Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unresolved Dilemmas

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Once again, I am amazed at the insight a Conservative rabbi has into Orthodox Jewry. Professor Jack Wertheimer has written yet again on the subject of Modern Orthodoxy (MO). This time addressing responses to his original article on the subject.  

The sense I get from his essays on the subject is that in his heart of hearts, he wishes he was part of it. His praise of it - combined with his frequent criticism of his own movement leads me to believe that. To the best of my knowledge he is an observant Jew even by Orthodox standards. Leaving aside the critical issue of belief in Torah MiSinai – which I think he questions based on biblical criticism - he would fit right in. And he would love it here.

What Professor Wertheimer likes about Modern Orthodoxy is what the Conservative Movement was initially supposed to be about: successful engagement with the culture combined with strict adherence to Halacha.

So where in Modern Orthodoxy would Professor Wertheimer fit in? Just as there is denominational divisions in Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), so too are there divisions in Orthodoxy itself. For purposes of simplicity let us break it down to 2 divisions: Charedim and Modern Orthodox. 

R' Aharon Lichtenstein
Even Modern Orthodoxy (which is the focus of this post) has divisions. Which I have classified in the past as follows: Right Wing MO, Left Wing MO, MO-Lite (meaning those whose religious observance is based more on social reasons than idealistic ones), and Orthoprax (meaning those who observe Halacha but do not necessarily believe in the fundamental tenets of Judaism). There is a lot of overlap… but I think these divisions are fair.

In his article Dr. Wertheimer discusses the influences on Modern Orthodoxy. The following is my take.

The influences of the left are in my view negligible. Open Orthodoxy was created by the left to cater to the left. But because of a Hashkafic approach that was long ago firmly rejected by their mentor, Rav Soloveitchik - and their acceptance as members in good standing of rabbis with heretical views - even some of the more liberal rabbis of Modern Orthodoxy (like Rabbi Barry Freundel) have rejected them.

MO-Lite is not a Hashkafic movement and has no impact on the Hashkafos of Modern Orthodoxy. 

Orthopraxy by definition is not really Judaism.You cannot say that you seriously question God’s existence or the truth of the Torah and claim to be Orthodox in any real sense of the word.

What interests me most is the Charedi influence.

I believe it is indeed very strong. And that it has both positive and negative aspects. As a Centrist I embrace many of the values of the Charedi world, primary among them the strict adherence to Halacha and the high value of Torah study.

Obviously adherence to Halacha is what makes MO – Orthodox. The better we are at observing it, the more Orthodox we are.

Torah study too enhances Modern Orthodoxy. The study and mastery of religious texts on Halacha; texts on the source of Halacha (which include Gemarah, Rishonim, and Achronim) are paramount in understanding who we are and how we got here. More importantly without studying Halacha, we can’t possibly know how to keep it.

Leadership is one area in which we clearly lag behind our Charedi counterparts. As was pointed out by several  of Professor Wertheimer’s respondants ( most directly Rabbi Barry Freundel):
“Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought,” Freundel asks? Nearly three decades after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ceased functioning as a leader, he remains the totem invoked at every turn…
But Freundel poses the right question: the failure of contemporary Modern Orthodox leaders to develop Jewish religious thought does indeed appear to be a symptom of theological uncertainty, if not malaise. 
If there is any failing that Modern Orthodoxy has, it is the current lack of great Torah personalities like Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav). There is no Modern Orthtodox thinker around today that has anywhere near the respect and authority that did the Rav. The closest one would be Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. But even if at age 80 he were to be granted the same degree of respect, there is no one else even close to him on the horizon. There is not a single rabbinic authority of great stature in Modern Orthodoxy today that anyone can point to and say: He is our guide in Halacha. He is our guide in Hashkafa.

I suppose that this is in part the ‘nature of the beast’. Modern Orthodoxy is less focused on central authority figures.  Those of us with a strong background in Torah study tend to think for ourselves… and take positions based on the teachings of our mentor. In some cases more than one mentor has influenced us. We also look at sources to corroborate our positions on matters of Halacha and Hashkafa. But that leaves a vacuum of leadership on matters not so simply clarified on our own – no matter what our background is.

This is why Charedim have made inroads into our world. For lack of any other authority figures, many RWMOs turn to Charedi leaders for guidance. And their guidance may not necessarily be what a MO thinker like the Rav would advise.

This is amply demonstrated by the gap year in Israel. There are many former MO Yeshiva and seminary heads that have moved to the right in a big way, relying on Charedi Poskim for guidance. Which is why some parents see their children ‘Flipping out’ (Becoming Charedi) during their time in Israel.

There was a study done awhile back on whether ‘Flipping out’ during the gap year was actually happening… and if so - what that entailed. The conclusion as I recall was that these kids were not flipping out at all. They were just taught to take their Judaism more seriously.

I think that’s true. But along with that came other behavior that not only reflected seriousness about Judaism but a Charedi approach to it. Like wearing black Hats; insistence on Chalav Yisroel, Yoshon and various other Chumros; putting all secular culture in a negative light; turning away from a university education (even in a Yeshiva environment like YU); And instead joining a Charedi Yeshiva; and possibly even deciding to join a Kollel and learn indefinitely after marriage.

Not every student that goes to Israel for their gap year turns out this way. I don’t know what the numbers are - but many do. I know quite a few like that. Is that flipping out or is it just becoming more serious about your Judaism? I think it in many cases it is the former.

There is also the Charedi influences from Israel. They  do not impact MO directly. They do however influence American Charedim. The differences between these two sets of Charedim are huge. Here is how Professor Wetheimer puts whatI believe to be the major divide between them:
American haredim, for example, are far likelier than Israeli haredim to seek gainful employment and pursue degrees in higher education. In fact, haredi rabbis in Israel have disparaged this American trend, while American haredi leaders have given their tacit if not explicit approval.
I think that’s true. It is the way Orthodoxy is evolving into what I have called the ‘New Centrists’ comprised of moderate Charedim and RWMOs whose lifestyles are essentially be the same.

