Monday, June 26, 2017

Tradition, Sephardim, and the Kotel

Women of the Wall leader, Anat Hoffman 
One of the things I love about the Sephardi community is their Achdus. There is no such thing as a denomination in their world. Doesn’t exist. There is just one category: They are all simply Jews. No Orthodox. No Conservative. No Reform. Their rabbinic leadership resides in the man or men they see as the most learned of their time. As was the case with the late Rav Ovadia Yosef. 

It didn’t matter how observant one was. Even if not Shomer Shabbos. Rav Ovadia was the man that decided Jewish law for his time and if you were a Sephardi you didn’t dispute it. Sephardim did not look to other rabbis if they didn’t like what they heard.  If there was ever a community where Mesorah mattered, it is the Sephardi community.

How I wish this were the case among Ashkenazi Jewry. Alas, Achdus is not something we Ashkenazi Jews can claim with any degree of sincerity. We do have denominations. We even have denominations within denominations. There are people among us that are constantly thinking of ways to separate from the mainstream and do their own thing. It started in the 19th century with the enlightenment and Reform. And by now we probably have more movements and denominations than we can count. Each segment claiming their rabbis are the most direct conduit to knowing the will of God.
  
This phenomenon is one of the reasons we have the kinds of problems we are currently experiencing at the Kotel. Denominationalism (for lack of a better term) has caused the masses to veer away from the kinds authorities that we have always looked to in the past - as Sephardim do now. The world of Jewry has been led astray by the founders and leaders of these movements to believe that they too are following God’s law, even (as is the case in Reform) they do not require a single Mitzvah to be performed. Generations have been raised in this philosophy or variations of it in other denominations.

Back to the Kotel. Apparently Prime Minister Netanyahu has succumbed to pressure from the Charedi parties in Israel to renege on his deal with heterodox rabbis to create a space at the Kotel for egalitarian prayer. Although he is still allowing construction towards that end to continue (according to one report I saw) he has asked that a new deal be reached that will satisfy the objections Charedim have had to this one.

The response by heterodox rabbis and their constituents has been predictable. ‘Netanyahu has sold out!’  ‘He cares more about his coalition than he does about the support form the majority of Jews the majority of which are made up of heterodox Jews.’ He is only interest is retaining power – consequences be damned!’

Every editorial I’ve seen has attacked him along the above lines. One headline I saw in a supposedly respected Jewish newspaper used  ‘street language’ do describe Netanyahu’s actions toward liberal Jews.

Reform activist Anat Hoffman who heads the Women of the Wall is livid that she and her group can’t pray they way they choose to pray!

What about that? Why can’t we just let them do whatever they want? Live and let live! For me the answer has always been quite clear. We have a tradition that has had the backing of generations of devout Jewish souls that have come to the Kotel to pray. Why have we not heard the women of the past making this plaintive cry? Why wasn’t my mother or grandmother cursing out men for their lack of respecting their feminine aspirations?

Was there ever a single devout Jewish woman since the Temple era that has ever been recorded complaining about her role in Judaism? I tend to doubt it. Throughout Jewish history devout Jewish men and women accepted who and what they were. Lovingly devoting themselves in service to God in the role their parents transmitted to them. Prior to the enlightenment, I don’t think Jewish women thought of themselves as dominated by a paternalistic Jewish hierarchy. This is a modern invention.

Some will say that the Jewish women of the past were ignorant. That the enlightenment has given them insight. It has awakened mankind up to inequities between men and women. This may have been the way women were treated in general society. Jewish women were a part of it to a certain extent - albeit far less than they are today

But Judaism has been consistent in how it sees the roles of men and the roles of women. Both sexes have shared obligations to God. But each has their own as well. If there were women in Judaism that were treated badly it was not because of the roles God mandated for us. It was a reflection of the times in which they lived. But Halacha hasn’t changed. What it is now – it was then.

I therefore reject the hue and cry about the Kotel by all these liberal Jews. They clearly do not represent the Judaism of their forebears. They represent their own versions of it which  have been taught and promoted by their liberal Jewish leaders. 

All the clamor about the Kotel comes from people who care little about the traditions of the past. Enlightenment has taught them that they should be free to serve God in any way they choose. Tradition be damned. If Israel doesn’t give in to their demands…. ‘Goodbye!’

Now I realize that the ‘complainers’ are not evil people. I also realize that many of them are very sincere about serving God in their own way. Whether it be in the way the at Women at the Wall or through an egalitarian service… or simply by being active in worthy social causes like Civil Rights; or Gay Rights; or protecting the environment.

At the same time I see what their clamor is for now and compare them to their forbears. I look at the devout of the past and the devout of now and ask which ones do I believe to be best fulfilling the word of God?  I have to believe that our devout forefathers and mothers who did not have a personal desire to buck tradition are the ones more accurately fulfilling God’s will

Now I know that this approach will not win any accolades among my liberal friends (to say the least). But I believe that my traditionalist views can be found in the more pure and pristine culture of Sephardim. Which has not been diluted by denominational breakaways.  They do not look outside of their traditional rabbinic leaders for guidance. Even among those that are not all that observant - they respect them for the authorities they are.

Judaism does not look at the past and say we know better. We look at the past and say our devout ancestors did. Tradition! That is how we have been able to survive all of these centuries in hostile environments. And that’s how we will survive in the future.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Fallacy of Hiding Dirty Laundry

One of the topics frequently addressed here is the unfortunate circumstance of Chilul HaShem. This is an explicit command by God to the Jewish people: 
“And you shall not desecrate My Holy name; and I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you (Vayikra - 22:32) 
We should instead be doing everything we can to sanctify God’s name. That is not done only by following the letter of God’s law. As the Ramban notes, we must go beyond the letter of the law. Or else we may end up being a Naval B’Reshus HaTorah. An individual might find enough loopholes in Halacha to be acting within the letter of it - and yet still be a disgusting person.  Thereby causing a Chilul HaShem.

