Sunday, January 25, 2015

Netanyahu, Obama, and Iran

Nasrallah and Khameni (2013) - Is Islamic rule the world's destiny?
There is a lot of controversy about House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minster, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of congress.  The controversy surrounds the fact that Speaker Boehner did not consult with the President before inviting him and that he accepted. Critics are saying that it was not right for Boehner to invite Netanyahu nor was it right for him to accept. It is a slap in the face to the President, they say.

Those who have a visceral hatred for the Netanyahu will surely accuse him of being a political opportunist who is shamelessly exploiting this invitation for his own political benefit. Being invited by the legislators of the most powerful nation on earth to address them on one of the most important issues of our day will surly boost his prestige among voters in Israel. And that is reason - they will cynically say - that Netanyahu is really doing this.  And to top it off he is slapping the President in the face by accepting this invitation.

One unidentified member of the White House staff characterized Netanyahu just that way – and even threatened consequences. The White House has repudiated that as untrue and not their actual view. But President is still refusing to meet with him – citing a historical precedent of never inviting leaders of foreign countries just before an election there.

I am not a Netanyhau hater. I actually agree with the majority of the Israeli people about him. Recent polls show that his party,the Likud,  will handily win the next election making his re-election as prime minister assured. Which will also make him the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history. (It should also be clear that people who vote for Likud are doing it mostly because they want to see Netanyahu returned to office.)

So if I were a Netanyahu hater, I would rethink my attitude about him. Whatever complaints and criticism of him one may have, they apparently do not match the view of the people that will actually return him to office.  This is not to say that his policies can’t be criticized. But it should mean that the visceral hatred is misplaced. Maybe… just maybe the Israeli people might be a little closer to the situation and are voting accordingly. 

I also think the so-called enmity between the 2 leaders is over-blown. Sure, there are some fundamental disagreements between them. But that should not necessarily mean that they hate each other. And I don’t think they actually do hate each other. But that is somewhat beside the point.

The question is, do Speaker Boehner and Prime Minster Netanyahu deserve the criticism they are getting from some quarters? My answer is absolutely not.

There are 3 separate but equal branches of government. The legislative branch does not need permission from the executive branch. They can invite anyone they wish to address their august body. The Executive branch does not have a say here. Nor do I blame Netanyahu for accepting the invitation. As he said, he will speak anywhere he invited any time about his view of dealing with the nuclear threat presented by Iran.

While one can disagree with his perspective, one cannot say that it has no merit. No country has more to lose by a nuclear Iran than Israel does. And the US has nothing to gain by it either. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the entire Middle East which would probably cause other Arab nations to go nuclear. That would endanger the entire world.

And we all know that Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map by any means necessary. A nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands would certainly go a long way towards that.  So if anyone has a dog in this hunt, it’s Israel. And because they do, they may very well have the best intelligence on the matter. So addressing the legislators of the most powerful nation in the world should be something sought after, not criticized, or snubbed. Instead of snubbing Netanyahu, the President ought to be seeking his counsel – even if in the end he doesn’t agree with him.

The excuse about not wanting to influence the Israeli election is just that - an excuse. But even if his reason was legitimate, hearing Netanyahu’s views should over-ride it. The leader of a country whose very existence is at stake should Iran go nuclear ought not to be snubbed about this matter. He should have over-looked the fact that he was not consulted and taken the opportunity to meet with his closest ally in the Middle East. So I am disappointed in him. 

Less than 2 weeks ago we saw Islamic extremists murder 17 people. Today we witnessed yet against another beheading of an innocent man by ISIS (or ISIL or IS… or whatever they call themselves now). It’s time for the leader of the free world recognize that Islamic fundamentalist extremism is behind all of this. And Iran is a government led by fundamentalists that celebrate such extremists. And export it. And finance it.

This isn’t about Al Qaida, or ISIS or any other single group. It is about an ideology that supports and promotes the idea of Islam ruling the world. And Iran is their model. The only dispute among them is which form of Isalm will rule, but either way, it should be Islam. Until the US and the rest of the world recognize this and acts accordingly, things will only get worse.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Greed is Not Good

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in FBI custody (AP photo) 
Illinois is not exactly known for honest politicians. We have had our share of greedy scoundrels that have used their office for illegal gain via extortion or bribes. Some of them were actually among the most highly honored public servants.  In one case a corrupt governor was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a serious nomination. And yet he was convicted of corruption and served time in prison.

And who can forget Rod Blagojevich who was caught by the FBI trying to extort money from contenders for Barack Obama’s vacant seat in the US Senate. 

So yes, we have had our share of embarrassments.  Illinois has a long history of corrupt governors. Just to name the ones that were convicted since I moved to Chicago back in 1962: Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich.