There is however a trend in the more right wing segments of the Charedi world in America to emulate the Israeli system – which they see as holier. To that end they are minimizing or completely eliminating secular studies in some of their high schools. 

There seems to be a tug of war here between moderate Charedim and right wing Charedim. I’m not sure which will prevail. Perhaps there will be another ‘split’ in Judaism that will separate the moderates from the right. I don’t know. But I do know that whatever happens in the Charedi world will trickle down into the RWMO world.

So there you have it. It is a mixed bag with forces on all sides impacting each other. I don’t think any of these segments of Orthodoxy will survive in their present incarnation.  I think that after all is said and done, a new sociologically centrist mainstream will be formed. The only question is, with all these influences at play - what will it look like?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shidduchim – The View from the Other Side

Prototypical Shidduch material (FrumPics)
I received an e-mail from young man who asked to be identified only by his initials, JS. He otherwise prefers to remain anonymous. Considering the sensitive nature of his post I have agreed. His letter follows.
Dear Rabbi Maryles, 
We have been in touch in the past. While rarely commenting, I have been an avid reader of your blog since the last 4 years.
As a frum Jew, the frum world has disappointed me again with the age gap theory. I am a 25 year old male, and it drives me crazy to hear things presented as if only girls have a hard time in shidduchim. 
In the last 2 years, I have gone out only 5 times. Truth to be told, I don't buy it that nice guys are in short supply or that it is an age gap problem.
Do you think that if people were told that it is because of corrupt values and lack of meeting opportunities that we have a shidduch crisis? No way!
Hint: what happened to mixed seated weddings and kiddushim that used to be common 40 years ago? And why on earth is it so wrong to ask a girl out after having met her at a kiddush (whether directly or asking a mutual friend). Yet dating in a hotel for hours is ok (I am sure you are aware that rooms can be booked to fool around and it DOES happen)????
The reason I write to you this email is to give a voice to the men aged 18-30 who have no voice at all in this so called shidduch crisis.  
This letter was obviously written out of a sense of frustration at what he believes are flaws in the Shidduch system. 

As I have said before many times, the dating game in the Charedi world has evolved into something untenable as evidenced by the massive numbers of young women who have little to no chance of getting married once they reach the age of 25. 

But as JS points out, it is not the one way street as is commonly believed. It isn’t only young women who aren’t getting a lot of dates. There are plenty of men who fall into that category.  I know some very fine Charedi men who are still not married well into their 40s. And it’s not for a lack of trying. It is because they do not measure up to the ideal mate that young Charedi women are indoctrinated to seek: The full time learner. While being Charedi in every other sense these young men have opted to prepare for and join the workforce. They set aside time for Torah study either before or after work. (Sometimes both.)

The fact is that there are a lot of fine young Charedi men who are simply not cut out for the Yeshiva life for various different and very legitimate reasons.  And though some of them (maybe even most of them) tend to stick it out and stay in Yeshiva anyway - they do this either because of peer pressure – or so they can have the ‘right’ resume for Shidduch purposes.

This is why many young men of dating age become students in Lakewood Yeshiva. And it is why Lakewood instituted ‘the Freezer’. Which is a policy of not letting their students date for at least six months so as to discourage those who attend their Yeshiva mostly for dating purposes. To a Charedi - having ‘Lakewood’ on your resume when looking for a Shidduch is as important as having Harvard on your resume when looking for a job.

There are a few brave young Charedi men who realize that staying full time in the Beis HaMedrash is not the best use of their time. They realize that their strengths lie elsewhere. Instead of staying in a Yeshiva and learning Torah at a mediocre level because of peer pressure or for Shidduch purposes - they opt for choosing careers where their true talents lie, prepare for them… and then go to work.

Unfortunately for them, the young women coming out of Beis Yaakovs and seminaries these days aren’t interested in them. They have been indoctrinated to seek only full time learners  – those who are learning full time in Yeshivos and will continue to do so in a Kollel indefinitely after marriage. They will not accept dates with those who don’t, no matter how fine their character.

To that end these young women are encouraged by their teachers and mentors to support their husbands by being the bread winners. Ironically many of them get the kind of education that will give them great incomes. Some attend colleges and universities and become professionals in various fields with good paying jobs. All with the goal of supporting their future husbands in Kollel.

For their troubles, they seek true Talmidei Chachamim, and will not date anyone that does not fit that bill. And we wonder why there are so many single women? There are a lot of women who seek such men… but not all that many men who measure up. What about the fellow who decided to work for a living and be Koveiah Itim? They won’t even look at him.

But... as I have said before, the definition of a good girl is one that wants a good ‘learner’. The definition of a good boy is someone that IS a good learner. It is a lot easier to want a good learner than it is to be a good learner. The ‘cream’ that these young women are looking for just is not there in sufficient numbers to satisfy the numbers of young women seeking them.

So it is no small wonder that there are so many ‘good’ girls and so few ‘good’ men. It’s not that they aren’t there. They are. But they do not make the cut. These are all men of fine character, that will make wonderful husbands and fathers. They are bright; they are kind; they are generous; and they are loving. They have the same values that these young women have. But instead of learning full time they found another way of serving God. What do they get for all their introspection and honesty? They are thrown off the dating grid. Charedi women will not consider them at all for a date.

How strong is that indoctrination? I am reminded of a story from a few years ago about a young Charedi working man who had great character and values. He related a horror story about his Shidduch experience. No matter how much he tried he had a very hard time getting dates. Sensing that he was being seen as a 2nd class citizen in the Charedi dating world, he decided to ask a former Rebbe (or Rosh Yeshiva… or Mashgiach…) why he was having such a hard time.

His Rebbe’s answer was astonishing! This young man was told that he was indeed a 2nd class citizen! In fact this Rebbe told he was sub par compared to the full time Torah learners… and that is how he was seen by the pool of women he chose to date.

