Friday, December 24, 2010

Shoveling snow on the Sabbath, 2010 version

Almost identical to the 2009 sermon on the subject. And I'm using the cool cybergizmo that I stole from Lethargic Man. Put the cursor on the word "shinnuy" (below). And why it's being done this year by ffiona instead of Michael has to do with difficulties regarding Michael's signing on, but that's OK, since we're both the same person.

Snowy sidewalks are no big deal in themselves, but they become icy sidewalks after they've been walked on for a while, and those things are dangerous.

When it's necessary to shovel on the Sabbath, I always do so, wearing socks on my hands as a shinnuy. I haven't asked a rabbi about this, and this is out of respect for the rabbinate--I want to save them the embarrassment of possibly giving the wrong answer.

As a side note, I once told a friend, former and (I hope) future hevruta, and ethical adviser about this. He (who lives in an apartment where the landlord is responsible for shoveling, so it's not his problem) said he thought this a fine idea. Since it's just me, he said, I should do it without any distinctive Jewish accessories visible. If, however, I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, av beit din of the RCA and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who lives a few blocks away, he'd advise me to do it looking like I was R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz so everyone would know it's OK. I take his point, although I should point out that if I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, I wouldn't need his advice.

One Sabbath morning in 2009, there was a layer of slush on the sidewalk. I ignored it, since it was the Sabbath, and what would the people coming to lunch think? By Sunday morning, the slush had turned into solid ice with footprints.

So let's imagine that someone had injured themselves on the ice that I piously left there, and let's further imagine that I'd passed away and had to face the Heavenly Tribunal.

Members of the Tribunal (M"T): Well, what about this Mr. McNotzreigh who got injured on your ice?

Me: Sorry about that, but only a little, since I was observing Shabbat.

M"T: Very nice.

(I assume the M"T are Orthodox Jews, among whom "very nice" means "yeah, right, whatever.")

Right. Well, very nice. But from now on, I'm going to do what needs to be done and forgo the after-the-fact teshuvah.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Torah Jews

This is very similar to a vort I gave a few weeks ago at kiddush at Young Israel of West Rogers Park, Chicago, on the occasion of the yortzaits of my parents, Martin (Mordechai ben Dov Ber) and Dorothy (Devorah bat Yonah Moshe) Koplow. This post is dedicated to their memory.

My mother sort of vaguely believed in Gkd; my father had little more than disdain for any sort of religiosity. They were both very menshlich people--they treated others with courtesy and respect, they were kind, they were always fair in their dealings with other people.

If you go to enough Orthodox shuls and go to enough vorts, you're going to hear people say that a relative or friend is (or was) not frum, but is (or was) a menshlich person. Why do we say "but"? We've all heard this "but" statement so often that it shouldn't come as a surprise any more. And even without having heard this vort a hundred times, we all know that the world is full of Jews (not to mention others) who are not frum and who are exemplary menshes.

(We should note, by the way, that people in the other Jewish movements talk about us the same way. "I've got this uncle who's Orthodox, but he's a very decent guy.")

So why do we Orthos say "but"? Two reasons occur to me. The first is that we believe, rightly or wrongly, that our religion denies that it's possible for a Jew to be both menshlich and nonfrum. The second reason is a social one. We're afraid that if people hear us go around saying that someone is both nonfrum and menshlich, they might doubt our orthodox Orthodoxy; we say "but" as self-protection. If that's why we do it, it's possible we're not giving each other enough credit.

In chapter 3 of Avot, we have "Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah omer, im eyn torah eyn derekh eretz, im eyn derekh eretz eyn torah"--Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah says, if there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit, if there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah. Gkd forbid I should ever be so chutzpadik as to disagree with Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah, but I will say I don't know what he's talking about.

"Derekh eretz," by the way, has several possible meanings. One of the things it can mean is a job, and the compilers of the basic bilingual ArtScroll siddur translate it that way in this context: "If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah." Tempting as it is to make fun of ArtScroll--I sometimes indulge in it myself--that reading actually is plausible in this context. The mishnah continues: If there's no wisdom there's no awe, if there's no awe, there's no wisdom; no knowledge no discernment, no discernment no knowledge; and finally, if there's no flour there's no Torah, if there's no Torah there's no knowledge. So derekh eretz, Torah, and flour all go together. Which means derekh eretz and flour--meaning sustenance--go together. A job makes as much intuitive sense here as menshlichkeit.

Nevertheless, most commentators go with menshlichkeit here. Kehati summarizes the near-consensus very well. "If there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit": One who doesn't learn Torah and doesn't serve the students of the wise is not an ethical person and doesn't have good personal qualities, and he doesn't deal fairly with other people. "If there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah": The Torah of one who doesn't have good personal qualities and treat other people appropriately is a mess, and he defiles the Torah and makes it an object of contempt.

So let's go back to the first part of that. If a person is ethical and has good personal qualities and deals fairly with other people, it follows that he learns Torah and serves the students of the wise. Which leaves us where we started. As I said earlier, I don't know what Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah is talking about.

So what do we take home from this, given that we have no clue what this means (and Gkd forbid we should say he was mistaken)? Maybe the best thing is to acknowledge our cluelessness. Maybe all the movements should be less smug about who is a Torah Jew and less contemptuous about who isn't.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Card trick

While surfing the aether recently, I came across this post on the Than Book blog, in which the author reprints a discussion he participated in in the comments to a post on another blog, regarding Lubavitcher dissembling about Messianism. He concludes the post with a quotation from the host of the blog the discussion took place on:
So it would seem, that there is permission, if not an actual mandate, to hide the truth about Lubavitch messianism. IOW, you can't necessarily believe what they tell you about "Oh, I don't believe in that stuff". They may well, but because it's off-putting to other Jews, they may feel compelled to go so far as to lie about it. The Shi'i Muslims have a word for this: Taqiyya.
I'm disturbed by that last sentence, and by the fact that Than Book liked it enough to title the post "Lubavitcher Taqiyya." What would have been lost if that quotation had ended with "go so far as to lie about it"? Not much. Nothing except the chance to play the Shi'ite card, which seems to be a new variation on the old Nazi card. The illusionist taps his hat, pulls out a card, and goodness gracious, where did Khamenei come from? It looks like in this case the whole idea is to namecall and demonize.

And it's not even well-chosen namecalling. According to the linked Wikipedia article, taqiyya is lying in the face of persecution or other danger. We Jews can be unpleasant to each other, but I don't think we usually rise to quite that level.