Saturday, December 31, 2005


There is a controversial group of women in Israel who have studied and mastered Hilchos Taharas HaMishpacha (the laws of family purity) and have been conferred the title of Yoatzot. The purpose of this group is to answer common Halachic questions of an intimate nature from women who are often embarrassed to ask these questions of a male rabbi. There is great opposition to this group by Charedim.

After analyzing this subject my view is that the greater good is served by having an institutionalized form of female advisors for Taharas HaMishpacha. The need seems to be there. In the past Rebbitzins (wives of Rabbis) would in many cases function as intermediaries for their husband/rabbi. Often these Rebbitzins knew the answers to common questions after hearing their husbands answer so many times. Why not allow for formal study? Formalizing the study provides quality control. The reluctance by many women to discuss potential Shailos with male Poskim is thus eliminated knowing they can go to a directly knowledgeable Yoetzet. Prior to this innovative movement there were probably many errors in Halachic practice, both L'Kula and L'Chumra, due to shyness on the part of many in Klal Israel to ask these kinds of Shailos... even from the Charedi sector who are encouraged to ask Shailos of any nature all the time.

The people involved, both teachers and students seem to be sincere and L'Shma. It is a shame that Gedolei HaTorah are so opposed to it. I’m not exactly sure why but it is my impression that objection to Yoatzot seems to be that it has not originated from within Charedi ranks. Gedolim were not consulted and the program proceeded without them. But everything I have read about the Yoatzot program indicates the women are of the highest Caliber.

There are other objections to this program, namely that a situation might arise where the Yoatzot will know more and be of higher caliber than their male counterparts. This is not a valid objection. Learning should be L'Shma whether it is a man or woman doing the learning. If women's learning surpasses men then so be it. Either the men should excel themselves or get out of the way.

The traditional role of women as the Akeres HaBayis, the anchor and root of the household, the great nurturers of the family will never be abandoned because a few women learn a great deal about an important subject and dispense advice and answer questions from their natural constituency, other women. Nor do I believe that there will be any dilution of men with "Gadol potential" who will become unmotivated because of Yoatzot.

The question has been raised as to what or who is fueling the Yoatzot program. Is it radical feminism? I doubt it. True, it might attract that type of woman and due diligence should be exercised to weed out anyone with a radical feminist agenda from leadership positions and from applicants to the program. With appropriate leadership and guidance this could turn into a great Kiddush HaShem and a great enhancement of Mitzvah observance. We, also, need not fear the "slippery slope" argument that states that these women will next want to become Poskim. A Torah oriented agenda should help guarantee that.

Frankly I'm not sure why there has been so much resistance. If sincere non-agendized G-d fearing people are involved in a project like this, instead of fighting it we should be asking is "How can we help?"

Friday, December 30, 2005

Female Rabbis in Orthodoxy

In a commentary to my essay on the Move to the Left, I advanced the notion that much of that movement’s concern deals with Feminist issues. Mr."Steg" asks the following question: “What exactly is the halakhic objection to female rabbis again?”

Well that is an excellent question. I asked it publicly myself about 35 years ago when I was a student at HTC. In an article in what was at the time Chicago’s Jewish newspaper of record, “The Sentinel” Rabbi Chaim D. Keller, Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe, excoriated the then fledgling movement by some to try and ordain female rabbis. His primary argument was centered on the idea that women could not function in Orthodox synagogues where the sexes required separation. A female rabbi would violate the sanctity of the synagogue by violating that separation.

I had written a response stating that I saw no Halachic problems with a female Rabbi. A rabbi as defined in modern times is nothing more than an individual who has studied the applicable laws pertaining to certain observances in Judaism, taken tests an passed them. This entitled them to become a teacher and preacher in Israel. As such, coffering the title “rabbi” on a woman seemed permissible. Her duties of course would be a bit more limited then that of a male rabbi since she would be prevented from serving as a pulpit rabbi. But she could certainly serve as a teacher, chaplain, Mashgiach of Kashrus organizations and any other functions of the rabbinate.

I was a bit young and impetuous then. Now I am just impetuous. In any case I had not thought about other issues which might preclude a woman becoming a rabbi. First there is theproblem of Heter Hora’ah. Women are Halachicly forbidden to Paskin Shailos. I’m not exactly sure why, but that is Halacha. That seems to me the biggest problem and if a condition precluding Psak were inserted in the Smicha document, that would eliminate that problem and women could then be called rabbis. Of course there might still be a Maaras Ayin problem.

But there are other problems. How serious an obstacle those problems are is a matter of open debate in my mind. Rabbi Herschel Schachter, wrote an article on this subject a while back and states the following:

The non-Orthodox movements have whole-heartedly approved of women rabbis. We read in the papers that a certain "Orthodox rabbi" has stated publicly that "the stupidest thing about Orthodoxy is that they don't approve of women rabbis."

In Pashas Dvorim we read that Moshe Rabbeinu appointed many rabbis to serve the community. The expression used by the chumash is (Dvorim1:13), "let us appoint anoshim". Rashi quotes from the Sifre a fascinating comment: what is the meaning of the term "anoshim"? Was there even a "salka daitach" to appoint women rabbis?? The expression must certainly mean "anoshim tzadikim". Why was it so obvious to the tanaim that we can not have women rabbis? After all, Tosfos (Bava Kama 15a) raises the possibility of giving semicha to women, and and having them serve on a beth din. So if women can possibly receive semicha, why can't they serve the community as rabbis?

The answer is obvious. Although we must sometimes compromise on our midas hatznius and do certain mitzvos befarhesia (in public), this is not required of women. Women are not being discriminated against. They alone, unlike men, are given the opportunity to maintain their midas hahistatrus at all times.

Our generation is so much into publicity that this midas hahistatrus is totally unappreciated. We live in a generation in which there is no sense of shame. People will do the most intimate and the most private acts in a most explicit and most demonstrative fashion. Their arrogant attitude has led them to believe that if they were G-d they would always be bragging, boasting, and showing off, always "making a statement". They don't have the slightest notion that G-d exists, is a "Kel Mistater", and has created all of us with a tzelem Elokim, which also includes this midas hatznius.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Move to the... Left!

Just about every week I see a very nice ad in one of the Jewish newspapers for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah . This always reminds me of the Yeshiva’s founder Rabbi Avi Weiss. About a year and a half ago, the New York Times had an article entitled, "A Challenge to an Orthodox Bastion" (Published: April 19, 2004). There-in was a description of this new Yeshiva, characterizing it as challenging Yeshiva University’s role as the champion of Modern Orthodoxy.

I have great difficulty taking this new Yeshiva seriously.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, though a talented, committed, and zealous leader is of questionable value as a role model for young idealistic students and instead has shown a proclivity towards showmanship and controversy. While I am certain that he is sincere in his views and I realize that his actions are undertaken with great zeal, I never-the-less believe that he has done more harm to the image of Orthodox Jewry than good, despite his good intentions. Two incidents come to mind:

One was his Auschwitz adventure. Several years ago, in what was widely seen as an attempt by a Catholic convent to hijack that holocaust memorial, Rabbi Weiss responded by going to the infamous death camp and jumping the fence at Auschwitz insisting nuns leave the convent. Rabbi Weiss's conduct there does not reflect an appropriate mode of behavior by someone who purports to represent Orthodox Judaism. It was instead an attention getting act which served to garner much publicity for Rabbi Weiss and did little to enhance his cause, the removal of the nuns.

Certainly anyone with any degree of sensitivity wanted to see the infamous death camp remain an exclusively Jewish memorial and have those nuns leave (which ultimately happened). But the Rabbi Weiss’s theatrics did little to accomplish that end and instead made a representative of Orthodoxy, look like a crazed zealot. His intentions... honorable... his zealous actions in the cause of protecting the Jewish character of Auschwitz, at best counter-productive. Instead of generating sympathy for Jewish sensitivities he succeeded generating sympathy for those well meaning but misguided Nuns.

The other more recent event where his actions have been an embarrassment to Orthodox Judaism was his foray into the public arena through a stunt protesting Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”. On the day the film was released he and some supporters paraded around a New York theater showing the film in the type of Holocaust prison garb worn by Jews in the Nazi concentration camps... with loud accusations of anti-Semitism. Once again, his intentions were honorable, his actions, counter-productive and bordering on the desecration of God’s name.

It was an insult and outrage to every survivor to use that symbol of holocaust horror to protest a movie, no matter how noble the intent. Rabbi Weiss accomplished nothing but getting a lot of public attention... all of it negative... for the Jewish people. Instead of gaining sympathy for Jewish sensitivities his actions actually created more animosity. Christians who came out of that movie experiencing a cathartic religious experience were met by this group of Jews who were in essence saying that they and their Christian religion were anti-Semitic!

This is not someone I would want as my child’s Rosh HaYeshiva and mentor.

More troubling than the behavior of the Yeshiva’s founder, is the very nature of his views on Modern Orthodoxy which defines the Yeshiva’s philosophy.

Rabbi Weiss and others in his camp are responsible for the “dumbing down” of Orthodoxy in the guise of openness and equality of the sexes. Just how far can Orthodoxy go to accommodate a feminist agenda?! He and has pioneered the innovation of “Rabbinic Interns” where women can serve as defacto assistant rabbis. This innovation is designed specifically to get around the Halachicly unacceptable concept of female Rabbis by calling them “interns”. At best this is a slippery slope toward the eventual ordination of female rabbis no matter how it is disguised or labeled.

To be fair, the school has publicly distanced itself from the ordaining of female rabbis, but “a rose by any other name is still a rose ". Maybe these female interns won’t receive a classical “Yoreh Yoreh” ordination degree but of what practical significance is that, if they function as rabbis?

