Sunday, February 07, 2016

Wearing a Kipa

“I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.”  This line was uttered by someone many people think is not a friend of the Jewish people. But I contend now as I have in the past that the person who made this statement is a true friend of the Jewish people, despite my profound differences with him on some of his policies, especially as it relates to Iran.

President Barack Obama made this comment in an address given in the Israeli embassy, the first American President to do so. It was to honor Roddie Edmonds, a righteous gentile – a Tzadik who laid his life on the line to save the Jewish members of his platoon in a prisoner of war camp during the Holocaust. When asked to identify the Jewish members, he answered, ‘We are all Jews’.

It is this kind of righteousness that personifies the American spirit of equality ensconced in the Declaration of Independence  which says, ‘All men are created equal’.  This is the kind of thing that represents what’s right about America. It represents values that we should all strive to live by.

The question is, what about us? What about Orthodox Jews? Are we proud of who we are? Or do we wish to diminish or dilute our differences? Should we try to ‘blend in’? Or should we wear our religion on our sleeves? ...or more correctly, on our heads?

I must be honest, I had once thought that identifying as a Jew, especially an Orthodox Jew by wearing a Kipa was at best a questionable exercise. Why advertise you are Jew? Is the Kipa what Judaism is all about? Is it looking Jewish that counts in God’s eyes? Shouldn’t Judaism be judged by our behavior, our ethics -  not by what we wear on our heads?

Adding to my misgivings is the possibility that as human beings, we Jews are not always on our best behavior. Often far from it. When we have a bad moment - when our guard is down  we night say or do something that we will later regret… and do so as an identifiable religious Jew. Why not avoid that kind of possibility by taking off our Kipot in public and blending in? It would be win/win. If in any given moment we don’t ‘behave’ in public as we should, we will not embarrass our people - and in the process create a possible Chilul HaShem. And if we do something praiseworthy we can make sure that we identify ourselves as religious Jews.

And yet the wearing a Kipa (or more correctly covering one’s head) has evolved into a Halachic requirement in our day. (It was not Halacha in Talmudic times although there were many Jews that did cover their heads). The question is why? I think the answer might be that it is a statement of pride. Pride in who we are. Wearing a covering on your head is done as a sign that there is a God above us. It  is supposed to remind of that and to realize that the whole world is watching us. And that we should always act in ways that reflect our standing as God’s chosen people.

But it is a two sided coin. On the one hand you have the burden of trying to make a Kiddush HaShem – sanctifying God’s name in every act you do. And on the other hand - as human nature will sometimes have it - you have the potential to make a Chilul HaShem. Being a Jew is not easy. But the level of  difficulty does not relieve us our obligation to sanctify God’s name.

What about identifying as a Jew when that poses a danger to us? Well, Pikuach Nefesh trumps all Halachos except for murder, idol worship, and biblically defined adultery.  (However, B’Shas  HaShmad, in times of forced conversion, we are not allowed to violate even the most  minor Halacha.)

This question came up in France recently where Jews were advised to remove their Kipot in light of the frequent attacks against them there. I do not have an issue with those who decided to do so for fear of harm.  Jews are being targeted for being Jews. Not a single one is asked to convert before they are attacked. At the same time, since not every Jew is involved in imminent attack, is that enough of a reason to remove your Kipa? Is the potential to be attacked, even if it is less than 50% enough to justify hiding your Judaism?

I was in this predicament once. I had to walk through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago on a Friday night exactly 24 years ago. Through a series of delays my wife ended up landing at Midway Airport  before Shabbos began. Midway is 18 miles away from my house.

I thought I had made up to meet with her and we would drive back until the last minute before Shabbos and then walk the rest of the way. My wife told me not to bother – that she would deal with the problem herself. Although I thought she understood that I would come, she thought she made it clear that I shouldn’t.

We missed each other, she landed and started walking herself, eventually accepting an offer by a very kind black lady who went way out of her way to take her home on a cold Friday night.

By the time I realized I missed her, it was Shabbos.  Since I did not want to spend Shabbos in a hotel all by myself, I was determined to walk home, despite the dangerous neighborhoods I would have to walk through.  

Those neighborhoods had three kinds of buildings on the street I traversed: bars,  churches, and abandoned ‘bombed out’ buildings. People were in the streets, making a lot of noise, getting drunk or buying drugs.

I thought for a moment that I might have a better chance of surviving that walk if I wasn’t wearing a Kipa. But then I thought that this was not the best time to abandon my faith in God. So I wore it all the way through. No one touched me, although I did get a couple of looks. I must have made quite a sight as the only white person openly displaying his faith on a Friday night walking quickly through a neighborhood famous for gang murders to this day.

I came home tired and in pain from walking at such a quick pace. I was sore for about a week. And then life went back to normal.

I now wear my Kipa proudly in public and no longer think I would be better off not wearing one. I try my best not to make a Chilul HaShem although, I must admit that I don’t always succeed. But I try to be conscious of how others see me as a Kipa wearing Jew. And I hope that most of the time, I succeed.

I believe that pride in expressing who we are has paid off. Despite all of the negative news that individual religious Jews are responsible, we are largely an admired people. And It is why the President said that in times of crisis for the Jewish people, we are all Jews. It is the verbal equivalent of putting on a Kipa. That the President of the most powerful nation on earth has said that in spite of all the criticsm he gets  is something we Jews – and all  of the American people - can all feel good about.  I am truly proud to be a Jew and proud to be an American.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Farewell Shmarya Rosenberg

Failed Messiah creator, Shmarya Rosenberg
There has been a lot of discussion about the departure from blogging world of Failed Messiah creator, Shmarya Rosenberg. He announced that departure in a lengthy farewell post earlier this week.  The news was greeted with a variety of responses ranging from glee to sadness. My reaction was somewhere in between those two extremes ( of my Centrist traits, I guess). On the one hand I strongly objected to the vulgarity he allowed on his blog. I felt that using profanity detracted from the serious issues he often reported on. On the other hand those issues needed to be reported so that they could be corrected.

