Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Abortion and Halachic Common Sense

Updated*  I sometimes have to wonder whatever happened to common sense. Which to me,  means looking at a contentious issue from both sides of the argument. This is why I found a recent debate on the Jewish view of abortion so problematic. 

On the one hand, language used by  JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance - a liberal Jewish feminist organization which - as their name indicates defines itself as Orthodox) seems to have adopted the position advocated by humanists. Excerpted in First Things it says:

“We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.” 
Which implies they believe that Orthodox Judaism endorses the concept of abortion on demand.  

That is of course ridiculous. As an article in First Things by ‘Various’ (whatever that means) points out: 

Nobody has the right to kill anybody else. Killing is only justified in a situation where killing an assailant is the only way to protect the right of their victim not to be killed. Hence there is only a mandate (hiyyuv) to abort a fetus when the only way to save the life of the mother is by aborting the fetus in utero mortally threatening her life there. 

This is of course true. But as noted there is more to the story. Here is a more complete quote:

"JOFA’s position has consistently been that women and couples should consult their physicians and personal halakhic advisers in making decisions about abortion and reproductive health care without the involvement of the government. We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.

It turns out that JOFA has essentially the same position I do. Which is that for Jews, Halacha should be the determining factor. Not the State.  It is nevertheless troubling that the last line is somewhat ambiguous - seeming to contradict the first part of the statement. Abortions do not only affect the woman. They affect the fetus - an eventual human being. That last line implies that the only thing significant here is  the woman’s own body.

The Gemarah tells us that when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, the Uber (fetus) has the din of a Rodef. When someone (in this case the fetus) pursues you in order to kill you- your killing such an individual is considered ‘justifiable homicide’. Halacha in fact requires it. However, abortion on demand, although not a capital crime, is nevertheless Halachicly forbidden. 

This same article notes, that in this country the incidence of abortions to save the life of the mother is less than 1%.  Although they don’t say so explicitly, the inference is that we should embrace the Pro-Life Movement and reverse Roe v Wade. 

I reject that notion. I support the Pro Choice position on Roe v Wade. Not because I believe in their agenda of abortion on demand. I am firmly opposed to that on moral grounds. The idea that a woman has a right to do with her body whatever she wishes extends only to her body. Not to the eventual human being she carries within it. 

I prefer the procedure be legal so that when Halacha permits it, it should be as accessible as any other medical procedure.  That permit is not necessarily limited to saving the life of the mother. There are legitimate Poskim actually permit an abortion (up to the third trimester - if I remember correctly) in other cases – such as a Tay-Sachs baby. There is also more latitude for abortions during the first forty days after conception. A fetus is Halachicly considered mere ‘water’ until then. 

Making abortion illegal would therefore go against our best interests as Jews. We need to be able to decide for ourselves when an abortion is permissible and when it is not. Not the ‘State’. 

The Jewish position on abortion needs to be made clear. We should not be joining the Pro-Life movement whose ultimate goal is to return to the pre Roe v Wade days. But neither should we join promote the Pro Choice position of abortion on demand. 

We should be in favor of keeping the procedure safe, legal, and rare. Common sense!

*The original  post was written with a misunderstanding of JOFA’s views on abortion.  I apologize and have updated the post accordingly.(HT dr. bill )

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Sadie Hawkins Day

Tu B'Av (OU)
Tomorrow is Sadie Hawkins Day. For those too young to have any clue what I am talking about, this ‘holiday’ is a figment of the late cartoonist Al Capp’s imagination. Capp was the creator of a popular satiric comic strip of the mid 20th century called Li’l Abner. The idea of that day was role reversal. Instead of men actively seeking out women for marriage, women actively sought out men. 

Though not an exact analogy, tomorrow is Tu B’Av – the 15th day of the month of Av (when the moon is full). This is a day where back in Mishnaic times, young Jewish women became more active in seeking out husbands. The Mishna (Taanis - 26b) tells us that there were no other holidays as festive as this day and Yom Kippur  (at night  - post fast). All the young single women of Jerusalem would dress up and go into the vineyards and dance. They would tell young men, to raise their eyes and see what they should choose! …adding (among other things) that they should seek women of piety rather than beauty. 

My how times have changed. The very idea of a man watching a woman dance is considered immoral. An act that might generate improper thoughts. Young wome doing that would today be considered promiscuous.. 

One may ask, if that is so, how can the Mishna describe it as such a festive holiday? Since when does  Torah law (which is what studying Mishna is all about) promote promiscuity like that?

 The classic answer is that our generation isn’t anywhere near as holy as the generation of the Mishna. Young men did not have lascivious thoughts when they saw these women dancing. They saw them merely as possible Shiduchim. So then it was appropriate today it would not be. 