The motto, “The courage to be both modern and Orthodox” to which I believe Chovevei Torah subscribes, as if it were the only ones with such courage, belies their actions. The only real divergence from Yeshiva University seems to be in the realm of feminism. The claim that "A major segment of the modern Orthodox community is looking for leadership that has... intellectual openness," implies that Yeshiva University does not. That is the furthest thing from the truth.

One of the biggest accusations against Yeshiva University from the right is that it is too open. Anyone who has ever attended YU or has visited the campus knows the importance it attaches to academic studies and interaction in the modern world. They can easily see just how open and modern it is, including granting its secular faculty complete academic freedom.

So in the end one can ask what is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s purpose? I do not think it has any legitimacy in challenging the Modern Orthodox credentials of Yeshiva University which includes a broad spectrum of influences, both religious and secular.

If the purpose of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is to advance Orthodox feminism then it ought to label itself that way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Science of Our Sages

A commentator with the blogname of bluke has asked an interesting question based on my previous blog entry:

"How do you explain the various statements of Chazal that contradict science"?

In a later comment he cites a Gemarah which speaks of a wine/breath test which seems to be based on faulty science, yet as bluke points out: “ This story is brought down l'halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer Siman 68) and is discussed by the early Acharonim.”

The test may be accurate as a kabalistic enterprise and not a scientific one. But your larger question deserves a treatment of its own.

I have always had a great difficulty with the Gemarah on lice. In order for one to violate the Issur Melacha of Netilas Neshama (killing a living organism) on Shabbos, it has to be a sexually reproductive being. The Gemarah says therefore that there is no Issur Netilas Neshama with lice since they reproduce a-sexually ...or spontaneously. This is Halacha LeMaysah.

But of course today we now know that lice do indeed reproduce sexually. Yet... the Halacha does not change. Why? Becuase we are bound by the Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai redacted in the Mishna as explained by the Talmud. ( Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik told me of an Acahron who forbade killing lice on Shabbos because of this newly discovered information. He said that if this Acahron were alive today, he would be put in Cherem... excommunicated.)

There are various possible ways to understand this Gemarah. One is to say that Chazal were knowledgeable about scientific matters based on the science of their era. They had no microscopes and could, therefore, not see the microscopic reproduction that takes place in lice. So, in reality they were mistaken. Yet God for His own reasons wished Chazal to Paskin that killing lice does not violate Shabbos. This is my view.

Another interpretation might be that we do not know that the Kinim (lice) in that Gemarah are the Kinim we now call lice. Perhaps the Kinim of that Gemarah was an entity that did not reproduce sexually and “our” Kinim are in fact Assur to kill on Shabbos. This would of course challenge Rabbi Soloveichik’s view.

Yet another view is that is based on the principle in Psak Halacha that we Paskin based on what the eye can see and not what is microscopic. Since the sexual reproduction of lice is microscopic, we LOOK AT IT AS THOUGH it was spontaneous rather than sexual in nature vis-a-vis the Issur Melacha of Netilas Neshama.

As I said, my own view is that Chazal could have been mistaken in matters of science. I do not see this as undermining Chazal's infallibility in Halacha. The very fact that there is Machlokes even in Psak shows that Chazal were human and subject to error due in part to the vagaries of time. In other words the Machlokes’n were caused by the massive amounts of Halacha that accumulated over time, the spreading out beyond the borders of Eretz Yisroel, the transmission of an ever increasing body of Halacha over the successive generations since Sinai, and the incapacity of the human mind to remember every single detail of Halacha.

My view is that when it comes to science, Chazal did not know everything there is to know about science. They had the best knowledge of their era. This is also the position of the Rishon Avraham Ben HaRambam.

The mainstream view is that if it is recorded in the Gemarah it is a scientific fact. If there is no Machlokes then the science quoted in the Gemarah cannot be contradicted. Difficult Gemaros like the Refuos (various strange formulae all over Shas spelling out cures for various ailments) that do not work today is attributed to Nishtaneh HaTvi'im... that nature itself has changed. I find this a bit curious because it seems to corroborate the theory of evolution which is so anathematic to these Poskim... at least that it is ongoing, if not the origin of the species.

This in fact was the main objection to Nosson Slifkin's books. Those who banned them said his lack of deference to Chazal even more so than his saying the universe is ancient was what did him in. It was further claimed that just because one could find Rishonim to corroborate a non-mainstream view does not mean we are permitted to view it that way ourselves. Not only that, but it was stated by Major Poskim like R. Moshe Sternbuch, that such beliefs are now considered heresy!

I find this view exceedingly difficult. It seems to me that when a clear proof of science contradicts a clearly stated scientific fact as stated by Chazal, the most rational conclusion is to say that they were mistaken about it. The Rambam himself seemed to have a similar view even about literal interpretations of the Torah itself.

The following is a quote from an upcoming article by Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America to be published in the next issue of the Jewish Observer:

“The Rambam does write (Moreh Nevuchim, 2: 25) that even some seemingly fundamental philosophical convictions need not be considered inherently sacrosanct to Jewish belief. Should incontrovertible physical evidence to the contrary be discovered, he explains, then p’sukim seeming to indicate otherwise would simply have to be understood figuratively, like p’sukim that refer to Hashem, chalilah, as having physical form.”

I therefore stand by my views.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Science and Torah: A Match Made in Heaven

There is much debate on whether science and Torah can exist on the same plane. Many people say that science is always wrong when it contradicts the Torah. Well to this I say: Rubbish

Science and Torah do not conflict by definition. Science is nothing more than the study of nature. Scientists interpret those studies as best they can. They look for truth through the physical world. Sometimes they get it right; sometimes they get it wrong. But intellectual honesty and the seeking of truth is the hallmark of science, if not always of scientists. Sometimes personal beliefs and agendas get in the way of proper analysis of data, but in theory pure science knows no forgone conclusion and has no agenda.

Torah on the other hand does have a forgone conclusion and an agenda. But Torah and science are not mutually exclusive. They exist in perfect harmony as two truths, one physical and one spiritual.

When science seems to contradict the Torah, either one does not understand the science or one does not understand the Torah. When either side insists that their interpretation is correct and therefore the other side is wrong, it shows nothing but pure arrogance and a lack of intellectual honesty.

Exacerbating the Enmity of our Enemies

I just saw a photo in Haaretz that causes me much aggravation. It is a photo of some settlers celebrating the construction of an illegal outpost near the settlement of Beit El, one of 14 erected across the West Bank on Tuesday.

I have never understood why the need to exacerbate tensions with those who would just as soon kill us as look at us. Why spill gasoline on a fire?

Who asked them to do this? Which genius thinks this is going to bring Moshiach?
They must be the Aschalta D’Geulaniks. These people have a lot in common with Lubavitch Meshchists. It’s no wonder there were so many Lubavitchers protesting with the National Religious in Gaza during the withdrawal. Birds of a feather. They both have delusions about Geula.

Can’t anyone knock some sense into these people?

The Community Kollel

One of the most positive developments of the late twentieth century is the advent of community Kollelim. The most prolific of these types of institutions have come from Lakewood. The Yungeleit are chosen as much for their commitment to community as they are for their learning ability. Most often after a short two to four year stay in the Kollel, they are integrated into the community in a broad array of ways: as Rabbeim in day schools, Yeshivos and Beis Yaakovs and even as Mechanichim in mixed gender schools; and as Roshei Yeshiva or Rabbanim in Shuls or in Kiruv. Some go into the workforce or get degrees and become professionals while still others have gone into business. The point is that they stay and continue to contribute to the community long after they have left the Kollel. They in effect become productive and positive roll models for the community.

These Kollelim have increased the amount of learning by Ballei Battim by providing a friendly warm Beis HaMedrash without being judgmental about who walks in or why. They have provided Shiurim and exciting Chavrusah opportunities for Ballei Battim of all stripes. Here in and around Chicago they have inspired other Kollelim to open up and further increase the amount of learning, as well as inspiring a myriad of Daf Yomi Shiurim. Finally they have taken what was once a mostly negative view of the concept of a Kollel and completely turned it around. In my home city of Chicago, The Chicago Community Kollel (Lakewood) has been one of the most important developments to hit Chicago since I have lived here (over forty years).

But the community has paid a price for this elevation of Torah learning and observance. The constant move to the right has been accelerated by their presence. Since they are such good role models many of what was once normative behavior is now frowned upon. Just to give one example, the practice of mixed seating at weddings. While this was an inevitability of the rightward move of the Frum community it was no doubt greatly enhanced by the practices of the very popular Roshei Kollel and Avreichim who would never think of having mixed seating at any of their affairs.

So While I applaud the good, I lament the bad. But the bottom line is the good far outweighs the bad. Those who brought in the Kollel over 25 years ago and those who are responsible for its continuity, whether Ballei Battim, the Roshei Kollel, or its Avreichim who learn there... deserve all the credit in the world for their efforts.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Tyranny of the Modern Day Kollel System

One of the biggest problems facing the Torah world today is that of Avreichim spending far too many years in a Kollel. Instead of spending a year or two post marriage they can spend double or triple that amount of time. The problem of course is the purity of Torah study demanded of these young Kollel members. They are forbidden to do anything accept learn full time. The result is that when they finally do leave the walls of the Beis HaMedrash, they are ill prepared to find a decent job.

Why is this the case? Because the leadership of Charedi Yeshivos and Kolellim has infused these young men with the notion that any distraction from learning full time is Bitul Torah and a waste of time. It is therefore severely frowned upon in the Torah world. Not only is ther pressure from the Roshei Yeshiva and Roshei Kollel to stay in learning full time, there is also peer pressure. The result is that these young people stay well past the time they should have left to find work. This can and does often cause undue strain on a marriage and a family. It would be such an improvement for Klal Yisroel for the Roshei Yeshiva to let these young men out at an age where they can learn a Parnassa in a decent field. Or at least allow them to go to college at night while in Kollel... or while yet in the Yeshiva pre marriage.

