Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Joyous Time for the Jewish People*

As we are about to enter Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah I thought I would address why it is that the Torah specifices Simcha – joy  - only to the Yom Tov of Sukkos. I saw an answer to this question given by Rav Moshe Sternbuch which appealed to me.  He points out that there is no greater joy than being forgiven our sins. And on Yom Kippur - just a few days before Sukkos - that is exactly what happened.  

One may note a similar idea expressed about joy and being sin free at the time of one’s wedding. There is a custom for a bride and groom to fast on the day of their wedding. That day is compared to Yom Kippur where one is forgiven their sins. This is done on the day just prior to the actual wedding ceremony so that the bride and groom can enter their new lives in complete joy knowing that their new lives will begin free of sin. The joy expressed on that day is therefore unburdened – free of sin because of the Yom Kippur like aspect of the day just prior to the Chupah.

The few days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos are spent almost entirely on preparing for the Mitzvos that pertain to this Yom Tov – like building and decorating the Sukkah; and purchasing the Daled Minim (Lulav, Esrog, Hadasim, and Aravos).  So as we enter this Yom Tov we are relatively free of sin spending little time on anything other than Mitzvah or Mitzvah preparation. As such Sukkos is referred to as Zman Simchasenu. As the Torah tells us in reference to this Yom Tov U’Semachtem Lifnei HaShem Elokechem Shivas Yomim – And rejoice before the Lord, your God  for 7 days’ (Vayikra 23:40).

This is also why there is  celebratory atmosphere on Simchas Torah when we complete the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings instead of on Shavuous when the Torah was actually given. Because the day before (today- Hashana Rabba) we participate in the  final expression of Teshuva where we can finally feel confident that our sins are truly forgiven. There is no greater feeling of joy than that... which carries over to the very next day, Shemini Atzeres. Which in Israel is also Simchas Torah and outside of Israel is the day after. That day – instead of Shavuous is when we can best express our joy.

Good Yom Tov

*Adapted from Torah L’Daas by Rabbi Matis Blum

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unintended Consequences of Conservative Judaism

Tzedek Chicago founder Rabbi Brant Rosen addressing a BLM  rally (TOI)
One of the attendees at a recent meeting between Senator Mark Kirk and Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish leaders (lay and rabbinic) made a somewhat shocking remark to me. He said that Senator Kirk told him that in his encounters with the general Jewish community, he found that Jews don’t care about Israel. He said this in the context of finding it refreshing that at least one segment of the Jewish people – Orthodox Jews – do care.

This is yet another reason to support Senator Kirk’s re-election to the US Senate. It shows that his support of the Jewish State is not because he seeks the Jewish vote or Jewish money. That goal would be better served by advocating the liberal Jewish causes that most non Orthodox Jews support. As student of history, he supports Israel for moral reasons.

I said ‘shocking’. But I suppose it shouldn’t be that shocking to understand that the vast majority of the Jewish people in the United States have little to no Jewish education. Most are secular with humanistic values. At best they are cultural Jews. They place a lot more importance on Yiddish theater, literature, or poetry than they do on following the dictates of the Torah (of which they know little about). They in fact see no relevance to an ancient document whose values are archaic -  a throwback to primitive times. Many in academia have labeled the Torah a literary document written by man. Which in our day has little value based on modern concepts of equality and justice. In some cases Torah law is seen as sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, or even barbaric.

The rabbis of the Talmud are at best seen as flawed human beings that were a product of their primitive times. Which caused them to create laws that are anathema to modern day values.

And that’s only that segment that even cares about it. My guess is that most Jews in America do not know – or even care to know what the Torah and the sages say about anything. Which is why (according to a Pew Research poll) so many intermarry and/or assimilate out of Judaism. Is it any wonder that they don’t care about Israel either?

This is the unintended consequence of the Conservative movement. What was once the largest segment of Jewry in America has fallen to a distant 2nd place behind Reform which is increasing their number via redefining who is and isn’t a Jew to the point of absurdity.

It is ironic that a movement that was created to ‘conserve’ Judaism has done the opposite. They were the original ‘Open Orthodox’. They wanted to open up Judaism to the masses who would not or could not remain fully observant because they believed their livelihoods depended on working on Shabbos.

While claiming loyalty to Halacha - the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic leadership did much to subvert it - albeit unintentionally. For exampe - they ‘Paskined’ that since their members were going to drive anyway, let them drive to Shul. This ‘Heter’ gave a rabbinic imprimatur for driving on Shabbos in general. Most non Orthodox Jews of that time saw little difference between driving to Shul or driving to the beach.

Conservative rabbis  - most of whom were observant back then - did nothing to stop that. They rationalized that if they admonish their congregants for driving on Shabbos, they would lose them entirely. So they looked the other way. And thus over time virtually all Halachic observance was frittered away. Certainly the most of the ‘Don’ts’ of Halacha - observing some of ‘Dos’ for cultural or social reasons. And with each succeeding generation ignorance increased while the cultural motives decreased. And that’s where we are today. Support for Israel was once a pillar of Conservative Judaism. That too is now gone. Today we see more criticism of Israel than ever!

