Friday, December 14, 2018

The New York Regents, Yeshivos and Public Schools.

If there was ever any evidence that gaining knowledge from a secular studies curriculum does not require equivalent time allocations, this might be it.

 The Jewish Press reports the following: 
Regents examination scores recently obtained by The Jewish Press under a Freedom Of Information Law request.
These scores reveal that New York yeshiva students are outperforming their public school peers in the four core subjects of English, math, science, and history – by far. 
Quantity does not always equal quality. Certainly not with respect to the quantity of time spent by students on the core subject rightly mandated by the New York State Education Department (NYSED).  

While NYSED justifiably requires certain core subject to be taught in any school that they certify, equal time requirements should not be part of the equation. At least not as a minimal standard. The students at Yeshiva high schools and girls schools do not spend the kind of time daily on those subjects that public schools do. And yet the religious schools outperformed the public schools. 

(Interestingly - the schools that did best on those tests were all Beis Yaakov type girls high schools. The reasons for this would make for an interesting discussion but are beyond the scope of this post.)

But that Yeshiva students do better on the Regents is not the full story. There are a number of factors that might explain it. First it is rather well established Judaism places a high value on education. Which means that the vast majority of Jewish families tend to be highly motivated to learn. And thereby tend do well on tests like this. This is not a denominational or even a Hashkafic issue. It is true across the board. Differences might only be in exactly what they study and the emphasis placed on various of its educational components.

That a school does not have a secular curriculum does not mean the students aren’t motivated to study and learn.  It’s just that they are learning Torah only. The motivation to learn is should be obvious to anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge of what Yeshivos are all about. The common denominator of all Jewish schools is the motivation be educated. 

Not all public school parents are motivated that way. Especially in inner city public schools where in some cases students learn practically nothing. Some cannot even read even after ‘completing’ 4 years of high school. Which brings the Regent test score averages way down. 

So the comparison is not entirely valid. If one were to conduct a fair study it would require a double blind study of exactly the same curricula taught by the same teachers in areas where education is equally valued. And the only variable being the time allocation. Those kinds of results might tell a different story.

Be that as it may, it should nevertheless be clear that doing well on the New York regents by Yeshiva  students that do not spend the same amount of time on the subjects as do by students in public schools tested do quite well. And as a minimum requirement, schools should be not be forced into some sort of arbitrary time requirement.

One may ask,why there should be any time requirements? As long as the students do well enough on the New York Regents, that would indicate that they are getting the minimum education the state of New York requires. So that even if they avoid any secular studies at all that would be OK as long as they learn the material that they would be tested on.

I hear that. But my guess is that offering no secular studies curriculum at all would mean doing very poorly on those tests. No matter how valuable the religious side of the education is, there would still be key elements missing.

The optimal approach for NYSED to take in my view would be to retain  the secular curriculum requirement. But to change the time allocation requirement based on the amount of time spent by the schools whose students did well on the Regents. As the time allocation requirements stand now, a decent religious education would be nearly impossible. And it ought to be opposed by all of us. But it is not an all or nothing proposition for us. 

Which brings me back to those schools that refuse to offer any secular curriculum at all. The ones that are claiming ‘Shmad’ about these new rules. They have called on all of Orthodoxy to protest these new guidelines in their entirety with the claim that it is a violation of church state separation clause in the constitution..

It is not. Requiring a core secular curriculum in no way impedes one religious beliefs and practices. If it did there would be no Orthodox school offering one. The fact is that the vast majority of Orthodox schools do offer one. Even most Charedi ones. One might quibble about whether certain schools devote enough time to it or how much they actually value it. But in point of fact they almost all offer something. Some of the more modern ones tend to offer a truly excellent secular studies curriculum. Without devoting the kind of  time currently being required by NYSED’s new guidelines.

But I’ve already made that argument about the importance of a good secular studies program. The question therefore is not whether or not to require it at all - which is what Satmar types schools argue is their right. But how much time to allocate to those studies at a minimum in order for them to be considered in compliance with the educational goals of the state. 

The answer is to look at all the schools that did well on the Regent exam and to see how much time they allocate to those subjects. And then base their time allocation requirements on that.

What they should definitely NOT do is to certify any school that avoids a secular studies curriculum entirely. That is what Satmar would like. And they are asking all Orthodox organizations to join them in protesting the new guidelines in their entirely. 

In my view no Orhtodox institution should join them in that quest. Joining them helps them perpetuate of ignorance.  in one of the largest and fating growing segments of Orthodoxy. An ignorance that negatively impacts their earning power as adults. And perhaps even more importantly will perpetuate ignorance about good citizenship. Which in my view is one of the underlying reasons why Satmar so actively seeks prison reform. And is willing to spend millions of its own money doing so!.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

He Couldn’t Have!

Rabbi Chaim Druckman (Wikipedia)
When Moti Elon (former head of the Religious Zionist Yeshivat HaKotel) was convicted of sexually abusing some of his students back in 2013, it sent shock-waves throughout the Religious Zionist community. Elon was a respected and charismatic rabbinic leader and teacher whose Torah knowledge and reputation extended far beyond Religious Zionist circles.

I recall the reaction of a Charedi Mechanech in Israel I know who was devastated by that news. He told me that he respected Elon as much as any Charedi Rosh Yeshiva and that he had become very close to him. To say that he was in a state of shock is an understatement. 

Elon’s conviction did not include any jail time. His prison sentence was suspended and he was ordered instead to do community service and pay a fine to his victim.

At the time a group mental health professionals, rabbis and educators led by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein formed the Takana Forum. An organization that worked to prevent sexual abuse. They stripped Elon of his position as head of HaKotel and  forbade him from making any public appearances. He moved to a small town near the Kinneret and agreed to no longer deal with young men in any way.