I have to wonder about that considering the many Gemarahs that indicate otherwise. Such as where we are told that looking even at the little finger of a woman is forbidden for that reason. Were young unmarried teens less likely to have such thoughts back then? 

Be that as it may, this is not going to happen today. No Beis Yaakov is going to teach their girls to dress up and dance before a group of boys on Tu B’av – even for Shidduch purposes. And certanly no Yeshiva would ever allow their boys to watch them if they tried.

I mention all of this to contrast it with today’s so called Shidduch crisis.  The fact is there are an increasing number of young women that have a difficult time getting married.  They ‘age out’ of the system pretty quickly. So that by age 29 when most American woman are still single and far from ready to get married, a young Orthodox woman might be seen as over the hill by her community. Or at least not the first choice of young men seeking Shidduchim.  Especially in the Charedi world. They tend to date ‘younger’ women 19 to 23 years of age. The older they get, the less likely they will be considered for a date. There are of course many successful exceptions. But that is what they are. Excepceratintions. 

I have talked about this problem before. Many times. But I am not the only one. This has been a discussion among many Charedi leaders  who have tried to come up with solutions to the problem.  Tu B’av is when this problem seems to get more attention. For obvious reasons. 

I am not opposed to all of the various suggestions being made to help alleviate the situation. One of which is prayer. From Matzav:

On August 5th, Tu B’Av at 10:AM (NY time) and around the world, hundreds of thousands of Jews will unite at one time, reciting 8 perakim of Tehillim as a zechus for all singles in Klal Yisrael to find their shidduch, This historic worldwide event is called “Tu B’Av Together” and is a Yad L’Achim initiative.  

I am not God forbid opposed to prayer. I am opposed to how radically finding a Shiddach has changed from the days of the Mishna to our day. Even if one finds the idea of young single women dancing in front of young single men to be of a promiscuous nature, it can certainly not be the case that every way of finding a mate - other than using a Shadchan - is considered inappropriate.  And yet, in the Charedi world - and increasingly in some parts of the Centrist world - going to a Shadchan is becoming an almost exclusive way to date. The idea of young men and women meeting on their own is at best frowned upon.

Do not misunderstand. I have no problem at all with the use of a Shadchan. (Although I do have a problem with the way some of them operate. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) Using a Shadchan is a perfectly fine way to date. But  it should in no way be the only way to date.  There are multiple legitimate and appropriate ways for young men and women to meet. In my view they should not only be encouraged to do it, it ought to be facilitated. Or at least not actively prevented or discouraged. I know Charedi families that have been friends for years but stop inviting each other over for a Shabbos meal when their children become teenagers and were the opposite sex.

In those circles, there is absolutely no way that a young man and young woman should meet unless it is done through a Shadchan of some sort. Where each potential Shidduch is researched and scrutinized for compatibility long before their first date. While there is certainly nothing wrong with finding out how compatible a potential couple may be, I am absolutely convinced that a lot of singles never meet because of too much research. 

It might take young people meeting on their own a bit longer to find out how compatible they are. But at the same time they are in a far better position to know that when they do it on their own - rather than through a Shadchan or even a parent. 

I truly believe that expanding the world of dating possibilities would help resolve - if not fully eliminate the so called Shidduch crisis.

Too bad it will never happen. We seem to be going I the opposite direction. Maybe we cant go back to the way Tu B’Av was celebrated back in Mishnaic times. But at least let us open things up a bit more rather than they are now instead of going in the opposite direction.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Rav Shmuel, Rabbi Shafran, and the President

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky and his son, Rav Shalom (Mishpacha)
An important Open Letter regarding Orthodox Jewish involvement with politics (or perhaps more precisely – support for certain politicians) was issued by Rabbi Avi Shafran. It was signed by the following prominent Orthodox Jewish personalities: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby, Eytan Kobre, Yosef Rapaport, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and Dr. Aviva Weisbord. Based on this I doubt that any one of them will vote for the President in the 2020 election.

The gist of that letter warns against  religious Jews endorsing political figures whose values are the antithesis of Torah. Although it did not mention any particular party or individual and said this applied to either political party, it was pretty much a thinly veiled rebuke of those among us that enthusiastically endorse the President - even though (for example) his support of Israel has been so strong. In pertinent part it said: 
As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.
Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.
Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.
Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships.
The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify. 
I of course agree with this perspective. How can I not? The Torah should be our moral guide. Not political philosophies. To that end we must be consistent in who we support and why. And for the same reason,.make clear what is objectionable about them from a Torah perspective even if we support some of their policies 

