Monday, June 29, 2015

A Fence Sitter Embraces Orthodoxy

Neilia Sherman is a woman after my own heart. Her intellectual honesty is refreshing in a world of polarizing certainties. Although she has some serious questions about Orthodoxy she nevertheless embraces it.

Writing in the Forward, she tells us that she was raised in a totally secular household. Both parents are Jewish. Although her father believes in God, he apparently does not practice Judaism in any meaningful way. Her mother leans towards atheism!

Her first experience with Orthodoxy was at age 14. She went on a retreat where she was inspired by the people, “the passion, the sense of community, the music, and intellectual discussions”. But she was dismayed by what she perceived as the “sexism, rigidity, countless rules and frightening Torah passages”.

But the positive overcame the negative. Upon her return home she wanted to keep kosher. That was denied her with a slam dunk “No!” from her mother. Which she punctuated with a pork chop dinner.

She is now conflicted she and describes herself as a fence sitter.  As a feminist, her politics and philosophy are more in line with those of the Reform Movement. But she does not relate to Reform lifestyle which lacks the sense of belonging she finds in Orthodoxy.  A sense that is aligned with her the strong identity as a Jew. A sense she has always had.  

After she got married she eventually joined a Reform synagogue. There she appreciated the focus on social justice and other of Reform’s trappings. But she missed being part of a community. Shul members had little to do with each other once services were over. Inviting someone over for a Shabbos meal on a Friday night just did not happen. The one time she tired, she was turned down because that was hockey night on TV!

As her son’s Bar Mitzvah approached she wanted more. And convinced her husband to join an Orthodox ‘outreach’ community near her home. There  she found what she was looking for and became observant.

But her intellectual honesty did not leave her alone. The problems she always had with Orthodoxy remained with her. Even though she got used to sitting behind a Mechitza, she never felt comfortable being separated from ‘the action’. She admired the other Baalei Teshuva in her community who embraced Orthdoxy without any apparent reservation. But she could not let go of her issues. And to top it all off she still remains unsure of God’s existence.

Neilia Sherman is resigned to her ‘fence sitter’ status and  is staying put in the world of Orthodoxy. And ends off with the following: 
In the end, my Torah-observant friends offer me a great feeling of security and belonging. I feel uplifted by their desire to do what is right, and inspired by their unwavering trust that God will never let us down. If I can’t believe it myself, it is comforting to be next to people who can.
As I indicated I admire this woman’s intellectual honesty. And frankly I am not sure what to say to her to get her off the fence. Perhaps there are a few things. 

Her questioning of God’s existence is a function of the fact that His existence cannot be proven. You cannot prove the spiritual by physical means. All you really have is belief. But it is not a belief without substance. There are plenty of reasons to believe that do not require empirical proof. There is a lot of evidence of God’s existence albeit not conclusive proof of it. Beliefs can thereby be as strong an indicator of existence as physical evidence can be.

With respect to her feminism, that is probably the hottest topic in the world of Orthodoxy today. One might advise her to join Open Orthodoxy where feminism is a huge influence and widely worshiped. But Open Orthodoxy will not take her out from behind  the Mechitza that separates her from ‘the action.’ 

Obviously the emotional uplift Neilia Sherman gets from Orthodoxy is worth the sacrifice of compromising her feminist values. That’s why she’s there. My hope is that she can resolve her inner conflict by reevaluating her feminism with respect to Orthodoxy. And perhaps come to the realization that her role of a woman in Judaism does not look how equal she is to a man. It is about how to best serve God. Which has more to do with what God requires of her and less to do with the equality of the sexes.

One becomes completely fulfilled as a human being; as a Jew; as either a man or a woman. That happens when one knows they are following God’s will to the best of their ability. There is an element of equality though.To the extent that each sex succeeds in their obligations to God is to the extent that they are equal in His eyes.

Whether or not she accepts my understanding of how a Jew can best serve God, thinking, intellectually honest people like Neilia Sherman are the kind of people I like. And I’m proud to have her as a member of the tribe.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In a Position to Know

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US,  Michael Oren
There is a lot of angst among supporters of The President about comments made by Michael Oren in his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide..

Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States  during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term in office (2009-2013). Oren is a rare breed of Israeli patriot. Raised in America where his religious upbringing was in the Conservative movement, he became so enamored with Israel that he made Aliyah. When he was asked by the Prime Minister to be his ambassador to the US, he agreed but was saddened to renounce his American citizenship, as is required by Israel law for its major public servants.  

This is usually the case with American expatriates in Israel, They all love the country of where they were raised and hate renouncing their citizenship. But as lovers of Israel and wanting to serve their new country they did so.

Michael Oren is a respected historian. And I believe that his tenure as the ambassador to the United States is seen by most observers as well executed. That was my impression, too.  

One of the things that added to his prestige was his honesty in assessing events pertaining to Israel and the people in them.  As such he received high praise in parting company with his political mentor and his party, Likud -  and joining Kulanu, a party more in line with his political philosophy. He was widely praised by Obama administration supporters for criticizing Netanyahu’s acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address congress.  And then later - criticizing him again for the way he conducted his political campaign during the last election.

I therefore don’t believe Oren’s integrity can be challenged. But, challenged it is because of what he revealed about Obama’s change of America’s longstanding policy with respect to its relationship with Israel. A revelation he saw ‘up close and personal’. One that should make Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama more understandable if not totally acceptable – even to his Netanyahu’s critics.

