Friday, January 17, 2020

Trump - A Man of Compassion?

Ariana Hoblin telling her story to the President in the Oval Office (JNS)
I know this will upset my friends on the Left. They might even ridicule the notion. But I am beginning to see President Trump as more than just a caricature of narcissism and boorishness. I still believe that the President is well out of his league when it comes to Presidential demeanor. And believe his habit of lashing out at his political enemies – or anyone that criticizes him (especially the media) is mean spirited.  But I also believe that this is not the sum and substance of the man.

I do think he cares about people in need. He has actually shown great compassion well before he was elected President. As was the case when he flew a sick Jewish child on his private plane cross country (I believe it was from LA to New York) for a badly needed surgery that could only be performed there. He did that without any fanfare or publicity. And never talks about it.

Unfortunately his out sized ego and the abrasive way he expresses himself is not exactly endearing. His sense of ethics is at best complicated and - at least on the surface - it seems he doesn’t have any sense of ethics at all. That – plus his ambition and drive have surely led him to be impeached by the House.

It is therefore not too difficult to understand why my friends on the Left hate him so much. And they are  in good company. Judging by the 2016 election – most voters agree and voted for his opponent. Including me. It is equally understandable why they so strongly support his impeachment and hope for his removal from office by the Senate. (Although that is not going to happen, Trial begins Tuesday.)

Although I tend to agree with the Left about his behavior. I do not see him only as narcissistic. I see a degree of compassion in him that those on the left do not. 

The President is so abrasive to his political enemies and the media, that they are blind to any possible positive traits. And judge whatever he does unfavorably. More often than not what Trump supporters see as a positive act or policy is seen by the left as negative. Objectivity is always lost when hate takes over. Especially when that hate is as extreme and palpable is the case with the Left about the President.

Just to illustrate, the impeachment is seen by Democrats based on solid evidence that he subverted the constitution in ways heretofore unparalleled.  They are in a virtual state of disbelief that there are practically no Republicans that see it that way.

Republicans on the other hand do not see the 2 articles of impeachment drafted by the House to be worthy of Trump’s removal from office. Even if everything witnesses have testified to is true. They see this as a political move to overturn Trump’s election - disguised as protecting the constitution.

I think the country is equally divided along these same lines.  If you like what he’s done for the country, you want to see him continue in office. And you don’t care about that phone call to the Ukraine, no matter what his intent was. If you think he’s hurt the country,  that phone call was the epitome of a high crime and misdemeanor making the President more deserving of impeachment than at any other time by any other President in American history. You want to see him out of office so that honor and dignity can be restored to the Oval Office as well as a return of the respect from our allies they believe has been destroyed by its current occupant.

Back to compassion. During an Oval Office ceremony where the President ‘signed an executive order to better protect prayer in public schools and federal funds for religious organizations’ he heard from Ariana Hoblin ,a Jewish teenage girl who reported how she was bullied by her classmates for simply being Jewish and asserting her constitutional religious rights. That bill was designed to protect people like her.

Sure... he had her there to make himself look good. But I don’t think that is was only about that. Nor do I think the people standing there with her thought that either.  I think he actually has compassion for vulnerable people that are bullied. The Left will scoff at that considering his own tenancy towards ridiculing others. He has done so countless times - harshly ridiculing his political opponents and various members of the media.

But there is a major difference between a vulnerable teenager like Ariana on the one hand - and hardened politicians and media people on the other.

Trump does not know how to overlook criticism. When he gets harsh criticism he returns it even more harshly. They should expect it. Unpresidential? Absolutely. But that is who the man is. He is not going to change. Gone are the days where they can say nasty things about a President while he overlooks them.  

So while it’s true that the President’s behavior lacks dignity (to say the least) and thereby has embarrassed his high office more times than I can count - I believe underneath it all is a human being that is a lot more compassionate than he is given credit for.

One may ask, what about the way he has treated illegal aliens? I must admit that seems to contradict any sense of compassion. Especially considering the ill conceived policy of separating children from their parents.  As disgusting as that was, his intent was to deter aliens from crossing the border illegally. I suppose he hoped that would stop them. It didn’t. It was a bad policy that was quickly abandoned.

Trump is a complicated man. Who occasionally makes bad policy decisions even to those of us that support most of  them. But I do not believe he is devoid of any compassion at all. Deep down I think he actually cares.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Black Antisemitism

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King
A disturbing video (which can be viewed below) has been posted in Arutz Sheva. Disturbing on more than one level.  

A Jewish ‘reporter’ by the name of Ami Horowitz asked members of a black community somewhere in Brooklyn why they think there has been an increase in black antisemitism. The answers he recorded seem to indicate that a majority of black people are antisemitic. Most of his respondents  – repeated an assortment of antisemitic tropes about us.

It is indeed disturbing to hear anyone saying things like this about all of us as though they were obvious facts. In essence they believe Jews enrich themselves by exploiting poor black people - giving nothing back to that community in return.

The conclusion by the casual viewer might be that black people are innately antisemitic.  But, I do not believe that for a moment.  How then can I explain this interview? 

For starters, the views expressed are almost identical to those of Minister Louis Farrakahn, leader of the Nation of Islam. This is a man that caters to the poorest and least educated of black people with an appealing message blaming ‘the Jews’ for all their problems. 

