Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Travel Day

I'm on my way to Israel. My wife and I will be spending Yom Kippur and Sukkos in  Ramat Bet Shemesh (Aleph) with our son and his family. I'll be posting from there beginning tomorrow. I will be davening at Massas Mordechai (on Dolev) for Shachris most mornings - including Shabbos and Yom Tov (the 'Magen Avraham' minyan located in the 'Shtiebel Aleph' auxilary bet medrash). If you're in the neighborhood at that hour come on over and say hi.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shvartze!

Ben Fauldling
What does it mean to be a Baal Teshuva? Baal Teshuva (BT) is the term commonly used to refer to a Jew that grew up in a non observant home and at some point became observant. (Often referred to as becoming Frum or religious.) How or why that happens is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that there are probably as many reasons as there are Baalei Teshuva.

I have always admired the BT. Unlike me, they became observant by seeking Emes. I was raised Frum and never had to think about it. In this very important respect, they are head and shoulders above me in their Avodas HaShem – service to God.

In many cases their motivation and sincerity surpasses those of us that are ‘Frum from birth’ (FFB). Many of us observe the Mitzvos out of habit - as much we do  out of devotion to God.  Not so the Baal Teshuva. They left a life free of any obligation to embrace a life filled with restrictions. This is not an easy task for someone raised in a society that  promotes the idea of individual freedom.

But what if an individual becomes a BT is of a different race? Ben Faulding is one such individual. Ben is a black man who was born a Jew and became a Baal Teshuva. What he discovered was prejudice on both sides of the racial divide. Which he described in a post he wrote back in 2014 - covered at the time by the OU (posted recently on Orthodox Jews Against Discrimination and Racism). 
“There is racism in every community and the Jewish community is no different,” said Faulding. “I hate to say that the Jewish community is racist but it is something that happens.” He gets comments from the black community, too, he added. “Strangers yell at me.” 
I can’t speak to the black prejudice on this issue. But I can, unfortunately, speak to the Jewish prejudice. Or better put - the ‘white’ Jewish prejudice. It is clearly there against black people in far too many of us. A prejudice that is not sourced in Judaism - yet in many of its people. Even among those of us that think we live our ideals. Which - because of this prejudice - is only partially true at best.

I have little doubt about this. I hear it all the time from some of my coreligionists in private conversation. They will refer to a black person using the word ‘Shvartze’. That word is a pejorative – no matter how many people deny it. It is never used in a complementary way.

I know the routine response. Whenever I mention this ‘plain as day’ fact, there will always be those who claim that the word ‘Shvartz’ is  simply Yiddish for the word ‘black’; the word ‘Shvartze’ means  a black person; and there is no inherent prejudice in using that word to refer to a black person.  (Right!...and I have a bridge to sell you.)

When that word is used it is usually used in a derisive tone. One that indicates the belief that a black person is somehow an inferior human being. To those who keep insisting that this is not so, you are either lying to the world or to yourselves.  Unless you are a native Yiddish speaker, why use that word when the English word ‘black’ can be used – which does not have any negative connotation?

What does a black man hear when the term Shvartze is used? Here is what Ben Faulding hears: 
Shvartze isn’t Yiddish for Black. Shvartze is Yiddish for Nigger 
Now it’s true that the word Shvartz technically means black. But word meanings evolve and sometimes take on a prejudicial tone depending on how society uses them. That is how the word Shvartze has evolved and is now used. The best example of that is the word ‘gay’. When someone was described as  gay it meant they  were happy or joyous. Now when someone is described as gay it means they are homosexual.

Those of who continue to deny that the word Shvartze is in any way meant as a pejorative, read what Ben Foundling has to say about it. And then stop using that word! Because the fact is that it is hurtful to a black person. Imagine if a black Jew decided to write the word Shvartze on his forehead. How would you react to it? This is what Ben did: 
I was sitting with photographer Steve Rosenfield, creator of the What I be Project. Steve offers people the opportunity to express their insecurities, by writing them on their faces. After a discussion about myself, Steve and I decided we would write Shvartze.  
It saddens me that a member of the Jewish community that I look up to for finding the truth of Judaism on his own rather than being raised that way – has to be treated with that kind of prejudice from the very community he embraces.

I don’t know whether that experience from about 4 years ago has made things any better for him. But it ought to make things better for us if we learn a lesson from it. What better time to learn that lesson than right now during this time of repentance.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Joining the Club

Co-signer of the document - Chabad leader in Chicago, Rabbi Baruch Hertz
‘We were living in the dark ages!’ That was Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst’s response to me when I told him how courageous he was as a co-signer (along with 100 other prominent Orthodox rabbis) of a document urging people to report suspicions of abuse directly to the police.

As reported by the Jerusalem Post, this was the sentiment expressed in  a new document issued by prominent rabbis of Chabad: 
“We recognize in light of past experiences that our communities could have responded in more responsible and sensitive ways to help victims and to hold perpetrators accountable,” 
The subject of sex abuse has long been one of the most discussed subjects on the internet. And for good reason. It is one of the most mishandled maladies of modern times. The Catholic Church was in the spotlight for many years because of their own mishandling sexual abuse committed by priests. 

Orthodox Judaism was not much better. Well intended rabbis had failed in their responsibility to victims (or survivors as they prefer to be called) ‘standing idly by while their brother’s blood was spilled’. 

It’s not that any of them were evil. God forbid. They were just misinformed and thought that they were being kind. They focused on the accused abusers believing accusations of abuse could not possibly be credible against upstanding members of their community. They instead often saw the victim as a liar out to ‘get’ someone that they didn’t like for one reason or another. 