I wish I could say the story ends there. But I am sorry to say that it does not.  Elon’s self exile didn’t last very long. And he once again found ways to continue sexually assaulting young men and proceeded to do exactly that. He sexually assaulted a young man seeking his counsel. That young man documented it all. There is apparently no doubt it.  From the Jerusalem Post
Elon had opened a yeshiva in Jerusalem called “Beit Va’ad U’Midrash” and… was once again meeting with and teaching young men. We also took issue with the support he was receiving from another rabbi, Haim Druckman, an Israel Prize laureate, former member of Knesset and dean of the prestigious Or Etzion Yeshiva…
With the endorsement of a prestigious Rav Elon probably found it rather easy to find his prey.

It is always sad to see icons fall. But it is sadder when they don’t fall if they are guilty of the kind of crimes Elon has committed. 

Why do these kinds of things keep happening? I think it is simply human nature not to believe the worst about accomplished people that have otherwise contributed much to society. Elon was that guy. He and many others like him keep getting away with it because of that. 

A man like Rabbi Druckman sees Elon and simply cannot believe it. Even when it is so obviously true. Rabbi Druckman must realize that. But there is still a level of incredulity about it that leads him to rationalize his support by saying: 
“I don’t believe there is anything in his Torah lessons that is not kosher, there is no reason not to learn from him or listen to Torah lessons from him.” 
How simple it is to delude oneself about an iconic figure. Rabbi Druckman is not the first one to do that. Respected rabbis in other Orthodox communities of all types have deluded themselves this way. Which ends up with them protecting molesters over victims.

I believe that this is one reason why for example the Agudah requires all suspicions of sexual abuse be reported to a rabbi first. Who will then determine whether the accusations are credible enough to report to the authorities.  

When dealing with icons or any respected rabbis or Mechanchim with otherwise good reputations, they may end up supporting the accused rather than the accuser. Sincerely believing that there is no way that a man as widely respected as the accused could ever have done what he is accused of doing. 

Which is probably one of the reasons Rabbi Druckman endorsed Elon even after he was convicted. After all Elon denied it (as almost all of them do unless they are caught in the act) and that leaves room for doubt about his actual guilt even after being convicted. Let alone if there is only an accusation of abuse as is the case with Agudah’s requirement.

There are no bad people here. Just misguided ones that are convinced they are protecting the innocent when in fact they are doing just the opposite. And in the process doing much harm to survivors and future victims of the individual they are protecting.

It seems to me that no matter how many times there have been credible reports of abuse… no matter how much pain is expressed by survivors of abuse… no matter how many survivors go OTD... or become so clinically depressed that they attempt suicide, it hasn’t helped change things. There is a predisposition to give an accused respected member of the community the benefit if the doubt. I guess when you know someone personally, then the number of reports about prominent people exposed as sexual abusers... or the studies that show that the vast majority of the time people say they have been abused they are telling the truth - does not seem to apply to the accused individual so familiar to them ‘who couldn’t have done it’.

There is also the possibility that someone accused of sex abuse might actually be innocent, rare though that may be. It does happen. That adds to the problem.

I suppose that is human nature. Which makes solving this problem seem almost impossible. Thankfully however, despite all of this - progress has been made. But we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wrong Answer!

Satmar Chasidim (Arutz Sheva)
Once again we have the specter of Satmar supporting the wrong thing. In this case its their approach to white collar crimes. Instead of trying to instill basic honesty and integrity into their people, Arutz Sheva reports they are raising funds to lobby for reforming the US penal system with respect to white collar crimes. $2 million has been raised to promote leniency for convicted white collar criminals.

This is wrong on so many levels. In fact in might even rise to the level of a Chilul Hashem if you think about it. With this move they have basically admitted that white collar crime is a common occurrence. Or at least enough people are guilty of it to require them to see legislation for them. Is this really the image they want to project to the world? ...that the good fight is about leniency for their criminals? Seriously? This is the most important issue to them? Not the crime itself? I see no effort to eliminate the crime. They seem to just ignore it as though it were OK.

This is not so say that white collar criminals are always treated fairly. Sometimes the punishment does not fit the crime. As was the case with Sholom Rubashkin. His sentence was overly harsh for a first time white collar offender. This was near universally acknowledged by a variety of prominent people whose views about the justice system are respected. So indeed it should be reformed so that a first time white collar criminal does not get a prison sentence that is much harsher than that of many murderers.

But this should not be Satmar’s fight. This is a fight that should be universally supported by all fair minded people. Sentencing guidelines should be fair and adjusted accordingly.

That Satmar is doing it on their own (with support from other Charedi communities according to Arutz Sheva) is by far the wrong approach to their problem. If it exists at levels high enough raise millions of dollars to lobby for - then the real problem is to find out why it does and do something about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had instead raised that amount of money for the kind of education that would emphasize the Halacha of  Dina D’Machusa Dina (the Halachic requirement to follow the law of the land)?

I guess not. The question is why don’t they see it that way? I have discussed my views in this before. It is my personal opinion based on a variety of factors that have caused this kind of mindset among them. This is not to excuse it. It is only to briefly explain it.

First there is the fact that in pre Holocaust Europe going back many centuries, antisemitism was rampant. Especially Eastern Europe where most Chasidim were located. Conditions were harsh. My understanding is that it was almost impossible to support one’s family without in some way cheating or skirting the law.

This mentality came with post Holocaust refugees when they arrived in America . 

But America was not like Europe even in pre Holocaust times let alone now. Most American Jews – including most Orthodox Jews quickly found that to be the case and have thrived financially without any significant impediments.

But not Chasidim like those of Satmar who have literally isolated themselves from the outside world. They are clueless about the differences between the Europe of their parents and grandparents on the one hand - and the America of today on the other. For them nothing has changed. They remain with the belief that America is no different than Europe. And that it is therefore legitimate to cheat the government here now - as it was back then there.  As long as you can get away with it. And not get caught.

They have no education at all about what America is all about. They have no education at all outside of their religious education. Which apparently does not teach the importance of Dina D’Malchusa.

To the best of my knowledge they have no intention of changing that and and are fighting every attempt at it. They choose to continue to live their lives in near complete ignorance and isolation from the rest of society for fear of being contaminated by it. How can they possible not believe that cheating the government is OK with that kind of background?!

