Monday, March 20, 2023

Can a Transgender Jew Live a Halachic Life?

The Teshuva Writing Collective (JTA)
A Queer Yeshiva? Yes, such an institution does exist. Right here in Chicago, as a matter of fact. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Although I lean heavily towards the latter.   

The idea of a Queer Yeshiva would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. But I cry because of the Halachic issues involved that make their lives so difficult.  I cry because of the ridicule and rejection so many transgender people go through. I cry because of the high rate of clinical depression and suicide among them. I cry because of the way society is trying to normalize them. As if being a man or woman is just a matter choice that can be corrected surgically if one is born the ‘wrong’ sex.

For Orthodox Jews, changing one’s sex or cross dressing is expressly forbidden by Halacha. (Whether Pikuach Nefesh plays a role with respect to their high rate of suicide is a legitimate question but beyond the scope of this essay.) And yet normalizing that  is precisely what the ‘Teshuvos’ written by one of that Yeshiva’s scholars is attempting to do. From JTA

Queer yeshiva to publish first-ever collection of Jewish legal opinions written by and for trans Jews. 

…a dozen Jewish scholars and rabbis have… scoured Jewish texts for guidance on how transgender Jews can adapt traditional rituals to their lived experience. Now, the group is preparing to release a batch of their essays, analyses of Jewish law called teshuvot, in hopes that they can inform the experiences of trans Jews who seek to live in accordance with traditional Jewish law. 

Although well intended, the idea finding ways to live a Halachic transgender life is an oxymoron. It is a non starter. What one does after the fact is not something that can so easily gleaned form the sources. But even if it could, the idea of creating a Halachic guide after doing something that the Torah expressly forbids - suggests that it isn’t forbidden at all. Which of course it is. 

Furthermore, I suspect that a lot of these Teshuvos are based on extreme interpretations of the Talmud that are highly unlikely. Much the way the extreme left wing of Modern Orthodoxy interprets the Torah’s comment in Bereishis (2:18)  ‘It is not good for man to live alone’ to include 2 gay men living  together. 

No matter the struggles, one cannot change the forbidden nature of changing one’s sex. If you believe in the God of the bible which is the basis of Orthodoxy, this is is not up for debate.  Trying to normalize it does not help matters.

But that does not mean lessening sympathy for what transgender people go though. I do sympathize with transgender Jews that wish to live Halachic lives. But it can’t be by changing ones sex or cross dressing. How they can do that without living a life of despair is a legitimate question. But it is one that I cannot answer. I leave it to people a lot more knowledgeable than I. 

One thing should, however, be made absolutely clear. There must never be ridicule.  Because that is a serious violation of Halacha which the Talmud considers akin to murder! Understandably so considering the high suicide rate of transgender people. Ridicule might just push them over the edge.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The World is Falling Apart!

January 6, 2021 - Is a sequel on the horizon?
No one is above the law. Not even the President or former President of the United States.  When someone breaks the law, he should suffer the consequences. This rather simple and fair minded concept is one of the fundamental  principles of this great nation. It is actually an extension of the American credo that all men are created equal.  

Sometimes, however, applying that principle can be the stupidest thing anyone can do. Causing a lot more harm than it does good. The idea following a principle regardless of the consequences lacks the most basic level of common sense. This is the case with the probability of former President Trump being indicted for a crime committed in his infamous payoff to a porn star in exchange for her silence. A crime worthy of an indictment. 

However, as legitimate as this indictment might be, I  believe that that the motivation behind it is entirely political – despite prostrations to the contrary by prosecutors. They will surely say they are simply applying the applicable law as matter of fairness and equality. And that they would be indicting anyone under similar circumstances.  

Why is this political? The events that this indictment are based upon happened in 2016, just before Trump became President. That he will be indicted now 7 years later just as the campaign for his  re-election has begun - is an obvious attempt to damage his candidacy. Which will surely instead have the opposite effect and energize his hard core supporters even more (if that’s even possible)!

No one thought to indict him in 2016 when this payoff was first revealed. Nor did anyone proceed with an indictment when his former ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, testified in detail about that ‘hush money’ payment and all the circumstances surrounding it. Any kind of retort  that it has taken this long to examine all of the elements of a case like this insults my intelligence! 

The reason it’s stupid is because of the consequences that may develop. Consequences that the former president predictably will have precipitated by his response to his imminent indictment  asking his suppoters to protest it. 

Protests by his supporters in the past have not ended well. As was the case in January of 2021. A repeat of that event – or worse - is not all that unlikely. An indictment and Trump’s call for protests could easily trip that switch. The last thing this country needs right now is another insurrectionist protest. 

When even a lofty ideal of treating all men equally even in cases like this has the real potential of causing chaos on the level of January 2021, overlooking it is, in my view,  the right thing to do. Those who insist on following that lofty principle regardless of any consequences are  foolish..