Often the victim had lost his faith in Judaism because of the abuse they suffered. Thus complicating matters further. Rabbis saw an irreligious Jew accusing a religious Jew of the  worst kind of wrongdoing and simply did not believe them. It did not make any sense to them that an upstanding Jew would sexually abuse anyone. They were reluctant (to say the least) in granting any credibility to an OTD young person accusing someone like that of sexually abusing them.

That resulted in a secondary abuse. By rejecting the victims as liars they were in affect victimizing them a second time.

While this had disastrous consequences for the victims, they did not see it.That is because they were uneducated about the nature of sex abuse.

Fortunately, this is not longer the case. Many rabbinic leaders from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy have learned a bit about the nature of sex abuse and understand that one can be a prominent and contributing member of a community by ‘day’ and  sexual predator by ‘night’. That it is often the nature of predators to ingratiate themselves to the communities in which they live by living a seemingly pious life; providing lots of financial support to religious institutions; and doing many acts of Chesed. As one predator once admitted, he did that on purpose so that he would become immune to reports of abuse should one of his victims speak up. 

Many rabbis that used to act instinctively to protect the accused now know this and have changed course. And now prominent Chabad rabbis have joined them -  recognizing with regret their inappropriate reactions of the past.

It seems however that there are still pockets of the Orthodox establishment that have not signed on to this. If believe that communities like Satmar haven’t budged from their position of siding with the accused and vilifying the victim. This is aht happened in the Nechmeia Weberman case. He was convicted of sex abuse and sentenced to 150 years in prison. To the best of my knowledge  they continue to proclaim his innocence.

Many of Lakewood’s rabbinic leaders and Agudah have improved greatly in their attitude about sex abuse. But as far as I know, they still require reporting credible suspicions of abuse to rabbis before reporting them to police. I understand their reticence. They still fear that prominent people might be accused by disaffected youth with an anti Torah agenda. They want to be absolutely sure that that the accused will be protected from that. Accusations that – even when totally false can ruin a person’s reputation for life as well as that of his family. But the likelihood of an accusation being false is small compared to the likelihood of it being true. Furthermore as Chabad notes: 
“Regardless of the standing of the abuser, accusers and their family, members must be treated in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner so that they feel safe and can therefore speak frankly and fully,” said the Chabad statement. “This is necessary for them to receive suitable therapeutic support, and in order to facilitate proper investigation and pursuit of justice. Shunning or encouraging social ostracism of victims, their families, or reporters is strictly forbidden.” 
Adding to the concern for the victims is the undeniable fact that people who know and respect an accused abuser cannot possibly be objective, not matter how religious they are.  That’s because they are human and subject to human bias. I cannot imagine treating an allegation of abuse against a prominent Jew with a record of service to the community being put on equal footing with the victim’s denial of it. This is not to impugn the character of these rabbis. It is only to say that they are human.

The remaining reticent rabbis need to ‘leave it the authorities’ when someone is accused of sex abuse. The authorities are not evil people. They are trained to deal with sex abuse and to ferret out the truth. And they should be trusted. In the rare instance where an accused abuser turns out to be innocent. (this does happen as I am personally aware of at least two cases of it), it may be traumatic for him and his family and hard to overcome. But the reverse is a far greater problem. When victims are treated as liars - they are abused a second time. This contributes to their going OTD, becoming clinically depresssed and ‘self medicating’ with alcohol and drugs. And sometimes suicide!

Those rabbis who have come around to the need to report suspicions of abuse to police now realize this. Which is why Rabbi Fuerst made that ‘dark ages’ comment.  And why Chabad has now joined in requiring sex abuse to be directly to the reported to police. Let us pray that at this time of Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka, that these reticent rabbis join the ‘club’ of Orthodox rabbis from across the spectrum who are now urging their public to do the right thing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Judgment and Mercy

Guest Contribution by Meira Greenland

The well known and haunting prayer Nesaneh Tokef is recited on both days of Rosh Hashanna and the day of Yom Kippur during the Musaf service. Tradition has it that this prayer was written about 1000 years ago by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. He wrote it as he was about to die after suffering torture and mutilation at the hands of his ‘friend’ the Bishop of Mainz for refusing to convert to Christianity. This prayer captures the theme and the mood of these days of awe. God judges all of our actions from the preceding year and records our fate in His heavenly book... Who will live and who will die.... Who by water; who by fire…

This sobering prayer ends with hope by telling us what can spare us an unfavorable judgment: Teshuva, Teffilah, and Tzedka – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will remove the evil decree!

It is with this in mind that I present a Dvar Torah written by my granddaughter, Meira, who has begun her post high school year of study in Israel. It follows:

In this weeks Parsha (Ha'azinu), we find some of the  יג מידות  (thirteen attributes) of HaShem in the Psukim. In 32:4 It writes about how even though HaShem is מאד חזק (very strong) , when He brings punishment upon us- He does it exactingly - according to דין (judgement). He controls his anger and does not "overreact". HaShem in His ultimate wisdom knows exactly the right דין in every situation. He has רחמים (mercy) and doesn't "overpour" the punishment on us. 

Later in the Parsha Rashi points out how the דור הפלגה(generation of Noach) stole and had lots of jealousy. So Hashem was very angry. But, instead of destroying them, HaShem made borders between them and divided them. HaShem had the power to destroy and wipe them out. But He used His מידה של רחמים וארך אפים (attribute of mercy and being slow to anger) when He issued judgment. 

The ultimate theme of Rosh Hashanah is מלכות. And the ultimate theme of מלכות is using both mercy and judgment. On Rosh Hashanah and throughout עשרת ימי תשובה HaShem  judges us as our King. The King of Kings who is omnipotent.

HaShem has the capability to control His anger and to issue exacting judgment.

