Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Chanukah

Chanukah 2014 at the White House
I don't know how people can say that President Barack Obama is in any way anti Semitic or even anti Israel after viewing the Chanukah party that took place in the White House just a couple of days ago. One can disagree with his politics and policies. One can even claim that his Presidency has been a failure. (I do not.) Or that his policies have been a disaster. (I do not.) But there is not a doubt in my mind that this man is a friend of the Jewish people.

This is not the first time the President has hosted a clearly Jewish event at the White House. Nor is it the only Jewish Holiday he participated in. But this is the first one where there is tangible proof that he has worked quietly, diligently and successfully on our behalf.

Not because he wanted to win favor in our eyes. He doesn't really need our favor. But because he actually believes in what he did. And had his administration working on it until they achieved success.

I am of course referring to obtaining the release of Alan Gross, an observant Jew from captivity, And just in time for Chanukah no less. The President spoke of it in his remarks at this party calling it Pidyon Shevuyim. Rightfully so. Mr. Gross was unjustly imprisoned by Cuba and it was indeed a Mitzvah to do whatever we could to get him released. That is exactly what the President did. I salute the President and want to express my personal gratitude for this and for being a friend to the Jewish people. I defy anyone to view the video below and not be inspired.

Happy Chanukah

Thursday, December 18, 2014

When a Premiere Torah Institution is Criticized

Eliyahu Weinstein
First let me state the obvious. Eliyahu Weinstein is a sick individual who probably suffers from a serious case of psychopathy. He was sentenced to a very long prison term for committing fraud on innocent people. Some of them from his own religious community. To say that this Kipa wearing Jew who looks Charedi is responsible for a huge Chilul HaShem is an understatement. No where is this more obvious than in a statement attributed to Weinstein’s sentencing judge. From Shmarya Rosenberg’s blog
Additionally, Judge Joel Pisano lashed out at the Lakewood haredi community for taking money from criminals, for not condemning crime committed by fellow haredim, and for openly enabling crime, the source said. 
If what Shmarya  reported is true, then the Chilul HaShem is self evident. 

Now, I’m sure many reading this will discount the report because they do not trust the source (to say the least). But I am inclined to believe it. Because even though it serves his alleged purposes of bashing the religious world, there is no way Mr. Rosenberg’s blog could continue to credible to even his biggest supporters if he were caught in an outright lie. No one likes to be lied to.

Judge Pisano may be painting with a bit of a broad brush… and it may not be the case that Lakewood is as guilty as he indicated.  But the self imposed poverty of Lakewood’s Avreichim certainly puts pressure on Lakewood to find creative ways of funding them. 

Aside from taking money from the likes of Weinstein, there are other questionable ways of funding advocated by Lakewood. Like taking advantage of the government welfare system. This adds to the negative image of Lakewood and Yeshivos like them. Which makes Judge Pisano’s assertions sound more credible.

Taking advantage of the welfare system is one of my pet peeves. Although they do it legally, I would not call using welfare to support Torah study the most ethical way to do it. Consider the circumstances of the Avreichim versus the intent of the welfare system.

Welfare is supposed to be for those people who for whatever reason can’t find work. They are supposed to try. And for those who do work but are paid meager incomes, the welfare system is there to help them make ends meet.

A lot of recipients are disabled. For various reasons many are not educated enough to find good jobs. In some cases they are from dysfunctional homes where education was not a priority. Or were raised in slums where education has little to no value compared to the values of the street.  

And even for those who are from fine families whose parents overcame those negative influences and transmitted good values and a positive work ethic, many are are not in a position to help their children out financially. Barely making ends meet themselves.

I have only scratched the surface of the impoverished circumstances over which many welfare recipients have no control - and for whom the welfare system was intended.

Contrast that with the circumstances of the typical Avreich and his family. Most of the above does not apply to him. In most cases they are poor by choice.

Now one may extol their virtues in choosing a life of Torah study and the modest lifestyle that often accompanies it. I in fact agree that in that sense they are altruists. But it is still a choice.

And the truth is that many of these Avrechim come from families that are a lot better off than the families of typical welfare recipient. They have parents that can and often do help them out. Some in the form of cash. Some in the form of paying for certain expenses (like rent). Some get shipments of food (like an occasional side of beef which they put into a freezer and use overtime). Some get their clothing paid for (partially or fully) by a parent.  And some even get monthly financial support from their parents.

In short there are many ways that that Avreichim are able to get financial relief outside of the welfare system that they qualify for.  Although it is true that most Avreichim live very modestly by middle class standards, their lifestyles are still a cut above most welfare recipients and are pretty close to middle class. And that is so at least in part because of the financial aid received through the government welfare system.

Additionally, when they choose to better their financial circumstances by entering the workforce, in most cases they are in a better position to do so than most other welfare recipients. Their education is better. Their work ethic is better. They usually come from middle class neighborhoods where better values are extant. They give far higher value to education than most other welfare recipients. They also have better networking opportunities that enable them to find decent jobs. While they do need the welfare to help them make ends meet while still in full time Torah study, they are not the helpless underclass that government welfare is intended for.

It is also a fact that the welfare system is ripe for abuse. And I’m sure that exists too. In short it is not a stretch to imagine that Lakewood’s leaders go the extra mile to fund their Avreichim and take donations from someone like Eliyahu Weinstein even when they must strongly suspect that his money is tainted.

They might argue that they cannot know how any particular donor made his money and do not need question it. And that refusing a donation based on a rumor would unfair to their Avrechim who so badly need it. But if this kind of thing happens enough, we end up with statements like the one from Judge Pisano. Is taking money that way worth the stain of getting a rebuke from a sitting judge? Not in my book.