It should therefore not be surprising that there are Conservative or Reform synagogues and temples like Tzedek Chicago that bills itself as a non Zionist synagogue. From the Forward
Tzedek “bills itself as non-Zionist.” We are a values-based community, and our core values include “a Judaism beyond nationalism.” But we are not a one-issue congregation, and we don’t refer to ourselves as such…
Tzedek and its members are active in many progressive issues, from immigration justice to #BlackLivesMatter to fighting Islamophobia to #StandWithStandingRock. Our second day Rosh Hashanah service was a prayerful solidarity action with the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago’s City Hall.  We uphold non-Zionism as part of our core values...
(A)mong us, there are a-Zionists, those indifferent; post-Zionists; anti-Zionists; those unsure of their position regarding Zionism, and even a few political Zionists who appreciate our anti-Occupation activism. We impose no litmus test for membership. 
Now it is true that this synagogue is outside even the mainstream of the Conseravtive of Reform Movements. Its founder, Brant Rosen is an avowed supporter of the Palestinian cause. And yet according to the Times of Israel millenials are flocking to it! That is disturbing!

That it exists at all shows just how far removed some Jews can be from the core values of Judaism – which first and foremost are represented by the Mitzvos of the Torah. 

That these young Jews view only popular liberal causes as their primary focus without a even a trace of Halachic observance – or even cultural activites  - as any part of their identity is surely the by-product of the Conservative Movement virtual indifference to the Halachic observance of its members over the years - save for Tikun Olam.  Tikun Olam is surely a Jewish value - but one that is shared by Christianity, secular humanists, and others. It is not distinctively Jewish.
Tikun Olam – especially one that is no longer supportive of the Jewish  State - has now become the sole identifier of many non Orthodox Jews. And it’s why we have synagogues like Tzedek Chicago. One might argue that even this is better than assimilating out as is the case with so many Jews these days. But I would argue that there is little practical difference between the two. And perhaps it’s even worse.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Reasonable Request in Meah Shearim

Poster asking for separation of the sexes in Meah Shearim (Ynet)
I am not a fan of segregation. Whether by race, religion, or gender. And yet gender separation has taken hold in Orthodoxy more than ever. Particularly at banquets and weddings, Neither of which are Halachicly required to do so.

Gender separation is the result of the constant ‘move to the right’. A pattern many of us in Orthodoxy has fallen into.

As it applies to America - there was a time when even the most right wing organizations had mixed seating (except in Chasidic circles). Great European Roshei Yeshiva that had immigrated to America (like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky) and world class Poskim (like Rav Moshe Feinstein) could be found sitting at tables with their wives and other couples - proudly introducing their wives to friends and acquaintances as they passed by. That was the culturally accepted custom of Orthodox Jews in America.

Things were not that different in pre-war non Chasidic Europe. I recall back in the late 60s when a student of European Gadol, Rav Mordechai Rogov asked him if he should insist on separate seating at his own wedding as this custom was beginning to take hold among the right. Rav Rogov answered in Yiddish: In der Lita, zenen mir nit geven makpid. Separate seating was not an issue even in Lithuania - the heart of the Torah world back then.

Today a even a non Chasidic Rosh Yeshiva will never be found sitting with his wife at mixed table at wedding. It has become anathema to them and pro forma for their students to only have separate seating at their weddings.

The Talmudic source for separating the sexes is based on the Gemarah in Sukkah (5b). It describes the situation on Simchas Beis HaShoeva. Men and women used to be in the same area, women were on the inside and men on the outside. Because of the great celebration men and women came to  light-headeness and frivolity. That generated a rabbinic decree that separated them – requiring them to be in a balcony and enjoy the celebration from there.

That kind of segregation expanded to other times and other places. Like weddings. It was the norm among observant Jewry – centuries ago. And based on the culture of the times. Women were generally not found walking around in public. So being seated with them was considered immodest.

Today that is no longer the case. As explained by 16th century Posek, the Maharam Yaffa (more popularly known as the Levush), women are as commonly found in public as men.

I am not going to go into detail as to why this push backward is so troubling. Been there and done that many times.

But I am going to discuss one very disturbing trend among the extreme right that is an offshoot of the mentality that wants to completely segregate the sexes.  Even though the stated intent of gender segregation is to keep us holy by avoiding any contact between the sexes at all, there is such a thing as going too far. Going too far is when the desired effect is overshadowed by the harm it causes.  Unfortunately there are ample examples of that. Just to cite one example: How many times have we heard about a woman being beaten up or bullied for sitting in the wrong seat on a bus?! Although no one - even in the extreme right - condones it. Their tepid responses do little to change the harm requiring separate seating on buses causes. Certainly not enough to eliminate the separate  seating requirement. This leaves room for it to happen again!

But sometimes there is a legitimate reason to separate the sexes in public areas.  Not that I feel it has to be done in those cases. But I do think that requests for doing so are reasonable and understandable.

