Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kinnos Confessios: A Tisha B'Av story

Openminded meditations spurred on by a visit to Yad V'shem on the Ninth of Av.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

More Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem

This year we had three children changing schools - these periods of transition cause us alot of anxieity, as I imagine they do for any chozer b'tshuva, that is, any one who has come back to Judaism. It's a time when - you imagine - the world which you've entered is judging you. And you wonder whether you're living up to their standards and expectations.

One of my sons had a particularly rough time in his last school - a combination of bad circumstances and mismatched personalities. I spent three years playing defense - trying to maintain the status quo until the next stage. Given the unhappy - but ultimately stable marriage - we decided to find a new place on our own, a yeshiva a bit unconventional and off the beaten track (such is our family).

To my surprise, a few days later, I received a call from my son's Rosh Yeshiva. This was a different voice on the phone - not the bearer of bad news, of imminent catastrophe, of predictions of a dour future. But rather, he was now telling me that my son had chosen the wrong yeshiva (a place, as he described it, for hefker boys - boys on the street): my son, he explained was much 'too stark' - serious and disciplined - for a yeshiva like that.

'Hmmm,' I thought. For the past several years, the Rosh Yeshiva had been hard-pressed to find a single encouraging word to say about him, and now - all of a sudden - he was 'stark?' He went on to recommend three other places - all of which I knew about, and two of which a person who knows my family, my son, and the institutions in question said, 'they are absolutely lo matim' - not suitable.

So how to explain? Though King Solomon says that a child should be educated according to his own path - and that each path is necessarily different and individual, the Rosh Yeshiva - so it seems to me - was more interested in the reputation of his yeshiva than the educational well-being of my son. It's not that all of a sudden my son had transformed in his eyes, but rather, he did not want alumni of his yeshiva going to the unconventional place we had chosen (and which turns out, by the way, not to be as he had described it). But money is tight, choices multiply; pressures abound: the Rosh Yeshiva was simply playing defense.

So the needs of the individual - what the Torah so much emphasizes are sacrificed. Sound familiar?

No one needs to be told of the riots in Jerusalem - brought on by the arrest of a dysfunctional woman, taken into custody by Jerusalem authorities for child abuse, likely for starving her child. So while we always maintain our skepticism about the press and the State - though it seems to me some turn on their skepticism selectively - the fate of the child is ignored, as the right-wing forces in the charedi world use the opportunity to stoke the flames of the culture wars. The parking lot has not worked to get our children into the streets; but perhaps the story of the abused charedi woman (note, the child is not under discussion) will.

Garbage bins have been burned (why burn your own garbage cans?), municipal employees attacked, police wounded. And while all the fires burn, there is not a peep - I keep on waiting - a voice of condemnation from the rational charedi leaders. But nothing. To say that there are no such authorities - as I imagine I hear some of my readers - would be false. I studied with them! and the people with whom they studied! It's their silence which is inexplicable.

Or perhaps they are also - just playing defense. Faced with the culture wars that they have not so much lost but rather mishandled or misunderstood, their defensiveness renders them silent. Or worse. In the library, yesterday, I spoke to a few of the library charedim (such I think of them, and count myself among them), and even they complained that the 'mayor is an idiot,' that 'the press is to blame,' that the municipality was guilty of 'collective punishment.' And on and on... I thought of BBC reports over the past years about Serbia - in which the citizens of a country which has committed the most egregious crimes could only think of the injuries they had suffered: 'we are the victims!'

We are not Serbians (or Palestinians) who also always sing the mantra of 'collective punishment.' We have the book, A Guide for Non-Defensive Jewish Living - it's otherwise known as the Torah; perhaps we might try to start living by it. So this is not the time for recrimination (the flip-side of defensiveness), but rather an opportunity for acknowledgement: the leaders in the charedi world have to speak up. Not only privately - 'my son would never go to such a protest,' a friend related - but in public, so everyone knows. And not only for the sake of our reputation among the eyes of others (that too), but first and foremost for ourselves. Perhaps, if one child saw a poster on the streets of Jerusalem with the name of one of the rabbis whom he holds in esteem, condemning the destruction of property and injury of person, than one less policeman - or one less child! - might be injured.

The charedi stance of claiming to speak only to its own audience -' and you see, our children don't go!' - is not only disengenous, but false. Charedim are happy to use the means of mass communication when it suits them. The embrace of billboards, newspapers and other mass forms of dissemination not only makes the current silence now more thunderous, but, even worse, has had the effect in some parts of the community of undermining one of the mitzvos upon which the Torah is built. Aseh l'cha Rav - make for yourself a Rav - presupposes a personal relationship with a rabbi, or a teacher, or a righteous person. Not a billboard or a newspaper.