First it should be made clear that Oren did not accuse Obama of hating Israel. He actually said the opposite and blames his changed policies with Israel on his view that his new policy will result in peace. It should also not be lost on anyone that it was the President that pushed for and got funding for Israel’s ’Iron Dome’  protection system.  And it was Obama that increased military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries. There should be no mistake about that. Nor should that be underestimated and under appreciated.

What Oren is saying is that Obama’s the negative policy shift with respect to Israel outweighs the aforementioned benefits.

The current relationship between the two countries is not Netanyahu’s fault, says Oren. The fault lies almost exclusively with the President. Netanyahu was just reacting to that. From the very beginning Obama seemed to turn away from Israel and seek to improve relationships with Arab nations. Not that there was anything wrong with that. But the way it was done was wrong. It was done without consultation with America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israel was completely snubbed early in his Presidency when he chose to ignore her entirely on a speaking tour to major Arab states. Netanyahu had nothing to do with that decision. That was the first Obama snub… not of Netanyahu, but of Israel.

An important change – which Oren believes to be of fundamental importance – is that Israel was not consulted when the United States went on a mission that would have great – even existential significance to her: negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Again, this ‘snub’ had nothing to do with Netanyahu. The President chose to ignore Israel and had no input from them despite what the President must have known was an issue of great concern to them. Seven months of secret negotiations ensued without Israel’s knowledge.

Another thing the Obama administration did that dismayed Israel was in how he pursued the so-called peace process. He put immense pressure on Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians without asking a single concession of them. It was always Israel that was criticized about actions it took that Obama saw as counter to the peace process (like building in the settlements) without ever criticizing the Palestinians about anything.  He surely did this to increase his credibility among the Arab States.

What many people forget is that under an agreement made with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  the Bush administration agreed that major settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any future agreement. And yet Obama insisted on a total freeze on construction in those settlements. Obama also chose to ignore Israel’s numerous peace offers to the Palestinians which they rejected.

The fear now is that the Obama administration will no longer veto anti Israel resolutions at the UN. That would put Israel into a position where it could be deemed an outlaw state with sanctions being against it being honored by the entire world.

Those who say that this is all about a personality clash between the two leaders, are not reading this correctly. It isn’t about personalities. It is about policies. The two leaders have different visions of how to go forward.

Predictably, Oren is now being discredited for parting from the conventional wisdom that blames Netanyahu for the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. But one has to be consistent. One cannot say he has credibility when they like what he says and then say he doesn’t when they don’t. And all the criticism coming out now reflects exactly that, in my view.

I believe Oren. He was there. His critics were not. I trust him. He is in a far better position to know the truth than all of his critics.

I don’t know how this will all play out during the rest of the President’s tenure. Nor do I know what the next occupant of the White House will do. But for the moment, I do not like what I see. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Jury is in - JONAH is out!

Chaim Levin
I was never a fan of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing). Even as I believe they had good intentions - if ill conceived methods. JONAH is a New Jersey based organization that offers therapy claiming it can change a homosexual’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. As I have said in the past, I believe that in cases where they have been successful, it was not with actual homosexuals but with either bisexuals or those who were confused about their sexual orientation.

I don’t know whether sexual orientation is caused by nature or nurture. But I’m pretty sure that whichever the case may be, once ingrained, it is highly unlikely if not impossible to change which sex you are exclusively attracted to: same or opposite.

I became more opposed to them after reading an account of their ‘therapy’. Chaim Levin described it as one of the most humiliating experiences in his life.

I understand why a gay man or woman might want to undergo such therapy. Even in the age of acceptance, they are still shunned by significant numbers of people. And if a gay man is an Orthodox Jew, he realizes that acting on his inclinations is Halachicly forbidden. There’s  lots of motivation in that. But the results of JONAH’s therapy for many of its clients was - failure. Their orientation did not change at all.

A lawsuit was filed against JONAH by some of those former clients. Yesterday the jury handed down a verdict. From the Forward
In a first-of-its-kind decision, the jury awarded $72,000 to several mostly Jewish victims who said Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing and co-founder Arthur Goldberg made bogus promises that they could ‘cure’ gays… The jury determined that JONAH violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by marketing homosexuality as a mental illness and by claiming that their conversion therapy services could successfully turn a gay person straight – and that they had done so many times before. 
I am happy for the litigants. It is very likely that JONAH will be shut down. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has already signed into a law a ban against conversion therapy organizations like JONAH for clients under the age of 18. That is a good thing. 

But there is a part of me that says that there may actually be a place for such clinics – if handled by professionals. Because there are bisexuals that can be treated to seek only heterosexual partners – thus avoiding the sin of male to male anal sex that is so common among gay men.  

There are also those that are confused about their sexual orientation – having perhaps experimented with gay sex as a teenager. I believe that clinic should be allowed to practice therapy for those people. Why deny them the right to seek a program designed to help them achieve what they want? Provided – as I said – that the people running those programs are mental health professionals trained to do so. And who realize that actual homosexuals will likely not be changed.  And make that clear their clients.

All of this said, I am dismayed that we are living in a society – a world – that is determined to normalize gay behavior. This event is yet another cog in that wheel. Mainstream media personalities of all types are sending a message to the public. Which says that gay behavior should not be seen in any kind of negative light. As though they want to write that prohibition out of the bible.  That is a problem for me. The gay sexual act of male to male anal intercourse is forbidden by the Torah. No matter how many people want to now ignore that fact. If you believe in the bible, you must believe in that.