Apparently prosecutors will  go ahead and argue that law enforcement will do a better job this time - and nip anything remotely close to that happening - in the bud. That is at best debatable. But even if true, why take the chance on doing something that could easily precipitate an event like that? People might still get hurt. Who in heavens name wants to see anything remotely close to  that happening again? 

To be clear, This is not about supporting the former President. Despite my support for many of his polices while in office, I would sooner vote for Attila the Hun.  The events of January 2021 and Trump’s behavior and comments about it has cemented my opposition to another term in office. If by some chance he wins the Republican nomination (which I sincerely hope does not happen) I will vote for his opponent or a write-in candidate!.

If as I anticipate this indictment and the subsequent protests happen, it will simply add to my feeling that the world is falling apart. 

There are currently violent protests taking place in France by people opposed to their government raising the retirement age (where government pensions similar to our Social Security kick in) from 62 to 64.  

Judicial reform protests in Israel

Then there are the massive continuing protests taking place in a polarized Israel where left leaning secular Jews who did not vote for the current government fear their country becoming a theocracy and thus losing their freedom; fear that certain minorities will lose their hard earned civil rights; and that extremist Religious Zionist fervor will embark on a settlement policy that will expel innocent Palestinians from their homes on the West Bank - thus earning the justifiable condemnation of all western democracies including the US. Those protesting now see judicial reform as the start of this process. Whether any of this will actually happen is an open question. But the fear that they will is very understandable.

The truth is that all of this strife can be avoided if cooler heads would prevail on all sides of these conflicts. Common sense should suggest that the polarized world in which we now live is toxic. And doesn't benefit anyone. And yet, the embrace of uncompromising idealism is fueling all of this and causing common sense to go ‘out the window’! Which is tearing the world apart.  

Trump loyalists will not listen to reason. Trump is the living incarnation of their values. They love his unconventional and confrontational ‘stick it to the other side’ approach to governance. Compromise is a mortal sin in their eyes.  Trump is their savior. The only man that is willing to do what they believe is necessary in furtherance of their ideals. And they are not a small number. Trump has millions of enthusiastic supporters that cheer him on and will do his bidding – totally ignoring his many faults as though they don’t matter. In some cases even seeing them as a plus!

On the other side is a left that sees its liberal values under assault by an increasing intolerant right wing motivated by extremist religious or extremist conservative ideals. All of which are incompatible with their version of liberty and justice. The see Trump as the incarnation of fascism rivaling that of Hitler or Stalin. Noting that his strongest supporters are white supremacists that seek the US to be a  white Christian nation that will deny basic human rights to all non white and/or non Christians.

In Israel similar extremist sentiments between the right and the left are in play.  

Pension protests in France

Although the protests in France are not quite based on a conflict of ideals – nonetheless  common sense is still lacking. That pensions paid in full at age 62 will bankrupt the fund designed to pay them is not a fiction. Besides, the longevity of  life most French citizens now enjoy and the ability to work until age 64 is not that much of an ask - in order to save the system. But once you are promised it at that age you are not going to give it up without a fight, I suppose. Which makes the French government stupid for offering it at that age in the fist place. But still it would seem to be common sense that 62 is a bit young to get paid for doing nothing for the rest of your life. And thereby mitigate those protests. Instead, however, those protests seems to be getting increasingly violent. 

In light of all this, I am pessimistic. With all of this intransigence over preconceived rights based on opposing ideals and self centeredness I have little hope that things will calm down. I see them only getting worse. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Significance of the Differences Among Us

By Rabbi Mark Trencher, guest contributor

Nishma Research logo from their website
A few days ago, I discussed a Yated article by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer that referenced a Nishma Research survey. Which was about the beliefs and practices of various categories of Orthodox Jews. However, I didn’t really focus on the revealing substance of that survey which is indeed worthy of discussion. I instead focused on the number of categories of Orthodox Jews that were listed. 

Even though I agree that categories do matter and have suggested my own list of categories in the past, I was still somewhat surprised that one could break Orthodoxy down into so many of them. Some of which seemed redundant to me The post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek but with a serious question about how far we need to go in defining our differences.

Nishma’s founder, Rabbi MarkTrencher, has asked me to post his response to that post - which I am happy to dy. I just want to add that it was never my intention to offend him and hope he was not. If he was, I truly apologize.  I respect the fine work Nishma Research does and consider it a great contribution to Orthodox Judaism. It is far better to know than not to know. Surveys like the ones Nishma does helps us know a lot. His words follow:  


In response to your comments about the many categories within Orthodox Jewry, the reason why we create these categories in a survey are twofold. 