But there is another perspective to be heard. It was articulated by no less a rabbinic figure than Agudah Moetzes senior member, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. (One might argue that since Rabbi Shafran is Agudah’s long time spokesman, that Rav Kamenetsky is his boss!) R’ Shmuel was interviewed by Mishpacha Magazine columnist Yisroel Besser for last week’s cover story. Here is the pertinent excerpt: 
(R’ Shmuel): “You see the matzav, the anarchy… it’s frightening. G-d has become a dirty word in much of America, religion and religious institutions are their enemy — we need rachamei Shamayim (heavenly mercy). If Trump doesn’t win in November, it’s worrisome.”
(Besser): I hear what seems to be an endorsement, and I push.    
(R’ Shmuel): “Yes, I think people should vote for him. He’s done a good job. It’s hakaras hatov, (gratitude)” Rav Shmuel reiterates.
(Besser): But what about the fact that the current president is sometimes less than a positive role model?
(R’ Shmuel): “That has nothing to do with politics,” 
There is no doubt in my mind that R’ Shmuel is as Ehrlich as they come. Aside from being a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes, he is the long time Rosh HaYeshiva of ‘Philly’ one of the most respected Charedi Yeshivos in the America. I am equally sure that he inherited all the traits of his illustrious father, R’ Yaakov.

Does Rabbi Shafran’s Open Letter contradict R’ Shmuel?

It would seem so on the surface. But I don’t really think it does. I’m sure that R’ Shmuel would agree entirely with the principles expressed by Rabbi Shafran. The Torah should be our guide. And that as Orthodox Jews we should never identify with one party no matter how pro Israel it is; no matter how much closer its values are to our own. 

What R’ Shmuel is saying is that we should vote for the person whose polices more closely favor our interests without identifying with the party that person represents and surely not in any way endorse that individuals character, or worse defending every word he says as though it was Torah MiSinai. I have to wonder how God sees defending and sometimes even praising a man like that, no matter how ‘good he is for the Jews’.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer ‘s response to the Open Letter was along the same lines. But I think he went a ‘bridge too far’ by saying: 
(T)here is a major difference between idolatrous devotion to a political candidate and robust support of the candidate for important practical reasons. 
I don’t think that ‘robust support’ is the right approach. If one votes for the President it ought to be made clear that it is not the man they support but his policies. And that perhaps one should vote for him with more than an ounce of regret about voting for a man whose personal behavior is so alien to Jewish values.

That said, I want to once again reiterate that this is not an endorsement. I just wanted to point out that Rabbi Shafran’s open letter and R’ Shmuel’s support for the President expresses my internal conflict.

My belief in Torah values  is also why I so often say that I ‘lean’ politically conservative rather than just declaring myself to be a conservative. The Torah is my guide. Most often these days I firmly believe that politically conservative values reflect my own Torah based values. But in some cases I am decidedly liberal for the same reason.

I remain conflicted because even though I support and appreciate the President’s strong support for Israel and religious values, I’m just not sure that is enough to endorse a man whose character is the antithesis of the Torah.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Bad? Or Worse?


(Updated) I do not recall anything like this in my lifetime. I am not talking about the pandemic. Although that will impact the issue. The choice for President in the next election is like choosing between bad and worse. The only question is which candidate is bad and which one is worse. I admit to being conflicted.

I would not normally be talking about the next election this far in advance. This post should not be taken as an endorsement of either candidate. It should only be taken as an analysis of what makes each one so bad and what issues one should take into consideration when making their decision.

Republican Donald Trump, the incumbent, is certainly the most outrageously bad President in my lifetime. There is little doubt in my mind about the terrible character flaws he inflicted upon this high office. 

Flaws that include an inability to understand basic science (Lysol injections, anyone?); a denial of reality with respect to the serious nature of the pandemic; the impulsive penchant for tweeting anything that tickles his fancy - no matter how ridiculous or false, a vindictive character that attacks his critics with an unprecedented  vengeance; his inability to communicate with any nuance often sounding racist or antisemitic (although I personally believe he is neither.)... He is a narcissistic personality never missing an opportunity for self aggrandizement - whether deserved or not.

He has an uncanny ability to divide the country - which is more polarized than ever. Even though that was true before he took office, it has been multiplied many times over since. He has alienated half the country more than any other President, while at the same time uniting his base more than any other President ever came close to doing with their base. 

It isn’t only about his demeanor. It affects how he governs. Refusing to listen to the advice of his own experts when making decisions, more often governing from his gut than from the expert information presented to him. 

His primary concern seems to be getting re-elected. Not the welfare of this country – although I’m sure he considers it one and the same thing. Although unproven he has surely broken the law more than once in that pursuit. Getting re-elected seems to be behind every decision he makes.  I could go on, but I think this paints enough of a picture of how terrible he has been as the leader of the free world.

On the plus side (for those that lean politically conservative) even though the President’s political philosophy is self aggrandizement and not really conservative - his policies have definitely promoted a conservative agenda. 