But it is a prominent politician in New York that although not the governor, embarrasses me the most.  This story has been plastered across every major periodical and media news source. Here’s one from an AP report on the CBS News website
New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested Thursday on corruption charges and accused of using his position as one of the most powerful politicians in Albany to obtain millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income. 
The 70-year-old Silver was taken into custody around 8 a.m. at the FBI's New York City office, FBI spokesman Peter Donald confirmed. Silver faces five counts, including conspiracy and bribery, and the charges carry a potential penalty of 100 years in prison.
In a criminal complaint, authorities said Silver abused his power and "obtained about $4 million in payments characterized as attorney referral fees solely through the corrupt use of his official position." 
I know that in America, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mr. Silver should be given the same courtesy. He of course denies that he did anything wrong. (As did the above mentioned Illinois governors).

But in high profile cases like these the FBI is not going to have anyone arrested if they do not have strong evidence of his guilt. I do not recall anyone that was ever arrested in a case like this that wasn’t eventually found guilty in court.

But… given the presumption of innocence, I will proceed with the caveat that what I am about to say is only the case if he is indeed found guilty.

If he is guilty, then once again we have a high profile Orthodox Jew who is apparently a crook. And once again we have Chilul HaShem. Which is always the case when someone who professes to follow the Torah gets caught in a crime.

The name Sheldon Silver has over the years been prominently mentioned in Jewish periodicals and newspapers like the Jewish Press. It was with pride that I read about an observant Jew who rose to great heights in politics and become a high profile and powerful public servant. It was comforting to have an Orthodox Jew in government that would have Jewish interests in mind as well as the interests of all his constituents.  

Whenever I read a story about him, I thought, ‘He’s one of us’! …a religious Jew that was popular enough with his constituents to be elected and reelected to his office. And popular enough with his peers to be chosen by them as the New York State Assembly Speaker. Time after time. What a Kiddush HaShem, I thought. But now that Kiddush HaShem has been transformed into an embarrassing Chilul HaShem. 

Why did he do it (if indeed he did)? There is a one word answer: Greed.

And because of that greed, he has joined an illustrious gang of thieves who have served in government. Except that this one wears a black hat!

Shame on him.  For he has brought shame upon the Jewish people.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Kiruv from Without and from Within

There is a very disturbing story in Kveller about Kiruv. Kiruv is what we generally call reaching out to Jews who are not observant.

First let me say that there are many fine organizations that do tremendous work in this area. They inspire people to become more religious by using honey rather than vinegar. By showing  young Jews with no background the beauty of Judaism instead of focusing on the fire and brimstone, many unaffiliated Jews have become observant and have given meaning to their lives.

But there is occasionally a downside resulting in unintended consequences as the story in Kveller tells us. Sometimes the parents of a newly observant Jew - commonly called a Bal Teshuva  (BT)- or returnee to observant Judaism - become alienated from their children.  There are several possibilities that can explain why this does occasionally happen.

The author of that Kveller story is the mother of a young woman that became a Bal Teshuva. She describes the events that led her to see Kiruv as akin to kidnapping! She talks of the  great lengths she went to accommodate her daughter’s new found religious lifestyle. But to no avail. Her daughter became completely alienated from her. She was obviously very hurt by that and blamed the Kiruv group that reached out to her daughter for that.

Rabbi Avi Shafran has written a response to that article in the Forward.  He basically says that there are several possibilities that might explain what happened which do not necessary entail  ‘kidnapping’.

First he said that there are always at least 2 versions of a story and wonders if the daughter would have described the situation differently. He also mentioned the fact that legitimate Jewish outreach actually encourages BTs to retain and even enhance their relationship with their parents. But in some cases people use their new found religious observance as an excuse to deal with a pre-existing problematic parent child relationship.

There are other reasons that might explain it.  Sometimes a Kiruv organization will insist on its own Chumros without telling them that they are only stringencies and not basic Halacha. Which I find to be unscrupulous. That can cause unnecessary friction between a parent and child.

There is also the possibility that a religious cult like Lev Tahor will use Kiruv as a tactic to gain control over someone’s life. Which of course requires severing all past relationships. Especially those of parents and family. They will convince cult members that the negative influences of their parents home requires them to sever any relationship with them.

These are just a few of the possibilities that might help explain what happened between this BT and her mother.

One thing is clear to me. Any legitimate Kiruv organization will never try to sever the relationship with a parent. The opposite is true. What often happens is that even the parents become observant too. But even if they don’t they will respect their children’s choices and accommodate them.  The love between parent and child remains intact.

This article actually raised a question in my mind involving Kiruv of another kind. One that usually takes place in Israel during what has come to be known as the gap year. Which is the year a religious high school graduate takes to study Torah before he comes back to continue his education. The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as ‘Flippng out’.  A child will go to Israel with one Hashkafa and comes back with an entirely different one.