How does he get away with spreading that message? In order for someone to believe the ‘big lie’ there has to be an element of truth upon which to build that lie. In this case there are a few Jewish slumlords that do in fact take advantage of their tenants - most of whom are black - and enrich themselves in the process.  Making it easy for someone like Farrakhan to paint us all with this broad scapegoating brush. And when people like Father Michael Pfleger publicly embrace people like this - as he did not too long ago - it lends credibility to their antisemitic views.

And Farrakhan is not alone. There are black Christian ministers that regurgitate the same drivel that Farrakahn does. As Jeremiah Wright was famously discovered to have done when former President Obama was a parishioner (...before he was elected. He disavowed those views before the election – and I believe him.) 

Hate speech is a lot easier to penetrate the uneducated mind - and accept as gospel that Jews are responsible for all the troubles in the world. 

Adding fuel to that fire is the fact that there is a lot of racism on the part of far too many identifiably Orthodox Jews - that can be heard making the kind of racist remarks that dehumanize black people as being stupid, violent, and dangerous!

It is not too much of leap from there to see why there is antisemtism among a significant number of black people. While most of those people would not act on those beliefs, some of them do. Which is why there might have been so many recent violent attacks against identifiable Jews by black people.

So yes, while it was disturbing to watch that video - at the same time, I do not believe that this attitude characterizes the vast majority of black people. Antisemitism is not innate. It is learned. And spreads easily among the less educated by rabble rousing demagogues like Louis Farrakhan and James Wright.

Although there are some notable exceptions, I believe the more educated an individual is about any ethnicity, race, or religion, the less likely they are to be racist or antisemitic. The average middle class black is educated and no more antisemitic than the average middle class white. 

That being said, the question remains why black anitsemitism seems to be more widespread than white antisemitism. That might be a function of two things. One being the relative proportion of black people who have not had the same opportunities to get a decent education as white people. Which makes them easier to manipulate into believing antisemitic tropes. And the other being that in places like Brooklyn there are huge numbers of identifiable Jews that are easy targets. 

The real leaders of the black community realize the truth. One of the greatest and most consequential leaders of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, knew that truth. He knew that the Jewish community was – by proportion –  the single largest community of people helping to advance the righteous cause of civil rights. (Which he eventually paid for with  his life.) MLK walked practically arm in arm a with a Kipa wearing Jewish leader many times during his civil rights marches. MLK influenced a lot more of his people (all people in fact) than Louis Farrakhan can ever hope to.

I believe that most black people are fair minded about us and view us favorably. Perhaps even more fair minded than some Orthodox Jews view them. Which in my mind makes this video even more disturbing. It leaves the viewer with the impression that all (or the vast majority of) black people innately hate us. And that big lie exacerbates in far too many of us the already existing prejudice against them.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

An Unconventional Option for Observant Gay Men

Speaker at a Kentucky rally in support of banning Conversion Therapy (VIN)

Yet another state – Kentucky - seeks to ban conversion therapy for homosexuals.  I for one agree that it should be banned. At least the way it is practiced. Which is basically torturing gay people into rejecting their natural attraction to people of the same sex(SSA).  Torture is never a good idea. Especially when it seeks to change a natural inclination. And it rarely works. The natural attractions never really go away. They might be forcibly buried only to come out later.

While I remain unsure whether a ‘gay gene’ actually exists that makes someone gay at birth… or whether it is somehow learned early in life,  I am nevertheless sure that inclinations like that remain a permanent part of the psyche. Those who might argue and say they know people that have successfully gone through conversion therapy are probably looking at bisexuals who can be ‘trained to seek sexual gratification through only the heterosexual side of their bisexuality, or that were not really gay to begin with. But merely confused about their sexuality (for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this post). My guess is that conventional psychotherapy would be just as effective as conversion therapy in those cases.

The problem – as I have mentioned many times - is what is an observant gay man to do in order to satisfy a natural urge so basic to his existence – if the way to do so is forbidden by Halacha.

I have no answer to that. I will however say that there are sensitive Poskim that deal with that in ways besides just telling them to ‘get lost!’ Unfortunately here is a lot of ignorance on the subject.

But there is another problem here that is often ignored. Which is the fact that are observant gay people don’t like the fact that they are gay. They would prefer they were not gay and able lead a normal heterosexual lifestyle which includes  marriage and children. Should they be told that there is no hope of that since they are hardwired to SSA?

The conventional wisdom is to strongly discourage a gay man from getting married to a woman. I tend to agree with that in most cases. It is indeed a prescription for disaster. Besides - western culture has completely abandoned any notion of impropriety about sexual acts forbidden by the bible. Gay men are encouraged to simply follow their natural inclinations and have a sexual relationship with another man. In fact the United States government has now endorsed that option by making gay marriage the law of the land.

I am opposed to gay marriage for religious reasons since it gives a government imprimatur for something that the three major faiths believe to be sinful and forbidden by God.