Two of the issues that I think he covered most was sex abuse and white collar criminal activity in the Orthodox world. Although he did not limit his reportage to the Charedi world, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of it was about Charedi misdeeds. He both reported on them and often said some very nasty things about them.

For this he was treated with angry resentment by the Charedi world. He was seen as someone whose agenda was to smear the world of Charedim as much as possible. And that he would go far and wide to find negative stories about them looking under every rock, in every nook and in every cranny (Whats a cranny anyway?) to find dirt and heap it on them - to the glee of all the Charedi haters that frequented his blog. 

He did not disappoint. He took every opportunity to smear that world. Though he denied it, saying  he was just the messenger… and the real villains were the miscreants he wrote about, I tended to agree with his critics about having an anti religious agenda. That his reports were true, does mean he didn’t find a sense of satisfaction in sticking it to them. 

I once had an offline conversation with him during the early years of my blogging ‘career’. I found that the real Shmarya Rosenberg was a complex individual who believed he was fighting for justice. But whose view of religious Jews turned sour based on an experience he had when he was a Lubavitcher Chasid (having become one from a formerly secular life).  As an idealist, he was disappointed that a just cause which he strongly believed in was not taken up by Chabad. That left him disillusioned and he left Lubavitch. And I believe that’s why he named his blog Failed Messiah. He is now completely secular.

I will speculate and say that this experience explains his antipathy towards Orthodox Jewry – and why he focused so negatively on it. I don’t think Shmarya is a bad man. I think he is fact still idealistic. But his views have been tainted by life’s experiences and perhaps (again - I admit speculating here)  without even being conscious of it, he focused on the negative parts of the Charedi world – and to a lesser extent – on Orthodoxy in general as a sort of unconscious vendetta.

Shmarya became the poster child for what’s wrong with the internet. At least the blogging portions of it. He was reviled by the Charedi world for his muckraking. Understandably so.Some of his posts were really ugly. But some were simply reporting what was in the media, exposing the abuse and corruption in the world of Orthodoxy that exists at levels far beyond what we would like them to be. 

On the other hand the Charedi world needed some muckraking. That’s how we all achieve consciousness about the wrongdoings. Some of it by various religious leaders. These people had to be exposed, lest what they did  would go unnoticed and unpunished – being swept under the rug for the sake of image.  

Hiding misdeeds from the public by covering them up or explaining them away with faulty rationalizations and excuses always makes things worse - when they are ultimtely uncovered. Exposing them to the public and the consequences to the miscreants and the community from which they come can have a salutary effect that will lead to change. And if that change is not forthcoming or coming too slow, publicizing that can help expedite it.

So at the end of the day, Shmarya performed a service – despite what I believe was at least in part, a smear campaign based on a subconscious anti Orthodox  agenda. Truth – even if spoken by people with bad intentions, is still truth.

The stuff Shmarya dealt with is some of the same stuff I deal with. I have been accused of some of the same things Shmarya has, including being a Charedi hater and basher with same agenda as him, only with a more polite way of doing it. I have been threatened by one prominent Charedi (obviously not one of my fans – but a reader of my blog) with his own public smear campaign against me. He never ended up doing that. But he still believes that I am no better than Shmarya in that regard.

In the sense that I want to expose and publicly condemn bad behavior, I am the same. But to say that I am a Charedi basher is just plain wrong. When I write about these subjects, I have no agenda other than to ‘clean up shop’ and to let the world know that there are Orthodox Jews that condemn bad behavior no less that any ethical person would. It is to make people aware that not every Jew is crook or deviant. Those images fuel all of the antisemitic canards against us. 

Not only am I not a Charedi hater or basher - I have often said that the vast majority of Charedim are fine people with the same values that any ethical individual has. That the miscreants are a tiny minority of the whole. But that the miscreants -  because of the high profile media coverage – make us all look bad. So I report and protest as an Orthodox rabbi to make the point that just like these acts are seen as bad by all good people, so too do religious Jews like me see them that way.

Interestingly, many people consider me Charedi based on some of my recent posts. I am not Charedi. But I am not insulted by being thought of that way. I am flattered. Because I have nothing but respect for the vast majority of these idealistic Jews even though I have some Hashakafic differences with them. Much of their behavior actually inspires me.

Some people say they will miss the hard core muckraking that Shmarya was so good at. But I am not one of them. Because I will not let go of my own determination to shout out wrong doings in the religious world. It may not come in the same form as Shmarya’s.  But it will come - when I feel it warrants public condemnation.

I will however say that Shmarya’s blog did some good despite the fact that he was so reviled by the Charedi world. He exposed things that needed exposure so that they would be properly dealt with rather than being swept under the rug in a business as usual fashion.

I believe that despite his obsession with the misdeeds of the Orthodox world - deep down Shmarya Rosenberg has a Jewish soul. And now that he’s leaving the blogging world to help the poor, I wish him success in the new endeavor.

His blog will continue under new ownership. Based on their first post, the new owners sound more like me than Shmarya. If that is the case, I obviously wish them much success.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Kavod HaTorah? A Misplaced Rebuke

Rav Uren Reich, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village (YWN) 
I am sometimes surprised by some of the prominent Charedim that read my blog and express approval. I have heard many times that even though they don’t agree with everything I say, they agree with most of it.

Just yesterday I received a short note telling me how much one prominent Charedi Rav respects my blog. I was truly humbled by his words. And it was not the first time I have been humbled that way by prominent members of the Charedi world. Names that are widely recognized.  Occasionally I get a heartfelt message from someone like that about an issue that I touched upon. Some of those are worthy of publishing so that as many people will get that message as possible.

I received a message like that yesterday which I want to share.  It speaks to an issue that I often address. It was generated by a response to the recent speech by mega philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz where he rebuked the educational system in Lakewood for rejecting students for reasons of elitism. R’ Shlomo Yehuda’s words were very strong. They were based on the gut wrenching cries he received from parents whose sons or daughters had not been accepted – and hung out to dry without recourse! 

