Friday, December 10, 2010

Judaism and the State

The other day we had a fascinating public discussion at our synagogue. Prof. Danny Schwartz is doubtful of the direction the Rav Benny Lau is taking us in, of ever greater communal engagement and national expression. A shul, says Danny, is a shul, for religious services; all the other stuff should happen elsewhere. Within the discussion of principles he's particularly troubled by the specifics of having a flag flying in front of the synagogue, and the singing of Hatikva at the end of the services of Yom Kippur. He expressed his sentiments in a riveting lecture about Judaism, nationalism, ancient history and Hannukah. Other members of the community then responded, and the rav summed it up.

The video of the event is here. It's long - almost two hours - but worth every minute (it gets better as it goes).

The one problem might be that it's in Hebrew. But in what language should it be?


Jon said...

I happen to agree with him. While part of our religion is a certain type of nationalism, stuff like Hatikva which was written to exclude any religious content should probably be sung at some other time than Yom Kipur.

Just a Thought said...

I disagree. This is no more than done by many other countries, and anyway Israel is a special case. Why are Jews so foolishly ashamed of being Jews?

Victor said...

Do you really need to sing Hatikvah to feel Jewish after Yom Kippur services, or any services for that matter? I haven't been to conservative shuls for years, but even then I thought it was strange that people were slouching during services but straightened up for hatikvah.

Your basic minchah service contains more affirmation of peoplehood, and with a greater "real" effect, to the extent that davening is a spiritual act and hatikvah is just a beautiful song.

This goes back to certain Jews' obsession with all things Israel, spending hours a day refreshing haaretz and jpost, but don't ask them to take any real action in developing their yiddishkeit, which will take far less time and will have far more significant results, both for Jews and for Israel.

Carrie said...

What's wrong with Jews who don't follow the religion but care about Israel?

I am one of those people, and I wish more non-religious Jews cared about Israel as much as I do. Frankly, I think if ALL Jews, religious or otherwise, would care about Israel then that would have a better result - for Jews and Israel.

Victor said...


I wasn't speaking of religion. I think we should all be less religious. I was speaking purely of expressions of peoplehood - which is what I think you mean when you say you "care about Israel". It's an expression of your connection with the Jewish people.

That's fine. Hatikvah a beautiful song. If that's enough for you, wonderful. For me, it's not enough. For me, lighting shabbos candles is also an expression of peoplehood, studying the texts and observing the customs and laws of our people is an expression of peoplehood. I don't feel that my connection to my people is complete without these overt acts, these expression of my essential nature, which are shared by my people. But if you can get all that by singing Hatikvah (or Yerushalayim shel zahav, or what have you) more power to you.

For me, Hatikvah is just the air-puffed icing on a very many layered cake. If you think the icing is good, try the cake.

Carrie said...

In your opinion, is a married woman wearing a wig an "expression of peoplehood?"

Hatikvah is a beautiful song but it has nothing to do with my Jewishness. I follow what goes on in Israel because I have [what I feel is] a natural connection to the Jewish People, and not because it makes me feel more Jewish.

Victor said...

Modesty is an expression of our peoplehood. I don't take sides in the wig/scarf issue, but I'm a BT in the American midwest. My minimal jewish wife requirements begin and end with "jewish".

Ok, hatikvah doesn't have anything to do with your Jewishness, but for a lot of people it's a placeholder for where real knowledge and understanding about their faith and people should be. There is a generation that is rebelling against placeholders - we want the real deal, not some misty eyed programming. This gets back to what Yaacov brought up. When I hear of kids singing Hatikvah in an American Jewish day school, all I can think of is that the next generation of anti-Zionists is being bred. They're all going to meet up in 20 years at a Peace Now convention and bemoan how they were force fed Zionism. I'd really rather have young American Jews learn nothing about Israel than go through the mandated programming they receive, with a failure rate approaching 75%. At least that way when they finally are introduced to Israel in their twenties, they can think it through, instead of trying to punish their parents. In that sense, Hatikvah (what it represents, not the song itself) is the problem.

