Monday, August 31, 2015

Assuring the Continuity of the Jewish People

Progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner
There are 3 articles in the Forward that deal with the rising power of Orthodox Jews, their adherence to traditional values and their similarities to Evangelical Christians.

The first article points out Orthodox similarities to Evangelicals in the sense that both our values are based on biblical values. We are in fact a lot closer to them ideologically than we are to our non Orthodox brethern. Our respective religions honor the same things and hold disdain for others. Although not exact, our values with respect to morality are similar. We both for example see a deterioration of sexual mores in this country. And we both see homosexual sex as sinful and therefore to be avoided.  Non Orthodox progressive or liberal Jews tend to see the biblical views on these subjects as archaic and not in concert with modern concepts of equality and justice.

Both groups tend to see Israel as a biblical right granted by God to the Jews - rather than the progressive or liberal view that it is some sort of modern day miracle whose existence was created for refugees of the Holocaust.

Many Orthodox Jews tend to vote Republican seeing their conservative values more in line with religious values. There are more similarities but I think this illustrates the point.

None of this is news to me. I have long ago noticed these similarities. It is one reason (among others) that Evangelical Christians have had such an affinity for us. We are natural allies in battling societal changes that conflict with the bible.

That said, clearly the biggest difference is theological. They believe in the divinity of Jesus. We don’t. But as one of the articles points out - the common values we share in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people overshadow that very significant difference. We both battle a common enemy: the trend in western culture to no longer see biblical values as relevant.

In a subsequent editorial on the subject, Forward editor Jane Eisner laments the fact that the progressive Judaism of which she is an adherent  is in danger. Here is how she puts it:
(S)heer demographics should awaken us to the likelihood that fundamentalist Judaism will assume a larger share of the American community, as it has in Israel. Orthodox Jews marry earlier, have more children, raise their children Jewishly and keep them in the fold, and are more connected to their faith than their non-Orthodox counterparts are. These behaviors are amplified among the Haredim; even their more qualified attachment to Israel is still stronger than that among Jews in liberal denominations...
From the time it was published nearly two years ago, Pew’s research has highlighted the difficult challenge facing those who believe in a tolerant, egalitarian, vibrant and sustainable Jewish future.
It is unfortunate the fundamentalism has taken on such negative overtones. I suppose that’s because of Fundamentalist Islam whose ideology leads them to terrorism in various forms. It is also extremism in our own ranks (like trying to erase women from the public square) which has given fundamental beliefs a bad name.

But I would suggest that at its core fundamentalism is the belief that what the bible tells us is true. That its truths are eternal and are not to be tampered with. Even to fit the times.  In that sense I too am a fundamentalist – even while I rail against those who abuse fundamental beliefs as an excuse for extremism.

This is where Mordechai Lightstone comes in.  He puts  it all into proper perspective - rightly castigating Ms. Eisner for lamenting the fact that religious Jews are a danger to progressive Judaism. Here is how he puts it:

I struggle, earnestly, to see the problem with these findings, how the idea that a religious person would find religion important in his or her life and attend religious services, could somehow represent a schism in American Jewry.
If anything, the surprise and the danger here is that all Jews didn’t find these things more important. Shouldn’t we see a connection to our heritage as a positive thing? Wouldn’t we want Jews of any background or level of affiliation to also value our rich heritage and to consider Judaism as something central to his or her life?  …We shouldn’t rue signs of commitment to Judaism as an alliance with evangelical Christians, rather work to encourage all Jews to stake their claim in the heritage of Israel.

He is right of course on so many levels. When one’s Judaism is based mostly on the ideals of liberalism it weakens the connection to their heritage. Judaism is not liberal or progressive... or even conservative. Judaism is about the Torah and its values.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a political progressive, a liberal, or a conservative. One can debate the merits of each. It is about knowing what the Torah wants and putting that first. When the values of the Torah are seen as archaic and irrelevant -and a Jew replaces Torah values with political or societal values, their Judaism is lost.

What about the insularity of religious Jews? It seems the more religious a Jew is the more insular he is. Is that a positive value? Some would say yes - based on the fact that the more insular one is, the less likely they will be to be corrupted by external values – many of which are the antithesis of Torah values.

But as I have said many times - on a societal level, such insularity is harmful as it tends to create an elitism which ends up looking down at the people on the outside and their culture.  That ‘outside’ might even include other Orthodox Jews. And that can and sometimes does gives rise to a false sense of entitlement and even superiority with which they sometimes justify fraudulent activity.  

This is one reason I am a Centrist. Centrists are not insular. We participate in the culture. We have a far more positive view of our fellow non Jewish citizens. Nor are we monolithic politically. Although there are an increasing number of Orthodox Jews that vote Republican, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews that hold liberal values dear. Most of them can be found in the Modern Orthodox camp (although decreasingly so).

