Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law
First let me say that I unequivocally oppose discrimination of any kind. It is immoral in my view to treat people differently based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. I abhor all such discrimination.

That said, I support in principle the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which was signed into law by Indiana Governor Mike Pence. According to the Indianapolis Star - it  states that ‘the government cannot intrude on a person's religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest in imposing that burden and do so in the least restrictive way’.

I might be in the minority on this issue. Certainly as it pertains to those that actively oppose it. Their loud voices seem to be the only ones heard. Angry protests are underway all over the country. While I understand where they are coming from… and agree with their anti discriminatory attitudes, I believe that they are mistaken.

There has to be a balance between protecting the rights of homosexuals and protecting freedom of religion. Because protecting only one side ends up oppressing the other.

The way the law should work (and I don’t know if it does) is that no one should ever be denied access to any public or business facility based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. That means no gay individual or couple should for example be denied service in a restaurant.  Nor should anyone be able to discriminate in any way in their hiring practices.

On the other hand no individual should ever be forced to do things that violate their religious principles.  A priest, minster, imam, or rabbi should never be required to perform a marriage ceremony to a same sex couple.  That seems like a no brainer to me.

There are some grey areas that need to be worked out. Should wedding planner be forced to facilitate a same sex marriage? Should a religious caterer be forced to cater the wedding banquet of a same sex marriage? Should a baker be forced to bake a wedding cake with words on it congratulating a gay couple in their marriage?

For me common sense should mean that people not be forced to do things that they are not religiously comfortable with.  It would be best if a gay couple found a caterer, baker, or wedding planner that do not have any religious objections to it.

But what if - for example - they are an Orthodox Jewish gay couple that wants a Kosher catered banquet after a marriage ceremony  – and there is no Kosher caterer willing to do it? Should a Kosher caterer be forced to do it? Whose rights should be sacrificed here?

My quick answer is that no Orthodox gay couple would want to have a marriage ceremony in any case. They would realize that the Torah does not consider a gay marriage to be valid in any sense of the word. Besides, which Orthodox rabbi would perform it?

If they simply want the benefits given to married couples they should have a civil union… or even a civil marriage. While I oppose even a civil gay marriage in principle (for reasons beyond the scope of this post) it would at least not force people that see such marriages to be against their religious principles to participate in it at any level.

Just some random thoughts on a very thorny issue. The bottom line for me is that treating some people fairly should not be at the expense of others by forcing them to violate their religious principles. If common sense and common courtesy prevailed, we wouldn’t need laws like this.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Deal at Any Price? Willful Ignorance? Or Both?

The Negotiating Table
I cannot remember a foreign policy as disastrous as the one being followed by the President. The chaos in the Middle East is exhibit number one. As Arab  nations like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, continue to fall to radical Islam; and as Palestinian Authority continues  grant legitimacy to Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to the destruction if Israel - the President charges ahead with his plan to normalize relations with the one Middle Eastern country most responsible for all the chaos. Yes, I think that is his ultimate goal. To normalize relations with Iran. All while the Middle East is going up in flames.

Consider for example the fact that the US supports Iranian troops in Syria and Iraq fighting ISIS while it opposes Iran’s support of Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. And it opposes the Iranian troops fighting along with the Shia Rebels in Yemen. All while negotiating a deal to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment program. As we approach tomorrow’s deadline and details about the negotiations leak out, it becomes clearer  that Netanyahu’s prediction is right. This will be a bad deal. Just this morning it was reported that Iran wants to include as part of the deal the renewal of its enrichment program near the end of the 10 year moratorium.

It is shocking for me to see the United States negotiating a deal with a state that is responsible for spreading terrorism all over the Middle East. Starting with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbolah in Lebanon… and now in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.  A state whose  Supreme religious leader continues to encourage cries of  ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ by his people.

It is shocking that the Obama administration is willing to make a deal that will leave Iran with its nuclear enrichment infrastructure intact for the duration of the 10 year moratorium. 

It is shocking that that the US seems to be willing to compromise on their insistence of complete access to all their nuclear facilitates in order to verify if the deal is being honored by them.

Lest anyone think that the so-called negotiations with Iran is only about preventing them from getting a weapon, think again. In my view the Obama administration wants a deal at any price. And in exchange they will be removing many of the sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. 

The hope of the Obama administration is that once Iran becomes a member of the family of civilized nations they will begin to act civilized. And my hope is that I will win the $50 million power-ball lottery without buying a ticket (I’m hoping to find a stray one in the street). The chances of either of those happening are about the same.

