Thursday, May 21, 2015

Calling Out Absurd Notions of Frumkeit

Photo of new cabinet as it appears in the Hebrew B'Chadrei Charedim
Chava, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Yocheved, Miriam, Devorah, Ruth, Naomi, Batsheva, all have something in common. They are all heroines of either the Torah, Nevi’im or Kesuvim (Tanach). I mention all these names in the hope that a bolt of lightning doesn’t come down from heaven and strike me down.

‘What’s that,’ you ask? Why in Heaven’s name would I think mentioning these names from Tanach would cause God to be angry at me? Well, by mentioning the first names of women, I might come to improper sexual thoughts.

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Not so fast. It isn’t ridiculous if you are the publisher of the Israeli Hamodia. They seem to feel that mentioning any woman’s first name will cause men to sin. So they simply don’t do it. From JTA
HaModia’s list of the new government’s ministers omitted the women ministers’ first names. So while it listed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, it noted only Justice Minister Ms. Shaked. 
Whew! Saved by a clever editor at Hamodia.

The sad thing is that this isn’t just some idiotic editor of a newspaper being ridiculous on his own. This seems to be the mindset of an entire community of religious Jews. Their rabbinic leaders have apparently determined  that seeing a female name in print can potentially cause a man to sin. 

Once you plant that thought into the minds of people who are concerned about modesty, they may actually see these names as erotic. It has apparently been imprinted on their brains from earliest childhood to associate female names with erotic thoughts. So that when they see such a name they might easily have one.

Eroticism has some near universal applications. There are images and words (erotic literature) that are erotic to virtually any civilized society no matter how permissive or strict. But there are words and images that are erotic only to those that have been indoctrinated to see them that way. People will have an erotic response to things they see based on the culture in which they live. My guess is for example that in Muslim countries where woman wear burkas that covers even their faces, the exposure of a face may generate erotic thoughts in men.

In their own way this is apparently the case with the people Hamodia serves. They are sensitive to things that the Torah itself is not sensitive to. Like publishing the names of women. Their approach to reading these names is an extreme reaction to matters of Tznius that goes well beyond even Chumra. A reaction that is constantly being reinforced throughout their lives. They might even wonder why the rest of Orthodox Jewry doesn’t see that. Or believe that when we do see it, that we are in denial about what are innermost thoughts really are.

One might say that Hamodia and like minded publications have the right to whatever standard they feel is appropriate. And the right to treat their publications that way. I wholeheartedly agree. But I have a right to ridicule it – if I see it as harmful to the fabric of our people. 

Why ridicule and not simply protest? Because that is a normal reaction by normal people. A reaction the vast majority of the civilized world would have to considering female first names too erotic to publish. That is so abnormal - that it makes Judaism an object of ridicule. Unless those of us in Orthodoxy with any degree of sanity ridicule it right along with them. It is no Mitzvah to go to extremes so beyond the pale that the word Chumra doesn’t even apply. So extreme that it makes us look foolish.

Sure, we are obligated to follow Halacha even if it makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. But if we start making things up that look ridiculous in the eyes of the world -  things which make people laugh at Judaism, then in my view they are not serving God. They are serving the notion that their views are holier than anyone else’s - even within Orthodoxy.

I have no issue with how much Frumkeit they want to embrace. They can be as ‘Frum’ as they want internally. I could not care less. But when a (non)Chumra like this one hits the media, and makes us look ridiculous, they have crossed a line from Frum to foolish. They gain nothing spiritual at all (except perhaps in their own minds), for if that were a value at any level, the Torah would not have ever mentioned any female names.  

And all of this doesn’t even touch the foolishness of blurring out the faces of women in a group photograph of the Israeli  Prime Minster and his new cabinet ministers seen on the Charedi website B’Chadrei Charedim (…now there’s an oxymoron -‘Charedi website’) while allowing the rest of their bodies to be shown. (See above)

So even while they have a right to be as foolish as they want in private, when they do it in the public square, I have the right – and maybe even an obligation - to point out how foolish they are in public too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Night of Heterodoxy on Shavuos?

Rabbi David Stav, head of Tzohar
*UpdateRabbi Stav has apparently denied the report (published in both Arutz Sheva and Ha'aretz) upon which this post is based. If that's true, I apologize for contributing to the spread this false rumor. Instead of taking down the post, I am going to leave it up in slightly modified form because the controversy surrounding Tzohar still exists and because the point I am making about the propriety of such actions is still valid.

My feelings about Tzohar are mixed. Tzohar is an organization in Israel that was formed to reach out to - and serve the secular world. They see the current Israeli Rabbinate as failing miserably in that mission. Instead of serving them, they are seen by Tzohar as alienating them. As such Tzohar has embarked on a number of controversial projects. Among them trying to restore conversion rights to independent rabbinic courts in Israel. A right that was removed relatively recently by the Rabbinate.

That was done in response to the controversy over converting masses of Russian immigrants that came to Israel under the ‘Law of Return’ but who are not Halachicly Jewish. (Either because of their mothers were not Jewish or their conversions weren’t valid.) The Israeli government felt it needed to convert these people as painlessly as possible since they not only thought of themselves as Jews, but were serving in the military and risking their lives.

Special conversion courts were set up for this purpose. And great numbers of them were converted through them – despite most of them having no sincere intent to follow Halacha. Following Halacha is a key component of conversion, without which one cannot convert to Judaism. Which meant invalidating all of those conversions.  (I am not going to go into the Halachic discourse about the application of the ‘observance’ component. There are differing opinions about that. Suffice it to say that the majority opinion on the matter today is that without a sincere declaration that one will follow Halacha (lip service does not count) a conversion will be invalid.

Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s founder and head is an honorable man with good intentions. He wishes to interpret conversion laws more liberally for purpose of the national welfare. He also feels (with some justification) that the rabbinate commandeered for itself a monopoly over all conversions. They have thus been precipitously unfair in how it has been adjudicating the legitimacy of various conversions.

