Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Wisdom of Our Elders

Rabbi Berel Wein
Sometimes I feel like I am clone of Rabbi Berel Wein. To say that I am a huge fan of this perceptive and wise elder of the people of Israel - is a gross understatement. I don’t believe I have ever disagreed with him. Certainly not anything I can think of that I’ve seen in print. This is once again the case.

I was sent one of his columns by a relative. I have said many of the things he said in that column myself. Many times in many different ways. 

If the leaders of the Charedi world would see things as clearly and rationally as he does and act to change them, half of their problems would disappear overnight.

Unfortunately the reality is that nothing will change. It is a reality in which the Charedim of the Yeshiva world are now deeply entrenched. They live in a ‘maximum security prison’ of their own making with no foreseeable way out. But that doesn’t mean the truth should not be told. Especially since I believe that the moderate mainstream of the Charedi world (who together with the much smaller but not insignificant right wing of Modern Orthodoxy irrespective of differing Hashkafos - live similar lifestyles) are the wave of the future. A community I have called the new centrists (small c) .

It is with this in mind that I am going to do something I rarely do and republish that column here. It follows in its entirety.  

We are all aware that we will never again be as smart, perceptive, clever and knowledgeable as we were when we were 16 years old. There is no question that from that point of life onwards the trajectory is always downhill. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be said for age and experience and for the tempering of our views and opinions by the realities of life.

One of the omnipresent facets of human existence is the continuing eternal disconnect between generations. The young always revolt against the mores and beliefs of parents and grandparents and search for their own path in life. Often, this search leads to disaster both for that generation and for human society generally. One needs only look to the story of humankind in the 20th century to realize how the rejection of past norms and historical truths can lead to the destruction of societies and the murder of millions of innocent people.

The nature of human beings is to ignore advice from people whom they believe to be irrelevant to current situations and challenges. This is true in all sectors of human society and certainly in the Jewish world as well. Any resemblance between the actuality of religious Jewish society today, whether it be in the United States or Israel and what Jewish society was in Eastern Europe or in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, is probably certainly only coincidental. It is not based on reality or on lessons that should have been learned but are no longer communicated or held to be of merit.

The current maladies that affect our religious society center around the dysfunction of family relationships. This leads to what is euphemistically known as the crisis existing in finding proper spouses, getting married and building families and generations. There are many reasons for this societal dysfunction that is so widespread in our time. But part of the cause, if not the main reason for its existence, is the fact that parents and grandparents have little to say regarding the lives of their children or in other cases have too much to say. In the yeshiva world, money plays a greatly disproportionate role in the process of finding a mate and building a home. The person involved is much less important than whether one will receive financial support, an apartment or other material benefits as a reward for marrying one's daughter. The fact that this is no way to base a lifelong relationship and a firm foundation for family life seems to be immaterial.

One should not be surprised at the rising rate of divorce and family dysfunction, of children at risk and other issues which plague our society. These are natural results of ignoring the lessons of the past regarding marriage and human relationships and instead, pursuing a life of self-importance, indulgence, dependence and overbearing arrogance and hubris. No one wants to hear about the good old days when one married out of love and attachment to someone else and when no one was guaranteed to be supported by anyone else but agreed to make his own way in the world.

Much of the religious world has built up a completely unrealistic picture of Jewish life in previous times. It tends to view the past not only with rose-colored glasses but with fantasies and fables that do not and never did reflect the reality of that world and that time. It refuses to recognize that the Jewish world, of Eastern Europe especially, became secular in the 19th and 20th centuries. The causes for this were many, but one of them was certainly poverty. It is difficult to convince future generations that their lot in life must be that they will always be disadvantaged, poor and dependent. I find it to be almost cruel for teachers and the heads of educational institutions to encourage and almost condemn their students to lives of poverty, unending debt and demeaning dependence on the community and other individuals.

Everything in the Talmud and in Jewish tradition and all of life in past Jewish generations speaks against this and yet this is held to be the most noble of ideas and the one that needs be followed no matter what misery it causes. The younger generation should speak to their grandparents and great grandparents and ask them what life was like in their time and what lessons they learned. They would then gain a perspective that would help them survive in their generation and build a stronger, healthier and more productive Jewish society.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Seeking Spirituality in Israel

Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu (Arutz Sheva)
Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu has a fascinating insight as to why Charedim are better able to bridge the gap between themselves and the secular public.

That came as a real surprise to me considering how polarized the Jewish world is there. The image of Charedim seems to be increasingly negative. In fact Avigdor Lieberman, one of Israel’s savviest politicians is running on the premise that he will not serve in any government that includes the Charedi parties.

It isn’t hard to see why he believes that this is a winning strategy. Charedim are painted as self serving abusers of government welfare; who avoid military service; don’t work; and take pleasure in shoving religion down the throats of every single Israeli citizen.

I do not see them that way. But I get why many Israelis might. Which makes Rabbi Eliyahu’s observation so surprising.  One would think that under these circumstances Religious Zionists would be the first place an Israeli would go to seek spirituality. Their lives resemble the secular lifestyle far more than does the Charedi lifestyle.  Religious Zionists are far more integrated into the general culture, serve in the military, work, and do not appear to be abusing the welfare system. And they are religious by definition. Wouldn’t it make more sense to seek spirituality from religious people whose lifestyles more resemble your own?