First, if you look at the many surveys that are done of the Jewish community, you'll see that often the Orthodox are not broken out at all and we are simply simply lumped in with all of the Jews. But even when the Orthodox are broken out, we are almost always presented as a single combined, cohesive group. Apparently, many people in the community, including even researchers, are unaware that within Orthodoxy there are different groups (Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chasidish, and the latter has sub-sects as well), which are actually quite different in many respects. 

Or, for researchers who are aware of these groups, it is quite difficult to get adequate samples of the subgroups to make much of the data. So for Nishma Research, one of our goals is to explore the differences among the subgroups within Orthodoxy, to fill in a gap in this area. We have even started to create Yiddish language versions of our surveys, so that we can compare the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic population to the English-speaking population .. and they are different! That’s the main reason for the categories.

 A second reason is statistical. Different groups have different tendencies to respond to surveys. So, when we present data for all of Orthodoxy, for all of Modern Orthodoxy, for all of the Haredi, etc., we do not simply add all of the respondents together into a single statistic. That would give undue weight to groups that have a greater tendency to respond. Instead, we employ a technique known as stratified sample weighting, which adjusts for the variations in response rates, and this makes the overall sample and its statistics more reflective of the distribution of the population. This is explained in the appendix of the report. 

Nishma's goal is to bring to the Orthodox community state-of-the-art research and statistical techniques, and I draw upon my 51 years of quantitative and qualitative research experience to that end. We also endeavor to provide approximately two-thirds of our research to the community on a pro bono basis. May we continue to express great interest in our community.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Jew Against Jew - The Enemy is Us!

Netanyahu and Herzog (TOI)
Hard to believe it’s come to this. Although I actually predicted this possibility myself. But I was not alone it seems. I fear for the safety and welfare of Jewish people in the holy land. Fear based not on external forces but on internal ones! This - from JTA:

Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned of the possibility of civil war if the governing coalition won’t agree to a compromise on its judicial reform legislation.

The statement is one of the most dire pronouncements by a senior Israeli official about the tumultuous fallout from the judicial proposal, which has sparked fierce debate, months of street protests and civil disobedience. And it is a stunning pronouncement from Herzog, a public figure known for congeniality… 

Indeed. Why this is happening now is not simple. However one thing is clear. This dire prediction cannot be blamed on only one side. Although that is precisely what each side is claiming with more conviction than ever. 

To describe what is going on… the status quo power of Israel’s Supreme Court to overturn any and all legislation passed by its legislative body, the Knesset is in jeopardy of being reversed. Giving that power fully to a Knesset majority that will be able to legislate any law they choose without fear of any Supreme Court interference.

The Supreme Court has arrogated this power to themselves and has made decisions about which laws they like and which they don't based on their own admitted liberal judicial philosophy which they saw as the only way a democracy can operate. This of course means that any conservative legislation is rejected as undemocratic. 

Most Israelis were used to the way Israel was being governed and were generally happy campers. Even though many admitted that there was no balance between these two branches, the fallout didn’t really matter that much. Most lived their lives the way they chose without interference. But right wing Israelis (both religious and political) were short changed about polices they would have preferred be in place. 

But now that the  right wing government has tried to reverse course - all hell is breaking loose. The left's complacency has turned into massive protests at the prospect of losing their civil liberties and having them replaced with religious laws that will restrict their freedom. Laws for example they believe will take away the hard fought rights won by LGBTQ + activists. They believe that the proposed radical changes will be highly discriminatory against their community. 

I actually agree with them. But I do not agree that things should be left as they are. As  I keep saying - neither branch of government should have the right to completely rule over the other. The way things stand now is entirely unacceptable

What is being perceived by the world is in no small measure the result of media coverage. Which characterizes the proposed judicial reform as an assault upon democracy. But the truth is that it is not. It just changes which branch will have power over the other. Going form the self appointed; self perpetuating Supreme Court to the elected representatives of the Israeli people. Israel's democracy will be more or less the same except that the power of one branch over the other will switch sides from left to right.

What about Herzog’s compromise that the right is rejecting? Is that not proof that the right isn’t really serous about compromise? After all the left said it is acceptable. 

Hard to know the answer to that since the details of Herzog's compromise were not released. But the fact that the entire right wing government - and not just the extremists within it, which of course includes right of center Likud members has rejected it. Explaining that it isn’t much of a compromise and basically leaves things as they are. That also helps to explain why the left is so accepting of it. Where the truth lies is known only to to the two sides directly involved in the negotiations.

Lest anyone think I am accusing only the left of fomenting a possible civil war,  I can assure you that I am not. The right wing parties are as much to blame as the left. It takes two to tango. They are determined to take power - come hell or high water. And they might get the former of those two options. 