Whose fault is it? Clearly not the Chasidim themselves. They don’t know any better and simply buy what they are being sold by their leadership. They are being sold a bill of goods about the outside world that reinforces old stereotypes about the ‘evil Goyim out to get them’. They are taught to believe that they hate us and we must hate them back.  Which in their minds justifies white collar criminals who are simply following in the footsteps of  parents and grandparents. Who were forced by circumstances to do the same in pre Holocaust Europe.Circumstances that do not exist here.

They have little way of knowing that this is the case. I’m not sure how they explain the existence of so many Orthodox Jews outside of their community that do not live like that, follow the law, and do rather well without sacrificing their religious ideals.

This is why I continue to support all efforts to educate their children with a secular studies program that includes good citizenship and the idea that not all Goyim are antisemites. That Americans are good and decent people most of whom are philosemites that stand with us in times of trouble.  

If that ever happens it will obviate the need to lobby for lenient sentences for their white collar criminals. Because hopefully there will no longer be any - recognizing that white collar crime is completely off limits to anyone calling themselves an observant Jew.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Disillusioned Baal Teshuva

Award winning actress, Mayim Bialik - a modern Orthodox Baalas Teshuva
The Gemara tells us B’Makom SheBaalei Teshuva Omdim Ein Tzadikim Gemurim Yecholim La’amod Bo.  In the place where a Baal Teshuva stands, a completely righteous person cannot stand. (Brachos 34b and Sanhedrin 99a)

A Baal Teshuva (or Chozer B’Teshuva as they are called in Israel) is an observant Jew that knowingly sinned and sincerely repented. But in common parlance a Baal Teshuva  refers to a secular Jew not raised in an observant home – and who somehow found truth in the observance of Halacha (Jewish law - as determined by the Torah and interpreted by the sages throughout every generation down to our own). And has now become fully observant

For me, it is a no brainer that this type of Baal Teshuva is someone in whose place I cannot stand. I have always felt that anyone that comes to observance on their own is worthy of such respect. They have given up their complete freedom to indulge in any pleasure available to mankind - and have embraced a life full of strictures because they realized the beauty and truth of the Torah. In essence they are following in the footsteps of our Patriarch Abraham who on his own found God. They too have found God on their own.

Contrast that with those of that that were raised in observant homes and educated how to be observant. It is a lot easier to live a lifestyle that we were raised in and are used to. For us, there is no change in our lives. For a Baal Teshuva, there is a there is a monumental change. An actual upheaval in the way they live. 

In my view those of us born into it cannot compare. Even though most of us are observant out conviction, being observant is often a matter of rote behavior. But to the Baal Teshuvsa  – observance is out of pure conviction, There is nothing rote about it.

It s with this in mind that I read an article by Dana Kessler in Tablet Magazine that deals with a well known (but little done about) problem that faces just about every Baal Teshuva: Acceptance into the wider observant community. Kessler focuses on the 2nd generation of Chozrim B’Teshuva how the lack of full acceptance impacts them.

Kessler informs us that in the 60s and 70s there was an explosion of such people seeking meaning in their lives. And most of them became Charedi believing that that was the most accurate expression of Torah Judaism. Especially those living in Israel.

However many 2nd generation Chozrim B’Teshuva end up leaving the Charedi world: 
Now, their oldest children are grown-up and have children of their own, and can testify to the fact that for many, their cultural, financial, and social assimilation into the Haredi world can be deemed a failure. Many of the children of the original chozrim b’teshuvah have since left the Haredi communities where they were raised. And while their parents have, by and large, not returned to the secular world, many have changed their relationship to the Haredi world. 
This is reflected in a new documentary produced by Rabbi Mordechai Vardi, a Dati Leumi (observant but not Charedi) Jew. One of its subjects is Moti Barlev, a 2nd generation Baal Teshuva who has left his parents community. He described what it was like for him growing up in what may be the most Charedi community in the world, Meah Shearim: 
“The biggest problem the second generation faces is lack of identity,” Barlev told me. “We don’t belong to the Haredi world and we don’t belong elsewhere, either. We grew up with a sense of shame and humiliation from a very early age. We were second-class citizens.” 
Producer Vardi who volunteers for ELEM - Youth in Distress,  added: 
“There are problems with drugs, conflicts within the home, even homelessness,” Vardi told me. One of the reasons is the communication barrier between chozrim b’teshuvah and their children. “Baalei teshuvah have to hide parts of their soul from their children,” Vardi said. “If they don’t want their children to know what they did when they were secular, they have to hide not only their biography but also parts of their soul.” 
There are other things contributing to this phenomenon which are described in the article. But I can’t help but believe that the lack of full acceptance plus the struggles their parents have in dealing with their past is the crux of the problem.

Let me hasten to add that the lack of acceptance is a problem not only in he Charedi world. But many of the cultural aspects of the Baal Teshuva’s past are mostly a problem in that world. Many things they were convinced to give up the Charedi world would have been acceptable in the modern Orthodox world. But Kessler does not discuss how Baalei Teshuca fare in modern Orthodox circles.

That said, modern Orhtodoxy has its own problems. Not the least of which is why so many Baalei Teshuva aren’t choosing that form of observance. The unfortunate perception of modern Orthodoxy is that many if not most modern Orthodox Jews are what I have called MO-Lite. Meaning that the level of observance is based as much on social concerns as it is on Halachic ones.

For example in some cases what is considered a minor observance is abandoned in favor of the social norm of the general culture. Which becomes the norm of the MO-Lite world. In many cases that is due to a lack of education; or misunderstanding of the actual Halacha; or in some cases simply not caring about minor Halachos at all when it comes to bowing to the social norm.

For someone seeking truth and meaning - bowing to social norm does not seem like a path toward truth. And thus their form of observance seems artificial. The Charedi world on the other hand rejects most aspects of the general culture  (and thereby not bowing to it). It therefore looks much more authentic to them. 