Silke said...

you are reminding me a bit of the way I was force-fed Jesus which didn't turn me against my parents who weren't interested in religion but against the (protestant) church which imposed such teachers on us via our school system. Catholics may have gone about it in the same style, I wouldn't know, at school during religion lessons we were segregated.

Carrie said...

Yes, I was also force-fed religion in Yeshiva, as well as Zionism to a much lesser I am a Zionist and not at all religious. So make of that what you will.

Maybe Zionism replaced Judaism for American Jews in the 60's-70's, but now only anti-Zionism and total disregard for Israel and other Jews have replaced Judaism for American Jews. Now we have so-called pro-Israel Jewish journalists and pundits shilling for the PA and trying to teach those Jews in Israel a lesson! Modern day Kissingers are all over the place.

On another note, I don't consider it modest when frum women pay thousands of dollars for wigs that look much nicer than their actual hair. I think we should have an honest discussion of what modesty really means in 2010.

Victor said...

The wig thing is really an American "invention". The basic premise why it was introduced, as I understand it, goes like this...

It is a matter of Jewish law that a married woman's hair should be covered. We're not Muslims. On a practical level, this isn't about creating a cage to lock the woman up or control her, because her sexuality and our (manly) sexual desire scares us. This is how Muslims think, and because there are so many of them, and because they stone people to death on CNN, this is how most of the world approaches modesty - it's oppressive and repulsive.

Jewish modesty has nothing to do with Arabs. They took a beautiful thing, raped it, butchered it and mutilated its corpse, and then put it on a platter as an example of modesty. I also reject it! What kind of sick person would treat a woman like an animal, to be caged ("for her own protection", of course).

Jewish modesty isn't about creating a cage to keep human beings or their feelings and desires inside. It's about creating borders to keep the outside world out. There is a lot of spirituality and meaning that is condensed into practical Jewish law.

What good is a home that anyone off the street can just walk through? It's not safe, it's not comfortable. You have random people, some of them dangerous, just roaming through the rooms, opening the windows during winter, smoking in your bedroom, looking through all your affairs, taking food from your refrigerator. Who would want to live like this? It's not a real home, a place where you can be yourself. So, we put a lock on the door. The locks aren't there to lock people in, they're to keep people out. By limiting access, you create a space for something truly meaningful - a safe, warm, welcoming home for a family to live and grow in.

This is a very common concept in Judaism. By creating limits, boundaries in space and time, we create a place for spirituality to develop, a space for holiness to fill. Shabbos is one such boundary in time. We have all these seemingly restrictive rules about Shabbos, do this, don't do that, from this time to that time, etc. They're oppressive, these boundaries!

The walls of a cup are also boundaries. Aren't they oppressive? They don't allow the water to just spread over the surface of the table, which it very much wants to do, but hold it, against its will, so to speak, within their walls. But Victor, you'll say, that's silly. If we didn't have the boundaries of a cup, we couldn't enjoy the water it holds. We'd be lapping the floor with our tongues like dogs, trying to quench our thirst, instead of taking a pleasant sip of hot tea from our favorite mug.

There's much more to it, but suffice it to say that limits, boundaries have their place, and a married Jewish woman covering her is one such boundary - not as a tool of oppression, to keep her in, but as an agent of holiness, to create a cup from which only her husband and family can benefit. Other such boundaries exist in a family - some are the responsibility of the husband, some of the children, and this one happens to be the responsibility of the married woman.

Victor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor said...

Now on to the sheitel. As I understand it, the situation is like so... Traditionally, married Jewish women would cover their hair with a scarf. This was common (among all married older women, not just Jewish ones) where I grew up. When large numbers of central and eastern European observant Jewish women came to the US, they faced a new context - American women haven't traditionally covered their hair. In the old country, wearing a scarf was normal - here, it was (and is) old, unsightly.

One of the things I've learned growing up is that no one knows how to make a woman feel worse about herself than another woman. Nothing a man could ever say could compare with the cold steel that some women sharpen to a razor's edge and keep in reserve to use against another woman.

