Sunday, April 20, 2014

In Judaism - What Does Belief Really Entail?*

We are about to enter the 7th day of Pesach. This is the date in history when our ancestors, the Bnei Yisroel, crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. The Torah tells us the Red Sea split, our ancestors walked on dry land between two standing walls of water. And the Egyptian soldiers and all their chariots drowned as they pursued them down that same path. The chariots got stuck in the mud and when the last Jew finished his trek through the sea, the two walls poured down on the Egyptians and drowned them all.

After this great miracle was witnessed, our ancestors sang the Shira (Oz Yoshir). The Shira was an expression of mixed feelings: Horror, triumph, and gratitude which overcame the Bnei Yisroel. The watched as a powerful enemy was utterly demolished that at one point they feared might be their own fate.

The question arises… why did the Bnei Yisroel wait until after the crossing of the Red Sea before reciting the Shira? It is of course appropriate if not required to give thanks to the Creator after experiencing such miraculous events. But why did they wait until then to do it? Did they not witness all the miracles in Egypt that led to their freedom? Why didn’t they sing the Shira upon their exit?

Additionally, Rashi in his commentary of the verse in the Shira of Zeh Keli V’Anveihu (This is my God and I will beautify Him - Shemos 15:2) – that this is a reference to God’s appearance in  His full glory so that the people could actually point to Him with their fingers? That is followed by the following verse: ‘And Israel saw the great work which God wrought upon Egypt and the nation feared God VaYaminu (and they believed) in God and in His servant Moshe.’ (Shemos 14:31).

Why did they wait until now to believe in God. Did they not witness the 10 palgues? Furthermore there is the following.

Belief in anything is only required when something cannot experienced with any of the 5 physical senses. If the Bnei Yisroel actually beheld the Divinity, what was their need for belief?  

To answer these questions a basic distinction must be made between the miracles in Egypt and the miracle of the Red Sea. There are two Hebrew terms for salvation: Hatzalah and Yeshuah. Hatzalah refers to a passive act of salvation. The miracles of Egypt proper were a Hatzalah. The Bnei Yisroal remained completely passive as God did all the work.

At the miracle at the Red Sea on the other hand  was a Yeshuah. The Midrash tells us that the sea did not split until the Bnei Yisroel entered the water up to their nostrils. ‘And the Bnei Yisroel went into the sea upon dry land’ (Shemos 14:22). Only when our ancestors experienced the wionders of the Red Sea did they become active participants in the miracle. And thus only then could they sing Shira. Shira is appropriate only when one attains a victory. And to be a victor one must actively participate in the struggle.invloved not only an action alone – but a resulting commitment to the One who wrought the miracles!

The Jewish people became totally involved in the experience. Belief in that which one sees implies action – accepting belief, acting upon it, and being devoted to its implications and consequences.

The word ‘VaYaminu’ (and they believed) is grammatically the causative of the word ‘Uman’ – rearing. The Hebrew word for cfatsman also derives from this root. Thus the Jewish people did not merely believe, but they disciplined themselves causing themselves to become craftsmen in a spiritual sense.

Based on this understanding we can resolve an apparent contradiction with respect to God’s covenant with Abraham. ‘And he believed in God and He (God) counted it for him as righteousness.’ In other words God chose Abraham because of his belief in Him (Bereishis 15:6). And yet we find in another verse that God chose Abraham because ‘he commands of the next generation to walk in the path of God doing charity and justice in order that God might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken to him (Beresishis 19:18).  As explained belief implies there is no contradiction. Belief is not merely accepting something as truth. It implies actively following it up with action as Abraham did by transmitting it to others.

The Gemarah in Avodah Zara (3b) tells us that in the days of Moshiach the nations of thw world will not be permitted to convert for their own convenience but that those who desire to do so will ‘put Tefillin on their heads and Tefillin on their arms’. The obvious discrepancy is that one generally puts on the the arm first and then the Tefillin of the head. But herein lies the tragedy that has overcome mankind.

The Tefillin of the head correspond to the mind. The Tefillin of the arm are worn opposite the heart and represent the sublimation of man’s base instincts to God’s will. In other religions and among the nations of the world – belief precedes consecration. A person must rectify thought before he can practice faith.

Not so in Judaism. King David wrote in Psalm 24:3-4 ‘Who may ascend the mountain of God and who may stay stand in his place of sanctity?’ He who is clean of hands and pure of heart.’  In Judaism one must first purify his deeds and his heart – and only then can he climb to the heights of understanding God – the apex of spiritual salvation. Thus belief implies not only intellectual recognition of certain fundamental notions, but a commitment to and involvement with that which one believes.

Chag Sameach

*Taken from The Warmth and the Light by Rav Ahron Soloveichik

Friday, April 18, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Shooting victims
William Corporon and Reat Griffin Underwood
There have been a couple of anti Semitic incidents in the world  lately that may have many Jews  questioning whether we are once again in danger of anther Holocaust. In fact I have heard a lot of prominent people saying, ‘Beware! It’s 1938 all over again’.

I am not one of those. I recall a lecture given by Rebbetzin Esther Jungries saying this several years ago in response to Iran’s promises to wipe Israel off the map while pursuing nuclear weapons.  As a survivor of the Holocaust her words took on some urgency. She sounded the alarm saying that new Hitler was just around the corner in Iran. This was in 2006, 8 years ago. I was skeptical then and I am skeptical now.

One of the 2 events I am referring to took place at a Jewish Center and at an assisted living facility in Overland Park, Kansas. Frazier Glenn Cross (AKA Miller)  an avowed racist and anti Semite shot and killed 3 people. He probably assumed they were Jewish. They were not. But the government considers it a hate crime. As it should. He said ‘Heil Hitler’ as he was being transported away in a police vehicle.