What about helping out the many Avreichim Lakewood now has? …with plans to increase those numbers greatly in future years? My answer to that is that they ought to be doing the opposite and decrease their numbers. 

The Charedi world has been promoting the primacy of Torah study for decades. I understand why there was a need to do so in the past. Torah study was not popular in the early days of Lakewood. In those days,college was the path taken by most students after high school. While there were many that did both Yeshiva (during the day) and college (at night), the spirit of that time was to learn how to make a living, once out of Yeshiva.  

Rav Aharon Kotler had to change that paradigm or his Yeshiva would never have succeeded. So he tried to get any Bachur he could in any way he could realizing that his Yeshiva would never get off the ground unless he impressed upon as many people as he could the importance of Torah L’Shma (Torah study for its own sake). He was successful in gaining a core of devoted students that were truly the elite of the Torah world. I’m sure he never dreamed his Yeshiva would ever be what it is today.

What has happened is that Rav Aharon Kotler’s message stuck. It has become the new paradigm. So what was once a Makom Torah for the truly elite, is not a meat grinder that churns out a great many Lomdei Torah - but who are not quite elite. The elite may still be there. But they are a minority of those that study there fulltime.  

To my mind there is no ethical basis for funding the masses this way. While it is appropriate for every Jew to study Torah - it is counterproductive to steer every male Jew into it full time - and unethical (even if legal) to do so at government expense.  

Yes, Torah L’Shma is a value we should all share. But it need not be full time for everyone. For most of us, we should work and be Koveah Itim - making time for daily Torah study.  For the elite, they should be funded at even higher levels than they are now so that they never have to worry about supporting their families. How many Avreichim should be considered the elite is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that we are currently way beyond that number. Bottom line: there ought to never again be a basis for a sitting judge to say the kind of things that this one did.

After reading Weinstein's sentencing transcript, it is clear that the statement attributed to Judge Pisano was not in it. That does not mean he didn't say it. All it means is that if he did say it (or something like it) it was done after the matter was concluded. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Banning Women from College

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman (Hadrei Haredim)
People that read this blog regularly know of my admiration for centenarian Charedi leader, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. He is an Ish Emes. A man who tells it like it is, despite popular opinion, or the consequences to himself. This – among other things – is what makes him a leader in Klal Yisroel. But as people also know, I have had some profound disagreements with him.

While Charedim consider it near heretical to disagree with a Charedi Gadol, I don’t. As long as one does it with respect, one has a right to his own view. I can’t even imagine denying a view deeply held even by a Charedi if he (or she) feels strongly about a given matter. Just because it differs with a man they consider to be a Gadol.  

And yet most Charedim seem to do exactly that. They are Mevatel (nullify) their own Daas (wisdom) to that of the Gadol.  I won’t do that because I can’t. If I believe strongly in something, then the only way I will change my mind is if I can be shown the error of my ways. Telling me that a Gadol disagrees with me won’t sway me. Now one can discount my views if they think they are unworthy compared to those of a Gadol. One can say that since my knowledge of Torah is minuscule compared to that of R’ Shteinman it is therefore worthless. That is their right. They can take my view for what they think it’s worth. But it wont change my mind. 

And this is once again the case with a new Psak by R’ Shteinman. Hadrei Haredim – Hebrew edition reports that Rav Shteinman has paskined that women are forbidden to attend any degree granting institution.  Even a Charedi college like the one created by Adina Bar Shalom (Rav Ovadia Yosef’s daughter). He actually mentioned her by name in his Psak.

I’m not sure why this came up now. Nor do I quite understand his strident opposition. But I do know that such Halachic decrees could not come at a worse time.

Most people know that Charedim are the poorest demographic in Israel. Well that statistic has gone from bad to worse. From the JerusalemPost
(T)he poverty rates among the ultra-Orthodox populations increased to 66% in 2013 from 60% in 2012.  The reason for this the report cites, is due to a lack of increase in employment rates, low earnings, and the cutback in child allowances. 
It makes absolutely no sense to prevent people from helping themselves. If he believes that women that attend universities will somehow be led astray by what they study there and go OTD, how much more so should there be a fear of children going OTD from family dysfunction caused by poverty? 

Getting a degree in a field that will enable women (and men) to find better paying jobs should be something that is encouraged, not forbidden. I believe that Rav Ovadia Yosef, ZTL approved of his daughter’s Charedi college. He understood that there is a serious need for such institutions in the Charedi world. In my view, he was absolutely correct.

There has been some discussion in various media about the futility of large families getting out of poverty even with good jobs. That a family of 12 or 13 children (not so unusual among Charedim) would need incomes well in excess of what even a high paying job pays. That well may be true. But does that mean that they shouldn’t even try to better their lives with an education that could provide better jobs? Maybe it won’t pull them entirely out of poverty, but it will certainly help.

There are those that have said that since the Charedi poor get welfare payments from the government it is actually financially beneficial to not have jobs that will increase their income. That their increased earnings will reduce or entirely eliminate the government welfare. Well,that ship has sailed. At least a good portion of it has - since the Israel’s budgetary needs have required them to reduce spending. Some of which were in the form reduced child allowances and lower subsidies to their schools.

And what about self respect? Does the Charedi mindset value taking charity over self reliance? Is the idea of Torah study for all Charedi men for as long as possible and taking charity better than earning a living that would obviate that?

It is not that I think all Charedim should work and abandon full time study. I support it for the best and the brightest. But the idea that everyone should opt for it as a first choice is counterproductive to the material and even spiritual welfare of God’s Chosen people. I don’t think that God wants every man to deny his God given capabilities and sublimate them in pursuit of a lifetime of Torah study that he is no best suited for. 

But even if one disagrees and says that all men should try to learn Torah full time for as long as possible, how can their wives or future wives be denied an opportunity to earn a more respectable income for the family? Why condemn the most devout Jews among us to a life of poverty and taking charity – if there is a way out?

