Friday, August 24, 2007

On Tzniut

This irritated me so I thought I'd see if I could develop it into a worthwhile rant.

Brief disclaimer; basically none of this is directed at Yoni, since he's already made it quite clear that he defers to females in this area.

To begin, I will recount an anecdote. When I was in high school, we used to have bnei bayit at our house almost every shabbat for meals. Basically family friends, people we grew up with. People who enjoyed arguing, because, in case any of you have missed this, it's kind of an olympic sport in my house. I remember in particular one conversation about tzniut, involving one of these bnei bayit, a well-intentioned male who, it deserves mention, has nothing but respect for womenkind; but although his intentions were clearly respectful, they were also slightly misguided, and I remember saying, essentially, "Dude, how many classes have you had on the subject? How many lectures by guest speakers? How many sources have you read? How many 'informal casual discussions' with teachers? Over the course of your entire education?" He'd maybe had a class (read: single class period), heard a speaker, had a conversation or two with his rabbi. And I said "Yeah, I've had about four to five of each of those things per year since sixth grade, possibly earlier. And we're not even going into summer camp shaiur and extracurricular chugim stuff." Yeah, also this was pre-seminary. (Not to mention, we're (us females) the ones who shop for clothing, and wear the clothing, so we know things like what's available, what kind of stuff looks like what on our bodies, things abut drape and cut and material, etc, which most guys don't know or care about bichlal(excepting possibly Yoni ;))And he said "Huh; ok, so maybe you know a bit more about it than I do."

And that's kind of my point. You guys think you know what you're talking abut? Trust me, we do. At least, those of us with any background in the religous educational system. It's been rammed down our throats since we were old enough to dress ourselves. Mammash? You don't have to lecture us. Girls know what things look like on them. We wear what we want to wear, and we probably know the halachot better than you do. If you have a problem with it, kindly deal. Take it to your shrink. He's the only one who cares what you think about this anyway.

I mean, forget the business about being uninformed; (although trust me, chumrot in place of actual halachik knowledge? Not exactly minimal in this area) why would men make it their business to notice exactly what the women are or aren't wearing, and how that exactly fits in with the rules and standards, and then lecture us about it? Shouldn't they be learning torah and focusing on their own avodah? What exactly do they gain by being so overly concerned about our stuff? And don't you give me kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, because if that's what their concern really is, I can point them in a few other directions in more dire need of attention.

The ongoing hypocrisy really gets me. The people who blatantly disregard halacha in so many areas get to lecture people on stuff that isn't their inyan at all? I know not all of the men out there who care about this issue blatantly disregard halacha. But a lot of them do. And I'm sorry. The minute you're a blatant hypocrite is the moment you lose all right to pass judgment on how other Jews handle their religiosity. Not that you ever really had that right to begin with, but whatever, that's not the point.

So that's one point, although I'll be honest, it kind of irked me to have a rabbi lecturing us abut tzniut also. I mean I know he's a man of Torah and good intentions etc, and I appreciate that. But let someone who really has to deal with these issues talk about it man. Otherwise, even the best intentioned, purest-souled, longest-bearded rabbi of them all sounds sanctimonious, self-rightous, and condescending.

But all of that, while yes it bothers me, is not what bothers me most. What bothers me most is the uniformity which is slowly overcoming the orthodox world and expressing itself particularly in clothing. If you remember, I mentioned a discussion Tobie and I had with a madricha in my last post. We were basically discussing women learning gemarah, and particularly how it does or doesn't affect their general avodah. Our madricha was saying how it shocked her that davka the girls that learn gemara are the ones who wear the lower necks, the shorter skirts and sleeves, who cover less of their hair, etc. Tobie said that it has something to do with the fact that mostly only girls from communities where those are the standards of tzniut are going to want to learn gemarah (I know, I know, not Chabbad; I'll be honest, it's one of the things I love most about Chabbad. Their women are just so darn hard-core! It's really very cool.) and I know that sociologically she's right. My madricha was saying, why is it these girls who spend so much time osek biTorah that don't want to fulfill the mitzvot to the fullest?Shouldn't these be the girls who davka would want to dedicate everything in their lives to Hashem and His service?