An article in Ynet is a case in point. Apparently signs were put up in the Meah Shearim neighborhood that included the following statement: 
"And a special request to the women – residents of the area as well as passersby – try to minimize as much as possible crossings of the main street of Mea Shearim in Chol Hamoed night times, and only go through side streets, and in general minimize visits in the (Mea Shearim) neighborhood in those hours," one of the posters said. 
I personally believe that such signs are unnecessary. But I completely understand why this community feels that they are. Anyone that has been to Meah Shearim will note just how narrow the streets and sidewalks are. The slightest number of people congregating in the street will create a crowded situation. And as the number increases, the crowds become very tight. Physical contact among people in that crowd may very well be unavoidable. To request (not demand) that women avoid the certain crowding that takes place on Chol Hamoed Sukkos when Shuls are celebrating Simchas Beis HaShoeva with loud music and exuberant dancing is a reasonable request.

That I personally don’t think it’s necessary is irrelevant. I don’t see a problem with incidental contact. But many Orthodox Jews do see that as a problem and want to avoid it as much as possible. So at least in this one instance, I would give this community a pass. Let them put up those signs in their own Meah Shearim neighborhoods during Chol HaMoed Sukkos. And let us try to honor them if we happen to be in there then.

There are plenty of things to be critical of in this community. And I have been. But this is not one of them.

Are they ‘breaking the law’ by putting up signs that call for gender separation? Maybe. But if there is ever a time for law enforcement to look the other way, this is it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Sickening Antisemitism of Great Nations

Kotel Plaza
In 2000 Israel made an historic and very controversial concession to the Palestinian leadership. In what began at Oslo as an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to come to a serious and workable compromise that would end decades of conflict, Israel was willing to give up half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace settlement. 

Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat had almost agreed to the terms of the agreement. Which – had it been implemented – may have finally seen peaceful co-existence between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. And more importantly  between Palestinians and Israelis. Imagine the possibilities of such a realtionship!

I supported that deal. I had hoped that if it came to fruition, it would effectively end all hostilities. How dare I - one may ask - support giving up half the eternal capital of Israel? Especially since that’s where the Temple Mount and the  Kotel were located?  For me, a true peace that would end the bloodshed was worth the price. Besides, the deal would have permitted free access to the Kotel to anyone that wanted it.

True, I was naïve then. I should have known that Islamic fundamentalists would never honor such a deal no matter who made it. Not even their hero, Arafat! Fundamentalist groups like Hamas have only one goal: to free all of all of Palestine (Israel) from Jewish control and rid it of Jews. By any means necessary. This has been their stated goal. They don’t hide it. They have implemented those means against Israel in Gaza ever since Gaza was given to them. 

Fortunately Arafat could not bring himself to accept the compromise reached at Camp David. And that deal never took place. Thankfully Israel still controls all of Jerusalem.Trying to reach any kind of deal under current conditions would be suicidal. 

This is an unfortunate result for the Palestinians. They will continue to live under Israeli rule indefinitely until such time that it can be demonstrably shown that a peace deal will not result in the West Bank becoming Gaza 2.0! 

I do not see making any kind of peace deal in the foreseeable future. Not since Gaza has shown us what it might be like in the West Bank if we did. And not with what’s going on in many Muslim states in that region. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, all of which are in chaos to one degree or another due to Islamic fundamentalist control.

This seem so clear to me. And yet so many western nations, including the United States (under the current administration) keep insisting that Israel must make concessions for peace. For some inexplicable reason, they are ignoring the obvious. Halting settlement construction (which I actually agree with as a matter of showing good will) will nonetheless not stop the carnage from being perpetrated by fundamentalists like ISIS, Al Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah. They will continue to pursue their goals using terror and carnage! 

If Israel were to make ‘peace’ right now, it would be an invitation to annihilation! The civilized world seems oblivious to the very likely result of the West Bank becoming Gaza 2.0. How can can they possibly believe that fundamentalists would lay down their arms and allow a Jewish state to exist in what they believe to be their legitimate territory. One that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River!  To a Muslim fundamentalist - there is nothing Jewish about any part of Israel. Not even the Kotel.

Apparently UNESCO agrees with them. From the Times of Israel:  
The United Nations’ cultural arm on Thursday passed a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in a move derided in Israel as “anti-Semitic” and absurd.
The resolution, adopted at the committee stage, used only Muslim names for the Jerusalem Old City holy sites and was harshly critical of Israel for what it termed “provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity” of the area.
Twenty-four countries in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) backed the document, while six voted against and 26 abstained at a meeting in Paris.  
If there was ever any proof needed that this organization is antisemitic – this is it. Which is too bad. The concept of an organization in a world body that is dedicated to preserving and promoting educational, scientific and cultural activities around the world is surely a worthwhile enterprise. One deserving to be an independent entity within the United Nations in order to assure that goal. But that is hardly how this organization seems to function when it comes to the Jewish State. UNESCO seems to recognize the culture of only one group in that part of the world.  Muslims. 