Yesterday on some of the Sunday Morning interview shows I heard many of the detractors and even defenders of the President questioning his actions here.  To put it the way retired Lt. General  Michael Flynn – former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency put it - it is as though the President is being willfully ignorant of the realities of the Middle East. (see below)

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have already lost confidence in the US as an ally. Not only are they all questioning the President, they are echoing Netanyahu’s words to congress a few weeks ago… fearing that the President’s rush to get a deal will produce a bad one. Nor are they waiting for the US to do anything about Yemen. 

The President believes that he will have no  foreign policy legacy unless he achieves some sort of deal.  His failure to act in the hot-spots of the Middle East has brought chaos. The so-called Arab Spring has toppled once stable governments allowing radical Islam to gain footholds in many countries.

There are those who feel that the Middle Eastern Islamic radicals are not a direct threat to anyone outside of the immediate region. Tell that to the French or the Danes. Tell it to the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers. The danger exists everywhere.  Appeasing Iran will only embolden them.

What is the alternative? As Netanyahu said the alternative to a bad deal is not war. The alternative to a bad deal - is a better deal!  Instead of hurrying headlong into a bad deal, they ought to insist on dismantling all the nuclear facilities in Iran and to monitor it while it’s happening. 

They way you accomplish that is by turning up the heat… and increasing the kind of punishing sanctions that brought them to the table in the first place. They need to be completely isolated from the world. And forbidden to trade with any country.They should be treated like the terror spreading nation they are. They need to be brought to their knees - begging the world to lift the sanctions for which they will pay the price we ask of them. No compromises.

And if that doesn’t work and they somehow go full speed ahead on creating a nuclear weapon – for which they already have delivery systems that can reach the Gulf States and Israel, then the US has to make a decision. Do they allow a terrorist state to do that? Or do they go to war to stop the evil.

In my view we have no choice – if it comes to it. Hopefully it won’t. But we have to be prepared. And although Obama has said that nothing is off the table, I doubt that he would follow through with boots on the ground under any circumstances. The Saudis know it. Egypt knows it. And I'm sure that Iran is counting on it.

Iran and other radical Islamists make no secret of their desire to spread their version of Islam across the globe. We know what Islamic radicals are capable of. There is no question that the US will win that war, albeit at a costly price. But the alternative is not acceptable. Because an unchecked radical Islam with nuclear capability will take over the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Keeping the State Jewish

What does it mean to be a Jewish State? To answer that question, we must first define what it means to be a Jew. For Orthodox Jews (leaving aside biological and conversion issues) it means following Halacha – the Code of Jewish Law as derived from the Torah. For me that defines Judaism. The culture that has evolved over the millennia is secondary to that and is not definitive of  Judaism. Culture can change with time. But the Torah is immutable.  So how do we apply this to the modern State of Israel where the majority of Jews are not Orthodox?

The Jewish state was founded by non Orthodox Jews. They did not, generally speaking, follow Halacha and in some instances - fought it. But the non observant David Ben Gurion, one of the founding pioneers of the Jewish State felt otherwise. He understood that in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state, there had to be some religion injected into it. So an agreement was reached between Ben Gurion and the Charedi Leaders of the Yishuv HaYashon (the older religious settlements in Israel that predated Zionism) which came to be called the status quo agreement. (In exchange the Charedi leadership agreed to approve the UN partition plan.)

That gave rights to both religious and secular Jews. Among other  things it was decided that:  the laws of Kashruth would be observed in all government agencies – such as the armed services; that Shabbos would be the official day of rest; and that matters of personal status (marriage, divorce; conversions, etc.) would be under the sole jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. And that the rabbinate was to be exclusively Orthodox.

Most Israelis understand that being a Jew means that Halachic observance is at least a major component of that -if not the only one. Most Israelis are traditional and do things like fast on Yom Kippur and observe the Jewish holidays in traditional ways. It has been said that for those who are not observant, the Shul to which  do not go – is the Orthodox one. Conservative and Reform was not even on their radar. That is beginning to change.

The Reform and Conservative movements have begun to agitate for acceptance. They call it pluralism. I understand their desire to be legitimized in the Jewish State. But if one is Orthodox one cannot accept that their versions of Judaism are legitimate. That goes without saying about Reform which rejects the binding nature of the Torah.