Unfortunately there have been far too many cases where that has been the case. There have been many instances of Jews skirting the law with fraudulent practices that they believed were technically within the letter of Jewish law (a questionable belief at best). Thankfully we live at a time and in a culture that is generally not antisemstic. And we have not all been painted with a broad brush as fraudsters. I’m not sure, however, that  the generous spirit of the American people will continue if these types of things keep  happening. 

This brings me to a book published by Feldheim  that is reviewed by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer in the current issue of Jewish Action. It s entitled, Making It Work: A Practical Guide to Halacha in the Workplace by Ari Wasserman. The book addresses this issue as well as a number of other issues regarding a Jew in the workplace. And it is a welcome addition to the collection of English language Seforim published by the religiously right wing publishing houses. My only quibble is that it has taken until now for them to come with a book like this.  

True – better late than never. But I have to wonder how much more Chilul HaShem we could have been spared if this attitude would have been there from the start.

It took a high profile Chasidic Rebbe to be convicted of money laundering and tax evasion for the Agudah to start dealing with this more publicly. And I’m not sure they are anywhere near doing it enough.

What took them so long? Why did they wait until a major Chilul HaShem like that occurred until they said anything publicly? Rabbi Bechhofer gives us a glimpse into their past thinking on this issue with the following anecdote: 
Several years ago, I wanted to publish a piece on racism in the Orthodox community in a certain Orthodox Jewish publication. A member of the publication’s editorial board vetoed the idea. He explained that he himself categorically rejects and abhors any form of racism in our community. However, he does not believe that these attitudes can be eradicated by writing about them. He therefore preferred not to “wash our dirty linen in public” by raising the issue altogether.
He went on to say that for this reason he also discourages the publication of articles on honesty in matters of Choshen Mishpat. He reiterated that he categorically rejects manifestations of dishonesty and impropriety in our community. But, he continued, while any such conduct is utterly wrong, he understands its antecedents in the unjust financial policies imposed on the Jews by non-Jewish governments and institutions in pre-war Europe. Therefore, he opined, it is almost impossible to eradicate such failings, and in this area too, it is better to not wash our dirty linen in public. 
This is a major fallacy.  ‘Cover it up, lest people will think ill of us!’

What does it say about our values when the way we try to convince the world of our high sense of ethics is by covering up wrongdoing instead of condemning it? Which is what ‘not airing our dirty linen in public’ actually means.  That only makes the Chilul  HaShem greater upon the inevitable  discovery of the cover-up.

I’m happy that this problem is beginning to be dealt with more publicly. But a speech at a convention here and there, and a book on the subject is not enough. Yeshivos and day schools have to get more serious about it. 

Ethics ought to begin in the home. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be enough of it transmitted by parents to their children. The schools therefore must pick up the slack. They need to get as serious about teaching these kinds of ethics as they are about teaching Gemarah to boys and Tznius to girls.

Teachers must be trained to do so properly. And  hammer it into the psyches of every single student. And hope that it sticks! If we don’t do that yet another Chilul HaShem is inevitable.

Education on this subject can begin by citing the following Gemarah.  This was done 25 years ago by Rav Ahron Soloveichik  in his book Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind (P 65-66).  

This  Gemarah is used the same way by Ari Wasserman in his book. This is what every religious Jew should think and the way they should act: 
The Tanna Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach dealt in flax. Seeking to ease his workload, his students purchased a donkey for him from a non-Jew. When the donkey was delivered, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach discovered a very valuable pearl attached to its ear. The proceeds of its sale would have allowed him to give up the flax business altogether. From a halachic standpoint, he was not obligated to return the pearl to the donkey’s former owner, but he chose to give it back for one reason: the potential for a kiddush Hashem. The non-Jew gratefully accepted the pearl, saying, “Blessed is the God of the Jews!” Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach’s exceptional honesty was credited not only to himself, but, above all, to the “God of the Jews.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reaping What They Sow

Young Charedi extremist in action (Jerusalem Post - 2009)
In the continuing saga of Jews that adhere to extreme forms of Judaism that have been increasingly making life miserable for everyone else, we have a new development designed to counter it. From NPR
The court ruling requires El Al to instruct its staff in writing that such requests (asking that seats be changed for religious reasons) are illegal and train workers in the new rule within six months. 
This ruling was made in the context of an 85 year old woman suing the airline for pressuring her to give up her seat to another passenger. He refused to sit next to a woman for religious reasons (for fear of having inadvertent contact with her).  Changing your seat on an aircraft for this reason is not required by Halacha by most mainstream Poskim. But the Poskim of the more extreme elements require their adherents to do whatever they can to achieve it. This has resulted in request by men from this segment to request a seat change from flight attendants. 

Asking seats to be switched is not all that uncommon.  I have occasionally found myself sitting separate from my wife  when we book airline tickets late. My wife and I do not want to disturb others and we just sit where we are. But it is not unreasonable for people to ask if they can switch with the person sitting next to their spouse so  that they can sit together. This is also common when parents are seated far from where their children are. It is natural for parents to want to be seated near their children. I have no issue with that.

But I do have an issue with what has been happening lately with the extremists from this community. It would be one thing to request a seat change for religious reasons. That should not be treated with any less respect than requests being made for those other reasons. 

But that is not what has been happening. In far too many cases they don’t just ask. They demand. And that has in some cases turned into a long delays inconveniencing all the other passengers.Some flights have been delayed for hours because of it. I am therefore quite happy with this ruling even though it was brought by an organization that I normally oppose, IRAC. When they’re right, they’re right.

Respecting one’s religious needs is at the foundation of any democracy where freedom of religion reins supreme. I believe that just like America, Israel has that as its bedrock position. But nothing can be taken to the extreme. Especially when it affects others. That El Al is now forbidden from accommodating extremist religious values is the fault of the way these extremists have handled themselves. They insist with militant resolve that their religious views be accommodated.

In a democracy such as Israel’s they surely had the right to ask for religious accommodation. But if they are refused, for whatever reason - that should be the end of it. But increasingly in some cases they will not take no for an answer and cause disruption and inconvenience to everyone on the plane until they get their way. That is just plain wrong. And an Israeli court has reacted.