By their statements, there is no tie between any other religion to the holy site of Har Habayis - the Temple Mount. Where both Batei HaMikdash (Holy Temples) were located. We, the Jewish people consider this to be sacred ground to this day. The Kotel is the remnant of the outer retaining wall of the 2nd Temple and is recognized as such by Jews and Christians. To ignore that and refer to that area as culturally only as Islamic, is to deny the very bible that identifies this location in other terms. 

But that doesn’t seem to bother the 24 member UNESCO countries that backed the resolution or the 26 that abstained. Truth be damned. Thankfully Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and United States voted against it.

It is one thing to say that a concession for peace requires sacrificing what we believe to be our sacred land. This was the case in that 2000 deal that then Israeli Prime Mister Ehud Barak agreed to. But to deny any connection to it is a lie.  A lie whose only motive is to legitimize our beliefs. Which is not much different that how fundamentalist Muslims see things. And that will just fuel more terrorism and carnage. Not only against the Jewish people. Not only in Israel, But Everywhere! And that is truly sickening!  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Short Vort and Chag Sameach

Image of typical Sukkah interior from Cross-Currents
One of the two primary Mitzvah requirements on Sukkos – which commences this evening – is Yeshivas Sukkah - living (eating and sleeping) in a hut-like temporary dwelling for seven days. (The other is the taking of the four species - Lulav, Esrog, Haddaism, and Aravos. Women are exempt from both but are permitted - and generally do - eat in the Sukkah in a family setting. And they generally take the 4 species). 

When I awoke this morning, it was raining. Hard.  A real downpour. The sages say that if it rains or if there is any other Tzar (pain - e.g. extreme cold) we are absolved of this obligation and do not eat in the Sukkah. This is the Halacha as stated  in the Shulchan Aruch.

I thought if the rain continues – all of that effort putting up the Sukkah ...and now we won’t be able to enjoy it. Although on first night we are required to eat a Kezayis of bread in the Sukkah no matter what, there will be no joy in eating it in the rain! The rest of the meal will be in the house.

But the Chasam Sofer offers some words of consolation. He tells us that one of the things the Sukkah symbolizes is the Ananei HaKavod – the clouds of Godly protection that accompanied and hovered over our ancestors on their exodus from Egypt until their entry to Israel. In honoring that Godly symbol - Chas V’Shalom (God forbid) that the Ananei HaKavod should have any connection to pain. That is why we should avoid eating and sleeping there. He adds that under such circumstances eating in the house is as if we were eating in the Sukkah – and thus fulfilling the Mitzvah.

Good Yom Tov 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Senator Mark Kirk - A Proven Friend

Chicago's Orthodox leaders meeting with Senator Kirk last week (Matzav)
One problem (among many) with Donald Trump’s candidacy that is that it will affect the down ballot candidates of the Republican Party. I say this as a non partisan - although a right leaning one on most issues. I vote for the individual not the party. If one looks at my voting record - that would be amply reflected. I voted for Bill Clinton twice as I did for Ronald Reagan. As much as I don’t like Hillary Clinton, she is the lesser of two evils. I will vote for her over the disastrous Trump. 

Many of Clinton’s supporters say she will govern from the center. But I think her primary opponent, Socialist Bernie Sanders, has pushed her even further to the left than she was before. A lot more than her husband, former President Bill Clinton.  

The way to prevent some of her liberal agenda from bearing fruit is to vote for a Republican congress in both the House and the Senate. Because even though Clinton is less of a disaster than Trump by far, she is still a disaster. Her economic programs consisting of more tax and spend entitlements will increase the budget deficit and the national debt. And we already owe China the family farm!

What’s worse is that she will continue the foreign policy of her predecessor. That too is a disaster. Just to take one example - instead of increasing the crippling sanctions on Iran and bringing them to their knees, where the world could have dictated much better terms for removing those sanctions - the deal made by the US gave Iran - the biggest state sponsor of terrorism - billions of dollars to further that cause; allowed them to keep most of their nuclear infrastructure intact; and a few years hence allows them to pursue nuclear weapons freely. This is a country that has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. They have been vowing this for over 35 years. Soon they will have the means to do it.

This is not a foreign policy that will benefit mankind. It is a prescription for a major nuclear conflagration in the not too distant future that will affect the entire world. And yet this is the kind of foreign policy she enthusiastically supports.

I am still going to vote for her for what are becoming increasingly obvious reasons. But in my view it is vital to do what we can to counteract her agenda on both the economy and on foreign policy. Which means voting for Republicans down ballot. I say this even though I do not vote ‘party’ but ‘individual’. That should still be the guiding principle for everyone. But surely one should not vote against someone because of their party’s Presidential candidate. That would be biting off your nose to spite your face.

In Illinois, Republican Senator Mark Kirk is being challenged by a war hero, Democrat Tammy Duckworth. She is an Iraq War veteran that suffered severe combat wounds, losing both of her legs and damaging her right arm.  I salute her service. For her sacrifice and dedication, she deserves the eternal gratitude and respect of all the American people regardless of party affiliation.  But that does not make her an ideal candidate for office. We must look at her policies

For those who care about the welfare of the Jewish State, her policies are not so stellar. She is party loyalist that supports the Iran deal. More telling is her endorsement by J-Street, the liberal lobbying group that was established as a counter to AIPAC. This the pro Israel lobbying group has been successful in arguing Israel’s case to our elected officials. AIPAC is respected in Washington on both sides of the political aisle. They are seen as a required stop for every Presidential candidate seeking office.