The Conservative movement does recognize the binding nature of Halacha, but has so distorted what that means - it is hard to see the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reform Jew. The vast majority of Conservative Jews are not observant of even those Halachos that the Conservative movement has ‘conserved’. And their leadership does little to nothing to change that.

The failure of these approaches was demonstrated in the much discussed Pew Report that has shown a serious decline in numbers as 70% of non Orthodox American Jews marry out. Not to mention the fact that as their numbers dwindle their synagogues are closing down or merging with others just to stay alive. All while Orthodoxy is growing.

I do not revel in their demise and see their failure as a blow to the future of secular Jews maintaining their Judaism. A lot of now Orthodox Jews come from families that were Conservative or Reform. They were recruited from those movements - sometimes even with their encouragement and help - by Kiruv organizations like NCSY. But the dismal facts speak for themselves.

Both of these movements have scrambled to find ways to stop the hemorrhaging. One of those ways has been to insert themselves into Israeli life and to try and get recognized. Thus far they have not succeeded. But that is not for a lack of trying. For one thing they want to abolish the Chief Rabbinate which does not recognize their marriages, divorces, or conversions.

Much as I have had some issues with the Rabbinate of late, eliminating them is something I strongly oppose. If Halacha is what defines Judaism, then we must do whatever we can to not allow the status qou to be undermined by movements that advocate  pluralism. Which could easily be followed by legitimization from the State.

Not that I like shoving religion down people’s throats. That is not the way to win friends and influence people. But at the same time, eliminating Halacha entirely or accepting the Conservative version of it - and even legitimizing the non Halachic Reform  movement - is the wrong way to go.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post.  In what has to be a first, the Charedi world is now advocating joining the World Zionist Congress (WZC). By joining them one can ‘Vote Torah’. Voting Torah means voting for the Religious Zionist slate of candidates.  In  two separate articles – one by Jonathan Rosenblum - Mishpacha Magazine all but endorsed the the idea of the Charedi world doing that.

Unfortunately their leadership has not. They are opposed in principle to any form of Zionism and claim that Religious Zionism as an attempt bastardize Judaism by merging it with the devil. If only they would listen to the words Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau - the man they supported for that position: Tofasta Merubah Lo Tofasta. If you try to grab it all, you grab nothing.

How will voting for the Religious Zionist slate help things? It’s all about what kind of influence will emanate from a very powerful group of Diaspora Jews that are proven supporters of the Jewish state. Both the Reform and Conservative movement are pouring tons of resources – financial and otherwise to change Israel’s religious character by exchanging Halacha for pluralism.That includes urging their own members to vote for their non Halachic list of candidates. 

Bottom line is that whoever gets the most votes – gets the most say on how the considerable funds amassed by the WJC are allocated. Voting for the religious Zionist slate would help protect the status quo. The more votes that slate gets, the more of its delegate’s will represent the WJC

As someone who advocates Achdus among observant Jews (and laments the fact that it has been replaced by increased divisiveness) I see this is a good sign. It’s nice to see the Charedi world at least tacitly supporting the Religious Zionist list. A list that includes Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz.   

A word about the poll tax. That is what I call the fee that the WZC charges to vote. It goes against my grain to require people to pay a fee for the privilege of voting. You will have to pay $10 to cast your vote. The claim is that charging people for a version of membership to the organization keeps the voters honest. I’m not sure I buy that.  In my view they should not be charging a dime for this type of membership. It is regressive and probably even counterproductive. It is off-putting to some voters who might otherwise vote but will instead just skip it. I am opposed to it in principle. But I am not in charge.

The bottom line for me is we must do everything we can to preserve the Jewish character of the state as intended by the status quo agreement. And counter all attempts to undermine it. So if you can afford the $10 – Vote Torah. It will be money well spent. Just follow the link.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Did They Die?

Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein has an answer
He doesn’t look like s a Kabbalist.  I don’t think he is a Sephardi either. Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) tend to be more Kabbalistic than Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin). He seems like a modern man. Clean shaven. No payos. He even has a fashionable Chup (Yiddish for hair that is a bit too long in the front). But… apparently Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein does dabble in Kabalah. And for that we should all be grateful. Not only to him for edifying us. But to Gabriel Sasson for providing the Kaparos for our sins.

Yes, my friends we sinners were all spared punishments so that we could do Teshuva and mend our ways. That’s because Rabbi Wallerstein in an attempt to try and understand what happened last Shabbos to the Sasson family, took a Zohar (the classic work of Kabalah) and opened it up randomly to see what it says.  He hoped that random opening would fall on a page that would give him some answers. 