In the name of a perverted form of da'as Torah - the right and single and only Torah perspective - the processes of mesora, of creative inheritance, are are thrown by the way side. Here is the irony: modern forms of communication (though certainly, I admit, not the most up to date) are employed by the right-wing fringes in their all-or-nothing fight against modernity. And without a tempered - and public - voice of a Jewish world committed to Torah, the ideological distortion of Torah will prevail. So eliciting that part of us - we are all potential fundamentalists, Freud wrote - which craving only authority, renounces the and freedom upon which mesora is also based.

It's in the culture of billboards and newspapers - where single voices of Torah manufactured by the courtyards - chatzerot - of poster makers and newspaper editors - squelch out any voice of difference of multiplicity. It's in this environment, that charedi boys fill the streets on hot July afternoons - hurling rocks and bottles. And it's in this envirnoment, that school principals - also on the defensive - think more about institutional reputations than the children under their charge.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Steppin' Up

When the people of Israel need a new leader, G-d turns to Moses and says: 'Take Joshua bin Nun.' The word take or קח - kach - does not mean, as we might understand, a physical action. But, as Rashi explains 'a taking' with and through words. There is no forceful recruitment; Moses is to convince Joshua. This is a lesson for spouses, parents and teachers - when we want to effect change we do so not with force, but whatever 'taking' there is to be done is with language. Discourse, not force, but also a discourse - not 'you'd better!' - of rationality.

Sometimes a single world, like 'kach,' in the Torah clues us in on a dramatic situation. With Moses and Joshua, there must have been a conversation. It's easy to imagine that Joshua did not want the leadership thrust upon him - 'I'm sitting and learning well; leave me alone!' So Moses - all of this in the word קח - has to convince his reluctant charge to take on the mantle of leadership.

In the Haftorah from the book of Jeremiah, there is a similar conversation recorded - this time between G-d and the author of the work that bears his name: 'Before you were born, I sanctified you, and chose you to be a prophet to the nations.' To which the prophet-to-be responds: 'Nothing doing G-d; I'm "young," a child. Go find someone else.' And G-d responds in turn, 'don't tell me about your "youth"; it's time to step up.'

Pinchos provides the counter image to Joshua and Jeremiah: he is also youthful. But the generation of the desert has reached a crossroads. Though Bilam was not able to curse Israel, Balak, the leader of the Midianites, has one more strategy: entice them with the women of Midian (including his own daughter!). The way the chassidic Ishbitzer's Mei Ha'Shloach reads the story, Zimri, a prince, is a tzaddik, a righteous person. But he is overwhelmed by desire for the Midianite princess Cuzbi - and loses himself. Notwithstanding his righteousness and his scrupulous attempts to guard himself from temptation, he is overwhelmed and succumbs. Through a magnetic attraction which he mistakes for love, Zimri gives into a desire that overcomes his ability to see and choose. He has a legal status of someone in onus; he is under duress. Or in more contemporary terms - I wonder whether the Ishbitzer would agree - he is subject to psychic energies he cannot master. He thought she was his beschert, writes the Ishbitzer, but in actuality she is activating a lustful desire which he cannot withstand. He hears the soundtrack from Love Story - but there's a different kind of music playing.

In this scenario, as the sages recount it, even Moses is unable to act, as Zimri taunts him: 'you also were involved with a foreign woman; your Tzipporah is also a Midianite, a convert.' And the further barb: 'So spare me your hypocrisy!' When the people of Israel look to their leader for guidance, he is forgetful - he does not know the law! Whatever small pangs of guilt made Moses silent and forgetful with guilt (there must have been something to Zimri's attribution), the people of Israel are left abandoned to tears. Overwhelmed by emotions - a mixture of desire, guilt and fear - the people of Israel are vulnerable to the relentless temptations of the Midianite King.

At that moment, the whole generation is dysfunctional - yet Pinchos sees, and acts. Pinchos steps up.

Though we are not called by G-d, sometimes we have a sense of a mission that calls us - of the need to step up. But like the prophets, we find our reasons to avoid it. And they are always good reasons - or seem so. 'I'm not ready.' 'I'm too young!' Or there are other kinds of avoidance (of these there are is never a shortage): The poet John Milton felt washed up at twenty-three, verging on despair, and giving up. But feeling belated, as Milton did, or too young, are equivalent ways of cheering ourselves up - subconsciously justifying inactivity.