Look. I get the whole chassid bidavar, going the extra mile, G-d really appreciates the effort, thing. I do. Let's remember I am part chossid. But - one of the main things I love about Judaism is how within the framework of halacha, there can be many different opinions that are all mutar. I know people like to think that being makil means you're slacking off to make life easier and more comfortable for yourself. And I know that for a lot of people that's true. But supposing it gets to the point where all religous people hold by all the same standards? And therefore, no one knows that there is any but one single right way? Because they don't know any better, because it won't exist anymore. I think that the Torah and the halachik framework will lose half of its beauty and more than half of its truth. I think we'll have turned halacha into something G-d never wanted it to be; something narrow and dark and unimaginative. He gave us the Torah bishivim panim in order for it to be something wide and varied and wonderful, full of clashes and differences and color and argument. There are supposed to be a million opinions on everything. Why would we try to destroy that? Why do people assume that G-d wants us to? I think for this reason that there davka should be people who hold by the more makil opinions, just to remind people that they exist, and are in fact halachically valid. If your rabbi tells you that it is perfectly mutar according to halacha to cover only the scalp and the rest of your hair can hang free, then go for it. And if your rabbi says that loose-fitting pants are fine, then great. If he says red isn't really a big deal nowadays, I would buy that the average man on the street isn't going to mistake me for a hooker, although yes, I know there are some chareidi men wandering around who are unclear on this concept and may solicit my services, or stone me. I'm willing to take that risk.

I just want to say that just because there are women who dress this way (and hey! they also learn gemara!) it doesn't mean they don't live a life of Torah, completely dedicated to the service of G-d. Probably all of them don't, but again, how many women who wear the prescribed uniform do we know really live for that purpose? What gives us the right to make that judgment call based on what people are wearing?

One last thing, less about tzniut and more about Judaism in general; these people who say things like, "But nu, you know what G-d really wants from you..." or "Tachlis, what Gd really wants from us all is..."

I'm sorry. Did you install a G-d phone? Is He talking to you while you sleep now? Is there someway that I could get in on that deal, bc there's there's a couple things I'd like to ask Him if I could get the chance.....Tachlis, ladies and gentleman? I have no idea what the hell G-d wants from me. Sometimes I wish I did, because it would make things that much simpler, but mostly I know that THAT WOULD SORT OF DEFEAT THE PURPOSE OF WELL, YOU KNOW, EVERYTHING. So please, people, stop pretending that you and G-d have these one-on-one confabs every night, that you're so sure you know what He's trying to say. I mean, I love your sincerity and your effort, but seriously, when it comes to real truth, you really know just about as much as the rest of us. Please accept that and move on.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Oficially Left Wing

Here is a test which officially claimed me to be Left Wing Modern O. I'm not sure why since I apparently scored higher (93%) as a Right Wing Modern O, (only 71% as a LWMO,) and I really don't know exactly how the scoring works. But I am insanely proud. Is that sad?
(I'm not sure exactly where that link is going to lead you all, but I don't know how to fiddle with html stuff. Maybe someone can instruct me. Yoni?)

Anyway, the reason this makes me giggle with sardonic and vaguely vengeful glee is a reflection on my weekend.

Thursday afternoon, my madricha from my first year in seminary came to visit me and Tobie. Now, at the time, we were Bais Yaakovers finding themselves in a real, honest-to-G-d Modern Orthodox institution for the first time in our lives, (maybe it wasn't Tobie's first time; still, we were pretty Bais Yaakoved, the both of us, comparatively at least,) and there was a lot to get used to. Like people respecting out intelligence and not actually thinking that wearing knee socks was the 11th commandment. Anyway, at the time, this madricha of ours, who was a major supporter of women learning gemarrah (not all women, the women who for whom it would increase their emunah and improve their avodat Hashem) and as someone who learned a lot of gemarrah herself, seemed pretty to the left of what we were used to. But talking to her Thursday....we realized just how far off the deep end of kfirah we'd really gone.

Like for example, how I don't think that women who wear shorter sleeves, or slightly lower necklines, or don't cover all of their hair, are really actually less religous than I am....or how I actually believe that there should davka be people who hold by the more lenient halachik opinions because if there weren't any it would cheapen what is so beautiful about the halachik system, actually stamp out the reason for its existence......

Or how, I'm not actually sure if G-d cares so much about what we do. Or if He does, how much. And if He does, how much that really matters.....

And the whole thing about choosing the halachik system as the system you decide to buy into. It somehow feels as if there ought to be more of an internal, inherent something pulling you to it....