J-Street tends is tends toward a more Palestinian view of things –albeit without the antisemitism that often accompanies it. Their view is that Israel should make peace right now with a 2 state solution. This ignores the increased terrorism that would be generated if the entire West Bank were handed over to them. A lesson that should have been learned by handing over Gaza. Israel thought that would be a great gesture.  Palestinians could then show us what peaceful co-existence would be like in a 2 state solution. 

We all know how well that worked out. We cannot give Palestinians control of the West Bank until we can be assured that they will not turn it into another Gaza. Which is the opposite of what their popular leadership (Hamas) has all but promised to do. Tammy Duckworth is of the J-Street mindset apparently. She apparently feels that Israel can ignore the reality of Gaza and hand over the West Bank to their leaders.

The United States cannot afford to do this to its closest ally in the Middle East. It would be against America’s best interests. Not to mention immoral.The West Bank must remain in Israel’s hands until such time it can be proven that it will not turn into another Gaza.

Both Kirk and Duckworth were invited by Agudath Israel of Illinois to address a group of rabbinic and lay leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy in Chicago. Kirk accepted and met with this group. Duckworth has not yet decided if she can swing it. The following excerpt is why anyone that cares about the State of Israel should vote for Kirk. From Matzav
In a passionate response to a participant who asked what motivated him to fight for Israel and the Jewish people, Senator Kirk explained that he views it as a primary moral obligation. He described himself as a student of history who appreciates the uniqueness of the Jewish people and the persecution they have endured for generations. “We must learn lessons from the 1930’s: take the threats of Israel’s enemies seriously and understand that appeasement only emboldens them. We must do whatever we can to right the wrong done to the Jewish people. It is the moral test of our generation to stand up and do what we can to protect this special nation.” 
Senator Kirk did not just have this meeting for political expediency. He is a true friend of the Jewish people. After he was elected in the last election he requested to address the Jewish community to express his views about Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish community responded by inviting him to speak at KINS, a Modern Orthodox Shul in Chicago’s West Roger Park. A neighborhood heavily saturated with Orthodox Jews. He did not have to do this. He was already elected. And yet he still expressed a desire to show us who he is.

This is the man we should support. Mark Kirk is a Republican that must remain in congress. He is a good man and deserves to be re-elected. Even if only to retain a Republican seat in a very likely Democratic administration.  We could use a lot more like him. This is not to say that Ms. Duckworth is an antisemite. I’m sure she is not. 

But why go with an unproven candidate endorsed by J-Street – while the proven one is such a great friend to the Jewish people? 

The media has been reporting that it is a very close race. (The same cannot be said for the vote for President. Illinois rarely goes Republican and it will surely not do so this time.) Please do not stay home – even if you can’t stand either candidate. Your vote will count. This election is too important to ignore. Come out and vote for Kirk. I will be. I hope you will too.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Locker Room Talk

Sean Connery as James Bond - the ultimate womanizer
Bo Derek was a 10. In case you don’t know who Bo Derek is, she was an actress that starred in the 70s movie ‘10’. The idea being that on a beauty scale of 1 to 10, she was a 10. I bring this up now in light of the so called ‘locker room’  talk that Trump used as an excuse for his disgusting comments about women a decade ago. It was recorded on a ride with Billy Bush, who was at the time co-host of the television show ‘Access Hollywood’. (He has since been fired from his current job on the ‘Today Show’ for his behavior then.)

This got me thinking about the very concept Trump used as an excuse for his comments. What Trump meant by ‘locker room talk’ is that many men will talk about women differently among themselves when there are no women present. They will talk in terms of women as sex objects. This is not to say that there aren’t men that refuse to ever talk about women this way. Of course there are. But many do, especially when they are adolescents. And often they do not outgrow that part of their adolescence.

I am not excusing it. It is disgusting to objectify anyone. Human beings are not objects!  But like it or not objectifying women is a fact of life in our culture. Although most men will never speak that way in public - certainly not when a woman is present - the truth is when they are in the proverbial ‘locker room’ this is how many men think. As noted above - when the subject of a beautiful woman comes up - there are a lot of men that rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. Lest anyone think this is only being done by ‘low-lifes’ and that the vast majority of men don’t think like this, well – a movie like ‘10’ indicates otherwise. That movie was a huge success.

Does art imitate life? Or does life imitate art? I think it’s a little bit of both. But I also think life imitates art a lot more than art imitates life. Movies and advertisements are rife with sexual images. Women are treated more often like sex objects in them than not. Especially in movies geared towards men. Like the James Bond series. Is there even a question how novelist Ian Fleming’s protagonist, James Bond, saw women? And yet to this day Bond is an icon to hundreds of thousands of men.

