Thursday, January 12, 2012

Get It Right

Kana-us, the corrupted Hebrew word for kana-ut or zealotry has taken Israel and the Jewish community worldwide by a storm creating unprecedented blowback. The proverbial straw that broke the camels back causing a robust and muscular backlash was the incident in Beit Shemesh the last week of December 2011 where an eleven year old modern orthodox girl was spat upon and derided with opprobrious behavior and language due to her lack of acceptable deportment as per the standards of a deviant haredi community, traumatizing her to the point where she became apoplectic. This misogynistic attitude is nothing new in the haredi community. Hitherto it has been camouflaged with a lot of double speak seeking ways by which they can eat their cake and leave it whole. Praying for centuries the morning prayer “...shelo asani isha,” a sure recipe for subliminal brainwashing, tucking women away behind an almost impervious wall for services, dictating the nature of their clothing, and their head covering is the potent ingredients for applied kanaus. The majority of haredim who were offended by the actions of the zealots over the past few weeks were surprisingly offended to see the fruit of their labor. It isn’t clear that their rejection of kana-us was principled or that they wished to distance themselves from a politically unpopular position. Once they saw and felt the swift, sharp backlash they may have realized that their time hadn’t yet arrived. Perhaps these putative moderate haredim will have to wait another generation when their demographic numbers have swollen to the point of critical mass in Israeli politics and public opinion to effectuate putting women in their rightful places (in the back of the bus and designated sidewalks).

Kanaus is firmly entrenched in the psyche of the haredi community and the question, which begs to be asked, is when did kana-us become a mainstay in the haredi mindset? In a recent article written by a haredi journalist troubled with the recent outbreak of kana-us J. Rosenblum references Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz that “only one filled with Aaron’s quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of kanai. Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef shalom is a murderer pure and simple.” The difficulty with this is that kana-us becomes laudable if it is applied and executed by a person with the right qualifications. That’s why, according to this warped reasoning Pinchas was able to run a javelin through the genital area of Zimri and Kozbi; considered a hero by some and used as a standard for kana-us. The xenophobia demonstrated in biblical text as well as the misogyny are two key ingredients which molded some within the haredi community into some of the worst human beings within the collective Jewish community.

Another ingredient that goes into the making of kanaus is the concept of daas torah. Several years ago I wrote an essay on the damage daas torah has inadvertently wrought on the haredi community:
“The concept of Daas Torah is firmly rooted in the recognition that Hashem ‘looked into the torah and created the universe’ (Breishis Rabbah 1:1). The torah provides history’s agenda, past, present and future, and encompass the world’s every secret. Those who have merited to acquire Torah thus possess the best credentials for effectively addressing the world’s problems, and those who doubt the Torah leader’s ability to ‘understand politics’ thereby redefine the meaning of Judaism.”

This comment presumably self-explanatory wouldn’t have been so stunningly audacious, had it been said by a na├»ve yeshiva bachur or a disillusioned kollelnick. Unfortunately, this was written years ago by the late Rabbi Sherer of Agudas Israel as part of an article entitled Torah in the Proper Place, which I stumbled over while researching the theme of authority and dissent in Jewish tradition.

Daas Torah, a term of fairly recent origin, is understood to mean that through intense Torah study and the rigorous practice of the mitzvoth, one will have a greater understanding of God’s will. Daas Torah can be a compelling ethos for people in search of guidance, when they voluntarily seek it out. However, when dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated as in Rabbi Sherer’s vision and description of Judaism and the stature of the gedolim, than we have the makings of a cult, controlling people through peer pressure and charismatic leadership. Sherer says in the same article that “it is the responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the fact that our gedolim are the foremost experts not only in matters of Jewish law, but in social and political issues as well.”

So the question then becomes, which gadol is the one who sets the gold standard. Why ought it not be a gadol who believes literally that “shelo asani isha” means precisely what it says without parsing words? Why can’t it be the gadol who believes that misogyny is the express intention of our sacred text as understood by that gadol without the need for further elaboration? As odious as it may feel or sound daas torah is determined by a gadol who has a following and is recognized as one steeped in Torah, regardless of whether one agrees with him. Why should these zealots give any credence to the daas torah of more moderate and perhaps less intellectually honest gedolim? Certainly the moderate gedolim have been compromised as Jonathan Rosenblum writes in Mishpacha Magazine, December 21, 2011:
“A few years ago, I asked a gadol whether he had addressed certain socio-economic problems …on contemporary issues. He told me that he could not do so because if he did the kanaim would say he was not really a gadol. In other words, he could not address pressing issues because if he did he would become so discredited that no one would listen to him anyway.”

It would appear that this gadol was more concerned about being undermined and preserving his own status than shouting out the truth from the rooftop of his kloiz. Unfortunately the kanaim have it up on the moderates because they have no need to spin or parse words. They call it as they understand, and this, for them is daas torah.

Kana-us will continue to plague the Jewish people and pose a threat to the fabric of democracy in Israel unless the moderate haredi community stops spinning when kana-us is a good thing, and rejects it in toto. It is never good. Kana-us leads to blood shed. Pinchas, in his kana-us murdered two people and was responsible for a blood bath that made St. Valentine’s massacre child’s play. Furthermore, the mainstream haredi community must stop any social/religious practice that smacks of misogyny (and re-examine the appropriateness of "shelo asani isha as did R’ Abraham Farissol, a 15th century Italian rabbi who wrote a siddur replacing shelo asani isha with “she-asatani isha ve-lo ish) or xenophobia (spitting on Greek Orthodox priests). For the moderate haredi community to prevail they will have to get it right.