After thinking about it for a while – and knowing of at least two successful marriages between a gay man and a heterosexual woman, I am not so certain anymore about that line never being crossed. In both cases the gay husband hid his SSA from his wife. They both had happy marriages and wonderful well adjusted children. In both cases their SSA was eventually revealed to their wives. In once case a very understanding wife stayed in the marriage and they have raised their children together. In the other case they have divorced – the husband revealing his SSA long after their children had grown into adults. The former case involved an observant Jew that went to Poskim that advised him how to deal with his homosexuality in light of his very understanding wife. That they both love each other helps. In the latter case it was a well known man who is religious Christian. Although his wife was very understanding they decided that divorce at that stage in life as the best option for both.

I cannot advise observant gay people what to do if they want to live in a heterosexual marriage and have children as gay men. That is well beyond my pay grade. But at the same time I do think it is possible if one is honest about his SSA with the women he wants to marry. 

Obviously a big hurdle to overcome is finding a woman willing to live under those conditions. But as I said, it is possible and does happen. That said, I would first consult with psychologists experienced with these kind of situations as well as Poskim that are known to be sympathetic to these issues.

There was a time not all that ling ago historically (back before the 1970s) where being gay was considered abnormal. A time where being gay meant being discriminated against, bullied, and ridiculed. Gay people hid their homosexual tendencies and would only have gay relationships on the ‘down-low’.  Many of them did however get married and while they might have been miserable at one level - were happily married at another. Although I am pretty sure that a lot of those marriages (most?) ended in disaster - not all of them did.

The bottom line I guess is that it is possible for observant gay men to live a heterosexual lifestyle and even have children. But to make sure that disaster doesn’t happen one must be completely honest with the woman they want to marry - and that the right people must be consulted before going ahead. No relationship needs more counseling than one like that.

These are my current thoughts. I know this is not the conventional wisdom. But since there have been and still are successful marriages like that, I don’t see why it should not be an option. Some people would say it is absurd to suggest that a gay man marry a heterosexual woman. I fully understand that. I also realize that the likelihood of finding woman like that is remote. But it is possible and it has happened successfully. Is there any reason to - out of hand reject that option for a gay man that wants to have a wife and children?

Just some initial thoughts on the subject.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A New Deal or Regime Change - Not Appeasement

Iranians protesting their government (Times of Israel)
I sometimes have to wonder whether the media and the political left wing aren’t in cahoots with Iran.

When I listen to their talking points I keep hearing the same thing: We should have kept the nuclear deal. And that all the trouble in the world is Trump’s fault.  

I have no other explanation why the media and Democrats (most of whom are well to the left of center) went from at first describing Qasem Soleimani as a terrorist worthy of extermination - to now referring to him as Iran’s top general. I guess referring to him that way makes Soleimani’s assasination sound more questionable.  Calling him a terrorist does not serve that purpose well.

That Iran, the media, and Democrats hate Trump is not even a question. The only question is who hates him more. Nor is it a question that they all agree that the canceling the deal and reinstating US sanctions was a bad idea. They also all say that Trump has seriously seriously ramped up the chances for war between the two countries.  

How sad it is that the media and Democrats are saying the same thing one of America’s most dangerous enemies is saying. A country known to be the single biggest exporter of terror; and who has sworn time and again to wipe America’s closest ally in the Middle East off the map.

Democrats in the Senate (and couple of Republicans, one of whom is libertarian with an isolationist foreign policy) keep saying that Trump’s explanation for killing General Soleimani is a big lie – which in no way justifies what he did.

Are they kidding?! Does it really matter that Trump misstated the facts about being an imminent danger to the US? Soleimani more than deserved what he got. And they know it. And yet all the media and Democrats care about is that what Trump stated was misleading.

Persosally I wish Trump would stop making stuff up to justify what he did. Because he didn’t really have to do that. But then again Trump wouldn’t be Trump if hadn’t exaggerated or lied. I don’t like that about him either. Which is one of the many reasons I did not vote for him. But in this case he did the right thing for the right reasons. He should be congratulated. Not relentlessly attacked.

Let us examine the facts. As it turns out the fear about what Iran might do in response Soleimani’s assassination petered out. They responded. No one was hurt. And Soleimani’ is still dead. That is a good thing.

What about the constant refrain from Iran, the media, and Democrats that we should have not backed out of the ‘deal’? And that because of that we are a lot worse off now and closer to war that we were before we backed out?

Really? How exactly does a deal that released billions of their dollars to fund their ballistic missile program - and to fund their spread of terror by proxy make us any better off than we were when sanctions were in place and they did not have those funds?

We are not closer to war. They feel the same way about Trump that Democrats and the media do.  They are afraid of him because he is erratic, reckless, unstable, and unpredictable. Iran might sound belligerent. They can scream ‘American blood will flow in the streets’’ all day long as a means of scaring us back into that deal. But they have no intention of taking a chance with Trump and getting into a war they cannot possibly win.

And then there are the current protests going on in that country right now. Mostly by courageous students and young people yearning to be free. The ‘official’ reason given is  that they are upset by their government firing missiles at a Ukrainian passenger plane killing all aboard. But this is really more of a continuation of recent protests against government corruption and the tyranny they suffer under them. Protests begun long before Soleimani was killed. 

And another thing.These protesters do NOT hate America nor do they hate Israel. That was demonstrated by the protesters sidestepping an American and Israeli flags painted on their streets.

I for one am quite happy with how the President is handling Iran. They are hoping a Democrat will win the next election. The US will then go back to that deal.  And Iran can then also go back to their ballistic missile program and continue spreading terror with their new ‘Soleimani’. As long as this President remains in office, they will either be starved into submission - or be overthrown by their own people. 