There are those who might say that good jobs can be found in other ways… or that the skill learned in college can be learned just as well outside of college or even as apprentices while on the job. Perhaps in some cases. But not in all. It is certainly not the most efficient way to do it. It limits opportunities for them.  Besides, isn’t it better to learn it to learn it in a more standardized and recognized way than it is to learn it in haphazard non recognized ways?  A degree will open more doors for them than simply attaining the knowledge in nontraditional ways.

As for the fear of women going OTD…I don’t see how a Charedi college is going to be a venue for that anymore that the workplace she may end up in. And yet, Rav Shteinman has forbidden it to women in very strong terms. I just don’t get it!

Bulletin: Alan Gross is Free!

Alan Gross
Jewish American 'hostage' Alan Gross has been freed from a Cuban prison in exchange  for 3 Cuban prisoners here. God Bless the United States of America, the Medina Shel Chesed. A country that cares! Alan Gross is an observant Jew. Many in the Jewish community have been working diligently for his release since his imprisonment there. He was reportedly in failing health. The Obama administration was accused by some of ignoring his fate. Obviously this news tells us a different story. Below is a short history of his journey in Cuba. From Wikipedia:

Alan Phillip Gross (born May 2, 1949) is a U.S. international development professional. In December 2009 he was arrested while in Cuba working as a U.S. government subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of a program funded under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. He was prosecuted in 2011 after being accused of crimes against the Cuban state for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment (to members of Cuba’s Jewish community) without the permit required under Cuban law. After being accused of working for American intelligence services in January 2010, he was ultimately convicted for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state" in March 2011. He has been released from the Cuban prison 12/17/14 Cuba frees US prisoner Alan Gross 12/17/2014

From an JTA report published in the Jewish Press just 2 weeks ago:

American-Jewish contractor Alan Gross completed his fifth year in prison in Cuba on Tuesday, one-third of a 15-year prison term for “crimes against the state, and his wife fears he will not survive much longer.

Gross, 65, of Potomac, Md., was leaving Cuba when he was arrested in December 2009 for setting up Internet access for the Jewish community there as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement issued Tuesday evening that Gross continues to suffer an “unjustified imprisonment in difficult conditions in Cuba.”

“We reiterate our call on the Cuban government, echoing foreign leaders and even Cuba’s allies, to release Alan Gross immediately,” Harf said in a statement.

Gross reportedly is in ill health and has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration, and has suffered from painful arthritis Gross’ wife Judy said in a statement released Wednesday that “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end.”

Cuba has expressed an interest in negotiating a trade of Gross for three Cubans who are jailed in the United States on espionage charges, an idea which the Obama administration has rejected.

In August, Gross said he could no longer take life in prison and reportedly said goodbye to his family.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fighting Terror with Terror is Immoral

Graffiti on the wall reads 'Death to Arabs' (Jerusalem Post
Former Deputy Director of the CIA, Michael Morell, was  asked by CBS news yesterday to respond to the latest terrorist attack by an extremist Muslim in Australia. What he said was scary, but not surprising. He said that an event like this will without a doubt happen in the US. It’s just a matter of time. 

The reason it will is because extremist Islamic groups like ISIS are inspiring people to act like this in the name of God. ISIS is not an international organization. Its ‘soldiers’ are limited to the Middle East. But their threats of bringing the war to the US are not empty ones. Their religious fervor has been transferred to countless people around the world and inspired them to act in the name of Islam. They consider it a duty to God to bring Islam to the entire world.

While it is true that the terrorist in Australia was known to be deranged, his motives were nevertheless clear. He was ‘doing it for God’. This morning we saw yet another terrorist attack in Pakistan where a group of 8 Taliban terrorists massacred 135 people and injuring 114 before themselves being killed.

I think it is important to understand what all these attacks have in common. They are being done in the name of God. As are the beheadings by ISIS. I say this not to God forbid disparage religious beliefs. I say this to point out the futility of trying to stop people motivated to kill in His name.

I believe that such thinking is underlies Muslim hatred of Israel and the Jewish people. It seems like the more devout a Muslim is, the greater the hatred of the Jew. While it is true that there are many exceptions to this among Muslims and even some of its leaders (especially the non Arabic Muslims) I do believe that in the Middle East, they are in the minority.

This is not to say that most Muslims want to kill Jews. Nor is to say that the vast majority would ever dare to do so.  They would not. But the hatred is the same.  All we can ever really hope for is that if the radical Muslim's are ever defeated to the point where they will no longer be able to cause any harm, that we can make peace with them despite the hatred of us to varying degrees by most of them.

As I have said many times, I am at a loss to see any solution to the current phenomenon of terror by Muslim extremists. Which include Hamas,Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaida, and a whole host of smaller groups and even individuals.

Islamic extremists have in common one thing: the Islamization of the entire world in the name of God. And to accomplish that by any means necessary. Even if it means killing fellow Muslims in a suicide mission. Their eyes are solely on the ‘prize’. Their target number one in this mission is Israel and the Jewish people.

That they haven’t gotten to us in recent years as much as they’d like to is due to the fact that God has given us - the Jewish people - the means to protect ourselves via our intelligence, our defensive systems (Iron Dome), our military might, and our close relationship with the United States who helps us out in those goals. But make no mistake about it. If they could get to us, they would kill us all. While there are different tactics used among these groups in the extent of their violence, it is hardly relevant to the fact that they want to destroy us.

You cannot reason with these people.  The entire civilized world can condemn them 1000 times over and they could not care less. That’s because they do not value the entire civilized world. We are all infidels to them.