Where does all this leave people like JS? It leaves him unmarried - with only 5 dates in 2 years. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Missing: Aharon Sofer

Border police and volunteers involved in the search for Aharon Sofer (VIN)
A few words about Aharon Sofer, the 22 year old Yeshiva student from Lakewood New Jersey who has been studying in Israel over the past year. He went missing last Friday during a hike with a friend in the Jerusalem Forest. The two split up on a steep hill somewhere near Yad Vashem and Aharon has not been seen or heard from since.

 I have been following the developments (or more accurately - the lack of them) since I found out he was missing. I cannot imagine the pain his parents must be going through, although one can get a hint of it by watching his mother pleading for help in the video below. 

Aharon Sofer
At this point in time there seems to be no clue as to what happened to him or his whereabouts. It does not do anyone any good to speculate about that. What is somewhat comforting to know is that all the stops have been pulled out in an effort to find him. As Aaron’s father notes in the video:
“The police are working tirelessly on all fronts, and all options are being strongly investigated...” “We would like to thank the American Consulate, the office of the Consul General, the FBI and the Israeli Police and ZAKA for all their efforts in trying to find our dear son Aaron.”
New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made the following statement:
“I am deeply concerned over the disappearance of New Jersey student Aaron Sofer in Israel and I stand in solidarity with his family…”  “My thoughts are with them and the Lakewood community during this trying time. ” 
“By all accounts, Aaron is a devout and dedicated student, who travelled to Israel to enhance his knowledge and deepen his understanding of sacred Jewish texts. For yeshiva students like Aaron, there is no greater pursuit than to live and study in Jerusalem, while worshipping at Judaism’s holiest sites.” 
“Ever since I was notified that Aaron went missing in Israel, my office has worked very closely with the State Department, US Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC.  While investigators are pursuing every lead, we keep Aaron and his family in our thoughts and prayers. ”
New Jersey Congressman  Chris Smith (whose district includes Lakewood)  made the following statement:
“I learned about Aharon Sofer over the weekend and became very concerned for his well-being. I immediately sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry Monday urging that the State Department take every action to help in the effort to locate Aharon,” said Smith. “In response, Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff, David Wade, assured me that the Department ‘was totally committed to assisting Aharon and his family,’”
I hold to hope that Aharon will be located and returned to his family safely,” “Until that day comes, he and his family are in our prayers, and I will work with the State Department to use all resources available to find him and bring him to safety.”
Aharon’s parents are now in Israel in order to aid in the search for their son. They have offered a reward of 100,000 NIS to anyone that can locate him. Anyone with any information is asked to call 02-5391520, or the Israel Police hotline on 100.

Tomorrow is Aharon’s 23rd Birthday. His mother has asked for prayers for his safe return. Specifically for those who are can - to say the second chapter of Tehilim for the merit of his safe return. May Aharon Ben Chulda be returned safely and speedily to his family.

Video source: YWN

Monday, August 25, 2014

Skipping the Middleman

Reform Rabbi Andy Bachman (center)
Liberal Judaism is dying. I don’t think that is even arguable. The reasons for that are abundantly clear.  And no one expresses them better than Commentary online senior editor, Jonathan S. Tobin.

As has been discussed ad infinitum and ad nauseum - this is what that famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Pew report showed.

There are those who have challenged Pew’s statistics. They have pointed out its flaws… or the presence of statistics within the Pew report that temper claims of Orthodox Jewry’s exponential growth. There are also those that point to different surveys that show different – perhaps opposite results. That Orthodox Jewry may in fact be shrinking. There are statistics that have shown that there are more people leaving Orthodoxy that there are people coming into it. There may be some truth to that. The OTD phenomenon is growing. By leaps and bounds it seems.

Even if that is so, I would posit that there is still growth. But that it is internal. While more Jews may be going OTD than becoming Baalei Teshuva, the typically very large families of Orthodox Jewry indicate to me that overall - it is growing.

Without getting into which statistics are more accurate or how to interpret them, Jonathan very clearly spells out what most Orthodox Jews already know. Something the New York Times actually makes note of.

The Times reports on a story about Reform Rabbi Andrew Bachman. He has decided to give up his very successful pulpit in favor of doing charity work.  When asked about it, he said that since one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is Tikun Oalm (repairing the world) he does not feel there is any contradiction between what he was preaching and doing as a rabbi and what he is about to embark upon. The Times notes that this ‘manifests a ‘challenge for Jews in America’. From the Times: 
His decision was deeply personal, but also touched on vexing questions at the center of Judaism’s future in this country as modern Jews — the secular, the unaffiliated, the questioning — grapple with what it means to be Jewish and what role a synagogue should play in that identity. Nationally, synagogue affiliation is falling as American Jews increasingly decide they do not need to live out their Jewishness in a religious context. 
Here is Jonathan’s reaction to that: 
…it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time. 
As Jonathan notes, when Universalist ideals are used to define Judaism, it doesn’t make a Jew any different than their non Jewish counterpart. Why even bother identifying as a Jew, if your goal is simply to repair the world via charity work?! How are you any different than any human being that does charity work? Why not simply skip the middleman? If Judaism is only about Tikun Olam, - well you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just go out and repair the world… as Rabbi Bachman will be doing. Judaism has no impact on the modality of doing that. There is nothing particularistic about it. As the Times notes about Rabbi Bachman’s decision: 
His decision was deeply personal, but also touched on vexing questions at the center of Judaism’s future in this country as modern Jews — the secular, the unaffiliated, the questioning — grapple with what it means to be Jewish and what role a synagogue should play in that identity. Nationally, synagogue affiliation is falling as American Jews increasingly decide they do not need to live out their Jewishness in a religious context. 
There are some who insist that cultural definitions of Judaism are just as valid religious definitions. Here is what Jonathan says about that: 
More (Jews) think (Judaism) is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice… As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.” 
The sad fact is that unless we accept as integral to our definition as Jews,  those things that make us unique, saying we are Jewish is a meaningless statement. This is where heterodox movements have failed. And that failure is now spectacular as Heterodox leaders scramble to stop the hemorrhaging . They are beginning to realize (too late I think) that adopting or focusing only on a Universalist definition of Judaism was a mistake of existential proportion.