But as this article demonstrates it often comes at a high price. One that is counterproductive to their actual goals. Espeeically for their children who did not go through their own personal path of seeking truth. When combined with the lack of full acceptance of the Baal Teshuva it is a wonder why there aren’t more that have left that world. 

What a sad fate for someone seeking the truth, finding it in observance only to be disillusioned by the very community they embraced. This is not to say that the Charedi world does any of this on purpose. Or that they are in any way evil. They might not even be fully conscious of it. But it is nevertheless a fact it seems.

What was somewhat heartening is that observance is not abandoned by all that leave. Some remain observant outside of the Charedi community. That is a good thing.

I have been told that the  Baal Teshuva phenomenon has waned in recent years. The numbers are nowhere near what they were in the 60s and 70s. But there are still plenty of Jews raised in secular homes seeking meaning in their lives. How then do we prevent the scenario described in the Tablet article?

I can’t answer the question. I’m not sure I can change common attitudes about Baalei Teshuva, despite my beliefs that they are more sincere about their Judaism than most of the rest of us that were born into it.  But I do think the Modern Orthodox world can do a better job of working with them. 

In order to accomplish that modern Orthodoxy should not be defined by the MO-Lite world. No matter how big that world might be. It needs to be defined by those of us that are serious about Halachic observance while at the same time recognizing that one need not abandon their entire cultural past to be fully observant. The culture of Centrism includes all aspects of cultural participation that does not violate Halacha. And if it sounds like I am tooting my own horn, I am.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Here We Go Again!

Demonstrators clash with mounted police in Bnei Brak (Arutz Sheva)
According to Arutz Sheva, yet another protest is about to occur in Israel. Once again it is by the usual gang of suspects: Eitz -the Jerusalem faction political party formed by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. They have called for a major protest in Bnei Brak over yet another arrested draft dodger. It seems like there is a never ending cycle of protests about an issue that should have been resolved long ago when the mainstream Charedi leadership located in Bnei Brak supported a peaceful resolution to new rules regarding the draft of Yeshiva students.

There have been so many of these protests that I have come to almost expect them on a regular basis. But because it is tearing apart the Yeshiva world, it bears making note of and condemning forcefully. Yet again!

These protesters are not the Israel hating Neturiei Karta or Satmar. They are not even Chasidim. They are mainstream Yeshiva students that have been sold a bill of goods by their misguided (now deceased) rabbinic leader. And now that he is gone, Achrei Mos Kedoshim. Prominent leaders that pass away become icons larger than life. Whatever iconic status they had before they died has been multiplied by their death. 

I do not want to see the Yeshiva world torn apart. I know there are some people that might take great pleasure in seeing that. But I am not one of them. While I do have my issues with some of their Shitos (Hashkafic positions) I value their contributions greatly. As should we all. Most of them are idealistic young people whose goal is to be Mekadesh Shem Shomayim by learning Torah and having a highly developed sense of ethics. (Unfortunately there are also enough of them that aren’t like that and tend to cause a serious perception problem. I am however a firm believer that most of these young men are sincere in their devotion to serve God according to what they strongly believe is His will. Those that are not - are a small minority.) 

What is not such a small minority, however, is Eitz. They too believe they are serving God by these protests. But most of the Charedi leaders have made clear that they are not. They are serving the machinations of a misguided dead leader. One who was virtually condemned by that very leadership for going his own way.

Normally I might say that this is an Elu V’Elu situation. Meaning that when there is a conflict between rabbinic leaders, Divrei Elokim Chaim - the conflict is valued by God. But the fact that the renegade position taken by R’ Auerbach does so much damage - not only to them but to the entire Yeshiva world, I don't see how it cold be. They are seen as street gangs (sometimes violent street gangs) dressed in the uniform of the yeshiva world - black suits and black hats. 

The casual observer that sees this does not distinguish between Eitz and the rest of the Yeshiva world. They conclude that violent protest to get what they want - is what the entire Charedi world is all about. What these renegades are doing is perpetuating that image. And each time it happens that image is reinforced. The result is that Torah and those who study it are hated!

Making matters even worse is that it doesn’t stop at  Israel’s borders. There are the foolish rabbinic leaders (Roshei Yeshiva) in America that support Eitz.  Rabbi Yaakov Perlow recently lamented that fact publicly and expressed great pain at the foolishness of these American leaders. They are being  Poretz Geder - separating themselves from the mainstream and siding with the renegade faction instead. I agree with him but would take it a significant step further and say that they are pouring fuel on the fire – as Eitz takes succor from such support.

Pouring even more fuel onto the fire is the fact that American students have taken sides on the issue too. The venom I hear about the 'other side' is unprecedented.

In my lifetime I do not ever recall this type of conflict in the yeshiva world. Yes, there have been some disagreements between Roshei Yeshiva in the past. But there was still a fellowship among all of them whose rai·son d'ê·tre  was the same. Never have those disagreements caused the level of conflict I see now. No matter how one feels about the Charedi world, this is not a good thing.

All of this could have been avoided if the common sense approach taken by the acknowledged elders of the mainstream would have been listened to. Which is to do what the government has asked them to do in exchange for being left alone to do their own thing: Register for the draft and get an automatic  exemption/deferment until such time they want to stop learning Torah full time.

I have my own Shita with respect to Charedi military service in a country where it is mandatory. Which is different than those of even the mainstream Yeshiva world. But that is irrelevant to this issue. My goal here is to highlight the great damage R’ Auerbach has done (and his followers continue to do) to the fabric of the Yeshiva world and by extension the entire religious world.  And to condemn it!

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Religious Jews that are Not Orthodox

2016 photo of Chabad Shiluchim at their annual meeting in New York (Hamodia)
By now it is rather well established that that the American Jew is an endangered species. At least those 90% of us that are not Orthodox. And as I have said many times - the fact that the remaining 10% of us that are not an endangered species and quite the opposite – thriving, is not anything that should be celebrated. While we Orthodox can be justifiably proud of our success and the means by where we succeeded (while so many others have tried and failed) - the tragedy of the imminent demise of so many Jews is of catastrophic proportion. This is not a moment in history that we should celebrate.