So how do we deal with this situation? Like I said, I don’t know. Do we fight fire with fire? Tempting as that may be, it is the wrong solution. We cannot go into Arab neighborhoods and blowup Muslim schools or mosques. Or damage them in any way. Randomly killing innocent people is about as immoral an act any human being can do.  It is immoral to hurt innocent people in any way, whether it is inflicting physical pain or property damage.  

Those who counter and say they all hate us anyway and we ought to do to them what they do to us, could not be more wrong. Not only is it immoral it is a Chilul HaShem.  Which is why I am glad that a group of people who think along those lines and act accordingly – were arrested today. Form the Jerusalem Post
The head of a far right extremist group Lehava was arrested on Tuesday for allegations of incitement and calls to carry out violence and terror activity based on nationalistic motives, Israel Police reported…
Lehava chairman Bentzi Gupstein, along with nine other activists from the group,were each taken into custody from their individual homes, following ten months of both open and undercover police investigation…
Three of the group's members were accused of carrying out arson and racist vandalism last month at Max Rayne Hand in Hand School, a joint Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem. Hebrew graffiti was found on the school’s walls, with slogans such as “You can’t coexist with a cancer,” “Kahane was right,” “Enough with assimilation” and “Death to Arabs.”
The group follows the racist teachings of the late Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane…  
It is so sad that Rabbi Kahane, who had such a fine mind and who was a keen observer of the Arab Israeli conflict had such radical ideas. Ideas that inspired the kind of immoral behavior that this group practiced.  He could have been a great leader had he used his clear view of the realities of the Middle east in better ways. Instead his rhetoric brought out the worst in his followers. One of whom became a mass murderer an Maaras HaMachpela.

To a far lesser degree Rabbi Pruzansky is of a similar mindset.  A mindset which roundly condemned by mainstream Orthodox organizations - as I did. Even though I understood the emotions that brought about such thinking. Both in Rabbi Kahane and in Rabbi Pruzansky.

Now I’m sure that Rabbi Pruzansky condemns this group too.  But his ideas to can inspire such behavior. It should be a lesson, not only to him, but to any of us who allow our emotions to get the better of us – and instead to think clearly about the ultimate consequences of such thinking. Consequences that are ultimately immoral and a Chilul HaShem. Despite the immoral depravity (albeit moral to them) of those Islamist extremists whose acts match that of the Third Reich, we do not have the moral right to react to them in kind.

What the answer is to this growing threat to the free world – is perhaps the most difficult question facing the civilized world today. As I indicated, the unrelenting terror being perpetrated by radical Islam on the world is beyond horrific. It makes Kahanism seem mild by comparison. But one thing I am certain of.  Kahanism is not the answer.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Change in Order to Preserve

Controversial ad - Photo Credit: Sam Sokol (via the Jerusalem Post)
There are a lot of crises facing the Orthodox Jewish community these days.  Among the most important is Jewish education. It is a crisis of existential import. Leaving aside the serious problem of financing it (itself an existential problem) I don’t think it’s arguable that Judaism can be perpetuated without it. 

That has become abundantly clear to all Jewish denominations via the success of the Orthodox educational paradigm that has increased our numbers versus the relative lack of it in other denominations - which has led to their decreasing numbers.

But what should a successful Jewish education look like? The obvious answer is to examine what it has been in the past, and to continue that model. Changes to it should be made with caution. Even if those changes are seen as positive in the short term.

Until relatively recent times (say… 35 or 40 years ago) Jewish education in just about all Orthodox American high schools were of the Lithuanian model. In their American incarnation the curricula consisted of two primary components: Gemara study in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon.  Even the most right wing Yeshiva high schools like Telshe and ‘Philly” (Lakewood’s high school) had this program. Those who attended these schools  studied the basics so that they could - if they chose - go on to college and in some cases eventually become successful professionals.

Some of the most notable Charedi leaders (both lay and religious) are college educated. For example - the executive Vice President of Agudah has a law degree. And the head of the Agudah Moetzes has a college degree. As did a previous head of the Agudah Moetzes, Rav Avrohom Pam, ZTL.

In the early years post Holocaust, Survivor Chasidim sent their children to those schools. Until they built their own.Those schools have minimal secular studies at best. Some (most?) have no secular studies at all.

Enter Israel. There even the Lithuanian type schools have no secular studies. Not to mention the Chasidic schools. Lithuanian schools in America started looking Eastward… and to the Chasidic model here and started to lessen their secular studies in order to increase their religious studies. Now there are many that offer no secular studies at all. And the Charedi world sees them as the cream of Yeshivos - attracting the best and brightest

What we have now is a reversal of the very success the older paradigm has given us. While there are still many Charedi professionals, I suspect that nowadays very few are interested in doing that. Secular education is now denigrated – same as it is in the Chasidic schools and in the Lithuainian schools in Israel. It is seen as Bitul Torah at best. While it is still true that there are many Charedim that eventually do get good jobs despite their lack of a good secular education, there are probably a lot more that don’t because of the lack of it.

We know the results of that in Israel. Dire poverty. It is no secret that the Charedim of Israel are its poorest demographic. It is also true that Chasdic communities like Kiryas Joel and New Square are among the poorest cities in America. Shalom Bayis is often severely affected by that. It is also no secret that poverty is a major cause of family dysfunction. And that it increases the chances of children going OTD.

The current state of affairs is not good for the Jewish people. I believe that there are many Charedi leaders who in their heart of hearts know this. One of the more erudite Charedi spokesman alluded to it in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine.  Without spelling out what kind of change he meant Jonathan Rosenblum called for change in the Charedi community for existential reasons. He said that in order to preserve the gains made by the Charedi world (the extraordinary growth of the Torah community is undeniable – both here and in Israel) you can’t remain standing. He says that often times it is necessary to change course just to preserve those gains.