I think the answer might just be that when seeking spirituality the life they led till then had been unsatisfying. They therefore seek something different. Not more of the same. Becoming a religious Zionist but otherwise living the same way they have till now may not seem like much of a difference from their secular perspective - even though that is not the case. Religious Zionists are observant. Secular Jews are -  for the most part – not observant. Which makes for a totally different life experience in significant ways.  That may not be so obvious to the casual observer. On the surface the lifestyle of a Religious Zionist might seem - if not identical certainly ‘ballpark’to a secular lifestyle.

But there is more to it than that. Religious Zionists have a problem that Charedim don’t. It is a problem that many of us who are not religious Zionists have observed. It is that Zionism is overemphasized. That almost always means focusing on settling all the land of Israel. By which they mean settling the West Bank. Their Halachic observance seems to be almost incidental and secondary to their Zionism. 

Most Israelis do not see a Zionism that focuses on settlements to be a religious issue – even though it is. They see it as a political issue. One that they are not particularly interested in. Settling all the land of Israel is NOT sine qua non of observant Judaism. And not what a secular Israeli seeking spirituality is looking for. They are looking for the kind of spirituality that keeping kosher or observing Shabbos and Yom Tov bring. In other words they are looking at connecting with God in tangible, non political ways. And see that a lot more in the Charedi world than they do in the Religious Zionist world. To put it the way Rabbi Eliyahu did: 
I see two main factors that have caused this disconnect.
One is our investment in the internal sectoral discourse focusing on the settlements. This focus was crucial and welcome in its time, but it cost us a double price.
Firstly, we've gained a reputation as being focused on national security, which has diminished our image as a 'Torani' or strongly religious movement.
Secondly, this has resulted in a Judaism that does not interact with the wider public – like a man who stands in the beit midrash and shouts to people passing in the street.
The second thing that caused us to disconnect from the secular public is a compromising discourse that has western cultural characteristics; a discourse that seems to question everything – the Talmudic sages, the attitude toward the Torah, the attitude toward the Jewish family, and even things that it would have been fitting to preserve a respectful attitude toward.
In order to connect, one has to be connected: connected to your Jewish identity, to your Torah, to your nation. You need to know how to speak the language. We switched to speaking about universal values and forgot to speak about the Torah, forgot to mention the Kadosh Baruch Hu, forgot how to speak simply, plainly and not over people’s heads. We left behind our pride in our Jewish culture, forgot to maximize the simple basics of warmth and affection, on the warmth and within it the reverence for the rabbis, the warmth and from within it the personal connection. 
If that is indeed the case, it is no small wonder that Israelis seeking more spirituality in their lives gravitate to Charedim. Because if one really pays attention they will see all of those things.

What about the above mentioned negative perception of Charedim? Obviously they are not seen that way by seekers of spirituality. They see people living a lifestyle of sacrifice in order to better enhance their connection with God. They see people giving up their material welfare in favor of a better spiritual life.

In my view, as in most things, the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. Yes their lives involve a lot of sacrifice. But at the same time the way in which they go about it is ripe for abuse. And when that happens politicians are quick to exploit it for their own personal gain. But that is not the sum and substance of the Charedi world. No community is perfect. But that nonetheless feeds the hatred of their enemies. When it comes to seekers of spirituality - by not obsessing over one issue, that of settling all the land of Israel - Charedim are clearly seen as more attractive choice in serving God.

Charedim are thus better able to bridge the gap between themselves and secular society than are Religious Zionists.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

One Torah - One People


Not long ago, I challenged Agudath Israel to feature at least one speaker at the Siyum HaShas that represents the Modern Orthodox community. Since they have gone to great lengths to advertise this as a unifying event there is every reason to expect one of their speakers to be from that segment. Since Yeshiva University is the flagships institution of Modern Orthodoxy it is more than a reasonable expectation that one of their leading Roshei Yeshiva be invited to be that speaker. And address an audience that will include significant numbers of Modern Orthodox Jews.

Agudah has thus far not indicated that they will change from their past tradition of ignoring this obvious expectation. I am still holding out hope that they will surprise me. But I am not holidng my breath.

I don’t think there is any doubt about the level of Torah knowledge or Yiras Shomayim that YU Roshei Yeshiva have. Nor is there an iota of real difference between the way Torah is studied in the Beis HaMedrash of YU and the way it is studied at any other Yeshiva.  It is more than time that Modern Orthodoxy is treated like an equal among equals and given the same prominence they give those to their right. 

If they do that it will demonstrate that  the Achdus they advertise is a reality and not just a way of attracting Modern Orthodox Jews to a Charedi event. Achdus is not defined by who attends. It is defined by mutual respect between all segments of Orthodoxy despite differences. That means looking in both directions (right and left) and not just one direction (right).

What would an Orthodox event like that look like? Not really all that different from the one they are planning now. But it one wants to see what it should look like in the ideal - all one has to do is go to the OU website and see what a similar event of theirs looks like. 

It is not a Siyum. But it has many of the elements of  the upcoming Agudah Siyum. It is called Torah New York - and will take place on Sunday, September 22 (the first day of Slichos). From 9 am to 6 pm. It will feature speakers from both the world inhabited by the Agudah and the world inhabited by Modern Orthodoxy (in the form of many of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva). 