Plus, there is the whole wanting to get smicha thing.

This Shabbat was spent with good, close friends, two out of three of whom went to pretty much exactly the same educational institutions as I did, so naturally we got to talking about high school, and how much we've changed since then. Highlighted by this: at some point, I remembered a story about the skirt I happened to be wearing. Not a terribly exciting story. It was just that, I had bought this skirt on my first trip to Israel, as a senior in high school checking out seminaries; and in its original incarnation, the skirt had two slits at the sides. They weren't very high slits. I don't think they even reached the middle of my calf. But when I got home I had them sown up. I think it wasn't actually out of frumkeit, and more a question of what to wear underneath....the eternal socks vs. tights on Shabbat issue which I didn't want to deal with, so I just simplified the situation by eliminating the question. Which turned out to be unnecessary, as I no longer wear socks or tights ever, except when it's really cold out.

I mentioned this ironically to one of my friends who said "Wow. You were really frum."

You've got to wonder about those teachers who warn you about going off the deep end. Some of them turn out to be right.....

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel

So here's the thing about Matthue Roth. (I have written previously about this author, and his book, "Never Mind the Goldbergs," here.) I have several issues with his writing, and they bother me for a very good reason; and that reason is, I think he might be the guy to write The Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel. This is something my friend and I have been discussing for quite some time - that someone needs to write the Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel - a novel about the American Orthodox culture that is honest without speaking loshon hora; that is all inclusive and brings in tiny little corners and basement groups of the community that people ignore; that is creative and truthful and beautiful without being sappy and moral-driven. Something that is truly a work of art, and can therefore accomplish things the way only only real art can. We've been talking about which one of us should attempt it and from what angle, and if the world is truly ready for something like it, since high-school.

And then I discovered Matthue Roth and became supremely jealous because I think he'll get there first.

I have two main issues with Roth's work as a novelist:
1)Inconsistencies and inaccuracies; generally details about the frum community that are mis-portrayed or insufficiently described.
2) A sometimes sloppy writing style, which has the tendency to drop in little details or concepts that are muddled and confused to begin with, and which are then never picked up again or explained in any way.

And it's a shame, because if not for these two things, Matthue Roth's work could be that tremendous testimony to Jewish Orthodox life, with all it's nit-picky faults and glorious sub-culture detail, that we've been waiting for.

As a BT, Roth hasn't grown up in the Orthodox community. Which is fine when, for example, in his autobiographical "Yom Kippur A Go-Go," he's describing his experiences in the orthodox community as a BT. It's a little less fine when, as in his novel "Never Mind the Goldbergs," he's trying to describe life inside the OJ community as a teenager. There are a million little inaccuracies in "Goldbergs" that frustrated me, speaking as a girl who did grow up inside the OJ community and can relate to Hava and the struggles she experiences.
And the funny thing was, I related to Hava's struggles as a Jew in a non-Jewish world much more than I did with her struggles as a slightly different Jew within the OJ community. I already ranted about my frustrations with this novel in the post I linked to above, so I won't re-hash that. But.

Roth is very very good at depicting the periphery personalities of the Jewish community. A lot of his characters remind me of people I know. Which, first of all, is exactly what good art is supposed to do; and secondly, makes sense, because that's what he knows. What he's not as strong at is portraying the OJ community from the inside. This would prevent him from being able to write a full-length feature on the OJ community, complete with the wide angle shots and all the tiny little shades, crevices, and details.

There are also the little stylistic issues in his writing; tiny things he sort of drops and then never picks up again, artistic allusions that are never really explained or understood. But that's an editing thing, a matter of cleaning up the prose a little.

But I am a huge fan of his writing. Similar to other authors that I am a fan of (Zoe Trope, Dave Eggers,) Roth's lyrical, honest, rythmic descriptions manage to hit home no matter how much of his work you may or may not identify with. His writing, like Trope's and Eggers', makes me want to live more, write more, be more, as a person with a world at my fingertips to take advantage of. And, of course, makes me want to write the way they do. There are many reasons why I may not be able to write the Great Orthodox-Jewish Novel, and why it should be Roth. And this is why the little things that bother me about his work do bother me.

