Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How Do You Look For Chometz?

In Jewish homes around the world, Pesach is in the air. Houses are being turned upside down. Every drawer is emptied and its contents scrutinized; books are inspected to make sure no one hid any crumbs in them. Pockets are being turned inside out and brushed meticulously clean.

You walk into any Jewish store and you just feel the approaching Yom Tov as shoppers rush through the aisles, stocking up on just about everything.

Boys are trooping home from yeshiva for bein hazemanim. Small children are learning the Haggadah, practicing the mah nishtanah, and dreaming about what they will get if they are lucky enough to find the afikoman.

This is the way our people have celebrated the zeman chairuseinu for hundreds of years. In fact, much of special charm and essence of Pesach is wrapped within the minhagim passed on from one generation to the next, and the hiddur mitzvah that characterizes this Yom Tov.

Jewish women hold onto these hiddurim with all their might. They treat Pesach with exquisite care. They brush aside their husbands’ patient explanations that crumbs are peirurin, are halachically botul and not much of a problem. They don’t want to be told that makom she’ain machnisin bo chometz, a place where chometz does not enter, does not require cleaning, like the kitchen table and refrigerator.

People wash down their walls and scrub everything in sight because that’s the way their mothers did it. Not only are recipes handed down from generation to generation, but so are the various customs of what to buy, how to buy it and how to prepare it for the special chag of Pesach.

Why do some people eat horseradish for maror? Because their fathers and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers ate chrein to fulfill the obligation of eating “bitter herbs.” How do you set up the ka’arah? The same way your father did.

Judaism is based not only on the dry halacha, but on the customs and minhagim which are passed on down through the ages. Our mesorah and traditions are as important as the laws stated in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, and together they constitute the strength and lifeblood of our people.

We won’t be swept up by new ideologies or fall prey to those who preach doom and gloom. We won’t look for movements with failed or failing messages. Haskala, Zionism, communism, socialism, assimilationism and many other isms rose and fell; they held no attraction for us. We refuse to trade in our sacred heritage for the illusion of safety and for the fleeting attraction of utopian movements.

Several years ago, I wrote a column based on a story I read in the “Rav Shach Hagaddah.”

One year prior to Pesach, a young man came to ask Rav Shach if it was permissible to do bedikas chometz with a flashlight. Responding, Rav Shach asked him how his father conducts the search for chometz. The man answered that his father did it with a candle.

The aged rosh yeshiva said to him, “If your father does bedikas chometz with a candle, why would you think to do it with a flashlight?”

The young man replied that people say that with a flashlight one is able to examine cracks and crevices better than with the traditional candle.

With a wave of his hand, Rav Shach peered at him quizzically and said, “Do you really think you can see better than your father!”

This episode underscores the secret of our existence and survival through the ages. We hold on to the wisdom of our parents and sages; we don’t presume to be smarter or that we can see better than they were able to see.

We observe the mitzvos the same way they did. We do bedikas chometz in our homes the same way they did. Our homes may be grander, they may be furnished differently than the shtetel’s humble abodes, but we are connected to our source by that same little candle with which we go about from room to room, searching to remove that which is forbidden.

We adapt by meeting the challenges of today with our father’s candle of the past; we adapt by following our sages’ advice; we adapt by looking at life through our parents’ lenses and aligning our vision with theirs. That way we are guaranteed to properly observe the Torah and its commandments and avoid evil’s pitfalls.

True, we live in a different age, a different world. We are living in a society that has undergone drastic changes from the society our fathers knew, but it is the same ner nitzvah and ohr Torah which light up our path.

An incident last week brought to the world’s attention - albeit in a twisted light - the historic devotion of Jews to their traditions and their separateness as a people.

Historians from Cambridge University revealed a previously unpublished article by the former prime minister of England, Winston Churchill, in which he makes the argument that Jews were “partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer.”

In analyzing the causes of anti-Semitism, Churchill writes: "The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is 'different'.

"He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background. He refuses to be absorbed."

A contemporary Torah Jew reading his words can only shake his head wistfully at the irony. Churchill accurately identified the defining traits of Jews throughout the ages, but he failed to understand that, rather than leading to our downfall, these stubborn differences - the refusal “to be absorbed” - have preserved the Jewish people through centuries of persecution.

Brilliant statesman though he was, Churchill stumbled when it came to understanding Jews and their mission.

A recent Yated article titled “Is It Orthodox?”, which raised the alarm regarding the threat posed by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, elicited a voluminous response from readers, some of which reminded us of Churchill’s failure to grasp the essence of Jewish survival.

Words of support and encouragement for our position flowed from a wide spectrum of readers. The response from the YCT camp and their supporters, however, made it clear that they appeared to totally misconstrue the basic premise underlying our opposition.