That includes a roaring economy (until the pandemic brought it to unprecedented crawl);  a reversal of a trend away from religious values (which is kind of ironic since his character hardly represents anything biblical);  an unprecedented pro Israel policy; a reversal of a terrible nuclear deal with Iran that freed up billions of dollars for them to spread terror all over the world while promising to wipe Israel off the map. 

(On that score while it may - and I emphasize may - have slowed down the race to build a nuclear weapon for a 10 year period, 5 of those years have already passed. Which means that in 5 short years Iran will be a thriving economy and free once again to pursue becoming a nuclear power. The restoration of sanctions is crippling their country. But Europe (the EU) is - for selfish economic reasons - still honoring that deal despite the fact that Iran has all but abandoned it and resumed enriching uranium.)

And let us not forget his aggressive policy with respect to developing and distributing a COVID vaccine. Operation 'Warp Speed' should provide us with a vaccine in record time - to just about everyone's surprise! Perhaps even by the end of this year according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Now let us look at the Democrat,  former Vice-President (under President Barack Obama) Joe Biden. Although he has some character flaws of his own, they are nowhere near those of the current President. By comparison Biden is a saint! His demeanor will certainly be more presidential.  He will surely restore the dignity and honor to the Oval Office. Which has been destroyed by the current occupant. He will surely not be totally guided by self promotion. 

However, his policies, both domestic and foreign, will surely return to those implemented by the President he served.

On the domestic side he has promised to raise taxes on major corporations to at least what they were when he was Vice-President. That will surely have a negative impact on the economy.

On the foreign policy side he has promised to restore the horrible deal with Iran. That will give them an economic boost so that in less than 5 years when the deal expires they will resume their race to become a nuclear power. Only they will be in a much more economically viable position to do so.

With respect to Israel he has promised to restore the policy in place when he was in office. Even though he has promised to support Israel which includes financial aid - and military and intelligence cooperation, rhetoric about settlements being the primary impediment to peace will resume. We can also expect more abstentions on UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel - allowing them to pass!

I don’t know which is the lesser of two evils here. I know it is easy for partisans on either side to say how obvious the choice should be. But for me it is not that obvious. Those who place character over everything will say that choosing Biden is the obvious choice. It is an understatement to say that the country is not served well by Trump, a man of low moral character who is so consumed with himself.

I hear that and even agree with it. We have definitely been hurt by that. 

But I loathe the thought of returning to the polices of the Obama administration. Because that too will be bad for the country. And for Israel. Although it will be great for Iran.  Those who support Trump consider the choice to be a no brainer. Believing it foolish to vote for Biden and restore his 'anti' Israel policies.. Each side sees the other side as other stupid, immoral, or worse.

No clue which direction to go. Both are bad? But which is worse?

Friday, July 31, 2020

Seth Rogin, Israel, and Judaism


If not for the Torah, the Arabs would be right. I don’t know how many times I have quoted my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik saying this. But it’s probably in the hundreds.

Those of us who knew Rav Ahron’s views supporting settling all of Eretz Yisroel might find this comment to be counter-intuitive to say the least. But I heard him say it along with the rest of my class. 

Depsite the seeming incongruity this is very in line with his worldview. His views on settlements reflected his staunch view of what Halacha had to say about the Torah's prohibition against giving up any art of biblical Israel. (When I asked him about the Pikuach Nefesh issue his response was that giving up land to our enemies was an even greater  Pikuach Nefesh. (At the time I disagreed with him - instead agreeing with other Gedolim who felt that Pikuah Nefseh argued in favor of making a land for peace deal. But that is beside the point of this post.)

His support for settlements did not diminish his sense of justice and righteousness. Which is why he felt that the only valid argument for supporting Israel is the Torah. Otherwise we had no right to march in there and take control. 

What about other compelling arguments for doing that? I’m sure R’ Ahron knew those arguments. He obviously felt that no matter what their need, colonizing land where other people lived was not right.

That being said, I am far more inclined towards the views expressed by Rabbi Yair Hoffman on VIN.  And yet, even there one can poke a few holes into what he said. For example: That our founding fathers did the same thing Israel’s founding fathers did does not make either of them right. There is also the fact that no Native American wants to drive the rest of us onto the sea. Nor do they even use their legitimate argument to insist giving the land our forefathers colonized belongs to them because they were here first. Native Americans simply want to be treated equally, much the same way black people do.

Why bring all this up at all? It is because of a viral video of where comic actor Seth Rogen trashes Both Israel and Judaism. Rabbi Hoffman took Rogin to task by countering his anti Israel diatribe with a well thought out response.