Shooting victim Terri LaManno
(As an aside - my heart goes out to the friends and families that are experiencing this sudden and unexpected loss just because some violent racist anti Semite assumed they were Jews. I think I can speak for the entire Jewish community in expressing our own horror at this and our sincere condolences. From all that has been reported, the victims were fine people who were highly thought of in their communities. I cannot imagine the pain their friends and families must be going through. (Why is it always the good people that seem to suffer the most?!)

The second event is a distribution of leaflets in the Ukrainian city oDonetsk whose residents are mostly pro Russian:. From USA Today
Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city's Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee "or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated..." 
Shades of Nazi Germany! Except that the leaders of rebel Russian sympathizers deny they had anything to do with that. They insist that Jews will be welcome citizens in their new enterprise – be it as a part of Russia or as some sort of satellite country under Russian influence. They claim these leaflets were distributed by the Ukrainian government in an attempt to make them look bad.

I don’t know if that’s true. But I tend to believe that the rebels did not initiate anything like that. They would have to be the biggest fools in the world to turn themselves into the 21st century version of Nazi Germany. And I say this knowing full well that the Ukrainians have an inglorious history with respect to the Jewsih people. I don’t think there were too many people in Europe – pre-Holocaust - that were more anti Semitic that native Ukrainians. My father lived there. He has first had experience with them. So even if there is some residual Antisemitism there now - and I believe there probably is – there is no way they would ever want to be seen as Russian speaking Nazis.

So are we now living in the 21st century version of 1938? Hardly. Joseph Aaron, publisher of the Chicago Jewish News often says in answer to the constant whining by some about all the anti-Semitism in the world - that Jews have never had it so good. We are living in unprecedented times. I agree with him. We are no more in danger of a Holocaust than we are of the sky falling. Which is what seems the alarmists among us want us to believe.

In fact the biggest problem facing Jewry in America today - is the biggest proof of our acceptance. Rampant assimilation and intermarriage is a direct result of our acceptance into general society. Jews are now in every field of endeavor in the US… from the corporate boardroom to the halls of science and academia to the news and entertainment industry. Jews can be found in high places in all areas, including the government.  

Congress is filled with far more Jews that our percentages in the population. Jews are marrying American Royalty to great acclaim – as was the case when a Jewish man married Chelsea Clinton in a mostly Jewish looking ceremony. The last three Presidents have had Jews in high places in their government including observant Jews. One (Jack Lew) as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). One (Michael Mukasey) as Attorney General. And one as the Secretary of the Treasury (Again, Jack Lew). 

The fact is that not only have the people of the United States fully accepted us into their hearts (with some notable fringe group exceptions) - it is now cool to be Jewish, I'm told. And the rest of the world has moved in that direction too. Although they have a long way to go before they catch up with the United States 

While it’s true that much of leftist academia is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause thereby being totally unsympathetic to Israel, they do not reflect popular opinion. And even among those in Academia who side with Palestinians, there are many who are not necessarily anti Semitic (although certainly some of them are). They are simply misguided about the facts and history of the situation.

Then there is the one thing I keep coming back to - which to me shows the high level of approval that the Jewish people have: Joseph Lieberman. When he was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate by Al Gore, Gore’s 10% deficit in the polls behind candidate George Bush disappeared. When people were polled about whether Lieberman’s Sabbath observance would be a hindrance to his job if he were to become President, they gave a surprising answer. Those who were on the fence and switched to Gore did so because of Lieberman’s religiosity. They felt that a religious man in office would be a plus in his favor – making his decisions more ethical. In other words, they perceived Judaism to be an ethical religion. And as we all know Gore/Lieberman won the popular vote.

If all this is pre-Holocaust activity, I’ll take it. What about Frazier Glenn Cross and the Ukrainian Antisemites? Yes we still have to be vigilant. But to say this is 1938 pre-Holocaust  Déjà  Vu all over again (hat tip, Yogi Berra) ? No possible way!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Will It Change Anything?

This doesnt have to be the image of the future for secular and Charedi Jews 
Mishpacha Magazine has commissioned a poll to determine the real attitude by secular Jews in Israel towards Charedim. Of course they didn’t have to do that. They could have just asked me and saved the expense of a professional poll.

The results were pretty much what I would have expected them to be. But they came as a shock to the Rabbi Moshe Grylak, editor if that magazine. 

The bottom line is that as a rule secular Israelis do not hate Charedim at all. They actually have a favorable attitude to them. So much so that most feel that the IDF should fully accommodate the needs of Charedi recruits.  (And yes they do feel Charedim do not contribute enough to general society.)

A lot of her assumptions made by Charedim about secular attitudes towards them are based on rumor or anecdotal evidence.  And they have been perpetuated, by Charedi politicians and the Charedi media. Well if this survey is anywhere near accurate, those myths have been exploded.

None of this is surprising to me. There have been other polls that suggested these results.  Like the fact that most secular Israelis observe at least some religious rituals such as fasting on Yom Kipur. But again… it was surprising to Rabbi Grylak. Here in part was his response to this poll From Cross Currents:
“To admit the truth, we were stunned. If this poll is correct, we have been living all the time with a mistake. We were sure that the average secular Israeli despised us. Not only that, but we in the Haredi media in partnership with the Haredi politicians, spread this feeling and spoke about it over and over, all the time. And behold, this beautiful structure falls apart
.
Behold, it has become clear, that the truth is different: Most and close to all don’t hate. An elite minority, perhaps, hates, but this is not the lot of the majority. The majority has no interest in us at all. They don’t have hatred, they don’t have love, they are simply indifferent. We are a black hole. They pass Bnei Brak and have zero curiosity to enter its streets, our kitchens, our living rooms, or our Torah institutions.
What does this say to us and about us? Why are we not a source of inspiration? What is flawed about us in that which we are not succeeding to spread to the greater society? We must change approaches and the way we look at one another. We must stop fortifying ourselves behind mistaken walls and change paths. We must feel a sense of ‘shlichut, messengers to Israeli society….simply because this is the Jewish way: To be a model and example.”
Other’s have already commented on this. Among them was R’Yitzchok Adlerstein, and MK R’ Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid.