Why, one might ask, wouldn’t a passenger give up their seat to another passenger to accommodate his religious beliefs if it doesn’t matter to them? Isn't that just being mean? No. It isn’t. Changing a seat is not just a question of ‘sitting here instead of there’ without consequences. 

People choose certain seats on a flight for a reason. They might do so because they prefer an aisle seat; or a window seat. And no one likes to sit in the middle of a 3 seat row on an aircraft if that is what the trade involves.

Couples usually like to sit together and buy seats next to each other. When someone asks to switch with a person who has chosen a seat for a particular reason he may very well be asking them to give up that seat and accept a seat they purposely chose to avoid. 

There are some people kind enough to sacrifice their comfort for the religious sensibilities of others. But no one should be pressured to give up the seat they chose for a lesser seat if they don’t want to. Why should a woman in an aisle seat sitting next to her husband exchange seats away from her husband - with the guy in the last row who was sitting in the middle seat between 2 passengers? No one should be pressured or embarrassed into doing that.

You reap what you sow. Had there not been a number cases where extremist zealots insisted on seat changes - causing havoc in the process, I doubt this ruling would have ever been made. Now that it has, they are going to have to live with it. If they try to cause a commotion, I'm pretty sure they will be thrown off the flight.

I have no sympathy for them. They are the same people that yell and scream at Charedi soldiers when they come into their neighborhoods in Meah Shearim.  They are same ones that yell and scream at women who dare to sit at the front of a male-female segregated bus – sometimes using physical force to assure it. 

They are the same people from who demonstrate violently against the government for a variety of reasons. In some instances damaging public property in the process. Even causing health hazards by burning dumpsters in their neighborhoods. 

They are the same people that yell and scream at 7 year old Religious Zionist girls – calling them whores. They are same people that will harass a group of religious Zionist teenagers that passes through their neighborhoods not dressed to their extreme modesty standards (although well within the Halachic standards of most of orthodoxy.) They are the Israeli flag burners. They are the people who dressed up in Nazi prison uniforms during a protest a few years ago to make the point that their government acts like Nazis. 

In short, these are the people that have no clue how to behave in a civilized world.  Why would they? They live in isolation from it! They should therefore be treated that way. I guess this court decided to do so. If they continue acting in their extreme ways they will only generate an even more extreme response by Israel - as suggested in a VIN report. A former police general in Israel wants to see rubber bullets being fired at these protesters. Now I don't want to see guns of any type being fired at any Jew and I oppose that tactic. But these extremists seem to be asking for it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An Inconvenient Truth

Orthodox students - the future of American Jewry (Associated Talmud Torahs)
I cry for our people. Never in my lifetime would I have ever believed that the Jewish people would be undergoing another Holocaust. Not a physical one. Physically, we have never had is better. We live at a time and in a place that has given us unprecedented acceptance and freedom. Never in our history as a Jewish people have we been allowed to do whatever we want and be whoever we want to be.

We can be a Satmar Chasid in Williamsburg or an assimilated Jew that has intermarried. In our world today, it simply doesn’t matter to anyone what our religion is or what our religious practices are. With so many Jews in an unpopular Trump administration – many of whom are suffering the brunt of so much media criticism, I have never heard the word Jew or Jewish mentioned once. Never! Only the Jewish media makes any mention of it.

This obvious blessing for which I am very grateful is also a curse. Because it has enabled (one might even say encouraged) so many of us to assimilate to the point of intermarriage! To the great approval of our fellow non Jewish citizens. Which studies have shown admire the Jewish people more than any other demographic.  

According to respected studies, this has resulted in the distinct possibility that unless one remains observant (whose practitioners are found mostly within Orthodoxy) the concept of an American Jewry as it exists today will one day be a distant memory. If that is not a spiritual Holocaust, I don’t know what is.

(I have never used the term Holocaust before in any other context other than the obvious one. That’s because I resented when it was used by others for their own agenda. That tended to make comparisons to the Holocaust which were clearly not of the same magnitude. Thus doing a grave injustice to actual Holocaust survivors and their families.  But I am making an exception because of how serious this matter is. And it is not going away.)

Although the statistics found by the Pew research study have been disputed by some people, I don’t think it is arguable anymore.  Here is yet another nail in that coffin from JTA
According to a new analysis by the Jewish People Policy Institute, or JPPI, analyzing stats on “non-haredi” American Jews aged 25 to 54, “just 21 percent are married to Jews, while well over twice as many [50 percent] are non-married and 29 percent are intermarried.” Only 15 percent of this cohort are in Jewish-Jewish marriages with Jewish children at home.
The implication, once you exclude the haredi Orthodox — as well as the modern Orthodox, who often marry before age 25 — is that the non-Orthodox Jewish population is in a steep demographic decline, perhaps perilously so. 
The handwriting is on the wall. And rabbis of all denominations are reacting to it… trying to find solutions. The most common reaction to it by heterodox rabbis is to ‘go with the flow’. They are suggesting that since intermarriage is already happening it does not do us any good to apply our old paradigm of rejecting intermarried couples. In the not so distant past, if a child married out, parents would sit Shiva on them – as though they had died. 

Even non observant parents were anguished – even horrified - if their son or daughter brought home a non Jewish fiancé for them to meet. That’s why there were so many sham conversions. Even though those parents were mostly non observant themselves and did not raise their children that way, they still wanted their children to marry ‘in’ and to have Jewish children. Today that is hardly the case anymore, it seems. Parents are more likely to be accepting of circumstances. Even in those rare instances where it happens in an Orthodox family. I am not judging anyone. Just stating a fact. That surely contributes to the accelerated pace of extinction.

As noted - the  talk by rabbis from a variety of denominations seems to be pointing in the direction of welcoming intermarried couples into our midst. Turning centuries of tradition on its head. The argument is that  if we don’t – we will lose them forever. Welcoming them in will ensure a connection that will keep that family Jewish at some level.  Reform Judaism has already permitted their rabbis to perform intermarriages. Conservative Judaism is on the precipice of doing so. And even graduates of the Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) have expressed a view that we ought to change course.