The right (both political and religious) needs to back off and start again. And deal in earnest with the left to craft a compromise that everyone can live with. If they instead let things deteriorate into a civil war they will share the blame. They ought to stop salivating at the prospect of getting all this power and instead concentrate on what they can do to calm things down. 

It's just too bad this won’t happen. And I fear the worst.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

School Choice and Jewish Education

 Image from The Center for Education Reform
School choice is in the news again. In a very positive way, as far as I am concerned. The idea of allowing parents to chose which schools to send their children to seems like a no brainer to me. On the other hand the idea of forcing poor black parents to send their children to neighborhood schools that are ‘underperforming’ (to put it mildly) seems like the height of racism to me. But  advocates of the public school system in its current from say that it is school choice that is racist. 

Which on its face is ridiculous. When given the option black parents have voted with their feet - sending their children to the schools of their choice outside of their neighborhood. And their children have for the most part been thriving. I am therefore pleased to report the following from JNS: 

In 2021, 19 states enacted 32 new or expanded educational choice programs, according to Bedrick. (Jason Bedrick, is an education policy research fellow at the Heritage Foundation) That number not only overshadowed prior years, but the programs were larger in scope. West Virginia passed the first publicly funded, universal education savings account program that year. 

What this means for Jewish education is incalculable. It is no secret that the conundrum of unbearable and increasingly high tuition combined with increasing cost of providing a quality education in both religious and secular studies - and the lack of sufficient funding to do that is a problem that keeps getting worse every year. Parents are ‘taxed’ to the hilt by these tuitions which are based on the cost per child to educate them. For typical Orthodox Jewish parents that have 4 or 5 children (or more) full tuition  might exceed their pre-tax income!  There is no way the typical parent can afford that. 

Schools therefore provide substantial financial assistance based on need. Making up the budgetary shortfall is rarely achieved.  There is just so much money they can raise. And the gap between what parents can afford to pay and what a school needs to provide a top notch education keeps widening every year.

School choice can go a long way towards alleviating this problem. It will allow parents the choice to send their children to a religious school in part - with funds provided by the government. Thus reducing their tuition burden and the schools fundraising burden,

Some will argue that school choice as it pertains to religious schools violates the seperation clause of the First Amendment. But if I understand correctly vouchers that enable choice will cover only the secular curriculum. Which is (or should be) substantially equivalent to what public schools teach.   

Ahh… but the naysayers will claim that even the secular side of religious school cannot escape  religious bias. Thus still making it a church-state issue.  But I would dispute that. Core subjects like English, math, and science have no religious elements to them. There is nothing religious about algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, and biology.

The typical counter to that is in teaching the Theory of Evolution as the origin of species. I see no problem with teaching that. The students will be well grounded in the religious perspective on that theory during the religious studies portion of the day. The part of day that will not be financed by vouchers. 

And then there is the flip side of this that makes school choice even more important. The indoctrination of cultural values that are not in concert with the values of religious parents. As noted by the following: 

(Jason Bedrick ) told JNS that 2021 was a big year for school choice because during the COVID pandemic, parents got the chance to see on Zoom what their children were learning on a daily basis. Depending on the age of students, that might have included instruction related to critical race theory or Black Lives Matter; transgender policies governing bathroom use; and “social transitioning,” or using different names and pronouns for children without informing their parents. 

That teachers unions have been against school choice only means they believe teachers will somehow be negatively affected. A lot of public school jobs will be eliminated – since more children will be attending private and parochial schools.

But that tells me that these unions are more concerned about the teachers than they are about the children they are supposed to educate. 

Furthermore, I don’t think that a massive loss of teaching jobs will necessarily be the result of a school choice policy anyway. The number of children that need to be educated will remain the same. Requiring the same number of teachers. The only difference being that they will also be teaching in private and parochial schools instead of only in public schools. Their pay and benefits might not be the same. But they will not starve. And the better teachers might be paid more.

Private sector market forces will come into play rather than union determined pay scales not necessarily based on merit. It might even weed out the incompetent teachers currently protected by the union. At the end of the day there will be no great loss of jobs for truly qualified teachers. And the real winners will be parents and their children. Happy to see that many states are now seeing the wisdom in all that.

I am not surprised to see Agudah on board with this. I just hope they realize that parents that send their children to the schools they are fighting NYSED for would not be eligible for this policy at all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

How Many Types of Jews Are There?