Is there anything we can do about it? Is there some way to turn the tide? As I have mentioned in the past, we must do everything we can and redouble our efforts to reach out to as many of that 90% that we can try to try and convince them of the beauty of Judaism as practiced by Orthodoxy. And that Orthodoxy may be the only way that they will be able to perpetuate their Judaism into the future. 

That raises some obvious questions. How do we do it? And who do we reach out to that has any chance of success?

Obviously the ideal should be to reach out to every Jew, no matter how far removed they might be. That is in essence what Chabad does. They have spread out to all corners of the world where no other outreach groups would even consider going. And in the process have brought Judaism to Jews with little connection to it. Doing it in non threatening non confrontational ways. Using their love of fellow Jews as their primary modus operandi.

Whatever issues anyone might have with Chabad, this cannot be taken away from them. And they should be honored by all segments of Orthodoxy for doing so. Despite their great success though - as a matter making a dent in in the percentage of non Orthodox Jews that are abandoning their faith, it hardly registers a blip on the ‘perpetuation of Judaism’ radar screen. Nor do any of the other successful outreach groups.

In my view there are quite a number of non Orthodox Jews that do care about their Judaism. They want to live Jewish lives and even perform many Mitzvos. How many there are is a good question. But they do exist.

Last night as I was channel surfing before watching the nightly 10 pm news broadcast here in Chicago, I happened onto one of  our many public television stations that was broadcasting a program about the dying synagogues in small town America. In every case, what was once a thriving synagogue was about to become extinct. And in every case it was a non Orthodox synagogue. The reasons for this is exactly what recent polls have been telling us. And those that did care about their Judaism ended up leaving for a larger Jewish community.

But I want to focus on the people that did care and wanted to maintain their Shul. They were all what I would call religious Jews but not observant by Orthodox standards. These are people who cared about having a Minyan for Davening; built a Sukkah for their homes, wnet to synagogue every Shabbos; made Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah after Shabbos; put Mezuzas on their doors... 

In one case even there was a Hachnasas Sefer Torah with all the trapping one would find in an Orthodox version of that. It was occasioned by the purchase by one synagogue of Sifrei Torah from a dying one. These were people that obviously cared about their Judaism. What I also noticed that in most cases those lamenting the demise of their synagogues were probably in their sixties or older.. 

But not everyone was. There were 2 young couples (different cities)that were quite young. And they too were religious in that way. In both cases they took pride when their children learned Hebrew well enough to recite the Haftorah on the Shabbos of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  As did the young Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant themselves. There were clearly not Jews running away for their Judaism. And in every case they had a rabbi of their particular denomination guiding their Mitzvah observance m in ways very familiar to Orthodox Jews.

There was a young couple where the wife was raised as a religious Catholic and had gone through all the Catholic rites of passage. When she met her Jewish husband she had never even met a Jew before - let alone dated one. 

They fell in love and he proposed and told her that he would not force her to convert to Judaism - but that he would not convert to Catholicism. Her parents were very devout and obviously very upset by this coupling. (Although they later came to accept him they at first tried to talk their daughter out of it.)

Not knowing what to do the young woman consulted her priest about marrying out of the faith and raising their child in both faith traditions. To his credit he told her she should not do it. That it would be confusing to the children. She then converted (albeit probably not Halachcily). She is now hungry to learn more about Judaism and they are raising their children Jewishly. Their Judaism is so important to them now that they moved out of their small town to a larger one with a larger Jewish community and joined a what seems like a Conservative synagogue there.

These are exactly the people  that we should make every effort to reach out to. These are not the Jews abandoning their Judaism. They are embracing it the way they understand it. And with the help of their rabbis they are finding ways to do that.

The question is whether their rabbis will be a hindrance or a help in that regard. Do they believe that their denomination is the real expression of Judaism? Or do they believe that it is only one expression of it, while Orthodoxy is another.

I don’t know if there is any consensus about it among heterodox rabbis. But I believe that those that are serious about Judaism are of the latter mindset and see becoming Orthodox as a victory. I base this on the fact that I know of Conservative rabbis that actually steer their youth into NCSY. And I am also aware the one of their most successful camps is Camp Ramah. If I recall correctly they too consider it a success if one of their campers finds their way to Orthodoxy.

It is with this in mind that I believe that I believe that we should find ways to work with those that are willing to work with us.

We need not compromise our beliefs about what is and isn’t authentic Judaism. Nor do we need to stand together with them publicly in religious matters which would appear to legitimize them. Or compromise in any of our goals (such as giving in to demands for official recognition in Israel). 

What  we do need is respectful dialogue with them about the shared purpose of keeping Jews Jewish. The sincere rabbis among them realize that the surest way to do that is through an intensive Jewish education which as been proven successful mostly in Orthodoxy. And as noted, there are many heterodox rabbis that will allow us to reach out to their congregants. We just need to do our due diligence to find out which ones will. Chabad is pretty good at doing that. I think it’s more than time that we follow their lead.

The PBS program referred to in the post is available at this link. (HT/DM)

Friday, December 07, 2018

Even a Crook Can be Right

A monthly disruption at the Kotel (Arutz Sheva)
People that live in glass houses should not throw stones. This is the advice I would give to Shas MK Arye Deri. That said, I happen to agree with the stone he just threw.

Arye Deri is a crook. This is not conjecture. A few years ago he was found guilty of financial crimes in an Israeli court. A crime he paid for with prison time. After which he was reinstalled to his position as Shas Party chairman and is now serving in the Keneset as the Minster of Interior (among other duties).

According to YWN - with the police now recommending a new indictment against him for tax evasion, his party is looking to replace him. 

Once a crook always a crook, I guess.  It’s too bad that his party didn’t recognize that. Or didn’t care about it because of his effectiveness as an advocate for their issues.