This is a positive development. They now know something that they did not know before. Knowledge is power. As  Rabbi Grylak indicates, the Charedi community should stop putting up walls between the secular  world and themselves. It’s time to stop being isolated and start integrating into society at large. Instead of always assuming the worst and constantly cursing the secular world… instead of being afraid of outside influences, Charedim should be trying to be a light unto the secular world. Being a light unto the nations is an important mandate. But our first priority is to be a light unto our own people.

Instead of being judgmental one should be Dan L’Kaf Zechus to a fellow Jew and not assume  he is your enemy out to spoil your children with his secular anti Torah values. Assume instead that he is actually interested in knowing more about Judaism. Even if one is not successful in bringing a fellow secular Jew closer to Mitzvah observance, the positive attitude towards them will certainly improve the relationship in positive ways. Love thy neighbor-  is not just a slogan.

Kol Yisroel Arevim Zeh LaZeh. We are all responsible for each other, both in our physical well being and our spiritual welfare. That is a mandate that Charedim have yet to live up to with respect to their secular brothers.  Rabbi Grylak has noted that the opposite has been the case. He’s right.

Insulation causes isolation. It’s ‘them’ and ‘us’ and we are worlds apart. The goal was to keep it that way by living as separately as possible. Perhaps this new poll will open a few more Charedi eyes besides those of Rabbi Grylak. And action will follow words. That would cause a sea change In Israel in the most positive of ways that would benefit everybody.  If only Charedi leaders seize this opportunity!

But I’m skeptical. Their fear of assimilation will outweigh any desire to reach out. So they will continue to advocate for less rather them more integration.

I understand the appeal of living in a totally religious environment. I must admit it is a great feeling to walk out of your house on a Shabbos and not see a single car driving by. Children play in the streets as though they were playgrounds. Shabbos mornings see people going to one Shul or another. Almost everyone is dressed up in their Shabbos clothing.

Restaurants are all Kosher. There are Shuls are all over the place with many Shiurim... the atmosphere feels totally observant. If you are a religious Jew, it is a wonderful feeling to be amongst your own. But the price for that is too high. By creating a community that is totally religious you end up ignoring fellow Jews that may in fact hunger for more Judaism than they are currently involved with.

In my view seeing a car pass by on your street on Shabbos is a small price to pay for the opportunity to get out there and reach out to a fellow Jew that otherwise may never come your way.

So even though I am pessimistic about change, I hope I am wrong. I hope this will not be a wasted opportunity. Sacrifice a little… and gain a lot. That will end up in a far better world for all of us. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Are Women Required to Recite the Haggadah?*

In the list of 613 Mitzvos of the Torah, the Sefer HaChinuch lists Mitzvah 21 as Sipur Yitziyas Mitzrayim – the retelling of the exodus story – which we do via the Haggadah,  But then the Chinuch makes an astonishing assertion: This Mitzvah is a biblical level requirement for women. The Minchas Chinuch asks the obvious question. Is this not a Mitzvas Aseh SheHaZ’am Grama – a positive commandment that is time bound? …from which women are exempt?

The typical answer one might offer for this would be ‘SheAf Hein Hayah  B’Oso HaNes…. They too were included in the the miracle of the exodus. But that principle applies only to rabbinic enactments like hearing Megilas Esther on Purim or the drinking the Daled Kosos (the 4 cups of wine) at the Seder. It is never used to require women to observe a biblical level time bound positive commandment like Sipur Yitzias Miztrayim. Why should women then be required to do that?

The Sefer Kehilas Yaalov gives us an interesting answer. Women are required to eat Matzah on Pesach too – even though that too is a time bound positive commandment. The reason for that is as follows: Kol SheYeshna B’ Bal Tochel Chametz, Yash Na B’Kum Ochel Matzos (Pesachim - 43b). Any time a positive time bound commandment is connected to a Lav (a negative commandment – in this case ‘Do not eat Chametz) …its counterpart (in this case eating Matzah) applies. Even though a woman would ordinarily not be required to do a time bound positive commandment… when it is tied to a negative commandment she is required to observe that Mitzvah.

The Gemarah (Pesachim – 115b) tells us that Matzah is Lechem Oni. One of the definitions of Lechem Oni is something upon which many things are answered – which is in essence what Sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim is. Meaning that in order to fulfill the Mitzvah of eating Matzah properly, it must be eaten as part of Sipur Yitzias Mitzrayim – that is, saying the Haggadah. And that makes it a biblical level requirement.

*Taken from Torah L’Daas

A Happy and Kosher Pesach unto all.

The following is a list of Dvrei Torah related to Pesach featured here in the past.




Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Root of Our Exile – Baseless Hatred*

Pesach is the Yom Tov of Emunah. The Nesivos Shalom calls Peasch ‘The New Year of Faith’. This is why we are commanded to retell the story of our ancestors exodus from bondage in Egypt (Sipur Yitziyas Mitzrayim). It is the retelling of this story whereby Emunah instilled in the heart. On that night, the retelling of the exodus story is the foundation of belief and it the key to all miracles throughout the generations.

One of the things we say on this night is ‘Today we are here - next year we will be in the land of Israel’. And we end the Seder with the words  ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. This is an expression of our belief in the coming of the Messiah - an expression of faith about our final redemption.

The Chafetz Chaim notes in in the name of Rishonim in his famous work on Lashon Hara (gossip; evil speech) that in order to be worthy of the final redemption and the building of the 3rd Beis HaMikdash, we have to do Teshuva for the very thing that destroyed the last one – Lashon Hara and Sinas Chinam (baseless hatred).

Dealing with baseless hatred is actually a part of the Seder. R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld tells us (in the name of the Ben Ish Chai) that the 2 Tevilos (dippings) we do at the Seder (Karpas and Maror)  are a reference to the two dippings in the Torah.