His model for change is Sara Schenerir founder of the Beis Yaakov movement. He adds that it is difficult for our generation to appreciate the revolutionary nature of her movement. But in point of fact, one might justifiably say that she is the person that has done more for the Jewish people than anyone in the last 100 years. These are not my words. They are not even Jonathan’s words. They are the words of the famed late Rosh HaYeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva, R’ Chatzkel Sarna, ZTL.  True, she convinced many of the Gedolim of her day. But there were many that were opposed. It was a revolution.

Sometimes, it takes a revolution to save Yiddishkeit. Right now that revolution ought to be one of going in reverse… back to a time where secular studies were valued. And it ought to be taking place in Israel as well. In my view the change that needs to take place is abandon the current Charedi zeitgeist of disparaging secular studies. Although most non Chasidic Yeshiva high schools still have secular studies programs, there is definitely a strong trend away from it.  Secular studies are being characterized by some who even studied it themselves as Bitul Torah!

This mentality prevents any further secular education beyond high schools (for those schools that still have it). How many Charedi professionals in America today have children that will themselves become professionals? I don’t know, but I’ll bet that the number is a lot closer to zero than it ever was (unless they have gone OTD).

Which leads to Sam Sokol. He wrote an article about this issue in the Jerusalem Post. It is about an ad taken out in a Charedi Magzaine by (YAFFED). From the article: 
YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) founder Naftuli Moster is currently suing the state of New York for failing to implement the same standards in ultra-Orthodox schools as in their secular counterparts… 
That magazine’s editor call’s such moves ‘reformist’. He condemns this organization and apologizes for carrying the ad saying that it was an error in the advertising sales process.

Whether YAFFED is going about it the right way is a matter of debate. Much the same as the debate about how the Israeli government is going about it. I will admit that force causes push-back. And that can backfire – making things worse. It would be much better if that change came by itself.

But what if it doesn’t? Should we just stand by and watch an entire community disintegrate? Or should we force them to take this ‘life saving medicine’ against their will? The ‘medicine’ of education that will change their lives without changing their way of life. In my view, the answer is simple. As much as I would prefer they do it themselves, if they don’t - the life of the ‘patient’ is at stake. And it must be saved.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Segregation Forever?!

Students from Zichron Yaakov on 12/3/14, after it was closed down (source VIN)
There is a lot of hatred of Charedim in Israel out there. Not by Chilonim (secular Jews). They are mostly indifferent.  But by Datim… religious Jews of a more Modern Orthodox orientation. And it is an unfair hatred. Because most Charedim are fine and decent people just like most members of any other demographic in Israel. I know this from personal experience. Just about all personal contact I have had with Charedim in Israel has been positive.  

This is a very unfortunate situation, considering the commonality they share with respect to Judaism. Both groups are observant of the Mitzvos.  Shabbos is holy to both. Kashrus is observed by both. As is Taharas  Mishpacha (Halachos of sexual matters between husbands and wives). These 3 Mitzvos are generally the defining characteristics of a religious Jew. Charedim and Datim both ft into that category.

It would seem that sharing these 3 important Mitzvos (as well as all the rest of the 613) would create a bond; a spirit of brotherhood that would bind each member of both groups to each other in ways that non religious characteristics in common with others would not. Nothing binds Jews together more than Torah observance. Or so one would think. And yet there is so much enmity between these two groups, it makes the enmity between Yaakov and Esav seem like a love fest.

This ought not be allowed to stand. And yet the more time passes the worse it seems to get. Why is this the case? There are many reasons some of which have to do with attitudes about army service and too much reliance on government welfare programs for sustenance instead of joining the workforce. But that isn’t all that separates them.  When one reads a story like the following one - it paints a very ugly picture. And the reaction to it can be visceral. At least that was my initial reaction. From VIN
Talmud Torah Zichron Gavriel was closed last week at the order of Local Council Chairman Eli Abutbul because of alleged repeated harassment of two brothers. While the student body is primarily Ashkenazi and the family in question is of Mizrahi background.
Sources say the family of the boys were not considered “ultra-Orthodox” enough to attend the school, reports Haaretz.
The father of the boys stated in a message sent to a relative that he and the boys’ grandfather were emotionally troubled by the harassment and had chosen to leave.
After a rumor spread that the father told the Education Ministry about the harassment of the children, the family was subjected to graffiti on their home, broken flowerpots in the yard and stones being thrown at them on the street.
Had I not had any personal contact with Charedim I would be inclined to think the worst of Charedim. And for good reason. This is not the first time that intolerance and harassment has shown its ugly face at a Charedi school. Racism against Sephardim seems to be entrenched in the Charedi world. Not that every Charedi thinks like that. But far too many do to call it an exception. Nor do I mean to say that it doesn’t exist elsewhere.  It does – even among Ashkeanzi Chilonim. But someone who claims the mantel of being the most religious among us ought to be better than that. And they are not!

Not that they ever admit it. Whenever a Sephardi is kept out of a Charedi school - it’s always about their level of observance. The claim is that the kids being harassed, expelled, or barred from admission always has a ‘good’ reason. Their level of observance is not up to the standards of the school. This again was the excuse given by school officials at Talmud Torah Zichron Gavriel where the harassment took place. Even if that were true, that is not a reason to segregate them. Not to mention the excuses made for harassment of the students an their families. Even if they were 100% right in their claims the behavior in this case is inexcusable.

Just to be clear, Charedi leaders are just as appalled at this kind of behavior as I am, if not more so. Rav Elyashiv famously forced one Charedi gilrs school to adjust their discriminatory policies against Sephardim a few years ago. And Rav Steniman scolded an official from another Charedi school who came to him for a blessing in his goal of barring Sephardim from his school.