That argument was made by YCT alumnus Rabbi Avrom Mlotek. To which YCT felt it needed to reiterate in a public statement that they forbid their rabbis to perform intermarriages. In another article yet another alumnus of YCT, Rabbi Aaron Potek, had a similar approach: 
I’ve become much less interested in the question of whether one should date or marry Jewish. By focusing on the act of intermarriage, we ignore the far more significant questions: what role does Judaism play in your life, and what do you want your Judaism to look like in a romantic relationship?  
While well intended all of these responses overlook the obvious. We are not going to change the steep demographic decline by welcoming intermarried couples into our midst. That will only accelerate the process. The more we allow that, the more the Jewish community will have non Jews pretending to be Jews by performing a ritual or two.

It is highly unlikely that a goal of Teshuva (with the non Jewish spouse undergoing a sincere conversion and both of the becoming observant Jews) will take place. What is far more likely is that there will be no sincere conversion and that they will remain mostly non observant and at best become cultural Jews. And one of them will not even be Jewish. This is not a happy outcome.

I wish it were not so. The extinction of American Jewry is a tragedy of unprecedented proportion. As I indicated, I cry for our people!  But if this trend continues (and there is every expectation that it will despite all of the hand-wringing) there is precious little we can to do about it at this point.

That doesn’t mean we don’t try. That is what outreach is all about. Chabad, NCSY, Aish HaTorah, JEP, Chicago Torah Network… and many other such organizations have been doing it successfully for many years. But their successes are a drop in the bucket compared to the steep demographic decline attributable to assimilation and intermarriage that seems to be steamrolling most of our people out of Judaism.

We must face that unpleasant fact. It’s happening. To borrow a phrase used by former Vice President Al Gore about climate change, it is an inconvenient truth. And diluting our community by welcoming non Jews as a part of it is not an answer.

I know it’s difficult to just say ‘No’. But saying ‘No’ to intermarriage is the only real option.  The loss will be humongous! Unprecedented.  And very sad. But  Judaism will survive. It will consist of the kind of observant Jews that are found mostly within Orthodoxy. (I suspect that those that are observant and not part of Orthodoxy, will someday become part of it because they will have no other place to go. But then again. we will no longer carry that label. We will just all be Jews!)

Am I being triumphalist? Not a chance. I cry for what we have already lost and what we are about to lose.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Kotel and Compromise

The Kotel (Israel Hayom)
This may surprise or even shock some people. But for me, the Kotel has never inspired me. (I may have mentioned this before.) 

Now it’s true that this wall is the outer retaining wall to the courtyard of what was once the holiest of structures, the Beis HaMikdash. And yet, every time I visit it, I feel like I am at a tourist attraction.

There is almost a circus like atmosphere surrounding it with all kinds of people with obvious mental issues hanging out there. There is an overabundance of people begging for charity (Knowledgeable people in Israel have told me that most of them are fraudulent and should not be given any money. Although that seems to have been cleaned up a bit the last few times I went there.)

There is little doubt that this is the one destination people ‘must visit’ on their first trip to Israel. And subsequent trips as well. Much like Masada is. People (men and women) come there in all manner of dress. Some of which I would say is inappropriate.

Because of all this whenever I go there, I just do not feel inspired. On the occasions I do go, I try to pray at that portion of the Kotel that has a Shul attached to it. Once you are in there, there is little resemblance to the famous image everyone has of the Kotel. It has the look and the feel of a regular Shul.  And yet it is as much a part of the Kotel as the big sprawling outside wall that is the widely known image of it.

Nevertheless the Kotel is what it is: the closest place to the Holy Temple that almost all Poskim agree we may tread upon. And many people do come there to pray. Men on their side of the Mechitza and women on theirs.

The funny thing is that I did not see the Kotel that way until I actually visited it. My images were those of the archival footage.  Having been born at the end of 1946, I never saw the Kotel in our possession prior to 1967 where upon a Mechtiza was installed shortly after we got it back. Based on that footage, I used to see it as the holy place that it is and not the tourist attraction it seems like now.

A few fervent Jews would to come and pray in solemnity free of the ‘circus’ like atmosphere I experience when I go there. Which causes me to be quite jaded by it.

Which brings me to the current strife taking place at the Kotel these days. The latest development is the desire by heterodox movements to create an egalitarian space by the Kotel that would allow men and women to pray there together. A compromise to that effect was reached by the Keneset in 2016 whereby the primary Kotel Plaza would be left intact and undisturbed in its current Orthodox orientation.  A  nearby section of the Kotel known as Robinson’s Arch would be expanded and made more accessible.

The Charedi parties did not oppose it because they saw it as a way of ending the controversy  and leaving the traditional Kotel as they would like it to be. I supported that move because I saw it as a peace making move. Israel could use a bit less controversy. This was a step in that direction.

But there seems to have been a change of heart.  The Chief Rabbinate is fighting that compromise and does not want to allow any portion of the Kotel to be used for egalitarian purposes.

Why the change? More on that later.

First I should make clear a fundamental Halacha about the requirement to separate the sexes for prayer. It only exists in a Shul. Outside of a Shul, women do not need to be separated from men by a Mechitza. One can see the application of this at any wedding hall where the men will gather to pray with an ad hoc Minyan after a Chupah ceremony. Women are clearly present and ambient around that Minyan. There is no Mechitza and people from all segments of Orthodox Jewry  will join them. Even members of the Agudah Moetzes . 

It should also be noted that in some of the archival footage of the Kotel I mentioned above, men and women are praying at the Kotel without separation. The reason they could do that is because the Kotel is not a Shul. Which is the only place that requires a Mechitza separating the sexes for prayer.

So why is there a Mechitza at the Kotel now? I’ve been told that when it was restored to Israel in 67, it was inundated with worshipers desiring to pray there. It became almost impossible to pray without men and women coming into physical contact with each other. From that moment forward there has always been a Mechitza separating men and women.  Until recently it was respected by all who visited. But now heterodox movements have been increasingly pressuring Israel to allow their people to pray in the egalitarian fashion they are used to. That obviously caused disruption. The above mentioned compromise would have ended it.