Images from the Yated
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has an op-ed in the Yated about a new Nishma Research study that gathered statistics about the beliefs and practices of various Orthodox Jewish subgroups. The following is a pertinent excerpt

The new Nishma Research study reflects the input of Jews, principally throughout the US, who self-identify as Orthodox. 32% of respondents identify as Modern Orthodox (split into 32% “Liberal MO,” 42% “Centrist MO,” and 26% “Stringent MO” categories); 26% of respondents identify as Yeshivish (16.4% “Traditional Yeshivish” and 9.6% “Modern Yeshivish”); 36% of respondents identify as Chasidish (23.6% “Traditional Non-Chabad Chasidish,” 5.2% as “Modern Non-Chabad Chasidish,” 5.3% as “Traditional Chabad/Lubavitch,” and 1.9% as “Modern Chabad/Lubavitch”). It is important to note that the survey was issued to targeted audiences via email; hence, those members of the Chareidi community who do not have email were not included in the study. 82% of survey respondents live in the United States, 23% of these US respondents reside in New York City (10% in Brooklyn, 7% in Manhattan and 4% in Queens), 16% reside in New Jersey, and the remainder reside elsewhere, mainly in sizeable Orthodox communities. (The remaining 18% of respondents reside primarily in Eretz Yisroel, Great Britain and Canada.) 

Liberal MO; Centrist MO; Stringent MO; Traditional Yeshivish; Modern Yeshivish; Traditional Non-Chabad Chasidish; Modern Non-Chabad Chasidish; Traditional Chabad/Lubavitch; Modern Chabad/Lubavitch. 

Wow!  Are there really that many subgroups of observant Jews? I guess there are. But how different are they all from each other? In some cases very... in other cases not so much.

How I wish it weren’t so. If I had my ‘druthers - I’d do away with all these labels. To paraphrase the late John Lennon’s famous song – Imagine there are no Charedim…  No MO too…. Imagine all the people... living in the world as one…

Ah… but life doesn’t work that way. There is a reason for all these labels There are serious differences even between observant Jews. Different values. Differen priorities. Different agendas . Some of which clash and degenerate into violence and hatred of one another. And frankly I can’t stand it. I had always believed that what unites observant Jewry is far greater than what divides us.  But I have been proven wrong. So many times. That is kind of what is playing out now in Israel.  And things only seem to be getting worse.

This is not to diminish the problems discussed by Rabbi Gordimer. They are very real. But so too are the divisions among us.  

I consider myself a Centrist which I define as being on the right side of Modern Orthodoxy. But that is not entirely correct. My father was raised very Chasidic but he was very much an adherent of TIDE. My religious education was mostly Yeshiva oriented. My elementary school education was Charedi. My first 2 years of high school were spent in a Charedi Yeshiva. But the next ten years after that were in a Centrist Yeshiva. The vast majority of my influences there were Charedi. But, my primary influence was Rav Ahaon Soloveichik – who is difficult to categorize. 

On the other hand a significant influence on me was Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz who was about as far left as an Orthodox Jew can go and still be called Orthodox. I think he would have been very comfortable being called Open Orthodox (OO). (In fact many considered him tio be an Apikores - starting with Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Mordechai Gifter).  Although I did not agree with his Hashkafa, I appreciated his perspective and, more importantly I learned a lot about philosophical thought from him.

So am I OO? MO Yeshivish? Centrist MO?  Centrist Charedi? MO stringent? Modern Yeshivish Modern Non-Chabad Chasidish? 

See where I am going? The fact is that I am all of those – and none of those. There is a lot of overlap in who I am. I call myself a Centrist MO for the sake of simplicity and convenience. But I’m a lot more complicated than that. I believe that is true of most observant Jews.

Which leads me to ask whether the categories listed in the Nishma Research actually exists as independent entities? Escpcially when the differences are only slight. Is there really that much of a difference between Stringent MO and Centrist MO? Were these categories actually defined to the subjects of the survey before they were questioned about their beliefs and practices? 

Don’t know. Just asking. But if there are that many categories, maybe all this categorizing has gone too far?

Monday, March 13, 2023

Reimagining the Jewish Experience is Not the Solution

Rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College (Tablet)
I often discuss the tragic decline of American Jewry.  A tragedy second only to the Holocaust in terms of pure numbers. A tragedy based on the opposite of  what happened in the Holocaust. 

No one is being exterminated. No Jew is being persecuted. No Jew is being sent to Auschwitz . There are no mass Jewish graves. But if the current trajectory of Jews abandoning their Judaism continues, then American Jewry as we know it may be lost.

Ironically the freedom that makes this country so great is in large part why there is this mass exodus.  Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, Jews have never had it so good. That makes assimilation easy and attractive. Without any real and sustained Jewish upbringing or education, ignorance of one’s Jewish heritage ensues. And easily replaced with the inviting assimilationist culture (and its values) in which one lives. There has been no better enticement out of our Jewish heritage that the freedom this country has given our people.

Even the uptick in antisemitism of the last few of years has not dampened the extent of the broad based acceptance Jews now have among the vast majority of Americans. To cite an example of this, the idea of a Christian marrying a Jew is so accepted that it is practically celebrated.  Who can forget the celebratory atmosphere at the  intermarriage of American ‘royalty’ - Chelsea Clinton to an identifiable Jew. In a ceremony filled with Jewish symbolism.  To the great delight of the mainstream media, 

But that event should be mourned. Not celebrated. It is indicative of the over 70% intermarriage rate.  