I for one am neither a liberal or conservative. I tend to judge every issue independently to see which side of the political aisle my religious views takes me. I may be liberal in some areas (I am pro choice) and conservative in others (I am opposed to gay marriage).

One thing is certain. Defining ones Judaism based strictly on progressive or liberal values is a sure prescription for failure.  If anything has proven just how much of a failure that is, it is the demise of the Conservative Movement that primarily preaches progressive values even as it practically ignores any semblance of religious practice (while nonetheless claiming to be Halachic).

It is our biblically defined religious values that define us as Jews.  If we happen to share many of those values with Evangelical Christians – it is because they too define themselves by the religious values of the bible.  That should be no surprise. As Mordechai Lightstone notes, religious belief and practice are positive things that all Jews should seek. They are probably the only things that can assure the continuity of the Jewish people. Just as they have till now.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Future of Charedi Leadership Requires Mada

Rav Aharon Lopianksky
19th century French thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville has something to add to Charedi discourse. As does French philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet , and many other non Jewish thinkers. One might ask, do non Jewish thinkers have any relevance to the Charedi world? 

As reported by Jonathan Rosenblum in his weekly column in Mishpacha Magazine, the answer is yes. Jonathan described a week long conference he attended in Long Island. The 2nd of its kind. It was sponsored by the politically conservative Tikvah Fund whose mission consists of defending the traditional family; stressing national sovereignty and a strong national defense;  and favoring a strong free market economy.

Among those who participated in exchanging ideas with non Jewish politically conservative thinkers is the Rosh HaYeshiva of a Charedi Yeshiva (the Yeshiva of greater Washington) R’ Aharon Lopiansky. The largest contingency of attendees was from Lakewood (followed by attendees from Ner Israel and Israel). Only a handful of these participants had any education beyond high school.

Jonathan points out that the future of Jewish leadership depends on the kind of secular knowledge imparted there. This is an astonishing admission from someone who clearly identifies himself as Charedi and lives in Israel.

What he is really saying is that Torah knowledge alone is not enough to prepare people for government leadership in our day. No matter how great that knowledge is - one needs to learn certain secular disciplines in our day in order to lead.

Jonathan posits that as the Charedi population continues to increase in Israel they may eventually be called upon to lead an entire nation. As it stands now, the only Charedim qualified to even consider a leadership role are Baalei Teshuvu who actually had that kind of education prior to their becoming observant in the Charedi world. No one – especially in Israel – has anywhere near that kind of secular education – or indeed any secular education at all.

Of course Jonathan is himself a Baal Teshuva, having been educated in 2 of the finest universities in the world, the University of Chicago and Yale. That’s why have can talk about de Tocqueville and de Condorcet with such ease.

One may be tempted to say that the views Jonathan espouses in this essay and in previous ones are not mainstream Charedi – and that his views have been ‘tainted’ by his exposure to those schools and his overall past education –both formal and informal.  But Rabbi Lopiansky views had no such ‘tainting’. He was born and raised in the Charedi world and is the son in law of Rav Beinish Finkel, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Mir before R’ Beinish’s other son in law, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ZTL took over.

That the most of the participants were from Lakewood tells you something. There is an acknowledgement that both Torah and Mada are important, at least in terms of the future leadership of the Jewish people.

Jonathan tells us that 3 of the participants were from Israel. I have to assume that they are actually Americans that were educated here but now live in Israel. Because most Israelis would be ill equipped to attend a conference like this having zero secular education.

So while this conference is a step in the right direction, as it pertains to Israel, there is a very long way to go.

If one has liberal leanings one might look upon at a conference espousing conservative values with disdain. But It is far more important to become educated at all in these disciplines than it is to remain completely ignorant of them.  Besides bright individuals can decide for themselves whether or not they accept the conservative arguments put forth at such a conference. Thinking people with strong religious values can decide which of the two political ideologies (liberal or conservative) supports their religious worldview. Usually it involves a little of both.

The point is that there is a realization on the part of the right – at least those that have been raised and educated in America – that this kind of education is indispensable for the future.

What about Israeli Charedim? Will they come around to this kind of thinking? I hope so, although I doubt that they currently place any value on it. Only time will tell. Articles like this one by Jonathan help. But there needs to be corresponding articles in the Hebrew editions of magazines like Mishpacha and other Charedi publications. If there are enough of those, who knows? 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Can This Really Be Daas Torah?