I will never forget his words to that man. ‘Gavah’ (conceit) he shouted at him. He repeated it several times after each attempt by that school official to explain why he thought he was right to exclude them. His request was correctly interpreted by Rav Shetinman as naked prejudice. Claims about a a lower level of observance were dismissed by Rav Shteinman as an excuse and nothing more.

It seem that no matter what their own respected leadership says about it, it keeps falling on deaf ears.

Why would I want to respect a group of people that is so racist? I would not. Knowing nothing else about them, I would hate them too. Who wouldn’t hate a group of racists?!

The question is why? Why the disconnect between Charedi leaders and their constituents on this matter? I don’t know the answer. But I suspect it has a lot to do with their insular ways and the fear of ‘contamination’ by the outside world.

First of all the very idea of not accepting a student from a home that is not as religious as the standard of the school is in itself wrong-headed. Rav Shteinman’s dismissal of such claims indicates that he would concur. Exclusion is not what Judaism is about. And yet it is perhaps the thing most responsible for the divisiveness among us. Instead of teaching tolerance and acceptance of people slightly different  an ‘us and them’ mentality is taught. What is constantly hammered into the minds of Charedi young people is how much better they are than anyone else since they are the true bearers of the Mesorah and its Torah ideals. Every other Hashkafa is at best Krum – not quite right albeit not quite heretical either. This creates a condescending attitude to not only secular Jews but even to religious Jews that are not exactly like themselves

How do I know? Because I have heard the lectures from some of the teachers I had. There is a hierarchy taught to young students whereby the highest level of Jew is the Charedi Jew. They are the top of the totem pole. Other Jews may be fine people, but they are lesser Jews in the eyes of God. It is only the few and the proud Charedim that are on the right track.

With this as their base mentality - is it any wonder that they don’t want to be contaminated by ‘lesser Jews’? If a school accepts a student from less observant home The fear is that their students will be unduly influenced from their lofty goals. And overall lesser observance by their students will result, if not worse. This is an ideal of many schools. And it is nonsense. If you are Charedi and your child goes OTD, it will not be because there is a few students in the school that are not from Charedi homes.

The same holds true about their fear of Sephardim. They see their customs to be of lesser value and their culture as inferior to that of their own. And they do not want their children to be ‘contaminated’ by them.

That - my friends - is pure unadulterated racism. Rav Elayshiv Knew that. And Rav Shteinman knows that. The question is when will their constituents know it? Seems like they never will.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Strange Case of Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Eidensohn
I really do try and stay out of the fray on these matters. But when I am sucked into the conversation by one of the protagonists, I have to respond.

First let me say that I always had respect for a man who has offered so much to the world of Torah study. Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn’s index to the Mishna Berurah and the Igros Moshe (both in Hebrew and English) is a valuable resource for Halacha L’Maase as understood by two giants of Torah, Rabbis Kagan and Feinstein. For this alone, he has earned a high place in heaven.

His relationship with one of the premiere Poskim of our time, Rav Moshe Sternbuch has given him the fast track to Halacha L’Maase (according to this Posek) on many issues of our day. And he has been generous in sharing that with the rest of us via his blog, Daas Torah.

He has also in the past been a strong voice in the fight against sex abuse. That is probably at least in part to do with his training. He has a PhD in psychology. It is for this reason that I gave him a lot of latitude on issues with which I do not necessarily agree… and even on the issue in which he attacked me, that of the Meisels/seminary case.

For some reason that I do not fully understand something seems to have happened that changed his entire approach to sex abuse because of this particular case. Instead of the usual attitude expressed by him about how hurtful sex abuse is the the victims and how terrible cover-ups are, he  seems to have changed sides here. He has taken the position usually taken by those who wish to save the offending institutions. In this case Meisels’ seminaries. Instead of being upset at the enablers he is defending them… or at least letting them off the hook… and allowing them to keep their jobs as though nothing happened.

In his goal of Kashering those seminaries, he has minimized Meisel’s crime and assumed only the most minimal of offenses - comparing them to inappropriate hugging of his students. Although he claims not to have done so and that he only used that phrase in comparative terms - the message is clear: The crimes were not all that bad. And looked at in secular terms, wouldn’t even register a nod. 

While he later explained that he did not mean to say that his crimes were only hugs... that he used that phrase in comparative terms, it nonetheless sends the message that the enabling teachers who knew about it were’t that bad either. 

His ultimate goal here then is not to give solace and comfort to the victims, but to save the institutions and the jobs of all the teachers. This is the reaction one might expect from leaders of any institution. (e.g.YU, Agudah, Chabad, Satmar) – right or wrong - will all to one degree or another try and put the best possible spin on whatever happened. But an objective person should remain suspicious about such defenses in light of all that has been reported about it. Rabbi Eidensohn seems to have lost all objectivity here. And again, I am not entirely sure why.

The minute anyone brings evidence that counters his puzzling position on this, he tends to question their motives or ability to see things ‘clearly’ (translation: the way he does.) Or that they are lying about the facts. Or that heroes like Rabbi Yosef Blau that are silent about his being attacked by his proptagonists – as tough those attacks were unfair and required rebuke from any fair minded individual.

Rabbi Eidensohn is pretty good at attacking the other side too. He said some pretty unflattering things about me in the past as well. Although including me now with Rabbi Blau and David Morris -two heroes on the issue of sex abuse - actually flatters me. I am honored to be included with them. It is an honor that I do not think I deserve.

There is probably a good reason that that Rabbi Blau and David Morris did not defend Rabbi Eidensohn for the attacks by Yerachmiel Lopin. They probably see things more the way Yerachmiel does than the way Rabbi Eidensohn does. As I am inclined to see them after reading quotes of victims describing what he did to them.  I have also been privy to information about an egregious sexual act with at least one of his students that makes a mockery of claims that in relative terms this was only a hug.