Most Jews that have been raised in the Orthodox world know this intuitively. It is now finally becoming evident among not only heterodox movements, even the New York Times recognizes it.

All this does not bode well for the future of the vast majority of Jews in the country. In a few generations, apathy and intermarriage will take its course. Not that we shouldn’t try and do something about it. We should. And we are. There are many fine Kiruv organizations out there doing wonderful work. But our success in trying to keep Jews Jewish is but a drop in the ocean. 

The children of heterodox Jews do not have any reason to identify as Jews or to marry a Jew. This is a very sad fate for movements, whose agenda was ironically to save Judaism by making it more user friendly in a melting pot society by loosening (Conservative) or eliminating entirely (Reform) - the reins of Halacha. And now the chickens are now coming home to roost.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Single Charedi Women Speak Out

Traditional Jewish matchmaker Heather Sirota (The Guardian)
Once again my ire was raised by the terrible situation of Shidduchim in the Charedi world. I must admit that as bad as I knew it was, the truth is that it is much worse than even I had imagined. 

I recently addressed this issue based on an article in Mishapcha Magazine by philanthropist, Shlomo Rechnitz. Therein he quoted an experienced Shadchan who told him that young women 25 years of age or older have about a 15% chance (or less) of getting married.

True this statistic is anecdotal. But even if you double that to 30%. It means that a whopping 70% of Charedi girls over that age will never get married. Besides, the observations of an experienced Shadchan should not be discounted as they probably do reflect reality.

I am angry that a segment of Orthodoxy that considers itself to be the most religious among us has a problem like this to such an extent.

As I said in my previous post - I do not see the age gap to be the real problem in light of the fact that there are as many boys are born each year as there are girls born each year. That means one boy is available for one girl. Despite ‘explanations’ about an  age gap, I remain unconvinced.

I am not going to re-hash my reasoning here. What I will, however, say is that the real problem is the Charedi Shidduch system itself (as it is practiced in the Lithuanian type Yeshiva world).  There is so much wrong with it, I’m not even sure where to begin. But instead of being accused of Charedi bashing, I will quote what 3 young Charedi women themselves have said in the letters section of the most recent edition of Mishpacha Magazine (unavailable online).

This issue’s letters section is the largest one I have ever seen. It is many pages long and divided into different segments. It was eye opening to see these young women say some of the same things I have been saying for years on the subject.

The first was written by a 24 year old single woman. She describes herself as a typical Beis Yaakov girl. She has been ‘in Shidduchim’ for 5 years. In all that time she has dated a total of 10 boys. That’s 2 per year. She further claims that she is one of the lucky ones – that her friends who do not have her resume (which is quite impressive) haven’t had more than 2 dates in that entire 5 year period.

What is her suggestion? It is the same suggestion I have advocated for quite some time: Change the message imparted to young girls in high school. Do not teach girls about supporting their husbands and raising their children. She cringes when she reads her high school notebooks. By stressing a girl’s mission in life as a wife and mother that may never apply to so large a percentage of them, ‘they are literally destroying us’. ‘It’s time to change the way the Yeshiva system works.’

Another letter was written by a 28 year old spinster. (That’s right. Spinster. Get angry at that word. That’s why I use it. It is outrageous, but it is how a 28 year old unmarried girl is seen.) Her first dating experience was a disaster. Since then, 9 years have passed and she is now treated by her community as hopeless. And she is justifiably upset by that. They don’t see a person. They see a ‘Nebech’.  The biggest source of pain for her, however, is waiting for the phone to ring. Or watching others move on and feeling the pain of younger girls getting married and having families.

She compares how her Charedi community treats her at age 28 as hopeless - to the way she is treated at work by her secular colleagues.  A few years ago when she turned 25 she attended a team meeting and started crying. Her supervisor came in the next day and said, ‘I hope I am not being disrespectful toward your culture, but when I came home I felt so angry.’ ‘I felt angry that a society that can make a person feel that bad about turning 25.’

This 28 year old young woman agreed with her colleague. ‘She was right.’ ‘Why is it that  in the secular world I am viewed as a young adult with my whole life ahead of me, and the fact that I am single doesn’t even cross their minds?’

They do not pity her or think less of her because she isn’t married by age 25. By contrast in the Charedi world – with every passing birthday girls are made to feel ‘afraid, rejected, and undesirable’.

And then she suggests something I have advocated for years: Do not judge a potential Shidduch by their age. Judge them by their character. (What a concept!)

A third letter was written by a Charedi young woman that does not reveal her age. She makes the same common sense points I have made before. First, the idea of boys getting married younger means that husbands will be even less equipped for marriage than their older counterparts. Her biggest problem, however, is dating boys who are not worldly.

As many people know the Charedi world encourages their young men to learn Torah full time for as long as they can. In pursuit of that goal they minimize the value of secular studies (if not completely disparaging it) in favor of studying more Torah. Students do not interact at all with the outside world – other than when they have to, and even then they minimize it.

Girls on the other hand do get a decent education. They are in fact encouraged to do so in order to be better able to support their husbands. That makes girls better educated and more worldly than the boys they date. These young men do not even speak the same language as the girls they date.  The ‘Yeshiva Bachur’ is accustomed to speaking ‘Yeshivish’ which is the new language of Torah study in America. In pre-war Europe it was Yiddish. (Yeshivish is English that is heavily peppered with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic using many of the expressions found in the Gemarah as part of the lexicon. To the untrained ear, it may sound like gibberish.)

In my view these three letters by Charedi women ‘in Shidduchim’ tell the real story of what is wrong with the system. And why efforts like trying to close the age gap by lowering the age of marriage for boys, or offering huge payoffs to those who successfully make a Shidduch with an older girl (over 25) is nothing more than applying band aid to a major open wound.