But if you think about it, Rogen’s view of the State of Israel doesn’t differ that much with R’ Ahron’s view - in the sense that they both agree that without the Torah, the Arabs would be right. The fact is that Rogein does not believe in the Torah – or any religion. Thus making our colonization of that land at the expense of the indigenous Arabs unjust. To quote Rogen (from VIN): 
“To me it (referring to Israel’s existence) just seems an antiquated thought process. If it is for religious reasons, I don’t agree with it, because I think religion is silly. If it is for truly the preservation of Jewish people, it makes no sense, because again, you don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place — especially when that place is proven to be pretty volatile, you know? “I’m trying to keep all these things safe, I’m gonna put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place… that’ll do it.” It doesn’t make sense to me. And I also think that as a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life! They never tell you that — oh by the way, there were people there.” 
There are two ways to come to Rogen’s point of view. Either because there was a lack of any serious Jewish education about our rights to that land. Or there was a relatively decent Jewish education but he went OTD – especially if it was because of intellectual reasons. Not sure which one applies to Rogen. Apparently he did have some sort of Jewish education but there is no way of knowing whether it was Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or communal.

Either way it leaves Jews like Rogen vulnerable to the anti Israel rhetoric made by Palestinian spokesmen and their sympathizers. Which include leftist academics, certain entertainment figures, and sometimes the mainstream media. Whose spin is almost always not in Israel’s favor.

If you don’t believe in the Torah or any religion, and are a liberal - then you tend to side with the underdog. It is then not much of a leap buying into the Palestinian narrative. I think that explains Rogen’s comments.

If you believe in the Torah that explicitly grants the Jewish people unequivocal ownership of the land, everything else Rabbi Hoffman says follows. It’s just too bad that this particular Jew does not.

Rogen is just another casualty of the trend of secular Jews leaving Judaism. He may still value a tradition or two (as in his example of sitting Shiva). But liking a particular ritual without believing in the Torah, makes it no more Jewish that an Irish wake.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Names, Not Numbers

My brother Jack and my grandson Mordechai
It was in the middle of winter in the Ukraine. The Holocaust was in full bloom. My father, uncle and 3 brothers were living in a hole in the ground. Literally. It was dug out by my uncle Aaron and my father after escaping their first bunker, which was discovered through the efforts of some people that found out about it and informed the Nazi occupiers of that town.

The first bunker was a magnificent structure built by my uncle Aaron right under the nose of the Nazis. It was located beneath the cellar of a building and not visible to the naked eye. It was built to accommodate 80 people. It had heat, electricity, running water, a sewer system, a radio, enough food stocked away for a year and plenty of toys and games for the children. It also had a plan for escape should they be discovered. Which my family did when they were.

Which brings me back to the 2nd bunker which was also made by my Uncle Aaron with the help of my father  in the most rudimentary way - while on the run. A large hole in the ground - camouflaged with twigs that covered it. Next to that they dug another hole to be used as a sort of outhouse. Or better put – a huge toilet.

This is but a small part of my father and brothers’ experiences surviving the Holocaust. My uncle Aaron did not survive. Neither did my oldest brother, Yehudah. Whom I never met since I was born after the Holocaust. The rest of the story can be found in a previous post located here.

Today, only one of my brothers is still alive. His Holocaust experiences were so painful that he has never talked about it. It brought him too much pain.

Until now. He has decided to share this painful experience with the world as testimony that it really happened. And that the tortures of the Holocaust were not limited to the camps. As my family’s story well illustrates.

Last night I was witness to my brother Jack’s testimony along with his the testimony of his wife Anne, and that of 4 other survivors. It was produced, filmed, and edited earlier this year by a group high school seniors and juniors at my alma mater, HTC. (Today known as Fasman Yeshiva High School.)  One of the interviewers is my grandson, Mordechai Greenland who just graduated.

It is part of a national Holocaust remembrance project called ‘Names, Not Numbers’. It is a documentary about survivors. What better day than Tisha B’Av is there than to remember what happened to us just over 7 decades ago? As retold by those that lived through it. And to have the resolve to never let this happen to us again. Because, you see, Jewish lives matter, too.

I therefore am proud to feature this documentary. Right here. Right now.


COVID and Jewish Education

Some Arie Crown Hebrew Day School students
Is it a blessing in disguise? Or is it a curse? Maybe it’s neither. And the facts lie elsewhere.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But they are certainly worth asking. I am talking about how the pandemic has impacted Jewish day school enrollment.  As Ben Sales  JTA article notes, it’s complicated.

To say the least!

Focusing first on non Orthodox days schools, Sales make that very clear. Some schools are experiencing an increase in enrollment. Some a decrease.