In these days we focus on doing Teshuvah while asking HaShem to use His מידות to judge us in the most favorable way and the most exacting way according to what we deserve. And to have רחמים on us. 

It's no coincidence that this Parsha falls out right after Rosh Hashanah, and right at the beginning of עשרת ימי תשובה to remind us that HaShem judges us with mercy and with precision- all we have to do is access that through Teshuvah and Tefillah. We are thus reminded that HaShem judges us with mercy and with precision- all we have to do is access that through Teshuvah and Tefillah. 

May we all be Zoche to a גמר כתימה טובה ושנה טובה ומתוקה!! 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Orthodoxy’s Successes and Failures

Image from Cross Currents for illustrative purposes only
I have been saying for some time now that the handwriting is on the wall. Today’s heterodoxy is about to join the many other movements that have arisen in Jewish history that are now either extinct or almost extinct. It is only a matter of time. 

I know that a lot of people get upset with me when I bring it up. But I am just the messenger.  Those who are making these kinds of predictions are not Orthodox nor do they have any anti heterodox agenda. They are respected academics. Such as Steven M. Cohen and Mickey Gussow and Edieal Pinker who made similar observations in a recent Forward article. The reasons for these kinds of conclusions are all spelled out and are hard to dispute. I think this can largely be summed up as follows: 
Only the Orthodox are having enough children to fuel population growth. Conservative and Reform Jews are falling well short of population replacement. We may compare Reform/Conservative Jews with the Orthodox at different ages. Among 60-69 year olds, the ratio of Conservative/Reform to Orthodox is 14:1. Among 30-somethings, it falls to just over 2:1. And among the children, it’s less than 3:2, as Orthodox numbers have almost caught up to the combined Conservative and Reform numbers.
The data clearly show how non-marriage, intermarriage, and low birthrates have taken their toll on Conservative and Reform population numbers. 
No surprises here. Just hard data. But this post is not about that. It is only a preface to a real problem facing Orthodoxy that some might argue counters its growth. I’ve heard it argued that Orthodoxy’s OTD problem is so great that those opting out of observance outnumbers those coming in as newly observant (often called Baalei Teshuva or BTs). 

I have no real way of knowing whether that’s true or not. But even if it is that still leaves the much higher birthrate as the primary reason for our growth. Orthodox Jews do have substantially more children than Jewish members of heterodox movements or Jews of no affiliation.  That seems pretty clear.

But that still leaves going OTD as a major problem. Especially if there are more ‘leaving’ than ‘coming in’. Either way it is growing one that is far from being solved. And one that should give us pause before we celebrate any victory for Torah observance and the lifestyle it engenders. There is no victory when there is such a massive attrition rate.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer makes note of that in his own article of the subject at Cross Currents. Here is what he says: 
I am concerned about trends in Modern and Charedi Orthodoxy. In Israeli society, there is a very steep attrition rate among Religious Zionist youth, and the situation in America does not appear to be so posivite either. Although the numbers are not as severe among Charedi youth, there is an increasing preponderance of stories of such youth “going OTD”, including children and grandchildren from prestigious rabbinical families. All in all, there is powerful growth, but the substantive cracks cannot be overlooked.
In Modern Orthodoxy (MO), the factors for attrition are: 1) positive immersion in/embrace of secular culture, including its values and practices, which are frequently antithetical to Torah practice  and values; 2) an often sterile, uninspiring religious atmosphere. 
I think that’s right to a large degree as it pertains what I refer to as MO-Lite families. I do not, however, see this as a problem in more right wing MO (Centrist) families that are serious about observance and where that is reflected in the home. Unfortunately I believe that there is a  lot more MO Lite families in Modern Orthodoxy than there are serious Centrist ones. 

While there are serious Left Wing Modern Orthodox families that are similarly serious, the problems there are of a different kind and beyond the scope of this post.

Rabbi Gordimer deals with the OTD problem in the Charedi world, too: 
(M)uch of the educational system avoids any parnassa training until the point of sha’s ha-dechak or close to it has created some serious problems – which inevitably impact the religiosity of a portion of those caught up in the problems. (Not to mention that this strategy is bound to force people to rely on public assistance and perhaps cut the corners of honesty due to major financial pressures.) …tens or hundreds of thousands of young men receive not even minimal parnassa training until extremely late into the game, if at all. Not to mention lack of instruction in decent and professional communication skills. 
This is all very true. I fully agree and have discussed these problems many times. But there are other reasons that a Charedi youth might go OTD. It isn’t just the lack of Parnassa training. In some cases it is abusive family situations. In some cases it is child sex abuse that turned them off. In some cases it is intellectual – based on unchallenged influences (such as the internet) outside the home or the classroom. Unchallenged because most educators still don’t know how to deal with them. 

But I think the biggest problem It is the way the Charedi educational system has evolved. I believe that the competition between Charedi schools to be the best (i.e. where the most Torah is learned) - and/or to be frummest (I.e. where more Chumra observance is required) has caused more young people to go OTD than any other reason. Maybe even more than all other reasons combined.

Now I have no proof that this is the greatest reason. But if one reads the story of ‘Malkie’ and so manhy other soreis like hers, I don’t see how one can have any other conclusion. It would be interesting if a survey of these young people could be done to see what the percentage of them were turned them off by  their educational experience.

I believe the problem is a lot greater than anyone realizes or is willing to admit. This is not a new problem. Nor is its growth anything new. What isn’t new is a realistic solution. For Modern Orthodoxy the solution is to make Judaism more inspiring to their youth. Inspiration begins in the home. Which means somehow inspiring the parents. How to do that is beyond m paygrade. But I think that is the only real solution.