'There must be someone else!' - the youthful prophets protest. To Joshua and Jeremiah, G-d says: 'there are certainly ambitious men who will step into your shoes; but I want you!' We are not prophets, but sometimes the clarity of a vision - for change, for tikkun - may call us. We will likely not be called upon our nation, but maybe by our families, our schools, our workplaces. For we will be privy to a vision which no one else sees, or is dissuaded from seeing, or is simply afraid to see.

So when, those around us are under duress - because of fear or guilt or whatever - we should not give up to the weaker part of ourselves, or ambitious men. We have to step up.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Internet Filters - To Be or Not to Be?

Your child returns from school or yeshiva one night with a surprise: a new computer.

So that's what happened to me: my sixteen year old came back the other night with a new MSI netbook (had he consulted me he would have bought the Asus). Such computers are designed for internet access, but strangely this one didn't pick up the wireless connection from the several routers in my building. (If you think charedim don't use the internet, take a netbook in your car, and drive through a charedi neighborhood, and see how many signals you pick up!). Since sixteen year olds know everything, he didn't acknowledge that he didn't know how to fix it - so we speculated that it must broken. Since the settings were all in Hebrew, I didn't know either.

It suited my purposes - I bided my time. Planned, travelled to, and return from London - 'I'm busy; I'll get to it! I will!' To be sure, upon my return, he wanted it to work. So I finally did the legwork - went to my personal computer guru in the library who did the equivalent of flicking a switch - pressed the fn key together with f9 - and, what do you know?: it wasn't broken after all.

Now many of my charedi friends - I use the term even though I dislike the sociological designation - may be sitting with jaws dropped in disbelief: 'why did you fix it?', or perhaps even more incredulously: 'you didn't take it away from him?!' Other charedim - in different neighborhoods, and probably not my friends - might exclaim more forcefully, as once appeared on the billboards in Jerusalem and B'nei Brak: 'the internet is a cancer!; you let a cancer in the house?'

I didn't think in those terms - though it did pass through my mind that I had the equivalent of a loaded weapon in my hands, and there was my son calling, asking about his computer - 'I need it abba!' 'Now!' So what to do?

So I installed an internet flilter. In the process of doing so, in front of the Arnon Windows at the National library, some of my modern orthodox and secular friends - those horrible designations again - wondered: 'what are you doing?' The same incredulity, but from a different place: 'we live in the world, and your son has to learn how to make choices.' And: 'adulthood is about facing challenges, and yet restraining from those things we know to be wrong.' They might have easily as quoted Milton's Areopagitica:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
So if trial is by what is contrary - give him the computer and let him learn to choose: 'Reason,' as Milton says, 'is but choice.'

Part of me agreed. A therapist friend told me of a clinical situation where a client with an internet addiction advised - 'every time you have thoughts of the internet, have a container of hot sauce handy, and dip into it and stick some in your mouth.' Pavlov for humans!

In another case, the therapist advised the client to make out a check for one thousand shekels to a good, but not great cause - let's say 'save the whales' - and to leave it signed in the therapist's drawer. If the client were to go back to his addiction, the therapist explained, he would dutifully submit the check to the charity. But as it turned out, the client didn't play the game - he just didn't tell the truth: 'Ani lo freier, he is reported to have said; 'I'm not a sucker.' In the continuation of the story, the therapist now clearly playing the role as big brother - the authority figure - sent his expert to put the appropriate filters on the computer. But notwithstanding, the client's desire - on some level, after all he chose to see the therapist - to beat his addiction, he found an equally competent expert, on some other pretext or other, to have the filter removed.

This is certainly not a model of psychic wholeness - where an external authority is battled (and usually outsmarted) by the irrepressible and always resilient powers of desire. Reason is choice. Not the threat of external punishment, or the presence of external controls - which ultimately attest to a psyche at war. So back to Milton: we don't after all take filters into daily life - we have to rely upon our ability to choose.

So why did I go with the filter? Because, though I know my son wants to be on the internet for the right reasons (e-mailing his grandparents, googling the six day war and cars), he may - unwittingly - become immersed in the wrong things. Were that to happen then the ability to choose - something of underestimated difficulty - may never develop. As a fellow blogger put it: 'we are always trying to calibrate external restraints to our child's ability to choose.' So to be sure, the filter - the external restraint - can't be the endgame or goal. But it might create enough space - in the meantime - for a curious and developing young person to learn how to choose as he becomes an adult.

What would you do?