Just to be clear, I support the standardization the Rabbinate seeks. But I am reluctant to fully endorse the way they have put it into practice. This is however, really a digression from the point of this post. I just wanted to give some background about the controversy surrounding Tzohar. And to address a new controversy* surrounding Them.

In its attempt to reach out to secular Jews, (a most laudable goal and enterprise) one of the things Tzohar does is have an all night Torah study session on Leil (night of) Shavuos . There is a custom to stay up all night studying Torah on this night. Tzohar invited all segments of Israeli to attend.  Last year there were 1500 people there. I’m sure it was a most inspiriting experience for many.

This year they are doing it again. Only they have had tremendous pressure from Reform and Conservative rabbis (who have involved the Kenesset to push for them) to teach Torah as part of that event. Rabbi Stav had resisted. Tzohar does not recognize the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative movements. But it has been reported (since denied) that he had recently given in to pressure and was to actually allow them to give sessions under their auspices. Although Tzohar rabbis will not be present.

I understand the pressure. But one does not give up one’s principles for expediency. Even in the great cause of outreach. While one might say that the greater good is served by looking the other way that is not the only concern here. When you allow rabbis of movements that consider heretical beliefs to be legitimate;  and rabbis that say that Mitzvah observance is at best optional to teach your students, what are you really promoting in the end?

One thing you are not promoting is Judaism as Orthodoxy defines it. If you are going to call yourself Orthodox, you have to stand on the principles of Orthodoxy. Just because no Tzohar rabbis would have attended those session does not wipe away the fact that they would have been teaching under their auspices. And that grants them a legitimacy that they do not have.

Even if they were to promise to teach only the Orthodox viewpoint, that legitimacy would still be inferred.  Besides, what would be added by Reform and Conservative rabbis if they were limited to teaching the Orthodox viewpoint?

If the report were true, I think it would have been a huge mistake for Tzohar to have been involved in any official way with the Conservative and Reform Movements. 

The Reform and Conservative movements want to gain a foothold in Israel. Something that they have not yet been able to do. I think the reason may be because of their diminishing numbers (at least for the Conservative Movement) in America. They believe that secular Israelis might better identify with them and their movement can grow there. Those of us that are Orthodox do not want the religious character of Israel to change. Something that would happen if Reform and Conservative rabbis are recognized as legitimate by the State of Israel. That would change the status quo that balances secular and religious interests preserving the rights both segments enjoy today without encroaching too much on each other. It is compromise that has been working since the founding of the State.

That said, I happen to know some Conservative rabbis that could pass for Orthodox. In fact one Conservative rabbi (ordained by the flagship institution of Conservative Judism, JTS) I can think of is observant and has children that are Orthodox. The many columns by him I have read in a Jewish newspaper here in Chicago do not contain anything that would be incompatible with Orthodoxy. (Admittedly I have not read them all.) But even so, that doesn’t mean I can endorse the core values he received from  JTS. Even if I were to accept him, there are so many others to his left that are not even observant. And this doesn’t even speak to Reform rabbis who have no pretensions at all about the need to follow Halacha.

I actually believe that there are some Conservative and Reform rabbis can be reached – if only given the opportunity to learn from some of our best and brightest minds. That’s why Rav Ahron Soloveichik permitted teaching Conservative and Reform Rabbis Torah. Many years ago there a class of these rabbis that met once a week to study Torah based on this permit. If I recall correctly, it was well attended and taught by Rav Ahron’s son Rav Moshe.

What I would have liked Tzohar tohave done is the same. Invite these heterodox rabbis for study sessions with them. That I would have supported whole heatedly. But allowing them to teach Torah under your auspices on Shavuos night is a horse of an entirely different color. That should be vigorously protested. And I do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Having Your Cake…

Last week I was sent a link to a website that for all intents and purposes was an Agudath Israel of America website.  It is called ‘The Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative’. It even identified itself as a division of Agudath Israel of America. (Note the subtitle under the logo.)When I asked an official at Agudah whether they were finally going to be dropping their official opposition to the internet  and refusal to have an official website, I was told  as follows:  Agudah will itself ‘continue to refrain from having an official site – as a symbolic warning about the Internet’.

This is not the first instance of an Agudah website and insistence that it doesn’t really have one. If there was ever a case of having your cake and eating it too, this is it. I cannot understand how they can clearly be taking advantage of the internet by having a beautiful website for one of their divisions and at the same time have us believe that by not having an official presence’  that they are somehow warning us about it.

I realize that they never fully opposed here as the rabbinic leaders in Israel did. They apparently approve of using it with filters. But I nevertheless remain stumped as to why they think this kind of ‘parsing’ will make any sense to even the most devout of their own constituency.

I recall the big internet Asifa (gathering) held in Citifield Stadium a few years ago. The internet was completely trashed. There was no parsing then.  Although it was not an Agudah sponsored event, I have to believe that they were in support of Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav  Matisyahu Solomon who was the organizer of the event. He was quoted at the time saying the following: 
“The purpose of the [gathering] is for people to realize how terrible the Internet is and, of course, the best thing for every [good Jew] is not to allow it in his home at all…” 
One may also recall the dire warning made at that Asifa by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman quoting from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. When multitudes of Israel gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action of the group, anyone who separates himself from the group has no chelek in Olam Haba'a. That was immediately followed by Rav Wosner’s harsh condemnation of anyone that uses it outside of the necessity of a job. And even then only with filters… and never in the home. It was the Avi Avos HaTumah.

The vehemence with which interent was opposed was demonstrated in a video I recall of a Charedi Mechanech symbolically smashing a computer (recorded an uploaded to YouTube – which has to be the one of the most ridiculous contradictions I can imagine).

There was a bit of backpedaling on this after that big Aisfa, but the bottom line is that the internet was seen at best as a necessary evil that should be avoided as much as possible.  And certainly not to be used in advertising anything remotely holy.