What about OTD Charedi youth? First there needs to be a good secular studies program. Furthermore there has to be an end to the completion between schools. The workload of all students has to be lightened. There has to be room for young people to come home and chill... to spend some time on hobbies or the like. No student should be required to spend all of their time away from school doing homework.

Frumkeit ought to be abandoned as a goal – leaving that up to each household. (If a family does not use Chalav Yisroel, or the mother wears a denim skirt - that ought not be a cause for concern.) 

Every student ought to be treated by every teacher as the most important person in the room. No matter what their capabilities are. 

But perhaps most important is that – just like the MO community, this community too needs to be inspired. I recall one wise educator (I no longer recall who) saying that the problem isn’t that children are going off the Derech. The problem is that they were never ‘on’ the Derech in the first place.  They are uninspired by what they are taught in the home or in the school. Which is more of a ‘what’ than a ‘why’. 

Yes it’s important to know what the Halacha is and how to do it properly. But if that is all that a child learns he may end up asking the ‘why’ himself and coming up with his own answers. And they may not be the ones you want to hear.

So, yes Orthodoxy has a lot to be proud of. We are the only denomination that seems to have a future. But as we go forward we ought to pause and reflect. And make sure that no one is left behind.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Outside of Orthodoxy

Scene in Jerusalem yesterday (Jerusalem Post)
I’ve tried to ignore stories like this. Not because they don’t upset me. They do. But because they are so ‘normal’ for that community – I should be used it by now. But when I read yet another story of violent protest on the part of extremist Charedim in Israel, I can’t help but recoil. They more than upset me. They enrage me. I get so angry that I sometimes want to go over there and cheer the police on!

I am referring to yet another demonstration by extremist Charedim. From the Jerusalem Post
(T)he grandson of the grand rabbi of one of these extremist groups, the hassidic Toldos Avraham Yitzhak sect, was detained two weeks ago by the military police for failing to report to the IDF enlistment office when called to do so, which led to Sunday’s riots. 
A law worked out in the Kensset between the religious parties and the government exempts all Yeshiva students from serving in the army. All the government requires them to do to get that exemption is to register with them. The majority of Charedi Yeshiva students do exactly that and get their exemption (or deferment).  But as is well known by now there is a faction led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach that refuses  to do even that. He has called for resistance to the point of even being jailed if necessary.

Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Chasdim are not followers of Rabbi Auerbach. But they are of like mind – rejecting the State of Israel as an evil empire. So when one of them gets arrested for non compliance  - they riot.  And when the person being arrested is of ‘royal blood’ all hell breaks loose. At least that’s what it seems like form the pictures on VIN
Now people in any democracy have a right to protest what they believe to be unfair laws. While I believe the law is more than fair (in fact I believe it to be unfair to most of the rest of Israelis that not only register but actually serve) I still support the right to protest something one sees as wrong. What I do not support is what happened here.

These are vile people!  Not only were they violent - they protested in ways that forced police to use extreme measures to control the crowd. Making it appear that the police were the ones using unnecessary force against them. Otherwise known as police brutality.  

I know that police brutality exists. And that is condemnable. And there may have been some of that in this case, I don’t know. But it seems to me that the way they protested  was designed to elicit a violent response from the police. This way they can blame the whole thing on them and the ‘evil empire’ that sent them there! The empire without which these very same people would be slaughtered by another evil empire. A real one. Like Iran. Who promised to do exactly that if they get ever get the chance.

But these people are oblivious to this reality. They only see one evil empire: Israel. Their goal is the same as Iran’s goal: to eradicate the state of Israel. What they do not realize is that the genocide Iran has promised includes them!

I am so sick of people like this. It isn’t only those that are directly involved in rioting. I believe that they are widely supported by the rest of their community - as well as their own rabbinic leader. Especially since royalty is involved!

Which to me - makes this community a lot worse than the one currently protesting in St Louis. A police officer that shot a black suspect he apprehended was found not guilty of murder. That generated a protest by members of the black community that felt an injustice had been done. A white policeman got off the hook for killing a black man.

Now I trust the system. If after due process, a jury found him not guilty, that means they found his actions justified. But I also understand where the black community is coming from. There has been a history of prejudice against black people in this country that has in the past no doubt skewed justice against black people. So they are understandably protesting.

The protests have been peaceful by day. But they have turned violent at night. It is believed that a group of rabblerousers infiltrate the peaceful protesters then and cause all kinds of havoc with damage to public and private property. It isn’t too hard to draw a parallel to Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Chasidim rioting in the streets of Jerusalem.

I believe the two groups deserve the same kind of condemnation. If it were up to me, I’d throw them all in jail and throw away the key! I have a lot more respect for the peaceful protesters in St Louis than I do with the rioters of Toldos Avraham Yitzchak. Who are probably supported by the rest of the community. Unlike the violent protesters in St. Louis that are probably not supported by theirs.

It is unfortunate that Jews who are otherwise so meticulous in their ritual observances; devotion to the word of God as their rabbis interpret it; and whose belief system is based on the same tenets as mine - are at the same time such unsavory people. Accept for their ritual observance and the way they dress, they are no different from the unsavory rabble that have infiltrated the peaceful protesters in St. Louis.

I have no tolerance for any of these people whether in St. Louis or Jerusalem.  But when Jews are involved, it gets personal.

I occasionally see puff pieces written in Charedi magazines about communities like Toldos Avraham Yitzchak – praising them for their meticulous ritual observance. Or the kindness they might show to fellow Jews. Or the strong devotion they have towards their Rabbinic leader. Or their devotion to their ideals – even though they might not agree with them.

