Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More to tznuis than meets the eye

Last night, Chavie and I got into it again.  The topic--tznius.  Chavie mentioned that her daughters don't dress up for Purim after Bas Mitzvah.  My response--"what's the fun in that?"  (I love dressing up on Purim.)
Chavie: "It's not tznius."
Me: "It's Purim."
Chavie: "You NEVER take a break from tznius!"  Chavie then went on to go into how Torah is for men, and tznius is for women.  I then countered with the fact that most of the specific halachot on tznuis came from the Mishnah Berurah--a fairly recent source.  I also pulled out some fashion history, such as that at one time, no woman would have dreamed of showing her legs, but nearly all women showed their decolletage--yet the reverse is true today.  Chavie responded that the importance of tznius for women comes from the Torah.  Of course, she couldn't quote me chapter and verse.  Know why?  IT'S NOT THERE!!!!!!!!!!    The only reference she could come up with was that when the malachim visited Abraham, Sarah was in the tent--exactly where I'd be during a heatwave.  (For those who don't remember--Abraham was recovering from his circumcision, so G-d sent a heatwave to keep everyone away.  But Abraham wanted visitors, so G-d sent three men.)  I also pointed out the irony of discussing this during the only parsha in the Torah which mentions a dress code, Tetzaveh--which discusses the beautiful, brightly colored, bejeweled, golden garments of the Kohanim. 
Chavie:  "But of course they wore brightly colored clothing.  They were royalty!"
Me: "Aren't women supposed to be princesses?"
Of course they are.  But unlike Kate Middleton, we show our royal status by covering up and hiding away. 
Of course, I wanted to know the source for tznius being for women the way Torah is for men.  She mentioned that women have a yetzer hara not to be tzniusdik the way men have a yetzer hara not to learn.  (Since Builder spends a lot of spare time with a Gemara, that doesn't fly with me.)  So, I looked it up.  Big surprise, the sentiment was found nowhere in the Torah.  It wasn't in the Talmud.  It wasn't even in the Shulchan Aruch.  Apparently, the Vilna Gaon had written a letter to his mother (the following is excerpted from Congregation Toras Chaim's website):
When the Vilna Gaon set out on a journey (that he hoped would take him to Eretz Yisroel), he sent a letter of chizuk (strength) to his family, known as the Igeres HaGra. In it he warned them about the need to avoid anger, arguments, jealousy and similar bad midos. In particular, he stressed the gravity of the sin of lashon horah and other speech-related aveiros. Towards the end of the letter, he addresses his mother with the following words: אהובתי אמי, ידעתי שאינך צריכה למוסר שלי כי ידעתי כי צנועה את – “My dear mother, I know that you do not require my mussar, for I am aware that you are a tznua (very modest person).” Although the mussar (ethical and moral guidance) given in the letter concerned all types of negative traits, he was nevertheless convinced that his mother, who was an outstanding tznua, was above all negative traits and did not require guidance from him to overcome anger, lashon horah, and the like. He was convinced, that just as being steeped in Torah enables a man to combat his “lower self,” so too, being steeped in tznius enables a woman to be victorious in the same way. He therefore knew that his mother, who was an exceptional tznua, would surely overcome whatever test she would encounter.
Now, the last time I checked, the Vilna Gaon lived in the 18th century.  Back then, even prostitutes dressed somewhat modestly.  Tznius, then, had to refer to more than just dress.  It is an attitude, a lifestyle.  And, yes, it is important.  But somehow, I think there is more to it than collars, wigs, skirts and stockings.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What price Torah?

Thirty-forty years ago, there were those who predicted that the frum world would crash and burn.  And we're still here.
Or, are we?
Yes, we have infrastructure.  Yes, more children than ever are enrolling in yeshivas.  But at what price? 
Is it worth it to teach Torah when our community leaders are going to jail?  When financial crimes, mistreatment of labor and even arson and assault can be attributed to our rabbis?  When the rebbes are accused of horrible crimes?  When hardworking teachers can go up to a year without being paid?  When schools adopt such strict rules that parents teach their children to lie in order to get them in?  When families become welfare cheats?
The Torah was given to us so that we could improve our natures.  The same Torah that commands us to keep the laws of kashrut also commands that we pay our workers on time.  The same stone tablets that command us to keep Shabbos command us not to steal or lie.  If we must violate the Torah in order to teach it, how much value do we place in it?  Eventually, we will be left with something that is only the barest bones of a Torah life.  Unless we can act honestly, all of our Jewish institutions are vanity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Driving the bus