That said, I do not see the demise of heterodoxy as tragic at all. Although they are not directly responsible for the great decline in their numbers, they have greatly contributed it. Not that this was their intent. In fact it was the opposite of their intent. As indicted by the very name used by one of heterodox denomination, Conservative Judaism. The idea was to conserve Judaism. Not to undermine it.  

But undermine it they did by de-emphasizing Mitzvah observance since most of their members were not all that observant. In an attempt to keep them coming to the synagogue they focused almost exclusively on Judaism’s ethical side. In many cases ignoring th importance of ritual observance.(Perhaps out of fear that it would turn off the attendees.) But ethics are not an exclusively Jewish trait. Which ultimately made some of their especially younger members wonder what the point of being Jewish really is? 

Is there any wonder why there is this high level of decline? if there is no substance to ones Judiaism other than the ethics often preached from the pulpit why would any Jew even think about keeping Kosher? Or Shabbos? Or Taharas HaMishpacha (if they even know what that is)?  Of what need are rabbis?

Indeed there is yet another article lamenting the decline in enrollment in heteredox rsabbinc schools. From Tablet: 

When Rabbi Irwin Kula attended the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School 40-plus years ago, his studies emphasized a text-based, academic approach. And when he was ordained in 1982, most of his class of approximately 40 rabbinical graduates—all white and male—took pulpit jobs.In spring 2023, JTS plans to ordain 12 rabbis and three cantors… 

The current first-year class at the Conservative seminary is even smaller, consisting of seven rabbinical and five cantorial students. Nor is JTS alone. Non-Orthodox rabbinical schools across America are experiencing a significant decline in enrollment… 

Interestingly these enrolment numbers are so low, that even with the decline in their members the demand for rabbis is greater than the supply. 

That synagogue attendance is in decline is not new. It has been on a downward spiral for some time now. In recent years, the number of heterodox synagogues in greater Chicago shutting their doors or merging with other synagogues is huge. (All while the number of Orthodox synagogues in greater Chicago seem to be increasing exponentially!)

But then there is the following suggestion about how to turn things around  from E Jewish Philanthropy

“People are engaging with religion in a much broader way than they used to, congregational attendance has declined, and affiliation is decreasing,” said Wendy Cadge, founder of the Chaplain Innovation LabBarbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Brandeis University, and co-author with Shelly Rambo of the book Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century. “Rather than going to congregations, people are engaging in online groups, listening to podcasts, and spiritual entrepreneurs are making their resources available in different ways.” 

Is this the salvation that many of us have hoped for? Hardly. But that is in fact what Emeritus Professor Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College thinks. He spells out a variety of ways in  which Jews can ‘reimagine’ their Judaism.  How sad it is that the only way heterodox rabbis believe they can save Judaism is by changing how we encounter it. Here is one of the many ideas he lists: 

The growing presence of Jews of color and the significantly high intermarriage rate are contributing to the increased diversity of America’s Jews. Inclusion will be a major theme in connection with 21st-century Jewish organizing. 

Does he really think that inclusion of intermarried couples will perpetuate Judaism into the future? He believes that a child of a Jewish father and non Jewish mother can still be defined as Jewish simply by identifying as such. But that is as ridiculous as a man becoming a woman simply by identifying as such. One can have compassion for people with gender dysphoria. But a man is not a woman just because they identify as one. 

There is really only one way to perpetuate Judaism. I have said it before and I will say it again. It is called Jewish education. Without being educated about what Judaism actually is – there is little hope of perpetuating it at all, Without the substantive differences that makes a Jew unique from their fellow man, they are all just fellow human beings. A real Jewish identity only happens with a  Jewish education. Which must include being raised by parents that practice what that education teaches their children. Preferably in an environment of likeminded peers. Both at home and in school.

If only all of these ‘experts’ would use their own imagination to  realize what a Jewish education would mean for a Jewish future. then, maybe we could begin to turn things around. At least a little bit.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Is Israel on the Precipice of Civil War?

Israel's biggest protest ever (BBC)
I don’t recall ever feeling so pessimistic about Israel’s future. I am not all that surprised by the events taking place these days – since I believed it might have been inevitable. But it still saddens me that it happened so suddenly. And, it seems, it isn’t letting up any time soon. These thoughts occurred to me after reading a recent headline in Ha’aretz:

 Israel’s Long-awaited Secular Uprising Is Finally Here

Indeed it is. It seems that Israel is on the brink of civil war (if we aren’t already there) between secular Jews on the one side and religious Jews on the other. That is, however, not an entirely accurate description of the two sides. 