Be that as it may the pending indictment has not stopped him from accusing the Women of the Wall of being guilty of their own crimes. Namely violating the rules set up for behavior at the Kotel. From Arutz Sheva
Deri was responding to a petition signed by hundreds of religious women that called on him to use his powers to stop Women of the Wall from holding their noisy Rosh Chodesh prayers at the Western Wall.
"For years, we have been warning of every stage and working with all the tools at our disposal to stop the destructive phenomenon of the Women of the Wall...
According to Deri, the Women of the Wall "cause a great storm and a deep blow to the feelings of the masses of Jews in Israel and the world who hurt by the blasphemy".
"The frequent provocations in the Western Wall Plaza are subject to the influence of law enforcement and law enforcement agencies, who examine every Rosh Chodesh whether they violate the guidelines set in order to bring about police intervention…"
(T)he Women for the Wall group, which opposes the non-Orthodox prayer services, had sent a letter asking Deri to put an end to the monthly non-Orthodox prayers. 
Arye Deri (YWN)
I don’t know that the sole purpose of the Women of the Wall is as Deri says - to harm and humiliate the most sacred place for the Jewish people. I will give most if not all of them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are indeed seeking to serve God in their own way because they feel it is the best way for them to do that. But at the same time - for some of them it is indeed as Deri says, they have as a goal to ‘break the customs that have always existed in the area’. 

Their leaders and heterodox supporters have said as much. They want to break the ‘monopolistic hold’ that Charedim have over the Kotel. Their stated purpose is to allow Jews of all denominations to pray as they wish. 

While that sounds like a beautiful call for democratizing the Kotel, it is at the same time considered anathema to Orthodox Jews. Judaism is not a democracy. Furthermore - even leaving aside Halachic issues that may or may not be problematic - decades old traditions deserve to be upheld. Especially when they have so much meaning to the vast majority of the people that pray there.

But even without that - what this group does every month is disruptive to the traditional  decorum of the Kotel. A traditional decorum that has been honored by Jews of all denominations and people of all faiths without any objections. Most good and decent people will recognize and honor traditional practices without trying to disrupt them even for personal reasons. Let alone political ones. And have found their Kotel experiences to be inspiring.

This monthly Women of the Wall affair has in effect become a monthly protest of sorts designed to bring down Orthodox control of the Kotel. Even if that is not the motivation of all its participants. They apparently have very little sympathy for the religious sensibilities of the traditional women who feel disrupted by them. As long as they get to do what they want. 

I realize that some of those women do feel they are serving God better by praying the ‘Women of the Wall’ way. But that does not justify the disruptions.

I also recognize that a lot of people agree with the goals of  the Women of the Wall and do indeed want to end Orthodox control over the Kotel. They might add that what they do is well within the parameters of Halacha. And do not see it as anything other than allowing people the right to pray as they wish. 

But if so, at what price? Are their supposed rights superior to the rights of the traditional prayer goers who feel disrupted by them? It might be well within Halacha to (for example) have ten thousand  people blowing a Shofar at the Kotel all at once. But does that make it right?

Some will claim that they are not disruptive at all. But how can it not be disruptive to have a group of women singing at the top of their lungs and dancing with Sifrei Torah in broad daylight in front of gawking crowds that no doubt will be drawn to this unusual sight? Does their claims of having the right to do that trump the right of others there who wish to pray silently without distractions? I guess the Women of the Wall think so. They apparently feel that their exuberance in prayer supersedes the wishes of those that come there to pray in traditional ways.

I cannot imagine why anyone would think that this is OK. No matter what side of the issue they are on. Which is yet anther reason why I am opposed to what Women of the Wall do every month. If they are breaking the law, they should be arrested and charged.

I cannot understand why any Orthodox Jew would support it – even as I realize that so many on the left wing of Orthodoxy do. It is the Women for the Wall that should instead be supported. They are right.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Defining Antisemitism

Rabbi Avi Shafran
There is an interesting debate at Cross Currents between Rabbi Avi Shafran and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on the subject of antisemitism. The question is do accusations of anti-Semitism where there is only possible or low grade antisemtism help or hurt the cause of fighting it by calling only-possible anti-Semites by that pejorative? 

That raises the general question about what antisemtism really is. How do we define it? The protagonists are two people whose views I generally respect although sometimes disagree with. And both make cogent defenses of their position.
Some people might use the Justice Potter Stewart definition of  ‘I know it when I see it’ to define it. But is that right? I think the answer is yes. But only partially. There is such a thing a latent antisemitism. Rabbi Adlerstein posits that it if exists just below the level of consciousness of those that harbor it, but that it is the more dangerous of the two (latent versus overt) and it ought to be called out. 

He says that ignoring it because it is not overt or expressed in violent ways gives cover to people that support BDS and others that want to boycott Israel. They will be able to claim that it is not antisemitism that motivates them but the tyranny of an occupying force making life miserable for its inhabitants.

Rabbi Shafran is of the opinion that even though some of that is attributable to latent antisemitism, it cannot all be attributed to it. No matter how much we disagree, sometimes it is not about hating Jews. Even subliminally. And at low levels we are better off ignoring it.

The argument was generated by the recent boycott of West Bank Settlements in Israel by Airbnb. They have removed all listings in those locations – blaming the lack of progress in the peace process and the resultant aforementioned tyranny of the occupation on them. Rabbi Adlerstein believes that Airbnb is on the ‘spectrum of antisemitism’ and it ought to be labeled as such (albeit not on the same level as the Louis Farrakhans of the world). 

Rabbi Shafran would give Airbnb the benefit of the doubt and say that it is not necessarily so. I too have taken that position. Even though I believe them to be ignorant of the all the facts and misguided I do not necessarily believe it sourced in antisemitism. (But I also believe they should be boycotted even if their motivations are not antisemitic even at the subliminal level. What they are doing hurts Israel unfairly.) 