While there are many reasons why a child will not be accepted to a school, many of them legitimate (like an actual lack of space – or a special needs child that a school does not have the means to address) there is no question in my mind that an elitist attitude is a major contributor to the problem. 

That was made obvious to me recently by an invitation to a Lakewood Beis Yaakov banquet someone showed me.  It promoted itself by referring to its ‘carefully selected student body’  from the ‘finest families in Lakewood’. This invitation was sent out at about the same time R’ Shlomo Yehuda made that speech. If that doesn’t demonstrate the kind of elitism that exists there, then I don’t know what would. How many children are not accepted to that school because they are not from the ‘finest families in Lakewood’?!

What’s worse is when a prominent Charedi Rosh Hayeshiva feels he must ‘kill the messenger’ by way of strong rebuke - in the name of Kavod HaTorah. How dare anyone point out a problem that makes Lakewood Ir HaKodesh look bad? Even if it were true, which he claimed it isn’t! People  - even if they are sincere -who speak with rhetoric like this about the Charedi world are no better than the common blogger who smears Charedim on a daily basis.

While he recognized R’ Shlomo for all his charitable work in the Charedi world, and recognized that his motives were pure - spoken forcefully with pain in his heart, Rav Uren Reich Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village nevertheless called it a Chilul Hashem! We do not advertise our problems to the world so that they can bash us. 

I listened to recording of it forwarded to me by the above mentioned Charedi individual. An individual who otherwise places Lakewood in very high esteem. His words were heartfelt as well. Is his reaction a Chilul HaShem too? Or is it the Kiddush HaShem I believe it to be- because one must first recognize a  problem in order to address it. And sometimes it takes a public rebuke so that those responsible won’t be able to ignore it. His sentiments – which I share  follow: 

I received this yesterday, and listened to the whole thing.  Nice guy, such a shame.

This shiur highlights one issue only.  Kavod.  That’s the overriding matter that we face today.  No one dare utter a word of question, no one can point out a failure, mistake, or imperfection.  That’s the same mentality that led to a self-driven heter to fabricate in order to ban the Making of a Gadol.

I’m sickened by the current mentality of straw men, images, only chitzoniyus to admire, to deify, to view as something other than human.  I peruse the galleries of photos that fall into my inbox, with photo shoots of the latest Rebbe who traveled, went on vacation, recited tashlich, davened on Hoshanah Raboh, burned the chometz, recited birchas ilanos, danced at a wedding, etc.  

There are some instances of bekeshes containing some really good Jews on their inside, but we will never know.  These figureheads have armies of gabo’im surrounding them so that no one can approach them with anything mundane and human.  

Nothing like the stories we were nurtured with about poshute Yidden, the mesiras nefesh of tzaddikim who sought to bring true Yir’as Hashem to the masses.  Nothing like the tzaddikim of yesteryear who did more for their following than just public performances.  

Kavod?!  That’s all it is?!  Someone finally said the truth, pointed out where Lakewood has failed, drew attention to the inconsistency of this with its identity as the Ir Hatorah, and all they can protest is about kavod?!

I am grossly disappointed.  The recovering alcoholic lives by the 12 steps of AA.  Step 10 includes the phrase, “and when we wrong, promptly admitted it”.

There is no doubt that the problem there, as well as in other communities is complex.  Highlighting one factor is a great step forward.  Don’t kill the messenger just because someone points out the fatal flaw of chasing after kavod.  This mecho’oh stuff is not just smelly, but indicates a serious resistance to confront issues.  It’s a disgrace.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A Peaceful if not Ideal Resolution at the Wall

A man and a woman praying together at the Kotel in 1936 (Getty Images)
There has been a lot of talk about a decision made by the Israeli government approving a section of the Kotel for ‘mixed gender’ prayer. The comments range from outright condemnation by Agudath Israel to almost giddy approval by heterodox movements.

The Agudah calls it ‘profaning’ the holy site. Those in favor of it called it ‘historic’ and a huge victory for egalitarianism.

I have long opposed the push by groups like Women of the Wall for egalitarian services at the Kotel (for reasons that will soon become apparent).  But I do not see the actual act of men and women praying together at the Kotel as a violation of Halacha. 

The only place where separation of the sexes is required is in a Shul. One may otherwise pray with a Minyan with women present. One will for example see ad hoc Minyanim for Mincha and Maariv taking place at wedding halls where women are present in the same room.  Even right wing Roshei Yeshiva will participate in them without any reservation.

So why is there a Mechtiza at the Kotel? Good question. When one looks at archival photos of pre State Palestine that feature the Kotel, one might come across images of devout men and women praying there together. The Mechitza came much later. My guess is that the reason for that is that when the Kotel Plaza becomes crowded during peak periods (like Birchas Kohanim) people are practically glomming all over each other. When men and women are together in situations like that it becomes difficult if not impossible to pray. I think a Mechitza was probably installed to prevent that kind of scenario.

Some might argue that in effect the Kotel is a Shul. After all Minyanim are constantly forming there. Hence in effect it becomes a Shul and requires a Mechitza. Perhaps. It is possible I suppose that the Kotel Plaza area has evolved into a Shul. 

But this is not true for the Kotel  area being assigned for egalitarian purposes. That area was never a Shul. And I don’t think a group of heterodox Jewish men and women praying together there will make it one.

So why am I opposed to it? Because of the motives behind it. It gives a victory to egalitarian ideal that inserts itself into a religious area where it does not belong. Insisting that egalitarianism trumps religion means (among other things) Shuls without Mechitzos; counting women as part of a Minyan; or female cantors leading a prayer service… are  all things that are forbidden by Halacha.  A true egalitarian ideal rejects those Halachos since they contradict egalitarian ideals.