Indeed it did. He found answers. It could not have been clearer. Who knew that all we need to do is look in a  book about Kabalah and presto… we now know how to  answer the unanswerable theodicy of Tzadik V’Ra Lo. (Why didn’t  Moshe Rabbenu think of that?! Chazal tell us that this was the only thing he did not know the answer to. Maybe he didn’t have a copy of the Zohar handy… I don’t know.)

So why did they die such a horrible death?

You see my friends, it’s our fault. Yes - we are all to blame. We are simply not religious enough. God had to get us to change our ways. So He sent us a message. And what better way to do that than by killing 7 innocent children?

Gabriel Sasson’s children were Kaparos, you see. Sacrificed because of our sins. They are like the chicken many Jews have slaughtered on Erev Yom Kippur saying ‘let this chicken die in our stead’. We then go into the next day, repent – and ask for forgiveness.

So yes, today too we should repent. But Hakaras HaTov is a very important concept in Judaism. So we ought to send Mr. Sasson thank you notes for providing his children for this purpose. That should comfort him the rest of his days.

Thank you Mr. Sasson. And thank you Rabbi Wallerstein for your wisdom on this subject and I urge you to contact Mr. Sasson and share your wisdom with him.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Corruption of Daas Torah

Centrist rabbinic leader, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein 
Once again, I have to give kudos to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. He is an Ish Emes… a man of truth that refuses to be cowed by excesses of the right. He has published an essay written by someone he describes as  ‘a card-carrying yeshiva-trained Charedi writer, living in Israel’.

Nothing that writer says is news to me. But it seems to be increasingly evident to the very people it is happening to. And it pokes a huge hole in the ‘Daas Torah’ of the right. In essence this Charedi writer has joined the chorus of those of us who realize that today’s rabbinic leaders, especially in Israel are being led down a path  - not of their own choosing.  A path that benefits Askanim - advisers upon which they rely for information upon which they make public policy proclamations.

What is most encouraging about this particular essay is that the writer lives in Israel. He has certainly absorbed the Hashkafos of Charedi Israel. He respects the concept of Daas Torah – whereby major decisions about public policy are decided by the great rabbis of the generation. And yet he laments that their decisions can easily be wrong based on their reliance on others – rather on direct examination of the facts.

Those ‘others’ each have agendas of their own and it is no secret that even great rabbinic leaders like Rav Elyashiv can be misled into making a decision based on fiction related to him by trusted Askainim. Askanim that lied to him in order to get the outcome they perceived to be the right one. Ask Rabbi Nosson Kamenetsky about that.

The reasons for his critical analysis of Daas Torah are immaterial. The point is that he no longer believes that their decisions can be trusted. 

Although his reasons are immaterial to his conclusions, they too are the result of a flaw in the Charedi world that has developed over time. A flaw that has resulted in the inability of many Charedim  to make decisions even in the smallest matter. The  concept of Daas Torah has been extrapolated to  include ‘asking a Gadol’ about every decision one makes in life. And today’s rabbinic leaders have done precious little to disabuse them of this notion. 

It is rare to go to a Charedi event these days without hearing the phrase ‘Daas Torah’ in every speech and lecture. Multiple times.  It should therefore not be surprising that there are many Charedim that believe that before making a decision about even the most mundane of matters, they must first ask a Gadol. To some the very suggestion that one need not consult Daas Torah on every matter is anathema. Of course most Charedim know that not every decision in life  requires a Gadol’s input. But there are many who do. From the essay: 
“today there is a growing phenomenon of the chareidi public insisting that every small matter be brought to the gedolim to decide on. While in the past, it was only major matters concerning all of klal yisroel that were brought to Rav Shach and his contemporaries to weigh in on, today every minor decision is brought to the gedolim in Bnei Brak…
The sheer volume of issues that the gedolim are being asked to get involved in have made it impossible for them to be able to research the issues themselves. They are forced to rely on those closest to them for information. And things will only get worse as the chareidi world continues to grow. This newfangled absurd idea that people cannot make even the most minor of decisions without consulting the gedolim in Bnei Brak has created a situation in which every aspect of chareidi life is now being controlled by a handful of gedolim… The gedolim will increasingly need to rely on those around them to help determine what is worthy of their support and what they should oppose. 
This is huge. Rabbinic authority as it has evolved in the Charedi world is being challenged. We now have a  closet  Charedi ‘skeptic’ about Daas Torah. Here is how Rabbi Adlerstein puts it: 
Many of us realize that the concept of Daas Torah underwent a transformation in the last decades. Some of it was for the better; much not. It has worked for some people, and put others on spiritual skids. The new Daas Torah has stifled individuality and creativity, and muted the voices of local rabbonim. It has narrowed the boundaries of our world, and erased diversity. 
I want to make clear that in no way do I advocate abandoning asking Shailos. Even in matters of public policy. It is vital to know what our rabbinic leaders (…and I do not of course limit it to Charedi rabbinic leaders) have to say on these issues. For an observant Jew public policies should be based on what the Torah has to say about it. And that can only be determined if one has all the facts. It appears that even the Charedi world increasingly realizes that they can no longer rely on their rabbinic leaders. There is no way of knowing whether they have been fed facts… or lies and distortions by their Askanim.  