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Adlersein’s career gives him an advantage that Rabbi Shafran does not have. Rabbi Adlerstein is tasked with the job of inter-religious relations. Which means his job requires him to know who loves us and who hates us. And to which extent. And to work on improving the relationship between Jews and non Jews in any case.

He knows that many non Jews are indeed Judeophiles. Far more of them than most Jews believe. Their positive views of the Jewish people are legitimate. But he also says that when challenging people that might be involved in anti Israel activity about their motives they often find it can be traced to a generational history of negative feelings about us. Feelings that were never acted upon in concrete ways and perhaps didn’t even realize they had. In fact once they realize the true source of their anti Israel bias they tend to go the other way and become our biggest defenders. 

He adds that until such people are confronted that way, that subliminal animus remains… only to rear its ugly head in supporting things like BDS. 

I hear his point. But where does that put those who blame the settlements in Israel for the lack of peace - and are in positions of power to do something about it? One such individual was a very prominent Republican that has been  in the news a lot these days. Former President George H. W. Bush. 

As President he clearly blamed the lack of progress in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians on Israeli settlements. Practically ignoring the Israeli view on the subject. So much so that at one point he refused to continue the US policy of granting loan guarantees to Israel that were necessary to assist the absorption of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Bush supported the guarantees but did not want them used to subsidize building in the West Bank.

That had brought about a massive protest against the President by lobbyists like AIPAC. Which caused President Bush to make what many considered an antisemitic comment about those lobbyists.  He later apologized. But was that not the kind of latent antisemitism that Rabbi Adlerstien speaks of? 

My quick  answer to that based on his definition is yes, it was. The same thing can be said about a Democrat in a similar circumstance, former President Barack Obama. He allowed a UN security council resolution condemning Israeli settlements to pass by not vetoing it. Was President Obama a latent antisemite? I do not believe for a moment that he was.

The  question about what actual antisemitism is - is hard to define in exact ways. How many Americans have the kind of latent antisemitism described by Rabbi Adlerstein is impossible to say. I will grant that pre-Holocaust there was a lot of it in this country. Does that mean that their children and grandchildren inherited those views at least at a subliminal level? Perhaps some did. But my guess is that most of them did not.

First let me say that I think both Rabbi Adlerstein ad Rabbi Shafran would agree that the vast majority of Americans are not in any way antisemitic. That has been proven to me many times. Most recently by the solidarity with us by Americans of all stripes across the land after the Pittsburgh massacre. 

As it was when Joseph Leiberman’s pick by then Vice-President Al Gore as his running mate resulted in a 10 point uptick in polls. Which showed Gore pulling even with Bush (the 2nd) in the election that year. Voters that were behind that uptick were asked what made them do that. The typical answer was that they saw Lieberman as a plus because of the ethics in his religious views. 

As does the fact that Judaism is the most admired religion in this country according to respected polling organizations.

The question remains, how substantial is the minority of Americans that do not feel that way? How many of them harbor subliminal antisemitism? Does it matter as much as Rabbi Adlerstein believes it does and should we make an issue of it? 

Do people with subliminal negative feelings about us never acted upon even rate being classified as antisemites? (I think they do.)

Are subliminal antisemitic feelings really behind support of BDS? Or does such support stem from a sincere belief that sympathizes with the plight of Palestinians? My guess is that there are both kinds of people there. I just don’t know if it’s even possible to know what their true motives are.

And where does stereotyping fit into the picture? Does it for example make someone an antisemite to say that Jews are good with money?

All good questions to which I have no definitive answers. Just asking the questions.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

A Breathtaking Distortion of Chanukah and Judaism

Open Orthodoxy founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Is this what he meant? (Forward)
How sad that there are caring people with good intentions, observant Jews no less, that are nevertheless not clear on the concept. But I fear that this is exactly the case with Binyamin Zahav.

I’m sure that his recent article in the Times of Israel about Chanukah will make a lot of people angry. And with much justification. That was in fact my initial reaction. After thinking about it my anger was replaced by sadness that a practicing Jew can be so ignorant… so wrong… so off base… so off the wall about Chanukah. And even about Judaism itself.  

I can’t think of too many things more distorted than the views he expressed here. Nor is there a better illustration of how corrupted one’s views can get through the cultural spirit of our times. That too was made painfully obvious by this article.

To briefly sum up, Zahav claims that the violent means the Maccabees used to regain our Holy Temple in Jerusalem and our sovereignty could have been avoided had they just been Open Orthodox Rabbis and more tolerant of Greek culture.

I kid you not. He believes that had they taken the trouble to make friends with their oppressors and get involved culturally and socially with them, they would have left us alone to practice Judaism freely and completely.

This is not a holiday about our violent intolerance of others as Zahav seems to suggest. It is a holiday of freedom from anti religious tyranny imposed by a kingdom bent on eradicating our faith and traditions. On pain of death. That was amply demonstrated by Chana and her seven sons who martyred themselves rather than to succumb to anti Jewish edicts of the Hellenist king. (Like forbidding circumcision, Kosher food and Shabbos observance.)

Ironically our Hellenist oppressors at the time were not interested in killing us. On the contrary. They wanted us to thrive and be just like them… completely assimilating into Greek culture and abandoning all vestiges of Judaism.

There was no amount of ‘peaceful civil disobedience’ that would have changed that. Does he really think the Maccabees wouldn’t have tried that first if had they believed it was even possible? The Maccabees were not extremist zealots. After seeing what Chana did – refusing to submit to those decrees and instead dying ‘Al Kiddush HaShem’ - sanctifying God’s name they led a violent revolt against the tyranny responsible for that.They had no other choice.

We celebrate the miracle of victory of the few over the many. We celebrate the return of sovereignty over our nation. We celebrate the freedom to worship as we choose. We celebrate the re-dedication of our Holy Temple… and the miracle of one container of oil lasting for more than the single day it had enough oil for – lasting the full eight days until new oil could be processed in spiritual purity.