Egalitarianism is sourced in the kind of feminism that does not allow for any exceptions. Including religious ones. Any treatment of women that is different from the treatment men is seen as misogynistic. Even if it for religious reasons. There is no such thing as separate roles for men and women. Whatever a man can do, a woman should be able to do. This is the kind of feminism that has been agitating for this an egalitarian Minyan at the Kotel .

So I don’t blame the Agudah and other Orthodox instructions for condemning it. But I kind of feel the way the Kotel Rabbi does: 
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, said he heard the decision approving the agreement “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief,” 
I too have a  sigh of relief. I hope this will end the constant fighting over this issue. No longer will there be a disruptive distraction by a group of women at the beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar - each wearing talis and tefillin praying and reading from the Torah as though they were a legitimate Minyan.  Now they will have their own place to do so out of sight.  The women that have been praying at the traditional site -  each on their own side of the Mechtiza  - will be able to continue that practice in peace.

There will be no more shouting matches or people getting arrested. The traditional Kotel Palza area will remain as is. I believe that the vast majority of people that go there for prayer prefer it that way. They should have the same right to preserve that tradition as those who clamor for egalitarianism.

What I do not approve is what the following:
Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

There is no benefit to calling Reform Jews clowns. You can disagree with them. You can say that their views are anti Torah. You can oppose what they are doing. But name calling is not the way to do that. Whatever one says about Reform Jews, they are anything but clowns. They are sincere in their beliefs and are acting upon them. One might even say that they are religious in their own way. Much the same as one might say the devout of other religions are religious.

It is therefore insulting in the extreme to call sincere Jews who were raised in the Reform Movement clowns. They are not clowns. Being wrong about Judaism as we Orthodox Jews believe them to be - does not make them clowns. It just makes them misguided. So too is someone one calling them that.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Respect - Not Elitism

Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Malkiel Kotler
I had a discussion earlier this week with a prominent Charedi Talmid Chacham. We were debating the merits of the kind of religious education that takes place in Lakewood these days. It was in the context of the recent rebuke by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz about the elitism in religious schools there which leaves too many children out in the cold. 

He told me that Lakewood Rosh HaYehiva, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler went to Betzalel Hebrew Day School.  There was no "cheder" in his days! Betzalel was a Modern Orthodox coed day school. Point being that one does not need an elitist school to become the Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. 

Nor does one need to be the son of the previous Rosh HaYeshiva. One may recall that the late Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, graduated from a coed high school. He was a distant cousin of the previous Rosh HaYeshiva. I believe that experience helped him better understand the broader Orthodox world and better relate to the American Bachurim that went to the Mir.

That reminded me of a belief I have always had about Jewish education in Chicago. If the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy were the only game in town, and everyone - right to left - had sent their children there for lack of an alternative - the academy would be a far different and far better school than it is today. Its products would be more unified having gained by experiencing peers from homes with a broad range of Hashkafos.

He disagreed saying that we benefit from different derachim by having different schools as long as they respect each other. The strongest case would be that Yeshivas should be more open like they used to be.

Citing views I have expressed here in the past, I responded by saying that the problem with diversification is that with rare exception schools with different Hashkafos don't respect each other. 

I'm not so sure we gain by each Hashkafa having its own niche. We have become exclusionary instead of inclusive. Which is the source of the problem in Lakewood. By not integrating we don't learn from each other anymore. Instead we each learn about our own Hashkafa - and the Mechachim of each segment extol the virtues of their own Hashkafos while disparaging the hashkafos of others. Sometimes indirectly. And sometimes directly.

I miss the old days where we were all in the same boat. We might have joked about each others different Minhagim, but we were all friends and nobody looked down upon the other.

That generated the following response. It is one that if implemented, would make Orthodoxy a far better society -  integrated in an Achdus that respects differences – as long as they do not cross heretical lines. It follows:

I think it is fundamental hashkafa that there should be different derachim in service of Hashem and all (legitimate) derachim be respected and that we learn from each other.  And not withstanding the problems you raise, Chicago has also benefited tremendously from the various mosdos that reflect different derachim. 
As someone that learned in Lakewood and knew the attitude of many Gedolim in my era, I am uncomfortable with the prevalent chinuch approach, which is not dealing with things in a nuanced way because black and white is easier. 
Some examples that come to mind. 
There are issues with tznius in girl's high schools, so institute uniforms! So instead of dealing with  the issue by giving the girls a deeper appreciation of tznius, just make uniforms .  Its easier.
 The price we pay is that there is no room for self expression, a cardinal sin to a Gadol like Rav Hutner and his Slabodka Hashkafos. 
Having opportunities for secular education and preparation for parnosa present challenges for some students, or may lead some who are destined for greatness in learning to pursue a career instead.  (I think all would agree that being a doctor or a lawyer is fine but it would have been tragic had Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel become a lawyer!)    
So instead of being a true machanech like Rav Hutner and guiding talmidim in their career choices, we just declare it taboo! 
... I agree with many of the issues you raise, but the (very small!) piece of Rav Hutner within me says that the way to address them is not to lower the bar and discourage different derachim and mosdos, but rather to rise to the challenge and learn to respect each other. 
It's hard for me to see Moshiach coming until we do!  
He added a story that was published in Parsha Encounters,  a weekly publication of the Chicago Community Kollel.  It demonstrates what it means to respect different derachim.  
The highly respected Holocaust survivor Yosef Freidenson had a brother Shamshon Raphael, a name not very common among Polish Chassidim!  He explained what prompted his father to name a son after Rav Hirsch ZTL. 
 “My father would visit Frankfurt on business.  There, for the first time in his life, he saw Jewish women who were accomplished doctors and lawyers and, at the same time, were meticulous in covering their hair.  He said to himself that if Rav Hirsch could build such a community, he wanted the merit of having a son named after him!” 
It’s important to keep in mind that what he saw was very different thanhis own approach in avodas Hashem.  He would not want his daughter to be a doctor or a lawyer.  Nevertheless, not only was he able to respect that derech, he was able to be inspired by it and to admire it! 
What a lesson in ahavas Yisroel, love of fellow Jews, did Eliezer Gershon Freidenson teach his family! And what a lesson he teaches us!

