached a high standard and thus a "fence" is not necessary. If I buy Pesach Nutella with R. Madar's hashgacha, I can be sure there's no Chometz in there. Just as sure as the Sefardim who also eat it.

Kashrus isn't meant to separate Jews from Jews, but Jews from Goyim. Nowadays, in Europe as much as in E''Y many Ashekazim have Sefardi friends, spouses and relatives. So you should be unable to eat their food? It's the same thing for meat all year round: I eat glatt kosher at home but with friends or at restaurants I don't mind stom kosher.
Now they (the OU on it's website for example) tell me it's a great minhag "practised by Gedolei Yisroel" not to eat kitniyos. That's a great reason to eat kitniyos actually. I mean if the same people who banned Slifkin banned Kitniyos... ;-) Joke aside, what about all the great rabbonim who never practized that minhag? R. Yosef Caro comes to my mind immediately. The Rambam. Any Sefardi.

But there were some important Ashkenazi poskim who opposed the ban as well, most notably R. Yaakov Emden (in his Sefer Mor uKitzi'ah al Shulchan Aruch) as well as his father, the Chacham Tzvi. They state that through observing the minhag, people care much about Kitniyos but tend to neglect paying attention not to create actual chometz.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

 

More uncovered heads

I. A reader brought to my attention an article halachically defending the Litvishe minhag not to cover one's head by R. Michael Broyde, shlita, Rebbe at YU and dayan in the Beis Din of America. You can read it on his blog at http://houseofhock.blogspot.com/2004/11/here-is-answer-to-my-question-by-r.html

II. Another Sephardic rav who wrote a teshuva that paskened mutar for married Jewish women with uncovered heads was R. Yosef Messas zt''l, originally of Mekn├Ęs, Morocco and later chief rabbi of Haifa. He saw head covering as a minhag related to the Arabs' hijabs. Since Moroccan Jewry was switching to European, and particularly French culture then, he was matir not wearing headcoverings anymore. Though there is no online source for the actual teshuva I am aware of, it is confirmed both at http://www.cheela.org (website in French) and http://www.ottmall.com/mj_ht_arch/v30/mj_v30i35.html (in English).
 

The Ben Ish Chai on headcoverings

One of the greatest Sefardi acharonim, Rabbi Yosef Chaim was Hacham (Chief Rabbi) of Bagdad and lived from 1832 to 1904. He is commonly referred to as the "Ben Ish Chai" after his most famous halachic works.

I think the text speaks for itself, let me just add that I am posting it in response to chareidim who claim there is no single (!) renowned posek being matir of women not covering their heads nowadays.

"One may not pray or study Torah in front of the exposed hair of a women which is usually kept covered. This applies to the hair of all married women, no matter what age they are, or what the look like. Unmarried girls are not required to cover their hair, so one may pray and study in front of them.""In those countries where the custom is not to cover the hair which cannot be contained by the hairnet, it is permissible to pray and study in fron of the uncovered hair since people are used to seeing it. This is also true of those countires where it is the custom for women to keep their hair long, and to let it hang down their backs in plaits (i.e., even though most of it is covered by a scart, it is not always entirely covered).""In my work Mequabbelziel, I conclude that , in those countires where Jewish women do not cover their hair at all, such as in parts of Europe, on may pray and study in front of their uncovered hair since, {because} it has become the widespread practice {hair has become regarded as a portion of the body which is usually exposed}.""[In Quanun al Nasa, (chapter 17), the author adds: According to our understanding of the Halachah, a woman is fordidden to expose her hair, but the Europeans give the excuse that the custom to cover one's hair was never fully accepted in Europe, either amongst Jewish or non-Jewish women, and thus hair has always been regarded as an exposed part of the body, and thus does not give rise to sexual thoughts in men.]"Coversely however, European women wear stockings, and do not expose their fee or legs at all. If someone travels {from the East} to Europe, even though his own wife follows the Easter custom of not covering her feet, he must still not pray or study in fron t o a European woman who is not wearing stockings in deference to the prevalent custom of the country in which he is staying."

(source: http://www.hashkafah.com/index.php?showtopic=3480&st=0)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

 

French Police

On http://www.orthodoxanarchist.com/2005/02/on-becoming-shomer-shabbat.php Orthodox Anarchist describes being searched by police on Shabbos. Personally, I also had an unpleasant encounter with two police officers a few months ago.

As there are no border controls within continental EU anymore since 1995 (extended to some more states in 2001), police have on the other hand received the right to stop and control anyone "suspicious". Suspicious being defined by the police officer...

Usually there's nothing more to that. I know of a major prison next to an extremely busy autobahn. Every time someone manages to run off, the close down the whole autobahn and search all cars.

But then, last autumn, I was in Paris. I knew to be careful with Arabs. They had almost beaten me up before, when I only wore a kipa. But this was Motzei Shabbos and I was in hat and costume. I decided to go and meet friends on that evening, we were planning on going out in a nice kosher Chinese restaurant.

I had gotten out of the Jewish quarter and was on my way by foot in the center of Paris. I walked around. After a while, two police officers stopped me.

Police officer: We've been watching you, you look suspicious. Can we see your ID please?
Me (takes out ID) : Here it is.
Police officer: What nationality are you?
Me: (answers my nationality, some European country)
Police officer: Ummmm, of what origin are you?
Me: (same answer again)
Police officer (looks closely at ID card again and says): Ok, you can go. But get away from here.

There are two interesting facts in here. One is that looking Jewish is considered suspicious by French police. I'm wondering why I'm surprised by this, in a country that bans wearing kipa in staten schools. The second is that French government officials are forbidden to ask for religion. My recommendation: If there's a way to avoid it, don't tell them.

Now draw your own conclusions from this. Are Arabs the only problem in France? (Hint: Who voted for Neonazi Jean-Marie Le Pen? Arabs or Frogs?)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

 

Overview

How many Jews are there in Europe? Since most European countries do not count their populations according to religion, and even where it is done, many Jews will not register as such we have to rely on estimates.
In the European Union (thus excluding notably Russia and Ukraine), there are about 1.5 million Jews on a total population of 455 million people. There are about 60% Ashkenazim and 40% Sefardim.
The largest Jewries live in France with about 600 000 Jews, 300 000 in the UK, 200 000 in Germany and 100 000 in Hungary. Most are nominally orthodox, whereas practice varies a lot regionally. The same is true for antisemitism, economical sitaution, origins etc. As every community has its distinct features, I am going to present some communities in further detail on this blog soon.
 

Welcome

As "Old Europe" is being idealized a lot in the Jewish blogosphere, I thought I'd finally gonna throw in my own 10 cents worth and start a blog.
Is grass really greener on the other side? Are all Jews in the US Reform, all Israelis Hilonim, and all European Tzaddikim? Read on to find out... As an Orthodox Ashkenazi Jew grown up and living in Europe I'll present you some general information, insights in current issues and some opinions, too.
Feel free to comment on my posts and add suggestions for what I should blog about.

The Jewropean

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?