I should note that not all the letters were all that wise. One in particular letter writer suggested that women be less educated so as to make them more equal to men.

The only real solution is to change the way Shidduchim are made. I’m not saying that Shadchanim be eliminated. But I do suggest that they be re-educated about what is important in setting up a young man with a young woman. That age never be mentioned at all. On that note parents too should be re-educated about that too - no less the young men doing the dating. I would put an asterisk by any boy  (or parent)who asked about a girl’s age… as lacking character. Same thing asking about dress size.

But dating should not be limited to Shadchanim. There should be other ways for a young man and young woman to meet – once they are ready to get married.

Another thing that needs to change is the way young men are educated. Even discounting the fact that they should be educated at least for purposes of making a living - they need to learn how to speak English properly and be more worldly so that can be a match for their better educated and more worldly spouses. A Yeshiva man who speaks only Yeshivish and has no clue about the world around him ought not to the ideal sought in a Yeshiva education.  

If the paradigm does not change, the situation will only get worse.  Unfortunately I don’t think it will, which is why I am so angry about it!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Beis Yaakov Feminist Experience

Torah reading by Orthodox feminists (from the JOFA website)
Talia Weisberg is a self described feminist.  And yet this young woman from a Modern Orthodox background - having attended a Modern Orthodox coed elementary school - made an odd choice in deciding to attend an ostensibly non feminist Beis Yaakov high school. How, one may ask, does this make any sense at all? No one could ever attend a Beis Yaakov and expect to hear anything about the equality of the sexes.

If feminism is mentioned at all, it is usually to condemn it as an anti Torah ideal. But after 4 years of Beis Yaakov, Talia still calls herself a feminist. Not only does she not condemn Beis Yaakov for being against her ideals, she actually thanks her Beis Yaakov experience in in the Torch - a blog sponsored by JOFA  ( Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) that explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. (It is republished in My Jewish Learning.)

How is this possible? Well I think the answer is quite simple really. Feminism is not monolithic. It means different things to different people. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I believe that feminism can be generally broken down into two different categories. One is highly compatible with Orthodox Judaism and the other is quite frankly anathema to it.

If one sees feminism as each sex treating each other with equal dignity, it falls in to the former category of compatibility. If one sees feminism as treating men and women equally in the workplace - as in equal pay for equal work… and an equal chance for career advancement, that too is compatible with Orthodoxy. If one is gender blind to academic achievement, it is compatible. If one sees it as a married couple sharing household duties, sharing child rearing responsibilties equitably, and making important family decisions togther, it is compatible.

However when feminism moves into the realm of Halacha, Hashkafa, and Mesorah, it becomse dicey.And can and often does make it incompatible with Orthodoxy.  For example the  Egalitarian Minyan (the ten man quorum required for public prayer) requires men and women to be treated equally in the synagogue. That is a feminist ideal that is completely incompatible with Halacha. 

Men and women are equally valued by God. But God requires different things of us. Even the most strident Orthodox Jewsih feminists would agree that an Egalitarian Minyan (so commonly found in the Conservative Movement) is not Halachicly  permissible.  You cannot join such a Minyan and call yourself Orthodox. In order for a man to pray at the higher spiritual level of a Minayn in a Shul, women may not be present. An ardent  feminist whose values of equality trump everything else including religion would reject this Halacha and insist on mixing the sexes in Shul. But an Orthodox feminist would never dream of it.

The problem lies in the grey area of things which are mandated to men and not to women. Although not mandated to women they are permissible - and in many cases even laudable for women to observe. For example taking the Daled Minim on Sukkos (commonly referred to as Lulav and Esrog). It is a universally practiced Mitzvah by women even though only men are mandated to do so. 

At the same time there are such areas that are traditionally and almost universally not practiced by women, but have been increasingly adopted by the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. Like Partnership Minyanim where a woman may lead certain portions of the service that are not technically considered prayer - like Kabbolas Shabbos. Or ordaining women to serve as rabbis (without giving them the title of rabbi) in Shuls in Halachicly permissible ways- staying behind the Mechiza during prayer. 

Tyipcal Beis Yaakov student
These kinds of innovations skirt Halacha and have historically never been accepted by women. I am not going to get into all the pros and cons other than to say I am opposed to breaking with tradition in ways that are influenced by ideals not consistent with the Torah, like full equality in all areas of life including religion.

The guiding principle should – in my view – be NOT to serve God the way WE want, but to serve Him the way HE wants. That is determined by the Torah via Halacha and the Mesorah - traditions handed down through the ages. Unless there is a Hora’as Shah ( an existential crisis) the Mesorah should not change. 

I obviously place myself into the former category of feminist.

Which brings me back to TaliaWeisberg. I believe she probably falls into that category as well. While as a feminist there were many things in her Beis Yaakov education that were hard for her to swallow, like - among other things - the excessive emphasis on Tznius - her overall experience was very positive.

Here is what she said in addressing her Beis Yaakov education: 
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it. 
Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes.
During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha andhashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary. 
Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing.  
I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.
What an amazing level of maturity this young woman had even at age 14 - the age when she most likely entered high school.

JOFA and My Jewish Learning should be given credit for publishing this article. It shows an uncharacteristic open-mindedness to a type of feminism with which they might not necessarily see eye to eye in the current zeitgeist. It also shows there is room in the feminist tent for people like Talia… and for people like me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

David Gordon, a Hero Who Suffered

David Menachem Gordon, OBM
It appears that it has been confirmed to Rabbi Eliyahu Fink by reliable sources that, sadly, David did indeed commit suicide. That makes his eulogy and that of Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman's very appropriate and I retract my original post. But I do not retract the fact that he should be remembered as much for his heroism as he was for how he suffered.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Orthodoxy's Growth

The Havdalah Ceremony at an NCSY Winter Conclave
There has been much made about the Pew statistic which states that even though the only segment of Jewry in America that is growing is Orthodox Jewry, their retention rate is not that great… and their outreach programs are not that successful in light of the far greater number of Orthodox Jews that are no longer observant.