Monday, February 01, 2016

Centrism - What it Means and Doesn’t Mean

Daniel B. Schwartz
Daniel B. Schwartz is an Orthodox Jew and an attorney from Monsey, New York, who like me, calls himself a Centrist. This is how we both define our religious ideals. He has however written an article in the Times of Israel where he spells out what he calls his redefinition of it. Do we define Centrism the same way? Well, yes and no.

For me Centrism is a Hashkfa, which itself is a term we need to define.  A Hashaka as I have always understood it, is an approach to Judaism. One that stems from how one best understands the essential truths of the Torah.

Centrism is about what we think God requires of us and what He does not require;. A Centrist strives to understand the Torah’s philosophical underpinnings and how to apply them in our daily lives. It is way of living that best accords with what we understand to be God’s design for us - His Chosen people. In short we seek truth. We choose which ever path leads to it. In seeking that path we do not necessarily choose stringency or leniency. We just seek truth.

Of course all Hashkafos in Orthodoxy might be defined the same way. So what’s the difference? It is in where each segment ends up after finding what they believe to be the truth of Torah. 

Centrism is not a Hashkafa which as Daniel points out (as did Dr. Norman Lamm before him) is defined as the midpoint between two extremes. Each of which can shift one way or the other over time. That would make Centrism nothing more a mathematical determination - that would change with the wind irrespective of any ideals. A Centrist has ideals, just like those to his Hashkafic right or left. The differences being in what those ideals are and how we arrive at them.

Even though Centrism has ideals irrespective of where the fall on the Hashkafic spectrum - they do happen to end up in a wide ranging center between right and left. 

The term Centrism was coined by Dr. Norman Lamm, President emeritus of Yeshiva University. It is a term he quickly rejected after hearing complaints from the Conservative Movement claiming that they are the true Centrists in Judaism. But he never replaced the term with another one that would truly describe the Hashkafa he delineated. But I disagree with him. The term Centrist when applied to Orthodoxy fits. Because there is a right, a left, and a center. And via our ideals, we fall in the Center.

What are those ideals? This is the subject of Daniel’s essay. He happens to link to a few essays I have written on the subject which explain my views.  These are principles I derived from my mentors and other influences (which can be seen in my bio on the right.) After studying with these mentors and supplementing their ideas with some independent studies of my own I arrived at my conclusion that Centrism is the essence of what Judaism should be.

Essentially Centrism is the following. The idea that the God’s Torah has primacy over everything else in life. And it is within that context, that the study of Mada has a high value in Judaism. There are various approaches to the study of Mada - or worldly knowledge. The two most prevalent are Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) which sees the study of Mada as a means of better understanding God’s will – and Torah U‘Madda (TuM) as illustrated by Dr. Lamm’s various models; or as described by Rav Ahron Soloveichik in his 5 perspectives of it.  

There is also a cultural component that allows and even encourages participation in the permissible parts of the general culture as a means relaxation so that we can better rededicate ourselves to God. And finally Centrism includes a deference for - and adherence to centuries of tradition that should not be abandoned because of a non Torah based spirit of the times..

(There is also another centrism that is sociological rather than Hashkafic. Which includes moderate Charedim and Centrists whose lifestyles differ little from each other and which comprise the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. But this is not the Centrism of which Daniel and I speak.)

While I don’t believe that Daniel disagrees with the components of Centrism that I outlined, he does not see it as a worldview or Hashkafa alone. In fact he says that Charedim and Open Orthodox Jews can be Centrists too. 

This is where I part company with him. The ideals in which we each believe  differ substantially from one another. Charedim believe in Torah only, They do not believe in studying Mada for any reason other than a utilitarian one.. For example as a means toward Paranasa. And participation in the general culture is frowned upon – to be done only when absolutely necessary... and otherwise avoided. Open Orthodoxy on the other hand embraces the spirit of the times to the point of reinterpreting the Torah so that non Torah ideals can be accommodated.

Centrism is not - as Daniel suggest - a balance between 2 conflicting ideologies. It is about seeking truth in Judaism wherever one can find it and following its path. A path that happens to lead to a broad ranging center between the extremes of the right and left.

Here is something else I have the trouble with:
For the true Centrist, a robust free marketplace of ideas is crucial to success.  Only when one is presented with the opportunity to encounter and consider wide and varied opinions on the pressing issues can s/he determine which approach, which school of thought, enables him/her to achieve self actualization.
To say that Judaism invites a robust free marketplace of ideas counters the very notion of Torah as a system of God’s laws.  You cannot entertain a great deal of those marketplace ideas without denying the Torah itself.  Just to make an obvious point, a Jew cannot accept the ideas of Christianity, no matter how compelling those ideas may be. Because accepting them takes you out of Judaism entirely and makes you a Christian. 

That said, I agree that there are a variety of ideas that can be explored and accepted as truth. Just not a free marketplace. This is the danger of Open Orthodoxy which has stretched some Torah truths into near heresy as did Open Orthodox Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz recently did with an essay on Spinoza. Whose heretical ideas about God got him excommunicated from Judaism. Rabbi Yanklowitz wants to restore Spinoza as a member in good standing. Which is impossible since his ideas about God are heretical!

In order for ideas to be debated at all they have to be within the parameters of our fundamental belief system. Only in that context can we have a discussion, and decide which ones come closest to God’s truth. But I do agree with Daniel’s following comment:

In religious sense for the Centrist to arrive at the path that leads him/her most directly to service of the Divine.

This is true - and what I said at the outset. But Judaism believes in certain truths. To ‘ ponder all available options’ is to entertain a denial of the those truths  which can hasten a path to heresy.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Happy Campers?