The reaction by some parents to this is similar to the reaction by the mother of the BT in the Kveller story. If a parental home is one with a Modern Orthodox orientation where for example higher education is valued along with Torah study - and the child now rejects higher education in its entirety opting instead to continue Torah study only -  does a parent have the right to feel that the values he taught that child have been rejected by him because he was in fact ‘re-eductated’  by his Torah teachers in Israel?

Is that the same thing as a non observant parent dealing with a child that became observant?

There are similarities. But I think there is a major difference that justifies a religious parent being more upset by the move to the right than there is for a non observant parent being upset that their child became a BT.

One might argue that the opposite is true since the break from the past is greater in the latter than it is in the former.  But if one looks at it from a Halachic perspective (of all Jews being responsible for each other) convincing a fellow Jew to become observant  is far more important than convincing him to be more Machimir. Or worse changing his Hashkafa and in the process denigrating the Hashkafos of his parents.  

There are those who say that the term ‘Flipping out’ is a misnomer. That young people coming back from their gap year in Israel are not flipping out at all. They are just becoming more serious about their Judaism and more conscientious about Halacha. If that is the case I would have no problem with it. We should all be more serious about our Judaism and conscientious about Halachic observance.

But what happens in far too many cases is that young people coming back from Israel adopt an entirely different set of values that are anathema to the values with which they were taught at home. And if they go far enough to the right - these values that can harm them. Even though their children might see these values as the ultimate expression of their Judaism.

For example what if a child had always aspired to any given vocation or career because of an aptitude and interest in it. And therefore sought the higher education required to achieve it. But while in Israel he is convinced to abandon those aspirations as secondary to the ‘true calling’ of every Jew to sit and learn 24/7. And he is also encouraged to have as many children as humanly possible. 

That child will be harmed. He will miss his true calling. He will lack a decent well rounded education. Aand perhaps most importantly he will be unable to support his large family. He will have to rely on charity, free loan societies and the generosity of their parents that in many cases bleed themselves dry financially to help that child. (Who wants to see their children starve?)

So it is quite understandable to upset at ‘Flipping out’.  Because that can very easily lead to a life of poverty. And worse a dysfunctional family where children go OTD.

So when it comes to ‘Kiruv’ by the right of children from Modern Orthodox backgrounds I behooves us to know the score.  Parents must do their due diligence and find out where recruiters from Israeli Yeshivos are coming from. They should find out what their real intentions are… and what the actual Hashkafos being taught there are. Recruiters can often mislead parents about their real intentions.

Look  at their products. What are their ‘graduates’ like when they come back? Was there any change? What was that change?

They should also talk to parents whose Hashkafos are similar to their own that have sent their children to a Yeshiva in Israel. Ask them if they are happy with the result… and see what that result actually is.

The gap year can be a very positive and productive period of growth in ones Judaism. Nothing wrong with becoming more serious. But when it leads to a radical departure from the Hashkafos you tired to instill in your children. The consequences could be devastating.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Torah Only? They Aren't Kidding

Is that all there is?
It is almost as if Torah Study in the Charedi world has degenerated into some sort of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Shocking as though this statement might be one would be hard pressed to see it any other way. It is worshipped to the exclusion of all else. Literally. Nothing else matters. 

While some areas outside of Torah study may be permissible, (like supporting one’s family by working) they are certainly not of much value and practically ignored by Charedi leaders and their surrogates in the Kensset. It is the study of Torah that they entirely focus upon – almost ignoring everything else.

Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, all they need do is listen to an interview of MK Rabbi Moshe Gafne of the Charedi political party, Yahadut HaTorah. This is the party that Charedim are required to vote for if they want to retain their Charedi credentials.  Rabbi Gafne was interviewed on the Israeli radio station Kol B'Rama (KB). It was conducted in Hebrew and can be heard at the Hebrew website Kikar HaShabbat. It has been and translated on YWN. Here are some selected nuggets from that interview:

Moshe Gafne explained from his perspective there is no such thing as ‘working chareidi’.

I do not accept the categorization. There are those who opt to leave yeshiva and join the working community.

Are they called chareidim?

No they are no(t). I do not accept this. It does not exist. One who does not learn in kollel and works has left. 

…There are children who are not accepted for one reason or another. Sometimes because the parents work, at times other reasons …

One can go to work and that is fine but they are not the same as those immersed in limud.
In the time of the Chassam Sofer there were those who worked and those who did not but the difference is they all adhered to his word, unlike today…

I do not accept the category. There is no such thing as working chareidim and I do not need an asifa. This is the fact.

But these people do not know who to vote for? Who represents them? …Can you admit there is a group that feels Yahadut Hatorah is now their home, that you do not represent them? Perhaps the people Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai are working to enlist?