And here we are today. Not Only is Agudah fully engaged in (unofficially) promoting its subdivisions on the internet - internet use among Charedim even in Israel is at unprecedented levels. A report in Ha’aretz cites the following: 
The leading Haredi Internet site, by a large margin, according to a joint survey by Max Digital and SimilarWeb, is Kikar Hashabbat, which has been a partner of Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ynet site since 2012. Kikar Hashabbat gets almost 3 million monthly visits...
Hadrei Haredim, an older and even better-known site, which has changed ownership several times and uncovered many scandals, was in second place with 1.7 monthly visitors. 
It would appear to me that if one is to believe Rabbi Wachsman, there are a lot of Charedim that will not merit Oalm HaBah! And yet Agudah advertises to these very people (unofficially of course).

The reality is that even though  millions of Charedim have been banged over the head about the evils of the Internet, they don’t care. They use it anyway. Now I’m sure that many use filters – which is a good idea anyway if you have children. But no one seriously sees using it as necessarily meaning the loss of one’s eternity. They see it the way most other thoughtful people do, as an extraordinarily useful tool of the 21st century that like many other useful things in life can be misused. Badly.  And destructively. 

It’s kind of like drinking fine wine. If done properly it can gladden the heart. Wine is used in many Jewish rituals. And during the Temple era it was sued for libations on the alter. But If misused it can cirrhosis of the liver and even death.

I have said this before. Unlike Agudah’s detractors, I actually believe they serve a valuable function in the Jewish world. Their public affairs division is incomparable in the many ways they have advanced the cause of observance in this country. Whether it has been via their lobbying efforts in Washington or in their petitions to the Supreme Court. And although I have had some differences of opinion with their Moetzes Gadoei HaTorah based on the Hashkafos of my own Rebbeim, I nonetheless honor them as Gedolei Torah. 

But on this issue – not only do I think they are wrong, I believe they are harming their own image by playing these ‘parsing’ games. It’s time for them to admit they were premature in their decision to avoid an official internet presence; to admit that it at least appears to be a contradiction to their stated policy of not having one while actually having one via one of their divisions.

They realize just that the Internet has permeated their environs. Perhaps even saturated it.  Maybe it’s time for another internet Asifa. One that teaches that the interent is a useful tool that will not automatically land you a place in hell if you use it properly. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Orthodoxy and the Search for Truth

One of the more enlightening posts I have written of late was the one last week where I briefly speculated why people change their beliefs. Either to become observant or non observant. (As in the post referenced - I define observance as Orthodox Jewry defines it.)

It wasn’t anything I said that was all that enlightening. It was the comments of some of the people who had undergone that process of change. The greatest move in the direction of becoming observant comes from someone that converts to Judaism. That is the greatest gap that is leaped over from non observance to observance.

Not only is such a person not observant, they are not even Jewish. If they are Christian, which is most often the case with converts in America - their belief in the divinity of Jesus was about as far removed from Judaism as one can get. And considering the strongly held belief by Christianity that there is no salvation without believing that – it’s a pretty strong change. So as much as I am in awe of a secular non observant Jew that becomes observant, I am far more in awe of a Christian that does it. It is also interesting to note the reaction of friends and family to such conversions. We Jews are not tolerant at all when the reverse God forbid happens. (Of course in Judaism a person born a Jew  remains a Jew even if they convert. But that is an entirely different subject.)

With that in mind I am posting two of the more fascinating comments from that post. Both started out as non Jews. Both adopted Orthodox Judaism. One converted and one did not. What makes these comments so enlightening is what brought them to observance; the proccess; the trials and tribulations; the beauty they both found in observant Judaism; and  the fact that in the end each of them turned out so radically different.

As might be expected of a believer like myself, I am disappointed in the end result of one and am inspired by the end result of the other. The two comments follow - slightly edited for style, grammar, spelling errors and readability.

I came to Judaism at the age of 17, and was initially attracted by the closeness of the Jewish community and the way that religion and spirituality were interwoven with the fabric of daily life. It was a time in my life in which I was looking for purpose, authenticity and community. I saw Judaism as a very life-affirming religion which sanctified ordinary life instead of demeaning it in pursuit of lofty and transcendent spirituality. 
I explored the various heterodox denominations but found the claim of orthodoxy's 'authenticity' to be compelling, especially that of haredi orthodoxy, and once I had reconciled, in my own mind at least, halacha and my homosexuality I was able to fully throw myself into observance.
For 14 years I lived a completely observant life, not easy considering I lived in a small town with no Jewish community. Despite wishing to, I never formally converted (for several reasons, including my relationship with my now husband, who I met just as I was becoming interested in Judaism. I realised (it) would not be accepted despite what had become our fealty to the relevant halachos. Which incidentally fills me with awe for him, as he made this considerable sacrifice out of love for me, despite not being a believer in Judaism himself!!). 
I taught myself Hebrew and Yiddish and learned several hours a day and found Judaism to be intellectually and spiritually satisfying. That said I did have some significant doubts about elements of Jewish belief, but these I successfully suppressed because I very much feared that examining them would overturn my belief and as such my only real connection to the Jewish people.
Ultimately despite how happy I was living a Jewish life, I was made uncomfortable by a growing sense of my increasing intolerance and dogmatism which I saw reflected in elements of the haredi society that I felt part of. This combined with no longer being able to hide from my doubts, led me to re-examining my beliefs fully in the light of scholarship both Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular. 
The conclusions of this examination led to my eventual letting go of orthodoxy. For a while I held on to much observance as a way of maintaining my Jewish self-identity, but slowly my diminishing observance allowed me to rejoin fully the non-Jewish society around me, and for the first time I actually felt a sense that I had 'come home', of genuine belonging, which in time gave me the confidence to drop my observances completely.
I now live a very warm, purposeful, spiritual and religious life without Judaism, (indeed my religious beliefs are as far from Judaism as it is possible to get) but I still hold the Jewish people in huge affection and regard the Jewish religion as a valuable source of wisdom and beauty even though I no longer believe in it. My years since leaving Jewish observance have been the happiest, satisfying and productive of my life, but I retain much gratitude for all that I enjoyed and all that I learned when Judaism was my faith.