Egalitarianism and compromise had nothing to do with what we celebrate. We celebrate our uniqueness. We are an exceptional people based on our acceptance of the Torah and its traditions. Compromise with Hellenists is the opposite of that. Sure – compromise is a valuable ideal. But here is a time to compromise and a time not to compromise. You cannot compromise with people that want to destroy you as a people. That is not compromise. It’s suicide.

After completely disparaging Chanukah, Zahav really goes to town and uses ‘compromise’  to redefine Judaism much the same way heterodoxy does: 
This is the essence of open-orthodoxy. Respect for halacha and tradition but the courage to bend it and twist it so that is malleable and adaptable to contemporary life. And if it breaks, having the courage to say that perhaps if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough. And so, the breaking of the law strengthens it. These imaginative metaphors allow one to respect tradition without venerating it. Thus, even the breaking of the law is an expression of Halacha.
Mine is not the Chanukah of hate, of xenophobia, of patriarchy, chauvinism, white privilege, and the morality of the Stone Age…. 
Breaking the law strengthens it? Hate? White privilege? Morality of the stone age?   I cannot think of a more twisted interpretation of Halacha or Chanukah than that. If that is indeed the essence of Open Orthodoxy, than it truly does not deserve to be called Orthodox.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

No, Rabbi - It isn’t Shmad

Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel (YWN)
A New York Times headline yesterday asked the following question: Do Children Get a Subpar Education in Yeshivas? If there was ever a loaded question, this is it. That same headline adds the following: New York Says It Will Finally Find Out.

My quick answer to that question is no. Most Yeshivos do not offer a subpar education. But we have to define subpar.

For me par means equivalent. But equivalent to what? I think the answer is relatively simple.  First, it should not mean a carbon copy of the state requirements for public school. What it should mean is an education where students attending public schools or Yeshivos will graduate with substantially the same level knowledge. Enough so that most graduates can continue their studies beyond high school without any significant disadvantages or the need for remedial help. 

That should be the standard. In other words, how well prepared are those students for continued education should they choose that route - compared to their public school counterparts?

Furthermore Yeshivos cannot be grouped together as one entity. It is unfair to impose new standards on Yeshivos whose students have shown great success beyond their yeshiva education. The differences between individual Yeshivos can be so stark as to make them unrecognizable to each other. To for example compare the secular education in a Yeshiva under Satmar auspices to what is offered in a yeshiva under modern Orthodox auspices would be like comparing a tricycle a supersonic jet.

Clearly it is the Yeshivos that offer no secular education that should be targeted. Not the Yeshiva system as a whole.

This is where the New York State Education Department (NYSED) guidelines have failed. Those guidelines will unnecessarily hurt schools whose students have a superior secular studies curriculum by virtue of the time allocation requirement that would leave practically no time for religious studies!

That portion of the guidelines needs to be challenged.  I support efforts to do so. What I do not support is the position of the Satmar Rebbe (of Kiryas Joel) as reported in YWN. His goal is to assure that his Yeshivos remain free of any secular studies curriculum at all. Claiming that being forced to offer it is a violation of his religious rights guaranteed by the constitution. 

Which in my view cannot be further from the truth. Judaism is not opposed to secular studies (Limudei Chol). There is no legitimate position like that anywhere in Jewish law. Not even according to Satmar whose girls’ schools do have a secular studies curriculum. Satmar wants to retain the right to keep their male polpulation ignorant. 

The Satmar Rebbe also declared that before education officials try and fix Yeshivos they should first put their own house in order. He challenged NYSED to measure the success of his students against the success of the students in inner city public schools. 

But that is a grossly unfair comparison. As public school officials have pointed out, public schools are required to take in everyone. Including children from communities where education is not valued at all. (The reasons of which are beyond the scope of this post.)

Satmar, on the other hand, values education greatly albeit only religious education when it comes to boys. You cannot compare the two. What their Yeshivos must be compared instead to is public schools in communities that do care about education. (Although there might be some comparison to be made even to those inner city school students in the sense that their English skills are both pretty poor.)

What about the claim that any government interference in a religious school is a violation of the first amendment? It is with this claim that they have declared a war on NYSED. This is where I part company with them. A government has the right to set minimal standards of education for purposes societal benefit. Good citizenship and being less dependent, more productive is a legitimate societal goal. Freedom of religion does not mean one has to be ignorant.  

If you don’t see the truth about the outside world and are constantly told how evil the outside world is, or how they must hate non Jews while pretending to love them, how can that produce good citizenship?

Religious rights should be sacrosanct. But that need not come at the expense of a secular education. To claim that requiring a minimal secular studies curriculum program is a violation of Jewish religious rights is ridiculous. Limudei Chol is not prohibited by the Torah.

Just because they think it is better not to offer any secular studies curriculum, does not mean that having one is a violation of their religious rights. Besides, the first amendment is not unlimited. What about a religion that believes in human sacrifice? Should that too be protected by the first amendment?

I have  mentioned the two extremes of secular education provided by religious schools. But there are  lot of schools in-between those two extremes that do offer secular studies programs. How should the state deal with them?

In my view the same standard should be applied to all schools. Yeshivos and public schools. NYSED should evaluate each school’s products and judge those schools independently  For me that means that there ought to be a basic secular curriculum in subjects like English, math science, and history.

The Satmar Rebbe’s declaration of war on NYSED is foolish and counterproductive. And it should not be joined by any responsible Jewish organization. Especially when hyperbole like the following by the Satmar Rebbe is used: 
The Rebbe continued: “(New York State Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia) wants to change Klal Yisrael and remove us from our religion exactly as the Greeks wanted in their time, to destroy the education institutions, a decree of extermination (shmad).  
That is pure Sheker. The esteemed Rabbi of Satmar knows better and I cannot protest that enough! As should any responsible Orthodox organization. A comment like that should not be allowed to go unchallenged by any mainstream Orthodox organization!

The is not a case of Shmad! And the only thing that should be protested in the new NYSED guidelines is the time allocation requirements. Not the subject requirements. And that ought to come in peaceful discussion. Not by way of ‘war’.