Chasidim siting at the Rebbe's Tisch (table), - a joyous Chasidic custom
The lack of a decent secular education among many of my coreligionists is one of the most troubling issues facing Orthodoxy today. Outside of the Charedi world in Israel, nowhere is that a bigger problem than in the insular world of Chasidim. Not all Chasidim. But those that live as large independent homogeneous communities like Satmar’s Kiryas Joel, Skvere’s  New Square, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Willimsburg section of Brooklyn.

Getting a Jewish education is of paramount importance if one wants to perpetuate Judaism. That is why we send our children to religious schools. Without a Jewish education the chances or a child retaining his Judaism is severely reduced. One can see that in the tragic level of assimilation and intermarriage taking place in heterodoxy that has the Conservative movement scrambling for solutions and has Reform movement changing how it defines Judaism.  While there are exceptions to all this, I think it’s fair to say that it is the rule.

That said, the importance of a secular education is increasingly becoming marginalized – and in some cases virtually eliminated. A situation I have decried countless numbers of times.  As noted however, the insular Chasidic communities are the ones where this is most prevalent in this country. (Israel is a separate discussion)

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 50s and early 60s Orthodox Jews of all stripes attended the same schools - which all had secular studies programs. After a while, as the post Holocaust immigrant Chasidim found their bearings and became more organized they created an insular society and built schools that all but eliminated secular studies before age 13 - and have no secular studies at all past that age.

The question is why? Why do Chasidim avoid secular studies? What is about that they find so offensive? I think the answer can be seen in a video produced by Menachem Daum for PBS. Even though the video doesn’t say exactly why they oppose it, one can ‘read between the lines’ to understand what is really going on. It is about keeping people in the fold.

I don’t think there is any other way to look at the communities than cult-like. It is not a cult that forces its people to stay in it in any threatening way. But it does force them to stay in subtle psychological ways by both positive and negative reinforcement. 

On the one hand the world of Chasidim is one where there is a tremendous  sense of family and community. The camaraderie; the kindness and the warmth in these enclaves is palpable and immediately felt by visitors that spend any time there. People do actually look out for each other. No one is left out. The entire community is sensitive to the welfare of its individual members. One would be hard pressed to find this kind of camaraderie  and universal compassion in any other segment of Judaism. Even expatriate Chasidim like Shulem Deen recognizes this - despite his expulsion from that world and attendant loss of his wife and children. He has said that he still sometimes misses it.

Then there is the way they see their Rebbe. He is seen by his Chasidim as larger than life. He is accorded a level of honor reserved for kings. He is seen the man closest to God by orders of magnitude over anyone else. The opening scene in the video demonstrates the kind of worship he gets as almost every passerby bows and kisses his hand! He is a beloved figure seen as dedicated to the welfare of every single individual - going out of is way beyond all reason to help a Chasid in need. If there were saints in Judaism, to his Chasidim he would be one. He is the man that sets the rules. These rules are designed to promote a higher level of Kedusha - a holier and more pristine Jewish existence as defined by the Chasidism of their Rebbe. This is the positive reinforcement.

Then there is the negative reinforcement. Part of that holiness means concentration on religious studies to the exclusion of secular studies. It means instituting customs that will keep them insulated and isolated from the world outside. They learn English as a second language.barely being able to speak it properly let alone write it. They dress the way they do in service to their overly broad interpretation of the Chukas HaGoy – the prohibition against following non Jewish customs.

Their dedication to and dependence upon the Rebbe - combined with their sense of community as extended family and their insularity assures that these rules are followed. It also assures that they stay there and with rare exception - stay poor! That's what a lack of a decent secular education will do for you. And there is precious little they can do about it. And yet they vehemently deny that they are a cult saying they are free to leave anytime they choose. No one will stop them.

Indeed, most of these people say they are happy, even ecstatic -  living this lifestyle. I have no doubt that many do feel like this most of the time. It’s almost like a summer camp atmosphere. But I have to believe that they are not so happy being poor – even as they might deny it publicly. I think that there may be more unhappiness than many of them are willing admit.

Why? As noted in the video there is fear about the consequences of coming out publicly with their true feelings. How it will affect their peer relationships. And their community standings.  If one wants to be a member in good standing in that world, one does not express unhappiness about their material circumstances. Especially since they have no place else to go and no skills to better their lot. So that those who are not happy - bite the bullet and feign happiness and contentment. Which after all does still exists at some level.

I don’t know what future lies ahead for these people. Yes, they seem to be happy in their current condition. But in my humble opinion, their future does not look very bright.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Taken to the Woodshed

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz
A few days ago, the Orthodox Jewish websites were abuzz with what some might have called groundbreaking news. I was one of those who expressed effusive praise of a hard hitting speech given by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz. 

He expressed the empathetic pain he experienced from parents in Lakewood who could not get their children registered in one of that town’s Charedi schools. And R’ Shlomo excoriated the town’s educational system which was exclusionary based on what can only be labeled ‘Frumkeit’.  Which is practiced in Lakewood by far too many of its citizens in the form of a ‘holier then thou’ attitude.

He was not gentle in his words. He said what had to be said. This seemed to be the view of most  people who heard him say it, ether live or in an online video, or who  - like me – read a lengthy description of it. This was about as hard hitting a rebuke as I have ever heard from someone that  is
otherwise an ardent supporter of Lakewood type institutions.

The bottom line was that the town’s Frumkeit was an ugly character trait that was hurting a tremendous Makom Torah. As I said in post, had I written those words, I would have been accused of overly harsh Charedi bashing.

Interestingly there was a  rebuttal to his speech published on The Lakewood Scoop website. But it was removed very quickly because that rebuttal was apparently bombarded with a lot of Lakewood bashing. That’s too bad. The debate should be out in the open. 

I should add that I was contacted by a lay leader here in Chicago that told me that the problem of kids being ‘left out’ existed across all Hashkafic lines. And that in some cases the lack of acceptance by a school is for legitimate reasons.  But I don’t think that detracts from R’ Shlomo’s rebuke and his explanation as to why this is the case in Lakewood.