As a convert, I find this post very interesting, and the discussion is even more fascinating.
My conversion was mainly based on intellectual reasons. It would be foolish to think that it was solely based on intellect, and the emotional factors were excluded, as there is no intellectual reasoning that is not influenced by emotions, except maybe for formal logic, but the latter also can be understood as an expression of certain implicit beliefs about the nature of the reality.

By the way in this thread someone quoted a research on decision making examined with the use of fMRI. (Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow - HM.I would like to point out that it's not really relevant to discussion, as the decision about conversion or becoming religious is not a fast one. Most of the people spend at least some time trying to think about pros and cons, and so one would rather assume that there is a lot of slow (frontal cortex) thinking involved.

I consider myself Modern Orthodox, and I didn't experience any ostracism from my friends or family after my decision to convert. It was a life-changing decision, but I think that more life-changing was a consequence of this decision: the fact that I had to leave my country to find a Jewish community, as I lived in a place where Jewish communities were almost non-existent.

I decided to share my experience, as I don't find Judaism more restrictive than my previous life. Reading this thread made me wonder, if I live in some delusions to think so. For me, there is no conflict between being Orthodox and studying science. Otherwise, how could there be any Orthodox doctors? Similarly, I live in a relatively RW area, and nobody ever suggested that I should get rid of my computer. There is only a suggestion of using an Internet filter. Of course, I can't marry a non-Jew, but why would I want to marry a non-Jew? I find the tznius clothing more stylish than current fashion. I don't want to bore you with more examples. :)

I converted almost 8 years ago, and went through an unhappy marriage. I had a bad luck to marry an Orthoprax, who was secretly enamored with a secular life-style. This didn't change my attitude towards religion. It just made me wonder how many outwardly religious people are not really religious. For them being religious might be really hard and all about restrictions. I would even venture to say, that they are so deeply insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to impose chumros on themselves and others as a way to overcompensate for their lack of emunah.

I don't think it's fair to assume that any person deciding to go through a major life-change is not well-adjusted (=has some emotional issues). I think it's very dangerous to define the emotional well-being by the level of adjustment to one's milieu. What if the milieu is decidedly not healthy? We live in a world where we are privileged to experience unprecedented level of personal freedom. We are free to choose whatever path we want to follow. Personally, I think it's more healthy to live according to one's deepest nature and convictions, than pretend that one is someone else to conform.

Once again - please do not consider this post an opportunity to argue for your beliefs. Those comments will be deleted. Thank you. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yom Yerushalyim, Satmar, and Neturei Karta

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the Shofer at the Kotel in 1967
On this day as we celebrate Yom Yerushalyim I think back to the heady days of 1967 when Israel won the 6 day war. Back then Israel was the darling of all the liberals. They were the underdog being attacked and outnumbered by the Arab armies, constantly being threatened with annihilation by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar, who was the undisputed spokesman for that cause.

Egypt initiated the war by closing the Gulf of Aqaba– Israel’s lifeline to the sea. Israel made a decision to take preemptive military action because of this existential threat. The rest is rather famous history. The Arabs got whooped in 6 days. Israel took control of East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza. The words of General Moti Gur as he entered the old city of Jerusalem still ring in my ears, “Har HaBayis B’Yadenu!” The Temple Mount is in our hands!

What a great feeling that was. Israel became the most admired nation in the world. American military experts and generals at the time could not get over the brilliance of Israel’s victory. 

I cannot remember being more proud of my people. But there were some Jews that were not proud at all. The leader of Satmar Rebbe,  R’ Yoel Titlebaum called this victory a Maseh Satan – the work of the devil. And his spiritual heirs carry on his legacy.

No matter how much I try, I cannot understand how these people can teach their children so much hatred of the State of Israel. Watching the video (1st video below) of a Chasidic child bashing Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut to a classroom filled with even younger children was upsetting but not surprising.  He was no doubt parroting what he was taught from practically the day he was born.

This was not just an isolated event. There is a pattern of Israel bashing that is continuous among these Chasidim to this day. And they do so every chance they get. Not far from there in the town of Kiryas Joel there was a Lag B’Omer celebration that included a bonfire where an Israeli flag was brought in and burned.(2nd video below)

I can understand being against the State of Israel for ideological reasons as per the Satmar Rebbe. What I cannot understand is the way they do it. It is though their desire to show how much they hate the State supersedes all other considerations. Considerations like the very safety of their brethren. 6 million Jews living in Israel. It is videos like these that gives succor to Israel’s greatest enemies.  And it provides them with a group of religious looking Jews they can claim to be on their side. They might be called ‘Useful Idiots’. That’s what  Communist sympathizers in America were called by some during the cold war with the former Soviet Union.

Both of these videos are no doubt of Neturi Karta events. But hey did not make up this attitude themselves. I am absolutely convinced that the vehemence with which they express their opposition to Israel can be traced back to the Satmar Rebbe himself. No one expressed more hatred for the Jewish State than he did – comparing R’ Avrahom Yitzchok Kook to an ancient ‘Hitler’ named Haman. With rhetoric like that, it is indeed not surprising that some of his spiritual offspring would do the kinds of things seen in these videos. They say pretty much the same things all the antisemites of the world say. 

It gives these antisemites cover to deny that their antisemitic rhetoric. How could it be if these obviously religious Jews are saying the same thing? How ironic it is that their claim in this video is that Israel is manufacturing Antisemitism as an incentive to make Aliyah. All while they say and do things that encourage it.