I have spilled a lot of virtual ink sympathizing with gay people who feel they are being discriminated against. I have publicly condemned that kind of discrimination. Many times. Gay people have the right to be treated with the same dignity as straight people. Being gay is not a sin. It is only male to male anal sex that is. 

But treating a gay lifestyle as normal means normalizing that sin. Which is why I am for example opposed to gay marriage. And yet as the influence of media personalities grows, so too does the abandonment of the biblical commandment against gay sex. 

The Supreme Court has just taken another step in that direction. They have ruled in a 5-4 decision that permitting gay marriage should be the law of the land. States prohibiting it would be denying their civil rights - making them guilty of illegal discrimination. States will also be required to recognize the marriage of gay couples married in other states.

This is not a good thing in my view. As I have said many times, there is a difference between treating human beings with dignity regardless of their sexual orientation – and normalizing their lifestyles.  I enthusiastically support the former, and I am absolutely opposed to the latter. In my view any bible believing individual ought to feel the same way.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Serving God and Empowering Women

Rabbi Lila Kagedan, - ordained by Yeshivat Maharat
The inevitable finally happened. Rabbi Avi Weiss has dispensed with his prior refusal to call his female ordainees ‘rabbis’.  I challenged him to stop dancing around that title with made up titles  (like Raba and Maharat) and he finally rose to the challenge.

His motivation in not calling them outright rabbis was the realization that the Orthodox establishment would not accept a female rabbi, no matter how much her learning qualified her to be one. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) admonished him when he even came close by calling Sara Hurwitz (his first ordainee), rabba, a feminized version of rabbi.

They told him that he would be expelled from the RCA if he ever did that again. He quickly agreed and reverted to his original title, the less offensive Maharat, a Hebrew acronym meaning spiritual leader. He then established a school for that purpose calling it Yeshivat Maharat with Rabba Hurwitz as its head. (For the record, Rabbi Weiss is no longer a member of the RCA.)

I had always maintained that calling a female rabbinic ordainee by any other name made her no less a full fledged rabbi. Which is why I challenged Rabbi Weiss to stop dancing around that title. He nevertheless stuck to the title Maharat.  Until now.

Rabbi Weiss has now dropped all pretenses.

Yeshivat Maharat  ordains women. Three graduating classes have come forth from that school. This year for the first time they are calling it a Semicha ceremony (Chag Semicha) and being given the degree all Orthodox Musmachim get, Yoreh Yoreh. Which states (based on my own Yoreh Yoreh Semicha document) that they studied Gemarah and Poskim diligently; passed exams;  may now rule on matters of Jewish law; and can be called a Rav in Israel.  It also states that they can now accept a position in any community as a rabbi.

Accordingly, Rabbi Weiss has told his Maharat graduates that if they choose to use the title rabba or rabbi because it suited their circumstances, that was just fine with him. One of his recent graduates has actually done that.

Ladies and gentleman, I present you with the first American Orthodox female rabbi, Lila Kagedan. She is one of this year’s 6 graduates of Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi Kageden now joins Rabbis Sally Presiand (Reform), Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist), and Amy Elberg (Conservative) as a pioneer in their respective denominations. She has finally broken the glass ceiling of the Orthodox rabbinate.

This must have thrilled Orthodox Jewish feminists all over the world. As human rights consultant Karen Mock put it in her CJN article
As I sang and danced and celebrated with Lila and her family, I was moved to tears… 
I have expressed my antipathy for ordaining women here many times. I am not going to rehash all my arguments against it except to say that these woman will never be accepted into mainstream Orthodoxy. Not in the Charedi world and not in the Centrist world of Modern Orthodoxy. The RCA has stood firm on this issue and has clearly stated its opposition to it as a violation of our Mesorah (tradition).

These 2 bodies (Charedim and Centrists) comprise the vast majority of the Orthodox Jewish world. Leaving only the fringes of the left wing to accept it. A fringe that in my view has long ago abandoned the Mesroah of their teachers… and possibly Orthodoxy itself.

There is one area I would like to address, however. I have been accused of misunderstanding the true motives of the women that do things like this. I have been told that I have no right to ascribe illegitimate motives since I can’t read their minds. How can I know what they are thinking? I have been told very clearly by their defenders - people that know them and know how sincere they are - that I am wrong. 

I have been told time and again that these women  are completely L’Shma and are doing all this only to serve God in the best way they can. Why have they chosen modalities of men? I have been told that that these are Mitzvos that they know actually exist and choose them as the best way to serve God in ways meaningful to themselves. They know it is a Mitzvah at some level since it is mentioned in the Torah. Indeed there are many Mitzvos women are not required to do - that men are. And they do those with permission and reward. And thus they feel they have a right to do any of those they wish. Whether there is a Mesorah about women doing it or not.

But I always say,  Judaism is not about rights. It’s about obligations. So that even if someone has a right to serve God in ways they are not required to, it doesn’t mean they always should. Especially if it has no tradition to it. It is more in line with God’s wishes to serve Him in the ways he commanded them to serve.  Focusing instead on other even permissible service -  instead of trying to find ways to improve their mandated service is in my view misguided. 

Something that seems meaningful to an individual – even if it is based on the fact that it is mandated by God to a specific segment of His people does not mean that it is always meaningful to Him when non mandated segments do it. Sometimes what seems like a legitimate service to God is in fact completely unacceptable to Him.