As  I said, I have no issue with disagreement and respecting those with views different than my own. But when those views generate the kind of behavior so common in these communities, they need to be called out.  This is what is lacking among the more mianstream Charedi factions of Orthodoxy. 

They need to be condemned for it by the rest of the Charedi world. Charedi  publications ought to publish a feature story on them along with the kind of pictures published in VIN - explaining why they deserve such condemnation instead of simply saying their views are different than ours. And unless or until these extremists change their ways, they should be considered Chutz L’Machane – outside of Orthodoxy! 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

An Open Plea to My Cousin, Elana

R' Binny Mendel Maryles
Elana Maryles Sztokman is family.  Her grandfather, Dave Maryles – a pioneer of Agudath Israel of America, was my father’s first cousin. I never actually met Elana. But I know her family quite well. Her great grandfather Binny Mendel Maryles (my father’s uncle) was the family patriarch and helped raise her father, aunt and uncles after her grandfather, David died too young from Leukemia in the 1950s. The Chicago branch of the family felt very close to Binny Mendel . He spent many a summer at our home in Toledo.

All of this happened long before Elana was born. While this may not be entirely relevant to this post, I thought a little family history is in order as a preface to what I am about to say.

I have always admired Elana - even when I disagreed with her. She has never been reticent to express her view no matter the personal consequences to herself. Which often included harsh criticism in the form of name calling by self styled Orthodox ‘keepers of the gate’ (to use her words).   As an Orthodox feminist she suffered some pretty abusive language from some pretty nasty people. Which served no purpose at all.

Even though I disagreed with her, I never questioned her motives. As a feminist she felt that egalitarianism  was the only way towards men and women being treated fairly in this world. Women are entitled to the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities in society as men. Only when that was achieved would  women realize their full potential as human beings. She believes that until that happens women will continue to suffer at least some degree of degradation.

I actually agree with her to a large extent. Where I part company with her most is in the area of Judaism. As I have said many times, egalitarianism is not the goal of the Judaism. The goal is to do the will of God as expressed in the Torah and interpreted by the rabbis thoughout the generations…. including our own.  While there is much overlap between the sexes in how we accomplish that, Judaism nonetheless sees different roles for us. This is anathema to the feminism of our day. Which Elana places on a very high plane.  That is why she accepted becoming the leader of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance).  And thus (for example) sees a woman becoming a rabbi as a egalitarian right.

What I never expected, however, is that she would seek to become a Reform rabbi. This is what she has announced she is about to do on her website, as reported by the Forward.

I have been reluctant to write about this because of the great respect I have for her parents. I do not want to hurt them, and I’m not sure how they feel about it. But with all the publicity surrounding this, I feel I must express how I feel about it. 

I am saddened! I cannot imagine her illustrious grandfather, having anything other than the same reaction – only that as grandfather  - a much stronger one. 

Ironically - last week’s Mishpacha Magazine had a hard hitting editorial by editor in chief Rabbi Moshe Grylak. He explained why he is so opposed to the Reform Movement. While I do not agree with everything he said, I do agree with the vast majority of it. Reform Judaism  wasn’t seen by its founders as a  movement equal to Orthodoxy. There was no Elu v’Elu. The founding fathers of Reform opposed Orthodox Judaism and tried to eradicate it. Quoting from the editorial
I recommend that you read Professor Jacob Katz’s book, A House Divided. Read about the early leaders of the Reform movement, the spiritual forefathers of those who are now demanding recognition of their legitimacy as a minority stream of Judaism in Israel, and how they persecuted the small remnant of Jews in their communities who clung to their faith in the Torah.
Read about how they joined forces with their local governments to stamp out every remaining kehillah of the Orthodox minority. How they silenced every voice raised in opposition, how they squelched every attempt to live by the Torah and its commandments. With their coercive, strong-arm tactics, they forced their new order on everyone within their reach and made a mockery of their own slogans and sermons about the right to be different, each according to his belief.  
Rabbi Gyrlak’s motive for writing the editorial was to explain specifically to those of us that are Orthodox and yet sympathize with Reform’s  ‘live and let live’ attitude why he is so adament in his opposition. These sincere but misguided (in my view) Orthodox Jews  argue we should just give in to their demands in that spirit. Here is why he says we can’t: 
What the Reform movement is demanding in Israel would require me to acknowledge that there is room in Judaism to deny the Divinity of the Torah and the obligation to fulfill mitzvos. They want me to agree that this is a valid Jewish outlook. Yet if I say I agree with that, I am proclaiming that the Torah is not of Divine origin. Obviously, my belief and theirs cannot coexist under the name of Judaism.  
Now it’s true that today’s Reform movement has ‘reformed’ itself again and now encourages observance rather fighting it. That point was overlooked by Rabbi Grylak.  But it doesn’t matter with respect to the primary argument’s he made.

Which brings me back to Elana. To join Reform Judaism as one or their rabbis is not only joing the movement. It is becoming a leader in it. Even if she remains observant (which she plans to do) to accept and be a leader of a movement that denies everything she believes in is a contradiction to the basic tenets of Judaism that she surely must have studied in her Jewish education. She is joining a movement that her parents, grandparents and great grandparent s fought against. By joining the Reform Movement she is saying  that their version of Judaism is as valid as that of Orthodoxy but better in the sense that it is more welcoming - and a far better place for feminists like her: 
(T)he Reform movement is the only (best) place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! 
Her experiences thus far have been very positive – describing the Reform rabbis that have been advising her in glowing terms – with the following admission:   
I am no longer interested in making "commitment to halakha" the be-all and end-all of my Jewish identification. I don't believe that the discussion about how to be Jewish should be about law. I think it should be about ethics, morality, and spirituality. 
While I agree that ‘ethics, morality, and spirituality’ are important facets of Judaism, Jewish law is paramount to our belief system. As important as ethics, morality, and spirituality are, they are not exclusively Jewish traits. Without Jewish law, there is no Judaism. At most you will have Jewish culture – which changes with the wind.