Don’t they realize how stupid this is? Because that is the only real fruit of their labor. Their publicly advertised antipathy does not further their agenda of dismantling the state of Israel one iota.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Seeking Truth and Changing One's Beliefs

One of the most fascinating things to me is when a secular Jew becomes a Baal Teshuva. Even more fascinating is when a non Jew converts to Judaism. On the other hand it is just as fascinating to me when a religious Jew becomes irreligious. And perhaps the most fascinating of all, are the people who become religious and then go back to being irreligious. For purposes of this post, I am defining religious as Orthodox.

I have always had a keen interest in people who are motivated to so drastically change their lives. For reasons I cannot go into, I was today reminded of a fellow who became religious through Lubavitch, was ordained as a rabbi by them and was as sincere about his Judaism and Chabad as anyone could be. And now he is totally irreligious, a secular Jew. In his case it was a traumatic life event that appears to have thrown him off.

The reason I am so fascinated by people that become religious Jews, whether as a Baal Teshuva or a convert, is that they saw something in Judaism that so appealed to them, that they were willing totally abandon the former lives… and their communities – in favor of an entirely new lifestyle and community.

They have left the comfort zone of their formerly permissive lives and loving families to embrace a lifestyle that their parents and friends sometimes ridiculed. A lifestyle of new laws and regulations that make lives a lot harder to live than the ones they were leading before. I realize that are many reasons why they change their lives so drastically. Like escaping family dysfunction. But why must one change their lives in order to escape dysfunction? Why embrace Judaism with all its strictures? Why not just leave?

There must have been something they saw in Judaism that appealed to them. It must have been very compelling. Indeed there are many compelling reasons why someone might want to lead a Jewishly observant lifestyle. One might say that they see in Judaism how highly the idea of family is valued. Something illustrated by something as simple as a Shabbos meal.  

But at it’s heart, I have to believe that the choice has to be an intellectual one. They must see a truth in Judaism that they do not see anywhere else. It is especially gratifying when someone that was religious in another faith abandons it in favor of Judaism’s truths.  For those of us that are born into a religious family, it is inspiring to see others discover its truths and it justifies the belief system we were all born into and never questioned. Just accepted without most of us ever thinking about it.

On the other side of the coin, why do people that are religious leave Judaism? There is much discussion about this phenomenon and probably as many reasons why someone religious leaves as there are for someone that comes in. But I have to believe the same thing is true about them that is true about Baalei Teshuva and converts. They have discovered a different version of the truth. One where they erroneously conclude that God does not exists and Judaism was made up by man.

And  then there are those that became religious and later left. Why? 

I stand in awe of those that become religious – whether as Baalei Teshuva or as converts. They came to observant Judaism ultimately because they saw it as truth. Sacrificing a past full of freedoms that they can no longer enjoy for the sake of truth is something that I truly admire.

But I do not stand in awe of those that left observance.  Even though they did so because they saw their own version of the truth which I believe is mistaken. I actually feel bad for them and hope that they will eventually see the greater truth of the Torah, despite the fact that they now see it as a fantasy. I also feel bad for them because they gave up something very precious aside from the truth. A lifestyle that generally exudes warmth and embraces family values in exchange for the cold and impersonal lifestyle that an atheist or skeptic often leads. (Unless they continue to live as religious Jews while privately not believing in it.) 

I think of Shulem Deen who dropped observance for intellectual reasons. He is paying a heavy price for that in the lonely life he now leads - if one is to believe his memoir.  Which I do.

I have always wondered about how 2 very bright individuals seeking truth can come to such opposite conclusions. And most of all when a Baal Teshuva goes back to an irreligious lifestyle, what happens to the truth they discovered  when they first embraced Judaism?

For those who have left observance for intellectual reasons, please do not consider this post an opportunity to argue for your beliefs. Those comments will be deleted. Thank you. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Birth of a New Jewish Denomination

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox,Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat (JTA)
I feel like I am going from the frying pan into the fire by discussing this topic after the last one. But once again, I feel I must speak out.

It seems that the movement to ordain female rabbis in Orthodoxy is moving ahead full steam. According to an article in JTA, there will be six new female rabbis graduated at Yeshivat Maharat. They are expecting 6 to 8 students next year. While they do not call themselves rabbis, that’s what they are. There is no sense in calling them anything else. If I were them I would be insulted at not being given the same title their male counterparts are given for completing the same requirements for ordination. These women study the same material as men who study for the rabbinate do and they must pass the same tests. And yet, they are not given the same title.

Why not just go out and say what you are doing? Why dishonor your students be calling them some name you made up?

The answer of course is that they want acceptance by the very same Orthodox establishment that they have always been a part of. They believe that changing the title will give them some sort of legitimacy. But that will never happen. Even leaving aside the Halachicly problematic issue of Serrara (female leadership over men), women are barred by Halacha from doing the most basic functions of a synagogue rabbi .  The people running these institutions know this and so do the women they ordain.

They cannot be counted for a Minyan. They cannot sit in the sanctuary with men during a communal prayer service. They cannot lead the service. Their very presence in the Shul together with men invalidates the Minyan and even the service itself.

To say this kind of leadership is awkward is an understatement. And yet they insist that they should be able to work around it and somehow lead congregational services. The claim is that they can Halachicly  do other things in a Shul that a rabbi does. Like counsel, teach, or lecture. This is true. But the idea of a leader not being able to be present in the Minyan is not normal and in my view, something that should not be sought.  Why must the envelope be pushed in such an abnormal way?

That is answered by Anat  Sharbat, one of the about to be ordained women: 
“The program in Yeshivat Maharat is a responsible program for responsible leadership – halachic but also social and emotional and feminist…” (emphasis mine) 
When I hear the word feminist these days it has a lot different meaning to me than it did in the past. In the past it was a movement whose goal was to obtain equal rights for women in the workplace and equal respect with men societally. Both are goals that I support.