What is even more important is that there will be several distinguished Orthodox Jewish women speaking at that event. Whose pictures are prominently displayed at their website right along with all the other speakers. Many of whom are - as noted - Charedi. 

This is the way it should be. There can be no Halachic objection to pictures of women and more importantly, there can be no Halachic objection to featuring women addressing the mixed gender crowd. If there were none of those speakers would be involved.

Of course I already knew that since the day school my children attended, Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, is one of the most respected day schools of Torah U’Mesorah. And at their annual banquet both men and women address the crowd  that includes Charedi couples all of whom sit together at the same table with other couples. 

Something that used to be standard fare back in the 60s even in Telshe… a pretty Charedi Yeshiva. Of course they no longer do that.  But obviously it is NOT because of any Halachic problem or they would have never done it in the first place. Even back then.

Of course I do not expect Agudah to have mixed seating at the Siyum. Or to start having women address the crowd. I get that there are some segments of Orthodoxy (mainly some of the Chasidic segments) that would strongly object and probably even boycott the event. Agudah does not want to alienate that crowd. 

Even though I do not in any way agree with eliminating women speakers, I understand their concern. But asking Agudah to acknowledge Talmidei Chachamim whose Yiras Shmayim is unquestionably on par with anyone else that might be speaking that evening, should not cause anyone to boycott it. And if anyone or any group does boycott it, then they are not interested in Achdus at all. Just in themselves. If anyone would boycott the Siyum because someone like Rav Hershel Shachter or Rav Mordechai Willig will address it, then they are Porshim Min HaTzibur and in my view forfeit their right to be considered part of Klal Yisroel.

One more thing. The YU Roshei Yeshiva are men of great integrity and humility. They are not Makpid on their Kavod. I am absolutely certain that many of them will attend the Agudah Siyum and advocate attendance by all. They see the Siyum as a massive Kiddush HaShem - which should be supported by everyone. At the end of the day they probably consider my concerns trivial and irrelevant to the greater goal of Kavod HaTorah.

I get that too. They do not think about themselves but rather what is right in the ‘eyes’ of God. And what could be more right than a massively attended Siyum on Shas attended by Orthodox Jews from all segments of Judaism?

I have a lot of respect for these great Roshei Yeshiva. But If that is the case, I have to disagree with them. When one segment is slighted by purposely avoiding giving prominence to any of their rabbinic leaders it demeans them and those of us that respect them. That is the opposite of Achdus. I therefore continue to urge Agudah to invite at least one YU Rosh Yeshiva to speak. That will demonstrate the kind of Achdus they are advertising. Without that calling it an event of  Achudus will be an empty  gesture. 

Will it happen? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 13, 2019

A Boring Debate and Nothing New

Last  night's Democratic debate
The reaction I had looking at the field of Democrats running for President at last night’s debate was a big fat blah. I watched that marathon and when I was done, I regretted wasting 3 hours of my time. I learned nothing that I didn’t already know.

It was basically a competition between liberals and liberals – each trying to outdo each other as a populist alternative to a President, they all despise.  There was no shortage of accusations about Trump’s character. His alleged racism was taken for granted by all of them. They all pretty much all implied that 4 more years of Trump would mean the end of the United States as we know it. They did not say why. They just assumed everyone knows that by now. 

What is it exactly that we are supposed to know? Well, from the perspective of a liberal, Trump’s policies have all been a disaster. His environmental polices will destroy the planet (e.g. deregulation); tax reductions only benefit the wealthy and big business - at the expense of the middle class and the poor; he does not care about health care at an affordable cost;  his  trade policies have hurt the American farmers and consumers; Iran has resumed enriching uranium; he praises dictators and condemns our allies - who no longer respect us; he is generally a racist and bigot that hates immigrants... has done absolutely nothing about gun control; and that  he is an unethical self centered scoundrel using the Presidency for his own financial gain. 

The problem with these claims is that many of them are debatable and some of his polices are pretty much the same that any good conservative President would have implemented. The only difference being his unorthodox personal style and using language that is very abrasive about his political enemies or people that cross him. 

I have said many times that as someone that leans politically conservative I tend to support many of those policies.  And as a card carrying member of the middle class, I can testify that without a doubt his economic polices have benefited me. I am one of the about 50% of Americans that are invested in the stock market and have seen the value of my stock portfolio skyrocket to unprecedented levels over the last 3 years. 

This does not mean I am endorsing him for a 2nd term as President (or anyone else) at this point. It is just to  point out that the ‘show’ put on last night was little more that an exercise in liberal politics.

Be that as it may - what was missing last night was the view each candidate has about Israel. Not a single question was asked by any moderator. That said I have read interviews by the Jewish media and I was not really all that pleased with the responses. Most of which claimed to support the Jewish state but disagreeing with their current government. Some would actually move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. Almost all spoke of a 2 state solution. And all agreed that settlements were an impediment to peace while adding (almost reluctantly) that Israel had right to defend itself and had legitimate security needs.

But last night… not a word. It would have been nice to here any one of them say something about that. But they said nothing. I am afraid to think of what might happen to our relationship with Israel if any one of them gets into office.

I otherwise remain unexcited about any of these candidates. I do not currently see myself endorsing any one of them.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

'Rationalist' Voting in Israel

Image for illustration purposes taken from Rationalist Judaism
I have said it before. But I cannot emphasize enough my disdain for Israel’s form of government. Even though it might be more of a democracy than the US. By virtue of the fact that there are so many political parties to choose from that voters can find a party whose political philosophy more closely aligns with their own.