Rav Matisyahu Salomon, one of the signatories
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer said it best. “Whatever happened to "Rak am chacham v'navon ha'goy ha'gadol ha'zeh? - How wise and understanding this great nation is! This Pasuk from the Torah speaks of the Jewish people and how the world will see them if they follow the will of God.

Rabbi Bechoffer made this comment in response to a published Halachic ruling made by the Roshei Yeshiva of BMG (Lakewood Yeshiva). It was distributed to the heads of elementary day schools and Beis Yaakovs in that city. It states that they are forbidden by Halacha to deny entry of any student that has not been vaccinated for various childhood diseases. 

It goes on to bolster this view by claiming that vaccinations have been shown by the medical establishment to have serious medical risks and that no one should be forced to have them.  It cites a 2011 Supreme Court comment (which was probably taken out of context) to the effect that vaccines are ‘unavoidably unsafe’.  They have therefore concluded that no one has a right to vaccinate a child against their will.

They go on to say that setting school policy should be based on medical knowledge upon which only Daas Torah can speak. Not the medical establishment. As such they cite Rav Chaim Kaneivsky’s ruling that schools may not refuse children that have not been vaccinated.

I am not a medical expert. But it has been standard practice in America for decades to vaccinate children against childhood diseases.  Which has resulted in a drastic reduction of these diseases - some of which can be deadly. To the best of my knowledge it is the very same medical establishment quoted in their ‘psak’ that tell us the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks.

More importantly, those children that are not vaccinated run the risk of exposing other children to the diseases they are now more likely to contract. To the best of my knowledge vaccination are not 100%  effective. They only improve the odds of not getting the disease. Which increases the risk for others getting it -  even if they have been vaccinated. Which increases the chances of it spreading. The best way to reduce the odds of any child contracting one of those diseases is if everyone is vaccinated. The only exception I would make is if a child is known to be allergic to the vaccine – making his risk of danger greater if he is vaccinated than if he isn’t. Otherwise all children should be vaccinated.

For me this is a no brainer. It is plain old fashioned common sense. The overwhelming benefits of vaccinations strongly argue in favor of requiring them for a child’s entry into a classroom full of other children.

So I truly do not understand this Psak at all. It states as part of its rationale, ‘Veshamartem  Es Nafshoseichem’  -‘ you should guard your lives’. But their interpretation of it seems to favor a more dangerous scenario for all. Far be it from me to question the Halachic wisdom of these great Roshei Yeshiva. But I have to ask: Is not the greater risk to the child and the community to not be vaccinated?

For me the answer is clear. I truly do not understand what these Roshei Yeshiva are doing, other than going against vast majority of current medical advice on this issue.

As Rabbi Eliyahu Fink put it on Rabbi Bechoffer’s Facebook page, 
Schools cannot deny enrollment to unvaccinated students.  But schools may or even MUST deny enrollment to students with Internet at home / long hair / blue shirts. So to recap, parents who risk the physical health of an entire school are cool. Parents who are merely perceived as risking spiritual wellbeing of others are not cool.
I think that says it all.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jewish Education is the Key

Large families like this are common in the Charedi world
There are new statistics being gleaned from that now famous (infamous?) 2013 Pew survey of US Jewry. This time pertaining specifically to Orthodox Jewry. To the best of my knowledge there has thus far been only 2 quick reactions to it. One by Rabbi Avorohom Gordimer and the other by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. Both of which I feel are right on target.

Here is my own quick take on it. I’m sure there will be many others forthcoming. Some quick. And some more in depth.

This study reveals that about 2/3 of all Orthodox Jewry in America are Charedi. About 1/3 are Modern Orthodox. This should be no surprise to anyone that reads this blog. The internal growth rate of Charedim in America since the Holocaust is geometric with each successive generation – with 10 or more children per family not all that uncommon. Multiplying exponentially with each generation. Modern Orthodox Jews – while having a far greater internal growth rate than secular Jews and non Jews - do not on average come anywhere near that number. While there is attrition in both segments, even assuming those leaving the fold are equal in both segments, it isn’t to hard to see which growth rate will better compensate for that loss. As time passes on, the percentages of Charedim will grow even higher.

(Rabbi Adlerstein correctly worries about the 17% of Jews that were raised Orthodox Jews leaving the fold. Those are indeed tragic numbers. This phenomenon has been discussed here before and is beyond the scope of this post.)

One startling statistic was the lack of certainty about God’s existence. One would think the number of Charedim that have these kinds of doubts is statistically insignificant. Well that’s not true. The percentage is low at 4%. Looking at the sheer numbers, however, - if there are say 100,000 Charedi Jews in America (a random number based on my own conservative guess– no clue what the numbers actually are) that would mean that there are thousands of Charedi Jews in America that question the existence of God.  