As we are about to enter Rosh HaShanna which begins the Aseres Y’Mei Teshuva, (10 days of repentance)  I would ask my cousin Elana, to re-consider her choices. Please please don’t do this. I ask you to reflect on your family and your heritage. The negative repercussions may be far greater than you anticipate. And doing this may end up being the biggest mistake of your life.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Embarrassing the President is Wrong

Image from Arutz Sheva
I am completely disgusted by their behavior. Which in this case has nothing to do with Judaism.

Although they might claim it does. Their religious beliefs revolve primarily around one issue -social justice. This is the only Mitzvah they place any real value on. And the ‘they’ in that sentence is heterodox rabbis.

Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis eat, live, and breath social justice. Heterodox movements are united. Social Justice is at the core of their beliefs. Those that do not see social justice their way are painted as heartless Neanderthals who might  as well be racists, bigots and antisemites.

The latest victim of their distorted views is the President. Now I am not a fan of the current President. I did not vote for him. And I agree that a lot of his rhetoric (mostly in the form of tweets) is foolish, insulting, misleading half truths, or sometimes just plain lies. He is (as I have said many times) an embarrassment to this country. But as I have also said, he is none of the things he is being painted as by heterodoxy. Nor directly, perhaps. But clrealy by inference through their actions. The President is not an antisemite, nor a racist, nor a bigot, nor an antisemite. Although he does attract them. Ironically, they see him the same way heterodox rabbis do.

The latest public demonstration of their antipathy for this President - is the rejection of the traditional conference call made by the President of the United States. Like his predecessor, President Trump wants to wish the Jewish people a Happy Jewish New Year directly through the rabbis of all major Jewish denominations. 

Heterodox rabbis – almost in unison have said ‘no thank you’ to the President because of what they claim is his ‘lack of moral leadership in the wake of Charlottesville’.  I agree that the President’s initial reaction to that event was less than perfect. But he is not guilty of what he is accused of: Not condemning the Nazis who protested in Charlottesville using their typical antisemitic rhetoric. The fact is that the President did condemn them by condemning racism and bigotry in all its forms.

What he did not do is specify the Nazi protesters in Charlottesville. Which was foolish but not surprising. He probably thought his initial comments condemning all racism was enough. But then added that there was violence on both sides.  That was seen by many people as equating Nazis to those that came to protest them.

It should be clear to anyone with a half a brain that the President does not equate Nazis to those who protest them. What the President actually did (rather badly to say the least) is try to say that there was- violence on both sides. That is a fact. The anti Nazi protesters came there for a fight and the Nazis were happy to oblige them. One of those Nazis took the fight to a higher level and rammed his car into the crowd killing one of the anti Nazi protesters. Which the president also condemned.

After almost universal and understandable criticism of the President for his intial seeming tepid and equivocating response, he later issued a clear statement condemning the Nazis by name without any equivocation. Only later to revert again back to blaming both sides and worse - claiming that there were good people on both sides.

The President’s critics went apoplectic after that. How in heaven’s name can anyone say that there is such a thing as a good Nazi?!  That is where their thinking ended.

I see it differently. The President was clearly not communicating what he meant.  I firmly believe that when he said there are people on both sides that are good, he wasn’t talking about Nazis. He was talking about people that were opposed to removing the statue of Confederate Icon, General Robert E. Lee. That is what generated the Nazi protest. There were good people that were opposed to that too (albeit not joining the Nazis in their antisemitic version of that protest). That’s who the President meant.  In no way did he – or would he ever - say that there is such a thing as good Nazis.

That conclusion seems pretty obvious to me. That anyone can think for even a half a second that a man whose daughter went through an Orthodox conversion to Judaism, and whose most valued adviser is his Jewish son-in-law  - is an antisemite is about the most laughable thing I can imagine.  

Not only does he rely heavily on the advice of his Jewish son-in-law, there are more Jews (and more observant Jews) in his inner circle than any other President in history! Not to mention that his choice for Ambassador to Israel was an observant openly pro Israel Jew. If Trump is an anti Semite, we could use a lot more like him.

None of this makes me regret voting against him. Nor do I agree with some of his polices. But one has to be fair in assessing the truth. Heterodox rabbis are blind to the truth because they do not agree with his politics. And they have great cover in hating him since he is such an easy target.

When they do agree with a President’s politics, they rarely criticize him. They overlook or spin any controversial view he expresses in positive ways. This was the case with former President Obama. As illustrated by Arutz Sheva
This is in sharp contrast to their silence about Obama's non-veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel, the first time the US withheld its veto in comparable situations. 
I am therefore very happy that all the representatives of all the mainstream Orthodox institutions have accepted his invitation. He will have a conference call with them, wishing them a happy Jewish New Year.

What about the vast majority of Jews in this country that are represented by these heterodox rabbis? I’m sure they support their rabbis’ decision to skip the call. Most non observant Jews that belong to one of these denominations have the same liberal approach to Judaism that their rabbis do. Judaism equals social justice. When they see anyone violating that tenet, in their minds they have violated what Judaism stands for.

The problem is that even though the non Orthodox demographic is by far the largest one - with as many as 90% of Jews in this country not Orthodox… this statistic will not last long. Their demise is already happening. A lot more quickly than anyone would have realized just a few years ago. Polls have shown that of the 90% of Jews that are not Orthodox - many  becoming increasingly secular. Intermarriage is no longer an issue for them. They are fine with it. Nor do they even care that they are themselves Jews. 