The first dipping is when Yosef’s brothers sold him; took his Kesones Passim (cloak of stripes)  and dipped it in blood in order to fool their father into thinking he was attacked by wild animals and killed. They did this because of jealousy and baseless hatred.

This incident precipitated our ancestors descent into slavery in Egypt. Even though the slavery of our forefathers was foretold to our patriarch Avrahom Avinu at the Bris Bein HaBesorim, the fact that it took place in Egypt was a direct result of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. So in essence this ‘dipping’ was the beginning of our slavery.

The second dipping in the Torah is that of dipping the Ezov – bound branches of hyssop - into the blood of the sacrifice offered by a person who was cured of his Tzora’as affliction (sometimes translated as leprosy). The lowly hyssop – which grows as a low bush is used to show the lowliness of the sin a Metzora is being punished for - Lashon Hara

It is then sprinkled on to the Metzorah as part of the ‘spiritual cleansing’ he goes through after he is cured. We learn Tzora'as is the punishment for Lashon Hara - from what happened to Miriam when she spoke Lashon Hara about her brother Moshe. She was immediately afflicted with Tzora’as.  The bound hyssop is a simile for all of Klal Yisroel to be bound up together feeling extremely small and humbled about Lashon Hara and to therefore avoid falling into that trap and the trap of Sinas Chinam.

R’ Elchanan Wasserman, HY’D makes an interesting observation. Throughout Jewish history, Jews were constantly accused of blood libels. And that usually occurred around Pesach where Jews were accused of killing Christian children and using their blood for making Matzos! Something that of course had absolutely no basis in fact.  It never happened. And yet generation after generation these accusations are made. R’ Wasserman believes that this is no accident. That God in his infinite wisdom wants to repay us measure for measure about our ansecstors’ sin of selling Yosef as represented by the dipping of his cloak into blood.  

This indeed was a source of great fear among Jews throughout history who feared being accused of such a heinous crime as kidnapping Christian children for purposes of killing them and using their blood for Matzah -  always occurring around Pesach. It was God’s way of reminding us that the sin of Sinas Chinam still exists and that we should be aware of it – and its consequences. And that it is a huge impediment to our final redemption. And that we should do what we can to rid ourselves of it.

Let us once and for all rid ourselves of the baseless hatred we may have for a fellow Jew - no matter how different they are from us! 

With this Zechus may we merit the coming of the Messiah speedily and in our day. L'Shana HaBa B'Yerushalyim.

* Adapted from Ateres Dudaim by Rabbi Dovid Zucker, Rosh Kollel of the Chicago Community Kollel 

Belatedly - A Wrong Has Been Righted

R' Aharon Kotler,ZTL - founder and RY of BMG
A source close to Rabbi S has informed me that he has been restored to his former position in Lakewood Yeshiva (Beth Medrash Govoha - BMG).

For those who don’t recall, Rabbi S was a Rosh Chabura (senior Talmud lecturer) and Bochein  (admissions - test administrator) in Lakewood.  His son was sexually molested by his Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Kolko, at the school he attended. Rabbi S followed the Charedi protocol of reporting the abuse to the rabbis in his community who deal with these things. He did not go to the police first. Those rabbis examined the case and determined that there was enough evidence (I believe he admitted it) to require Kolko to get counseling. Rabbi S was assured that this would continue and that the Rebbe would no longer be allowed to teach children.

Kolko went to a couple of sessions, and then reneged on his promise and quit. If I recall correctly he also continued teaching young students apparently without any rabbinic objection. When Rabbi S found out that Kolko quit his therapy - he went immediately to the police and reported the molestation.

All hell then broke loose. Rabbi S was vilified by many of the Charedi Askanim (community activists) in Lakewood. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah VoDaath got involved in an ongoing smear campaign implying (in writing) that it was Rabbi S, not Kolko, that molested his own son! The constant harassment caused him to leave Lakewood. He relocated to Midwestern city where he continued disseminating Torah to great acclaim.

Meanwhile Rabbi Kolko faced trial, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years behind bars.  There were mea culpas by some of those Askanim who then realized they were wrong; that Rabbi S was right all along. I remember one particularly poignant letter that was made public. An activist made a profound apology - begging Rabbi S for forgiveness. I should note that Rabbi Belsky was not among those expressing any regret. He maintained Kolko’s innocence even after his conviction.

At about that time I made a public plea to the Roshei Yeshiva of Lakewood to give Rabbi S his old job back… that justice demanded that. I was told at the time that Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon was extremely upset and regretted  his own part in what happened to Rabbi S. Nonetheless nothing happened.

I should add that to his credit and despite his pain, Rabbi S did not want to hurt Lakewood Yeshiva by making noises about returning. He believed it was still a great Makom Torah and the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt it. When I inquired if I should proceed with a campaign to get him his job back, I was told that Rabbi S appreciated my concern but that he did not want to do that.

That was in October of last year. Now, 6 months later it happened. Better late than never, I suppose. I don’t know if any apologies were made – privately or publicly, but that too would have been the right thing to do. I can’t imagine the pain and embarrassment he and his family must have felt going through such an ordeal. To say nothing of what his son’s molestation has done to the family.

Why did it take so long? My source speculated that based on his knowledge about how the Lakewood community operates - that there were two competing forces pressuring the Roshei Yeshiva there.

On the one hand were the extremists on the right (who felt that Rabbi S was a Moser). On the other hand there were those (like me) who felt a great injustice was done that needed to be corrected.  The leadership at Lakewood were themselves divided on this issue. I’m glad to see that the right side of this issue has prevailed.

But I have to ask, how can anyone who is considered a rabbinic leader today, (and I would think the Roshei Yeshiva of Lakewood would be considered rabbinic leaders) look over their shoulders to see which way the wind is blowing?! How can they not make a decision based on what’s right without thinking about what the Askanim or the public would say? If you are going to look over your shoulder to see what others might say then you are not a leader. You are a follower. And who are you following anyway?