The reason for my disdain is that their system (which was basically just a continuation of the preexisting parliamentary system of the British mandate) chaos inevitably ensues. A chaos that results with the inability of one party to govern efficiently. The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the party with the most votes which translates into the most seats in the Keneset - Israel’s parliament.  But not enough to form a majority of seats from a single party.

What Israel ends up with is a coalition government with other parties at the expense of making concessions very few voters voted for. A coalition government like this is kind of like what my wife likes to call a horse put together by a committee: A camel.

It limits governance. It limits the policies that can be implemented and often leads to conflict, disintegration of the coalition, and new elections. Where the same thing happens all over again.

I much prefer a 2 party system and  direct elections for the President - like the one we have here. It is as democratic and far more efficient. Although the United States has no law against third parties (or more) those rarely win national elections. especially for President. At best a third party candidate will be a ‘spoiler’ by taking away votes from a front runner. 

Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, I believe this is basically what happens and has just about always been the case in the US. The President has always been the candidate of one of the 2 major parties. There are no coalitions. The President gets 4 years to govern without fear of losing his job. And there is no inordinate power given to small parties.

Israel on the other hand has exactly that problem. Thus creating a situation where a small party can dictate policies favorable to themselves in exchange for their joining the coalition. Polices that the vast majority of voters did not vote for. (Which is kind of the opposite of a democracy if you think about it.) 

All of these thoughts occurred to me as I read Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s post today. (Which he bases on a Times of Israel article). Therein he justifies voting for a political party he does not agree with for pragmatic (and perhaps even existential) purposes.

Personally I can’t imagine voting for a party I disagree with. But if I were in his shoes, maybe I would do the same - or risk getting a government that is even worse.

This is the dilemma facing Rabbi Slifkin. He is going to vote for a party he does not agree with because if he votes for the one he does agree with Israel will continue down the path of self destruction. 

Shocking thought that may be, I totally understand where he is coming from. Israel does face an existential problem if its demographics continue along the lines they are now. A situation where the exponential growth of a community that refuses to educate their young to be more productive will lead to the inability of Israel to retain its status as a fist rate economy.  Which as Rabbi Slifkin also notes he will eventually cause a situation whereby Israel will be unable to fund the maintenance of their army. 

The Charedi leadership seems to be ignoring that reality. Focusing only on their immediate needs. Which consists mostly of financing their institutions and their indigent families. With an educational paradigm that has no formal secular education. Which if they did - would give them the tools to contribute more productively to their families and to the rest of the country.

I have been saying what seems like forever that the Charedi leadership needs to change things there along the lines of most Chatedi Yeshivos in America. Not that anyone there hears me or even knows that I exist. Just telling it like it is. 

As I have said many times. Even as I understand the importance of Torah L’Shma and fully endorse the idea, that should not be the sole standard of education for all Charedim. The vast majority needs to study Limudei Chol for a substantial part of the day as well. 

That they categorically refuse to change - combined with their exponential growth means that there will eventually not be enough of them that are educated enough to support Israel’s economy. 

One might argue that things are not as bad as all that. And that more Charedim are working than ever. And that opportunities for better jobs through better training are available in the form of a variety of programs designed for Charedim to catch up. But as Rabbi Slifkin notes, there is a 75% dropout rate. Not a good number. 

There needs to be a change in the entire paradigm so that those that want to pursue a better income won’t need to catch up. But intransigence rules the day in Israel’s Charedi world. Which is buttressed by their political power and a myopic vision of the future.

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see what the future looks like if things continue as they are in a political system like Israel’s.

What a mess. Please do not misunderstand. I reiterate my support for studying Torah L'Shma. In no way do I want to harm the Charedi community. The exact opposite is true. If they would only tweak their educational paradigm to be more like that of the vast majority of American Charedi Yeshivos - it would change everything! For the better. For everyone. In the meantime, maybe Rabbi Slifkin has a point.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Well Intended but Tragic Error in Judgment

Professor Aaron J. Koller (YU faculty page)
Aaron J Koller, Yeshiva University Professor of Near Eastern Studies has a dilemma. He is conflicted about what he sees as a clash of values between the Torah and our own modern sensibilities thereof. He bases his conflict on one of the hot button issues of our day. Which is how we should treat the LGBT. Although he focuses on homosexuality.

On the one hand, there is Halacha which forbids the act most associated with a sexual relationship between two men. The Torah considers it a capital crime. On the other hand there is what he believes is a valid high ethic for our times which he describes as follows:
Respect for each human being’s right to love whom they wish, live with whom they wish, and build stable relationships built on mutual love and respect with whomever they wish…
He seems to be saying that these are two valid but opposing approaches that are unforgiving in their ethical demands. He then justifies that equation by pointing to what he believes are similar conflicts discussed by the sages in the Talmud.

One of the quintessential proofs about our requirement to be subservient to Halacha over our own sense of ethics is the story of the Akeida, Where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Yitzchok.

Obviously killing an innocent human being is a highly unethical enterprise. No less true for killing one’s own son. Abraham immediately complies and submits to the will of God. This is the ultimate test about following God’s will.  Which is essentially what Halacha is. Abraham passes that test with flying colors and is ‘rewarded’ by being stopped moments before he slices his son’s throat.