There is an event in the Torah that illustrates this fact. Much like Orthodox feminist women, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu had similar motivations. Sacrifices being known to be pleasing to God they were inspired to act on their own and offer God an unasked for sacrifice. They were instantly killed for that.  

How could it be that an act designed to please God based on what they knew about such acts would end up being their demise? When Chazal analyzed this event, they concluded that Nadav and Avihu were not as L‘Shma as this event made them seem on the surface. I think we can learn from this that personal feelings about how to serve God are not always right. Sometimes they are very wrong. Especially if they are not as L’Shma as those doing them think they are.

Everything I read about Orthodox feminism is about empowering women. The accolades are about Orthodoxy finally giving women a leadership role. Nothing about giving women better ways to serve God.

I am often accused of mis-attributing ulterior motives to Orthodox feminists. But I don’t see any other way to understand it – if over and over again one reads articles like the one in CJN. Which talks about women’s empowerment. This seems to be the message in every instance that Orthodox feminists challenge Orthodox tradition.

Sure, Orthodox feminists will say it is ultimately all about serving God when they are directly challenged along those lines. But when they are unchallenged and talk freely about their goals - it is mostly about empowering women and a lot less about serving God. I don’t think that is arguable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Conversation about Racism in America

Mass murderer Dylann Roof and the symbol of southern bigotry
This is a bit off topic for me. But as a religious Jew I feel moved to comment on the horrible mass murder in Charleston South Carolina. Racism and bigotry affects all of us.

Last week a young 21 year old man by the name of Dylann Roof walked into a church filled with black congregants, sat down next to one of them, and after about an hour sitting quietly got up, took out his pistol, and started shooting at them, murdering 9 people! Then he walked out. What this evil human being and numskull did not realize is that he was recorded on a closed circuit TV and was apprehended almost immediately.

That this fellow is not too bright is an understatement.  Not being raised that way, at some point in his young life he became a racist, buying into the kind of racist and antisemitic drivel one can easily find on internet websites run by white supremacists.  I have to believe that anyone with half a brain would laugh at the kind of nonsense presented as truth there. But I guess there are a few people around with half a brain.

To Dylann Roof, this was pure truth. So convinced was he of this ‘truth’ that he felt he had to act – since his fellow racists weren’t doing anything but talking online.  The results are tragic beyond words. 9 high caliber people were killed. People whose lives revolved around God. People who could set an example for all of us.

What concerns me however is the idea of having a public conversation about racism in America. One can look at this event and say, “Yes, it is still very much alive!”

Racism of the Dylann Roof type surely still exists. Obviously. But much like antisemitism, it only exists on the fringes of society. A fringe to which this young mass murderer belongs. We must therefore continue to be vigilant and guard against people on the fringe of society that might do something horrible like this in the future - in pursuit of their racist goals. But to say that this type of racism exists at any significant level beyond these fringes is simply not true. Even in the South.

One need not look any further than the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States. A black man freely elected by a country whose vast majority is not black. The people who voted for Barack Obama twice in 2 elections against some very decent white candidates were certainly not racist. They reflect the views of the majority of this country. And even those of us that did not vote for him, in the vast majority of cases it was not for any racist reasons but rather for political ones. I for one was proud of my country the day Barack Obama took office - even though I didn’t vote for him. We have “overcome”. 

What about the South? There was a time not too long ago where a white man that murdered a black man would have pretty much gotten away with it. What happened this time is that law enforcement pursued this felon with vigor and zeal. They caught him immediately. There was not a decent human being that was not touched by the sorrow and tears of their loved ones. The entire nation- black and white - grieves along with them, denouncing the racism that caused this to happen. The sense of sympathy and outrage was near universal across all racial and ethnic lines.

But despite this reaction I don’t think we can yet say that there isn’t a more widespread and different kind of racism. The kind President George W. Bush called soft bigotry. It is the kind that looks down at a fellow man because of his color – even though he wouldn’t harm him and be outraged if someone did.  It still exists in the North and in the South. But it is so subtle that those who are soft bigots may not even realize they are.

That there is discrimination against blacks is a fact. It might be unintentional. But it’s there. The recent spate of police brutality against blacks suspected of crimes is illustrative of that. Even though we are talking about the criminal element and even though in some cases violence was justified, it cannot be true that in all cases violence was justified. I believe that all things being equal - it has been shown that white suspects get treated differently by law enforcement and the justice system than black suspects do.

There may be sociological reasons (beyond the scope of this post) that explain this phenomenon as not necessarily always racism oriented. But the facts remain the same. Black suspects are generally not treated as favorably as white suspects.

Soft bigotry is far more evident in the South. That is made clear by the ubiquitous presence of the Confederate flag (the so called ‘stars and bars’) in public areas; on license plates; and on merchandise.

Proud white southerners claiming the flag demonstrates their heritage - heatedly deny any connection between the flag and racism.  But how is that flag any southern black man’s heritage?  It is the flag of slavery, no matter how much they deny it. I doubt that there is a single southern black that ever saw that flag as their heritage.

Yes, southern whites’ ancestors fought with pride in the Civil War. Many of them died in that cause. They have always claimed the fight was over states rights, not slavery.  Well, sure it was about states rights. It was about the states’ right to allow slavery .  And to not allow the federal government to take that right away from them. They can say it was about states’ rights until they are blue in the face. It wasn’t about that. It was about slavery. Slavery is what drove the economy of the South. Without slaves cotton could not have been picked so cheaply and their plantation economy would collapse. Or so they thought. That is the heritage that the Confederate flag  stands for. That is what their ancestors fought and died for.