But feminism has morphed its goals into an attempt to eliminate all gender differences accept for the obvious physical ones. This is not a Torah viewpoint. The Torah mandates different roles for men and women. The idea that women must somehow equalize with men in all areas of Judaism is anathema to the very idea of male/female roles.  As far as the Orthodox rabbinate goes, it is an elusive goal that can never happen. It is a Halachic impossibility in the realm of the synagogue for men and women to have equal roles.

Feminists will retort that while that may be true, we must still push the envelope as far as far as Halacha will allow. Inserting women wherever possible into the sanctuary. But at what price? Are we going to see female rabbis preaching from behind the Mechitza in service to that ideal? Is it appropriate for the spiritual leader of a Shul to not be visible during services? …sitting behind the Mechitza? Even as men far less educated than them religiously lead the services and fully participate in them?  This is not a normal situation and it is certainly not equality of the sexes. The Conservative movement knows that. That’s why they have fully embraced female rabbis – having long ago completely abandoned the Mechitza and the Halachic requirement that only men can be counted in a Minyan.  

This is not to say that women have no role in studying Torah and using their knowledge of it. I am a big supporter of women studying Torah if they chose to do so. And there are plenty of roles these Jewishly educated women can fulfill with the knowledge they obtained. Like pastoral counseling, or becoming educators.  I see nothing wrong with that. But one does not need the title rabbi (or Maharat) in order to do that.

Using a sledgehammer called feminism to insert whatever feminist changes they can into a normal Shul environment will not change the fact that-  bottom line – it falls short of a truly feminist goal as it is understood  today at. It is abnormal. It causes divisiveness. And we may end up with yet another non Orthodox denomination that claims to be Halachic but attentive to the spirit of the times. Just as the Conservative Judaism originally claimed. That is the direction this is all going.

In the meantime some of the more left wing modern Orthodox Shuls are hiring these ordainees: 
Of the five women who have been ordained by the yeshiva – three in 2013 and two last year – four are working in synagogues, serving essentially as assistant rabbis. (The fifth is a Jewish educator in Montreal.)
“The rabbi and I have a great relationship; we share a lot of the responsibilities,” said Rori Picker Neiss, a maharat who works at Bais Abraham, a modern Orthodox congregation in St. Louis. “We switch off who gives the drasha [sermon] every week, I teach classes, I’m available for counseling, I coordinate some of the programs. I have not yet done funerals or weddings, but I can. My job description would parallel an assistant rabbi’s position.” 
My guess is that these Shuls will be boycotted by the Orthodox mainstream.  Which means that as new graduates increasingly take new positions in the more left wing Shuls, a new denomination is inevitable. Which is sad. My guess, though, is that this new denomination will eventually suffer the same fate the older ones are.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Freundel and Rubashkin

Barry Freundel
Update: Six and a half years for Freundel. Sentenced today - (5/15/15). Sounds about right.

What do Sholom Rubashkin and Barry Freundel have in common? Well… a lot it seems. Although the 2 of them could not be more different from each other in Hashkafa - they have both entered the ‘Hall of Jewish Scoundrels’. Each for entirely different reasons. Both have committed crimes that have embarrassed the Jewish people. I don’t think the phrase ‘Chilul HaShem’ is inapt here. They both created a massive Chilul HaShem.

Rubashkin committed bank fraud to the tune of 26 million dollars. Freundel is guilty of secretly videotaping and viewing over 100 women involved with him in has capacity as  a rabbi - completely naked when they were in his Shul’s Mikvah… all for his own personal gratification. And all unbeknownst to them.

Rubashkin has been discussed to death. I’m not going to rehash it all here.

What makes Freundel’s crime of voyeurism so egregious is that he violated the trust his congregants. He wasn’t just some run of the mill ‘Peeping Tom’ that got his jollies from viewing naked women. He was a prominent spiritual leader to his congregants. Someone that was supposed to be not only a leader, but a role model for Jewish behavior. A man of God from which the holiness of the Jewish people should emanate. A man highly educated in the ethics of the Torah. A man that pretended to exuded honesty and inspire people by his behavior. A man that had an international reputation as a rabbi and scholar. An expert in conversions. He used that position of power to take advantage of his female congregants that admired him.

When he was finally exposed, the fallout was horrendous. I cannot imagine what it must be like for all those women to now realize that in the moment when they were performing a sacred and holy ritual - they were (unbeknownst to them) seen naked by their trusted rabbi. The shame… the embarrassment. 

Nor can I imagine what this has done to his family, who were probably completely unaware of his extracurricular and aberrational sexual activity. I cannot imagine the shame and embarrassment experienced by his wife who has since divorced him. I can’t imagine the shame experienced by his colleagues at  the RCA who once saw him as a rising star – an expert on conversions. And now see him as a stain on their reputation.

The victims of his voyeurism have been traumatized. It will probably affect them for the rest of their lives. Some are being treated by mental health professionals. 

It is one thing to have knowledge that a ‘Peeping Tom’ somehow got to see you naked. It is orders of magnitude different when the Peeping Tom in question is your trusted rabbi who has done this to hundreds of other women countless numbers of time – and videotaped them all for his own sexual gratification. They see the extent of planning and execution that went into this. The psychological damage they have all suffered from Freundel’s voyeurism must be devastating. It is they who have suffered the most here .

It would not surprise me if more than one of his converts have had second thoughts about their conversions. Or that some women were so turned off to Judaism by what their rabbi did to them that they lost their faith and dropped their observance.

Sholom Rubashkin
As in the Rubashkin case - the prosecution in the Freundel case has asked for a very stiff prison sentence: 17 years - citing the numerous victims and the above reasons for requesting it. However, as bad as his crimes were, I do not see any justice in giving a Peeping Tom what amounts to a near life sentence in prison in this case. Freundel is 65 years old. That would mean he would be in prison until he was 82 years old. As great as his crimes were, I do not think they rise to the level of deserving a life sentence.