If there is no problem with men and women praying together at the Kotel, why hasn’t the compromise been implemented – and the strife ended? Wasn’t that the intent of the Charedi parties by not protesting it? Well, yes. But there is more to the story which is not being reported, making it seem like the entire issue is about a Halacha requiring the separation of the sexes at the Kotel. But as mentioned, that is a Halacha that does not exist.

(I should note that the current Kotel Plaza might now be considered a Shul. In which case Halacha dictates the separation of the sexes when praying there. But that is certainly not true for Robinson’s Arch. There has never been a designation of any kind of Shul there.)

What exactly is the Halachic issue then?

I have been told by a rabbi who was directly involved in the original negotiations resulting in that compromise (and wishes to remain anonymous) that the heterodox rabbis wanted more than just a space for egalitarian purposes. They insisted things that would have given them state recognition as a legitimate denomination. Something they were actually expected and were talking about with pride. (As in here and here.)

It is one thing to give heterodox rabbis permission to use a section of the Kotel for their own purposes. I supported doing that reluctantly in order to end the conflict. But I oppose legitimizing movements that I believe are not legitimate. I therefore support the Charedim, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Religious Zionists (as represented in the Kenesset by Naftai Bennett’s party, Bayit HaYehudi) opposition to it.

The best outcome here would be for heterodox rabbis to drop their insistence on official recognition, and the Charedim et al to give them their space at the Kotel. This way everybody gets something but nobody gets everything. Isn’t that what compromise is all about?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Orthodoxy and Intermarriage

Rethinking intermarriage?
I understand his concern. Non Orthodox American Jewry is shrinking at a very rapid rate. I don’t think this is arguable – as a 2013 Pew Research survey sadly demonstrated. But recently Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) ordained Rabbi Avrom Mlotek’s solution to the problem shows a breathtaking ignorance about what Orthodox Judaism is all about. 

Rabbi Mlotek may have his heart in the right place. I’m sure that he does ‘care passionately about Judaism’ as he says he does. He would surely dispute my characterization of his ‘solution’ and probably outright resent my declaring him ignorant of Judaism – especially as a rabbi. But there is really no other way to see what he proposes doing. Here is what he said in a New York Jewish Week article entitled Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage
While the Reform movement has the most welcoming posture towards families with non-Jewish partners, the Conservative and Modern Orthodox worlds would be well served if they adopted a similar approach. Gone are the days when dogma and devotion rule; today every Jew is a Jew by choice. If our traditional communities do not learn how to adapt to modernity and cater religiously to different people’s needs, Judaism risks nearing its extinction date. 
There are a lot of things that the various segments of Orthodoxy disagree about. But the one thing we all agree upon was reflected in a YCT statement in obvious response to their recent ordainee: 
Besides intermarriage being strictly prohibited halakhically, it poses grave danger to Jewish continuity. Needless to say, we strictly forbid any of our rabbis to perform intermarriages. We do, however, advocate working very hard to convert anyone who sincerely wants to join the Jewish people. 
Does Rabbi Mlotek not realize that the Torah does not adapt to modernity? The late Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz was accused by some of the great Torah personalities of his time of being an Apikores for making a similar statement. I recall asking him about that when I was a student in one of his Jewish philosophy classes. He shook his head and said, that he never said that. What he said is that we must apply (not adapt) the Torah to modernity. Huge difference.  

Rabbi Mlotek has taken a view that even the controversial Dr. Berkovitz  rejected – knowing that it was heretical. The Torah is not adaptable. You can't change the Torah to fit the times.  Adapting the Torah to modernity is the province of Conservative Judaism. And even they have not (yet) abandoned that particular Halacha. Which is why Rabbi Mlotek included them in his admonishment.   

Rabbi Mlotek  must know that Halacha forbids  intermarriage and yet he says we should rethink our attitude to it to suit our sociological needs. But even those on the far left extremes of Orhtodoxy that believe we can discard tradition to suit the times - fully agrees that Halacha cannot be discarded. Rabbi Mlotek apparently begs to differ.

What about the problem he seeks to address? Yes, it is a difficult situation brought about in part by heterodox laxity about their members ritual observances. Something many of Conservative Judaism’s great thinkers have themselves asserted. That along with the new found tolerance  - and even admiration - by Americans of the Jewish people has fostered an unprecedented climate of assimilation that has resulted in the rapid increase of intermarriages. But performing intermarriages as a way of showing them how much we love them  is not the solution!

That being said, I don’t know what we can do to stave off what appears to be the great loss of Jewish souls that we now find ourselves in. The fact is that those among us that intermarry probably care little – if at all – about their Jewishness or that of their children. If the non Jewish spouse is a woman, their child is not considered Jewish. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. Is there anything we can do about this situation?  YCT 2nd statement spoke to this concern. But  I’m not sure how to react to it. It states: 
We as a community have to give deep and careful thought as to how to balance drawing close those in our communities who are intermarried with the risk of sending a harmful message of condoning intermarriage rather than doing everything we can to prevent it. 
I tend to agree with them in principle. The devil though is in the details. It is a noble goal to try and keep fellow Jews Jewish no matter how far outside of their heritage they have traveled. But how do we invite an intermarried couple into our midst without appearing to condone their union? 

Much as I would like to keep the Jewish spouse in the fold by giving the couple a warm and welcoming place in our community – in the hope that he will someday realize the value of his Jewish heritage; become serious about observance; and convince his spouse (and children if the non Jewish spouse is a woman) to undergo a sincere and valid conversion - welcoming them in as an intermarried couple is a non starter.  What are we to do in the likelihood that they will  refuse to change once we have accepted them? That can easily devolve into full acceptance! That is a rabbit hole that once we go down into it - can destroy us all as Jews.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Prototype School

R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel (center)  in an 8th grade class picture
Last night I had the privilege of attending the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School 70th anniversary banquet.

Now I’ve been around the block a few times. I have attended more than my share of banquets and frankly I have had enough of the ‘same old, same old’. And if I never saw another banquet again, it would be too soon. Last night I had kind of the same feeling before I went to the banquet. Even though I am a huge supporter of this alma mater of my children… a banquet is a banquet is a banquet.