So, it became an issue that observant Jewish women were faced with a difficult choice. They could safely wear their scarves within communal boundaries, but once they stepped out, they would face harassment and ostracism, especially from other women. This wasn't 2010 America, where if you disparage a Muslim woman's veil you're a racist blight on society. When the choice was to endure bitter humiliation or to take the scarf off, there was a concern that many Jewish women would choose the later.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly, but very quietly, encouraged Jewish women to wear the sheitel (the wig), as an alternative. There are video interviews of the first woman he spoke to regarding this. There wasn't any coercion, just an encouragement to try it. She was very reluctant at first but ended up becoming a main force in spreading this custom. A sheitel fulfills the requirements of Jewish law but allows a woman to feel beautiful.

I can't tell you how many young Jewish women I've known - well, it hasn't been that many, maybe 5 - who before becoming more observant were like, "I am NEVER putting on a wig!", and after two or three years couldn't imagine not wearing one after they were married.

As a man, I don't get it - I think scarves look great, and I can't imagine how hot a sheitel must get in the summer - but I decided a long time ago that things like this are really not very important to me. I am confident that Jewish men who feel militant about this issue can find something more meaningful to occupy their time with. I don't see anyone forcing Jewish women to do this, at least in my community, so as long as they have a choice, it's really none of my business.

Anonymous said...

"stuff like Hatikva which was written to exclude any religious content should probably be sung at some other time than Yom Kipur.'

hashem hu haelohim is the proper ending for post yom kippur.

Anonymous said...

Victor -

With all respect, while your apolgetics are quite beautiful, they are historically inaccurate.

I don't have the time to go into it all now, but tons and tons have been written on the subject.

OTOH, Carrie, people do find a lot of common identification (sense of peoplehood, or group-hood, at least) through sharing a common uniform. So the sheitel is a very important social identifier within certain groups. Our people-ness is not monolithic.


Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Interesting video. In contrast, one of the speakers at the Chanukah symposium at Har Etzion said that part of what is important about a Jewish state is that we can rightfully restore religion to the public domain, and the individual can also express his/her religious expression unabashed in the public domain. It seems to me that the opposite would also be true. In a Jewish state we may return some of the expression of the concerns of the polis to the synagogue. In exile, prayers for the government, etc. can seem very artificial; but in Israel they take on an entirely different relevance.

I think some of this has to do with not only one's understanding of the present; but one's vision of where we are headed as a people and as a religious culture.

Barry Meislin said...

Um folks, connecting religion and politics is bad for religion and bad for politics.

Ditto for connecting religion and nationalism.

Make that super-ditto.

No, make that super-super-ditto.

File under: Aren't there enough problems already?...(?)

(Or maybe that should be: "Aren't things complicated enough already?...")

Silke said...

from novels I learned that there was a time when a "lady" wouldn't dream of leaving her home without a hat (or gloves or stockings or a chaperone)

so whether it's fashion or religion both seem to focus mostly on women's dress.

Exceptions I can think of are monks and Haredi and professional garbs of course like in soldiers and Arafat's rag.
(As to Haredi: I am never sure of where are which borders between groups, I am bad on remembering it wherever it occurs as I am bad on remembering ranks or titles)

Anonymous said...

Is the video available in streaming or only download?


Lee Ratner said...

Victor, are you shore about your history? For a good chunk of the 20th century, most women would wear a hat when venturing outside. Most men to. Especially if they were middle class or above. During the mid-twentieth century, I think women in the West wore a scarf around their head similar to the least covering versions of the Islamic hijab. During most of the 20th and all of the 19th century, a Jewish women would have felt no embarrasement about using a hat or scarf to cover her hair in the United States or Europe.

Re Jewish peoplehood, the fact that there is a secular Jewish culture is an advantage to us. It means that even if a Jew isn't religious, they at least have a secular Jewish culture to connect to and remain part of the people rather than completely fall away. Its something that I wish more people would recognize.

Carrie said...

Victor, thanks for your explanations.