I don’t know what a just punishment would be in this case. But 17 years in prison is not it. The truth is that he has been publicly and forever humiliated. He has lost his reputation. It will never be restored. He will never have a position of power again. He will never serve in any official capacity as a rabbi. His fall from grace was mighty. The higher you are, the greater your fall. He had a big one. His infamy will follow him wherever he goes. His legacy will be one of being a sexual pervert. He will likely never re-marry and is doomed to a life of being shunned by people that once respected him. Colleagues and congregants alike. My guess is that his ruined reputation is a far greater punishment to him than any prison sentence.

The suggested 17 year prison sentence for Freundel is no more just than the 27 years was for Rubashkin. Both of these people deserved to be punished for what they did. But the punishment has to fit the crime. The length of these prison sentences are the same as would be given to violent criminals. Like drug dealers or even murderers in some cases. And neither of them are. It might be too late for Rubsahkin, who is now serving an unjustly long prison sentence. But it is not too late for Freundel. He has not been sentenced yet. Putting a Peeping Tom in prison for 17 years  - even one as egregious as Freundel - just doesn’t seem right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Being Religious in the 21st Century

Organized religion is losing numbers. So says a Pew study released today. There has been a nearly 8% drop in the number of people in America calling themselves Christian since 2007, the last year a poll was taken. Those who answered ‘none’ to a question about religious affiliation increased by 6%. As Forward editor  Jane Eisner put it:
If the “nones” were a religious denomination, they would be the second largest in America, just after evangelical Christians.
Seeing these figures about the decline in religious affiliation brings to mind the Pew Research Center report last year of a similar decline of affiliated Jews. Aside from Orthodox Jewry whose numbers have risen, the members of other denominations are either shrinking (Conservative), or redefining themselves (Reform) in order to retain their numbers.

Interestingly the more liberal the denomination the more it is shrinking. The more religiously conservative the denomination the more it is growing. Hence, the formerly dominant mainline Protestant Churches are losing numbers just as the formerly dominant Conservative Judaism is losing numbers. (The word ‘Conservative’ is misleading in that Conservative Jews tend to be both politically and religiously liberal). Meanwhile Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews are increasing.

I am not all that surprised at these numbers. The more one adheres to the fundamental principles of their faith, the more likely they are to retain it.  That religious belief is declining in this country is reflected in the change of attitude towards gay marriage. A majority of Americans now approve of that. Despite the fact that it is against the principles of both Christianity and Judaism. Principles sourced in the Bible. The very idea of gay marriage makes the statement that a homosexual lifestyle is just as valid as a heterosexual lifestyle. Needless to say the Bible does not approve of a gay lifestyle and therefore does not give its imprimatur to gay marriage. And yet the majority of the country approves of it. In other words the majority of  mainline protestants have basically rejected the views of the bible. Contrast that with Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews that oppose both the gay lifestyle and gay marriage.

The question is why? Why has there been a decline in religious affiliation?  There are many reasons. Probably a lot more than I can imagine.

Let me speculate a bit. Belief in God in an era where so many things can now be explained through science makes it difficult to believe in a Supernatural Being that runs the world. Things that in the past had no explanation other than God was doing it (like lightening) are now scientifically understood phenomena. The origins of the universe are now better understood scientifically. Add to that the inability to see God or detect any direct connection between Him and events taking place here on earth and you end up with a healthy dose of skepticism. Things formally explained by religion now have an equally persuasive explanation in science. Thus eliminating the need to believe in God. Indeed the vast majority of scientists are probably atheists.

And then there are those people who have not properly been taught the purpose of religion. I can’t speak for Christianity. But in Judaism the purpose is strictly to serve God. Often I will hear someone that left Orthodoxy say that Judaism didn’t speak to them. They didn’t feel it was a good fit to their worldview. Well, that is exactly where they went wrong. Judaism is not designed to be God in service to man. It is designed to be man in service to God.  We observe Halacha because that is what God wants of the Jewish people. We do not serve God because it makes us feel good… or even more spiritual. That is secondary to the main goal.

Conservative and Reform Judaism tend to focus more on what religion can do for you. And sees much of its primary focus on Tikun HaOlam, which they interpret strictly to mean social justice. As such these movements tend to get involved with worthwhile liberal causes. Like the civil rights movement of the sixties. And gay rights of our day. Working for these causes makes one feel like they are really contributing to the building up of the world and making it a better place.  But then why must you be Jewish to achieve that? Why bother with the label Conservative or Reform Jew? Working for any form of human rights is not a particularly Jewish cause. It is a humanist cause. One does not have to be Jewish or even believe in God to work for social justice.

One final point. Even though Orthodoxy is growing, it is no secret that there are more Orthodox Jews leaving observance than ever before. For a variety of reasons. There are probably as many reasons as there are dropouts from Orthodoxy. Just to mention a few that come to mind:

Some have to do with modern explanations of existence that do not require a belief in God. And having serious questions about it rebuffed by teachers ill equipped to answer them.

Some dropout because they do not have the aptitude, interest, or Zitzfleish  (resoluteness) to focus on difficult religious studies if Charedi - or academic studies if Modern Orthodox. Competing with the bright students for a teachers attention then becomes a losing battle and causes a student to lose self esteem. A great deal of them leave simply because they feel that they do not fit in to the system.

Others  lose their religion based on issues of abuse and family dysfunction. Or have parents that cannot handle their children wavering even slightly from their Hashkafa… causing tremendous friction between parent and child. In some cases it is the inability to lead the strict lives in an environment that never saw a Chumra it didn’t like.

In the world of the right there are those that when inadvertently exposed to it – succumb to those attractions of the secular world that are forbidden by Halacha - being insufficiently prepared for it. Or those in the Modern Orthodox world whose religious backgrounds are not strong enough to withstand the hedonistic college campus lifestyle and its pressure to conform. A lifestyle that is anathema to Orthodox Judaism.