Then there is the advertisement industry. The use of beautiful women in ads is a proven method of getting a male customers attention. The more suggestive the ad, the more attention it would get.  In fact I recall an airline ad where a female flight attendant pitched her airline by objectifying herself and saying ‘Fly me’!  

And if yet more proof is needed to show that women are so widely objectified in western culture, there is the porno industry. Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner made a fortune as a pioneer in this industry. He too was considered an icon among his millions of male readers. In those circles being ‘cool’ usually meant having a lot of female conquests.  

Think of all those athletes that capitalized on being ‘cool’ that way? Even some that were role models like Basketball superstar,‘Magic’ Johnson. All too often male celebrities believed they had license to do whatever they wanted to any woman they met. Ask Bill Cosby. Or Bill  Clinton. Or John Kennedy. Or Donald Trump.

Objectifying women is not just a phenomenon in the general culture. It exists in some of the finest Yeshivos in the world. Even in Charedi ones. I was once a teenager First two years of high  school in  in a Charedi and the last two a modern orthodox Yeshiva.  Again, not every student talks like that even in private. Perhaps most don’t. But a lot do. Even the so-called ‘good ones’ – those that are seen as top Yeshiva students. I heard it as a teenager from more than one student like that in both Yeshivos. Most did not act on it. But they did talk like that in private. There is a lot more talk like that in Yeshivos than most of us are willing to admit.

Today, more than any other time in my lifetime we live in a hyper-sexualized world. Women are seen as sex objects more than ever. Back in the 50s most men would hide that kind of thinking. Today, many men wear it as a badge of honor - at least among other men in private.  Which is why Billy Bush played along with Trump’s attitude about women. He too saw women that way. He just never said so in public.

So Chazal were not wrong when they admonished men to not gaze at women. They realized that many men do see women as sex objects. And that when they ‘gaze’ at them  they might be fantasizing about a sexual conquest. 

Modern day warnings by rabbinic authorities about Shmiras Eynayim’ ‘guarding your eyes’ should not be taken lightly. Much as it would be nice for a man to see a beautiful woman wearing tight clothes and think only about her brain, that is usually not the first thing that comes to a heterosexual man’s mind.

How to deal with that is the subject of much discussion. Erasing women from the public square is not the answer. The sex drive exists. And in my humble opinion - like food when one is constantly denied it one gets hungrier.

That being said - it is incumbent on men to try and avoid images objectifying women. But unless one lives in total isolation, that is virtually impossible. These images are all over the place. On billboards, on buses - in entertainment and in the print and electronic media. Even mainstream websites will have ads featuring very attractive women (in some cases - in very suggestive poses) selling something. It is therefore our obligation to control our impulses and focus on the humanity and dignity of any woman, no matter how attractive she might be to us.

We must sublimate our impulses into positive behavior. But to deny human nature can be a self defeating proposition under the ‘right’  circumstances. Best to recognize it and control it. Most of us can do it. And we do. 

But looking at women as desirable sex objects is the  way of much of the world. It is now and always has been. And that’s the conundrum of western culture. We are bombarded with images of women as sex objects and are expected not to see them that way. It behooves us to live up to those expectations because no human being should ever be treated like an object of lust. They should be treated with the dignity and respect that being created in the image of God demands!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who by Fire

The title and theme of this song by Leonard Cohen is based on Nesaneh Tokef - a prayer we say on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It contemplates the Heavenly decrees for mankind. For good. And for bad. It ends with the remedy for good: U'Seshuva (repentance), U'Seffila (prayer), U'Tzedaka (charity) Mavirin Es Ro'ah HaGezeira. (Will remove the evil decree.)

It begins:

On Rosh Hashana it is written; And on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live and who will die...

Monday, October 10, 2016

Achdus - Why Not Now?

Harav Moshe Chodosh ZT"L Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Ohr Elchanan
One of my themes here is unity. I am a firm believer in the concept. We, the Jewish people are all united by the common bond of our Judaism. Whether we are observant or not. Whether culturally Jewish or Halachicly Jewish. Or both. It doesn’t matter. We are all bound by the covenant God promised to our forefathers.

For an observant Jew that understands the concept of Arvus (responsibility for one another) demanded of us in the Torah, we should love our fellow Jew and strive to teach our non observant brethren the value of observance and the beauty of an observant lifestyle whenever we can. And do so in the pleasant ways the Torah demands of us. Never by force of legislation (…as is sometimes the case in Israel).

Observant Jews have an additional bond that should give us an additional internal sense of unity.  And yet it seems like an elusive goal sometimes. If one believes as I do that the defining characteristic of Judaism is observance of Halacha; belief in the fundamentals of Judaism; and adherence to tradition - then our Hashkafic differences ought not matter. Because that is just a difference in approach. Not in essence. Disagreement should therefore not mean disrespect!  This does not negate the brotherhood we should feel with every Jew in the world. But it does mean having a bond in the shared behavior of Halachic observance.  