I realize their Revolutionary Guard is brutal.They are not beneath killing their own people in order to protect their power. But I don’t think those protesters are going away.  Especially if life gets even harder as the US increases their pain with more sanctions.

There will come a point in time that their own people will have nothing to lose and will ‘storm the Bastille’. That will hopefully result in regime change. 

For that to happen quickly - the rest of our allies need to unite and reinstate their sanctions against Iran too. And even increase them. That will surely bring Iran to their knees causing them to either agree to our terms - or cause a revolution resulting in regime change. Either way works or me. But I prefer the latter. If Iranian protesters do what the current regime did over 40 years ago we can return to a time where Iran was a friendly American ally in the region. Our embassy will be restored. As will Israel’s embassy.  

But this can only happen if there is a political will to stay the course and our allies join us. Short of that, all bets are off.  Unfortunately I’m skeptical about our allies. Which is too bad. If only they had the will, we would get our way. And the entire world would be better off.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Sometimes it’s Better to Lie. But When?

Rabbi Natan Slifkin asked a thoughtful question in a post yesterday that at first glance seems like a no brainer. Should one always tell the truth under all circumstances?

It would certainly seem so. What can be more important than Emes – the Hebrew word for truth? If anyone should answer yes to that it should be me. The word ‘Emes’  is in the very title of my blog. And yet my answer is no. Sometimes the truth is counterproductive and harmful it should be avoided. I am absolutely certain of that, too. The only question is how to determine when to ‘lie’ and when not to.

Rabbi Slifkin actually remains perplexed about this issue and has yet to resolve it – as he mentioned in a subsequent post, today.

This issue is at the heart of one of the more controversial events of the last few years. The publication of the book The Making of a Gadol by Rav Nosson Kamenetsky. That book was banned. Why? Because it told the truth of history. Which in the minds of some people involved some unflattering information about a Gadol. While it is debatable whether that information actually was unflattering, the surviving members of that family felt it was. And that the information in that book had no real value or purpose other than to smear the good name of that Gadol.

If I recall correctly it was (among other things) about Rav Aharon Kotler (RAK) reading secular books in his youth; and about letters to his Kallah. The family felt it was beneath the dignity of their ancestor, a man of such stature high - to mention he  that he ‘wasted’ his time reading a book by a secular novelist. IT was also thought inappropriate to publicize his private writings to his bride. Needless to say, most of us would think lees of RAK for that. But his family did not agree with that sentiment. And they won the day. The book was banned.

That ban was wrong for two reasons. First, as noted, it would not be unflattering to the vast majority of people that found this out about  a Gadol like RAK. And second, even if it might somehow be considered beneath his dignity, the fact that he did so and still became the Gadol HaDor to the vast majority of non Chasidic Jews is a tribute rather than something to be ashamed of. Overcoming ones failings is something we can all learn from and be inspired by. This was Rav Kamenetsky’s contention. But it fell on deaf ears. His book was banned.

To me, that was a clear case of where the truth must be told. Because it doesn’t fit the iconic family narrative about RAK being born holy from the womb,does not mean the truth should not be told. A lie of omission is still a lie. That some may interpret it only in negative terms should not be the deciding factor preventing so many others from reading it and being inspired by it.

The criticism of Rav Kamenetsky‘s book is precisely the same reason Rabbi Nosson Scherman gives for not writing anything even slightly negative in biographies published by his company, Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll). He believes that saying anything but flattering things about the life of a a Gadol is counterproductive to his goal of inspiring the reader about the greatness of the subject of the bio. Being born holy from the womb is pretty much how most of the ArtScroll bios read. 

Rabbi Scherman has admitted that the truth of history doesn‘t matter to him if there is anything negative about it. He will therefore not publish that truth. He is only interested in inspiring his readers about the greatness of that Gadol.  

But just as was the case with the Rav Kamentesky’s book, so too is this the case here. What is negative to one person is positive to another. And more importantly even if it might be seen as negative, overcoming adversity to become great is far more inspiriting that being born great. 

These are obvious situation where truth outweighs a lie.

Sometimes the truth must be told even though there will be devastating consequences.  Even a truth that will have the kind of collateral damage that is irreversible. What if someone is discovered to be a pedophile that has sexually abused children? Should that truth be made public?

The clear answer to that is yes. It absolutely should. Public safety demands it. Public safety depends on that kind of information. But it comes at a very high price. The family of that pedophile will suffer irreparable harm. Their reputations will be ruined. Unmarried children will have an almost impossible task getting married. The damage done to that family is incalculable!  They will never be the same.

But what choice is there? Keeping something like that secret is an invitation to disaster – allowing that pedophile to continue his predation causing even greater harm to his victims than to members of his family when he exposed to the public.

So if that’s the case, why should anyone ever lie? The answer is that if indeed there is nothing at all to be gained, and the truth can hurt someone, there is every reason to lie. Under those circumstances why tell the truth if it can only harm them?