This is what that Charedi writer said. I believe it is a major step forward. My only regret is that he fears retaliation were his identity to be exposed. I completely understand. The battle for Emes has a long way to go. But perhaps we are turning a corner.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Child Sex Abuse Prevention

I just received the following note from this champion of Jewish children, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. I believe this is an important issue and feedback will help advance the cause of child safety. Please follow the link answer the survey questions that are applicable to you.

Reb Harry

Hi and I hope all is well.

I'm trying to collect important feedback/info regarding our child safety book and I'd very much appreciate it if you could post this link along with a short post explaining it so your readers can help me design the best possible child safety materials moving forward

We sold over 25,000 copies of our English safety book and over 5,000 of our Yiddish version. 

We are halfway through production on our Ivrit book and I need to get a better handle from users of the book as to its effectiveness -- along with lots of other questions.

Thanks so very much and best regards. 

To be Gay and Frum

Gay activist, Dasha Sominski (Tablet)
To say I am reluctant to discuss this subject is an understatement. It always presents challenges. Especially from people who are gay. Some of them get upset with me. And I can’t really blame them.

Being gay in the Orthodox world is not easy. This is a subject that I have discussed many times. My attitude about it is can be summed up in a phrase I have often heard used by Fundamentalist Christians, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’.  To briefly re-state my views here - I understand that nature of sexual attraction is at best difficult to control.  Most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex. But some people are attracted to members of the same sex. 

That in and of itself is not sinful.  As a prominent celebrity once said about his own personal desires, ‘The heart wants what it wants’. We can’t really help who we are attracted to. God does not punish people for having inclinations. Although Chazal do tell us to stay away from those things that may precipitate sin. But if being gay is defined as having a same sex attraction, there is no shame in that. People have to be respected for who they are.  Nor are we permitted to judge what we presume goes on behind closed doors. First of all we don’t know. And second of all, that is God’s domain. Not ours.

Nonetheless, we are required to respect the Torah point of view with respect to forbidden sexual relationships. So that the male homosexual act (male to male anal sex) is to be considered as sinful as the Torah says it is. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’.

I bring all this up in light of a troubling new article in Tablet Magazine. It describes the efforts of a young woman who is trying to gain acceptance for the gay community in Yeshiva University circles. ‘Out, Proud, and Kinda Loud at Yeshiva University’, says the title of the article. And the subtitle: Students are challenging the Modern Orthodox school’s traditional stance on LGBT issues.

There are apparently a few students at YU that are gay and are apparently hurt by the lack of acceptance. However, when we start hearing the word ‘proud’ as part of the lexicon, it raises a red flag with me. Tolerance, acceptance, and love is one thing. Treating people with dignity despite their sexual orientation is indeed a basic Jewish tenet. It is called Kavod HaBriyos – honoring all of God’s creations. But being proud of having sinful desires crosses the line from tolerance to honor. We do not honor sinful desires regarding sex anymore than we should honor sinful desires to do any sinful act. Whether it be murder or cheating on your taxes.

It is difficult to know where to draw the line between honoring the sinner and not the sin. What if someone openly flouts his sinful acts? Should we honor that individual? My answer is an unequivocal no. We should not. Flagrant and open violations of Halacha are never to be honored. Even if those doing them are not aware of how sinful those acts are. Tolerance does not mean honoring sin.

What’s troubling to me about all this is that idea of normalizing a gay lifestyle – treating it as a lifestyle choice same as a heterosexual lifestyle. Besides, not all heterosexual lifestyles are acceptable. The only heterosexual lifestyle Halachicly sanctioned is one where a man and woman are married and they observe the laws of Taharas HaMishpacha (family purity).  