About twenty years ago, I spoke to a Rosh Kollel that was once a Rebbe of mine and asked him about this problem. Surprisingly he agreed with me and told me that he tries to do something like this in his Kollel. He encourages those who are not Gadol material to leave after a year or two and get training of some sort for a job. But he then followed it up very quickly with the comment: Please don’t publicize my views on this issue. I hear that a lot when people express vies that are not in line with the mainstream thinking amongst Charedim. I have been told that the consequences of such opinions can be quite severe. This was made quite clear to me recently by the following:

I spoke to a young man who spent 8 years in a Kollel. He told me that he had heard about my views and wanted me to know that he was a victim of precisely the kind of pressure I described above. His wife had wanted him to leave the Kollel he was in after six years. He was feeling the financial pressure to leave and find a job. He was told two years in a row that he should stay and not worry about Parnassa... to have Bitachon. HaShem would answer his needs. Finally after two years of this he went to his Rosh Kollel and basically told him that his marriage was on the line and he was finally given permission to go and find a job.

This same person also explained to me why there is so little dissention amongst the ranks of Roshei Kollel. The consequences are indeed severe, When a Rosh Kollel starts speaking his mind on issues and it conflicts with the accepted norm amongst Charedim, they are not merely bad mouthed or scorned. They are completely and immediately shut down. It ends their career as Roshei Kollel.

How sad is that!

It seems like an insurmountable task to change this current malaise. Will the Torah world perpetuate itself into oblivion? I have said that my own Hashkafa of Centrism is in danger of extinction for different reasons. But if things don’t change, the Charedi world is going to collapse of its own weight as well.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Books and Bans: The Nosson Slifkin Epilogue

The Gedolim of the Agudath Israel Moetzes have now seen fit to publicly accept as legitimate, the view of an aged universe. Rabbi Gil Student has postulated a theory about the current state of affairs in the Slifkin controversy. I think he is absolutely correct about what is going on and you can read it at his blog "Hirhurim" available as a link right here on my blog. Unlike their Israeli counterparts who consider such a view heretical as per their original explanations for the ban, the Americans are content with just banning the Slifkin approach specifically and not his general approach which has been written about by others.

Last week, there was somewhat of a backpedaling even by Israelis. In a Yated article they stated that the only books banned were those of Nosson Slifkin and not other books expressing similar views. The explanation given was that the Rabbi Slifkin was arrogant in his views and brazen towards Gedolei Yisroel and ...THAT... was really why the books were banned.

I don't think that is really what happened. I do not believe that Rabbi Slifkin acted brazenly in defense of his books. Just aggressively. One of the signatories who I assume spoke for all of them at the time of the original ban stated quite clearly what the reasons were and they were published in the Yated. They called a view that the world is millions of years old Apikursus (or words to that effect).

They then must have found out that other views existed that were legitimate and endorsed by other Gedolei Yisroel. My guess is that when they banned Rabbi Slifkin’s books they didn't even know that there were approbated books that said those kinds of things. So in order to save face they now claim it was... attitude... more than substance.


The Frummer the School Is... the Better?

There is a trend in the Frum community that I believe is quite harmful. It is part of the much larger crisis that has come to be known as “Kids at Risk”

Too many people send their children to a Yeshiva whose Hashkafos are far to the right of where they are, instead of finding the school that most closely reflects their own Hashkafa. They rationalize that it is much easier to make your child less Frum than more Frum. I have heard it so many times Then, years later they complain that they can't make their children less Frum after all. In reality they are sending their children to a school that is at direct odds with the lifestyle they lead causing immediate and continued conflict between the home and the child. This child now gets mixed and confusing messages and doesn't know what to believe. Sometimes this siply leads to a rejection of the values taught at home in favor of those taught in the Yeshiva. This can be quite frustrating to a parent who for example wanted their sons top work for a living and now find out that their children have no intention of ever doing so because of a “Torah Only” approach to life.

But someteims the opposite happens and I believe that this is the single biggest contributing factor amongst normal functioning familes, to the Kids at Risk phenomenon. While there are many factors that can cause a child to be at risk for, not only leaving Yiddishkeit but becoming a member of the underbelly of society (the drug and sex subculture) I think that this is probably the single contributing factor. The children see the hypocrisy of a lifestyle that is not in concert with what they are taught by their Rabbeim in school and end up skeptical about the whole thing. They see the kinds of things that are labeled as Assur (even if they are not technically so) in their parents home and think, why can they do it and not me? They can then take the next step and start rationalizing about real Issurim the same way. Couple that with what they meet on the street and the result can be tragic.

Of course a major share of the blame goes to children who are raised in dysfunctional families and there are a lot more of those around than we would like to admit. A dysfunctional family is a direct link to the world of the street.

But in a normal family situation while the risk is less, it is still there. I believe the risk can be reduced by finding a school which most closely reflects the Hashkafa of the home.

This idea of sending to a school that is “Frummer” than the home is just a plain bad idea.

Friday, December 23, 2005

This means you're: Huh?

OK. Some blogs are offering this Orthodoxy test devised by So I decided to provide the link here for those interested. Here is the link: User Test: The Orthodoxy  Test.

Here are my results:

Left Wing Modern Orthodox: 29%
Right Wing Modern Orthodox: 63%
Left Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 54%
Right Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 21%

The comments were:

This means you're: Huh?

What does it mean?

I give up. What are you?

I found this very accurate because as I have always said about myself that I am not peggable.

The Artful Dodgers: Take Two.

Yesterday’s edition of the English language Haaretz contained an article by Nehemia Strasler that was a scathing attack against Charedim who fail to participate in military service.

It has been the policy of Charedim in Israel since the days of the founding of the state to forbid joining the army. The Charedi Gedolim (I think it was primarily the Chazon Ish) managed to work out a deal with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion whereby Charedi studens who learned in Yeshivos full time would be exempt from military service.

The reasons for this policy are not really that clear to me. To the best of my understanding the reasons are as follows: a) Talmud Torah should take precedence over serving in a military of a State non run according to Halacha and b) the environment of the army is so immoral and the chances for violation of Halacha especially in the area of Chilul Shabbos...are so great, that it is Assur even for those who do not learn full time.

I would dispute these arguments. When society’s mere existence is at stake, there is a requirement on two levels to defend oneself, one’s family, and one’s people: a spiritual one and a physical one. The spiritual one is represented by the Bnei Torah who learn Torah L’Shma and waste little time doing it. The physical one is the military. No less great a person made almost that exact statement than Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz during a Seudas Hoda’ah after the “Six Day War.” He gave thanks to both the spiritual warriors AND the physical ones.

The immorality which is quite real I think is a bit over-stated but in any case is an understandable concern. But this too can be addressed by creating Charedi only units of men only that serve in the same capacity and under the same military conditions as Chilonim do.

If the solution is as simple as that, I can well understand the anger expressed by Nehemia Strasler. He sees able bodied men doing nothing more than sitting and studying in books while everyone lese is required to lay their lives on the line for their fellow Jews. Why should Charedim be any more exempt for their studies than secular students would be for theirs? Torah study is the ONLY study where students are exempted for military students. If you are a secular Jew you can only be disgusted when seeing this. I would be. Add to that the fact that another religious community, those of Daati Leumi, not only serves but has the greatest casualty number of any segment in Israel that serves and the claims of the Charedim seem even more outrageous.

And now there is legislation that goes even further... the Tal Law which mandated token army service of Charedim who were finished learning full time and no dangerous duty would be required. Now, instead of basic training they will have to do nothing more than some community service.

How do you face the mother of a son killed in action or permanently maimed with the loss limb or blinded... or both! ...some are paralyzed and/or disfigured ...and God knows what does a Charedi mother tell a secular mother that her secular son had to expose himself to being hurt or killed while your son gets a free pass? Is it any wonder that there is such enmity between these two segments? Frankly I don’t blame these mothers. They are right!

One does not have to go too far to witness hundreds of Charedi men hanging out in the streets free of worry, free of harm while being protected by the very State and army that many of them likely curse on a daily basis. Just walk down Malachei Yisroel Street in the Geula section of Jerusalem any weekday... any time of day... and you will see plenty.

As much as I don’t want to see anyone put in harms way. Least of all people who are Moser Nefesh for Torah on a daily basis, I see no justification for not drafting Charedim... at least in principle. I have a son who lives in Israel and though I desperately do not want him to be put in harms way, in a society like Israel’s, where conscription is a necessity for its very existence, there is no choice. If you want to live in Israel you have to pay the price. Ethically, you cannot rely on others to do the dying for you.

So what would an ethical solution be? Conscription and military service for all Charedim to serve in Charedi units for a period of three years just like secular Israelis do. No exemptions. Limud HaTorh will not be abrogated and the spiritual army will still exist. There can still be a Yeshivas Mir or Brisk. But for a three year period of their lives Charedi young men must do their military service at the same level as the Chilonim ...only in a Charedi environment, where there is no immorality and clear adherence to Halacha. The three year military service can be done at any time in one’s life that one chooses provided it is at an age where combat duty makes sense. Learning can take place before or after that period of service...and even during... when there is time.

I see no other fair alternative. Of course this might drastically reduce the population of the Yeshiva world but I see that as a good thing not a bad one. Because ...THAT... will get rid of the chaff: those students whose only purpose for being there is to avoid the draft, the “artful dodgers” so to speak. The Torah world neither wants that nor needs it. It also, causes an undue strain on Yeshiva budgets and does nothing for Klal Yisroel.