On one side there are 2 distinct religious philosophies with entirely different religious agendas. Charedim (who are the fastest growing demographic in Israel - outpacing all other demographics) and Religious Zionists (whose increasing rightward tilt is represented by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir who after joining forces received more votes than at any other time in the history of Religious Zionism.) In other words these observant Jews represent the extremes of each of their religious philosophies.

On the other side are secular Jews who want to retain their way of life which they see being threatened by the agenda based legislation designed to force religion down their collective throats without impediment. But this camp also includes religious Jews referred to as Dati Leumi. Dati Leumi Jews do not subscribe to the agendas of either Charedim or the extreme Religious Zionism of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

For purposes of simplicity, I will be referring to them as secular versus religious.

These two sides have been around for a long time. And the country has been more or less divided along these lines.  The religious side seems to have won the day giving the current prime minister a comfortable 64 seat majority in the Knesset.

The secular side fears that the agendas of a ruling coalition controlled by its religious members will destroy their freedom. And they will not have it. They see the judicial reform legislation as the first blow against that and they are not going to take that sitting down. There have been a series of massive protests. (Ha’artez reports that the latest protest consisted of a half million Israelis according to its organizers) against the Judicial reforms currently going through the required number of Knesset readings before becoming law. 

The truth is that Judicial Reform is not really the issue. The issue is what kind of state Israel will be. The secular side wants things to stay as they are. The religious side wants major changes to reflect their agendas – fearing that the current direction of the state as determined by unfettered Supreme Court endangers their way of life. Each  side thus reflecting conflicting and irreconcilable ideologies. 

Are things as hopeless as they seem? I hope not. I do not want to see the kind of civil war Israel seems to be quickly heading into. But I fear that there is nothing happening to stop it. But that doesn't mean it is impossible. where there is a will there is a way - if only the two sides would actually will it.

The key to Israel’s future is the kind of compromise that has existed til now. A compromise that would restore the status quo ante. Whereby each sides gets some of what they want but neither sides gets everything they want. 

For religious Jews that means not changing Israeli law to reflect the winds of religiously unacceptable social change that has  influenced to the rest of the free world. For secular Jews it means living their lives in a world where Charedim cannot pass legislation that impedes their freedom – like closing off streets and parking lots on Shabbos in Jerusalem. (Unfortunately their newfound power has caused them to flex muscles they never had. Which in my view is stupid. It does little more  than generate additional hatred from secular and Dati Jews. But I digress.)  

Compromise would also mean leaving long established settlements that border ‘the green line’ alone but not expanding settlements into areas populated by Palestinians. And surely dismantling any illegal settlements that are there now.

That said, it cannot be denied that Israel’s majority population has shifted rightward. If the last election told us anything – it told us that. It is also very likely that the growing Charedi demographic means inclusion of the Charedi parties as part of any future governing collation. 

A right wing electorate has in fact been in the majority for several of the last few elections. The only exception was the last government that lasted about a year and a half and needed the Arab parties to join them in order to secure a majority in the Knesset. So why did all the previous elections not produce a stable right wing government? I blame the current prime minister for that.

That said, I happen to believe that Netanyahu was one of the most effective prime ministers in Israel’s history. His longevity in office tells me that a lot of Israelis felt the same way. But his egotistic desire to retain power has caused him to make enemies of a lot of natural allies. Even some in his own party. He has alienated a lot of potential right wing coalition partners whose political  philosophies are not all that different than his. 

His abrasive ego didn’t help him either. A stable ruling coalition could not be built with him at the helm. That is why there has been a series of perpetually short election cycles And that has impaired any kind of effective leadership. It was Netanyahu’s hunger to return to power that caused him to join forces with extremists on the right that he would otherwise never have included.

The solution is for Netanyahu to resign as prime minister, to call for new elections, and to resign as  chairman of his party, the Likud. That would enable a much saner right wing coalition to emerge that would not need extremists to join it.

I realize of  course that this has no chance of happening. Netanyahu’s ego is too big. But I see no other way out of this mess. 

So if judicial reform is passed as currently written – will there be a civil war? Will Israel  collapse under the weight of the extremists that now rule? Neither alternative is appealing to me. But I see nothing standing in the way of one of these scenarios happening. Hope I’m wrong.

Friday, March 10, 2023

What Would a Halachic State Look Like?

A comment made by a frequent commentator here - who is a scientist widely respected in his field - and for whom I have a great deal of respect myself (despite our frequent and sometimes vehement disagreements) has given me some food for thought. Although he didn’t quite put his hypothetical scenario this way, it suggested the following questions. Would a Halachic state of Israel be viable and would anyone want to live in it?