More importantly - the evidence of abuse was made clear by 3 first rate Dayanim of impeccable character and integrity that comprised the Chicago Beis Din(CBD). It then handed over the task for implementing changes to a distinguished panel of jurists in Bnei Brak (the IBD). After a short examination of the facts sent to them by the CBD they got Meisels to sell those schools; claimed that Meisels was no longer involved;  and instituted new guidelines and a strict enforcement policy.

The CBD on the other hand spent months reviewing the case and listened to testimony from victims and from Meisels himself. Who admitted to some of his crimes. They stood their ground and refused to give their imprimatur to those schools because they felt the danger of abuse still existed. That certain teachers and administrators that enabled the abuse by telling students not to report it, and backing it up with threats –were still there.

Rabbi Eidensohn on the other hand - after listening to one member of the IBD - sided completely with them and strongly disparaged the CBD for standing firm. When I supported the CBD, he had some pretty unkind things to say about me too.

When the CBD finally gave their imprimatur to those seminaries (after a joint meeting with the IBD and a seventh jurist) without any substantial changes, I didn’t understand it in light of what I knew was a terrible crime and the way those faculty and administration members tried to cover it up.

Rabbi Eidensohn ignored or minimized those acts dismissing them as insignificant and in the process managed to heap an additional insults at the CBD - saying that this could have been resolved a long time ago since nothing changed from the original IBD actions with respect to those seminaries.

There have been accusations and attacks going back and forth between Rabbi Eidenson and his protagonists. I am not going to comment on those although I do have an opinion. This post is long enough.

I try and be objective and bend over backwards to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I cannot understand the incredible bias Rabbi Eidensohn has shown here. To say that I am disappointed in his change of attitude would be an understatement. It is truly uncharacteristic of his past history on these matters.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Inner Light of the Torah

photo credit - Jewish Action
There has been quite a bit of discussion about Neo-Chasidus online and elsewhere. That is a phenomenon that seems to be taking hold in many places where one would not expect it. Like Modern Orthodox circles. Although there is certainly room for more spirituality among Modern Orthodox Jews in many cases, it is a phenomenon that I question.

The source of this discussion is a recent article in Jewish Action magazine. It is based on an interview with one of its leading proponents,  Rabbi Moshe Weinberger  the newly appointed ‘mashpia at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York.’  In essence Neo-Chasidus takes on some of the aspects of Chasidus but not all of them. For example one of the primary aspects of Neo-Chasidus - the Chasdic Rebbe is not a necessity - if it exists at all. Neo-Chasidus is about focusing on feelings rather that the intellect. 

Chasidus also deals a lot more with Nistar – the hidden (inner light of the) Torah that was not revealed to us. The Torah is all about Nigla – that which was revealed at Sinai. The father of the popular study Nistar is Rav Sheneur Zalmen of Liadi – the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. His Sefer, Tanya, is all about finding that inner light.

As a devout rationalist, it has always been my contention that Nistar… the inner light or secrets of the Torah are not possible to study. That is why they are called secret. If God wanted us to know Nistar, it wouldn’t be Nistar (hidden). It would be Nigla (revealed). This is in fact an admission we make every Yom Kippur during the extended portion of the Amidah know as Vidui. We do not know Nistar.

Traditional Chasidus has evolved since its founder, the Baal Shem Tov. In its early days it was considered a departure from traditional belief that bordered on heresy. It was fought vigorously by the Vilna Goan, (the Gra). After some later modification of its ideals and the advent of Haskala, Chasidus was accepted. Haskala was perceived to be  a far greater threat to Judaism than Chasidus - so their forces combined, 

Traditional Orthodoxy now consists of two types The Chasid and the Lithuanian Yeshiva type Jew - formerly called Misnagid (Misnagid is the Hebrew noun for an opponent of Chasidism – but now under a united banner of Orthodoxy, that terms is considered somewhat pejorative.)

Chasidism of today has evolved into many incarnations. Although many sects dress alike in distinctive dress with some minor variations they each have their own Rebbe… or spiritual leader that transcends the role of a rabbi. They are seen as Tzadikim and treated as royalty. Chasidic Rebbes are seen as so holy by their Chasidim that they go to great lengths asking for their Brachos (blessings) often leaving them great sums of money for it.Their edicts are law. They are given awe and deference that would make the Queen of England jealous. 

Although it is not germain to the issue at hand. I want to paint a picture of traditional Chasidus so as to compare it to Neo-Chasidus. 

There was a time where Chasidic Rebbes controlled virtually all aspects of their Chasidim’s lives. But that is no longer the case for most Chasidim. Although the same awe and respect remains, Chasidic Rebbes are otherwise un-engaged in the day to day lives of their Chasidim. Satmar Chasidim are devout adherents of their Rebbe’s dictates but other than that they go on with their lives with little engagement from him.

This is not the case with Skvere. The Skever Rebbe’s city of New Square is a throwback to the Rebbes and Chasidus of old. He controls every aspect of the lives of his Chasidim. Anyone veering off of his path (such as trying to have an independent Minyan receives punitive actions from committees loyal to the Rebbe - and can ultimately be expelled from the sect.) One would think that no one would ever want to be controlled in such a way. But his Chasdim apparently love it.

Neo-Chasidus has none of these trappings.What it does have is some of the components of Chasdidus; (e.g. emotion and joy in service to God). It is a personal involvement that evokes the kind of feelings that Torah study alone - or any intellectual pursuit thereof - does not.

I do not agree with this approach.