It is not a “group”. There is no group like this…

Rav Gafne you are avoiding the issue. Is there such a thing as working chareidim?

No there is not. There are chareidim who adhere to gedolei yisrael. That is it.

Have you visited the Kiryat Ono Chareidi College?

No. It is not my job. My job is to concern myself with the needs of lomdei Torah and that is it. One wishing to attend a chareidi college may but it is not my job. I do not represent academics.

That is exactly the point. That is what they say. You and Yahadut Hatorah does not represent them. Don’t you understand this is how they feel? They are looking for representation.

From my perspective I represent them too but not regarding academics

No you do not and that is where we started. They are without representation

They must consult with their rav, the same rabbonim who permitted them to attend a college, even a chareidi one. We have to worry about the lomdei Torah for that is our goal and our future. I do not encourage academics and it is not my job...

For me it is ideology. It has not and will not change no matter how good they are. I am here for lomdei Torah, not academics. Since the lomdei Torah keep us all going and they are targeted [by the government] it is my job to assist them, no one else...

…I follow what I was taught by Maran HaRav Shach and do my best to assist anyone and everyone that comes to me.

I never heard you stutter like today... You are in an untenable situation. Perhaps it is time to reconsider and look at the generation and it is time to change things around

… there is nothing to change, not even one millimeter. This is what it is and will continue to do. This is our job and our responsibility.

Well if there was any doubt about how the Charedi world looks at those – even of their own people – that are not in full time Kollel, this should settle it. They have lost their Charedi credentials. This is the legacy of Rav Shach. And it is still being followed to the letter by Charedi leaders and their politicians. 

The problem of course (as I’ve said many times) is that the fruit of their labor is a bitter pill for them to swallow. Extreme poverty that seems to be increasing every year by leaps and bounds. 

Yet another article in the Forward reminds us about the Taub Center report that found the poverty rate in Israel among Charedim increasing to 66% in 2013, up from 60% in 2012.

I do not understand the kind of thinking that Rabbi Gafne has expressed. Does he really believe what he is saying?  Does he really believe that this is what God wants of His people? To study Torah all day long in increasing poverty? This and only this?! Does he really believe there is so little value in anything else? Medicine? Scientific research? Supporting one’s family? Protecting the public welfare via the police and army? …all not worthy of any support in the Charedi world?

And this is what the Torah world in America want’s to emulate?!

In my view this kind of thinking is obsessive. It is compulsive. And it is counter to the values of the Torah to ignore anything else but its own study. Maybe at some deep level even Rabbi Gafne realizes that. Maybe that’s why this interview made him stutter.

It appears that the YWN transaltion is inaccurate. This post was based on the assumption that it was. He did not say that there is no such thing as a Charedi worker. He only said that he does not accept that as a separate category. But he did say that working Charedim are second tier.

This does not take away from the fact that Rabbi Gafne’s words indicate that in the Charedi world there is an unhealthy obsession with Limud Hatorah (to the exclusion of all else)  that borders on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When Piety Becomes Foolish

Where's Ima?
There is a famous anecdote recorded in the Gemara (Sotah 21b) that tells us about the concept of Chasid Shoteh (a pious fool). It goes something like this: What is a Chasid Shoteh? If a man sees a woman drowning and says ‘it is improper to gaze at her and save her’ thereby letting her drown - he is a pious fool.

This seems to be the direction the most pious Jews among us are moving. They are willing to let women ‘drown’ if it means ‘gazing at them’.  An example of this kind of attitude is the fact that the word ‘breast’ is considered Nivul Peh even in the context of breast cancer. Increasingly in many right wing circles this disease is called ‘the woman’s disease’.  From an article in the Times of Israel
Because of this extreme take on modesty, women are less aware, get fewer mammograms, and often do not do breast exams. The rate of death from breast cancer is estimated at 30% higher among Charedi women who also have the lowest life expectancy in Israel. 
I would call this attitude an expression of the concept of Chasid Shoteh. And we are not talking about one individual here. We are talking about the fastest growing segment in all of Orthodox Jewry, Charedim of both Chasidic and Lithuanian Yeshivish extraction. The extremists in those communities are growing and expanding their reach. The Charedi world is moving to the right at an alarming pace. And increasingly adopting these attitudes. 

Now more than ever, women are being systematically erased from Charedi society as though they do not exist. Which is what has generated a new political party of Charedi women. I guess if there is such a thing as Charedi feminists, these women are it. More about that later.

The above mentioned article was written by Shoshanna Keats Jaskol, who describes herself as ‘an American Israeli… and seeker of truth’ And she loves her people enough to ‘call out the nonsense’. This is my kind of Jew. She has written one of the best descriptions and critiques of this phenomenon I have ever read. It is hard hitting and true. It should be read by everyone, especially by Charedim.