The model of leadership in the Charedi world should be Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. Even though I have disagreed with him on occasion (most recently about the Charedi draft issue) – he is a man that does not care what others think. He tells it like it is to whomever asks. No matter how unpopular his decision may be. That’s the mark of leadership. Looking over your shoulder? Not so much.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are Orthodox Bloggers Modern Day Korachs?

Collage taken from Tablet. Note whose blog is on the laptop screen
My hat is off to Shulem Deen. His overview in Tablet Magazine of the world of Orthodox Jewish bloggers is quite thorough. I have dealt with the issue of Orthodox Jewish blogs in the past. Several times.  As Shulem points out the Orthodox blogging world is as broad based as Orthodoxy itself. Well almost as broad. The extreme right still eschews any connection to it. There is for example no such thing as a blog or website that represents the Satmar point of view. I’m sure that’s true for just about all Chasidim with the very notable exception of Chabad. 

But even the Agudah point of view is represented in the blog world. They in effect eat their cake – and have it too. While officially staying off the internet in any form (they do not even have a website) - their spokesmen have their own websites and post regularly on Cross Currents. In Fact their official spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran posts there regularly. Apparently with the tacit approval of the Agudah.

What I did not know is that Cross Currents has the blessing of my 12th grade Rebbe,  Rabbi Yaakov Perlow  (also known as the Novominsker Rebbe). Rabbi Perlow also has the distinction of being the head of the Agudah Moetzes. According to the Tablet article, Rabbi Perlow not only gave his blessing to Cross Currents, he actually permitted critical comments to be posted on it – as long as they were responded to.

Now I am not for a moment claiming that Cross Currents is open to all commentary no matter how critical. They are a fully moderated site and many comments that are submitted are not posted. Nevertheless – from a Charedi point of view, this is quite daring.

I can’t say I am really all that surprised by Rabbi Perlow’s attitude here. Having attended Yeshivas Chaim Berlin under Rav Yitzchak Hutner; and having had my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik as a Rebbe there; and having attended college - receiving a degree, he is no stranger to the outside world. Additionally, his relatively long tenure at my Alma Mater, HTC exposed him to a variety of students from different backgrounds. Very few of them Charedi. So he knows what is on the mind of young people that were raised in a secular culture even as their families remained Orthodox. And in some cases those students did not even come from Orthodox backgrounds.

Now it’s true, that the issues were different then. And the differences between the right and the left – although very real, were not as wide. Or at least not as contentious. Not here in Chicago, anyway. But there were clear differences even then. Rabbi Perlow understood and respected them. (I should add that he was a great Rebbe, too!)

But contrast Rabbi Perlow’s personal approval of a blog that allows critical comments with the kind of anti blog rhetoric one hears at a typical Agudah convention. Shulem points out some of the more egregious comments.  From Tablet
According to a report inYated Ne’eman, one of the speakers, Rabbi Efraim Wachsman, declared bloggers to be “actors in the tradition of Korach, the Tziddukim, and the Maskilim,” traditional archetypes for rebellion against Torah authority. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a leading rabbi at Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, reportedly called blogs “a plague” and an “insidious … poison.” 
I recall my reaction to that. Let’s just say that it wasn’t pleasant. But Gil Student did a marvelous job refuting that as well: 
Rabbi Gil Student, author of the blog Hirhurim, attended the session and was disturbed by what he heard. “They were using all this over-the-top language,” he told me, “declaring blogs to be a churban hadas [the destruction of the faith], and preventing the coming of the Messiah—or something of that nature.” Student disagrees: He believes that blogs serve an important purpose in analyzing Torah topics and the spectrum of Orthodox worldviews. “If you want to get people’s attention, you have to be where they are. If we’re not there, we lose the battle.” Student says that he sees the effects of blogs in the real world. Rabbinic figures with whom he is in touch will often mention things he wrote on his blog, even when they disagree. “There’s cross-pollination,” he said. “Ideas are moving.” 
I am not a modern day Korach (the rebel Levite of the Torah who defied Moshe’s authority and was summarily swallowed up into the earth - losing his portion in the world to come). Despite Rabbi Wachsman’s insinuation that this is what Orthodox Jewish bloggers are. Nor am I any of the other pejoratives used by Rabbi Wachsman and other rabbinic figures. 

I have also been told by people who are close to the Agudah Moetzes, that they did not mean me, when they excoriated Orthodox bloggers. I am grateful for that. But I am still upset by the kind of rhetoric used by Rabbi Wachmasn who indiscriminately blasted all Orthodox bloggers - labeling them all ‘Korachs’.  And he is not alone. There are many other Orthodox personalities of similar and lesser stature that have the same derogatory attitudes towards Orthodox bloggers.

I am however grateful that Rabbi Perlow is not one of them. Although I realize that he does oppose the ones that insult rabbinc leaders. Can't really blame him for that. I always greet him when he comes to Chicago and he is glad to see me… remembering me from my student days at HTC.

The bottom line here is that communicating via the internet is no longer just a fun way to pass time. It has become so huge, that all other forms of communication have been negatively affected by it. Increasingly the internet is becoming the primary source for information of all kinds. And the fastest. 

It has via blogs like mine brought up important issues of the day – and exposes the thoughts of readers via the commenting system in unprecedented ways. There has never been  a way to take the pulse of the people – especially Orthodox Jews – the way the internet does. It is instant. And it is raw. Blogs let you know what the people are really thinking. Before blogs, all dissent was kept to oneself for fear of being ostracized. 

Now dissent is heard all day long on blogs like mine. What better way to take the pulse of the people. Until blogs, communications were done one way. Agudah had speakers that spoke the party line, the audience applauded, and everybody went home. Their conventions still do this. But now the internet is allowing their audience to respond and to say what they really think. This is one of the purposes of my blog. Which is why I allow comments that are critical of me. Sometimes very strongly.