The problem lies (no pun intended) in whether there is indeed nothing to be gained even if that is not so obvious. Just to cite one example. If someone has a terminal illness that has no cure, what is gained by telling them that? It will surely depress him. How is that knowledge going to benefit him over the last days or weeks of his life? On the other hand one might say that a person has a right to know something as important as his immediate demise so that he can put his affairs in order. Is that enough of a benefit to tell him the truth? Is taking away any hope of a cure a worthy sacrifice for that?  I’m not sure I know the answer to that.

I don’t think there is any question that when telling the truth gains absolutely nothing at all and can only hurt someone, it should be kept hidden. But one has to be sure that is the case. How to be sure is the $64,000 question.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Agudah’s Incomplete Image of Orthodox Jewry

British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis (JTA)
To say I am disappointed is an understatement. Unfortunately one that I am not too surprised about. I once had hope that Agudah would live up to its potential. I had hoped for the longest time that they would represent all of Orthodox Jewry regardless of what their worldview was. Instead Agudah has continued to identify Orthodoxy as exclusively right wing without caring much about what Orthodox  Jewry to their left thinks. No matter how observant those to their left might be.

That did not stop them from pretending to care at their recent DafYomi Siyum. Which is why they did not push their own Hashkafa. A Hashkafa that considers their rabbinic leaders to be the final word on ‘Daas Torah’. I watched the entire live feed online and do not believe any speaker used that term even once.

While they did make this purely about Torah study (or more specifically Talmud study) without reference to their own Hashkafa, the symbolism was more than obvious. Both the symbols that were there and the symbols that were not.  And by ‘there’ I do not mean those who attended. Among the nearly 100 thousand people that there - there were plenty of Modern Orthodox Jews that had completed Shas, too - eager to be part of the ‘Siyum’. 

Nor do I mean whether any Roshei Yeshiva from Yeshiva University (YU) were there. They were. What I mean by ‘there’ is the fact that every single speaker was either one of Agudah’s own or from their right. Including more than one Chasidic Rebbe (or lesser Chasidic personality). 

For the uninitiated those who happened to watch any segment of the live feed would think that Orthodox Jews are exclusively right wing Charedim or Chasidim - judging by their speakers

The only image of a YU Rosh Yeshiva was a about a 10  second appearance by Rav Hershel Shachter in a video presentation where various religious figures had something to say about the Siyum. Had anyone blinked they would have missed it.

The face of Judaism according to Agudah is the face of the right wing.

The question is why? Why do they not allow the face of Judaism to be the truer face that is much broader than the right wing face it featured?  

Sadly the answer is not an altruistic one. It is a political one. A few months before the Siyum, one of my sources at Agudah told me that they were actively considering inviting a YU Rosh Yeshiva to address the Siyum. He told me then that the only thing holding them back was their right flank who might boycott the Siyum if they did that. 

I held out hope that doing the right thing would transcend politics. But it didn't. Politics won the day. The fear of losing their much larger right flank was more important to them than doing the right thing and inviting someone from their left flank to address the crowd..

I understand their desire to have the most support they can get from the observant world. I will even grant that such a desire is it based on moral support and not necessarily financial support. (Although the much larger base of the right from which to appeal for funding is clearly a benefit.) 

But the price they paid in dishonoring (by omission) their left flank was too high in my view. Agudah has lessened their moral authority in my eyes.What they should have done is invite representatives from all of Orthodoxy to speak and hope that all would attend. Those that might have then boycotted the event would not be because they were not invited. That would have showed the world just how inclusive they are. In this, they failed.

Not to be outdone - the Agudah Siyum in the UK did something even worse. Even though they are not in any way affiliated with the American Agudah, they are kindred spirits ideologically. 

As JTA reported, after at first inviting the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, to sit on the dais at their Siyum, they subsequently dis-invited him, telling him not to come. Why? Same reason the American Agudah didn’t invite a YU Rosh Yeshiva to  speak. The UK Agudah’s right flank threatened to boycott the Siyum if he showed up. Why? They did not like his sensible policy towards the LGBT community that was issued in compliance with the UK’s education requirements.

At this point, I hasten to add that I am absolutely convinced that the YU Roshei Yeshiva would themselves not in all likelihood approve of my public rebuke of Agudah. They are about as altruistic as anyone can get. They are not interested in Kavod. I'm sure that they saw this event entirely for the Kiddush HaShem it was and were happy to participate. It in fact WAS a Kiddush HaShem in many ways. Some of which I described in a previous post leading up to the Siyum.
And yet, even though I hate to pour cold water on a Kiddush HaShem of this magnitude, the truth has to be told – warts and all. Judaism cannot afford to be built on a foundation of lies. Even lies of omission. No matter how noble the goal might be. And in this case the goal was not all that noble.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Images of Women - A Double Standard

Women at the Siyum - picture by Agudah (YWN)
I sometimes wonder what the actual position of an organization like Agudah is with respect to publishing pictures of women.

Whatever one thinks about Agudah, the one thing everyone knows about them is their claim that their rabbinic leaders (known as the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah)  represent  Daas Torah (the Wisdom of the Torah) on all matters, big and small. If I had a nickel for every time the phrase ‘Daas Torah’ was mentioned at an Agudah event, I’d be a millionaire.  