Over lunch, Builder and I were discussing Matisyahu.  Builder has said, point blank, that he lost all respect for Matisyahu after he shaved his beard.  (I, personally, lost respect for him after he played a concert on Shiva Assar B'Tammuz, but let's not go into that here.)  Builder said that Matisyahu was a hypocrite.  I said that he may have gotten fed up with the emphasis on conformity that seems to trump spirituality at times.
Builder: "There's a value in conformity."  Now there's a statement I don't agree with.  It's not that I go out of my way to be different, it's that I really don't care if I am or not.  If I had, I wouldn't have married Builder or homeschooled my kids.  I simply asked, "What do you mean?"
Builder: "My mother, of blessed memory, said, 'Be a light passenger on the bus.'  Don't make waves; don't stick out too much."
Me: "But every major improvement in Yiddishkeit has been made by non-conformists.  Look at the Baal Shem Tov, Sarah Shenirer..."
Builder:  "They were DRIVING the bus.  They were leaders."
We have, sadly, become a generation without leaders.  We have become used to accepting without question.  Instead of  looking to the source, we blindly follow the rabbis.  We follow minhagim that we know nothing about and accept it as Torah M'Sinai.  But if everyone throughout history had followed such a complacent path, there would be no worldwide network of Chabad houses or Bais Yaakov schools.  There would be no Chassidim.   There would be no kiruv.  There would, in fact, be no Judaism.  Remember that, according to the Midrash, Abraham's family manufactured and sold idols.  Had Abraham questioned nothing, he would have quietly manufactured idols and faded out of history.  But, because he refused to conform, because he thought for himself, he is now the spiritual father of half the world.
Why is no one driving the bus?  Right now, we really don't need a driver.  Every leader has arisen in response to a perceived need.  A need for G-d, a need for drawing closer to G-d outside the confines of the pilpul, a need to bring the secular back to G-d, a need to educate girls to become proper Jewish women.  (I may not agree with her methods, but I have a lot of respect for Sarah Schenirer.  What she did took a lot of guts.).  But right now, there is no need.  Anti-Semitism is mostly confined to sentiments against Israel or against shechittah.  There is, at least in Brooklyn and areas like it, an abundance of Jewish infrastructure.  Little boys and girls have their pick of Jewish schools.  There are multiple thriving kiruv organizations.  We hunger or thirst for nothing, not even Torah.  And yet, it is at this time that we are at our most vulnerable.  As long as we were the underdog, the persecuted minority, we survived and thrived.  But now that we've become a success, we may go the way of all the other great civilizations that reached the top of their game and faded into obscurity.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Media overload

When I heard about the death of Whitney Houston last week, I was shocked.  Now I'm bored.  The funeral, the search for medical records, her money, Bobby Brown and their daughter--seriously, who cares anymore? 
Judging by the turnout at her funeral, I would guess--a lot of people.
When we heard about the violence in Beit Shemesh, Builder and I were shocked.  Now, Builder doesn't want to hear about it anymore.   However, I do. 
And this is what I realize.  For Whitney Houston fans, her death meant something.  It meant the end of a pop star and legend.  It meant a favorite musician would no longer perform, no longer release new songs, no longer win a Grammy.  It affected their lives.  Since I really hadn't followed Whitney Houston's career, I didn't really care about the details.  Similarly, the violence in Beit Shemesh is something I want to think about because it affects me.  A lot of gender discrimination that originated in Israel has crossed the ocean and come to Brooklyn.  How much longer before I have to duck a zealot's rocks?  Before they get in my face and call me a slut?  How much longer can I walk the streets in Brooklyn before every payot-sporting male declares war on me because of the way I dress?  But, because Builder doesn't have to worry about gender segregation, or a dress code that grows more restrictive by the hour, it doesn't affect him.  And so he's tired of it.  But I can't ever be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What ABOUT socialization?

Last week, we had a guest for Shabbos who didn't know that I am homeschooling my kids for the time being.  She asked me where my kids go to school.  "Weeeeell....they don't."  "But they will at some point, right?"  "Weeeeell...."  "Don't tell me you're going to HOMESCHOOL them?!  Kids need FRIENDS!  They need to SOCIALIZE!  Your kids will grow up WEIRD!"
I get that a lot.  No one wonders how my kids will learn to read, do math, or parse a Chumash.  But they all ask about socialization.
Recently, on Imamother, there was a thread.  A mother had written to the Yated, asking about pulling her child out of school for one year.  She got about seven or eight responses, all of them variants on the same theme: "What about SOCIALIZATION?"  To hear that question, one would think that school is an eight-hour playdate.  That the sole reason for going to school and paying all that tuition is so your kids can have thirty "bestest friends," all the same age.
Except when they don't.  See, schools don't hand-pick classmates or teachers, so every class is a mixed bag.  Some kids will be friends with your kids, some won't.  And even if your children are fortunate enough to make a few friends, that's not really the point.  Schools were not designed as social clubs, but as a way to efficiently educate large numbers of kids.  Most of the time, kids sit quietly, either listening to a teacher or doing schoolwork.  Not socializing.  Making friends is a by-product, not a goal.  Kids actually socialize more effectively when they can mix with large groups of different kids of different ages with grown-ups on hand to monitor the situation.  Not in a silent classroom or chaotic school playground.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rabbis are not immortal!