It is finally dawning on the South that this flag is not seen by all in the positive light they see it. Not because of any epiphany. Not because they stopped believing it is their heritage. But because of what it has come to represent in the fringes that produced a Dylann Roof.

Blacks are still not seen as equals. They are seen as second class citizens with no heritage. Well in my view not having the heritage of fighting for slavery makes blacks better citizens than the whites that do have that heritage.

So the stars and bars are going to quickly now disappear across the South. White southerners now seem to understand that  rabid bigots like Dylann Roof use it as the symbol of their bigotry. It is a symbol of bigotry. Whether the whites in the South realize it or not.

So, yes, we do have to have a conversation about racism in this country. We have come a long way since the sixties. But indeed we have a long way to go.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Making Your Children ‘Yeshivish’ the Goal?

The current  Yeshivishe 'look' of Bnei Torah
This past Sunday night I attended an elementary school banquet. There were two beloved couples honored. One couple that has contributed much time and effort not only to the school but to many Orthodox organizations. The other couple I will get to in a moment.

After the presentation was made, the wife who also teaches at the school addressed the attendees. What she said resonated with me and it is one reason (of many) that I support that school. She said that this school honors women far more than any other Orthodox institution she has been involved with.

Which brings me to the second set honorees. Both husband and wife are involved in Chinuch at that school. The husband is retiring after over 50 years of teaching Torah there.

The outpouring of affection and  gratitude was overwhelming. That Mechanech - a man who shuns Kavod (honor) spoke after the presentation and was humbled to the point of tears… having accepted this honor only after being convinced that it would benefit the school.

There were people from all Hashkafos there who came - many only because of this man, whose reputation extends beyond the school. People who otherwise have nothing to do with the school, having sent their children elsewhere attended in order to recognize this man’s contributions. It was a truly classy event.

It has become common practice to produce a video of what a school is is all about and show it at banquets like this. In this particular case, we saw various children at the school having fun; praising the school and loving it; saying they will have eternal gratitude to their Rebbeim, teachers, and even the administration for all they have given them.  It is difficult to fully appreciate what was on the screen. You had to have seen it. All I can say is that it made me proud to have been involved with that school for so many years

As I was watching it I wondered what parents there who were not in any way affiliated with the school thought of it. My almost immediate thought was they probably didn’t think much of it. As happy and well adjusted as those children were, this was not a selling point to them. Even with all the attributes the school promotes and instills in their children - the joy, the good Midos, the acts of Chesed, and feelings of gratitude - the reaction on the part of the left was no doubt, “Where are the academics?” And the attitude on the right was, ”Where is the Torah learning?” “Look at the Kipot.” “Look at how they dress.” “Midos development is nice, but this school does not emphasize what is really important.” 

(For purposes of this essay, I am not discussing Chasidic education. Much of what I am about to say, does not really apply to them.) 

This is not to criticize other schools for a lack of Midos development. I’m sure they try to instill that too. Nor am I saying that children in other schools aren’t happy. I'm sure they are. But the primary thing parents in those schools seek is something else. For the left it is about academics. They will choose the school where they perceive academics are the best. And the school that most reflects their left wing Hashkafos.

The same is true for the right – whose growth and strength in numbers is far more significant than the left. I have been told that many community rabbis with Yeshivishe backgrounds when asked for advice about where to send children - although outwardly very supportive of this school - will privately recommend the more Yeshivishe school. They see this school as not Yeshivish. 

They recommend a Yeshivishe school whose values are the same as their own. Values they were indoctrinated with when they were in school. They believe the Torah true way is the Yeshivishe way. A way that emphasizes Torah study to the near exclusion of everything else. A way that shuns virtually all of secular culture.  A way that de-emphasizes other important things, like secular studies.
For the parents that send their children to the Yeshivishe school - the prototype of  prefect Jew is the Yeshiva man - commonly referred to as a Ben Torah. This is someone whose life will be dedicated to Torah study. And even if that Yeshiva man ends up working for a living at some point, he will remain a Ben Torah - realizing that Torah study is still the most important thing a Jewish man can do. They will thus put almost all their energies toward support of schools that emphasize that. Such schools are identified by their black hat Yeshivishe culture (i.e - black velvet Yarmulke, back hat and jacket, white shirt and black pants). A school that does not have this culture - they will see as not having those values.

I am again reminded of a graduation ceremony I attended at a right wing elementary school where the English principal addressed the graduates. He spoke only of his role as a Rebbe and teaching them Torah. (He is also a Rebbe in that school). Not a word about his primary role as the English principal. There was no value at all placed on that, as though it didn’t exist.

Now it’s true that not all right wing schools are exactly the same in this respect. But I do believe that most of them are and that those that aren't - are going in that direction.

How sad it is for me to see how right wing Torah education has evolved in the 21st century. There was a time where even those schools valued secular studies. At least most of them. Some of the biggest Torah personalities of the right attended schools where secular studies are valued. The dress codes were not ‘black hat’ at all. 

If one will look at some of archival pictures from just a few short decades ago (60s and 70s) they will not see many black hats. They will more or less see the kind of ‘look’ on the part of the students that was seen on that video. And somehow those conditions produced, a Rabbi Avrohom Pam, and a Rabbi Yaakov Perlow. Many right wing rabbinic leaders of that era like Rav Yitzchok Hutner valued secular studies, and guided their students along those lines.