I don’t really think my suggestion will ever be accepted (to put it mildly) and the bitter enmity between Charedim and Chilonim (...certainly a large segment of them if not all of them) will continue. Of course there are other issues that divide us but this one is a big one. If the Torah world of Charedim could show that they are willing to put their lives on the line the same way they are it would go al long way towards resolving this bitter conflict

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Case Against Teaching Intelligent Design

Yesterday I received an e-mail forwarding a statement released by Aguadth Israel. It was in response to a court ordered restriction against teaching "Intelligent Design".
In part it stated:

“The judge determined that the "Intelligent Designer" behind "Intelligent Design" is G-d. In this respect, he is right. If our Constitution, however, is to be understood as forbidding any mention in public schools of even the possibility that the universe was brought into being by the Creator that should deeply trouble all Americans.
Rabbi David Zwiebel - Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs”

Well, it is indeed troubling. But Agudah’s concern is misplaced. The fact happens to be that the concept of intelligent design does not belong in a class about science. I agree with the court.

The problem of course is that the way evolution is taught in virtually all levels of education in this country. It is taught as supporting the notion of a universe absent of God. This is in effect anti-religion even if it isn't intended that way. Or... perhaps that IS the intention. In either case, it is just as contemptuous of the establishment clause of the constitution to advocate atheism as it is advocating God’s existence.

If I were the Agudah I would advocate a different approach. In a public school system science class of a secular society such as ours I would support teaching evolution in a way that states the theory as clearly and logically as possible without any mention of God but that would include the probability statistics of the randomness factor.

Why mention probability in teaching evolution? Because the component of evolution that speaks of natural selection also speaks of sudden ...random... mutations. Once you mention the word "random" you eliminate the necessity of an "Intelligent Designer" i.e. God. In a secular classroom it is OK to teach that the world evolved into its present state randomly. In the world of statistics, even one chance in a “Gazillion” means that... it’s possible! But the statistical improbability of such randomness is that randomness alone makes evolution a highly unlikely occurrence. Even given the age of the universe as 15 billion years old, the likelihood of it happening is infinitesimally small. Doing it this way leaves out any theological teaching; it leaves it to the student to draw his own conclusions. In a secular society a science teacher should neither make the claim of God's existence nor deny it. But in fairness if randomness is taught, than statistically probabilities should be taught as well.

If students then have questions about the origins of the species, i.e. whether it was created by an “Intelligent Designer” or happened by itself randomly, they would be told that this is a science class and not a religion class.

Teaching evolution this way enables us to determine to some degree in what fashion the world of the present came into being. Whether there was a guiding force behind it or not is not a matter for science to be able to determine so itis left out of the science classroom.

“Intelligent Design” is a euphemism for God. Bringing it into a classroom and calling it science is as dishonest as is teaching atheism.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Lubavitch’s Slippery Slope

Whenever I write about Lubavitch it usually stirs up quite a bit of controversy. In my last entry on that subject once again some of the commentary revolved around the idea of: So what if they believe he is Moshiach? It isn’t Apikursus. Leave them alone and who cares what they believe!

Here's the thing: Lubavitch is big. It is getting bigger. It is spreading "The Word" to more places than ever. Will every Torah Jew ultimately become a Lubavitcher? No, of course not. But this is the first time in the history since the advent of Christianity that there is a significant chance for new "religion" to take hold born of Jewish roots. It is a different situation than that of the Sabbateans or the Frankists whose epoch was short lived. Both of those guys converted “out” of Judaism. The Rebbe died a Jew and even a saint in the eyes of many.

It is also true the current belief is not Apikursus. But the idea of a resurrected Christ (...Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos meaning Messiah) is not exactly what Judaism is about either. There is also a danger that at some point down the road the same thing might happen to Lubavitch that happened to Christianity. Remember that the first Christians were all sincere observant Jews who followed their "Rebbe". And just like the Rebbe, Jesus may have seen himself as Moshiach; not as God. That little gem of an idea occurred to someone else much later in history and along with it the idea that Christianity was not meant only for Jews but for all of mankind and as such the laws of the Torah no longer had to be observed, good ideas though they are.

Who is to say that the same thing won't happen to Lubavitch? They already have a few nutballs that think he is God.

The Rebbe is viewed by current Lubavitchers as a Christ. (I’m sure that word turns them off and makes them angry which is my reason for using it. They need to know exactly what they are preaching). Although it is now 2000 years later, the parallels are not that dissimilar. In fact Lubavitchers are more similar to early Hebrew Christians than they are to the Sabbateans because Shabsai Tzvi abrogated the need for observance of Halacha during his rein (i.e. before his capture and conversion to Islam).

So as I said, with the numbers being as great and increasing geometrically, and Kiruv being their main staple, I think there is a definite danger in them splintering off from mainstream Judaism at some point in the future and becoming another religion. Internally they will believe that THEY are the true bearers of our Mesorah and bring all kinds of “proofs” about the validity of their views. Additionally they can easily make the claim that they are the most Medakdek as a whole in Mitzvah observance and therefore the most rightful heirs to our Mesorah.

The rest of the Torah world will claim they are Apikursim or nearly that; and that their Hashkafos are contrary to our Mesorah. The result: two large segments of observant Jews claiming that each is authentic with one being seen by the other as inauthentic as Islam or Christianity. And both will be competing for the hearts and minds of fellow Jews. With Lubavitch’s Kiruv organization growing at unprecedented levels... well, do the math.

As I have said so many times, they were and could eventually still be one of the most valuable assets the Torah world possesses. Their Ahavas Yisroel is legendary as is their dedication to Kiruv. Their dedication to Torah and Mitzvos are exemplary. All they need to do is... come home. They need to stop being an entity unto themselves, reject in totality that their Rebbe is or will be Moshiach. If this happens maybe Moshiach WILL come soon.

Right now the opposite is happening.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Merry... What?

There’s been something bothering me for a few days and I thought I would get it off my chest.

In years past, the Christmas season was one of those times of year where I really felt... well... Jewish. What I mean is that during this time of year with all the holiday decorations and the “Christmas Cheer” in the air, I felt like I really didn’t belong. This was the only time of year I felt that way and it was somewhat of an uncomfortable feeling for a Centrist like me. . But in recent years I guess I wasn’t paying so much attention to it and it hasn’t bothered me at all... until this year.

This year there more then ever there has been a backlash from our Christian friends And it hasn’t been only from the religious right. Even the irreligious left has been doing it.

Doing what? ... you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

They have been doing everything from poking fun at the political correctness of saying happy holidays instead of merry Christmas to actually making a crusade out of getting the word Christmas back into the lexicon.

I have always been against this push, usually by the likes of the ACLU, to do way with Christmas as an American holiday. Not because I don’t think they’re right. They are. A secular country should not have a religious holiday as a national holiday. It is as simple as that. Having a national Christmas tree is at least against the spirit if not the letter of the separation of church and state clause in the constitution. In fact this is why I am against big public Menorah displays as well.

But in point of fact, who really cares if there is a national Christmas tree? So what if the people of this country, the vast majority of whom are Christians want to celebrate their holiday this way? Who does it hurt? It doesn’t hurt me. They don’t make me do it.

In my view the ACLU has done us a disservice in advocating the elimination of Christmas from the public square. This has caused an unpleasant backlash from everyone but the President. He has sent out Holiday cards without mentioning Christmas. A thoughtful man indeed. But he was the only one in the country that seems to have understood that Jews and other religions do not celebrate Christmas and saying Merry Christmas to us meaningless. Others have felt differently. The parody on it I saw on SNL ridiculing the elimination of the word Christmas from the public discourse really drove this point home.

So who needs it? Who needs all this political correctness? And its attendant backlash?!

Let them have their Christmas. If you don’t like being wished a Merry Christmas, well all I have to say to you is: Get a Life.


I attended a Lubavitch wedding last night. The group there, I would say, represents the mainstream of Lubavitch in Chicago. Mainstream Lubavitchers here claim that the Meshichists are a small but vocal minority here and across the world. But you would not know it from this crowd. The Chupah ceremony (as well as every other Lubavitch wedding I ever attended since the Rebbe's death) contained the famous "Yechi" expression which declares that the Rebbe is Moshiach, long may he live! The mantra is repeated serially three times by the Rabbi given the Kibud under the Chupah and then the audience. Throughout the evening, there were references and songs proclaiming the Rebbe to be Moshiach.

There were Lubavitch antis were there and I didn't see any of them blink an eye. No Protests. Nothing! In fact, one of the leaders of the so called anti-Meshichists was the Mesader Kedushin. When I asked him about it, he said he was caught off guard but that he didn't think that this group represented mainstream Lubavitch thinking.


I know that Lubavitch leadership on a national level is against the Meshichists... or at least their public expressions of Meshichism. But I am more convinced than ever that the mainstream of Lubavitch are all true believers.

Lubavitch is huge... bigger than ever and growing by leaps and bounds. If the vast majority of them believe that the Rebbe will be resurrected as the Christ messiah, this can only cause great harm to Klal Yisroel, even if they are not eleohists. The huge numbers they produce through their vast Kiruv efforts and their high birth rates can make them the single biggest demographic in years to come.


Where is the Agudah? Mizrachi, other Chasidic Rebbes? The OU? YU? All I hear is silence.

Is Rabbi David Berger the only one with the courage to raise his voice?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Hooray for Hollywood? ...Not!

There is a culture war in this country.

I still believe that the majority (over 50 percent) is moral. The problem is that there is a large minority (near 50 percent) that is a-moral or immoral. The source of the problem is Hollywood. They belong to the latter group and they have an undue influence on society, because of the constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech. That enables them put out this garbage which is fueled by the demands of a public clamoring for even more.

The Torah world need to lobby congress together with other religious groups including Christians and Catholics, to insist that Hollywood's claim that they are merely exercising their right to free speech is not free speech at all. Producing smut is akin to yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. Free speech that incites a riot ceases to be free speech and causes damgage which impinges on the rights of others. This is not what the founding fathers intended. The "Fire" that Hollywood is "yelling" is an increasing level of smut which they claim is free speech protected by the constitution. It is time to reverse the trend.