The percentages increase dramatically in Modern Orthodoxy.  Fully 23% of Modern Orthodox Jews question God’s existence! (In terms of numbers – the difference is not as dramatic since there are only about half the amount of Modern Orthodox Jews as there are Charedim. – But still - shocking numbers in both cases as far as I am concerned.

That there are more Modern Orthodox Jews than Charedim that skip rituals is not a surprise either. That’s because of the large ‘MO-Lite’ segment I often talk about. They are observant more for social reasons than ideological ones. (Not to mention those who are Orthoprax non believers that no doubt do not practice any rituals at all when no one is looking. Why would they?). While there are Charedi-Lites as well, my guess is that the percentage of MO Jews that are Lite is greater than the percentage of Charedim that are Lite.

Not surprising is the fact that the traditional affiliation or support of Jews for the Democratic Party has virtually evaporated in Orthodox circles even while remaining relatively stable in non Orthodox ones. Most Orthodox Jews tend to be far more in line with the values espoused by the Republican Party. This can be seen in issues like gay marriage. Most Democrats and non Orthodox Jews support it. Most Republicans and Orthodox Jews don’t.

Another surprising statistic is the comparative educational levels among Jews of all denominations or unaffiliated. The winner? Modern Orthodox Jews are the most educated demographic of all of Jewry. 65% of all MO Jews have a Bachelors degree or higher. That compares with 60% of non Orthodox Jews and 38% of Charedim. That is matched by similarly surprising differences in high income. Again, the winner is MO. 37% earn $150,000 or more compared with 29% of Reform, 23% of Conservative, and 22% unaffiliated.

These are the numbers. Why this is the case is something many of us can debate. Although it isn’t too hard to see a correlation between educational levels and income. Or religious values and politically conservative ones.

But there is one thing that does stand out. It is something Rabbi Adlerstein pointed out in his review of these numbers. It is that Jewish education works. It is in my view the single biggest factor if keeping people Jewish and observant from one generation to the next. Here is the money quote from JTA
Four out of five Orthodox Jewish parents with kids at home have at least one child in yeshiva or Jewish day school, and about three-quarters of Orthodox Jewish adults (73 percent) attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva as children (81 percent among haredim, 57 percent among the modern Orthodox). By contrast, only 17 percent of other Jews went to yeshiva or Jewish day school growing up. 
One might be tempted to say that correlation does not equal cause. That’s true. But is anyone ready to tell me that smoking does not cause lung cancer? To the best of my knowledge there has been no direct causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Only a statistical one.

If you want your children and grandchildren to remain Jewish, send them to a religious day school and high school. There are no guarantees of course. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the chances of success increase dramatically when you do.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Treating Palestinians with Dignity

Israeli residents of Chevron
One thing I have noticed about human nature is that truth cannot alter the minds of people with agendas. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to persuade certain right wing Religious Zionists I know - that there is another side to the Palestinian issue. These people are often very intelligent on other matters. They can see two sides of an issue. But when it comes to this one, please do not confuse them with the facts.

I mention this in light of an article posted on a Bnei Akiva website by Liora Goldberg, a young women who is obviously very committed to Religious Zionism. Therein she describes her experience upon taking a tour of Chevron. A Palestinian tour led by a Palestinian tour guide. It opened her eyes to a reality that few people think of when they think of Palestinians. As was the case with her. She now has a totally different perspective. Which combined with her previous view makes her current view far more balanced. Perhaps we should all consider doing this next time we are in Israel

There were a couple of things she noted that – in my view - ought to make the Israeli government reconsider any Jewish residential presence in Chevron at all:
The last time I had been (to Maras HaMachpela) was with Midreshet Harova on my gap year, nearly 2 years ago… (A)n outrageously right wing man who lived in Hebron... encouraged us to dance and sing at the top of the mountain, in front of the glaring Palestinians below. A group of us stood at the side; confused, angry and horrified at what we’d been encouraged to do. To torment them. To mock the fact that there was nothing they could do about the 550 Jewish people who have settled in Hebron…
And later – this:
(A) group of French Jews came up to the Palestinian shop and began shouting at the Palestinians, provoking them. What happened next changed everything for me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. One of the French Jews picked something up from the shop and threw it at our Palestinian hosts and tour guides. Within seconds, the table had been thrown, glass strewn everywhere and they were physically fighting a metre away from me. I ran to find my dad, completely shaken and humiliated that I had seen the Jewish people start it. I had seen it with my own eyes. I could never deny it… (I)n this scenario, to the people on our tour group, they were representing the Jewish people... The pain that I felt when I saw my own people antagonise the innocent Palestinian hosts, who 5 minutes before had been discussing the necessity for us to all treat each other as human beings, was indescribable.
Unfortunately I am not surprised by any of this. Nor at their defenders. It is a very sad commentary about the inability of otherwise very idealistic people to be open minded on issues they are passionate about. I know how important settling all the land of Israel is to them. I understand the Halachic narrative they use to it. But I don’t understand the way they do it. Which comes at a very high price: the humiliation of other human beings. Human beings that are created in the image of God. And worse attacking them violently only because they are Arabs. These people live under the misguided notion that all Arabs are our enemy (unless proven otherwise) and therefore deserve to be treated that way.