It’s too bad that so many parents today whose own parents were raised that way, now feel their way was not ideal. They look at the way the children in the more moderate schools dress and the kind of Kipot some of them wear, and wrongly conclude, “Nebech, so many of those kids will end up Amei Ha’aretz - ignorant of Torah”. “Or worse, lose their Yiddishkeit altogether”. They want their children to be Yeshiva men - Bnei Torah. That is the ideal.

What they fail to realize is that a serious secular studies program does not negate the possibility of becoming a Ben Torah. There are plenty of graduates from this school of all ages that are Bnei Torah of the highest caliber. Nor is there any guarantee that the more right wing Yeshivishe school will necessarily turn your child into a Ben Torah.

They also believe that this will almost certainly keep their children Frum. Personally, I don't think that’s true any longer. Right wing schools certainly have their share of dropouts. 

There is a price to pay for ignoring the future of your children in all ways but one. Are they willing to pay it?  Do they even realize it?

Warning: Please do not use this post to disparage any schools. Those comments will be deleted.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Innovation in Global Jewish Unity


The Ner Echad Movement

Ner Echad is a pioneering Jewish women’s global movement to honor the memory and perpetuate the legacy of the much celebrated Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky.

Rebbetzin Kanievsky, beloved wife of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, was renowned for the inspiration and comfort she gave to all who sought her out. Each week hundreds of Jewish women from across Israel and around the world lined the narrow staircase leading to her tiny apartment to receive her heartfelt blessing sage advice, passionate encouragement and meaningful financial aid. She radiated love, comfort and inspiration to each and every woman, regardless of background, affiliation, or status. It mattered not if the woman was considered to be Ultra-Orthodox, Modern, or had totally lost her way from religion. To Rebbetzin Kanievsky they were all simply ‘women in need’.

Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky,  and her husband, R' Chaim
Rebbetzin Kanievsky was like a mother to all. She raised and distributed millions of dollars, discreetly and without fanfare, to help widows and orphans in need. The Rebbetzin was also wholly consumed with a sacred mission to unite Jewish women from all walks of life in group acts of loving-kindness, mitzvos, and self-improvement, strengthening the bonds that tied them to their faith and to each other. When she passed away suddenly in 2011, she left behind a void that had yet to be filled—until now. Through the Ner Echad movement, Jewish women around the world are uniting to bring the Rebbetzin’s holy light back into the world. Women helping women and doing Mitzvos together: these are the hallmarks of Ner Echad.

The Ner Echad Credo
Ner Echad is grounded in the fundamental philosophy taught by our Sages, “There is no (spiritual) comparison between an individual doing a good deed alone and a group doing a good deed together!”

Ner Echad Inaugural Program
Ner Echad has developed an innovative international online platform enabling Jewish women from around the globe to unite with other women in good deeds and meaningful activities. Ner Echad’s inauguration program is the Shabbos Candle-lighting group. Every Friday and Erev Yom Tov before sunset, thousands of members welcome Shabbos and Yom Tov together as part of one massive group, lighting candles while simultaneously praying for family, friends, and each other, and contributing one dollar in unison to a common Tzedakah cause. 

Members receive a weekly notification of candle-lighting time in their local area, and a different member’s name each week to have in mind when lighting Shabbos candles, and praying for the reason specified.  Ner Echad members span the gamut - from women considered 'traditional' to whom candle-lighting is one of the only Mitzvos they perform - to ultra-Orthodox Yeshivish and Chassidish - and everything in between.

Members automatically donate one dollar each week for erev Shabbos tzedakah. All the dollars are collected at the exact same moment - candle-lighting time in Jerusalem - the spiritual center of the world—making it one tremendous united act of charity. The dollars go 100% exclusively to the Batsheva Kanievsky Widow and Children’s Fund. The spiritual strength of this “tri-part” mitzvah, committed in unison by thousands of women, is an extraordinary source of blessing to the women of Ner Echad, and to all Jewish women around the world.

The Ner Echad launch has been met with tremendous enthusiasm. The New York arm of Ner Echad has been inundated with phone calls and emails, as women from all over the world want to know how they can be involved with this beautiful movement. Members really take pleasure in being a part of something global; it’s inspiring, and it’s powerful. 

At the inauguration of Ner Echad in the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, he declared: 
“Never before in the history of the Jewish people have thousands of women joined together week after week in the method developed by Ner Echad, to light Shabbos candles, pray for each other, and give charity in unison, as a distinct group. This massive spiritual force will certainly generate a wellspring of spiritual and material blessing, and create an enormous protective shield for the entire Jewish nation.”

Ner Echad spreads solely through a grassroots approach. Women tell their friends and family, speakers talk about it in their lectures, synagogues put it into their bulletins… everyone tries to foster Jewish Unity any way they can. Be part of this exciting new movement. 

Visit or call 1844NERECHAD (1-844-637-3242).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Is Tikun Olam a Jewish Value?

Yale University President, Peter Salovey
I rarely get in the middle of a spirited debate between 2 columnists. But I believe it would be an injustice to not support the view that I think is the correct one. I am referring to Mishpacha Magazine’s 2 columnists, Jonathan Rosenblum and Eytan Kobre.

I don’t want to be misconstrued here. I will therefore stipulate that I have in the past strongly criticized Eytan’s ‘attack-dog’ style of writing. His columns always seem to be an angry, condescending, and derisive response to whatever issue or individual he is critical of. 