What about that increase? What’s causing it? Let us take one example mentioned by Sales, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School in Chicago. They are experiencing an “insane” level of interest from new families: 
Now (the) school is planning on full-time in-person instruction this fall, and families are flocking to it. The school is holding an event for 35 prospective families next week, and (Solomon  Schechter principal, Lena) Kushnir anticipates as many as five to 10 could wind up enrolling their children. 
This might make some of us wonder - if non Orthodox movements are really in danger of extinction – with polls showing an over 70% intermarriage rate, does that mean the polls are wrong after all? Are things turning around? I wish I could believe that. But that is exactly what it is. A wish. Not the reality.

I certainly understand why a family with 2 working parents would want their children to attend a full time in person school. Chicago schools have yet to determine what their structure and schedule will look like due to the pandemic. This unexpected boost in enrollment might be seen by their leaders an unexpected existential boost for the Conservative Movement. Their desire to reverse their trend towards oblivion is now being helped by a deadly virus

However, my guess is that at the end of the day, it won’t work. If the motivation is strictly a matter of convenience to working parents, the Jewish education their children will get in these schools will hardly last.

If they don’t see at home what they are taught in school, it is unlikely that it will making a lasting impression. So, I’m afraid the attrition out of Judaism will unfortunately continue – even as it might be somewhat delayed at the moment by increased enrollment due to the pandemic.

This also raises the question about how wise a full time in-person class schedule in the fall is. Is it a good idea? Even if all the precautions are implemented?

There is no question that no matter how careful the precautions are adhered to, daily attendance by hundreds of kids under one roof will increase the chances of community spread. The CDC has determined that COVID infected children over 10 years of age can spread the virus exactly the same way as adults can. And at the same rate. Only children are less likely to show symptoms. Which means that some children that were not infected before, may unknowingly become infected in school and unwittingly bring it home to their parents.

What about Orthodox day schools? What affect is the pandemic having there?  I guess it depends somewhat on where one lives. California for example is not allowing any in person classes. Not sure about New York or even my home town of Chicago. My guess is that there will be some sort of modified in person instruction combined with remote online line learning. 

The difference between day schools like Solomon Schechter and Orthodox day schools is the fact that despite the near unbearable tuition costs (even with the partial scholarships most parents get) the vast majority of Orthodox Jews know how invaluable a Jewish education is to perpetuating a Jewish future. In one Chicago day school that I am aware of, enrollment was up and hitting record numbers long before anyone ever heard of COVID. I’m sure that is true for just about every other day school in Chicago.

With rare exception, the education children get in these schools – sticks! That’s because what they are taught in the schools is practiced at home. COVID or no COVID, it doesn’t matter.

This doesn’t mean there is no debate among Orthodox parents about how schools should proceed based on the pandemic? Of course there is debate. Some think the schools should stay closed. Others think they should open up full time. Still others think there ought to be something in-beween. 

However, I believe the vast majority would agree that the main reason for sending their children to a day school is to perpetuate Judaism – convenience based on COVID being a distant second. Something Orthodox parents have always backed up with a willingness to pay for with backbreaking fees.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Good Trouble

John Lewis awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama (Boston Globe)
John Lewis was a role model for what it takes to make the promise of this country a reality for everyone. His passing has generated much praise about the life he lived - including praise from fellow public servants on both sides of the political aisle . Many have called him the conscience of congress. With good reason. Good trouble is what he called his protests. He rocked the boat of the segregationist South and got into trouble there for doing it. But it paid off.

He was willing to put his own life on the line for the cause of true equality in this country, albeit always through peaceful protest - following the example of his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King. He knew and lived the suffering black people faced in the South because of segregation.

Although in theory the abolition of slavery meant that black people would be treated equally – if separately -  ‘separate but equal’ rights were anything but equal back in the 60s. I have no clue in what world segregation in the South could have ever been considered equal. It was a lie so obvious that even a small child could see it. It affected every aspect of their lives negatively depriving black people rights as basic as a decent public school education.

Not to mention the fact that voting rights were all but denied them (although on paper they weren’t) and the indignities they suffered. This is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. Culminating with the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation forever.  

The cost of getting there was not cheap. People were beaten and killed marching for those rights. At the age of 23, John Lewis was one of those beaten during the now famous march with Dr. King down the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Among those who marched along arm in arm with Dr. King - proudly wearing a Kipa was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel who was at that time an esteemed teacher and mentor to many students at Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution, JTS.

And who can forget  Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, freedom riders from the North – one of whom was black; 2 of whom were Jewish; all of whom were all killed on their way to join their fellow black citizens in the South.

Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement did not go unnoticed by John Lewis. This generated a lifelong positive relationship with the Jewish community. He understood that both communities had suffered discrimination over their long history and that both shared the dream of assuring equality for all Americans regardless of race, religion, or color.