If the point, as you explained, of a married woman wearing a wig is to "keep people out" such as strangers, the outside world, etc, I really don't see how a wig that looks nicer than their own hair will keep out such a stranger. As a matter of fact, it may entice them even more. Which is why, from a modesty point of view, the wearing of a wig may be one of the more sillier things a Rabbi has suggested in present times...

On the other hand, I don't find the wearing of a scarf silly, or offensive or anything, as long as the woman is the one who makes the decision to wear one.

By the way, most Modern Orthodox men I know will not date a girl who they know will refuse to wear a wig after they get married. I think that it is basically a given in the [Ashkenazi] Modern Orthodox world that a married woman will wear a wig, or snood, or both.


Of course they all basically wear wigs now because their Rabbis have pushed it so much. They would be outcasts within their community if they didn't. I know a woman who decided not to wear it and it was a big deal. I don't think this is a good thing, even if it provides social cohesion within the Modern Orthodox community.

Victor said...

Carrie, I discussed the value and role of modesty, but not the reason why a woman's hair and not, say, her eyes or ears, are covered. It requires quite a bit of set-up, much mysticism, and I'm frankly not sure I could do the subject justice.

Honestly, it's not something that interests or concerns me very much. Whatever a woman wants to do is fine, and really, I don't see why I should get a say in the matter. I know that there exist very dogmatic communities - I think this is especially true in Israel - where every detail of dress and custom is rigorously enforced through social pressure. As long as people have a choice to be a part of those communities, or not, I don't have a problem with them.

I think dress is the easiest thing to change and control about oneself, and there is significant value in using this leverage over the external as a tool for internal spiritual growth.

That said, I don't have very much patience for zealots and purity police, and I don't see them as at all compatible with our faith.

If you're interested in the subject of modesty and covering the hair, from a woman's standpoint with regards to law and spirituality, check out the work of Rabbi Manis Friedman. He is one of the top womens issues and spirituality professionals in the world - not the Jewish world, THE world. There's a phone number on that site. Just call and ask.

And Lee, yes, you're right, hats were also very common, but I think more so for Western European Jewish women than Eastern. I'll try to find the interview with that woman that the Rebbe asked to spread the sheitel - it might be on youtube.

Victor said...

Carrie, I just want to address a few of your points that I maybe didn't earlier.

First, there is disagreement among different observant communities whether wearing a sheitel or a scarf/kerchief is more appropriate.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was very strongly for the sheitel. I think Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, is strongly against it and in favor of scarves, but I could be wrong.

The main issue is simply that the hair be covered, completely - kissui harosh. Hats don't cover the hair entirely and kerchiefs, as the Rebbe repeatedly asserted, have a remarkable tendency to slide down or into the pocket at the first discomfort. A woman wearing a scarf is constantly tested, because moving the scarf up just a couple of inches looks so much better - from what I've heard - than wearing it properly. There is a constant tension to make adjustments that may compromise adherence to the law. In contrast, a woman won't take off her sheitel in any public circumstance; it's just too cumbersome.

With regards to the beauty of a sheitel, it's an issue for any hair covering. There are very beautiful scarves also. The issue is not to prevent a woman from appearing beautiful, merely to conceal the hair. Why the hair and not another portion of the body, as I wrote earlier, is a much deeper conversation.

Anonymous said...

"Of course they all basically wear wigs now because their Rabbis have pushed it so much. They would be outcasts within their community if they didn't. "

Depends on the community-what percentage of those attending the meeting where the video is from kept their hair covered-it appears less than 100%-so obviously not outcasts in every community

Jon said...

Carrie: I don't know who you (think you) know, but I've lived in the MO world my entire life, and I've NEVER met an MO woman who wore a wig. Hat? Yes. Snood? Not really. Head-scarf? Yes. Bare-headed? Most of the time. Wig? Absolutely not.

Another thing: you're not male, so you wouldn't know. I am. I have never found myself attracted to a woman wearing a wig. I've met plenty, among them plenty that would be very attractive if the hair were real. Alas, it's just a tad bit obvious, and completely shuts down any attraction that might have taken place. So really, if you don't mind my blunt opinion, it sounds like your criticism of Orthodoxy is based on your experiences in day school (which you found necessary to bring up) that were negative for whatever reason, than any sort of actual fact. I recommend moving on.