Because I don't expect that kind of thing from authors like Tova Mirvis, and Naomi Regan, and Libby Lazewnik, or any other author who writes about the OJ community. While they are all, to greater and lesser degrees, talented authors, they're still not going to get it, because they focus on pieces and not on the whole. Or because they don't know the bits of the Jewish community that need writing about. They're too cynical, or not cynical enough. Roth strikes that balance, and he does know that world. And because he has the potential to write that novel, I really wish he would. But he has to bone up a bit on his facts and clean up his inconsistencies. If he would, I truly believe he has that potential the way no Orthodox author of our day does.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Our Music and the Nature of Truth

So, this is something Nemo brought up in the comments in my previous post. (Ha! I love doing that! Thank you again, Halfnutcase, for teaching me how.) And the timing is interesting, considering all the controversy surrounding this particular issue.

I know a lot of people in the Jewish community object to secular music. It's a distraction from Torah; it comes from places of tumaah that encourages values contrary to what we believe in; it lures us with its glamour and its glory into the dangers of the non-Jewish world, etc etc etc. Further, and a separate point; people even object to Jewish music that's been influenced by the stylings of non-Jewish music. Jewish "rock" is too close to the edge of the secular world that lies so temptingly close to us. Once you start listening to Jewish "rock," a gateway drug, you'll soon be led to listen to non-Jewish rock; and from there it's only one step away from drugs, promiscuity, and breaking the holy Sabbath .

(I'm exaggerating slightly for effect. I do hope that's clear.)

These two points of mine- the objection to secular music itself, and the objection to its siamese twin, "Jewish Rock," are separate but closely intertwined. First, let's deal with the issue of Jewish "rock."

Art is mainly about communication, in whatever form it happens to find itself. Even if the communication is only between the artist and himself (ie, brings the artist to a greater understanding of himself or the world around him) this still counts. If something communicates to no one, expresses no form of truth at all, it is invalid as a piece of art; and if it does, then it is a valid piece of art. At least, in my humble opinion.

Now, no good art, just like man, can exist in a vaccum. It comes in a context, complete with conscious and unconscious influences, commentaries, bits and pieces of the artist and people or things the artist knows, loves, and hates. This is true of all and every art form, for all and every artist.

And as much as we'd love for it to be true that Jews are capable of inventing a completely unique style of music, we have to admit that it's just not so. It' never has been. Niggunim? Old Russian bar songs. Whiny saxaphone-murdering over-sentimentalized whining? Lounge music and bad 80s pop songs. (That's how no one recognizes them.) I mean, let's not even get into Schlock Rock, whose selling point is parodies; or the Beach Boys' version of Dror Yikrah, aka Sloop John B. I mean, it's just never been true. Even Israeli pop music -it's influences are either western pop, or middle-eastern stylings reminiscent of desert wanderers and Mulsim prayers.

That said, exactly what do you expect from us? To not listen to music at all? Not that there aren't halachik opinions to support that view, but try implementing it. No don't. It'll only frustrate everyone and end in blood and ugliness. So that's point 1 - if you want music, it's derivative of some form of non-Jewish music. Period.

Point 2- Why are people so violently afraid of non-Jewish music? Why should you immediately negate anything in G-d's world, if it has potential to teach you something true? Why do we assume that everything secular is the devil? Why do we think that G-d wants us to be so closed off and sheltered and ignorant? Our G-d that loves information, so much so that He created His world out of it? Our G-d that loves the search, that hides from us to drive us farther forward? Our G-d that wants us to advance, to actively create truth and beauty? Is that not why He created us to begin with? To discover and create truth and beauty? Why then do we try so hard to live in a world that is stifling and narrow and ugly? Why do we try so hard to make life as unpleasant and difficult for ourselves as possible? Did not G-d say that it is forbidden to cause ourselves to suffer deliberately? How can we justify suffocating our people, at a time when it is more necessary than ever that we breathe and bloom and expand?

It's vitally important to be culturally fluent, (ie, be aware and informed of as much pop culture past and present, and actual culture, as is relevant) for several reasons. 1) So people don't think you're an ignoramus. 2) So you have some sense of context. Where, when, and why you are; what came before, what is, what might be, and why. Without some sense of where you are in the chain, you're completely ineffectual at having an impact on history. Without context, we miss the big picture completely, and to be completely unaware of one's context robs a person of at least half the truth he's capable of seeing and implementing towards making the world a better place and himself a better Jew.