Mrs. Jaskol begins by saying that the practice of erasing women from the public eye is a fanaticization of the concept of ‘guarding your eyes’ which means that we should take care to avoid looking at things which may lead us to sin. But instead of making their community more holy: 
(I)t instead has the opposite effect, making every interaction between genders a potentially sexual -and thus sinful – one and effectively renders any normal interaction between the sexes impossible.
The influence this community has goes far beyond their own world. Pictures of women are increasingly disappearing in magazines, books and periodical at an alarming rate. Magazines whose publishers may not be as extreme nevertheless cater to those segments that are and have made it their own policy to not publish any pictures of a woman. The most extreme examples of which were in the recent photo-shopping out any woman that participated in that protest march in France. 

 Here are a few more examples from her article about this phenomenon that when taken in the aggregate should make moderate Charedim furious.  From that article: 
In some communities, women’s names are not printed. Not in publications and not in announcements such as wedding invitations. 
Posters, campaigns and billboards with women on them have so regularly been defaced that advertising companies stopped running them due to financial losses, which is exactly what the extremists wanted. A baby formula even stopped printing an outline of a mother holding her baby. 
Booklets put out by certain cities have zero women or girls in them. To the point that the city actually looks like a city of homosexuals and pedophiles (not to equate the two) — with nary a female in sight.
Pamphlets published by health care providers within these neighborhoods also exclude women and girls. One recent booklet showcased four neighborhood doctors- the men having pictures next to their next to their profile. The female? A large white blank spot stands where her picture should be. 
Books have also begun excluding females. A book we received as a ‘gift’ from a local organization depicts a Shabbat table- completely female free. The entire book dedicated to the Shabbat- a day of family and Torah- is devoid of even one girl or woman. Where is the Ima?? 
An entire generation is being taught that women and girls should not be seen because seeing them can lead to sin. Women and LITTLE GIRLS are being objectified- sexualized- and erased. 
When a little girl is told that her picture cannot be shown because it is not proper, she learns she is an object. Something that by nature can cause sin and so she must be concealed. 
When little boys hear that they must not look at girls, they learn that girls are for one thing –sex and that men are incapable of controlling themselves and so cannot interact with a female without it being sexual. 
I don’t usually excerpt as heavily as I did here. But this is an important message. Which brings me back to the new Charedi women’s party in Israel. From Ha'aretz:
Heading the party, called “B’Zhutan: Haredi Women Making Change” is Ruth Colian, 33, a veteran social activist and feminist who declared that this was a “historic” step in a mission to “guarantee representation in the Knesset for ultra-Orthodox women.
To say I support it is an understatement. The exaggerated and extreme measures increasingly taken by the Charedi world in this matter has to be countered. Enough damage has been done. 

It is so sad that these pious Charedi women had to resort to taking matters into their own hands at the risk of being ostracized. Which I am sure they will be if they haven’t been already. But they had to take this step in my view. Apparently not a single Charedi party has paid any attention to the negative effects the growing extremes of modesty has had on women. Except to proactively and tacitly support it.

Is the high mortality rate for Charedi women in Israel not enough to move them away from such extremes? I guess not. It seems as though the opposite is true. The more extreme the measure - the better they like it.

The chances of this new female Charedi party winning even one seat in the Kenesset is low. But if enough people vote for them, they may actually reach the required threshold for a seat. These women have a right to be heard… and heard as Charedim! It may not be a bad idea for some in the National Religious community to vote for this party. Let them have the power they deserve and are unable to get.

It is time for the Charedi world to stop being so pious in this matter at the expense of their women – and in the end at the expense of their children as well. Both male and female.  Because such piety is foolish.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Yoetzet or Rabbi?

Efrat's new spiritual leader, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an Modern Orthodox Rabbi who does not compromise his principles. He showed his mettle when at age 23 was approached by New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) to serve as their spiritual leader. LSS was a Conservative Shul and did not have a Mechitza at the time. His condition was that they install a Mechitza and the Shul become Orthodox. They agreed and the Shul has been Orthodox since.

Rabbi Riskin has many other accomplishments – including being in the forefront of the movement to free soviet Jewry in the 60s and 70s. An ardent Religious Zionist, he made Aliya in 1982 and settled in the city of Efrat where he serves with distinction as Chief Rabbi to this day.  He prides himself as a student of Rav Joseph Dov Solovietchik who gave him Semicha.

But he is not without controversy.  One of his innovations was the creation of a Women’s Teffila Group at LSS. This is a women’s only prayer group that has taken on some of the modalities of a men’s Minyan. Modalities like Kriyas HaTorah and giving women Aliyos. Even though Rav Soloveitchik was strongly opposed to such innovations, he nevertheless gave Rabbi Riskin guidance on how to set it up Halachicly – realizing that they were going to do it anyway with or without Rabbis Riskin and Soloveitchik.  