Kind of like his penchant for calling Conservative and Reform rabbis ‘clergyguys’. I suppose he doesn’t want to call a Reform or Conservative rabbi – rabbi. A title he feels implies that they are legitimate rabbis. It is interesting that Rav Moshe Feinstein had no problem referring to them as rabbis in his Teshuvos (not Rav which is reserved for Orthodox rabbis). I guess Eytan  is Frummer than R’ Moshe. But I digress.

Point here is that my ongoing issue with him is not what motives me here.  Looking at the issue as objectively as I can - I side with Jonathan Rosenblum. 

The debate centers around the commencement address given by Yale President Peter Salovey. Salovey - who is a descendant of the Soloveichik line - spoke about Tikun HaOlam - the up-building or improvement of the world. He treid to instill this concept as a goal for his graduates. And gave several examples. By starting a business and employing people; or pursuing an academic career in order to ‘light fires in the bellies of the next generation of college or high schools students’ - you are in effect improving the world. This is obviously a very Jewish theme.

Eytan took exception to Salovey’s comments. His point being that Tikun Olam as Salovey presented it is not a Jewish concept. Providing jobs is not what is meant by the expression, ‘L’Sakein Olam B’Malchus Shaddai’ – to fix the world with the kingdom of the Lord’.  He characterized Tikun Olam as mostly a ‘hollow charade’. One that is being used by the Conservative and Reform movement to define their very reason for being. They use it  as the reason for every social justice cause they deem worthy of support. Even supporting things which are clearly against Halacha. Like gay marriage. Eytan said that what we should instead be looking at is Tikun HaMidos self-improvement in the area developing positive character traits .

I found this column typical of the way he writes. He was condescending and derisive to a man whose only intent was to inspire his students. 

Last week Jonathan Rosenblum took issue with his colleague. Granted, he said that Tikun HaMidos is indispensable for any meaningful Jewish life. But Salovey’s message should not be dismissed. The activities that Salovey gave as examples of Tikun Olam do not become ‘hollow charades’ just because some of those that have excelled in them are lousy fathers or husbands.

As Jonathan points out, we are partners in God’s creation. God put us in an imperfect world in order for us to try and perfect it. The very first Mitzvah a man observes on earth after his birth is Bris Milah (circumcision) . God purposely made our bodies imperfect and commanded us to perfect them by this procedure. An example we must follow.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explains that Tikun Olam is one of the 5 important purposes of studying Mada. We study it in order to build up the world.

Eytan responded this week that Jonathan was ‘wide off the mark’. Quoting a 2008 article in Commentary Magazine by Hillel Halkin, he says that Tikun Olam as currently used by heterodox movements  is nothing more than a justification to pursue a leftist agenda masquerading as Jewish teaching. He then reiterates what our true mission should be –Tikun HaMidios. Without it, he says there can be no real Tikun Olam.

But it is Eytan that misses the point. He is so consumed with assuring the world that Conservative and Reform Judaism are false ideologies that anything they cite as valuable must - almost by definition - be wrong. 

Repeating his original point about Tikun Midos does not refute anything Jonathan said. While he does modify his original comments a bit by saying that there are positive applications of Tikun Olam as Salovey describes them - he qualifies them. Providing jobs as a version of Tikun Olam depends on the kind of job. If it is in a job that undermines the values of Judaism (...say a job on the porno industry) there is no Tikun Olam in that. With this I agree.

But saying as he did that Salovey’s comments are a hollow charade in order to denigrate heterodox movements is to be blinded to reality by his agenda. Just because those movements use Tikun Olam as their reason d’être and sometimes misapply it doesn’t take it off the shelf of Jewish values.  That was Jonathan’s point. And he’s right .

Friday, June 19, 2015

Man in Search for Meaning

Image taken from PopChasid
The search for truth about existence is one of the most elusive things man can seek. And yet at some level we all seek it, if we are to be honest with ourselves. At least that is how I see the conundrum of existence. Truth encompasses many facets. One of the most important is the concept of ‘meaning’.  The philosophical question, “Why are we here?” is one that has been pondered many times by many people. The answer to this question may not be explicable in concrete irrefutable terms. Which is why we are in constant search of it.

But for many of us the only way to make sense of existence is to give it meaning. The idea that everything is random with no meaning is a horrible fate for mankind. Life without meaning means that there is no purpose to life. We are born. We live. And then we die. End of story.  There is no reason that we are here. It is a meaningless random act of nature that will ultimately come to an inglorious end when the sun blows up a few billion years from now. There is no world to come. There is just now.  This is how atheists see the world. They can only accept the reality of the 5 physical senses. Anything beyond that is the figment of someone’s imagination. What cannot be experienced with at least one of those 5 senses cannot be proven and does not exist.

I for one reject that. I believe in a Creator. Which explains - how - we got here. Once you have a Creator, you must say that He had a purpose in creation. And that is what gives our lives meaning. For Jews meaning can be found in Torah. That is God’s purpose for the Jewish people. Just as we believe the seven Noah-ide laws are for the rest of humanity. Following those laws is what gives a humanity meaning… a purpose in life.

All this  has bearing on the question of why someone secular would become religious, why a religious Jew might become secular, and why someone secular that had become religious might once again become secular.

There is an excellent article in a blog called PopChasid that discusses this very issue. I believe he comes very close to nailing it. His point is that Kiruv organizations that focus on the fun parts of Judaism in order to draw people in will ultimately fail if that is all they focus upon. His premise is that those who become religious and stay that way are seeking a higher truth that will give their lives meaning. When they find it, they are the ones that  for the most part will stay religious.