There are those who say that the dry study of Torah and Halacha does not make them feel any closer to God. But the trappings of Chasidius do. It enhances the meaning of Mitzvos for them. It raises their consciousness and fervor. The singing and dancing elevates their spiritual connection to God. This is why Carlebach Minyanim have increased in popularity over the years. Some might argue that Carelbach Minyanim are the original Neo-Chasidim. I think they might be right.

The truth is I understand the need to engage one’s emotions into the performance of Mitzvos. But I reject the notion that this is the essence of Judaism. To me it is all artificial. Listening to music does stimulate the emotions, but it is the Mitzvah that is important, not the music. The problem with Neo-Chasidism is that the music becomes the Mitzvah. The peripherals of Chasidus end up becoming the essence of Judaism rather than the Mitzvos themselves. This is why for example a Chasidic Rebbe might spend a lot more time reciting Hinini Muchan U’Mezuman (the preamble to doing some Mitzvos - which is not required by Halacha) than on the Mitzvah itself.

In my view this is wrong. As Rav Soloveitchik pointed out in his masterwork Halakhic Man, God wants of us to to see the world through the prism of Halacha. Not through preparation for it. God requires that we bring the spiritual down to us, not to bring us up to the spiritual with neo-mystical acts like a Chasidic Rebbe dancing himself into religious elevation.  

This is not to say that we can’t experience joy in doing the Mitzvos. Of course we can and we should. But in my view focusing on the joy misses the point of Judaism. The Chasidic peripherals that are becoming so popular now are in my view artificial.

I know all of this seems odd considering my own Chasidic heritage. But I long ago abandoned the emotional approach to Judaism in favor of the intellectual one. That may leave me with a lot of questions. But it also leaves me with a sense that Judaism is more than about what feelings it generates in you. Because if feelings are all that important, than Jewish Orthodox feminists  like those of JOFA would be right. Let them do whatever it takes to make them feel the joy of Judaism. Why then not follow the paradigm of Open Orthodoxy (or at least their approach to feminism)?

What about the inner light of Torah that Chasidism focuses upon which they apparently think will be derived by these artificial means? I don’t think they have found it. Because I don’t think it is humanly possible to do so by very definition.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Stephan Hawking and his wife, Jane, on their wedding day
Can a man with a debilitating illness still accomplish great things in life after being told he has only two years to live? And knowing in advance that his illness will keep progressing to the point where he can no longer even feed himself of take care of his own personal hygiene? And can no longer even speak?

Should a woman marry a man like that? Should she be discouraged from doing so? And if she is a God fearing women and he is an avowed atheist - should that discouragement be doubly so? Can such a marriage work? Is it even right to support it – should it happen?

Should we assume that any person that would choose to marry a man with such a debilitation illness is not fully aware of what they are getting into? … not realizing the kind of care she will ultimately have to provide… the kind of sacrifice she will have to increasingly make if she stays married to him?

Can a religious man and a married woman (to another man) work closely together on a long term humanitarian project; enjoy each other’s company without developing an attraction? If they are people of strong faith and modest in their behavior and manner of dress will that prevent feelings from developing? And if they do, is it possible for either of them to refrain from acting upon those feelings? 

These questions and more are dealt with in an extraordinary movie called The Theory of Everything. It is the story of Professor Stephen Hawking, who at age 72 is perhaps the most brilliant physicist alive today. Actually it is more about his disease, ALS better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. An illness with which he was diagnosed while a graduate student at Cambridge. And even more it is a movie about the triumph of the human spirit.

I saw this movie Sunday night and I highly recommend it to everyone. It is one of the most poignant portrayals of human achievement, human kindness, and altruism, one could imagine. Not only is there no nudity, I would say the manner of modesty in dress by the women in this picture is pretty much the Orthodox standard. There is not the slightest bit of profanity at all in this movie.  

There are some people who might object to a movie that makes an atheist look heroic. And there is the fact that Professor Hawking recently boycotted a scientific gathering in Israel citing its treatment of Palestinians. Normally that would upset me enough to boycott the movie. But I knew that this movie was not about that. It is about as apolitical as a movie can get.  Just because I have a profound disagreement with his atheism and with his views on the Israeli Palestinian issue - that does not mean I can’t have tremendous compassion and even admiration for the man and what he has achieved under the most adverse of life’s struggles.

His political views are irrelevant to the message of this movie.  In any case I highly doubt that he has spent any real time studying Middle Eastern concerns. Certainly he has not spent even a  small fraction of the amount of time on that as he has on studying the physical universe. I do not for a moment believe that he is in any way anti-Semitic… or even anti Israel.  I believe that he is just badly informed.

Oddly enough there is a somewhat parallel case like this in the Torah world. The son of a famous Rosh HaYeshiva was engaged to the daughter of brilliant well known Talmid Chacham. During their engagement, her fiancé was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given two years to live. She refused to break it off and insisted on marrying him. She was discouraged from doing so – even by her fiance’s parents. They warned her of the road ahead. But she persisted. They got married. They had a child. Six months later her husband passed away.

Back to the subject at hand. It is impossible to overstate how devastating ALS is. It is incurable and its progression impossible to stop.  

I know of two Orthodox Jews with ALS. One is a Rosh Yeshiva in the Mir, R’ Refoel Shumlevitz, (son of R’ Chaim). The other is someone I know personally. She is the matriarch of her family... a family that defines the word altruistic. They are unconditional givers – willing to sacrifice their own welfare for that of others. If any family can handle the tragic illness of a loved one, it is them.

And yet, instead of being rewarded for their greatness it always seems like it is the truly great people that suffer the most. Theodicy. Tzadik v’Ra Lo. How many people were as great as our forefather Yaakov? And yet the Torah tells us about a life filled with sorrow and pain. If there was anyone that did not deserve to suffer such a fate it is people like that.

I don’t often recommend movies. But I do recommend this one. It will inspire you. And it will make you think.