Professor Koller dismisses that proof - saying that since Yitzchok was not killed, God never really intended him to be killed. In the end, says Professor Koller, God told Abraham NOT to harm his son, thereby teaching us that religious devotion may not come through the harm of others. He also notes that this is not really about self sacrifice. It is about sacrificing the life of another (Yitzchak). (More about that later.)

He then offers several examples where the sages seemed to modify Halacha based on society's ethical considerations. Which he wants to apply in our day in resolution of the conflict between the Halachic demands of the Torah (God’s word) and ethical considerations of our day. But concedes that we do not have the religious bona fides nor legal authority today that the sages of the Talmud had.

But then he goes a bridge too far and concludes with the following: 
In the absence of the authority to change the law, I have no choice but to choose against it…
In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity. 
This is clearly a break from our obligations to follow the word of God. To suggest that his personal or societal view of morality is in any way worthy of rejecting God’s laws is fallacy of major proportion! We are not sacrificing anyone if we follow God’s law.

God wants us to follow Halacha. He does NOT want us to even imply otherwise.  It follows that an end runs that appear to permit the impermissible is not looked at favorably by God either. 

To repeat what I have said a gazillion times, this does not mean we should dishonor LGBT people. As I always say they were created in the image of God just like the rest of humanity. And as Jews – they too are part of God’s chosen people. But treating a lifestyle conducive to major violations of Halacha as equivalent to a lifestyle conducive to what the Torah says is holy is the wrong message and it does not make you a ‘good person’ when you do so. What it does instead is make you a celebrant of something God clearly despises. Not the people. But the forbidden behavior associated with it.

Professor Koller seems to be endorsing concrete demonstrations of LGBT acceptance – like the idea of gay marriage ceremonies.  I do not believe for a moment that doing something like that is pleasing in the eyes of God. It makes absolutely no sense to say it does.

I further believe that his description of the Akeida is not about self sacrifice but about sacrificing someone else is mistaken. The Akeida was about Yitzchak’s submission to God’s will too. Not just about Abraham’s submission. And if he thinks that slicing the neck of a beloved son isn’t a personal sacrifice, I have to question his sanity!

One more thing. Professor Koller uses examples in the Talmud as a model of authenticity that speaks to us across the great chasm of time. It demonstrates that sociological moral and ethical considerations can trump Halacha. But in my view that is based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what they did and does not justify that claim. 

For example he cites the fact that they rescinded certain edicts they considered them unreasonable despite their intentions being in service of God’s law. While that is true – nothing they rescinded was at the expense of appearing to support biblical level Halachic violations.  

Yes the ways of the Torah are pleasant. But they are also binding. And if our own perceptions of what is and isn’t moral or ethical changes, it does not change Halacha. Not in our day and not in the days of the sages.

That said, I have to take issue with what Gil Student suggested based on this article. Which is: 
It might be time to start preparing eulogies for Modern Orthodoxy. 
I actually agree that a ‘new world order’ with respect to Orthodoxy will eventually ensue - populated by sociological centrists comprised of mostly moderate Charedim and the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy. 

But I reject the notion that Professor Koller’s article is a harbinger of Modern Orthodoxy’s demise. 

What I believe it indicates instead is that the pull of the left wing - is having a major impact on some of us. But not on all of us. Theological Centrists  (right wing of modern orthodox) are alive and well. Professor Koller is not  a Centrist by any definition. Or at least not mine.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

When Schools Short Change their Students


Deception is the mother of all the problems parochial and private schools now face. And problems there are.  They are real. As Peter Murphy – quoted in Mosaic Magazine  indicated, the very existence of these schools is now threatened by New York State Education Department (NYSED). They have renewed commitment to assure that the intent of the state’s original guidelines are scrupulously followed. 

In pursuit of that goal they want to require specific core subjects be taught with specific time allotments for each course. It is only by doing this that they feel that the mandate of substantial equivalency to public schools will be adhered to.  And as if that isn’t bad enough, they are shifting the burden of oversight to local public school board districts. Which is clearly – as Murphy noted - a conflict of interest.

I happen to agree that these requirements are unfair. In the case of parochial schools these requirements substantially impede the purpose of those school – the very reason for existence. Which is to educate their young in the tenets and customs of their religion. I feel the same way that does Jewish, Catholic, and nonsectarian private schools who are challenging these new regulations in New York state court.

So what does deception have to do with this? A lot! It is because certain Chasidic schools (like those of Satmar and Skvere) completely ignored the original guidelines that these problems now exist. They relied on a history of NYSED purposeful ignorance about the way those guidelines were followed. Which was not at all. Their children thus failed to receive even a rudimentary education in Limudei Chol (secular studies). To say nothing of equivalency. It was exposing that deception to the world that has caused this problem.

There are those that insist on blaming the whistle-blowers.  If they hadn’t rocked the boat, none of this would be happening. That may be true. But blaming them does nothing to help those students lacking an education in Limudei Chol become better, more productive citizens.

Without the whistle-blowers it would have perpetuated a system that increasingly produces citizens that can barely speak the language of the country in which they were born and raised. At least not without sounding like ignoramuses. Not to mention the more important fact that they will lack the educational tools required for the kind of advanced studies that would enable better careers with better pay. Leaving only the brighter and more determined among them would even attempt to catch up with those that had the advantages of a formal Limudei Chol curriculum.