Rabbi Adlerstein is right. He was interviewed in that article and said that the so called Slifkin affair was a watershed moment in modern day Jewish history. A critical turning point in how Orthodoxy functions. It is no longer the case that Orthodox Jewish leadership can assume to just speak and people will listen without question. People now have the opportunity to question. And to be heard. If I had to pick the one benefit of Orthodox blogs that is the most important, it is that nothing gets by without scrutiny anymore. Whether it’s covering up sex abuse, or questioning the literal interpretation of the Torah about the origins of the universe.

We can thank Rabbi Natan Slifkin for that. Although he paid a heavy price for it by having his books banned, that opened up the Torah world to the light of day. A light that can examine every doctrinal detail and pass judgment on whether these doctrines are still valid to the modern educated mind. A world that can offer alternatives to those doctrines that are just as valid Halachicly and Hashkaificly.

I think Rabbi Perlow understands this and it is why he supports a blog like Cross Currents. And why he does not consider my blog to be the work of a Korach.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

We Are Healthy Men!

Typical street scene in Ramat Bet Shemesh B
I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. The residents Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet (RBS B) are probably just as appalled as I am – or as any decent human being would be - at  what happened a couple of weeks ago to a woman waiting for a bus in  that suburb. As an observant Jew - she was dressed modestly by Halachic standards. But probably not by that community’s extreme standards. A male resident of that suburb approached that woman  put his face right in front of hers and shouted “Slut! You weaken men!”

This frightened her and she screamed. Here is what happened next. From the Forward
She called the police for assistance on her cellphone, as he turned away and crossed the street. But when he saw she was calling for help, it infuriated him anew. “As I was talking to the police, he saw what I was doing and he turned around and crossed the street back to me, running towards me at a crazy pace right in the middle of the traffic - he didn’t care about the cars on the street. He pulled my hair, knocked me to the ground, pulled off my head covering, and kept shouting “Get out of here!” with horrific screams. My daughter saw the whole thing and was crying as I yelling “Leave me alone, help me, call the police!” 
This man is obviously very sick. He is no doubt obsessed with sex and the slightest provocation along these lines sets him off. His reaction to his own sexual  stirrings caused him to lose his temper. And he uncontrollably beat up the source of those stirrings. In fact saying he is sick is an understatement.

There are two things to be said here. The first one is mentioned by the victim herself. As she was being pummeled - people who saw it – did nothing. A woman was being mercilessly beaten by a man, screaming for help or to call the police - and no one did anything. I don’t know how anyone with any sense of compassion could watch something like this happen right in front of them without acting immediately to help her in some way… or at least to call the police.

Unfortunately this problem does not only exist in this community. It happens all over the world. I’ve heard it all before. People see something like this and freeze. I don’t understand it. Is it fear? Even if so, why not at least call the police?

On the other hand - was there an extra factor in this case? I wonder if it were one of their own female residents being attacked by a secular Jew, would they have just stood by, too? But… I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are no different than the average man in the street anywhere in the world. Many people - Jews and gentiles alike - just freeze when they see violence being done by one person against another.

But as God’s chosen people - shouldn’t a Jew be better than anyone else? These fine religious Jews who observe the most minute details of Halacha have apparently not inherited the Jewish trait of compassion from their ancestor Abraham. Nor do they understand the Torah’s admonition of Lo Sa’amod Al Dam Re’eacha  (Vayikra 19:16). Do not stand idly by while your friend’s blood is being spilled.

There is another thing in my view that is even more problematic. It is the way this community is educated in matters of sex. The extremes they go to in order to avoid being sexually aroused (and thus sinning) has caused them to put up many fences. The result of that is that even the most normal interaction between a man and a woman causes sexual stirrings in the minds of their men. When one is used to seeing only women that are fully covered from the neck down with loose fitting clothing, and their hair fully covered as well, then the sight of a woman who might ordinarily be quite modestly dressed according to Halacha might cause people who are not used to that - to see it as provocative.

I don’t think this is an anomaly among the residents of RBS B. I think this is their norm. The vast majority of them are transplantees from Meah Shearim. This is the place that is famous for occasionally throwing rocks (or worse) at women who do not dress in accordance with their modesty standards. 

I recall the reaction a few years ago of the community to the harassment (by extremist RBS B zealots) of Na’amah  Margolese, a 7 year old girl on her way to a Religious Zionist school bordering their neighborhood. Though generally expressing mild disapproval of what happened - they were nevertheless sympathetic to the motives behind the harassment. ‘We are healthy men’ said one of them in an interview. We do not want to be subjected to such immodesty in our community.

Healthy men?  They are aroused by a six year old girl? If that’s the case, then the ‘healthy’ men of RBS B are pedophiles! At least that would be the logical conclusion here.

Now I’m sure the vast majority of that community are not pedophiles – including the fellow in the interview. But it should not escape anyone what they consider titillating. I think the expression ‘You weaken men’ explains a lot. What this depraved man uttered is actually their Hashkafa.

In their desire to be holy people, this community is taught to avoid all matters even slightly sexual. If you are raised to completely avoid any contact with the opposite sex, nature has a way of compensating for this. The Libido – or sex drive - is a natural part of every human being. It is as essential to life as eating and sleeping.  If one is deprived of normal interaction with the opposite sex and avoid all matters sexual, the libido will unconsciously be ‘starved’ and will be stimulated at the slightest provocation. It’s like fasting when you’re thirsty. After a while, your thirst will overwhelm you. The longer you fast, the more you will crave water.

The way sexuality is treated in these communities is by forcing everyone to fast. And to avoid the sight or thought of ‘water’ as much as possible. Not seeing it or interacting with it in any way will hopefully keep your mind off of your ‘thirst’. But nature will nevertheless take its course. One cannot fast forever. And the sight of plain water will make you want it badly.

Now I’m not telling anyone how to lead their lives. But when the extremes of one group start impacting negatively on another, my tolerance ends. The fellow who beat up that woman is a victim of such starvation. Even though his violent reaction was abhorrent and criminal by any standard, it should not be lost on anyone that what precipitated his behavior was a reaction to his own sexuality. A sexuality that is ingrained in them via a faulty approach to the opposite sex.  