But because I have so much gratitude to the school for what they did for my children and for what they do for so many others… and the fact that the sole honorees for the evening were the principal, Rabbi Eli Samber and his wife Ahuva, both of whom  I have tremendous admiration for, I attended. And I must say I am glad I did.

It not only reminded me why I love this school so much, it did so much more.  The evening began with the national anthem and the Hatikvah. The tables were mixed seating. I got to sit with my wife for a change. That is becoming an increasing rarity as the Orthodox Jewish world continues to move to the right.

Women in Arie Crown are not invisible.  Every video that evening featured both the men and the women of Arie Crown. Including an interview with Mrs. Samber.  It also featured many other such images. Including Rebbetzin Esther Levine. Who has been teaching there for decades and happens to be the wife of Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, and Agudah Moetzes member, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine. The evening included several female speakers, including some of the 8th grade graduates.

The women of Arie Crown are respected! This is not to say that the more right wing institutions in Chicago don’t respect their women. I know that they do. But women  never appear before an audience where men are present. Nor are they of late featured in any video presentation or print ads for their institutions. Not so Arie Crown.  Arie Crown not only appreciates their women, they make sure that they are not made invisible.

Even that was not the highlight of the evening. The tribute to Rabbi and Mrs. Samber was filled with genuine love by the entire Arie Crown family, the administration of the school, the Vaad HaChinuch, the teachers (both religious studies and secular studies) the members of the board, the parent body and the students - both past and present all expressed the love and admiration they have for this couple.

But for me, even that was not the highlight of the evening.  The highlight was in one particular video presentation of what this school is all about. (Now available for viewing below). If I were to create a school based on my Hashkafos, it would be Arie Crown. If there were a school logo it would be “Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko’. Educate the child according to his way. Each child has their strengths. Arie Crown is not a cookie cutter school. In Arie Crown there are no strong or weak students. Each student brings to the table their own personal strengths. Arie Crown seeks to find those strengths in each child and teaches them accordingly. In Arie Crown ‘No child left behind’ is more than preached. It is practiced.

The video presentation last night showed what happened to some of the former graduates of the school. It was a sort of ‘where are they now’. Well they are all over the world excelling in a variety of fields – having chosen their fields based on how they could serve God best. Rav Gedaliah (Gilly) Finkel is one such graduate that is currently one of the Roshei Yeshiva at Mir Yerushalayim. He praised his education at Arie Crown. (What was not said in the video is that his older brother was the late Gadol and  Rosh HaYeshiva of Mir, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel who was also a graduate of Arie Crown. That should not be overlooked.) Another graduate interviewed that praised the Chinuch he recevied in the school is R' Chaim Soloveichik, Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s youngest son.

Various other highly successful people were interviewed that had graduated Arie Crown. Among them graduates that have decided to make Aliyah and are currently serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Included were female physicians, nurses, teachers, principals Roshei Yeshiva, an NCSY leader in Israel… and leaders of business and industry, from to traditional to high tech.  

All of these people expressed gratitude to Arie Crown and the kind of education they got that influenced their life decisions. It was not only about the philosophy of the school, it was (and still is) about the personal interest taken in each student by the teachers, the principal, and the two vice principals (religious and secular studies) that made all this possible for them. Among other things, how many principals know the first name of every single student in the school (over 700 students)? That’s why  the vast majority of Arie Crown graduates have only the fondest memories of the school, their teachers, and their principal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Rabbi Samber’s  predecessor, Rabbi Meir Shapiro who was at the banquet and was one of the presenters to the Sambers last night. It was Rabbi Shapiro who set the tone for the school over his many decades as principal there. And who is the role model Rabbi Samber tries to emulate. That said, Rabbi Samber has not only tried to live up to Rabbi Shapiro’s legacy, he brought his own personal strengths to the job and helped the school grow to even greater heights.

I could not be prouder of what I saw last night. 

Even though I love Arie Crown, I don’t usually fawn over it this way. But I can’t help it. They deserve to be fawned over. And if this sounds like a free ad for Arie Crown… well I guess it is. 

But it is more than that. Arie Crown should be seen as the prototype for every Orthodox elementary school in America. If you love your child and want to see you child grow due to his own personal strengths, Arie Crown is the school for you.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Shame?

Last Thursday I wrote a post describing the reaction of 2 woman - Alexandra Fleksher and Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll - to the movie Wonder Woman. Both women have Modern Orthodox backgrounds. Both seem to live modern Orthodox lifestyles. But their views about that movie could not have been further apart. Both women have responded in the comments section of my blog. And both took issue with me.

Ms. Fleksher’s disagreements were spelled out in gentle tones. My response to her is that I basically stand by what I said.

Ms. Keats Jaskoll seemed to be almost insulted by what I said about her and responded with a much harsher tone. Here is what she said:   
Harry, I am certainly​ a feminist in that I believe women should achieve what they can without being told 'no' and should be treated as people. Tzniut is not (only) about dress. Dress is what men have made it into and yes, I'm sick of the unholy practice of men inspecting and judging women's clothing and making them feel like their bodies are vehicles of sin. The movie was incredible and anyone who has seen has the right to judge it. I stand by what I wrote. Shame you choose to focus on one thing and interpret in such a negative way 
Here is my response:

Negative?  What about my description of your review of the movie Wonder Woman makes you see it as negative? You are a feminist. There is no doubt about that. But I did not say it in a pejorative way. I did not say whether that is negative or positive. Just stated the obvious. However, by the way you put it, you imply that you are not a feminist in other ways? Which ways would that be?

The fact is that the way you describe yourself as a feminist is the way I describe my own identity as a feminist: 
I believe women should achieve what they can without being told 'no' and should be treated as people.
That is exactly the way I feel. Where I part company with you is only when it applies to Judaism as understood by the vast majority of the rabbinic leaders of our time. Leaders from across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy. Including rabbis on the Moetzes of the Agudah, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the European Rabbinate,  the RCA, and OU. 

It is only the rabbis of the extreme left – none of whom have anywhere near the credentials of the above-mentioned rabbinic leaders to make such decisions that support applying it to Judaism. You are free to agree with them. And I respect your opinion, even though I profoundly disagree agree with it. 