These are just a few of my thoughts after looking at this new Pew Survey. While it is true that Orthodox Judaism and Fundamentalist Christianity seem to both be bucking the trend of shrinkage and are actually growing, that does not mean we have nothing to worry about. Speaking for Orthodox Judaism  – we sure do.

Monday, May 11, 2015

If Only...

R' Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik - A Gadol in Torah and Mada
As if to underscore the value of a secular education to Orthodox Jews, I received the following note from a non Jew who is apparently familiar with the US intelligence community. He happened to read yesterday’s post about Jewish education. Here in pertinent part is what he said: 
A surprisingly large number of intelligence analysts are Jewish. (This may be due to the increasing technical complexity of this field.) Among those , we have a significant number who are Orthodox Jews. This week I was in Los Angeles. One of our radar surveillance experts is Orthodox. I visited his home and met his wife and children. His children go to a Orthodox day school: Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu. There, their  very long day is split between Hebrew and religious studies and secular topics. The secular part of the curriculum is vigorous and would match any private school.  The religious studies part also seems to be quite intense. They have a lot of homework at night. I met the principal, Rabbi Goldberg. I was impressed. If this school is typical of Jewish  religious schools, then you have nothing to worry about. 
It is a matter of great pride for me to see how Jews – especially Orthodox Jews treat education. We obviously place great value on it. And education like the one at this particular school is evidence of that.

Now I don’t know anything about Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu. But based on this gentleman’s observation, I surmise that it is a Centrist or Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school. This is the kind of school that would bring great benefit to the Charedim in Israel. The tools gained in the study of Gemarah are an advantage that non Jews and secular Jews do not have. And when that is combined with an intensive secular studies program, the fruits are on display for the entire world to see. And that is a Kiddush HaShem.

Of course no one is suggesting that Charedim in Israel would ever consider having Yeshiva high schools with intensive secular studies. Even in the unlikely event that they would ever agree to a core curriculum - they would never go that far because in their view it would take away too much time from Limudei Kodesh. But imagine what life would be like for Charedim in Israel if they did. The possibilities are unlimited. Charedim would be the envy of the secular world. At least as far as academic achievement and job prospects are concerned (if not lifestyle).  Aside from the primary and obvious benefit of substantially  bettering their material welfare, the outreach potential is huge. Beyond anything we could ever imagine.

The counter to this by the right might be that such intensive study would dilute the quantity and quality of Torah study. That would seem to be obvious. The less time you spend studying Torah the less you know. How are you ever going to produce Gedolei Yisroel?

To me the answer to that is also obvious. (Although I’m sure that most Charedim would reject the following anecdotal analogy – if only for Hashkafic reasons.) 

Truly great minds in Torah can handle greatness in Mada as well. One has to look no further than Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik.  I saw it in a documentary about him. When as a young man Rav Soloveitechik went off to study at the University of Berlin to eventually get his PhD in Philosophy -as a scion of the great Brisker dynasty he used to get visits from a variety of the great European Gedolim. They obviously disapproved of his educational choice. Going to University in those days was considered near blasphemy because of all the Apikursus taught there; the anti Torah environment; and the fact that it took away too much time from Torah study. Very few Orthodox Jews went to college in those days.

During the course of those visits they would eventually engage in discussions of Torah. Those Gedolim were shocked at the breadth and depth of Rav Soloveitchik’s Torah knowledge. They asked him how he had the time to study Torah to the extent that he had so much knowledge of it? Rav Soloveitchik answered answered that he studied Torah the same time they studied Torah.  When they spent time speaking Lashon Hara about him, he spent that time studying philosophy.

The point of this somewhat humorous anecdote is not that he studied only when they were speaking Lashon Hara about him. That’s as ridiculous as the popular urban legend that the Vilna Goan only studied Mada in the bathroom. Rav Soloveitchik’s point was that this is how he spent his leisure time away from Torah studies – leisure time that a every human being needs to be able to relax and refresh himself.

Even if the right were to concede this point, they might still argue that there aren’t too Rav Soloveitciks around that could master both Torah and Mada. To that I would say yes, They are right. But how many Gedolim are there anyway? How many can master even the Torah they spend studying 24/7? Not too many to say the least.

The point being that not everyone can be a Gadol. And in my humble opinion, not everyone should try. The best use of anyone’s time in the goal of serving God is to use his own God given talents in that regard. And not everyone has the same talents. That’s why some people are artists and some are mathematicians.  Some are brains surgeons and some are great literary figures. Some are computer geniuses and others are great mechanical engineers. Some are great Talmidei Chachamim and some are great Outreach people. Everyone has a unique talents that should be exploited for the sake of God and man… and not sublimated to a singular goal which is the same for everyone. Because that is what causes dysfunction.

We Jews have a great education ethic. It ought not to be squandered in pursuit of the unattainable. How does this relate to the Israeli Charedi ethic of full time Torah study in perpetuity to the exclusion of all else?  All you have to do is look at their situation right now. The answer is self evident. Wouldn’t it be advisable to pursue a multi track program where Limudei Kodesh is an integral part of everyone’s education but where those students better suited to other pursuits are given opportunities to pursue them too?

I know this is a pipe dream for Israel… and increasingly so even in some American Yeshivos who look Eastward for Hashkafic guidance. So the idea of a great academic program to go side by side with a great Limudei Kodesh program will not happen anytime soon in any Charedi Yeshiva even in the US.

But at the very least they should not force everyone into the same box. That in my view can have devastating results.  Results we see in the increasing numbers of those dropping out of observance and worse. Dropouts that have occurred because they were never given an opportunity to find themselves utilizing their God given talents in other fields. And instead were forced into classroom situations where they could not possibly compete or even function. Is this the future we want? Are we that willing to pursue the present Charedi paradigm even at this great cost? Judging by the way Charedim on both sides of the ocean seem to be going, I guess the answer is yes.