That premise - both the foundation and a powerfully protective guard to Yiddishkeit - can be summed up in a word: mesorah.

Mesorah is meant here not merely as the transmission of texts from one generation of teachers to the next, replaceable by a capacious hard-drive. Rather, mesorah refers to the contextual basis for understanding the words of Chazal. Mesorah refers to the process by which uniquely Jewish mores, values and sensitivities, which define us as a nation, are passed down from one generation to the next.

Only through mesorah can we grasp the unalterable elements of a true and timeless Torah philosophy.

The article presented examples in the teaching and practices which are departures from mesorah. It showed how a student of Torah at that school, sundered from his moorings to traditional Torah thought, is left in his studies to bob on a sea of “Torah-Relativism.” In that nebulous terrain, he is buffeted by the waves of other theologies, swept by the winds of value systems anathema to Torah.

It is our conviction that the rank and file of contemporary Orthodox Jewry - Modern, Chareidi and everything in between - still possess authentic Torah sensibilities which are repulsed by the erasing of historic conceptual boundaries on the part of YCT faculty and students.

Torah values are not acquired through academic study alone, but through immersion in the atmosphere that once permeated every frum home. They are absorbed from studying at the feet of rabbeim who themselves personify fealty to traditional values. And it is this value system which is eroded by the philosophy of YCT as previously illustrated in these pages.

A pair of responses to the Yated article has been circulated on the internet. Sadly, rather than address the concerns that were raised, these “rebuttals” serve only as further illustration of the failure of this new approach to learning Torah. Having burnt their bridges to traditional Torah thought and values, the authors prove themselves incapable of grasping the simple nature of our objections.

As an example: We expressed repugnance at the portrayal of one of the Avos that dragged the patriarch of the Jewish people down to a base level. What to us is an act of desecration is dismissed in their response as a mere stylistic lapse. We are asked to accept a portrayal of impure motives that, were it ascribed to the author’s teachers at YCT, would be slammed as cynical and offensive. Yet, this twisted portrayal is given a pass as “poetic license” when applied to Yaakov Avinu.

We lamented the state of affairs in which a yeshiva allows the publication, under its official imprimatur, of statements that are clearly contrary to the Torah. In response, we are told that due to “a whole panoply of issues,” this travesty must be tolerated.

When a yeshiva shirks its primary responsibility for guiding its students and graduates in the ways of the Torah and still persists in calling itself a yeshiva, it makes a mockery of a term which denotes a sacred link to the historic system of Torah learning and transmission begun at Volozhin. Such an institution perverts the meaning of “yeshiva.” It redefines it to mean a free-wheeling bazaar of ideas and practices culled from various theologies and cultures.

In our critique, we pointed out the deceptive practice of labeling deviations from accepted halacha as Orthodox. We were told in response of this or that Orthodox rabbi or professor who also deviates in the same way. How do these deviations confer legitimacy? Are we really expected to accept an amorphous definition of Orthodoxy that does not even attempt to tie itself to any defining authority, but which accepts the practices of anyone calling themselves Orthodox as determining what passes for normative Orthodoxy?

We are told that we are mean-spirited and “lacking in ahavat Yisrael.” Actually, it is our compassion for the hapless targets of this approach who are being fed a forged version of Torah and halacha which motivates us. It is our concern for the integrity of Torah learning which drives us to publicly reject their approach. And we are deeply troubled that fellow compassionate, hard-working and dedicated Jews are being trained in a fashion that denies them the ability to appreciate true Torah values.

Ahavas Yisroel does not require turning a blind eye to the blurring of mesorah and the sacred values that have traveled down the centuries. Our trailblazing kiruv programs testify to our solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But we trod the path laid out by rabbonim muvhakim and our bubbes and zaydes. We dare not compromise our values in the name of kiruv rechokim. We must not portray a dishonest version of the Torah in order to be more attractive to the world at large.

We must not sit silently in the name of peace when a mockery is made of divrei Chazal. It is precisely by remaining true to our mesorah, and by our intolerance of ziyufim, that we will be zoche to the siyata diShmaya to succeed in spreading the light of the Torah, intact and unsullied by winds of change.

So, erev Pesach, when you stand there grating the horseradish and tears flow down your cheeks, think of your grandparents performing the same function, the same way, in some little town in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary or Syria. On Sunday night, when you go from room to room with the candle in your hand, remember that living in the 21st century has not made you smarter than the generations that preceded you. It is presumptuous and naïve for anyone to try to modernize and improve upon the mesorah.

Think of the strength of the Jewish chain and remember that it is you who makes it strong. It is the faith-imbued traditions that you pass on to your children which will guarantee you the merit to welcome Eliyahu Hanavi when he arrives with his joyous, long-awaited message: higiah zeman geulaschem.

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