Chasidic leaders who are of course the loudest to protest this development keep claiming that their community gets along just fine without those studies. That may be true in the bubble in which they live.  But once outside that bubble, they are not going to find things that easy. True, many of them do well even without that education or by catching up. Some even go on to great financial success. But most rely on financial assistance as a normal source of income because of their large family size and inability to make more than the wages paid to people who lack a decent education.

Had these schools done what the vast majority of Orthodox parochial schools have done and offered a decent dual  curriculum - we would not be having this conversation. Because those schools did comply with the spirit of equivalency by requiring by way of their dual curriculum. Those students take the Regents exam and do quite well on them. 

I have said all this before. I repeat it here - not only to make it abundantly clear where the fault lies. (which is not with the whistle-blowers). But also to support attempts to reverse NYSED’s overreach.We are indeed facing the dilemma outlined by Murphy. And I agree with the conclusion - quoted in Mosaic
[G]iven the achievements of private schools, New York State should be doing the opposite of what it is currently pursuing, and enact reforms that would make private schools an easier option for more parents. . . . School choice [constitutes] a progressive approach to providing educational opportunity and economic equality for children from poor and working-class households to attend better schools. Moreover, expanding choice is not a zero-sum game; more school options for families do not impede the ability of elected officials to support and improve district public schools. 
He is right in his assessment of private schools. (I would extend it to most of our religious schools.) And he is right about his suggestion to do the opposite by enacting reforms that would make private schools (and parochial schools) an easier option via school choice.  Much the same way Indiana and a few other states already do with great success.  It is an option for public school parents that really works.

Yeshiva students that attend schools with a dual curriculum of Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) and Limudei Chol do quite well. As noted yesterday even Harvard is not out of reach to Yeshiva graduates. Just like Lakewood isn’t out of reach for them. Or Yeshiva University. Or any other school. Either way it should be their choice based on what’s good for them. Which will ultimately make it better for us. Klal Yisroel always benefits when we are given the ability to pursue every opportunity - choosing those we are best at.

With rare exception - those choices can only happen if a dual curriculum exists. Students that attend schools that offer no formal Limudei Chol curriculum mostly do not have those choices. Those schools need to reform their educational paradigm to include a dual Limudei Kodesh and LimudeiChol curriculum.

In our quest to retain control over what we teach our students that should not be forgotten. Those young Chasidim deserve better. Their lives would improve and they will end up better citizens in the bargain.  As we assert our religious rights - we must not abandon them allowing them to continue to be short changed.  

In that vein it would serve us well to urge NYSED to withdraw the new version of those requirements. To look instead to those Yeshivos that offer a dual curriculum as the model for ALL Yeshivos to follow. And to expand opportunities for all students to attend the schools of their choice. If they did that, I believe that would be something that we should all support.

Monday, September 09, 2019

The New Kid on the Block

Jason Greenblatt and Avi Berkowitz (TOI)
One of the bright lights in the President’s circle of power is an Orthodox Jew by the name of Jason Greenblatt. I don’t believe that even Trump’s fiercest critics would trash him. They might disagree with his politics. But I don’t believe they would challenge his integrity. Although I’m sure the mere fact that he is a Trump appointee puts his character into question in the minds of some.

The task he was given by the President was - what I believe to be an impossible one. Which is to find a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I do not believe a solution is possible under current conditions no matter who Israel’s prime minister is. It is a classic case of two antagonists with intractable positions that are incompatible with each other. Not to mention a problematic security situation in Israel that can never allow the territory known as the West Bank to be given over to an enemy that seeks to destroy the Jewish state. One Jew (or a few Jews) at a time via suicide attacks or other sporadic attacks against innocent Israeli civilians. A tactic rewarded by Palestinian leadership with cash payments to the families of the ‘martyred’ attackers. I just don’t think peace is doable under these conditions.

That must have been known to Jason Greenblatt when he took up the challenge. And he accepted it nonetheless knowing just how slim the chances of any of his ideas succeeding might be. Working with 2 other Orthodox Jewish appointees: US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump son in law Jared Kushner, they have come up with a peace plan that I’m sure shares little if anything with the conventional wisdom of past ‘peacemakers’. 

I’m sure that most people will agree that no matter what this plan entails, it will not work. For a variety of reasons. Although I’m equally convinced that the reasons we all might give for that will vary widely.

What I will say however that it was refreshing not to hear the words ‘settlements are an impediment to peace’ even once so far from the Trump administration. Settlements were indeed blamed as the primary impediment to peace. That was the conventional wisdom of both Republican and Democratic administrations of the past. But not the current one. In a recent interview by PBS NewsHour host Judy Woodruff. Greenblatt was asked about the settlements issue. He responded that he doesn’t like the word settlements - preferring the word neighborhoods to describe areas populated by Jews on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Be that as it may, I repeat. The Trump administration will have no more success in that department than did any of his predecessors. But I don’t blame them from trying something different.

Greenblatt announced that he will leave the administration shortly. He considers his task completed. His peace plan will be revealed shortly after the next Israeli election to be held on September 17th.

Greenblatt’s replacement has been announced. It will be yet another Orthodox Jew -  30 year old Avi Berkowitz. Whose job until now was as an assistant to Jared Kushner – both before and after Kushner switched from being a businessman to being a civil servant. 