Whether Agudah is the last word on what the actual wisdom of the Torah is a matter of debate. While I have great respect for the Torah knowledge and piety of those leaders, I have my own rabbinic authorities I look to for the wisdom of the Torah. None of  whom are - or were on the Agudah Moetzes.  The point here is that most (if not all) of Agudah’s rabbinic leaders are widely seen as the rabbinic authorities of our time in the non Chasidic Charedi world. At least in this country. Even by Charedim that are not necessarily members of Agudah itself.

Considering that the Agudah Moetzes carries so much weight among the largest plurality of Orthodox Jews outside of the Chasidic world, it is important to know exactly what their views are in a matter near and dear to my heart: The increasing erasure of women from the public eye. A phenomenon most recognizable by the omission of any picture of a woman at all in any of their popular print media. Like Mishpacha Magazine.

I have always believed that Agudah’s rabbinic leaders have no real issue with publishing pictues of women. It is likely that some of the same rabbis that are on the Moetzes are also the rabbinic advisers for Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll). They nevertheless publish books with pictures of women in them. It is also true that Agudah’s now defunct magazine the Jewish Observer had also published pictures of women – even on their cover!

When  I made the observation about the Jewish Observer to one of Mishpacha Magazine’s editors, I was told that Agudah had stopped doing it long before they stopped publishing. And that we are now living in a world with higher standards. They therefore refuse to publish of even a head shot of their female columnists while publishing head shots of their male columnists. 

I found that argument to be tenuous at best.

Standard?! It is impossible for me to believe that there is one ‘Daas Torah’ standard for Mishpacha and another one for ArtScroll. And yet that is exactly what seems to be the case. That is clearly contradictory.

I mention all this in light of the recent Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas sponsored by Agudah. There was the same kind of contradiction there. 

On the one hand there were several large magazine style publications distributed to all of the attendees. (At least at the Siyum I attended in Rosemont, Illinois.) Every single one of them did not have a single picture - or even a caricature of a woman. Even the one specifically designed for women, Neshei HaSiyum. Not one! This, despite the fact that one of the speakers actually gave them credit for enabling their husbands to take the time every day to learn the Daf. 

On the other hand - there was a picture ‘essay’ about that Siyum in Yeshiva World News, where every single photograph was that of the women in attendance. Pictures that were actually taken by Agudah themselves according to the headline!

While I applaud them for publishing those pictures online, I have to wonder, Why the double standard? If it’s good enough for my eyes on the internet, why is it not good enough for my eyes in print?

Interestingly, Mishapcha’s online addition also publishes pictures of women. I have to ask them too, ‘Why the double standard?

I can only surmise that this decision is based more on the sensibilities of a particular constituent class: Chasidim. The more right wing of which believe that looking at a picture of a woman violates Halacha. Or might lead to violating it. No matter how Tzanua (modestly dressed) a woman in a picture might be. Even a head shot!

There cannot be two standards of modesty. One for online images and one for printed images. It makes no sense. Especially in light of the very reason the internet is so frowned upon by the right: the fear of encountering porn (online pictures) in the privacy of one’s own home. Does publishing pictures of women online makes any sense in that context? Not to me it doesn’t.

There can be only one real reason for not publishing pictures of women in any of their print media: Money. That’s right. As is almost always the case follow the money and you will get your answers.

These magazines want as many readers as they can get. Including Chasidim that might not buy their magazines if there were pictures of women in them. Those of us who care about these things are minuscule compared to the potential readership of the largest demographic in all of Orthodoxy. A demographic that at least in theory is not supposed to be online at all.

The sad irony is that I would be willing to bet that the Chasidic edict forbidding internet use is honored mostly in the breach. Which means the very Chasidim they cater to by refusing to publish pictures of women may very will access their online version anyway. So what in heaven’s name is being gained by all this?

Nothing in my view. But a lot is lost.  What is happening is that young people are being raised in a world where there are no women ever depicted. Not even in caricature. As was the notorious case of an entertaining book called ‘A Yiddishe Kop’. There one will find an illustration of a father making Kiddush at his Shabbos table that features only him and his male children. No wife. No mother. No daughters.  

What is the Charedi world  teaching their children with this trend? That there are pictures online is meaningless in world that paints that medium as evil. Even as it might by now concede that it is necessary evil, it is still evil. So that finding a woman pictured online is part of it.

This is terrible Chinuch for their young. And yet the trend is in that direction. Will women eventually be entirely erased? Even online?! Even in caricature? What kind of world are the children of this largest segment of Orthodox Jewry (by far) going to be living in?

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Perfectly Fine. But... Odd?

The over 3000 people that attended the Women's Daf Yomi Siyum (TOI)
The idea of women studying Gemarah (Talmud) has been around for quite sometime now. While there have always been exceptional women who did that in Jewish history, it was not a popular option for most women until relatively recently. For a variety of reasons. Most of which is based on the Mishna in Sotah (21b) that frowns on the idea:
 Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her Tiflus. 
The word Tiflus is defined by Rashi as ‘immorality’.  That of course raises the question about how we can teach our daughters any Torah at all? The obvious answer is that women are required to observe Halcaha. Same as men. So they need to be taught what the Torah says about that. But that leaves many areas of Torah study that are not direct instruction about Halacha. Which raises another question. How did the Beis Ya’akov movement get started? 

Beis Ya’akov was established about 100 years ago to teach woman a variety of Torah subjects not directly related to Halacha. Such as Chumash and Meforshim (Rabbinic commentaries). That seemed to contradict the admonition of the Mishnah in Sotah.