I predict that all the scrambling of their rabbis  to remedy that will be for nought. That ship has sailed. For better or worse, these movements are doomed. They will go the way of other historical ‘movements’ that veered away from rabbinic Judaism and have failed. They may not realize it yet. But their grandchildren (who many end up not even being Jewish) will. It is only a matter of time. This has nothing to do with my feelings about them. It is just plain fact.

Clearly the only denomination that will remain standing is the only one that is growing. Orthodoxy.  I am therefore proud of all of my fellow Orthodox rabbis that have accepted the President’s invitation. The President has correctly snubbed heterodox rabbis who said in advance that they would not accept an invitation if it were offered.

Orthodox rabbis understand that the President is not only NOT an antisemite, he is a philosemite.  He has proven that many times by who he chooses as his friends and advisers. They also understand that he is the President and that even if they might disagree with him on certain matters, they still respect the office and therefore the man that was duly elected to occupy that office. It’s that simple.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Will ‘A Jewish Father’ End Up with Jewish Grandchildren?

I literally do not know where to begin. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for this fellow or to just be angry at him.

An anonymous individual  that calls himself ‘A Jewish Father’ just wrote an article in the Times of Israel ‘crying bitter tears’ about his financial plight as a modern Orthodox (MO) Jew. A ‘plight’ he has since ‘corrected’ claiming victory over the financial oppression he felt. A victory that may end up being Pyrrhic. Unless he doesn’t care that much about his children’s Jewish future. More about that later.

His complaint is that Orthodox Judaism costs too much. And then goes about demonstrating that even someone like him - a practicing Jew that has an upper middle class income (well into six figures) is basically living from check to check. He says that after many years of working and living the (expensive) life of a religious Jew, he doesn’t have two nickels to rub together for his retirement.

His primary expense is (was) tuition for the religious education of his 4 children. At $20,000 per child he was paying $80,000 per year in pre tax dollars. Which he said was half of his post tax income. And because of his rather substantial income he was not given any financial assistance by the school.

Of course tuition expense wasn’t the only problem. There was the yearly expense of Pesach vacations for his family; summer camps for his children; and the cost of Kosher food amounting to as much as $12,000 per year. And various and other and sundry Jewish things - such as Shul dues and charitable contributions.

This is not to say that some of his complaints weren’t valid. They were… and still are. As are some of his suggestions for improvement.

There certainly is a tuition crisis. Everyone that now has – or has ever had - a child in the religious educational system knows that all too well. This is one of the most serious problems Orthodox Jews currently face. It is existential in nature. Without the benefit of a formal Jewish education, history has shown that Jews will not necessarily remain religious – or in some cases even care to be.  

Their Judaism is easily overtaken by the sweet lure of a secular lifestyle. Being raised in a modern Orthodox home where in many cases immersion  in the culture is placed on a higher plane than religious practices, it should come as no surprise that once a child leaves home to a top university - which  in most cases does not have any Jewish infrastructure - he might easily shed his Judaism. ‘Jewish Father’ actually alludes to that. (I should hasten to add, that although a lot of MO homes are ‘lite’ in this way... that is NOT the definition of modern Orthodoxy. Which is beyond the scope of this post.)

Yes, it’s possible to remain a committed and observant Jew in this environment. There are some pretty famous examples of that. But it is no secret either that a lot of young college age Jews from modern Orthodox backgrounds end up dropping observance altogether under those circumstances. And these are Jews that in most cases attended a modern Orthodox day school and high school. Going to a public or private non Jewish school will surely not change that trajectory. It will enhance the probability of it.

‘Jewish Father’ decided to pull his children out of a religious school and send them to a private school at 1/3 the tuition of his former school. That - as well as tightening his belt in other areas  such as quitting his expensive Shul, ‘eating’ more frugally, and not going on Pesach vacations has helped to reduce his ‘Doing Jewish’ expenses. Although he thinks he can restore that last item under his revised financial plan.

All of that has helped him achieve his goal of beginning to put money away for his retirement (as well as for his children’s expensive ivy league education no doubt). His kids are doing well and he’s happy.

I wonder how he will feel if any of his kids end up abandoning their observance. They no longer have a daily religious environment in their school. They have a totally secular environment. Does ‘Jewish Father’ really believe that this will not impact their religious observance? That he recently hooked up with Chabad, is no guarantee that his kids will - when comparing them to what a secular lifestyle has to offer. Which they now experience on a daily basis.

Yes. Tuition is high. Most Orthodox Jews can’t afford to pay full tuition. Even Jews who make an upper middle class income like ‘Jewish Father’.  There is, however, one glaring thing that stands out in this fellows narrative. It is the fact that his school insists that half of his income be available for tuition. 

Having spent many years on a scholarship and tuition committee of an excellent religious day school, I can attest to the fact that we never insisted that any parent spend anywhere near half of their income on tuition. We also had an appeals process that parents could avail themselves of that in most cases would yield additional financial aid when justified by a parent appeal.  

Tuition - even with generous financial aid from a school can still be a burden. But the solution is not, pulling your children out of the school and sending them to a private secular school.   

What about ‘Jewish Father’? Were his‘religion’ expenses legitimate? Were they real? Let’s take a closer look.

Pesach vactations?! Really?! In what world is that not a luxury? He only now realizes it?! And thinks it can eventually be restored and justified over a religious education for his children?

That he quit a Shul whose dues were too high in favor of a Chabad shul was indeed a way to reduce his ‘religion’ expense. As was buying cheaper food. And certainly eliminating Pesach vacations. 