It is our duty as citizens of this country to try and maintain some semblance of decency in our standards of behavior and in the kind of entertainment that is in the public square.

And the obligation is not only the domain of Centrists, but of Charedim as well. Just because they are able to insulate themselves does not meant they can ignore it. Because no matter how insulated they are, it creeps in. Agudah, Mizrachi, the OU, Edah, Chasidim, Misnagdim... All should join together to protest the ever increasing lowering of decency standards that Hollywood is foisting upon us. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Gay Cowboys and Marriage

For quite some time now there has been a great debate about whether this country should liberalize our marriage laws. We are on the precipice of making a monumental and historic decision on whether we will, as a nation and as great society with unparalleled freedom, recognize homosexual marriage on par with heterosexual marriage.

There are two conflicting principles here:

1. The Judeo-Christian ethic that defines the moral character of our founding fathers and the vast majority of our nation, thereby defining those who commit homosexual acts as immoral.

2. Democracy’s imperative to protect the rights of any identifiable group to be free to practice any and all behaviors as long as those behaviors do no individual or communal harm... and leave any moral issues behind the church door.

In a free non-sectarian society such as ours here in the United States, where religious doctrines are not a part of that society’s charter it behooves the government to protect the rights of any non-religious minority against the tyranny of a religious majority whose guiding principles are governed by religious doctrine. This argues in favor of granting rights to a homosexual population who does not harm the majority through their practices.

However, any nation which claims to have concepts of morality cannot divorce itself from their religious origins no matter how much they claim to be a moral nation without them. Furthermore morality cannot be relative, for then it loses all real meaning and becomes simply a whim of the times... the so called zeitgeist which is fickle at best and can become evil at worst.

This then becomes a dichotomy: Do we sacrifice absolutist concepts of democracy in order to maintain the moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian heritage? Or do we sacrifice our religious heritage upon the alter of unfettered freedom at any cost?

What cost? It is nothing short of the decay and the ultimate destruction of civilization as we know it. Because once relativism takes hold as the definitive morality of a free society then nothing but a whimsical public that is strongly influenced by a powerful entertainment industry will begin to accept any and all of even the most morally reprehensible of behavior.

It is this industry based in Hollywood which is saturated with an ethic of moral relativism and guided mostly by a profit motive which is the driving force behind the current moral decay. Combine this with a huge percentage of the public whose insatiable appetite for pornography is demonstrated by the virtual explosion of available pornography on the internet and everywhere else... and it can and only lead America down a path of self destruction.

Hollywood constantly pushes the envelope of what is considered acceptable sexual behavior to be presented to the public. The most recent example is the newly released feature film “Brokeback Mountain” a movie about two “gay cowboys” which as I understand it contains the most explicit sexual scenes between two homosexuals ever filmed by a mainstream Hollywood production company. With moral relativism as a guide, can bestiality, incest, pedophilia, and ...God knows what else!... be far behind? All of this can easily become as acceptable as apple pie, if presented in gradual fashion over time. Is this what we want for our county’s future? I hope not.

It therefore becomes necessary to choose the absolute morality as defined in the Judeo-Christian ethic over the complete freedom of an unfettered free democracy and not accept gay marriage as equal to heterosexual marriage. To equalize homosexual marriage with heterosexual marriage could take us down the slippery slope of the suicide of Western civilization as we know it.

The buck has to stop here.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bee Season

There is a movie playing now in theaters called "Bee Season". A review I have read says that it is in part, a story involving Kabala.

The current pop culture fascination with Kabala is somewhat of an enigma to me. I could never understand its draw and being a rationalist by nature, have never wanted to pursue its study. But Kabala is a legitimate part of Judaism and because it has been getting so much attention lately ...and now with this new movie... I want to make a few comments about the current phenomenon.

I haven’t seen the movie yet so I will reserve judgment on that. But Kabala in general has entered mainstream America because of a pop icon by the name of Madonna. She has almost single handedly made Kabala a household word. Is this a good thing?

Well, the truth is, I don’t know.

There is another person responsible for the current fascination by the name of Philip Berg. He is the head of the Kabbalah Centre and has been around for decades trying to sell his wares. He was pretty much been ignored until Madonna came along. She has bought into it big time. And she has brought other celebrities along with her and in the process has drawn a great deal of public attention to it.

Is the Kabala that she studies legitimate? Or is it false? Is Berg a charlatan or L’Shma... is he doing God’s work or the devil’s?

Well, it depends upon who you ask. But mostly, mainstream Judaism has repudiated Berg completely as an opportunist and fraud. On the other hand the Kabala he teaches is not entirely made up. It is based on the Zohar. The kinds of paraphernalia he is currently hawking like the red string, has been around a long time, especially in Sephardic communities who are much more oriented towards Kabala than Ashkenazic ones. He did not make it up. Of course, he does a good job in spinning Kabala to his own benefit and his organization spreads it not only to the traditional parameters of Jewish study which is reserved for men over forty but even beyond the walls of Jewry. He has been promoting it to non-Jews. The truth is I’m not sure how Halacha deals with promulgating it beyond Jewish students. But my gut feeling is that in and of itself teaching legitimate Kabala and not some perversion of it may not be such a bad thing.

Be that as it may I am not here to write about Berg. My guess is that he is somewhere between a charlatan and a true believer... probably more the former than the latter.

The question in my mind is whether all this attention is a positive development for Judaism or not. Is it a good thing for celebrities like Madonna and others to sing the praises of things Jewish? Is that good PR for us? Is it a Kiddush HaShem when a non-Jew so sincerely embraces a complete stream of our teachings? Or... is Madonna’s association with Kabala a Chilul HaShem because of status as one of the worst promoters of immorality in modern times.

The fact that some in Berg’s organization have been arrested for fraud and that his organization has been accused of greed as their primary motive argues the Chilul HaShem side. The fact that a high profile celebrity like Madonna has changed her life for the better because of it, argues the Kiddush HaShem side.

Those are some of my thoughts. I am as of yet not sure whether all this interest in Kabala is a good or bad thing.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Tents of Jacob

From an article in the Jerusalem Post:

"...a 20-year-old Ponevezh Yeshiva student was severely beaten and stabbed by a number of assailants. Police said the youth, from Jerusalem, was attacked inside the yeshiva building and evacuated to
Sheba Hospital in moderate condition. The stabbing, police said, appeared to be part of an internal turf war atthe prestigious Lithuanian yeshiva, which has been torn apart
recently byrivaling rabbis fighting for control of the institution. However, Ponevezh yeshiva students denied police claims that the incident was related to the ongoing feud between rabbinic camps vying for control of the yeshiva."

How low! ...this flagship Yeshiva of the Torah world has sunk! It seems that a Torah atmosphere cannot guarantee against hooliganism of the most violent type.

The denial by students that it wasn't related to the ongoing feud between camps rings a bit hollow. One of the sons of the two Roshei Yeshiva in question has left the yeshiva because of it. I met him in a suburb of the city of Bet Shemesh last Sukkos where he now lives. The Machlokes is going strong. He left because he could not take it anymore.

Just to be clear, I am not so concerned that there is a dispute about who will head the Yeshiva. Disputes like this have happened many times in Jewish history. Most recently it happened in Telshe Yeshiva between Rav Binyamin Gifter and Rav Yitzchak Sorotzkin. It was a bitter fight but was ultimately resolved... without anyone getting stabbed!!!

The fact that there is such unbelievable violence in the “tents of Jacob” is a manifestation of something far worse than a simple dispute over power. And it isn't the first time this type of assault happened. If the two camps involved can't put a stop to it then the Yeshiva should have all government funding stopped.

It is a major Chilul HaShem!

The Solomon Schechter Schools: An Orthodox Quandary

I have often pondered the value of the Solomon Schechter School system.

The Solomon Schechter schools are the primary educational institutions of the Conservative movement. On the one hand they are indeed teaching a view of Judaism that from an Orthodox viewpoint is considered to be heretical. The heresy consists of a belief in the concept of biblical criticism which denies that the events at Sinai ever took place. They say instead that it was written much later in various different periods in Jewish history, mostly during the Babylonian Exile. They do, however, say that biblical narrative is an allegory written by the scribes and was divinely inspired.

On the other hand, Solomon Schechter schools teach that Mitzvah observance as mandated by the Torah, the Talmud and the Codes are binding. While they dispute Orthodoxy’s interpretation of those codes in some instances they agree to their binding nature generally.

So a child who attends such a school has a mixed bag of information to deal with, a combination of heresy and Halacha observance. In light of the proliferation of the Solomon Schechter schools, (...a somewhat late development in their history but never-the-less an increased presence on the Jewish landscape)the question arises as to how one should view attendance in such schools by those who would otherwise attend public schools.

Most of those attending those schools will quite likely continue to assimilate into oblivion, but, a significant minority will be inspired to continue in the movement as committed Conservative Jews believing themselves to be a legitimate denomination. This is a dangerous proposition in that the Torah world will have to face yet another group of educated Jews with apostate beliefs who will be difficult to distinguish from Modern Orthodox Jews with a legitimate view of the events at Sinai. They will think, act and look like Orthodox Jews, observing Mitzvos some attending Orthodox synagogues and participating in Jewish life in much the same way that the Modern Orthodox do. The only difference will be their views about the events at Sinai. Many/most do not believe it ever happened.

On the other hand, they will be learning elements of Judaism that are essentially true. And perhaps they will be motivated to seek truth by looking into Orthodox Judaism after seeing the hypocrisy of the Conservative movement. This has indeed happened. Many times. Without Solomon Schechter, these very sincere Baalei Teshuva would never have been exposed to Judaism at all.