I’ve discussed this issue before. But in light of an article by Jerome A. Chanes in e-Jewish Philanthropy  a rebuttal and clarification is in order. From the article: 
(The)Orthodox reaction (of triumphalism) is a tad puzzling, especially in light of the “retention” numbers: how many people have chosen to remain Orthodox – and how many have not?
 On retention rates for the Orthodox, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that among those who were raised as Orthodox, only 48 percent are currently Orthodox; the rest are now affiliated with less traditional movements. (The retention numbers for the Conservative are bleaker: only 36 percent of those who were raised Conservative are currently Conservative.) 
The good news: among Orthodox Jews under 30, the retention rate is 83 percent. Noteworthy is that Orthodox retention rates are vastly lower among older people who were brought up Orthodox than they are among younger people. A mere 22 percent of Jews 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57 percent of people aged 30-49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox – and the percentage rises as the group gets younger. 
 This phenomenon of more younger people retaining observance is easily explained by the author: 
It may be almost clichéd to point this out, but attending day schools through the high school years largely works. Furthermore, we ought not to discount the “gap-year” phenomenon. Unknown 50 years ago and rare 40 years ago, the post-high-school gap year, often spent in a yeshiva in Israel, has become standard for Orthodox youth. The gap year in Israel is a powerful factor cementing adherence of youth to some flavor of Modern, Centrist, or even sectarian (yeshivish) Orthodoxy. 
Day school education is the key to Jewish survival in our day. There is no better proof to that then to see what is happening to other denominations that have not educated their children that way. And as I said yesterday, the ‘gap year’ in Israel does generate ‘growth’ in ones Yiddshkeit which of course means that a lifelong commitment to observance has a solid foundation.  Which is rarely abandoned.

Unfortunately there is a serious and growing OTD phenomenon, where young Jews from religious families abandon observance of Halacha…and in some cases - core Jewish beliefs. But in my view that does not come anywhere near the numbers cited by the Pew report of Orthodox dropouts. Let us examine this.

The abandonment of Orthodoxy seems to be greater in older demorgraphics. The older one is the more likely he will abandon observance. Mr. Chanes does not explain this statistic. But I think the explanation  is obvious. The further back in American Jewish history one goes, the less Jewish education there was. That combined with the melting pot spirit of the times which had a strong assimilationist pull. Becuase of this, many Jews abandoned Orthodoxy in favor of an American lifestyle free of the hindrances of religious observance.

It is also a fact that many immigrant parents found it hard not to work on Shabbos fearing the loss of employment. Working on Shabbos was a standard operating procedure for many if not most jobs all the way into the 50s. So no matter how much a parent wanted their children to be religious, those children saw hypocrisy in the fact that they were expected to be Shomer Shabbos while their fathers worked on Shabbos. That - plus the desire to be ‘American’ in every sense of the word led many a Jew from an ‘Orthodox’ family to run away as fast and as far as they could from their Jewish identities and any level of observance.

It would not surprise me that in the Pew statistic is based on defining Orthdoxy by Shul membership. It was certainly the case that many early immigrants who worked on Shabbos belong toOrthodox Shuls. This was in fact the case in my father’s Shul in Toledo. The president of the Shul used to drive many of  its members to Shul every Shabbos. There were 3 Orthodox Shuls in Toledo back then. And only 3 observant families in the entire city.

If Toledo Jews would have been asked by Pew if they belong to an Orthodox Shul they would have responded in the affirmative. That may very well have been how Pew defined Orthodox Jewry.I can also attest to the fact that not a single one of their children were observant back then - all of them attending public schools. On the other hand it’s possible that some of their grandchildren are. That is where Kiruv comes in. Kiruv (outreach to non observant Jews) has indeed been very successful. As Mr Chanes points out:  
There are data that suggest that a substantial percentage of the Orthodox community – as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates – are “baalei t’shuvah,” so-called “returnees to observance” from other movements. 
And yet earlier in the essay he mentions that 80 to 90 percent of the participants in Kiruv Programs do not ‘stay the course’.  The implication is that with such low percentages of success, how can Kiruv movements claim success?!  I think that misses the point of Kiruv. Certainly these organizations would like to see better percentages. 100% would of course be ideal. But realisticly that will not happen.

Becoming a Baal Teshuva means a major upheaval in one’s life. It requires a commitment to things they may not even know about when they decide to observe Halacha. It means giving up a lifestyle of complete freedom and replacing it with restrictions and rituals in service to God. It often means disapproval by parents and peers. It means not being able to eat at your parents unkosher home anymore. That is an almost impossible task to ask of anyone, no matter how sincere they may be about Judaism.

And yet 25% of Orthodox Jewry has done exactly that. We can never hope to convince all those who participate in organizations like NCSY to make these kinds ofradical changes. But even if the perecentages are low, the numbers are great.  Tens of thousands (if not more) of young Jews from secularor irreligious homes have become observant via Kiruv over the last few decades. While Mr. Chanes is correct that the majority of Orthodox Jewry’s growth is internal, I think he does a disservice to Kiruv organizations like NCSY and Chabad to imply their success rate is dismal.

This is not to say that we should be triumphalist. We shouldn’t be. The sad fact is that we Orthodox are still a minority of  all Jews - less than 10%. Sadly, assimilation is so great that being Jewish is irrelevant to many of them. This is something that needs serious thought and action. Solutions about how to stop the hemorrhaging need to found and implemented. Other denominations are scratching their collective heads about this and are coming up short.

So even though the attrition rate is so very worrisome, we  can take comfort in the fact that in spite of that and in spite of the OTD phenomenon in our own circles,  we are experiencing unprecedented growth both internally and through Kiruv. 

My hat is off to those like NCSY, Chabad, and the many other fine Kiruv organizations who are out in the trenches. Because of all these factors, I believe that Orthodox Jewry will continue to increase their percentages and eventually become the majority. This is not triumphalist. It is just the way I see things unfolding going forward.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Will the Future of Judaism Look Like?