I’m not saying that I would change anything with respect to how the Israeli government handles its security needs. Unfortunately there are indeed Arabs that would kill us all in a New York minute if given the chance – even if they had to die in the process. There have been too many instances of that in the past to ignore the possibility of it happening again. And they hide in plain sight –acting normal and even friendly until they put on that ‘vest’.

At the same time, we have the responsibility as fellow human beings to recognize that these security measures place a great and unfair burden on the vast majority of these people. Who would never put on a vest filled with explosives in a suicide mission.

I personally have great sympathy for what Palestinians are going through. It is certainly understandable that they complain about it so bitterly – even as we know that it is people in their own midst that are responsible for it.

Instead of taunting them, we should understand what they are going through and leave them alone. Or better yet let them know we understand. Unfortunately as I said, some people just don’t want to be confused with the facts.

(Hat tip: Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Knowing There’s a Problem is Not Enough

YAFFED founder, Naftuli Moster (Jewish Press)
I guess it’s relevant after all. Ezra Frielander seemed to change his mind about Naftuli Moster’s views being irrelevant. Naftuli is the former Belzer Chasid that founded YAFFED, (Young Advocates For Fair Education). YAFFED has asked New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina and 7 district superintendents to investigate the quality of secular education in 39 religious schools suspected of non compliance with the educational standards required of them.  They have agreed to investigate.

Mr. Friedlander wrote an op-ed recently claiming that Naftuli’s abandonment of his religious past disqualified him from commenting on this. "How dare he", he asks! He believed YAFFED has an ulterior motive aimed at destroying these schools - not helping them.

I responded that he was blaming the messenger instead of dealing with the problem. Which at the time he denied even existed, saying that he thought these schools actually complied with state requirements. To the extent that there was room for improvement, it should be handled in house - certainly not by the government.

To underscore this he pointed to efforts in Czarist Russia to do the same thing. Which was rebuffed by the Yeshivos of that time. They saw it as a thinly veiled attempt by Czarist Russia and the Reform Movement to destroy Yiddishkeit. That Mr. Friedlander in any way  compares New York’s educational requirements to what Czarist Russia did is ridiculous and should be rejected out of hand. It is an insult to the very ideals this country was founded upon to make any such comparisons.

But in a subsequent article in Mishpacha Magazine last week he seems to admit that there is a serious problem in those schools. Students are not being taught the basics which undermines their ability to eventually support their families.

His solution is for parents to take over that job. Claiming that college degrees are just pieces of paper that don't really help you that much in finding a good job - his solution is to return the responsibility of teaching your children how to make a living to the parents. It is after all it is their responsibility to begin with. This is true. 

But in our day that responsibility has long ago realistically transferred to the schools. They are better equipped and the teachers are professionally trained to do so. They are our agents - executing for us that responsibility. There is no way that this paradigm will be shifted back to parents in our day. Job training has become too technical for parents to do it. There is little in the way of educating our children at home that can make them productive wage earners. Children need to be taught the basic material and study skills in their schools elementary and high schools by teachers that are trained to do so. That will enable them to eventually learn a profession or trade – and thereby make a decent living wage.

How bad are these schools now? From the Jewish Press
“Due to our own upbringing, we are familiar with—and have been affected by—the severe deficiency of the education systems in the ultra-Orthodox world, particularly within Chasidic boys’ schools,” the YAFFED website states. “From elementary school through high school, we were provided with a rigorous curriculum in Judaic studies, including Tanach, Mishna, Gemara, Halacha, mussar, and chasidus. Our general studies education, however, was limited to non-existent.
“The cheders and yeshivas we attended often provided only the rudiments of English and mathematics, and, in some cases, not even that. In many of our schools, the brief period of ‘English’ instruction was spent with utter neglect for classroom decorum and discipline, which led, naturally, to a poor learning environment. Teachers and educators, thereby, reinforced the message that general, non-Judaic studies were of little relevance to our lives, or worse, an outright nuisance.
“In most of our schools, general studies education ended abruptly post-Bar Mitzvah, after which our academic curricula consisted of Judaic studies alone. Many of us, at that time, had only the English reading and math skills of third or fourth-graders. The New York State Department of Education states that non-public schools must offer classes in English, mathematics, reading, writing, music, arts, history, geography, science, health education, and physical education. Many of our elementary schools offered only a miniscule fraction of these, and most of our high schools, none at all.” 
I don’t see Mr. Friedlander disputing these facts. Only the messenger. This is a  devastating indictment of these schools. 