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

But It Makes Me Feel More Spiritual?

Tzitzis - Photo Credit: Forward
Is there anyone that thinks that a woman that wears Tzitzis (the fringes that must be attached to all 4 corners of a piece of clothing that has four corners) is in any way normative Judaism? Well… this seems to be the next step in breaking the chain of tradition that the extreme left wing of modern Orthodoxy is going. From the Forward: 
(A) group of young women are — quite literally — taking this fiddly law into their own hands.Maya Rosen, 19, has been wearing tzitzit for three years, making her own for two, and last week launched Netztitzot, a not-for-profit organization that will sew and sell tzitzit for women.

The Mitzvah of Tzitizs is one of those from which women are exempt. It is a positive commandment that is time bound since it can only be fulfilled during the day time. So only men are required to do this and may only wear a 4 cornered piece of clothing if those fringes are attached.

So here is what the extreme left has wrought. Women can now be ordained, they can be cantors in a Shul (in certain portions of the service) even when men are present . They wear Teffilin and now even wear Tziztis. I am trying to picture this sight. And it is baffling to me why any woman would choose to so clearly look like a man in religious terms.

Now in the strictest of terms, I do not believe they are in technical violation of Halacha. Women are indeed permitted to honor and observe those Mitzvos from which they are exempt. And in that sense many of time bound Mitzvos are obsevered by woman. And they are even encouraged to do so. Like taking the Daled Minim (a Lulav and Esrog, etc.) on Sukkos. Over the centuries this has become the norm.

So why is this odd looking woman standing  behind the Mechtitza wearing a Talis and Teffilin and wearing Tzitzis as part of her everyday apparel the way men do so bad? Is it any worse than doing any other voluntary Mitzva from which they are exempt?

The answer is yes. There is a reason some voluntary Mitzvos are both acceptable and encouraged and some are not. When Mitzvios are done against the accepted grain, one has to ask why any given woman has chosen that particular Mitzva to perfom. Why choose somenthing that was never accepted in the past? Why break with tradition? What is to be gained by bucking the system?  

I know all the arguments.  If someone feels more spiritual by doing something out of the mainstream, why protest? If it enhances their spirituality, what’s wrong with it? And what gives me the right to judge them or question their motives?

The answer is as follows. Although there is no outright ban on the aforementioned innovations, there is discouragement of it in the Halachic literature. Sources for that can be found at the Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) website. One needs to take that into consideration before bucking the trends we in Orthodoxy follow.

Why are these women breaking with tradition – even as they do so sincerely? As I’ve said in the past there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that the feminist zeitgeist is what’s driving it. One may say, “So what?” “What’s the harm?” “If there is no technical problem with it and someone feels more spiritual by doing something non traditional - why hinder them just because it isn’t the norm?” “If feminism is the means by which a woman becomes aware of her spirituality, of what consequence is it to me or to Judaism in general?”

I’ve made this comparison in the past but it bears repeating. Using the argument that external influences that are not counter Halacha should be embraced by those who feel more spiritual doing them - should support a woman’s choice to wear a Burka. There too there is technically nothing in Halacha that forbids women to do that. It is – one can argue – a more modest form of dress for a woman to cover up as much of the female form in public as one can. Burkas certainly do that. Why hinder a woman from expressing her spirituality through this form of modesty? So what if Islam does it too?  Tznius is Tznius!

Do we really want to encourage such breaks from the norm…  especially when such acts are discouraged in the Halachic sources - even if not outright banned? There is something to be said for being normal. If being abnormal makes you more spiritual, well… there is just something wrong with that.

Now there is an argument to be made about allowing such innovations because of the failings of Modern Orthodoxy wherein these innovations lie. The sad fact is that there are a great number of people form MO backgrounds that go OTD. From the LSS website
As uncomfortable as it is to say this or hear it, I feel that we in Modern Orthodoxy have to look at ourselves as badly needing Kiruv. Despite our exorbitantly expensive day school education, the results are mixed, at the very best.  In many ways, all of our teenagers are religiously ‘at risk’. 
This is followed by the argument that with so many kids at risk of going OTD, one should be happy that a child is taking upon themselves a religious stringency even if it isn’t mainstream. Doing something religious is far better than violating Halacha. Furthermore - forbidding it may cause these teenagers to rebel in the opposite direction. I can certainly hear that argument. But I have to wonder if such  behavior – religious though it may seem – is not in itself a rebellion.  Which can become a slippery slope in the opposite direction too. 

How will this looking the other way impact the rest of the student body? What conclusions will be drawn from this?

In my view all these innovations ought to be completely discouraged. If someone wants to be more spiritual by finding additional ways to express it, they should start with self improvement in areas required of them. Or at least in areas that are accepted norms for women even if not required of them. Is self fulfillment really about fulfilling the word of God even if it makes you feel more spiritual?

The extreme left wing of Orthodoxy is pushing the envelope by allowing or even encouraging these innovations. Innovations that are discouraged in Halacha. And if that is not bad enough - what does that say about a woman’s traditional role in Judaism? And where will the slippery slope lead them next?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Adopt a Kollel?

Torah study is a vital part of our existence as Jews. It is one of the most important of our 613 Mitzvos. And it ought to be supported. The only questions are how and who? More about that later.

Bearing the importance of Torah study in mind - one of the most upsetting responses to the dire financial situation of Charedim in Israel is the Adopt-a-Kollel project. It is upsetting despite the noble purpose of  a Kollel - full time Torah study. The recent budget cuts in Israel that include drastic cuts in welfare programs where large families are disproportionately impacted  - is affecting the Charedi community more than just about any other community. They are the ones with the large families. And they are the ones getting less money. If one includes the government goal of funding (at current levels) only those schools that offer a core curriculum… that exacerbates the problem immensely.  More mouths to feed and educate via an exponential growth rate and a lot less money to do so.