In you review of the movie, you completely ignore the issues raised by Ms.  Fleksher as though they do not exist. The only reference you make to it is in a very negative tone: 
I'm sick of the unholy practice of men inspecting and judging women's clothing and making them feel like their bodies are vehicles of sin.  
What conclusion do you expect readers to take from that? I actually agree with you that women should not be made to feel like their bodies are vehicles of sin. But that doesn’t mean the concerns about modesty issues in matters of clothing aren’t legitimate.

For the record I would  personally have no issue with seeing this movie even though the protagonist is clearly violating even the most liberal interpretation of our modesty laws as they apply to clothing. That's because the focus of this movie is on action, special effects and the subliminal message of empowering women. In other words, normal men will not be looking at her in sexual ways. They will be looking at her in much the same way they view a male superhero... as a superhero. Not a sex symbol as Ms. Fleksher suggests it might. The only reason I will not be seeing it is because Wonder Woman is not a character I can identify with - and in any case  I have lost interest in superhero movies. 

To say I am disappointed with your take on my post would be an understatement. I generally agree with what you write most of the time.  But because I point out the inconsistency of telling me you are not a feminist on the one hand and what you said in your article on the other... and the fact that you ignored and even disparaged the Tznius issue - you feel unjustifiably attacked by me.

That said, I still respect you and will continue to read your opinion on these matters when you write about them. You are an intelligent person that writes with conviction about things that have great meaning to to Klal Yisroel. You have added much to the conversation and I'm sure you will continue to do so. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Is Judaism Without Labels Possible?

Ron Yitzchok Eisenman: Charedi or not Charedi?
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman distributes a weekly ‘Short Vort’ to his congregants and anyone else interested in what he has to say on any given event or matter in the Jewish world. His latest contribution asks a question that most of us would seem to have a ready answer to: Are you Charedi?

He asks this question in light of the recent trip taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was flown to his destination by a female Charedi pilot. The Prime Minister made note of that with the following ‘tweet’: 
“We are now going to meet with the first Hareidi woman pilot. You are invited to join. She is the first, but not the last.” 
Rabbi Eisenman was moved to ask the following question based on this event: What exactly about this woman makes her Charedi? Using the definition found in Wikipedia, it would seem that she clearly not Charedi. Here is how it is defined there. 
“Hareidi Judaism is a broad spectrum of groups within Orthodox Judaism, all characterized by a rejection of modern secular culture…”
“In contrast to Modern Orthodox Judaism, which hastened to embrace modernity, the approach of the Chareidim was to maintain a steadfast adherence both to Jewish Law and custom by segregating themselves from modern society.”  
Rabbi Eisenman notes that the pilot - Ms. Spiegel/Novak - would not qualify by this definition. And yet I’m pretty sure she  self identifies that way. He concludes the vort with following: 
I am just wondering what makes me or you or anyone else Hareidi?What makes one Modern Orthodox?What makes one Chassidish?Do we really need these categories?Are they really helpful for our spiritual development?Just wondering… 
These are all excellent questions that I have not really dealt with at any length. I thought I’d give it a shot. Before I begin I should make clear that there is a lot of overlap at the edges. And there are many exceptions. But I do believe that each category can be defined.

Let me answer the last question first. The answer is no. Categories do not help our spiritual development. If anything they do the opposite. Unfortunately they have thrust upon us by those who have decided break away from the mainstream and create their own categories. We therefore have no choice but to define who we are in contradistinction to those that have rejected some of our values.

Being Chasidish is rather easy to define. While there are individual differences between various sects of Chasidim, they are generally people that follow the dictates of a given leader called the Rebbe whom they see as the holiest human being alive - closer to God than anyone else on earth. They therefore honor him in the extreme and see his blessings as the most potent because of it. 

They follow the unique  customs and lifestyles that he or the founding Rebbe established. Customs that include unique personal grooming (long Peyes and usually a full beard) and a unique manner of dress. They are encouraged to isolate themselves  as much as possible from the general culture so as to avoid what they see as values that are anathema to their beliefs.  

Modern Orthodox Jews are those that observe Halacha and tradition while embracing those parts of the culture that are permitted by Halacha.

Charedim (that are not Chasidic) is a category that rejects modern culture too (except for those things that are necessary or beneficial to one’s health and well being). But they do not have a Rebbe nor do they have the personal grooming habits of Chasidm, They do not have long Peyes Nor long beards and usually trim them. They dress in modern clothing (e.g. a suit and tie for men). And do not isolate themselves as much. 

They are generally better educated than Chasidim in secular subjects, often getting advanced degrees, getting good jobs or becoming professionals. They also tend to be more involved in the culture either through their jobs or in their lifestyles - albeit some with guilt. While they do venerate their rabbinic leaders (usually a Rosh Yeshiva), they do not see them in the same way Chasidim see their Rebbe as a near God-like figure.  (Although there has been some movement towards that type of veneration in the last few years among the more right wing Charedim calling it Daas Torah.)

Why the term Charedi? It is rooted in the expression Chareid L’Dvar HaShem – trembling at the word of God. (It is found in Tanach I believe. Sorry to say I can’t quote the actual source.) 

This is a term chosen by Charedim themselves. I would have thought that describing one’s group as trembling is not very flattering. But they see it differently. They want the world to know that they tremble at the awesomeness of an omnipotent God that has the power of life and death over all things. And Who judges every single act by every human being. 

The consequences of not doing God’s will is spelled out quite graphically in the Torah. It isn’t pretty. There is also the matter of an afterlife that will deal with all of our actions here on earth – rewarding those that follow His word and punishing those that violate it. So they ‘tremble’ at the possibility that they may not be serving God’s word properly and suffer some very dire consequences both in this world and the next.

Rabbi Yosef Bechoffer once mentioned to me that it bothered him that Charedim co-opted that term for themselves. We should all be Chareid L’Dvar HaShem.  That, he says is a positive characteristic. Yes, we should all fear God, I agree. But does not mean we lead our lives in the trembling fashion that the term implies nor should we identify that way. That is certainly not how I would choose to identify. But that is their choice.