That’s why I completely support this investigation. These communities never had any intent to fix the problem. But  even if they had such an intent, these communities are impoverished and don’t have the means to pay for it. A good general studies program costs money. And aside from a few very wealthy entrepreneurs these communities have very little of that – relying on government welfare programs and free loan societies just to exist. How could they have any money if their education does not prepare them to make a living?!

Mr. Friedlander fears that this investigation may end up with some schools closing. In my view if a school can’t teach your children the basics (as described by YAFFED) it doesn’t deserve to be open.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of parents in those communities feel the same way – although they wouldn’t dare say so publicly.

I suppose it is a step in the right direction for Mr. Friedlander to now admit there is a serious problem. But admitting it is only half the solution. They need a full solution. How will they get the money to fund that solution? I don’t know. But I don’t think they can continue as is.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman, Zichrono L’Vracha

My son, who lives in Ramat Bet Shemesh, called me with the news on Sunday. Rabbi Dovid Landesman who also lived there, died suddenly and unexpectedly last Friday. Very sad news. Although I never personally met him, I was a fan. And I will miss him. 

Rabbi Landesman identified as Charedi and was proud of it. But he was a critical of things within his community which he felt were wrong.  My being a Centrist, he and I differed on some issues. But he and I thought alike on a great many others. Like the obligation a Jew in Israel should feel to serve in its defense forces – regardless of his Hashkafa. Even if he was Charedi.

Rabbi Landesman served proudly joining the IDF upon his making Aliyah. His sons served, too. If all Charedim thought as he did, there would be little enmity between Charedim and Dati Leumi Jews. Or even secular Jews. In fact I’ll bet a lot of Charedim might secteretly feel as he does but are afraid to change the way they live for fear of being ostracized by their peers and fiends.

Rabbi Landesman was an occasional commenter here. His comments were always full of wisdom – whether one agreed with him or not. He also wrote some original guest posts here - as well as for Cross Currents. He was indeed a man for all seasons. Telling the truth as he saw it without fear. Regardless of popular opinion.  Emes is something this blog strives for. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. Rabbi Landesman strived for it too. It was obvious in everything he wrote. He was an Ish Emes – a man of truth.

His voice has been silenced. He is now in the Olam HaEmes. But his message will remain, having published at least 2 books (which he sent me) on Hashkafa aimed and young people: There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven and Food for Thought: No Hechsher Required.

Rabbi Landesman was Charedi and one of my heroes. He stood up for Emes and minced no words. He will be sorely missed. Baruch Dayan HaEmes.

The following are links to some his contributions here: link link link link link

Monday, August 24, 2015

Changing the Culture of Silence

Dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst
It’s about time. But better late than never. The Jewish Press and the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that over 100 prominent rabbis have signed a document urging people to report to the police all suspicions of child abuse. There is not a word in that document about going to the rabbis first.

This is very significant since the Dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst was heavily involved in putting this document together. Rabbi Fuerst’s views are highly respected because Rav Moshe Feinstein personally mentored him and gave him Semicha (his rabbinic ordination). 

I don’t think I can overstate the significance of this document. It is a Kol Koreh. Which is how Charedi rabbinic leaders have always informed the public about their public policy statements on issues affecting the Jewish community.

Unfortunately in our day, this means of communication has been severely abused by unscrupulous people pushing their own agenda, often listing signatures of prominent rabbis that never agreed to sign their document. But this is clearly not the case here. It took a lot of courage to put out a document like this and a lot of effort to get the signatures of these  prominent rabbis.

This document is in stark contrast to previous Agudah Moetzes statements. They urged first reporting suspicions of sex abuse to rabbis to see if those suspicions were credible. That meant that personal bias was involved – even if unintentional. When prominent and respected individuals are accused of sex abuse, the common reaction to it is disbelief. Rabbis are human. If they have a relationship with someone they know to be an exemplary member of his community, they are naturally reluctant to report them to the police. Thus allowing the abuse to continue to the same or other victims. 

Not to mention the devastating affect disbelief has on a victim. Or the collateral damage to members of his family. One need not look any further than what happened to a prominent Magid Shiur (Torah lecturer) in Lakewood not long ago. When he reported the abandonment of a treatment program by his son’s abuser (his day school Rebbe) - he was vilified as a Moser (informing against a Jew); accused of molesting his own son - blaming it on someone else; and eventually hounded out of town.