Until a few years ago many of the graduates of the Solomon Schechter elementary schools attended the Modern Orthodox High school here in Chicago. After four years at an Orthodox high school many (but not all) of those graduates remain Orthodox.

An additional argument in favor of those schools is that it is much easier to mainstream kids who have had an elementary education consisting of reading Hebrew, learning Chumash, Navi, Jewish history, and other Jewish subjects, than it is trying to educate Baalei Teshuva who have virtually no background. Without the Solomon Schechter Schools, most of these kids would have gone to public schools and would have almost certainly been lost to assimilation.

So are we better off with the Solomon Schechter school system, or are we better off without Them?

I simply don’t know.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


There has bee a lot of talk about the new, and as of yet, unseen movie “Munich” by filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

First, a word about Mr. Spielberg. Although a non-observant Jew (a Tinok SheNishba) He is none-the-less a hero in a town that is usually concerned with anything but heroics. Hollywood is all about money and self indulgence. Although he one of the wealthiest and most successful people in Hollywood, Mr. Spielberg is not about that. Ever since his magnum opus, “Schindler’s List”, he has been elevated into in a category all to himself. He took the subject of the holocaust and made it front burner more than anyone else. That movie with its vivid images of the horrors of the holocaust combined with the heroics of a single individual non-Jew who rose to the occasion was one of the most honored films in history.

But Mr. Spielberg went beyond that. He donated all the profits from that movie to the holocaust museum and the preservation of the testimony of as many survivors as possible through his Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

And this makes it all the more perplexing as to why he made this particular film at this particular time. For those who don’t know, Munich is about the events that took place after eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics held in Munich, in which the Israeli government, of Prime Minister Golda Meir mounted a secret war of revenge against the murderers.

This event may or may not have been the most moral decision Israel ever made but that is beside the point. How can anyone judge a government decision of over 30 years ago by today’s standards? Why this film and why now? ...and of all people to write a screenplay about this movie... why Tony Kushner? Who is Tony Kushner? Here is a pertinent quote:

“(Israel) was founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing, and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people”. (Yale Israel Journal: September 28, 2004)

I cannot imagine why Steven Spielberg chose this man for this job. But it can’t have been one of his more lucid moments. To chose this man to write a movie about a controversial event in Israel’s history seems to be at the very least, a lapse in judgment. How could any real balance be written into a script by a man who thinks that the country he is writing about was founded through ethnic cleansing a term formerly used only to describe the actions of Nazis?!

In the current climate of world hostility towards Israel (with the very important exception of the United States, thankfully) and in this great battle against Islamic terrorism it would seem prudent to not make a movie that can only generate even greater hostility to Israel than currently exists. Israel does not need any more condemnation and to bring up this piece of history now in a major motion picture by perhaps the greatest living director in the world is an act which lacks any common sense at all. What makes matters worse is that the respectability of director Spielberg lends prestige to this movie it might not otherwise get. The fact that he is Jewish adds and undue credibility to it and the fact that he is so identified with his great contribution to preservation of the memory the holocaust makes it almost impossible to accuse him of anything but the noblest of motives.

Mr. Spielberg has responded to criticism about this movie by saying:

"I'm always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine," he says. "There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?" (Time magazine: December12th)

This is a morally repugnant view because of its moral equivalency. He is in essence saying “The cycle of violence must end.” if to say each side is guilty of the same violence for equally valid reasons. The implication of such statements is that if one side stops the other will no longer respond. Then there will be Shalom Al Yisroel, peace on earth; good will towards men. But only the most naive person would see the Israeli Palestinian conflict in those terms. I don’t want to get into a whole discussion about it but suffice it to say that terrorist suicide bombers blowing up innocent civilians is in no possible way equivalent to Israel’s justified targeted executions of terrorist leaders responsible for suicide missions. But this seems to be how Mr. Spielberg sees things.

To be fair, the movie is as of yet unseen except by a few critics and the reviews as I understand it have been mixed. I will have to wait and see. But in my opinion this was not a wise move for a man who has done so much for his fellow Jews.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Of Jews and Gentiles

There are several seemingly contradictory beliefs about non-Jews in Torah Judaism; On the one hand we have the belief that we are the Am HaNivchar... the Chosen People. We were chosen by God to receive His Torah. Other nations were given the opportunity and rejected it so we were given the "Take it or die" option at Maamid Har Sinai. So it is our Torah adherence that makes us superior. Not because of anything that we innately have but because of what Torah does for us. It is the Torah that raises us above the fray, not any inherent biology. And the Torah wasn't even voluntarily accepted till the events of Purim. It took the Am K'shei Oref (...not a particularly flattering trait) that long... to understand its benefits enough to finally say Kimu V’Kiblu... and accept it voluntarily.

The other side of the coin is the constant appellation used to describe the gentile's relationship with the Jew: Halacha Hee, Esav Sonei Es Yaakov. Then there is the constant haranguing by some Mechanchim about how Bnei Noach are Michuiv Misah if the violate any of the Sheva Mitzvos Shelahem.

Sometimes there are religious inspirational figures who, when trying to exhort us toward ethical behavior, they point to the “Goy” as the model for unethical behavior. One Mechanech I know has made the statement, “He cannot be MiZera Yisarael” when disapproving of someone’s perceived unethical behavior. I hear these kinds of statements all the time. The subliminal message: Zera Yisrael... is superior Zera!

Even in my own early education there was certainly more of an emphasis on the inherent evils of “the Goy” than there was on their Tzelem Elokim aspect. How often I heard, and still hear, the comparisons between “the Jewish way” and “the “Goyish way”?

The famous Hadran given at any Siyum Mesechta is chock full of such comparisons: Anu Mashkimim, VeHeim Mashkimim... Anu Ameilim, VeHeim Ameilim... Anu Ratzim, VeHeim Ratzim... The subliminal message is that we are inherently better then “them”.

But it is not true. It is not us. It is our beliefs... beliefs that translate into actions. It is the observance of Halacha... the practice of Mitzvos Bein Adam LaMakom AND bein Adam L’Chavero, which make us better, not any inherent superiority.

When secular culture is constantly denigrated the easy association to make, is that the “evil culture” is the Goyishe culture. When a Jew is seen doing something wrong, it is always blamed on the Goyishe Kop (gentile mindset).

In short it is rare to hear anything positive about Goyim. Goyim are automatically deemed inferior. That this is because they lack Torah is skimmed over and the Goy is looked upon as an inferior being. The very word “Goy” is a pejorative.

Is it any wonder then that in certain Yeshiva high schools there is such a dichotomy in behavior of young high school age Bnei Torah between in the way Rabbeim are treated and the way secular teachers are treated? The Rebbe is venerated, as he should be. But the secular teacher is the object of scorn mostly behind his back and occasionally even to his face! This creates enormous Chilul HaShem but these young people are oblivious to it.

The secular teacher is often subjected to ridicule and treated like a moron... there to be tolerated only because of some “silly” rules by state government about educational requirements but never to be taken seriously. Did not the Charedi press in Israel essentially endorse this attitude (if not this behavior) by claiming that all secular knowledge is “emptiness”? Is it not the attitude by many Roshei Yeshivos and Rabbeim that serious study of secular subjects (i.e. the entire academic universe of the gentile) is Bitul Zman?

On the other side of the coin, there is one undisputable damning fact about the non-Jew. It is the history of evil in Europe that he has perpetrated to his Jewish neighbor over the centuries culminating in the ultimate evil, the Holocaust. Even prior to the holocaust Jews were persecuted whether by pogrom, massacres, or by simple prejudice as they were in some cases barred from entire countries. Those countries that did allow a Jew residence barred him from certain neighborhoods and professions forcing them to live in ghettos and become moneylenders. This reinforced the negative Jewish image of Jews as “Shylocks” out for their “pound of flesh” so immortalized by William Shakespeare. Jews were constantly vilified in literature even by some of the most distinguished of authors who used the most negative of stereotypes when writing about the Jew. It is no small wonder that Jews have come to look so negatively upon the gentile. 2000 years of persecution can do that to you.

Unfortunately this image of the persecution of Jews by the non-Jew (or his government) has been retained well into the mindset of some American Jews... especially amongst Chasidim. They who have absorbed and retained their parent’s feelings about the Goy... transferred those feelings to non-Jewish Americans, and believe to this day, that it is a Mitzvah to lie, cheat, or steal from a Goy as long as you don’t get caught. They believe all Goyim to be on the very lowest rung of humanity and deserving of such treatment, even though there is little if any evidence that American non Jews harbor any kind of ill feeling toward their fellow Jewish citizens.

It has thus become the mindset of the some Jewish educators that anything Goyish is automatically inferior. It does not take much of a leap to believe that the Goy is a genetically inferior being.

But this is wrong, wrong, wrong... and is a gross failure of the Jewish educational system.

Hakaras HaTov to the State of Israel

I am not a Religious Zionist. In fact in matters of government policy with respect to issues of “land for peace” I generally side with the Charedi view. I am a strong advocate for protecting the lives of Israelis over retention of land and if giving up land saves lives... I am all for it. Religious Zionists by and large want to hold on to land at all costs.

This being said there is an aspect of Charedi behavior which is very troubling and which is, in my opinion causing much harm to the fabric of Israeli society.

The story is told that when a member of Mizrachi (Religious Zionists) asked Rabbi Kahaneman if he said Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut his reply was, “My Minhag is to do what (Former Prime Minister) David Ben Gurion does. I don’t say Hallel… I don’t say Tachnun. And… on Yom HaAtzmaut, back in the 1960s (when Rav Kahaneman was the Rosh Yeshiva) the Israeli flag flew from Ponovitch's roof on Yom HaAtzmaut. There were detractors then who did not agree. One was Rabbi Menachem Man Schach, Rabbi Kahaneman’s successor who sat down and said Tachnun by himself.