Sadly that dream has not yet fulfilled its promise. The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis cop was the last straw demonstrating that we have a long way to go. The segregated South of the past was not the only section of the country that was racist. There was still plenty of it to go around in all sections of the country. That murder has generated massive protests across the country under the banner of ‘black lives matter’. Most of them having the goal of eliminating racism at all levels of society.

Unfortunately some of those protests resulted in violence which undermined their cause. In some cases protest leaders were fighting for defunding and/or dismantling the police. And tearing down statues of American icons.

Cries by some protest leaders about how little progress has been made and how terrible conditions still are for black people was another thing that did not go unnoticed by John Lewis. He quickly reminded the world of all the progress that has been made since the days of the police bashing black heads back in Selma on that ‘Bloody Sunday’. Not the least of which was the election of a black President despite the fact that only 10% of the population is black.

One of the things that made Lewis great is that he was consistent no matter what the consequences. When asked to participate in the Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan, he refused to participate despite the huge public platform offered to him - citing Farrakhan’s antisemitism as the reason for refusing.

I want to therefore offer my own salute to this icon of the Civil Rights Movement. He did a lot for this country. If only the radicals trying to tear down this country in the name of racism would use him as their role model- imagine the progress that could be made. Instead of dividing the country they could unite it.

Monday, July 27, 2020

What Does Being Transgender Really Mean?


Yiscah Smith  (New York Post)
The first time I ever encountered the issue of transgenderism was on a made for TV movie many decades ago. I recall feeling great sympathy for the transgender child – a young boy that felt he was actually a girl. He was constantly bullied by his peers. What a way to have to go through life! I thought. But it gave me a measure of comfort to ‘know’ that this was an extremely rare and abnormal state of mind. The fact that I had never heard of it, underscored that belief.

Fast forward to today. It is obviously not as rare as I once thought. In fact as Rabbi Efrem Goldberg noted in a dramatic lecture on this subject, it is a lot more common that most of us would ever imagine it to be. He had in fact encountered such an individual in his own Shul.  A member who was otherwise an exemplar of Torah and Mitzvos asked him a Shaila (Halachic question) about whether he could - at age 60 - change his sex from a man to a woman. Rabbi Goldberg consulted a world class Posek (who apparently wished to remain anonymous) and was told that he gets 2 or 3 that Shailos like that every week!

Rabbi Goldberg went on to describe the pain such people go through – to the point of depression and even suicide. Although it is not clear what role Pikuach Nefesh plays in such decisions his answer was that it is not permissible to mutilate oneself for purposes of changing one’s sex. Rabbi Goldberg’s point however was that what these people feel is legitimate pain at their circumstance and they are not in some sort of rebellion against God. One may not judge them and instead should have great sympathy for what they go through.

I mention this in light of documentary film reviewed by Sarah Ridner in First Things. The film is about a former Chabad Shaliach (emissary) in the old city of Jerusalem. After a series of identity changes – he became an Orthodox woman whose name is now Yiscah Smith.

Interestingly his journey did not begin in Chabad. He was raised in a secular family and was drawn to examine his Judaism via a chance visit to Israel. After exploring several versions of Judaism including spending some time in the Jewish Theological Seminary, he eventually gravitated to Chabad Chasidus.  That is where he resided Hashkaficly for the next 20 years. Which included marriage and six children - ultimately becoming a Chabad Shaliach.

And yet after all that ‘soul searching’ he made another drastic change to his life by coming out as gay and abandoning Orthodoxy. After a 20 year loving relationship with his wife and children - he severed ties with them.

Apparently that was still not enough. There was still something missing in his life. Long story short he became a woman and returned to Orthodox observance. Now at almost 70 years of age, this is where and who he is.

So here we have someone who sincerely sought out spirituality found it, loved it, abandoned it and finally returned to it as a transgender human being. Whether this is the final version of Smith’s identity remains to be seen.

I do not buy Smith’s rationalization about the Torah’s impressibility to mutilate your body despite its clear prohibition. It is similar the rationalization by some in gay community about the permissibly of male gay sex  despite the Torah’s clear prohibition against that. But I certainly understand the attempt in both cases. If one seeks spirituality while at the same time trying to live their lives as they believe it was meant to live, it is only natural to try and find interpretations that fit into that model.

But the Torah does not work that way. If it did, it would practically be meaningless since one can find ways to interpret the Torah to mean anything one wishes - so that it fits with a personal circumstance or worldview. That is for example how the Conservative Movement permitted driving to Shul on Shabbos.

What prompted me to write about this case is that despite what is known about transgenderism, there was always something about it that made me question what it really is. What does it mean  to be a woman in a man’s body (or vice versa) in today’s world? Especially if one does not go through with the sexual reassignment surgery. Which is often the case. 