One can debate whether these government cuts were specifically meant to target Charedim. There is no question, however, that it does hurt them the most. They were in a state of poverty until now. Studies have shown that Charedim are the poorest demographic in Israel. When all these cuts are added –  well it isn’t too difficult to do the math.

The reasons for their poverty are well known. It is self inflicted. The Charedi world in Israel does not enter the workforce (or prepare themselves for any such eventuality) by choice. They are urged to stay in the Beis HaMedrash for as long as possible and to only enter the workforce when the proverbial knife is at their throats. Add to that the former provision that one must serve in the military before being legally allowed to work, and it is easy to see why this community is so poor. If I recall correctly less than half of the entire Charedi world in Israel works. Most of the rest study in Yeshivos or Kollelim. And some of those only pretend to.

Unfortunately Charedim are crying bloody murder that the government is trying to starve them to death. Using expressions about them that are reminiscent of those used to describe anti Semitic Czarist Russia. Where pogroms were once the order of the day.

I do not buy any of that. Although I’m sure that there are more than a few government officials that would like to destroy the Charedi world, I don’t think that this is what’s going on here. The goal of the government is to get Charedim to support themselves. Not to change their lifestyles. The truth is that the truly dedicated Lomdei Torah who are Masmidim are probably not the majority. Although I’m sure that many of those that are not the elite are nevertheless sincere and diligent in their Torah study, that should not take away from their obligation to support their families first. They should instead be working and setting aside some of their non working time for Torah study.

The one thing they should not be doing is depending on others to support them. Not unless they are truly elite Talmidei Chachamim - with the potential to be the leading Poskim, Rabbonim, Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim of our day. They should be supported. But certainly not all of the tens of thousands learning in Yeshiovs and Kollelim qualify for that.

The Charedi world does not see it that way. They encourage every soul to try to stay in the Beis HaMedrash. That is what their Chinuch is geared to do. That should be the ultimate goal for every male Jew. Every single male should aspire to that.

They are of course entitled to see things their own way. What they are not entitled to do is complain about not being paid for it by the government.

Which is what the Israeli rabbinic leadership, their politicians, and their media outlets have been doing since the last election – and before. And they aren’t just complaining. They are vilifying. They use catch phrases like ‘taking food out of the mouths of babies’ to describe government budget cuts. As though they were entitled to the welfare from the start. Which of course they aren’t. Welfare is designed for people who can’t work or can’t find work. Not for able bodied  people who choose not to.

Their American counterparts as always are in lockstep with this mentality. They buy right into the narrative about starving Israel’s Charedi children. With a goal of ultimately destroying the entire Yeshiva and Kollel system as they know it.

One of the ways they are doing this (besides vilifying the government) is by asking people to ‘Adopt-a-Kollel’. The slogan that accompanies their ad campaign for this comes straight out of the Haggadah: SheB’Chol Dor VaDor Omdim Alenu L’Chalosenu. In every generation (our enemies) stand up against us to destroy us. Here is what Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein says about that. From CrossCurrents
One of the worst examples was the marketing slogan of Adopt-A-Kollel: “Shebechol dor vodor omdim aleinu lechaloseinu.” I do not have the words or the stomach to flesh out how terribly wrong this is – and no amount of reassurance will convince me otherwise.  
This illustrate the kind of divisiveness I have been talking about in previous posts. It is the Charedi world at its worst. I cannot protest it enough. Is there even the slightest doubt that the Charedi world even in America sees the slightest attempt at change as evil incarnate coming for the devil? What’s worse is the attitude that – ‘If you’re not with us, you’re agin us!’ ...even if you are devoutly observant! If in any way you do not see what the government is doing as Shmad  - out to destroy us  then you are part of the problem… you are part of those out to destroy us!

What ever happened to respectful disagreement? I guess they never heard if it! No such thing as disagreeing with them without being kicked out of Judaism! Of course I don’t really think they actually believe that. But that is the message they are projecting with slogans like that.

What about the actual Adopt-a-Kollel project. Is it a worthy program? Rabbi Adlerstein thinks it is. But I don’t. He only hates the slogan - not the project. In my view it is not a worthy one. What about all the increased poverty that these new government cuts will cause? That should not be ignored. No one should starve while trying to improve the financial situation of Charedim in Israel. It is not their fault that they have been indoctrinated to eschew working in favor of learning… and thereby completely avoiding any preparation for the work force.

Until an American style Charedi system is installed in their educational system (which is what I am hoping will happen despite the fierce attempts to prevent it) these people have to eat. They still have to feed their families. The vast majority of them are good people who have just been misguided through no fault of their own. But adopting a Kollel is not the way to do that. That will only perpetuate the problem.

In my view we need to help them out financially while they go through this transition (hopefully). I’m not sure what the mechanism for that would be.  But I would urge that a mechanism be found to give these families financial support. Any money that someone might want to give to a Kollel should instead be given to an organization designed to help these families directly.

Not every Kollel in existence deserves to be in existence. Some do and some don’t. If a Kollel can’t survive without this program, it probably shouldn’t survive at all. Kollelim are a dime a dozen in  Israel. Most of them serve no purpose other than to have a few Avrecihim sitting and learning who would better serve Klal Yisroel by supporting their families. There is no accounting for the quality or the quantity of such Kollelim. They exist only to support their Rosh Kollel and the Avreichim he has chosen for his Kollel.

There are of course Kollelim that should be supported. But my guess is that the truly great ones are not the ones the Adopt-a-Kollel are supporting. The truly great ones are probably well funded already. And for those that aren’t, exceptions can be made. For the majority of them - the best thing that can happen to the Avreichim currentkly populating them is to go to work… first getting the training they need for good jobs. Training that is now being made available by the government.

How to determine which is worthy and which is not, is beyond the scope of this post. But suffice it to say that it can and should be done. The bottom line is that the increased poverty that the Charedi world is now experiencing needs to be dealt with. But the Adopt-a-Kollel program is the absolute wrong way to go about it.