That said, we do not see what goes on behind closed doors. We have no clue whether a husband and wife completely observe those laws. But at least it is very possible and even likely that observant married couples do observe those laws and have a Halachicly permitted sexual relationship. But when 2 men live together, any kind of sexual relationship between them that involves spilling seed is not Halachicly permitted. So the two scenarios cannot be compared. They are not the same. One should not be proud of living that lifestyle. Nor should we honor it.

I should add that we still have no right to judge what people do behind closed doors. Unless we see a flagrant public violation we have no right to assume anything. Or to say or do anything. But at the same time we must never say that gay equals straight. It does not.

I say this not to be hard on those in Orthodoxy that are gay. I say it only to honor the Torah’s admonition against any non Halachic sexual act. We must never honor the sin. Completely normalizing the gay lifestyle implies acceptance of a sinful act same as it does a non sinful act. Which is why I am opposed to gay marriage. Gay marriage explicitly legitimizes it and implicitly normalizes it. Legal issues with respect equalizing the rights of a gay couple with the rights of a married heterosexual couple can be worked out in a civil society without the imprimatur of marriage.

I know that gay people want to be treated like normal human beings – equal with everyone else. And they should be. But if we are going to honor the Torah we have to draw a line. If one is gay he has to understand that gay sex is still sinful. No amount of societal acceptance is going to change that. Tolerance should not suggest pride. Tolerance means acceptance of the individual and honoring him for the content of his character. 

I can only imagine how difficult it is to be gay in a straight world. There is still a lot of prejudice out there that manifests itself in intolerance and even hatred. That can be very discouraging. It can and in many cases probably has caused a religious gay Jew to reject Halachic observance or worse send them into severe depression and even attempts at suicide in some cases. 

But gay Jews need not give up on being devoutly religious. On the contrary. Gay Jews can be as devoutly religious as anyone else. True they have a great challenge to overcome. And they may sometimes fail – as we all do. But that should not mean abandoning observance. 

An observant gay Jew that sometimes fails in their observance should never mean rejection by the heterosexual mainstream. Any of us – gay or straight - if we transgress, we do Teshuva and start again. God understands human nature and we all sin. We all have our own individual challenges. Which is why He gave us the means to repent and grant us forgiveness. We need not be ashamed of who we are no matter what our sexual orientation is. Only about what we do – if it is sinful.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Unimaginable Tragedy

Gabriel Sasson at speaking at the funeral of his 7 children in Jerusalem (JP)
I have hesitated commenting on the tragedy that befell the Sasson family last Shabbos.  That’s because it is so painful for me to think about. Losing a child to a fire is horrible enough.  I can’t even imagine it. My brain shuts off. It will not allow me to go there. I have 4 children. The horror of losing 7 children that way is impossible to contemplate. It almost becomes a statistic to an outsider not directly experiencing it. Much like the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. 

But it should never be thought of that way. Losing seven children aged 5 to 16 is not just a statistic. They were seven beautiful human beings that died a horrible death through no fault of their own… or anyone else’s. The classic theodicy.

Although reluctant to talk about it, watching the Jerusalem Post video of the funeral at Har Menuchos in Jerusalem moved me to say something. I defy anyone to watch the video and not shed a tear. The father of those children, Gabriel Sasson, asks the question of God:
“Why seven? Seven beautiful roses,” asked Sasson, as his voice trembled amid hundreds of unrestrained sobs at Har Hamenuhot Cemetery. “They were so pure. So pure.” “God Almighty took seven roses,” he continued. “He took my children and my future grandchildren – maybe 70 or 80 of them. He took their smiles. To you, my God, I gave my all. My soul. My everything.”
I have no words.  I don’t know how to console a father that has gone – is going – through this. I have never lost a child. I can only relate what it’s like to lose a grandchild, my beloved Reuven. That was to cancer. It was an excruciating loss. One which will be with me the rest of my life. But I know that it is nothing compared to the pain of losing a healthy child suddenly to a fire. Multiply that pain by 7 children. From the Jerusalem Post article they were: Eliane, 16; Rivka, 13; Sara, 5; David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakov, 5. Just reading all of those names and ages in this context makes my eyes water.

And then there are the 2 survivors.  Mr. Sasson’s wife Gayle, 45, and daughter Siporah, 15. They are in critical condition having jumped out of a 2nd story window. And all this happened on Shabbos to a Shabbos observant family, no less. A day that is elevated by God above all the other days of the week.