The fact of the matter is, there's vast amounts of truth in art. That's what makes it art, if you'll remember; if it communicates some idea that people can relate to, that brings anyone to a greater understanding of themselves, others, or the world at large. There's a lot of that in non-Jewish music, because it's something non-Jewish artists understand. To a certain extent.

It all ties into the greater idea of truth being a whole lot more inclusive and complete than most religous people give it credit for. I think I've already tried to make the point that if we were to reach that one final answer we wouldn't have any reason to go on, and that therefore the answer is not the point; or rather not the ending point, because every answer only leads to further questions. If the truth is all-inclusive, then Torah is not the only source for it. Secular knowledge, secular literature, secular music, even, G-d forbid, television, movies and the internet! I just really don't think that G-d would have made us a world this wide and wonderful and full of truth everywhere you look if He didn't want us to take advantage of it. Because when you're talking about life, the universe and everything as it stands today, these other forums should be looked upon as supplementary sources, and sources, I think, that G-d put there for us to utilize, towards becoming better people, better Jews, and better able to serve Him.

This is not to say that all secular music/art is good. Of course some of it sucks. That art should be avoided, but I think it is a good idea to have the ability to be able to distinguish between that which is good and that which is bad.

Secondly, of course I don't mean people should listen to rock music or go to a museum in lieu of learning Torah. I think that it should only occupy spaces that were already blank. Remember, it's supplementary, not substitutional. So, you know, when you're driving to your chavrutah, or if you've already done all your learning for the day, and you need to unwind. I think these things are not only good to stick in those spaces but important, for all of the reasons delineated above..

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mattisyahu Debate Continued

This interview seems to have sparked a lot of controversey; especially as regards this response. See here, here, and here. (Thank you, Halfnutcase.)

I'd like to say several things. First of all, most of what is being said here I said about a year ago, as probably none of you remember, here. Except not exactly there because you have to scroll most of the way down to get to it, but it's titled The Mattisyahu Debate, so it should be pretty easy to find.

And I'd like to say several things.
1)How can anyone base anything on that interview? It was an incomplete interview, and it sounds, from the way the answers didn't really answer their questions, like the quotes were taken out of context.
2) Chabbad is a really intense community. And they do have a tendency to ignore the existence of other Orthodox Jews; ie, once you're not so Lubavitch, clearly you're not really frum anymore. I can understand how this is limiting to everyone and anyone really, but especially someone whose always exploring. Spiritual searchers do not like final answers. Probably because final answers have little to do with truth.
3)I find that the ease and speed of condemnation is a little contrary to Chabbad's theoretical policy of warm and unconditional acceptance. To have denounced Shlomo Carlebach for breaking halacha is one thing; to denounce Mattisyahu for not really doing anything wrong at all is disturbing.
4)Jews maybe don't drink wine to relax (yeah, that's not true, let's just pretend it is though.) But Chabbanikim drink vodka at the drop of a hat. Which is more healthy?
5) I'm only going to say this once. STOP ENLISTING THE CHILDREN AS AN EXCUSE FOR, AND PRISONERS TO, YOUR SUSPICIOUS AND BASELESS PREJUDICES!!!!! (Just so you know, this goes for Dawkins too.) Entrapping the youth culture and dictating to them what music they can and cannot listen to is fascist and vaguely troubling. I love how people get to take the high ground the minute it's about "the children." G-d forbid we should allow "the children" to think or decide for themselves. G-d forbid we should teach them what intellectual and moral discrimination really is instead of just telling them what to believe. But no matter what the particular brand of dogma is at the moment, whether it be evolution or Chassidut of any form, as soon as you invoke "the children," you've got the upper hand, ethically and morally. Why can't everyone just leave "the children" out of it, and discuss your issues as your own issues?

Sorry, that's been a long time coming; and it isn't 100% logically sound, I know, but I'm getting really pissed off with all this indoctrination. It isn't just Chabbad, it's everywhere...ah well. Another rant for another time.

Meanwhile, I hope Mattisyahu sticks with the yiddishkeit, because that's what makes him so hardcore; and the fact that his music is all about Torah, and life, is part of what makes him such a unique and amazing performer within the secular mainstream. But I have to say, for all those of you out there who are worried about it, I wouldn't say that this article is neccessarily an indication of anything, except a typical frustration with a Chassidic community.