Regardless, I think it's amusing that you've abandoned the Jewish religion yet still think you're part of the "we" that "needs to have a discussion about wig-wearing."

Victor said...

And ridicule is your contribution to bringing Carrie closer to yiddishkeit? If that's your intent, the only conceivable outcome, which you very well know, is failure. And if that's not your intent, then you're just acting like an ass, and what good is all that Torah knowledge in the head of an ass?

We're past Chanukah already, and you still haven't internalized Sukkos. The lulov and esrog are brought together, not picked apart.

Silke said...

ah Victor

you really would be the right person to bang some heads together at another blog thread I am watching where they
(I like both main protagonists who are both no compromise pro-Israel equally well)
indulge in such bickering that a rural family wedding is nothing compared to it.

Jon said...

Victor: if she's going to be brought closer to Yiddishkeit at all, I can trust you to be Hillel. I'm not very good at it, so I'll be Shammai instead. Someone needs to stick up for us when we're being attacked.

Carrie said...

Anyone who claims to be an American Modern Orthodox Jew who says they have never met a MO woman who wears a wig is quite simply a liar. So much for yiddishkeit. Someone who lies and verbally attacks people over the internet is already less religious than I am.

Also, anyone who wants to tell people they can't discuss certain aspects of the religion because they are not religious enough, or feels "attacked" by a polite, interesting conversation, should just convert and move to Iran already.

Carrie said...

Depends on the community-what percentage of those attending the meeting where the video is from kept their hair covered-it appears less than 100%-so obviously not outcasts in every community

Can you link me to the video?
Just to clarify I mistakenly wrote "wig" in that last paragraph when I meant any type of head covering. Also, I apologize because I wasn't clear, but I was referring to a few MO communities I know of around here. I also know some MO women who don't cover their head and some who even wear pants. But I didn't bring them up b/c they didn't have anything to do with the discussion.

Victor said...

Being a Shammai with others is easy. Their flaws, their wrongdoing is staring us right in the face. When it comes to ourselves, however, we're an eager Hillel, effortlessly finding all sorts of excuses and justifications for our behavior.

We should be like Shammai with ourselves, and like Hillel with one another. Have you learned Chofetz Chaim? I thought MO are big into him. When we're good to one another the accuser is silenced. Even when the whole nation was practicing avodah zarah it was ignored because Jews practiced shmiras haloshon. The laws of rebuking your fellow are also given by Chofetz Chaim, and as you know are quite stringent.

I know it's not easy. I don't know what MO do to make it easier. The Litvischers think about their growing mountain of s'char, I guess. Chassidum learn chassidus. Ch. 32 of Tanya discusses "love your fellow as yourself". It's commonly interpreted as "treat people the way you want to be treated". That sounds good, but it's actually quite selfish, self-centered, body-centered, anti-spiritual. The only reason to be good to others is so that they're good to you? Could we get more self-serving than that? We couldn't learn that on our own? We needed G-d to bust up the biggest empire on earth, release 2 million slaves and give them His divine wisdom for this?

No, the lesson of love your fellow as yourself is to first understand that neither the fellow nor you really exist (Ch. 31). There is no separation on a spiritual level - we're from one source, like the rays of the sun penetrating the many windows of a home.

Love your fellow as yourself is to be taken literally - your fellow IS yourself, they are you, an indivisible part of you, and you of them. You can't push them away without pushing yourself away, any more than you can push your left hand away with your right.

I know how you feel. There you are, minding your own business, when someone hits you in the head with a bat. It hurts! Why did they do that? Don't they know it hurts? They did it on purpose! You want to hurt them back, to defend your wounded pride and the Torah.

So you pick up an axe and cut off your left hand! That'll show 'em! Before you had a bruised head. Now you have a bruised head and no left arm. Who is laughing now?!

No one is saying you have to roll over. Not at all, you have a unique responsibility to help a fellow Jew. You don't need an axe to do that. Think about it.