Rav Elyashiv is in the hospital, apparently not doing well.
I'm sorry to hear that, I really am.  However, let's face facts for a moment.  The guy is, what, 101?  That would make him, according to secular parlance, "older than dirt." 
Last summer we lost another great rosh yeshiva, Rav Kopelman.  He was 106.  The deaths of Rav Kopelman and Rav Frankel apparently brought down the level of kedusha in the world to a point where an eight-year-old boy could be murdered by a fellow Jew .  Okay, but getting back to planet reality for a moment.  I don't care if you are a rosh yeshiva or a trash collector.  When you enter your second century, you are OLD!!!  Really, really OLD!!!!  And your body will stop working the way it did.  And it's OK!  Really!  Because G-d made human beings with an expiration date!  And even rabbis will have it.
So, yes, if Rav Elyashiv should not happen to recover, I will feel sad.  But I will not regard it as a great tragedy.  Because he lived a good, long life.  He will have died at the age of a hundred and something--which is more than most people do.  And he will be called home to be with Hashem.  So, really, it's not a tragedy, just a completion of the natural order of the world.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rabbis are not infallible!

Lately, I've been having some frustrations with my chavrusa (hereafter known as Chavie--all names have been changed to protect the guilty.)  A couple of years ago, we started out studying the parsha.  That lasted until we both figured out that I could wipe the floor with her in Chumash, despite the fact that she graduated from Bais Yaakov, and I--never went to Hebrew School.  So, then we started studying Hilchos Shabbos.  Actually, she started reading me the Meoros HaShabbos series.  We're still doing it.  However, our discussions get sidetracked from time to time.  Meoros HaShabbos intersperses various halachot with stories of the rabbis of the past.  They're the usual stories about rabbis performing miracles, or being particularly careful in observance.  This usually leads to some fur flying.  See, I don't believe in the idea that G-d listens to a rabbi's prayers more than He listens to mine.  I don't believe that red strings, or blue beads, or baking challah with a group of women, or being more stringent with how you choose to cover your body, will lead to financial success, health, shidduchim, or children.  Chavie, on the other hand, believes the rabbis are, well, about a step removed from being G-d.  One time, during one of these stories, the rabbi in the story said something unsavory.  I remarked that he sounded like a jerk.  Chavie read me the riot act.  "How can you SAY that?  This is a great rabbi!  He's a learned scholar!  He has yiras Shamayim!..."  and on and on.  So what?  He can still be a jerk from time to time.
Also, I think it's important not just to know the halachot, but to know their source.  So, for example, we are studying the laws of a Gentile performing a melacha on Shabbos.  Bottom line--we're not supposed to benefit from it.  I said that it's because G-d commanded in the Torah that Shabbos is a day of rest not only for us, but for our servants and our animals.  Asking a Gentile to do something for you (especially if you're PAYING him) violates this.  Chavie's response?  "If the rabbis said it, that's good enough for me."  Well, it's not good enough for me.  I want to understand their logic.  After all, rabbis are great people.  They are learned.  They have yiras Shamayim.  But they are still only human.  They can still make mistakes.  There is only one Infallible Being in this world.  And He is not now, nor has He ever been, a person.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bringing in some outside customs

My kids and I had a little Tu B'Shevat seder today.
The first time I'd even heard about a Tu B'Shevat Seder was about a decade ago.  (And the first one I ever went to was hosted by a group of Messianics--yee.)  During my transition from not caring to Orthodox, I attended several.  Some were kabbalistic, others focused more on Israel, while others tried to only focus on the seven species. When I moved to Brooklyn, I spent my first Tu B'Shevat here as Mrs. Builder.  And that's when I found out--Builder had never hosted, attended, or even heard about Tu B'Shevat seders.  Basically, Builder's idea of celebrating Tu B'Shevat was eating dried fruit.  That was about it.
So, this afternoon, the Things and I went out for red and white grape juice.  I printed a haggadah off the Internet.  While we didn't have too many fruits (short attention spans), we still had a nice little basic seder, just the three of us.  And I'm starting to think about next year!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Bowl 2012

Normally, I have no interest in sports.  However, Builder, who used to play pick-up games of football in yeshiva, got me hooked on football.  My interest peaks around the post-season.  Especially this year, because the Giants were playing the Patriots.  Between Builder being a New York fan, and my negative experiences in a New England boarding-school (which is how I ended up graduating high school as a homeschooler), it's not much of a stretch to know who I cheered for. 
Well, the Giants won.  It was a close game, serious errors were made on both sides (including a couple of penalties that cost the Giants dearly.  Also, Tom Brady can NOT throw a Hail Mary.), and both sides were evenly matched.  However, at the end, The Giants beat the Patriots, 21-17.