But now Rabbi Riskin is involved in a new controversy. And I’m not sure what to make of it. He has appointed a woman as a spiritual leader in Efrat. He is not calling her a Rabbi. But he has clearly given her the duties of one in the area of deciding Jewish law. He said her purpose will primarily be to answer Shailos (Halachic questions) that women might have with respect to family purity. These laws are often embarrassing for a woman to present to a male rabbi. Women might be a lot more comfortable presenting them to a woman.

That is why the Yoetzet was created. A Yoatzet is someone that has studied those laws well and is equipped to answer commonly asked questions. For the more difficult ones they consult with experienced Poskim that will  guide them. This is an innovation I have always supported. That’s because it is a sorely needed niche that will improve Taharas HaMishpacha in many families heretofore too embarrassed to ask Shailos. 

It is not about being a rabbi. It is about being a Halachic adviser to women in specific situations. Much like the Rebbetzins of old  who were able to answer many Shailos presented to them because of their relationship with their husbands who were asked many such Shailos. The only difference is that unlike a Rebbetzin, a Yoeztet is specially trained for it.  Making the appointment of a Yoetzet an overall communal improvement in observing Halacha.

But Rabbi Riskin’s selection of Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld seems to have crossed the line. Dr. Rosenfeld is far more than a Yoetzet. She is being billed as a spiritual leader.  For all intents and purposes she is a rabbi – even though he does not call her that.

If this is the case, he has broken with tradition and his mentor, Rav Soloveitchik. I don’t know if this is his intent. But I don’t see any other way to characterize it.

So I am disappointed. Here is a man who has done so much for his people. A man of principle that will not compromise. A man that I admired… and still do. And yet, he seems to have crossed a line. Same as another principled individual, Rabbi Avi Weiss who ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female rabbi - and founded a Yeshiva for that purpose that Rabba Hurwitz heads.

Had Rabbi Riskin just appointed her Efrat’s Yoetzet, it would have been fine. But by calling her a spiritual leader he has gained nothing other than giving Jewish feminists a boost. Which will surely increase controversy in Israel.  And I cannot celebrate that.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

When too much Piety Causes Embarrassment

Where's Angela?
I try. I really do try to understand the needs of those who believe that pictures of women in any context should not be published. That’s because it is rooted in a profound sense of the nature of Arayos. Arayos literally means skins. The Gemarah uses it to refer to sexual matters. Mostly in the context of forbidden relationships. Such as adultery or incest. Chazal went to great lengths to build fences around these matters so that we would not transgress them.

In its attempt to prevent men from having erotic thoughts the Gemara uses strong language about situations that generate erotic thoughts in men. Just to cite one example Chazal tell us that anyone who looks at even the baby finger of a women - it is as if he was looking at her secret  place (Berachos 24a). There are ample additional examples by Chazal that tell us the lengths to we must go to to avoid sinful erotic thoughts. While this statement is subject to interpretation – it is taken literally by some.

So when a Chasidic group refuses to publish a picture of a woman, I understand their zeal  - even as disagree with them.  

I don’t agree with them because in our day images of women are so commonplace that there is about as much chance of having erotic thoughts by looking at a modestly dressed woman as there are about the chance of having erotic thoughts about looking at a telephone pole.

There was a time when women were rarely seen in public. That is clearly not the case in our day. Women are as much in the public square today as men. In fact there are more Orthodox women in the workforce than at any time in history – with the blessing of religious leaders. These leaders actually approve of curricula for their women that will prepare them for the workforce so that they can support their husbands in Kollel.

The times do alter the way in which we react to women in the public eye and the laws pertaining to them. Strictures of the past no longer apply according to respected Poskim of both the past and the present. Poskim like the Levush (R’ Moedechai  Yoffie - of the 16th century) and the Aruch HaShulchan R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein - of the 20th century).

Unfortunately there are some sects in Judaism that insist on maximal implementation of these laws as though nothing has changed. As distasteful as this is to me – as long as they keep it to themselves my attitude is live and let live. But when their reach goes beyond their own environment that changes everything. Which is what happens when one of their newspapers photo-shops women out of iconic photos.

This happened a few years ago to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was photo-shopped out of an iconic picture taken of the President and some of his staff watching the live video transmission of  Navy Seals assassinating Osama Bin Laden. A newspaper that refused to publish any pictures of women wanted to publish that picture. The problem was that they couldn’t publish it because there were women in it. So they them photo-shopped them out and published it that way.