It used to be called cross-dressing and considered a mental disorder. It is also explicitly forbidden by the Torah. Now it no longer is considered a mental disorder (although it is still of course forbidden by the Torah). My issue with it was alluded to by the author: 
A secular woman can dress androgynously in a T-shirt and jeans and do most public things that a man does. In contrast, in order to appear as an Orthodox woman, Smith must wear long skirts or dresses, pray in the women’s section of the synagogue, and perform rituals reserved to women (such as lighting Sabbath candles)... 
Although Smith comes across sympathetically in I Was Not Born a Mistake, the film’s vision of womanhood as defined by lipstick, colorful formfitting clothing, and standing on the women’s side of the m’itsah is shallow and brittle. 
It is in fact true that most secular women have no problem wearing men’s clothing. Blue jeans and a T-shirt is for example as normal as could be in our word today for either sex. And yet if a transgender man who did not have the surgery did that - would he feel like a woman wearing men’s clothing? I don't see how.  Does this not imply that it is in reality about cross-dressing and not about feeling like a woman? 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sympathy for transgender people. We should. Their pain is real. But I’m just not sure we can avoid calling it a mental disorder. At least not in all cases.

Just some of my thoughts.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Democracy Under Siege

A violent protest in Nashville in May sparked by the murder of George Floyd
Things are really starting to fall apart. I never thought I would live to see the world turned as upside down as it is today. Past Orthodoxies are now seen as lies.  Heroes are now seen as villains. Protests against things that have always been considered the ‘givens’ of a free society are now common.  There are now more protests than ever, some of which have turned violent – with public officials unable to do anything about them.

The media has now almost abandoned all pretense of objectivity. Free speech seems to be free only if it supports progressive ideals. 

On top of all that we are in the midst of a pandemic that seems to have no end. People are still dying in record numbers. Hospitals in highly populous states like California and Florida are filled to capacity with sick COVID patients - many of whom will not survive and die alone. 

The economy is tanking. Because of this pandemic, many businesses have closed down. Some of which will never reopen. People have lost jobs and will not be getting them back. People who had steady jobs are now unable to meet their financial obligations – in some cases unable to pay their mortgages or their rent... or even feed their families.  Schools have no idea how to open safely this fall if at all.

Entertainment venues that have been taken for granted for over a century are now gone. Concerts, live theater, movies, sporting events with cheering crowds, have all but disappeared. No more banquets, weddings with few guests. 

Meanwhile half the country treats the pandemic as if it doesn't exist while the other half takes it seriously. Which has caused violent confrontations in some cases. People walking around the streets with masks, and those who refuse to do so. Fights breaking out between them in some areas. Shuls operating under the weirdest of circumstances.

Legitimate protests against racism have given way to irrational demands challenging some of the basic institutions of a free society. More than ever - turning violent in some cases.

Last week there was a protest demanding the removal a statute of Columbus in a Chicago’s Grant Park. Friday night, the mayor removed the statue instead of protecting it. I know the mayor wanted to avoid conflict. But we should not be giving in to  mob rule. And yet that is what Mayor Lightfoot seems to have done.

The same thing is true in Portland where for over 8 weeks - a mob has taken over a police station and has not moved - demanding the police be dismantled. Portland’s mayor has basically conceded that territory to them  - saying that they are merely exercising free speech!

Yesterday there were even more protests in Chicago. One demanding that the police be de-funded since they only protect the wealthy. Another supporting the police whose job it is to protect the public without which there would be a major increase in violent crime. There was also a protest marching for peace. Meanwhile a group of up to 1000 motorcyclists (or more) rode wildly through the streets of Chicago - speeding through red lights - in some cases riding on sidewalks. 

Public officials seem to be conceding to the protesters demands against all common sense. Chaos now seems to be the new normal. 

Politically the country is more divided than ever. With each side continually moving further away from the center. Where we were once a nation guided by religious ideals, we are now guided by humanist ideals. More than ever - being religious is being compared to being ignorant – especially by the powerful entertainment industry. 

The 2 candidates for the highest office in the land are both less than desirable (to say the least) for different reasons.

I’m sure I have only scratched the surface of the problems we have now that  - less than a year ago were barely on anybody’s radar.

OK. It’s not the Holocaust. Not even close. There is no genocide. No one is being rounded up and being sent to concentration camps. Or kept in ghettos under guard of the Gestapo in unlivable conditions. There is no world war with soldiers being killed on the battlefield.

But we are not exactly living in paradise either right now. The world has gone mad - without a single shot being fired except by gangs shooting at each other and increasingly killing innocent bystanders.

I am discouraged. Is this the end of America as we know it? ...the America I know and love? Will this combination of events descending upon us all at once be the end of us? I sure hope not. If this democracy continues down the path of radicalism, I fear the replacement will make the former Soviet Union look like Paradise!