It took a visionary woman by the name of Sara Schenirer to establish that movement. She initially faced a lot of opposition, But most rabbinic leaders came around to her way of thinking. They realized that a lot of women were at the time going to universities where many ideas foreign – and even antagonistic - to Judaism were being taught as gospel. Those rabbis did a 180 and came to support Sara Shenirer’s new school system for women.  They believed that the very state of observant  Judaism was at risk if the mothers were not given the opportunity to study Torah at a higher level.  As long as it was not at the level of Talmud study. It was deemed a Haora’as Shah. A propitious time to break traditional Judaism in one area for fear of losing all of it.

It was Rav Soloveitchik that took this idea to the next level. He gave the first Shiur in Gemarah at YU’s Stern College for Women with a similar Hora’as Shah argument. It was ridiculous, he said to say women weren’t intellectually capable of studying Gemarah at high levels if they were getting PhDs in a variety of secular fields. 

However, it is not clear how far reaching this innovation went. According to Rav Soloveitchick’s grandson, Rav Meir Twersky, Gemarah study by women was still limited to studying those Gemarahs that were part of every day life. Not the full Talmud.  Rav Yehuda Herzl  Henkin,  founder of the Yoetzet program and the Posek for Nishmat, woman’s seminary in Israel founded by his wife, Chana - felt the same way. 

Which brings me to the recent DafYomi Siyum HaShas. The Times of Israel reports that for the first time there were a group of women that actually completed the Daf yomi cycle and had there own Siyum. Which means they studied every single page of the Talmud.  

Have they crossed both Rav Soloveitchik’s and Rav Henkin’s red lines?

I don’t think so. Because the Mishna in Sotah that set the original standard clearly states that we may not teach our daughters Torah. It says nothing about women studying the Torah on their own. Which is apparently what these women did. I therefore see nothing inherently wrong with what they did and applaud their accomplishment. ‘Welcome to the club!’

That being said, I must admit, that I found this celebration a bit odd. Not because there was anything wrong with it. I do not believe there is. But because it was so unusual  - so out of the mainstream. So... not what I am used to seeing as a role for women in Judaism. 

My guess is that most of these women were Modern Orthodox based on the fact that it is mostly in this demographic that women can be found studying Gemarah at any level. What is it that motivated them to study the entire Talmud via a Blatt Gemarah every single day for 7 and ½ years? A study that until recently was reserved for men. A study that for the vast majority of women is never even thought about – let alone pursued with such dedication. 

I could be wrong but I doubt that there were any other groups of women anywhere in the world that did the Daf for all 7 and ½ years. Will there be any more doing so in the new cycle?

I additionally wonder how the rest of mainstream Orthodox women feel about this. Do they see it as something to aspire to themselves? Do they see it as a worthy venture for all Jewish women? Or do they think it is odd? I’m sure there is a wide variety of opinion about this. But what is the percentage of mainstream Orthodox women that might consider this a worthwhile endeavor for themselves or their daughters? Most? Some? Few? 

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Who's the Victim?

10,000 march across Brooklyn Bridge protesting spikes in antisemitism (ABC)
We should all be outraged by what happened on an American Airlines flight. From VIN:
A Jewish family was allegedly verbally abused by a crew member on an American Airlines flight from New York to London last Monday.
The Stamford Hill volunteer Jewish security force Shomrim tweeted on Tuesday that after the Jewish family boarded flight AA142 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, “whilst stowing their bags they were subjected to racial abuse from a Female crew member who shouted ‘You F**** Jews think you control the plane.’” 
While this obviously antisemitic attack was not as violent as those that have occurred recently in Jersey City and Monsey, it is nevertheless an indication of the uptick in antisemitism that is rearing its ugly head. Especially in the New York / New Jersey area  where a lot of Orthodox Jews reside. An uptick that generated a march across the Brooklyn Bridge by 10,000 people protesting antisemitic violence. 

Back the the incident on American Airlines. Surely this family did nothing to elicit that disgusting antisemitic remark on the part of a flight attendant. I hope.

The reason I say ‘I hope’ is because I am reminded of an unfortunate incident I witnessed a few years ago. It was on a flight where - as passengers were boarding - a Chasidic family acted almost exactly the way this fight attendant described in her epithet. They acted like they owned the plane and treated the flight attendants like their personal servants. 

I have mentioned this story before. It is embedded onto my brain for a couple of reasons. One of which is the embarrassment I felt at the way this rather large Chasidic family behaved. It was in my view a terrible Chilul HaShem! I wanted to crawl under my seat after watching them ‘abuse’ that flight attendant with all of their demands while other passengers were trying to get  to their seats.

I also remember the gracious way the flight attendant reacted to my feeble attempt as a KIpa wearing Jew to apologize for their behavior. She said she was used to it and that she realized that not all Jewish people act this way.

Obviously not all flight attendants will react as graciously as did the one I experienced. If this is what happened here, I might understand the frustration that elicited her disgusting remarks even as I condemn them as antisemitic. If it didn’t happen here, and this family did nothing that would indicate that they ‘controlled the plane’, then I have to wonder why the sudden outburst? the mere sight of an identifiably Jewish family?