And now the same thing happened to another iconic photo. The one where world leaders marched in France in solidarity with France last week.  That photo was published in a Hebrew language newspaper that had the same dilemma. And the same solution. So the image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was photo-shopped out as though she was never there!

When I was first apprised of this, I thought I would just ignore it since I have already stated my views when it happened the first time to Hillary Clinton.  But now the embarrassment is far more public and deserves a condemnation of its own. (See the video below.)

It is one thing to insist on the most extreme separation of the sexes in any and all forms – including not publishing pictures of women even in perfectly modest dress by an Halachic standard. But now it has hit the mainstream media.

There is absolutely no excuse for what they did. They wanted to have their cake – and eat it too. They could not resist that picture because it indeed tells more than a 1000 words to see an act of solidarity like that taking place instead of just writing about it. But distorting it by photo-shopping out women is dishonest. And worse it has made us look like primitive misogynists. Not to mention the fact that it is insulting to a world leader who is one of the most supportive of the Jewish State.  

For anyone to simply push it aside by saying that this newspaper does not really represent mainstream Judaism is the same thing as saying Islamist mass murderers do not represent mainstream Islam.  The fact is that both groups are rooted in the tenets of their own religion albeit taking those tenets to an extreme level. Mainstream Judaism cannot anymore disavow its extremists than Islam can disavow theirs.

Lest anyone say I am making even the slightest comparison of ‘our’ extremists’ to ‘their extremists. I have one thing to say to you: ‘Get a life!’ In no way am I saying that at all. Which should be clear from my words. I am not comparing mass murder to photo-shopping women out of a picture. I’m only showing how extremist interpretations of religious tenets can lead to erroneous but not unreasonable conclusions about the mainstream.

Photo-shopping women out of iconic pictures in order to satisfy extreme notions of modesty is not the way to be a light unto the nations. It teaches nothing about the beauty of the Torah. Instead it teaches the nations that we are a bunch of misogynists who believe women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. At least according to one stream of Jewish thought.

These publications have a responsibility to tell the truth and not lie. Photo-shopping people out of pictures is a lie. And it is a lie that causes us to be ridiculed.

If they really feel so strongly about not publishing pictures of women - they should not have published the picture at all!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Little Help from My Friends

It’s that time of year. I am once again asking those of you that read and appreciate what I do here to help support this blog by making a financial contribution in any amount you choose. But only if you can afford it. Please do not feel obligated.

However, if you are so inclined, the best way to do that is to buy an ad. That is - if you have something to advertise. (For more information click on the advertising message in the right margin.) 

Otherwise the easiest way to support what I do here is to donate* through PayPal (also located on the right margin). This is strictly voluntary. The blog is free for anyone who wishes to access it. There are no subscription fees. And you may notice that I carry very few ads.

Unlike professional journalists and columnists, I do not get paid for writing. I do it for free. As Ive said many times, it is a labor of love. That doesnt mean I wouldn't appreciate a paid position as a writer somewhere. I would. And then I would probably love what I do even more. But as of yet I have not been offered a paid position. 

I am, however, grateful to the Jewish Press and more recently the Times of Israel for publishing so many of my posts online. Even though they don't pay me I appreciate the exposure. 

In any case whether you donate anything at all or nothing at all, I wish to once again this year - as in the past - thank all those who read the blog as well as those who comment. The comments are diverse and represent a wide spectrum of Jewish thought.There are a lot of knowledgeable people out there. I'm grateful that so many are willing to share their wisdom here. I continue to learn much from many of them. As I'm sure have most of those who read and do not comment.

I would like to extend a special thanks to all those who have contributed guest columns. They have truly broadened the dimensions of this blog. 

Thanks again to all.

*Donations are not tax deductible.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Call for Change that will Not be Heard

Israeli President Ruven Rivlin
(There is a) necessity for the chareidi community to begin to think not just about its own parochial interests but also to concern itself as well with its responsibility for the general society… 
The world of Torah is strong enough and firmly enough established today…  to concern itself with the image of the Torah in the broader Israeli Jewish world, with the application of Torah values to the running of a modern state, and with what Torah Jews have to contribute to the building of a Jewish society in Israel.
This may sound like yet another attempt by yours truly to get the Charedi world in Israel to change its paradigm of isolationism and rejectionism. Well, it is true that is one of my deeply sought after goals. I would love to see the Charedi world integrating itself more into Israel society. Not by giving up its values. But as stated above ‘by contributing more to the the building of a Jewish society in Israel’.

But these were not my words. They are the words of Jonathan Rosenblum in a piece he wrote in the Charedi Magazine Mishpacha (republished on Cross Currents).

We are both in agreement on this issue. There are many Charedim that would say that Jonathan does not speak for them. Or that he is not really Charedi. Or that he a Baal Teshuva – what does he know?!