That seems to have changed now. At least according to the signatories on this document.

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer, one of those signatories, made a very strong comment about this with which I completely agree. From the Jewish Press
The document is a great start,” said another one of the signers, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, a distinguished author and maggid shiur at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach, Monsey. “Rabbis whose signatures are absent can be asked by their constituencies why they are not signed on it, and thus be led to join in. 
Indeed. As far as I can tell, no where to be found on this document are any of the Agudah Moetzes members. I may be wrong but I find it hard to believe that a respected Dayan of Agudah did not approach them. If he did, why are their signatures not on this document?  Do they still maintain that rabbis must be first consulted before going to the police? If so, what happened to Daas Torah? Are these Charedi rabbis rebelling?

I am glad to see this turn of events. Sex abuse has long been the stepchild of issues confronting Orthodox Jewry. Everybody admits that it goes on. But most people prefer to ignore it. They don’t want to get involved. But the Torah is very clear about this. Which this document points out: Lo Samod Al Dam Reyecha. Do not stand idly by on your friend’s blood.  People that have suffered sex abuse never get over it. It stays with them forever. Some can function well in life despite that. But many don’t.

Those who don't can suffer from depression, guilt, and shame. They may turn to drugs and alcohol. The tendency for families to hide these things because of Shidduch issues for their other children can hurt a victim insurmountably. The attempted suicide rate among abuse victims is very high. Sometimes they are successful - adding tragedy upon tragedy. So standing idly by is not an option.

Rabbi Fuesrt knows this. It is actually mentioned in the Kol Koreh itself.  I’m sure that is what motivated this good man to act. I hope that the Agudah Moetzes will reverse course and do the same thing. Let the members of the Moetzes sign on to this document without any reservations or caveats about going to rabbis first. If that happens the culture of silence might just change in the direction of justice.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Living Up to the Ideals of Modern Orthodoxy

TuM proponent, R' Dr. Norman Lamm
There has been a lot of discussion about Modern Orthodoxy of late. Which begs the question, ‘What is Modern Orthodoxy?’ I guess it depends who you ask. The following is my view.

Modern Orthodoxy adheres to all the basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism – same as Charedim do. Which include the fundamentals of belief; meticulous adherence to Halacha; and adherence to the Mesorah - traditions of our forefather’s handed down generationally - changing it only reluctantly as existential circumstances dictate. In this Modern Orthodoxy is identical to Charedim.

What sets Modern Orthodoxy apart from Charedim is how it sees the study of Torah; how it sees Mada (which I define on both educational and cultural levels); and the actual approach to Mitzvah observance.

The importance of Torah study is paramount in both Hashkafos. But Charedim tend see it as the full time endeavor of first choice for every male Jew. Other endeavors are to be sought only if one cannot ‘make it’ in this field for a variety of reasons – usually having to do with supporting a family.

Modern Orthodoxy does not see full time Torah study for everyone. It sees instead that every Jew has his own unique talents and abilities that they should be encouraged to pursue in service of God. Only the elite - those whose true talents lie in Torah study - should pursue it full time.

Charedim see secular knowledge as utilitarian to be studied and utilized as needed.  Attending university for career purposes in fine.  Attending it to gain pure secular knowledge for its own sake is a waste of time.  The cultural aspect of Mada is to be avoided completely. Charedim might participate in such cultural activity but would not see it as positive.  They might see it as a distraction their Avodas HaShem to (for example) spend time at a ball game or even watching even a ‘Kosher’ TV program like those of the 50s and early sixties.

TIDE proponent R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
Modern Orthodoxy on the other hand views attaining secular knowledge favorably – beyond its utilitarian need. There are, however, many interpretations within MO of this that differ from each other. One example of this (without getting into details) is how Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) sees secular knowledge as beneficial  only when it enhances our Avodas HaShem.  Torah U’Mada (TuM) agrees with that, but sees Mada as an independent value as well.

Then there is the approach to Mitzvah observance. Charedim tend to be Choshesh  for the Daas HaMachmir (the more stringint opinion) far more often than Modern Orthodox Jew do. While it is true that there are people in both segments that do  that, the general trend among Charedim is to ‘do the Mitzvah in the best way possible’ - taking into consideration all Halachic opinions on the matter. Modern Orthodox Jews tend not to  worry too much about that and will more often rely on legitimate lenient opinions.