For the most part observant Jews regardless of Hashkafa - observe Halacha in the same way. Our observance of Shabbos, Kashrus, and Taharas Mishpacha as well as all the other Mitzvos in the Torah are pretty much identical. We all have our own individual differences - Chumros and Kulos. Meaning that among each Hashakic group there are those who do things more stringently and those who rely on leniencies. But all of us are in theory acting  L’Shem Shomyaim – in the name of Heaven.

There are of course insincere observant Jews in all segments. I call them Lites - in the sense that their observances are more often social or cultural rather than sincere. No Hashkafic group has a monopoly on that. But hopefully, the majority in all segments are observant for the right reasons. Because we are Charedi - Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. We fear Heaven. It’s too bad that one segment has co-opted that term for themselves.

Whether one is right wing (Chasidic or Yeshivish) or Modern Orthodox the goal is the same. Serving God in the best way we know how. Our differences therefore define us less that do our commonalities. ‘Torah Only’, ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz’, and ‘Torah U’Mada’ are only the means of getting there. Not our essence - which is the same.

There are some people in all segments that feel that other segments don’t respect them. When I have criticized those segments that do not fall into the parameters of Orthodoxy mentioned above as being unaccepted by the right, I often get a retort that the right doesn’t respect my Hashkafa either. That the only Hashkafa they respect is their own – rejecting as completely illegitimate any other Hashkafa.

Well, that is only partially true. I have encountered plenty of people on both sides of the religious aisle that feel that way. But as Yeshivat Shalavim’s Director of Alumni Relations, Rabbi Reuven Unger demonstrates, in a Cross Currents article there is unity at the top. Meaning that when it comes to the leadership in Klal Yisroel there is evidence of real respect if not agreement with differing Hashkafos. 

That is what unity is truly about. Respect. Not agreement. We can respect each other even when we  disagree about how to approach Judaism. This was true in the past when as Rabbi Unger points out Rav Ahraon Kotler of Lakewood showed his respect for Rav Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University at a fund raiser for a Charity they both supported, Chinuch Atzmai. But it is true today as well. Here is an example excerpted from his article: 
Approximately a decade ago I was on a flight to the US. As usual, the ticket was for economy class. Not as usual, I received an upgrade. This was well-received as I enjoy comfort as much as the next fellow. However, the true upgrade was of a spiritual nature. To my great privilege, I was seated next to Rav (Moshe Mordechai) Chodosh (A Charedi Rosh Hayeshiva in Israel). I timidly inquired if I was speaking with the Rosh Yeshiva and received a response in the affirmative… 
The Day Yomi cycle at that time was up to Masechet Yoma. In order to gain deeper insight into the Avoda, I had with me Shiurei HaGrid (= Rav Soloveitchik) on Avodat Yom HaKippurim. The first edition was prepared for publication by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. The second edition was prepared by Rav Yair Kahn, a rebbe in that yeshiva. In his modest, low-key fashion, Rav Chodosh requested if he may take a look at the sefer. My pleasure, of course.  
The rav devoured the sefer. 
Rav Chodosh was palpably taken by the insights of the Rov (the topic of the Ketoret held special interest). He remarked what a joy it was to learn from the sefer, mentioning how he would like to obtain a copy. As one “holding” in the world of the yeshivot, he was aware of the author, and of the hesder yeshiva whose leadership prepared the volume for publication.  
No matter; Torah is Torah, there is no room for politics in the Beit Midrash. 
This should completely refute the idea that Centrists (Modern Orthodox Jews) are rejected by the right. At least as far as the leadership goes. That they do not agree with the Hashkafa of Rav Soloveitchik and his protégé,  Rav Lichtenstein, does not prevent them from respecting their Torah. The Torah of men that personified the Centrist version of Modern Orthodoxy.

In these few days before Yom Kippur, I pray that this kind of respect among observant Jewish leaders  of widely ranging Hashkafos filters down to the rest of us. The sometimes bitter hatred of one side against the other is unwarranted and unjust. We should never base our feelings towards one another on the few among each segment that might embarrass us by behavior unbecoming of a sincere and devout Jew. Or the few exceptions among rabbinic leaders that prove the rule.

We should look at the example cited in this essay as well as to the great leaders in the past - on all sides - that respected all of observant Jewry despite their Hashkafic differences. The last time there was even a semblance of this was at the last Daf Yomi Siyum on Shas. An event that was sponsored by Agudah was well attended by a lot of Modern Orthodox Jews that had completed the cycle right along with everyone else. There was unity by all in that one moment. I’m sure it will happen again at the next cycle some years hence. But why not think about dropping all that enmity now? Isn’t that what God wants of His people? 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

The Gift

Donald J. Trump - for Hillary Clinton, the gift that keeps on giving
There is not a doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton is one of the worst candidates ever to run for the Presidency.  Her penchant for lying has become so clear that it practically defines her. She has lied her way through all of her husbands political campaigns, denying truths she knew about her husbands infidelities. Time and again. 

I am not going to mention all the women the former President ‘hit’ on; had affairs with; or sexually assaulted. There were too many to count - culminating with a tryst with a White House intern near the end of his second term. But I’m sure his wife knew about at  least some - if not all of them. And yet she continually denied knowing about them – and worse protested his innocence while smearing his female accusers on camera – most famously during a 1992 interview on 60 Minutes!