It is enough to make an Apikores out of anyone. And yet Mr. Sasson’s Emunah, his faith in God and Judaism remains strong.  I suppose that those who suffered the tragedies of the Holocaust and remained with their faith had the same kind of challenges. Tzadik V’Ra Lo. Why indeed do bad things happen to good people?! It seems so unjust… so unfair… to seemingly punish innocent people in this horrible way… and in the case of an observant Jew - on a Shabbos no less. I have no answers. Just questions.

In the face of such a tragedy, there are some who want to use it to talk about how this could have been prevented. Now is not the time for such discussions. They just add to the pain (…if that’s even possible when the pain is so great!)

There are some who have implied that Shabbos observance itself  is the cause of this tragedy.  Have these vultures no feeling? Have they no empathy for the suffering of a man who one day had everything - and in a moment lost everything?! What is the matter with these people?!

Now is not the time for speculating about what could have been done. And it is certainly not the time to blame religion for the tragedy. Instead of blaming religion - let them look at the incredible faith this man has in the face of such a horrible tragedy. That tells you what he is made of.

Now is the time to let Mr. Sasson mourn his loss and to try and comfort him as best we can. (Which to me seems like a mindbogglingly impossible task. But that does not free us from trying.) I will end with the traditional consolation prayer made to the bereaved. HaMakom Menachem Eschem B’Soch Shaar Avelei Tzion V’Yerushalayim. May God comfort Mr. Sasson among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Way We Were

R' Shenur Kotler as a senior Yeshiva student in Chevron
When I was a Beis HaMedrash student at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, one of the senior students there asked Rav Mordechai Rogov, ZTL whether it was permitted to have mixed seating (men and women at the same table) at his wedding . This was the late sixties. The move to the right had begun. 

In the Yeshiva world mixed seating had always been the norm. Whereas in the Chasidic world separate seating had always been the norm. In an attempt not to be out-frummed the Yeshiva world started mimicking Chasidim. So some people started having separate seating at the weddings of their children. Banquets started going in this direction too. Probably for the same reason. They had to keep up with the Halberstams and the Teitlebaums.

The senior student’s entire family including extended family and their friends were not observant. So he had this dilemma and asked his Rebbe, Rav Rogov if he could accommodate them and have mixed seating. Rav Rogov’s response in Yiddish was the following; ‘In Der Lita, Zenin Mir Nit Geven Makpid’ In Lithuania, we were not particular (about such things as separate seating).

Rav Rogov was a Gadol who studied under Rav Baruch Ber Liebowitz. And had come over to these shores via Shanghai with the students of Mir during the Holocaust. It was this community that didn’t care about mixed seating at weddings. This was evident when other Gedolim like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Moshe Feinstein sat with their wives at weddings in their early years in America.

This is just one example of what religious life was like in the Yeshiva world of Europe.  There numerous other examples of life at that time that makes our time look like the Taliban has taken over. The manner of dress among Yeshiva men was modern. They were all clean-shaven. None of them had Peyos or beards. In fact Yeshiva students that at that time tried to grow beards were told by many Roshei Yeshiva shave them off! 

Those who tried - looked at the Chasidic students that had been accepted into the Lithuanian Yeshivos. They came with beards and Payos. Some of the Lithuanian students tried to emulate them. But their Roshei Yeshiva stopped them from doing so because they wanted them all to look normal for public consumption.

The fact that many observant married women had abandoned covering their hair was a fact lamented by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein in his magnum opus, the Aruch HaShulchan. It was an accepted fact that had no heated opposition. There were no bans. No threats of being ostracized. Just a resignation that this was the way it was. The rabbinic leaders of the day learned to live with it, despite the fact that it was technically considered a violation of Halacha.

I occasionally hear a lament to return to the glory of pre-war Europe, where the great Yeshivos were in flower. Mir, Ponevezh, Slabodka, Radin, Kletzk, Brisk, Volozhin, Telshe… just to name a few were the models upon which the Yeshivos of today base themselves. If only the Hashkafos of that era were as sought after. But alas, we no longer live in that world in any real sense. It is the Hashkafos of those who are the most right wing that are sought after.

We no longer live in a world Chasidim are separated geographically from the Lithuanian Yeshiva world. We all live in neighborhoods that are a stone’s throw from each other. The world has shrunken.  It no longer takes days or weeks to travel from one part of the world to another.  In just a few hours, we can travel from New York to Israel. And communications have advanced to the point where we can have instant communication in a variety of ways with people half way around the world without spending a penny… including face to face communication!