The kneejerk response might be: absolutely not to both questions. I understand why some people would say that. But I beg to differ.  Not that I think it could happen now or at any other time in the near future – short of the advent of Moshiach.  It could not. Nor would I even suggest that it should. As it stands now the mere thought of a government based Halacha conjures up legtimate fears of religious coercion by the vast majority of Israelis. Many fully observant Jews among them. They look at the Charedi community as the prototype for a  Halachic state and fear it. But that is not the model - although it would surely be one component of it. 

Full time Torah study for all males with no secular education and no army service cannot be a model for any state. A viable Halachic state requires an army. It requires an education  whereby all areas of human endeavor are available to be pursued... and are pursued.  It requires doctors and dentists. lawyers and accountants; plumbers and carpenters, contractors and construction workers; architects and engineers; teachers and technicians; scientists and  farmers... you get the idea.  And there is nothing in Halacha that prevents a Jew from becoming a world renowned expert in their feild. I can think of at least three fully observant Israelis who were awarded the Noble Prize (or its equivalent). One for literature. One for economics. And one for math. 

A modern Halachic state does not preclude any of those fields. It goes without saying that it requires  a religious education, too. Without any of these components (and a great many more that I could not think of at he top of my head), there can be no viable Halachic state

What about secular Jews? Would they be forced to follow Halacha in their personal lives? Would there be consequences to them if they didn't? 

The answer is no. Their personal lives would not be affected. There is no Sanhedrin today. No one is equipped to mete out punishments of any kind to non observant Jews.  But the government would be run according to Halacha. There would be no public desecration of Shabbos by any government agency that is not related to public health.  Suffice it to say, for example, that a hospital is required to violate Shabbos when human life is at stake and must be fully prepared to do so at the drop of a hat if necessary. 

On the other hand where life is not at stake Halacha would be observed. For example there would be no Chametz served to patients in a hospital on Pesach unless it were required to save a life.   

What about army service in a Halachic state? Yes. A modern Halachic state requires protection. And it requires we do whatever we can to accomplish that. Whether army service should be mandatory or not is an open question. But a standing army is required. Can there be exemptions for Torah study? Yes, but not to be applied to everyone as it is now. How and to whom those exemptions be would applied is an open question, too. But in a state where army service is mandatory, there is certainly room exemptions for divinity students.

Would secular Jews be inconvenienced in a Halachic state? Yes. But not terribly so in my opinion. Israel would not become another Iran. Nor will it be Charedi. It will just be observant of Halacha.

The Charedi model of full time Torah study for all males, no army service and no secular education is not the only model for a Halachic state. There are other models that even Charedim acknowledge are legitimate albeit not L'Chatchila (as their primary choice). But Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) or Torah U’Mada (TuM)  are still considered Halachic versions of Judaism even by Charedi standards. The law of the land need not be Charedi. 

Army service might not be mandatory. But neither would it be forbidden or even discouraged. A Halachic state would be  required to protect its citizens in all ways possible. which would include an effective police force and a strong army.

In other words life in a Halachic state would not in any way be oppressive. Although it might inconvenience secular Jews somewhat, I don’t think their lives would change all that much. They would still have the freedom to not be observant.  

These are just some of my quick thoughts about what a Halachic state might  look like. However (and this is very important) I do not think it is in any way possible to do this now. If it were attempted to even suggested by the current government… anyone that thinks there is outrage being expressed now… ‘You ain’t seen nothin yet!’ 

Thursday, March 09, 2023

None Are So Blind - As Those Who Will Not See

As of this moment, there are 143 comments to the previous post. Many of which take issue with what I said. In some cases arguing vigorously against what they think my views are. Or accusing me of not understanding what is at stake here.

I half expected to see this kind of pushback. But none of those arguments change anything I said. In fact I do not disagree with what many of these commentators are saying. Even the angry ones. 

Which leads me to one conclusion. That none of those many commentators understood a single word I said. It is as though they think that I am supporting the reform as presented by the current government. Let me try again. Only this time in bold letters:

I do not in anyway support what the government is proposing at all.  Not even a little bit.

It just shifts power away from one branch of government and hands it over to the another. What I do support is reform that will make Israel a more balanced democracy.

This has nothing to do with the motives of the current government. Whether nefarious or not. Nothing to do with whether Netanyahu is pushing this to save his own hide.  


Those are legitimate but separate issues. My issue is only the need for change.  Again - it is absolutley NOT about doing it the way the current government is proposing to do it

Furthermore, my criticism of the protesters is that they are protesting any reform at all. They do not want anything to change. They like the imbalance - which is mostly in their favor. 

If they were to instead be clamoring for changes that the majority of Israelis agree are needed - to make the system more balanced, I would be right there with them.

Not that anyone will understand what I am saying now any better that they did before. But I figured it was worth a try.