I’ve discussed this topic many times. But last night it came through to me again as I heard a grandmother urge her grandchildren to seek a university education. 

What makes this particular event so unique is that this grandmother is someone that I would call a Centrist or a Right Wing Modern Orthodox Jew (RWMO) – as is her husband.  But her grandchildren are very Charedi.

As I have explained many times, Centrists are Jews are defined by their meticulous observance of Halacha, their belief in the supreme value of Torah study to which they dedicate much of their time… as well as supporting the elite scholars among us that do it full time. But they also place a high value on worldly knowledge as well as providing for their families.

There was a time when RWMOs sent their children to Centrist type day schools.  Although many still do, there are just as many that send their children to Charedi day schools. They have moved rightward having been influenced in their own MO schools by Mechanchim  that came from Charedi backgrounds.

And once they attended a Yeshiva or seminary in Israel… its all but over for many of them. Many of these Yeshivos and seminaries recruit students in Modern Orthodox schools hiding the fact that they are anti MO. They see themselves as ‘Kiruv’ type schools. What I mean by Kiruv in this instance is changing the Hashkafos of their students from those leaned in their homes to a Charedi Hashkafa. They call it growing.

I of course have no problem with growing, if it means becoming more serious about observance of Halacha and putting greater value on Torah study. But that is not all they do. They also very subtly (or even subliminally)  denigrate Modern Orthodoxy without making any distinctions between the left, right, or center of that Hashkafa. They just see all of MO as light on observance. And they denigrate many of its values learned in the home. They replace it with Charedi concepts of Daas Torah and spell out who they believe is qualified to express it – to the exclusion of all others.

When these young people come back from their ‘gap year’ (so named because it is the gap between high school and college) many of them have changed course and now seek the values that have been instilled in them in their Israeli ‘Kiruv’ schools. In other words - they become Charedi.

After they get married their own children will of course never have the chance to learn about a Centrist Hashkafa. Other than to have it denigrated when it is brought up  by their Mechanchim in the Charedi schools they attend. If you mention a university education to any of them, in many cases it will elicit derisive laughter.

But even without the ‘gap year’ in Israel, the very thing that is the hallmark of a RWMO Hashkafa – meticulous Mitzvah observance and the high value placed on Torah study- may in fact lead them to send their children to a Charedi day school.  These parents are afraid of the secular influences brought into Centrist schools.  They fear that being exposed to it will increase the chances of being enticed to go OTD.

The typical explanation I hear form RWMO’s who have university educations themselves about why they send their children to a Charedi school is: ‘Better to make my kids more frum than less frum.’ ‘I can always make them less Frum.’ ‘It’s much harder to make them more Frum.’

What happens instead is that their children are now influenced by the Charedi environment. They then continue to ‘grow’ in their Yiddishkeit and often end up spending years in a Kollel with lots of mouths to feed and little money with which to do it. And no real preparation for the workplace.

While it is true that in many cases a way is found for them to earn a decent living despite their disadvantaged secular education, it is certainly not assured. And many of them suffer because of it – even to the point of family dysfunction and OTD children.

This is not what Centrist grandparents envisioned for their grandchildren. What they envisioned was a lifestyle that is not driven by a Charedi driven agenda. But by a lifestyle similar to their own where their grandchildren would have options consistent with what they had.

The tragedy here is that this is not the way it was just a few decades ago. When I was in high school, most of the students - even in Charedi Yeshivos - got university.  After high school we attended the Yeshiva in the daytime and university at night. We all got degrees. And many of us used them to get advanced degrees or to go on to professionals schools in order to better our lives and those of our families financially. We  got married. We had families. We worked. We and were Koveih Itim (set aside regular times for Torah study). And we sent our children to good day schools. 

In Yeshivos like Torah VoDaath, Chaim Berlin, and Ner Israel, the vast majority of students did this. It was expected. It was normal. The Roshei Yeshiva encouraged it back then. Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Avrohom Pam had a degree in math. Chaim Berlin Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner used to meet with the students in his Yeshiva to make sure they were taking the right courses for their own particular situations. Ner Israel was known to have the best arrangement with universities in Baltimore so as to maximize their Torah study without sacrificing their university studies. And it need not be said that YU and HTC were very pro secular studies, having a college right on their premises.

Today, that is all gone. In my view the move to the right was a natural outgrowth of the strong Charedi influences even in Centrist schools and spending the ‘gap year’ in Israel. Not to mention the success of community Kollels that brought with them their Charedi Hashkafos. These Kollels specialize in in-reach. This means they reach out to the already religious. While I believe they have done much to straighten observance and increase Torah study – which is something I enthusiastically support - they have added pressure to move to the right by teaching these values either via lectures or by example. Community Kollel Avreichim tend to be very popular – even charismatic. Many Jews (even from MO backgrounds) want to emulate them. 

This is not to say that I am giving up on Centrist Orthodoxy. Far from it. I believe in it strongly. I believe we Centrists still have a chance to influence the future of Orthodoxy. As I have said many times, there is a new world being created that will be comprised of moderate Charedim who have already learned there is value in university education as it pertains to Parnassa (making a living). They will be the majority. Touro College which caters to moderate Charedim has expanded greatly since its founding.

But that new world will also have Centrists whose lifestyles will be virtually identical albeit with different Hashkafos. These two groups will quite nicely on a social level. My hope is that the unsustainable nature of the Torah only influences will cause it to reconsider their past mostly positive attitudes about a university education. And instead of encouraging every one of their students into an indefinite stay in a Kollel, they will encourage the majority of them to seek a better life through a better education. So that even if they all spend some time in Kollel, it will be with a Parnassa in their pockets. If things go as I suggest they will, the future of observant Judaism will then no longer be Charedi or RWMO… but a melding the two Hashkafos into a new and stronger Judaism.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The New Guardians of the Gate

Charedim protesting the arrest and imprisonment of one of their own (Forward)
I don’t get it. I mean really... I just don’t get it. The minute there is even the slightest attempt to offer the Charedi world in Israel some salvation from the dire poverty many of them go through by virtue of their lifestyles of eschewing secular education in favor of full time  Torah study, there is hell to pay from the ‘guardians of the gate’. No I don’t mean Nerturei Karta, whose name translated means the same. I mean the other guardians.  More about that later.