What about Rabbi Eisenman’s question about Ms. Ms. Spiegel/Novak? If she does not eschew modern culture and does not separate herself from it, why does she consider herself Charedi?

I believe there are several  reasons for that. First she was raised in a community that has those values. Becoming a commercial pilot is indeed a departure from their norms. But my guess is that aside from becoming a pilot, she is Charedi in every other way.

I doubt for example that she has a TV in her home, Or that she attends movies. Or theater. Or is she a fan of Justin Beiber or Beyonce. I’m sure her children attend Charedi schools. Separate seating at public events like a wedding or a banquet are the norm. Her husband is probably well entrenched into that world, whether still in Kollel or as a working Charedi. I doubt that her husband or  any of her children were in the army. Her close friends are probably all Charedi and the Shul she and her family attends is probably Charedi too. In short she lives the Charedi lifestyle despite having a career no other Charedi has – man or woman. 

I wonder, though, how her community reacts to her? Are they accepting? If not do they hide it? Or have they created some distance between her and themselves?

As noted above, sometimes the lines are blurred between categories. I’m not sure how that manifests itself in Israel. But in the US the blurring of lines between Moderate Charedim and Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews is already happening in a big way. And creating a new mainstream of Orthodoxy I have called sociological centrists. While the two groups will still retain their own unique values, their lifestyles hardly differ. 

With the extremes of the right and left seeming to go off the deep end and heterodoxy seeing their numbers dwindling by an assimilating mass exodus, intermarriage, or being defined out of Judaism as defined by Halacha (via patrilinial descent or improper conversions)...who knows? Maybe the new sociological centrist (consisting of moderate Charedim, Centrist modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that we have successfully reached out to) whose numbers are swelling will eventually be able to shed any kind of label and be known simply as Jews. 

Is that a good thing? Yes and no. Shedding labels is good. But the loss of so many Jews from Judaism is a tragedy beyond description!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Two Perspectives on Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
I am not going to see the movie. Not for the reasons given by  Alexandra Fleksher in her Cross Currents article. But because I am simply not a fan of Wonder Woman. I could never relate to that comic book character. I was a Superman fan.  (And had quite the collection of Superman comic books when I was a child.)

Wonder Woman was recently released to the ‘big screen’ and has all but dominated the entertainment news. Jewish publications are fawning all over the fact that Ms. Gal Gadot - an Israeli actress - is portraying the title character. Some of the coverage has to do with Muslim nations boycotting the film. Secular publications are all abuzz about director Patty Jenkins - extolling her achievement as a new height in movie-making for a woman in this genre. Critical reviews of this move have been excellent. Far better than most of the more recent films of this genre.

Gal Gadot is an Israeli model turned actress who is also a proud veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); a mother; and a homemaker. A Jew that is serious about some of our traditional religious practices (I recall an article about how she religiously lights candles every Friday night before Shabbos.)

Despite all of this, I am not interested. As I said, I am not a fan of the character and have outgrown superhero movies in any case.  (Maybe because the recent ones were so bad.)

There are two articles on the subject that have piqued my curiosity about this movie.  One of them - as mentioned above - is by Alexandra Fleksher. I found it to be both a wonderful defense of Shmiras Eynayim (Guarding your eyes) and yet a bit condescending in making that point.  

Orthodox Judaism urges that men ‘guard their eyes’. This means that we men are supposed to avoid looking at women in ways that can arouse sexual thoughts about them. The less clothed they are, the more we should avoid looking at them. Mrs. Fleksher’s husband is doing exactly that as a matter of principle. He is observing Shmiras Eynayim. This is how she begins her article: 
Last Shabbos, Wonder Woman came up quite a lot. Friday night dinner with guests, Shabbos lunch at guests, and at kiddush after davening. Men were the ones who brought it up. My 14 year old son said some classmates are seeing it with their fathers. Our Friday night male guest said it’s not so bad unless you have a problem seeing lots of arm…
I have seen the Facebook posts of friends who say, with lots of exclamation points, that it is breathtaking and truly a marvel. Articles I have read applaud Wonder Woman for its revolutionary film-making in that it is extraordinary in its treatment of women. That it depicts not only a woman heroine, but a vision of womankind not limited by society’s expectations and limitations. 
She then says that her husband won’t be seeing it. It may not be her intention, but by explaining why her husband won’t see it while other Orthodox friends of hers did, is she not putting them down?

I found that a bit distasteful.  Her purpose was obviously to praise her husband. But she should not have mentioned that so many of her other friends were extolling the movie and ignoring the Shmiras Eynayoim issue.  She came to praise her husband.  Not to bury her friends. But didn’t she kind of do that?

What is somewhat perplexing is that she speaks only about this movie – thereby hinting that her husband might otherwise go to the movies. I’m not sure what principle he is standing up for by avoiding only this particular movie. There is hardly a movie made that these days that doesn’t have a woman in it. And invariably they will not be dressed according to Halachic standards of modesty.

I’m also relatively sure that if her husband participates in the world in some fashion Perhaps at work or in the market place. He therefore regularly comes into contact with live women who do not dress modestly by Halachic standards. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman does not violate the norms of modesty of the society in which we live. There is nothing titillating about her superhero costume if you live in America.

And then there is Shoshana Keats-Jaskoll’s fawning review of the movie. Mrs. Keats-Jaskoll has told me personally that she is not a feminist. But her article had feminism written all over it. She used Wonder Woman as model for all Jewish Women. She compared the social construct of Wonder Woman’s world to the social construct of Orthodox Judaism in negative ways. Here is an excerpt from her Times of Israel article that demonstrates this: 
How moving, how norm-shattering to see women make their own choices, fight their own battles, on their own terms, no permission needed, no dress code required, and no one telling them just how far they could go. 
I don’t think the president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist  Alliance (JOFA) could have put it any better. She seems to see Tznius issues as a hindrance to her freedom.

I cannot think of 2 more different reactions to this movie. One criticizes Tznius violations while the other praises the glory of giving women the freedom to be who they are without caring about how they dress. Both of these women have modern Orthodox backgrounds. I don’t think they could be further apart.