An illustration of this is Chalav Yisroel. Without getting into details, the most widely respected Posek of the 20th century ruled that we may rely on non Chalav Yisroel milk in our day since the FDA is so strict in its own supervision of milk, that there is no possibility of mixing milk from no Kosher animals. Most MO Jews rely on this ‘Heter’ and use non Chalav Yisroel products. (I don’t know what I would do without Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.) Charedim choose not to rely on that leniency and tend to use only Chalav Yisroel products, only. This approach is reflected in other areas as well - like mixed seating at weddings. Or how much public exposure there should be for women.

This is a bit of an oversimplification and may not be exact, but I think it reflects the essential differences Charedim and MO Jews.

I was sent a link to a post by someone who clearly identifies as Modern Orthodox and yet struggles with it.  His problem seems to be in how each segment lives their  particular Hashkafos:
The trouble is that many, if not most, non-Chareidim make far more compromises due to convenience than due to the fact that they truly believe that it is the “Torah-true” way. And this is if these people are even educated enough to have any idea what a “Torah-true” perspective might be. Take a look at a typical “Modern Orthodox” home and you tell me that everything that they are doing that appears to be a “compromise” they are doing because they believe that is what the Torah wants from them. That’s a joke.
He does note however that there is an ‘ideal’ and a ‘real’. The ideal of Modern Orthodoxy should be not be viewed as a compromise – the way most Charedim view it. It should be viewed as the ideal it claims to be, despite how it is practiced by so many people that identify as MO. He even sees MO as the more correct approach to Judaism. But as it is practiced - he feels leaves a lot to be desired.

I agree that in many typical MO homes one might see a lot of laxity. It is the nature of the embrace of the outside culture to fall prey to compromise. It takes real commitment to resist it. But that does not make the Hashkafa any less legitimate.

The Charedi Hashkafa of minimizing interaction with the culture does have the benefit of lessening the chance of compromise. But it comes at a cost. One that fosters an environment of unfair disdain for the non Jew. Which is a natural reaction to seeing their culture in a negative light. That results in some cases seeing Modern Orthodox Jews in almost the same negative light.

This is how I see Modern Orthodoxy. It is important for Modern Orthodox Jews to work on living its true values and not fall into patterns of laxity. Difficult though that may be - it is my belief that if we really lived up to our ideals it would make a far greater impression on all of Orthodox Jewry. It’s time to once and for all eliminate the perception that Modern Orthodoxy is just laxity in observance.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Congratulations, Nechama

Can these Charedi young women become airline pilots?
There are not too many Orthodox airline pilots. I don’t know any. I wonder if anyone does. But that is about to change. Not only will there be an Orthodox Jewish commercial airline pilot, but a Charedi one in Israel! That’s right you read that correctly. Charedi. 

How, one may ask, does a Charedi Jew become a pilot? Flying an airplane as a professional pilot is about the last thing any Charedi would ever dream of doing – considering their emphasis on full time Torah study. Where would they get the expertise? And how could they take off time from their full time Torah study to learn the trade, let alone get a job?

That’s easy. This type of person has no obligation to learn Torah full time, even according to the strictest interpretation of Halacha. Some are now even saying that they should be discouraged from studying Torah too deeply. How in heaven’s name is that possible? considering the importance placed on full time Torah study beyond any other endeavor?

The person in question is a woman by the name of Nechama.  Nechama is married with 3 children - and happens to be my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland’s cousin. Which makes this doubly exciting for me. It was his wife Rivkie, my daughter that pointed me to the YWN article that reported the story.

Imagine that. A Charedi woman that went through their educational system (Beis Yaakov) - becoming a commercial airline pilot. She is doing this with the full blessing of her husband and parents, who are also Charedi. I could not be more proud of this religious young woman having achieved such success and have no doubt that she will one day be a commercial airline pilot.

Fact is - I don’t see why Charedim would have any problem at all with this. After all, Charedi women in Israel do get a fairly decent secular education and are far better prepared than their male counterparts to enter the workforce. And they do. In all manner of job, profession, or career. The Charedi educational system is set up to prepare women for the workforce. Women are expected to help support their families. And they are educated in ways that help them do that.

When the time comes to get a job, they are better trained to do so - having learned study skills that prepare them for college or advanced courses in various professions. Including pilot training in this case. Pilots earn a decent living so I am sure that her future husband will be able to learn full time for as long as she remains employed as a pilot for El-Al, or any other airline that would hire here.

That no woman has ever become a pilot probably has more to do with the difficulty of anyone getting into that profession, than it does with the religiosity or sex of the applicant.

And while I am very happy to see such accomplishment, I think it says a lot about El-Al that they have no problem with qualified Charedim  of either sex working for them in that capacity. So much for secular bias against Charedim.

Congratulations to Nechama, to her husband, children, and parents. And especially to El-Al. This is a win/win for everyone.