I can only assume that a group calling itself the ‘Committee to Save the Torah World’ fall into the category of zealots. They are hard-line Charedim – followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach that believe themselves to be the saviors of Judaism. They  have the same zeal for their issues that Neturei Karta has for theirs.

Not that zeal properly used doesn’t have its place. As the Torah tells us, Pinchas acted with zeal in killing a prince of Israel who committed an indecent and immoral act in public with a Midianite princess. So valid was his zeal that God rewarded him with eternal life for his act. Pinchas took the initiative and did not wait for Moshe to act. From this we learn the principle of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’ – when there is a Chilul HaShem, we do not give honor to a Rav.

But misplaced zeal is often a Chilul HaShem in and of itself. That is the only appellation I can think of to describe what happened in Israel in reaction to two issues affecting the Charedi world.

The first one involves renewed resistance to the draft laws. (So much for all the accolades about the Mesiras Nefesh of the IDF and the sense of unity we just experienced.) The Jerusalem Post reports that the arrest of a Charedi student for refusing to register with the IDF resulted in protests in several locations, including Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Bet Shemesh, and Kiryat Sefer. 

The protests were not peaceful.  They were violent.  This student had been arrested and imprisoned before for the same reason. Which resulted in similar protests at the time. He was released after serving 20 days and later asked again to show up and register for a future draft. He resisted again. And he was arrested again. Hence these violent protests.

How violent? I was told by a young American Charedi that a Charedi relative of his in Israel who is a follower of Rav Auerbach actually tried to drop a rock from a balcony onto a police officer who was scuffling with a Charedi protester at an earlier (pre Gaza war) protest!

Although Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is also opposed to the draft laws, he wisely mandated that when Charedim are called to register, they should do so. Rav Chaim Kanievsky backed him up, calling him the Gadol HaDor. he forbade students from following  Rav Auerbach considering it an affront to the Gadol HaDor and a Chilul HaShem. And yet the consensus among students seem to be swaying in favor of Rav Auerbach. I have to agree with R' Kanievsky. To those who feel obligated to follow R' Auerbach - I would apply the dictum of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’

How can it be that a path of violent resistance is chosen over the path of peace? Is this how God’s chosen people are supposed to act? Especially when there is a peaceful alternative sanctioned someone who is considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor? This makes no sense to me.

The other major issue affecting Charedim is even more perplexing that the draft issue.I can understand resistance to a draft. Even though I believe that even peaceful resistance is misplaced, it is a natural reaction to forced changes in a system they believe to be the essence of Judaism. Changes that many feel are not necessary claiming with some justification that the army does not need or even want Charedim. They believe (erroneously in my view) that this is a ploy by the government to destroy the Torah world.

But when it comes to offering an educational option to the Charedi world, the strong opposition is mind boggling. Not one Charedi is being forced to attend such a school. It is there as an option for those who seek an education that will enable them to support their families.

Hochmei Lev, a new Yeshiva high school opened up in Jerusalem last year. It offers secular studies as part of its curriculum. It is headed by R. Bezalel Cohen – a product of the Charedi Yeshiva system. It was founded by Charedim - for Charedim.

Hochmei Lev is similar to Ma’arava and a few other Charedi Yeshiva  high schools that offer a secular curriculum in addition to the regular Torah study curriculum. This is the first one established in Jerusalem.  Other than offering a secular curriculum everything else about it is strictly Charedi.  The municipality had provided them a group of trailers located in the Charedi neighborhood of Ramot Aleph, a mostly Charedi neighborhood. They were about to begin their second year. You can guess what happened next.  From Ha’aretz: 
The combination of religious and general subjects in a yeshiva for boys goes against the official Haredi stance, and this was enough to ignite an all-out war against the yeshiva, which previously operated in an area far away. 
…opponents have been considering publishing a letter against him in the name of Lithuanian Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman – a move that could spell a mortal blow for his institution, and perhaps also spark a crisis in Barkat’s coalition. So far, Cohen’s opponents have published an article against him in the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, a special pamphlet attacking him personally, put up posters against him, and mounted other efforts to prevent his children from being accepted into yeshivas. 
The letter from the rabbis of Ramot, disseminated in the neighborhood two weeks ago, said the municipality intends to give buildings to Hochmei Lev, “an institution whose leaders publicly defy the great sages, who scorn our heritage and, we were aghast to hear, also work in cooperation with and with funding from Reform organizations.” 
Ever the politician afraid of losing power, Mayor Barkat has given in and asked for the keys to those trailer buildings. Of course he promised the school that he would find them another location. And we know just how much a promise from a politician is worth (although he did make an attempt).

Why protest a school that is only an option and not a government requirement? No one is being forced to go. Is it so terrible for the Charedi world if some of its young men choose to be trained for the workplace? 

I know that changes the tradition of no secular studies. But why is that holy to them? These traditions are not Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai - handed by God directly to Moshe. They were put into place in a different time under different circumstances. When conditions change and an existential threat to the Jewish people arises we are not only permitted to make changes we are required to do so. Isn't an unsustainable lifestyle a Hora;s Shah - an existential threat?

Speaking of guardians, an earlier guardian of great stature, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (The Guardian of Jerusalem) knew that way back in pre-sate Palestine. He actually requested help from a distinguished and lettered educator who was observant to set up schools that offered secular studies curriculum in Jerusalem. 

Are today’s Charedi zealots smarter than R’ Sonnenfeld? Isn’t it a Chilul HaShem to see was and act accordingly in the face of what is - the current existential threat?  Shouldn’t we look toward the future and change things in order to prevent the collapse of the Charedi system? In my view it is.