To be clear, there is little doubt in my mind that this flight attendant harbors some antisemitic attitudes. But flight attendants are trained to be polite to passengers under the most trying of conditions. Unless they are physically abused. That the flight Attendant reacted this way means that she either must have somehow been treated badly by this family, or has had bad experiences along these lines in the past and just let it all out here.

That being said - I don’t know the particular circumstance here. Whatever it was, it did not justify those comments and at the very least this individual ought to be fired.

But that does not diminish the kind of behavior I witnessed that falls exactly in line with her accusation. Which unfortunately probably means that - at the very least she had probably experienced it before if not this particular time. Which is a Chilul HaShem. Plain and simple.

Those who might accuse me of ‘blaming the victim’ - well I guess it depends on who you think the victim is in cases like these. When a Chilul Hashem takes place the ‘victim’ - is us.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Antidote

NCSYers at the Siyum (JTA)
The tragedy of so many of our people no longer considering themselves ‘our people’ and opting out of Judaism cannot be understated. Pouring salt on this wound is the realization that there is precious little - it seems - that can be done about it. We are all just about doomed to watching it all happening right before our eyes.

I don’t think that is even arguable. The attrition is as vast as it is fast. In a generation or two, there will be few if any non orthodox Jews in America if the  trend continues unabated. Is there nothing that can be done to reverse this trend?

In my opinion the answer is no. At least not on any major scale. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that there will be no success in trying. The fact happens to be that there is much success among many secular Jews that, when exposed to observant Judaism find it appealing enough to consider becoming a part of it. By many, I do not mean any significant proportion of secular Jewry. But I do mean significant numbers.

This is where Orthodox Jewish Outreach comes in. I do not believe I need mention the wild success of Chabad in this area. They have reached out successfully to perhaps tens of thousands of secular Jews over the last few decades. And they are still doing it.

But they are not the only ones doing it successfully. If anyone wants to see young secular Jews be inspired by Judaism, one need only watch the video below produced by NCSY. It is a recap of their Yarchei Kallah - a week long Torah study program for teenagers. About 350 Jewish teenagers that attend public high school opted to spend their winter vacation exploring their heritage. It began with attendance at The Daf Yomi Siyum at MetLife stadium.

One might wonder how on earth a group of secular American Jewish teenagers could possibly be inspired by attending an event they know very little - if anything - about. Whereas practically all the other 90 thousand attendees do. Their reaction to something  that seems so strange – so foreign to their lifestyles, might even be off-putting rather than inspiring. Here is how Rabbi David Bashevkin described it in a JTA article:
The right flank of the Orthodox community has adopted a unique lexicon commonly known as Yinglish. It’s not quite English, not quite Yiddish and certainly not modern Hebrew. Words like “zechus” (merit in Hebrew), “geshmak” (delicious or joyful in Yiddish) and “Kudsha B’rich Hu” (God in Aramaic) pebbled each speech — a peripatetic linguistic experience not unlike the Talmud itself. 
Explaining the nature of the event and the purpose of the celebration can also be a mouthful. How are teens supposed to get excited about the Siyum HaShas (Completion of the Six Orders of the Mishnah) and celebrating the completion of Daf Yomi (daily page)? These terms — siyum, shas, daf and yomi — meant absolutely nothing to our participants.
What possible motive could there be for exposing these kids to something they don't really understand?

The answer is inspiration. The same kind of inspiration that inspired some of the non Jewish people that worked the event. The idea that so many of them were inspired by what they saw speak volumes. Just to cite a few examples:

A security worker by the name of Rosemary Vacono posted on he Facebook page that - of the handful of events at MetLife Stadium since 2001 that have totally moved her, the Siyum definitely qualified. In the current spate of horrific crimes committed against us, instead of postponing it we chose to express joy about our faith through an important element of it. Torah study. Even though she would never leave her own faith she could not help being so inspired that she said that she will attend the next one seven years from now even if she no longer works at that job.

Then there is a story about an Orthodox Jew that got caught speeding. The cop approached him and asked him if he had studied  the ‘page’ yet. He answered no.  The cop then told him if he promises to study the ‘page’, he won’t give him a ticket. That cop was at the Siyum.

Another security official said that in all the years that MetLife hosted sporting events, there are always a number arrests of a number of unruly individuals. At this event there none.

The idea of so many people celebrating -  dancing, singing, and extolling the virtues and value of Torah study had its impact on a lot of even non Jewish people. No less those young Jewish teenagers.

This is the way to stop the hemorrhaging. This is the antidote to ignorance and indifference. The unity and clarity of purpose of that one evening spoke volumes of inspiration to the people that were there. Even those that had no clue what Daf Yomi is. Despite the fact that they never studied a Blatt Gemara in their lives. An event like this can make anyone want to be a part of it. Part of a people that lives their lives that way.  The week spent by 350 secular teenagers being inspired by what they saw has incalculable value.

Does that mean they are all now ready to jump on the observance bandwagon? Probably not. At least not all of them. And certainly not right away. But it might have left them hungry for more. And it surely gave them food for thought that they never would have gotten otherwise. I would not surprised eventually more than a few of them decided that observant Judaism is what their heritage is really all about. And become observant themselves.

At the very least there are now 350 people that will be a lot less likely to opt out of Judaism or marry out. All  because of what they experienced that week. And who knows where that will lead.