It turns out that R’ Shlomo was apparently ‘taken to he woodshed’* He very quickly came out with an apology. Which he distributed to Charedi websites. He wanted to make sure that people understood that in no way was he bashing Lakewood or their Roshei Yeshiva; that he considered it to be a beacon of Torah shining forth upon Klal Yisroel and that he would continue supporting Lakewood and like minded Torah institutions at the current levels if not more. He added that if anything, the Roshei Yeshiva actually tried to fix the problems he spoke about.

A lot of people were disappointed by his apology. But I was not one of them. Because he did not retract one word of criticism about the ‘Frumkeit’ problem there. He just wanted to make sure the blame lay where it belonged: on the people who believed themselves to be holier than thou and wanted to make sure that the schools that they sent their children too had those same standards.

This has not changed. And I hope that does not get lost in his apology. 

Why these people are that way…and what percentage of them are like that? That is a question I can’t really answer. But I have my suspicions. Which has to do with the Chinuch the parents themselves got.  A Chinuch that constantly bombarded them with lavish praise about how wonderful it is to always be Choshesh for the Daas HaMachir. That was after all what Chareid L’Dvar Hahem means. You fear that the strictest  rabbinic opinon is the one that God actually requires. So that when you adopt those strictures you feel superior to those that are Mekil – relying on more lenient opinions.  That gives you an ego boost. The hardships caused  by being strict on just about everything makes them feel superior in their Avodas HaShem - serving God. 

There are other factors that play into this too, but that are beyond the scope of this post.

Be that as it may, I felt that there was some clarity missing from R’ Shlomo’s apology. He didn’t say it. But I will. There was absolutely no retraction of what he sees as the cause of the problem. And I still think he’s right.

* ( I use that expression in the broadest sense of the term. I only mean that someone from that community may have spoken to him about it and asked him to correct the impression that he was bashing BMG and its Roshei Yeshiva.) 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do Ten Percent of Charedim in Israel Go OTD?

United Torah Judaism MK Eliezer Moses
According to a government statistic cited in this news website (Hebrew) one out of ten Charedim in Israel drop out of observance. If true - that is an astonishing number.

These numbers are backed up by a survey taken by the Central Bureau of Statistics . Approximately 157,000 respondents said they were Orthodox at home at the age of 15 , more than 12 thousand define themselves as non Charedi.

Add to this fact is another astonishing statistic: more Charedim in Israel leave observant Judaism than come into it as Baalei Teshuva.  Now I doubt that this means that the Charedi world is shrinking. Their very high birth rate more than compensates for the loss.  If you have 10 children and one goes OTD, you have still added 9 people to your group. And those nine children will no  doubt have 10  each of their own.

But still, the dropout rate is shocking. Yehuda Moses, son of Charedi MK, Eliezer Moses sees this as a revolution comparable to the Arab Spring. There is no Charedi home that is no affected by it. One has to wonder if the rate of dropping is increasing,  will it ever catch up and surpass the internal growth rate and actually shrink the population?

The question is why? Why are unprecedented numbers of Charedi young people rejecting the teachings of their parents and teachers? What makes this question even more compelling is the fact these communities go to extraordinary lengths to shelter their children from the outside world for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is this one. They live lives in virtual isolation from the rest of society – entering it only as absolutely necessary. And even then they try and do so with as little interaction as possible.

The problem causing this high dropout rate is obvious. Charedi leaders know what it is. And they have tried mightily to deal with it. But by now it should be clear that their solution to it isn’t working.

The problem is that their insular ways are not working for 10% of their population. The things they forbid become the objects of obsession for the masses. The ‘information highway’ is now accessible at your fingertips.  Telling people not to use it, just makes it all the more desirable.  The Gemarah in Nedarim 91B (quoting Mishlei 9:17) tells us ‘Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku’ - stolen waters, are sweeter. The more forbidden something is - the more desirable it becomes. 

Smartphones are everywhere and are easy to hide. An as anyone who owns one knows, they are the fastest and easiest way to get information.  Questions that a young Charedi student wouldn’t dare ask a parent, let alone a Rebbe in a Yeshiva or Beis Yaakov can easily be researched online – on your phone. 

You want to know about the origins of the  universe? Just ask Siri. (…an I-Phone application that has a name and responds verbally to your questions - or searches the web for answers.) Very few of those answers will  say God created it. Add to this the ubiquitous pornography that shows up on your screen often unsolicited because of the way you searched for something... and all the temptations of the world suddenly become very accessible.

The Charedim interviewed in this article seem to be conceding that isolationism is not working and express fears that this trend will only get worse. Although there is still a lot of denial about this by rabbinic leaders - just as there is about the fact that there are so many dropouts.

For those of us that use the internet responsibly and allow our children controlled access with proper filters, the dangers are considerably reduced, albeit not eliminated. I doubt that moderate Charedim, Centrists, and even the far left are dropping out of observance because of that kind of exposure to the internet. (Although I’m sure it does happen.)  Nor does it mean that they are spared from huge dropout numbers. But to whatever extent it exists it probably won’t be because of stealthy use of internet devices.

There is another interesting statistic quoted. One that is more surprising than the one quoted above. According to some estimates, 1 in 4 Dati Leumi  (National Religious) Jews drop out of observance! It seems to me that – by far - they have a much bigger problem.

I have no clue why that percentage is so high. But if I had to guess it might be the fact that there are a lot of DL-Lite families whose commitment to observance is tenuous at best. When their children enter army service many will end up just going with the flow of an army that is populated with a majority of recruits whose lifestyles are a lot more hedonistic.

I doubt that this percentage applies to the many DLs that are committed to their Judaism and serve in the army with distinction while being fully committed to observance. Nor does it include those DLs that are in Hesder Yeshivas that combine their army service with Torah study. These young people are the cream of the Israel crop. I doubt that too many of them leave religious life. If anything their religious commitment is probably strengthened by it.

One thing seems certain, however. The inevitable exponential growth of observant Jews in Israel does not seem so inevitable anymore. And by observant I include all Orthodox Jews. Not just Charedim.