Berkowitz attended the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway for high school and two prestigious Yeshivos: Kol Torah in Israel and then Ner Israel in Baltimore. After which he attended Harvard Law School for his law degree.

I can just hear the ridicule from Trump and Kushner detractors. Berkowitz’s youth and association with the ‘unethical and stupid’ Trump/Kushner team makes his appointment laughable. What possible credentials could a 30 year old former Yeshiva student provide that would qualify him for such a lofty position?!  Certainly not his association with Kushner who everybody on the left thinks is an imbecile who got where he did because of his wealthy father and because he married well.

Other than his impressive education, I have no idea about Berkowitz’s qualifications as a peacemaker one way or the other.  But in my view it doesn’t really matter since there is practically no chance for anyone to formulate a peace plan that will be acceptable to both sides - No matter how much of a genius they may be.

What I will say however is that I never thought I would see so many Orthodox Jews being given positions of trust and high power in the Executive Branch of government. I know that those to my left will say that Kushner is not someone that should make us proud. Embarrassed would be the more appropriate feeling. They believe he is an unethical crook with low intelligence riding on the coattails of his father and father in law. And in any case has shown not to be very observant in any Orthodox sense. But the same cannot be said about Greenblatt and Friedman. Whether one agrees with them or not, they are both intelligent Orthodox Jews of  high integrity.

As for Avi Berkowitz, we will have to wait and see ‘who’ he is - and what he has to offer. In the meantime, I offer my sincere congratulations to him and wish him a successful journey in his new role.

It might not make Orthodox Jews on the left proud. I’m pretty sure the opposite is true. They will assume ‘guilt’ by association. Nothing at all to be proud of. Something to be embarrassed about. 

But I don’t feel that way. Despite my feelings about the President’s personal conduct in office - it does make me proud that he has such high opinion of Orthodox Jews. I doubt that any other candidate running for office has any Orthodox Jews in their camp. Nor will they have any in their camp if they should win the Presidency. This has nothing to do with who I might support for President. Just stating what I believe is a fact about all the Democratic candidates. In the meantime I remain proud to be an Orthodox Jew in America.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Hating Religion - The Handmaid's Tale

Protesters dressed in ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ costumes at a Kalish town hall (CJN)
Let me state at the outset that I am second to no one when it comes to loving this great country of ours. The reasons for that should be obvious. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, Jews have NEVER had it so good. In what ways? I have discussed those ways before. Many times. I am not going to repeat them here. This post is not about that. I mention it only to underscore that my views have not changed despite a troubling phenomenon.

This morning I watched a CBS feature story about Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. That book spawned the highly acclaimed and award  winning ‘TV’ series of the same name - which streams online at Hulu. I have never seen this series. And other than the fact that I knew it had something to do with abortion rights, I knew nothing else about it. Now I do. From Google
Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, this series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what used to be part of the United States. Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state, and is faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate. In a desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world, the few remaining fertile women are forced into sexual servitude.  
What is depicted is a disturbing vision of the future based on a version of Christianity that does not exist today. But the message is clear. Which is that when society allows religious doctrine to rule – evil happens. The religious fundamentalism of today is seen as easily becoming a slippery slope to hell on earth. Where women are reduced to being baby making sex salves. Women are depicted as being forced to wear clothing that hides their bodies and wear hats that limits their view of others. Message: Women should not see or be seen. They should exist just to make babies.

The viewer cannot help but to see religion in the most negative light. That Christianity is the religion depicted in this series is just a metaphor for any bible based beliefs – including those of Orthodox Judaism.  The view expressed in this series is that the will of God as expressed in the bible is morally inferior to the ‘more enlightened’ will of the human mind.

Utopia therefore lies in a world without God. Or at least without any document (e.g. the bible) that dares to claim it is His word.

And yet the acclaim this series is getting is unmistakable. Is there anyone that even hints that there is a anti-religious bias here? If there is, it is being kept secret. The popularity of this series and the sympathy generated by the women depicted in this series is being used by pro abortion rights groups. Who show up dressed like these women in venues where abortion rights are being threatened. Even if only slightly. More about that later.

At this point let me reiterate my pro choice position on abortion. While I am indeed pro choice that does not mean I believe that abortion should be used as a means of birth control. Or that simply not wanting to be pregnant is enough of a reason to end a pregnancy. In that sense I agree with the pro life position.

Not because I believe that life begins at conception. But because I believe that abortion on demand is wrong. The need to keep a medical procedure legal and free of any encumbrances does not mean I support the idea that a fetus has so little value that it can be destroyed because of - ‘oops’ - an unwanted pregnancy.  Need and demand are not the same thing. Demanding abortion as a means of birth control is in my view - immoral. 

Legalized abortions should not be defined as the right of a woman to have control over her own body. Which is how most pro choice advocates characterize their position. That is wrong because it isn’t only a woman’s body that has value. Her fetus - a potential life - has value too.

Those who believe in abortion on demand see a fetus as little more than a nuisance that can be discarded at will.  While I would not restrict abortions in any way as a matter of law, that doesn’t mean I see a fetus as a nuisance. I just don’t think we can start nibbling at the edges of a law without the possibility of it hurting our religious rights.