Well Jonathan knows plenty. He is immersed in their culture. Furthermore, I think he speaks for many frustrated Charedim who feel they live straight-jacketed lives – unable to feed their families and resent not have been given the education and training that would have enabled them to do that and thereby contribute to building that Jewish society.

Jonathan was responding to an address Israeli President Ruven Rivlin gave at a conference on Chareidi employment sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. President Rivlin made the same point that many Charedim like Jonathan have made in the past. That there is no way to force change upon the Charedi world. That will only increase resistance to it. Change can only be successful if it is internal. The Charedi world has to change itself.  

I would agree that this would be the best scenario. And I concede that forcing change upon them caused resistance. And that so far it has been counterproductive to the very goals that Jonathan and many thoughtful and concerned Charedim seek.

The government’s implementation of a core curriculum requirement has caused Charedi leaders to compare this policy to what the Czar in Russia tried to do. And they have vilified legislators who have done that by calling them Amalek whose aims are to destroy the Jewish people.

And now that new elections are at hand where Charedi parties will no doubt be given renewed power they will probably succeed in repealing the core curriculum requirement. The anger and resentment left over from this episode will still linger in their minds.  One can argue that President Rivlin along with Jonathan and other like-minded Charedim were right. Forcing Charedim to be educated has set back the goal of integrating them into society at large and contributing to it. Which of course would seem to validate their objections to government involvement.

In the short term I suppose one cannot argue that point. The problem is that there is no internal effort to change that paradigm. Outside of Charedi columnists and pundits like Jonathan, the call for change is nonexistent. No Charedi leader has stepped outside the box to suggest a change that would make a difference. Allowing Charedim to get jobs through back-door post Kollel workshops and training centers is a not going to work for the masses that need it the most. And it will hardly motive them to contribute to society at large.

The vast majority are still encouraged to stay in Kollel for as long as possible without any distractions from their Torah study. The idea of a dual educational track of Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol that for decades was the hallmark of Charedi Yeshiva high schools in America is anathema to Israeli leaders – even now when poverty is greater than it has ever been since the founding of the State.

With no prospects change  the problems will only grow exponentially with each generation. Large families can barely make ends meet now - barely able to purchase basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter without the help of free loan societies.

Putting food on the table requires a lot more money than they make – even with working wives. And let’s not even talk about buying apartments for all of their many children as they get married. Added to this burden is the fact that Charedi parents of today cannot do for their children what their parents did for them. Their parents worked and had the abilty to help their children financially. Today’s parents are all in Kollel and borrowing money just to put food on the table.

So even though government insistence on a core curriculum seems to have been successfully resisted, this in my view is not something to celebrate.  Because if things stay as they are, I cannot see the Charedi world surviving in its present form. And who knows what form it will take in the future.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Israel Free Loan Association – IFLA


Regarding Tzedaka, Maimonides wrote that "The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of one who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift, or a loan… by putting him in a position where he can dispense with other people's aid."

The Israel Free Loan Association (IFLA) has been helping low-income families and small business owners in Israel for over 25 years by providing them with a dignified way to support themselves when times are tough and when there is no-one else to turn to.

In 2014 we provided over 100 million NIS of loans.   But the need is even greater.  Israel is a country where salaries are relatively low, and the cost of living is relatively high.  Recent surveys show that a disturbingly large percentage of families live in conditions of 'material hardship' – having to chose each month which basic necessities (food, clothing, heat, medical treatment) to forgo.   These are not families living on hand-outs, but families who work and who struggle to make ends meet.   These are people who deserve help.

Over the last 25 years we have made over 50,000 loans in the cumulative amount of over 200 million USD.  But Israel has over 280,000 working poor families.  There’s lots more for us to do.

We need your help to help them.  A donation to IFLA really is a gift that keeps on giving, because once the original loan that you make possible  is repaid, we recycle the funds and make another loan.  Your gift will help many more people over the years.   (We provide annual reports to named loan funds.)

Please consider making a donation to IFLA. You will be performing the highest form of Tzedaka.

Any amount you can donate will be very gratefully received.

You can donate now to IFLA by credit card, check or wire transfer.

You can honor or memorialize a loved one by establishing a named loan fund with a donation or accumulation of donations totaling at least $10,000.

**Currently, thanks to a generous challenge grant, new donations of 25,000 USD or more will be matched by an additional 50%.  So a gift of 50,000 USD for a named loan fund, for example, would become a fund of 75,000 USD **

IFLA is a recognized charity in the United States, Canada, the UK and Israel, and your donations will be tax exempt. 

You can read our annual report here.

We thank you very much.

Impressed? Inspired? Feel free to share our information with others. Have questions? Contact us as or by phone at +972 54 768 1776 (Israel hours)