One of the problems I have with Charedi leadership is their penchant for selective truth. Their Bnei Torah are influenced to believe that present day thinking on various controversial subjects is monolithic. Charedi Hashkafa is anti Medina. The founding Zionists are considered anti Torah whose agenda was to make the State of Israel free of its bonds. Of course, that was never completely true but it was truer back in the pioneer days than it is now. Now, only a few groups of people in government want to completely route out the Torah from the state and certainly not most secular Israelis. Most of them just want to be left alone and do not have anti Torah agendas.

Back in the founding days, there were Charedi leaders that understood the importance of Hakaras HaTov to the Medina and no less a figure than the Chazon Ish made accommodations with them. And the famed founder of Ponevitch Yeshiva in Israel, Rav Kahaneman thought enough of the Medina to not say Tachanun on Yom HaAtzmaut and fly the Israeli flag. But you would be hard pressed to find a Ben Torah of a Charedi yeshiva that knows this.

The myth of uniformity should be exploded. It does not bode well for a Torah society to follow only one narrow Shittah. Besides stifling intellectual honesty there is great sociological damage in denying facts of history. That some of Charedi leadership is anti Medina is well known and cannot be avoided. They will never be convinced otherwise. But for them to insist that their way is the only way is wrong. Historically, religious figures greater than they have proven otherwise.

Absolutist rejectionist attitudes are wrong and create unnecessary hostilities between the secular and religious populations. Displaying an Israeli flag is anathema to Charedim today. But it wasn’t for Rav Kahaneman. Displaying the Israeli flag which shows at least a modicum of support for the State, would dispel the notion of complete disdain by Bnei Torah for anything even remotely connected with the State. There should also be a sense of HaKaras HaTov even for the early pioneers (irreligious though most of them were) for the physical development of the land and the creation of a modern civilization, which paved the way for the virtual explosion of learning Torah that takes place in Israel today. There is no greater Makom Torah. This would not be the case without the efforts of those early pioneers. Yet... most yeshivalite have virtually no understanding or recognition of that fact. Charedi efforts are to the contrary. Most Bnei Torah that I speak to, have nothing but evil to say about Medinat Yisroel.

It is true that the present leadership does deserve criticism or even condemnation sometimes. And when deserved it should be offered freely. But it shouldn't be... all criticism all the time. And where they deserve it, the praise should flow as freely as the condemnation does when they deserve that. A little praise would go a long way towards improving relations between the secular Israelis and the religious. Much of the anti-Charedi rhetoric is based on complete ignorance of Torah Hashkafa by Tinokos SheNishbu and have little if anything to do with "agendas".

I will end with this anecdote. Yeshivas Mir was attacked during the six day war. No one was hurt. After the war Rav Chaim Shmulevitz gave a Sicha (talk or speech) to the Mir Bnei Yeshiva. Rav Chaim was one of the Gedolei HaDor, so a lot of Bnei Torah outside of Mir attended that Sicha. The point he wanted to drive home was his Hakaras HaTov to the Bnei Torah, the spiritual army whose Torah learning contributed to the safety of the Yeshiva during the six day war, and to the Israeli Defense Forces for the physical protection they provided. He said both were necessary.

The reaction of Briskers who attended was total rejection of this point of view. They could not countenance any HaKaras HaTov to the Medina and disparaged Rav Shmulevitz because of it. In other words their contempt for the Medina was so great that disparaging a Gadol was justified.

Unfortunately the Brisker attitude of yesterday has become the attitude of most Charedi Bnei Torah today.

It is an outrage and it must change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Chumra, Minhag, and Hidur

A Chumra is the incorporation of a legitimate stringency that is not the Halachic ruling into one's behavior . By legitimate stringency I mean that there often exists in Psak Halacha differing Shitos as to what the appropriate performance of a Mitzva should take. The Shulchan Aruch’s ruling will usually be lenient in Halacha based on the majority of Rishonim who are lenient (Mekil) vs. the minority who are stringent (Machmir). But there still remains the possibility that the more stringent ruling by other Rishonim might be the correct one. So adopting the more stringent view would be adopting a Chumra.

An example would be the use of an Eruv in a metropolitan area.

To explain this Halacha briefly, a Reshus HaRabim D’Oraisa (a biblically defined public area) cannot in any way be turned into a Reshus HaYachid (private domain). A Reshus HaRabim D’Oraisa is defined as any area that has streets sixteen Amos (Cubits) wide and a population of at least 600,000 people. If, however, an area contains less then 600,000 people making it a biblical Reshus HaYachid (Karmelis) then carrying is prohibited only rabbinically. Our sages mandated that since it is similar looking to a Reshus HaRabim D’Oraisa it is then deemed a Reshus HaRabim D’Rabbanan and they did not allow carrying in it. A Karmelis can be adjusted to become a rabbinical Reshus HaYachid that would allow carrying.

This is done by means of an Eruv. An Eruv is in essence an enclosure surrounding a Karmelis on all four sides. The exact parameters of an Eruv are beyond the scope of this essay. But, clearly, mainstream Jewish law allows the use of the Eruv so that one can carry objects in public areas.

So, getting back to the subject at hand, the Chumra would be, for those whose view follows that of the Rambam, a minority view that a Reshus HaRabim D’Oraisa requires only that streets to 16 Amos wide and does not require 600,000 residents. According to the Rambam a Karmelis is a Reshus HaRabim D’Oraisa and cannot be made into Reshus HaYachid by means of an Eruv. Carrying would be prohibited biblically. So, in any given city where there are typical streets, no Eruv would help no matter how small the population.

So not using an Eruv in metropolitan areas, no matter how many stringencies are built into it is indeed a legitimate Chumra ...and this is the position of The House of Brisk. They consider all metropolitan Eruvin to be useless.

However, if there is no legitimate view that is stringent on specific performance of a Mitzvah, then being stringent is an unnecessary exercise that is self defined and has no purpose.

Minhag or custom, though sometimes very nice, should not fall into the category of Chumra unless it has a source in Rishonim. For example, wearing a black hat during prayer or eating Matza Balls in one's is not a Chumra.

Levels of observance also do not fall into the category of Chumra. If the sages mandate three forms of observance of a particular mitzvah, than there are three levels of Hidur, meaning preferable or higher form of observance, not three levels ranging from Kula to Chumra. Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah with an additional candle every night is a Hidur over lighting one candle per night. It is not a Chumra.

It is interesting to note that one man's Kula is another man's Chumra. Rabbi Eliahu Soloveichik told me that Brisk is very stringent on Brachos (blessings). They do NOT make the Shehechyanu blessing on purchases of new clothes. The Chumra is...not to make an unnecessary Bracha which if said violates the prohibition of saying God’s name in vein.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lubavitch Messianism: How Far Does It Go?

Rabbi David Berger author of “The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference” forwarded an e-mail correspondence from “the Rabbis’ Forum”. It was a discussion on the issue of how far Lubavitch, specifically their flagship Yeshiva at 770 Eastern Parkway has gone in its Rebbe worship. There is a video of a Mincha at 770 which is quite frightening. It apparently shows that at the beginning of Mincha, the Lubavitch Mispallelim leave a big opening for the Rebbe to come to his chair, and they do the same thing at the end, when the Rebbe leaves... exactly as it was in the Rebbe's lifetime. Furthermore, to quote Rabbi Berger:

“...there is independent evidence that the phrase "Avinu malkenu ein lanu melekh ella attah" is said by these chevre with the Rebbe in mind as "atzmut u-mahut placed in a body" understood in an utterly literal fashion.

I find it disingenuous of those in positions of leadership in Lubavitch who claim to be anti-Meshichist to say that the Lubavitchers there are an insignificant but vocal minority. That would be like saying that what the Yeshivaleit and Yungeleit in Lakewood believe represents an insignificant minority of what Charedim actually believe. Or to say that JTS activities are not representative of the Conservative Movements beliefs. You cannot claim that your home base institution ...which has been glorified by many (if not most) Lubavitchers as the virtual Beis Hamikdash in our time... is not in any way representative of their mainstream beliefs. If, as some of them claim, 770 is in captive Meshichist hands then they ought to disavow it in its entirety. But instead they still go on pilgrimages there and consider many of these people only misguided. Well misguided implies that they are not so wrong.

This adds fuel to my beliefs that calling a Lubavitcher an Anti Meshichist is a misnomer. The vast majority believe at some level that the Rebbe is at least possibly the Christos (Greek, for the Messiah). And those who are overt Meshichists might as well say Yechi... the Rebbe, Christ!

And now, to have an actual video recording of the type of behavior Rabbi Berger describes makes the problem even greater than I feared.

The only thing that makes me a bit cautious on the matter is Rabbi Michael Broyde’s observations and comments. He is a respected Dayan on the RCA Bet Din. He saw the video twice and concluded that it was not a manifestation of Avodah Zara. I have a good deal of respect for his integrity and judgment on these matters. OTOH he is also a man who is quite often Dan L’Kaf Zechus. Did he go too far in judging 770 so favorably in this way? I don’t know, but the description of that video provided by Dr. Berger makes it very difficult to believe anything less than what he (Dr. Berger) has concluded: that Lubavitchers should be far more suspect of their beliefs than here-to-fore believed.

Of course the problem becomes immense when one considers how deeply they are involved in all aspect of our lives without our even being aware of it. The Rubashkin organization that provides a huge proportion of kosher meats to the market is populated by many Shochtim who are both Lubavitchers and non-Lubavitchers. None of the Hechsher organization that give their own Hechsherim on Rubashkin products (such as the OU and KAJ) are Makpid whether their Shochtim are Lubavitch or not. That means anyone who uses these products is in danger of eating meat that was slaughtered by a very pious looking Jew who happens to believe in Apikursus. Lubavitcher Shochtim are all over the place. This would make it almost impossible to eat any kosher meat because of the very strong possibility it being Shechted by a Lubavitcher who has deified the Rebbe even if he hasn’t done so publicly. How can we know what in the heart of a Lubavitcher Shochet? ...and with the type of things taking place at 770, Lubavitch World Headquarters, it seems to me that the danger is more than remote.