In some cases (certainly in his own) people like this become disillusioned with the seemingly endless number of supposedly religious Jews that have been found guilty of crimes. Whether crimes of passion or crimes of finance. He does not buy into the argument “Don’t judge Judaism by its Jews”. If one buys into Judaism and the high values it represents, then people should be judged by that standard. If prominent religious Jews don’t live up to them, then the religion appears to be populated by hypocrites. The high purpose of life seems meaningless to these people. And that disillusions many Baalei Teshuva who sought Judaism because of the high ideals that give it meaning. Here is how he puts it: 
Living in corrupt communities, in communities that are broken in many ways, that, in my opinion, are worse off than many secular communities, wears on the soul of a Jew.  It is painful, and worse, it is a signal, in his mind, that what he believes in is false.  And worst of all, it is a roadblock to transcendence
That's why they might leave. But when it comes to outreach, many Kiruv organizations are mistaken. They are deceptive in how they sell Judaism. I don’t mean that Kiruv professionals purposely deceive Jews they are reaching out to. But that they focus on fun instead of meaning. This kind of Kiruv will ultimately fail. Because once the fun wears off, and they see how difficult it is to practice, they will just chuck it and find other ways to have fun.

This does not mean that Kiruv organizations should abandon fun activities in order to attract Jews. But it does mean that there has to be honesty about what Judaism entails. And that the true motive for someone changing his way of life so completely is the realization that Judaism is about a way of life that gives it meaning. It is not about fun. Although there are many things in Judaism that are quite enjoyable, that is not its purpose. Serving God in all ways, not just in fun ways. Because that is what God requires of us.  And it is what Gives a Jewish life meaning.

Warning: This post was not meant as an opening for debate about belief in God or the truth of Torah. Those are givens on this blog. Any attempt to debate matters of belief will be deleted.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Slonimer Rebbe (YWN)
Ynet reports that Chasidim in Israel earn more money than their non Chasidic Yeshiva world counterparts. This - according to figures released by the Seker Kahalacha research institute. They conducted a poll (commissioned by the religious radio station, Kol Chai) about the income level of the Charedi world. 

The results were sad but not surprising. Nor are the reasons for these near poverty level incomes surprising. 54% of Charedi men do not work.  The result is that 63% of the Charedi world makes less than $2081 per month.  They are supposed to feed and clothe their large families on that income.  That the Chasidic world makes more means that if you factor them out, the percentage of Charedim earning $2081 or less is even higher.

The reason that Chasidim make more is because they do not have the ‘Learn Torah full time or bust’ attitude of the Yeshiva world. Their men do learn in Kollel after they get married, but they are not expected to try and be there for the rest of their lives. They are generally taught to support their families after a relatively short period of time in Kollel. The only problem they have is a lack of education and training in professions and jobs that could earn them a better wage.

This may explain why the recent announcement about the Chasidic leadership supporting a masters equivalency program while the Yeshiva world leadership opposed it. It was a positive step which I have heartily endorsed – with the hope that non Chasidic Yeshivishe families take advantage of it too, despite the opposition from their leaders. The typically large families in the Charedi world can hardly be expected to survive on $2000 per month income. Even if they get additional subsidies in various forms.

63% of the Charedi poplulation living in poverty is unacceptable! But at least the Chasidim are trying to do something about it. Or are they?

A report in Yeshiva World News tells us exactly what that support entails. At least according to the Slonimer Rebbe, one of the members of the Chasidic ‘Moetzas Gedolei Yisrael of Agudas Yisrael’. Here are his conditions for such an institution and his conditions for attending it. 
· It was explained the position of the rebbe’s father, the Netivos Shalom ZT”L ZY”A was to distance oneself from higher education.
· The Torah council has permitted under very limited conditions, to study for a master’s equivalent and only if the lecturers are chareidi and have not studied in university with the exception of baalei teshuvah.
· The rebbe feels such a program is not l’chatchila but only b’dieved and only after one has consulted with a rav.
· The Torah council permits the program but it does not recommend it. 
He qualified his staement by saying that his words were intended for his Chasidim only. Maybe so. But I can’t help but believe that the fellow members of that Moetzes have similar – if not indentical feelings.

What a way to shoot yourself in the foot. You finally approve of an institution that will educate your people so as to financially improve their lives and then tell them how terrible it is to attend it! And what kind of masters equivalent can you have anyway if your teachers were forbidden to have attended college in the first place? (…unless they were Baalei Teshuva, and Nebech attended college before they saw the light and realized how false those teachings were!)  

And even with all that, their rabbinic leaders do not recommend it. They only permit it under limited circumstances - considering it as a B’Dieved. Meaning that if you are a Chasid, you must first ask a Shaila. And then maybe you’ll get permission.  God forbid one attends that school on their own.

I don’t get it. They finally want to do something to help their people and then they do their darnedest to undermine it. What will it take for them to lighten up and realize they are living in the 21st century? That all the old fears about universities turning religious Jews astray are not warranted. There are schools like HTC, Yeshiva University, Touro, Machon Lev, Adina Bar Shalom’s Haredi College, the Charedi program at Kiryat Ono… where the vast majority of students (if not all of them) are religious Jews. And where the needs of religious Jews are fully accommodated. 

Certainly that fear should not exist in a school they ‘approved’ of.  When are they going to realize that clinging to a decision of a sage from an earlier era whose wisdom is based on reasons that no longer apply should be dropped, not honored?