What this has wrought in my view is an unhealthy obsession with Frumkeit. Not observance. But Frumkeit. The kind that has little to do with Halacha but has everything to do with ‘membership’.  If one wants to be considered a member in good standing of the Charedi world, he can no longer be an individual. He must do as he is told or he is out! And as we all know membership has its privileges.  If one is a Charedi and is thrown out of the club - there can be no greater punishment than that. He will be an outcast that will not even get the benefits of charity if he needs it.

Think this is ridiculous? A canard by the Charedi bashers to make them look bad? Think again. From a translation of a Charedi editorial: 
The editor of the the weekly Charedi newspaper בקהילה, Avraham Dov Greenbaum, called on the Charedi charity organisations to not help help families where the parents did not vote for a Charedi party, either because they voted for a different party or didn't vote at all.  
You read that correctly. If you didn’t vote for a Charedi party, you have put yourself  ‘Chutz L’Machaneh’ - outside the camp! You have no food on the table? Too bad. You didn’t listen to the Gedolim and voted wrong – or didn’t vote at all? Goodbye.  Have a nice life!

This is sick! And yet a mainstream Charedi editor is advocating it.

Lest anyone say OK, this is Israel. US Charedim do not behave like that. Perhaps not. But it is not unreasonable to assume that they may act that way in the future as the right keeps turning to its right and looking to Israel as its model. This is already happening in education where some Charedi elementary and high schools in the US have abandoned any secular studies programs. And while others still have them, they are often degraded by their Rebbeim as a necessary evil forced upon them by the government. 

Oh how I long for the days where we were normal.  Not that I advocate going to the left. They have their own problems. But why can’t we strive for the golden mean? That point in the middle where normalcy lies? The point where our illustrious ancestors in Europe really lived? And not how the extremists of the right say they lived.

We need to get back to that. But as long as the right ignores the truth of history and looks Eastward for its paradigm we may as well start buying Burkas for our wives. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Echoing My Sentiments

Guest Post by Anonymous

Latest 'Tznius aid' from a Lakewood modesty org. (FM)
Last Monday I wrote about the disappearing woman. It was a post about the terrible direction the right seems to be going in matters of modesty. It got a lot of reaction. The post generated 249 comments. A lot of people came up to me and personally told me how much they agreed. 

I also received correspondences from a few prominent members of the Charedi world that either read my blog, or have some of my posts sent to them by interested 3rd parties.  Not so surprisingly they were all letters of support. Every single one of them.

I can’t name names because they all request confidentiality. But I asked one of them if I could publish his letter anonymously. He agreed. I think it is important to show that there are prominent members of the Charedi world that see the same things I do and are just as upset by them as I am. In fact it might be fair to say that they are even more upset. Since it is their community that they see going askew. His words follow:

Your post about the advertisement for the Yahrtzeit for Sara Schenirer makes a valid point.  I am penning a few lines to express it in my own words.

In so many ways, our generation has achieved a status of machmirim, far beyond anything known to earlier generations.  We have examined our water for crustaceans, we have created dress codes for talmidei yeshivos, and everything from zmanim to kashrus has moved into areas of shmiras mitzvos unknown to our ancestors.  I am not against this, and my chassidishe background supports the aspects of prishus, the separation from the physical and mundane as part of Avodas Hashem.  That’s all great.  Zehirus is a great midoh, as are many others on which our great Baalei Mussar expound.

The troubling piece for me is something that I believe was never known until recent times.  We have a distorted, even corrupted sense of priorities.  Looking at pictures of women in a compromised state of tznius is a problem on which we won’t argue.  And photos of women in general may also be considered something improper.  But the status given as if this is more important that other mitzvos is not just unfair to the Torah, but possibly even against Torah value.

The confusion of priorities has many areas of impact, and they are not good.  Yeshivos are more stringent with dress code than with basic interpersonal midos.  Why?  I don’t know.  But I do know that this ranking does not work.  Torah learning is valued above all else regarding shidduchim.  

That turns out to be completely misguided, as so many couples enter marriage with little to no preparation for the relationship or the raising of a family.  Kashrus has spread to the most recognized hechsherim being placed on foods and nosh that were never found in our communities.  Must we put a hechsher on every single thing but chazzer?  Is this considered over-indulgence?  Or are we supposed to consider this holy progression?

I never met the great leaders of chassidus, nor the gedolim of yesteryear.  What would they say to all this?  I have a sneaky feeling they would echo my sentiments.