I don’t know what to do about the 25% DLs that are leaving the fold (if that is indeed the percentage). But I think I do know what can help the Charedi world prevent more of their people from leaving. It would be to reconsider their insular ways and allow a little bit of the outside world in. Not only by allowing controlled intent use. But by allowing them to get an education in addition to Torah study that will enable them achieve financial security without reliance on charity. It won’t hurt them. It will instead help them  thrive well into the future.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Frumkeit Plague of Lakewood

Shlomo Yehuda  Rehcnitz  speaking at a Lakewood event  (YWN)
Being right on this issue doesn’t give me any pleasure. But the consequences have now passed the threshold of being barely noticeable to the point of crisis. A crisis in a city some people call Lakewood, Ir HaKodesh.  (Half seriously. Half mockingly.)

The crisis is not new. It has been going on for some time now. It is not limited to Lakewood. But Lakewood seems to be the epicenter – where the most damage is being done. Many children in Lakewood are being denied an education being rejected admission to a school.

The reason is apparently not what I had thought it was. It is not because of the exponential growth of the Charedi population, there. I believed that the continuous massive yearly increase in the child population just meant that there simply was not enough room for everybody. No matter how many news schools were built, they could not contain the increased numbers.  But if that is a reason, it is apparently not the primary one. The issue behind this problem is a much bigger one.

The city fathers there know that children are being left out. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon had spoken about it years earlier – strongly criticizing those schools that had become so elitist that good students could not get in.  But it seems that Rabbi Salomon’s word have fallen on deaf ears.
And now an outsider (…although he is Charedi, he lives in Los Angeles) has spoken out on this issue. Mega philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz spoke at an event that included many of Lakewood’s rabbinic leaders and told it like it is. Mr. Rechnitz is like E.F. Hutton. When he speaks people listen.

I suppose it takes someone who has a major financial impact on Torah institutions to take a serious issue off the back burner. His speech was described in great detail by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in a YWN article that is accompanied by a video of that speech.

The brutal truth was spelled out. Which is that children being left out is a symptom of a far bigger problem. This is not to minimize the symptom. Shlomo Yehuda describes one instance of it very poignantly:
He spoke of a 13 year old girl, who clearly sees that nobody wants her. She’s the town’s Pesoles. “Can you imagine,” Mr. Rechnitz asked, “an innocent Bas Yisroel, putting on a face for her friends, claiming she hasn’t had enough time to decide which school to go to, only to lay her head down on her pillow at night, the pillow which is still wet from the tears of the night before?”
So what is the problem if this is only a symptom? Here is how Shlomo Yehuda put it:
“… we have a Machla (plague) in Lakewood. No other out of town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.
This is basically a Lakewood Machla. Yes, there’s a few kids in Monsey, more than a few kids in Brooklyn, but nowhere else and in no other time in history was this problem close to the magnitude it is in Lakewood..Even the children that get in, how many of them and their parents shvitz for months, making phone calls, waiting for phone calls?”
 And then after a brief description about the beauty of a city that is Kulo Torah, he said the following:
“Many of us have created for ourselves a new  Torah, a new Yiddishkeit, that makes us feel good about ourselves, but has little to do with Hashem’s Torah that He gave us 3300 years ago. We turned our Frumkeit into an idol, and we have forgotten  some of the basic tenets of Yiddishkeit.”
“I am heartbroken for one particular conversation that occurs nonstop in Lakewood. Parents call up a school and say: if you take in so and so, I am not sending my child. The school buckles under and rejects that child.
This is a churban (holocaust) for klal yisroel!  How dare you destroy another child’s life because if your opinions of the other child?! How dare you become a murderer like that? How dare you face Hashem by davening when you snuffed out a Yiddishe Neshama? How DARE you?”
 He exhorted the listeners, “This is mammash(actually) shefechus damim (murder!).
If the school isn’t good enough for your child, shut your mouth and go find him a school that does work, or create your own school just for your child. Make a yeshiva just for him. He presented a list of five very false Ani Maamins:
1. I believe that “I am better than you.
2. I believe that I have to show all my chumros, so everyone can see how frum I am.
3. I believe that “your children are not good enough for my children.”
4. I believe that the Torah was given to perfect children and perfect families.
5. I believe there is no room for individuality; we must all fit into the same perfect model.
Shlomo  Yehuda’s condemnation of how Chinuch in Lakewood operates, is breathtaking. If I had said anything like that, I would have been called a Charedi basher. In fact I have said many of these things in softer tones and called exactly that – a Charedi basher. Which I completely reject since my goal was not to bash but to inform and raise consciousness about a malaise in the Jewish world. That was always countered with something like, ‘No one that I was addressing reads my blog and therefore my words were worthless!
But now, one of their own has said it. In far stronger terms that I ever cold have! And Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz will not be ignored. He is someone that garners tremendous respect for all the charitable work he does; all the financial support he gives to institutions like Lakewood; and the constant Kidush HaShem he makes in the world. I believe they don’t only respect the man’s money. I believe they respect the man.

Sholmo Yehudah Rechnitz is a Talmid of Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago. And he has remained very close with his Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine. So his approach to this came as no surprise to me.  Rav Levine spoke out about this very issue at a Torah U’Mesorah convention, a few years ago saying something to the effect that if Jewish day schools would have been as elitist in his day as they are today, half the people sitting in that room wouldn’t be there. And probably wouldn’t even be observant.

My proverbial hat is off to Mr. Rechnitz. He is a Gibor -  great man.  An individual, with a big heart and an even bigger sense of responsibility to the Jewish community that extends far beyond Lakewood. He doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk.

But will his rebuke help?  I’m not so sure. The ‘holier than thou’ Frumkeit that R’ Shlomo Wolbe so forcefully condemned in his masterwork of Mussar, Alei Shur, is alive and well in Lakewood. Thriving beyond anything R’ Wolbe could have ever imagined.