This doesn’t even take into account all of her shady business dealings as an attorney before her husband became President.

Her lies have more recently come up in her comments about missing e-mails. And her denial of giving preferential access huge donors to her charitable foundation when she was Secretary of State. There are lies with respect to political issues she claims not to have ever supported when there is clear evidence that she did (e.g the Trans Pacific Partnership). Or some of her foreign policy decisions that turned out to be disasters. Like overthrowing Ghadafi resulting in making Libya a home for terrorists who can roam free and her really terrible attitude with respect to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi that took the lives of the American Ambassador and some of his staff.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that she was an eminently beatable Presidential candidate in this transitional Presidential year. Just about any Republican candidate will have very likely beaten her in the upcoming general election. But this candidate has been given a very substantial gift. It’s huge! So huge that she will very likely win the Presidency. His name is Donald J. Trump. He is the gift that keeps on giving.

The Republican nominee has caused almost all media to focus their attention on himself. There is hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t say something that is so abhorrent that it sucks the air out of the room. What would ordinarily be a ceaseless attack against a candidate like Clinton – who brings with her so much baggage, turns out to be practically ignored.

The fact is that  the media lack of sufficient attention to Mrs. Clinton’s sordid record is eminently understandable. Because her opponent is so bad that he makes her look like Mother Teresa by comparison.

So I don’t blame them at all. The latest revelation about him is a case in point. His repulsive vulgar comments made about women over ten years ago while visiting the set of a daytime soap opera for a cameo appearance, were so disgusting that even his vice presidential pick, Indiana Governor  Mike Pence wouldn’t defend them. He canceled a campaign appearance after learning about it. Other prominent Republicans in office that have supported him have withdrawn their support. He was dis-invited to an appearance with other Republicans at a rally in Wisconsin yesterday. The calls for him to drop out of the race – and to be replaced with a substitute candidate have been increasing. For his part Trump has apologized (I don’t believe his apology – is there anyone that does?) and vowed to stay in the race. No surprise there.

I’m absolutely convinced that this is one area of agreement between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Both are overjoyed about Trump being the Republican candidate for President. That is practically a guarantee that she will be the next President. (Although in this crazy election year – I would still not rule out the possibility that Trump could win!)

Do the Republicans that voted for him in the primaries regret it – knowing what they do now? I’m sure some do. But I suspect that a lot of them don’t care about what Trump says now or ever said in the past. They just want change in Washington. And if this is your main concern, then Trump is definitely your candidate. Because Clinton is the quintessential insider that will in all likelihood follow in President Obama’s footsteps on a great many issues. She is the antithesis of change.

What is truly troubling to me is the number of Orthodox Jews that have indicated to me that they will vote for Trump. It doesn’t even matter what side of the Hashkafic spectrum they reside. Whether they are Chasidic, Charedi (Yeshivish), or Centrist,  - with the possible exception of the Left Wing of Modern Orthodoxy.

The mere mention of the name Clinton begets a response filled with venom about her. Some of my coreligionists are so oblivious to how unqualified Trump is - it makes me wonder about the vaunted Jewish intelligence we are all painted with. They hate Clinton so much that they will vote for a dangerous erratic self centered and vengeful narcissist that has been nothing but a constant embarrassment to this country and to every decent human being. A man that has insulted his way into being the Republican nominee.

A man who believes he can solve every problem effecting mankind because of his brilliance. A man that has knee jerk reactions to every perceived slight no matter how minor. Reactions that are so fierce; so over the top; and so determined - that he will tweet out a huge series of comments at 3 O’Clock in the morning in pure revenge.

As he did recently with a former beauty contest winner that turned against him – exposing the way he treated her after she gained some weight. He even asked his supporters to dig up pornography about her in order to smear her and undermine her credibility! Can anyone imagine the President of the United States tweeting tons of vengeful comments about someone at 3 in the morning in the White House?!

And yet, there are far too many Orthodox Jews that tell me they are voting for him anyway. This is mind blowing! Religious Jews that hate Clinton so much they are willing to put a man that is anathema to their religious values in office!  

Some will explain that it isn’t only about Clinton hatred. They will also point to his very pro Israel comments and the commitments he said he will keep as President.

I cannot understand how they can believe a man that has proven himself to be an even bigger liar than Clinton and whose values are so anathenmatic to us? He may have warm feelings for Israel and the Jewish people. But that does not make anything he says believable. Nor does it make him qualified to be the leader of the free world. A man whose behavior is so impulsive with a penchant for quick revenge that he cannot be trusted to have his finger on the nuclear trigger.

So I have one question to ask all of my Orthodox co-coreligionists who say they will still vote for Trump. What’s the matter with you?! If there was ever a person that should be completely rejected as a future President, it is Donald J. Trump. That there are so many Orthodox Jews that say they are going to vote for Trump anyway mainly because of their hatred of Clinton gives lie to the reputation Orthodox Jews have for any intelligence at all!