As noted above some women show up at venues where abortion rights are being threatened  - dressed up like the women in The Handmaid’s Tale.  As if the slightest restriction will turn America into Gilead. This happened to Illinois State representative Rabbi Yehiel Kalish despite the fact that he is pro Choice.  From the Chicago Jewish News:
Kalish… the only rabbi to serve in any legislative body in the country has apparently not answered to anyone’s satisfaction why he declined to vote “yes” on the Reproductive Health Act, Illinois’ answer to strict anti-abortion bills recently enacted in red states like Alabama…
In response, Kalish has said he is pro-choice and regards the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion ruling as “settled law…”  
Constituent critics have torn into Kalish’s Orthodox Jewish beliefs stated as his reason for voting “present” as failing to adhere to support for the separation of church and state…
At a Kalish town hall meeting at the Lincolnwood Public Library, five protestors appeared in the front row dressed in the 17th-century-style red robes and white headdresses of the ‘Handmaid’s Tale,…a common site at the statehouses where attempted abortion rollbacks have taken place, but never at an event where a Jew has been the featured speaker. 
To recap - the message of The Handmaid’s Tale is that religious beliefs are a slippery slope towards hell. This is what is being acclaimed. This is what is winning awards. What about God’s will as expressed in the bible?  Who cares?!  The bible means absolutely nothing when it comes to abortion rights. This is why I say that the good guys are losing the culture war.

Their victory might mean we will not end up like Gilead. But it may mean we will end up like Sodom. Or at least some Godless hedonistic version of it. Because if God’s will is not a consideration, what is to stop that from happening?  

Friday, September 06, 2019

The Evil and the Beauty of Modern Technology

R' Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, ZTL (Wikipedia)
By now, internet use is has become about as common in the Charedi world as it is in the rest of the world. This includes the use of smartphones as the medium whereby one can access it. Despite the dire warnings against it a few years ago by many rabbinic authorities. Some of whom outright condemned it and forbade bringing it into one’s home. On penalty of expulsion of one’s children from their religious schools if it were to be found in one’s home.

I will never forget the comments made by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Assifa (gathering) at Citifield a few years ago attended by tens of thousands of mostly Charedim wherein he declared (based on his reading of the Mussar of Rabbenu Yona -a medieval  rabbinic commentator) that when a rabbinic leader makes a pronouncement in a public forum, we have no choice but to abide by it or lose our Olam Haba.

That was followed the late R’ Shmuel HaLevi Wosner of Bnei Brak, forbidding internet use. That was later modified to allow it for business purposes but never in the home (and if I recall correctly - only with filters).

I recall saying at the time how foolish a ban like that would be. And that most people would honor that ban in the breach.

I could not have been more right about that. Although there are people that still do not access the internet, it is becoming almost impossible to function in the 21st without it.

This is not to say there aren’t any problems. In fact the opposite is true. The more we become dependent on technology the more problems we seem to have. The original fears about the ease of access to pornography that generated the ban seem to pale in comparison to the multitude of problems that exist now. Pornography is still a problem. But it is just one of many.

And the internet is not the only thing to worry about. Smartphones which include the internet have multiplied the problem. It has added, texting and an almost unlimited number of apps that anyone can download. Each of which consumes even more of our time. That is what I believe is the biggest problem.  

Technology is taking away time from more important things (like work, family time, and studies – if you are a student).  It causes distraction from any task  at hand. Like driving for instance. There has been an increase in traffic accidents – some of which involved fatalities because of such distractions. And this only scratches the surface of the problem.

One might think that this is a wake up call.  Not just for Orthodox Jews but for all of humanity. But the opposite seems to keep happening as we all seem to constantly be increasing our screen time while becoming more oblivious to our surroundings.

Were the rabbis that banned the internet right?

No. As I have said many times the fact happens to be that smartphones have become almost invaluable to living life in the 21st century. There is a reason for downloading those apps. They actually do add value to the quality of our lives. The trick is in how to use them without their gobbling up so much of our time. This is not a religious problem. It is a societal problem which is a byproduct of the value we get out of it.

For me the real issue is self control. We need to teach ourselves not to look at our phones every time we have a spare minute. We need not check our email at every available opportunity. We need to not answer every text or email the moment we get it.

We need to shut off all messaging while we are driving. And even avoid using the phone altogether while driving – or at least use it only in the ‘hands free’ mode (e.g. a through a speaker phone or a Bluetooth connection).

We need to shut off our phones during meal time. And during Davening. And certainly not check it while we wait for Chazoras HaShatz – something I keep seeing more of these days.

If used in this way, technological advances like the smartphone will live up to its potential - and enhance our lives the way it is supposed to. 

What about Charedim? Should they still abide by the original ban? The attitude still seems to be that one is better off without it. That if they don’t absolutely need it for work, one will live a holier life by not using the technology at all. After all this is why Agudah does not have an official website. Although they do have an unofficial website that does just about everything an official website does. But they can still say they don’t - claiming that it is owned and operated by a private individual. They believe this gives them deniability. I don’t think it does. But in any case - the point here is why they do it. It is because they still feel it is better to not have it than to have it.

I do not agree. The fact happens to be that the internet has created an industry that has made some entrepreneurial Charedim very wealthy while allowing them to lead a fully Charedi lifestyle which includes spending half or each day (mornings) learning Torah. Had they honored the ban they could never have achieved that kind of success. And there are still plenty of opportunities for others to do the same thing. How do I know? Buzzfeed told me.