If Rabbi Berger is accurate in his observations and conclusions we have a big problem and it isn’t being addressed properly at all and the scandal of indifference in the Orthodox community is growing ever greater!

If Lubavitch wants to re-claim any credibility with the rest of the Orthodox world it needs to do a lot more then they are doing now. They need to remove all vestiges of Moshichism from 770, renounce any claim that the Rebbe is Moshiach and join the rest of Klal Yisroel in some tangible way such as becoming members of Agudath Israel of America. At this point, only something like this would convince the rest of Orthodoxy of the sincerity of their claims that they are anti-Meshichists.

Words are no longer enough.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Ten Most Influential Jews of the Last Millennium

At the end of the last millennium many publications and other media were putting out lists of various different kinds reflective of that millennium. One such list published by Jerusalem Report Magazine consisted of the 100 most influential Jews. They then invited readers to list their top 10 and perhaps the reasons for the choices. I though it would be fun to do so at the time so I came up with a list of my own. These are my choices not in somewhat of chronological order order. I based them on their over-all impact on us today rather than how they impacted their own time. Over five years have passed since I compiled this list and I don’t think I would change any name on the list. For those who read my blog and haven’t seen my list before, here it is followed by my reasons for choosing them:

1. The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon
2. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki
3. The Beis Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Caro
4. The Rama, Rabbi Moses Isserles
5. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah Kramer
6. The Baal Shem Tov
7. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner
8. Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik
9. Rabbi Aharon Kotler
10. Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Of course, there are a great many more people who might qualify to be on the top ten and indeed many could make legitimate arguments for any of such names that do not make my top ten. The list could have easily included names like the Ramban, R. Shraga Fievel Medelowitz, Dr. Bernard Revel, The Chofetz Chaim, R. Shnayer Zalman of Liadi, The Mezritcher Magid, R. AY Kook, R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, The Nodeh B’Yehudah, and Rabbi Akiva Eiger. These are just some of the names that come to mind. All of them are great figures of the last millennium and many would argue that I could easily replace one or more of my choices with one or more of these names. And they might even be right. Indeed there are many more names that I haven’t mentioned that might easily qualify. But in order to keep the list down to ten I had to make choices.

Here are the reasons for my choices.

I chose the Rambam because of his Magnum Opus, the Yad HaChazaka, extracting all Halacha from the Talmud and organizing it by subject matter, a feat which has never been duplicated. Add to that his treatise on Jewish Philosophy: the Moreh Nevuchim, his mastery of Medicine, and his general level of genius... choosing him is a no brainer.

Rashi... because he opened up the Talmud for all of subsequent generations. Without Rashi's commentary, the Talmud would be a closed book. And the Talmud is where our Torah SheBal Peh was discussed, debated and written down for posterity so that the Oral law would not be forgotten. Without it Judaism would be lost as we would have not way of knowing Torah SheBal Peh since over time there were too many new developments requiring Psak which would have made impossible to transmit orally through the generations.

R. Yosef Caro who codified in his Shulchan Aruch all practical Halacha taken from the Talmud as discussed by the major Rishonim for all subsequent generations in a simple and straight forward manner.

R. Moses Isserles whose glosses appended to Rabbi Caro’s Sefardi orientaion in the Shulchan Aruch, are the Halacha for Ashkenazi (European) Jews.

The Vilna Gaon, because of his great piety and genius which is acknowledged by all segments of Jewry, and because of innovative elimination of excessive pilpul in learning Talmud, and because of his meticulous and courageous corrections of Shas.

The Baal Shem Tov whose creation of Chasidus has had one of the most profound impacts on Judaism since the destruction of the second Temple. Chasidus can be credited with the salvation of Judaism during the turmoil created by the combined effects of: enlightenment, the opening of general society to the Jews, and the subsequent threat of Haskalah to a population ill equipped to handle it.

R. Chaim Volozhiner, who created the Yeshiva as we know it today. Without the Yeshiva, knowledge of the Torah would have been even more severely limited than it was. It was through the yeshiva that the elite minds of the day were able to absorb Torah knowledge and spread it to the masses. And because of that, ultimately the Yeshiva system itself has spread to the masses so that today all of Jewry has opportunity for Torah knowledge.

R. Chaim Soloveitchik because of his revolutionary approach (of clarity and definition) to learning Talmud and commentaries (especially the Rambam), which has been adopted as the standard form of learning invirtually all Yeshivos today.

R. Aharon Kotler, whose transplantation of the classic yeshiva of Europe (i.e. the Volozhinist model) to American soil and subsequently established almost singlehandedly the wide system of Yeshiva Chinuch, in all of it's facets: elementary, high school, post high school Beis HaMedrash, and Kollelim we have in the US today. Even though Yeshiva Education existed prior to this time in all facets it was meager and in danger of extinction.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik because of his immense intellect, and knowledge of Torah. His knowledge and intellect is not disputed even by his biggest detractors. His influence on thousands of Talmidim that he personally taught is probably greater than any other single individual, and those students are influencing thousands more. His profound influence on society was felt far beyond the borders of YU and impacted not only the MO but even the RW. His Philosophic thought transcends even the Yeshiva world into and is studied in universities. He was considered the greatest living Orthodox Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century. His 2 great works, "Halachic Man" and “Lonely Man of Faith" are even studied in Conservative JTS and Reform HUC. I personally believe that his approach as expressed in the above mentioned books is the quintessential essence of Judaism and requires that Man not only know all of Torah that he can but also all of Mada that he can.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Covering a Woman’s Hair - Is it required by Halacha?

For those of us who live in the world of Orthodox Judaism, there is a practice that divides many in the Modern Orthodox world from those in the Charedi world: the act of a married woman covering her hair. While many women in Modern Orthodoxy do cover their hair, (primarily those who take their observance more seriously, whom I call Centrists), there still exists a great number of married Orthodox Jewish women who do not. And many of these women are indeed serious about their commitment to Judaism. Hair covering for a married Jewish woman is a matter of Halacha. So the question arises, how can an observant Jewish woman claim to be serious about her observance while still refusing to cover her hair? Is there any Halachic basis? Is it a matter of ignorance? Or is it just plain refusal to do so?

Let us first examine the nature of the Erva that is a woman’s hair. The traditional translation of the word Erva is nakedness. Is hair Erva as the Gemarah tells us? The answer is... it depends. Not all women must cover their hair. That is clear Psak Halacha. It is only married women who must do so. Single women who have never been married do not. What that tells me is that there is no intrinsic Erva in hair itself (at least the way we normally understand the term Erva). For if that were so then even unmarried women would be required to do it.

Yet, the fact is that the hair of a married woman ...IS... considered Erva. I’m not sure if I understand the difference between married and unmarried women in this regard. Hair is hair. So when the Gemarah uses the term Erva it is obviously not being used in its usual meaning.

Let us now look at how Halacha treats hair covering.

There are two terms identified in Halacha that refer to sexually modest behavior:

Daas Moshe is the term used in Halacha to connote that which is the immutable Halacha transmitted to us via Moshe Rabbeinu. That is inviolable.

Daas Yehudis is the term that refers to a custom of modesty for women that is accepted by a predominance of them in a given society. If a woman transgresses one of these customs, she is liable for the transgression of Daas Yehudis, a Halacha that is relative to community standards.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) Siman 21 of the fourth section entitled Even HaEzer (dealing mostly with the laws governing intimacy between men and women) deals with the issue of hair covering. While it doesn’t specifically say that hair covering is relativistic, it cannot be ruled out that in fact, it might just be.

The activities mentioned in 21 are not categorized as either Daas Yehudis or Daas Moshe. It is, therefore, not possible to determine what is relativistic and what is not. The Shulchan Aruch is just informing us how to behave, in a "lump sum" fashion, without reference as to the level of prohibition. The tone of the Siman is more in the area of "run away from temptation" and states the extent to which one should go (or does not have to go) in order to accomplish it.

It can be understood from Siman 115 Halacha 4 that Daas Yehudis is a modesty issue which has always been relative to one's environment. It is designed to protect us from violating Issurei Erva, those laws about sexual conduct which are biblically mandated. By definition, Tznius (modesty) in dress is that which is communally perceived as such. Of course Tznius extends the area of Erva which it encompasses.

In certain Muslim cultures for example, women who do not dress in accordance with that community's standards are not acting in accordance with that society's perception of modesty. They would, therefore, be violating the relative Tznius (modesty) standards of Daas Yehudis and not the absolute Erva standards of Daas Moshe.

I believe Daas Yehudis is based on a culturally determined mindset. For example, if one becomes accustomed to rarely if ever seeing anything but the eyes of a woman then exposure to the face may very well be titillating. This is the case in some Muslim cultures. So, even though the face is not normally titillating in western societies dressing that way in a Muslim culture would be considered immodest and a source of temptation.

I think it is a reasonable proposition to say that the phrasing of the Shulchan Aruch, indicates categorizing uncovered hair as a violation of Daas Yehudis and not Daas Moshe. It is then possible to see Daas Yehudis as a Minhag Tznius. This, therefore, concedes at least the possibility that in another time and another place, uncovering hair would not be a violation of Daas Yehudis.

Just to be clear, I am not advocating the abandonment of what is now almost universally accepted Halacha. This indeed probably makes it a violation of Daas Yehudis. I am merely suggesting that an alternative interpretation of Halacha is possible so as to view those women who do not cover their hair in a more favorable Halachic light.