However, I am absolutely convinced that he could have achieved his financial goal with his children remaining in a religious school. Maybe not the one they were attending. But certainly one that would provide a religious environment for his children on a daily basis and give them a relatively decent religious and secular education. Furthermore, in my view, any school that thinks 50% of one’s income is a legitimate tuition expense ought to be shut down!

None of this solves the high cost of Jewish education. It is clearly becoming an increasing burden. Communal Orthodox Jewish organizations like the OU realize this. If I remember correctly, they have made solving the tuition crisis is a top priority. 

The truth is that we need good people to teach our children. And you aren’t going to get good people unless you pay them well. Which is the primary reason tuition is so high. And I agree with ‘Jewish Father’ that in some cases, a school is top heavy with well paid administrators. (Are 5 principals – as is the case with his children’s former school - really necessary?). These are all things that should be looked at. 

But one thing should be made abundantly clear. Taking your children out of a religious school and placing them in a secular school - even a good one - should never be an option. Because if you care about their religious future at all – you may end up with something you never wished for.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Does Orthodoxy Equal Social Conservatism?

Rabbi Dov Fischer
Most people that read this blog know that my political leanings are center-right. Which means that on most issues my views tend to reflect the more socially conservative point of view. There are however, some issues that I feel very strongly about that are in the domain of political liberalism. For example, on abortion I am pro choice. On gun control I favor stricter controls on gun ownership. On most other matters, I am in the conservative camp. For example I oppose gay marriage. And favor school choice (voucher programs).

My political views are informed by my religious views. I am pro choice because I believe that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare (to quote former President Clinton). Although abortions are generally not permitted by Halacha, there are circumstances where it is not only allowed, but required. If it is made illegal, than any legal exception in that law may not match our Halachic exception, making it unavailable to us when we deem it necessary. Keeping abortions legal (i.e being pro choice) makes abortions  available to us whenever we need them - without having to worry whether our Halachic needs match the government’s legal requirements.

Rabbi Dov Fischer has written an article in Arutz Sheva that practically equates Orthodoxy with political conservatism. In contradistinction to the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox and liberal. 

I think he is right. But sometimes that leads to political views that are not in the best interests of Orthodox Jews. Abortion is a case in point. Most Orthodox Jews are pro life. And believe that abortions should be made illegal. I believe this is the official position of Agudah as well.

How can this view be reconciled with the reality of Halacha? They would answer that in the main abortions are indeed against Halacha, and that we should reflect that view politically. If abortion is made illegal how would we get them when they are Halachicly required. I’m not sure how they would answer that question.

That being said, I would agree that the socially conservative way of looking at things more closely resembles the Orthodox way of looking at things. Here’s why.

Social conservatives take the bible’s view more literally than do social liberals. Which is how Orthodox Jews see the bible. When the Torah says something is forbidden, we believe it – as do social conservatives.  This is for example why Orthodox Jews eat only Kosher food and observe Shabbos.

Social liberals either ignore the bible - calling it an archaic document written by man that is irrelevant in our day - or twist interpretations of biblical verses into matching their own political views. Views that are often based on whatever the spirit of the times demand. Rabbi Asher Lopatin who supports gay marriage, a concept that needs an extremely novel twisting of  a passage in the Torah in order to match today’s liberal approach to it.

Most Orthodox Jews reject these kinds of novel interpretations.  We realize that not everything that society deems appropriate – actually is appropriate.

This is why Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians, and the Catholic Church are so often on the same side of an issue. We see the bible in more literal terms. I truly think that a careful examination of the political views will bear out this correlation. 

Rabbi Fischer’s statement about Orthodox Jews being rock ribbed conservatives tend to be accurate if recent voting patterns are any kind of indicator. As he points out: 
Every serious study of Orthodox Jewish voting patterns reflects that, in precincts where Orthodox Jews live, Republican candidates win, and they win yuge.  This political conservatism reflects the Orthodox Jewish community’s more traditional religious and social values.  
(Yuge. That’s cute.)

One can clearly see that Rabbi Fischer is one of those rock-ribbed conservatives. I am not one of those. As noted by the aforementioned exceptions. I should add that although I am bound by Halacha, I freely admit that some of my liberal leanings makes that difficult for me sometimes. (Yes, I have questions. But I don’t reject Torah law just because I can’t answer them.)

Rabbi Fisher is not alone. Jonathan Rosenblum is another prominent Orthodox Jew whose values are socially conservative.  He describes what he heard at the Tikvah  Fund Seminar he attended recently. (The Tikvah  Fund is a conservative enterprise designed to promote conservative ideas in the Charedi world): 
THE FEATURED TEACHER this year was Yuval Levin, America's premier young conservative intellectual. Levin is editor of the public policy quarterly National Affairs. Besides being a policy wonk, he is a political theorist. His book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the intellectual arguments underlying much of contemporary political debate.
Any understanding of why Torah Jews tend toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, and why most baalei teshuvah move rightward politically as they become more observant, begins with Burke. Burke was acutely sensitive to the limits of unaided human reason, while respectful of the societal institutions that reflect the accumulated wisdom and experience of human societies over many centuries. Paine was the opposite. He extended no deference to existing institutions unless they comported in his mind with abstract principles of justice derived by human reason, in which he had boundless confidence. 
I think this is essentially what I am saying. 

What about Orthodox Jews that have liberal views? Clearly there are many (mostly modern) Orthodox Jews that do tend to be more liberal. But in my view, they have a difficult time reconciling their views with those of the Torah and need to rely on the kinds of ‘twists and turns’ of Torah law resorted to by Rabbi Lopatin with respect to gay marriage.

I believe a far better approach to political views is to look at neither conservative or liberal principles. One needs to look at the Torah as their guide and decide which direction to take based on that. This is what I do, which makes me a right leaning centrist politically.