Thursday, December 31, 2009

When Dementia and Greatness Collide

99 year old Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is a certifiable Gadol and – obviously – a Zaken. He belongs to the old school of Gedolim. He is from the generation of Rav Moshe Feinstein and R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. His contemporaries were people like Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Shach.

That I have in the past disagreed with some of the pronouncements made in his name - even if he did make them which is questionable - does not detract one iota from his stature.

In light of the controversy about Daas Torah – how it is defined, who represents it, or whether it even exists today, it is important to point out that there is definitely the concept of a Gadol – even when he makes controversial statements.

There are many ways to determine who is a Gadol. Rav Elyashiv certainly qualifies for one. But how did he get there? Who chose him?

I think it might be helpful to look at some of the ways a person can achieve that status. For puposes of this essay, I will leave out Chasidic Rebbes. Their rise to Gadlus is mostly a function of Yichus. Most often - though not always - children of Rebbes inherit their father’s mantle.

The Hebrew word Gadol simply means big. In our context it is applied to ‘big’ or great people. People who have made great contributions to the Torah world. There are basically two requirements for Gadlus or greatness. - 1) Knowledge of Torah and 2) Yiras Shamayim – awe and reverence for God. Those two features are immutable requirements.

Torah knowledge can take two forms. Learning Torah and Paskening Halacha. One can be very learned in Gemarah, write voluminous literature on various tractates and still not be a Posek - like R’Chaim Soloveichik. On the other hand one can be a tremendous Posek writing voluminous literature on Halacha – like Rav Moshe Feinstein. Both individuals have to be knowledgeable in both areas. But their greatness usually lies in one area or another. Another very important requirement is a highly developed sense of ethics. But that in truth is a function of Yiras Shamayim and Halacha.

There are other factors, that are not necessarily required for greatness, but they are often part of the persona of a Gadol anyway. Leadership ability usually goes along with greatness. So does a highly defined character. They are often Baalei Chesed and have Kavod HaBriyos relating in the most positive manner to non Jews – including their clergy as Rav Yaakov Kamintesky did. The concepts of Chilul HaShem and Kiddush HaShem are never far from their consciousness.

A necessary component for greatness includes at least a working knowledge of Mada. I believe that both R’ Moshe Feinstein and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach had that. Certainly Rav Ahron Soloveichik did. But no Gadol had that more than Rav Ahron’s illustrious brother, the Rav.

There is no prototype personality. Some are very open to the public – like R’ Shlomo Zalman and others are very closed off to people – liked the Brisker Rav. Some have tremendous patience. Some don’t have any. Some are slow to anger and some have quick tempers. Some always smile. Some always frown. Contrary to popular belief - they are very much human.

How does one come to be recognized as a Gadol? Well there is certainy no election booth. We don’t vote them in. That said it is – or used to be – a democratic process. Great people ‘produce’. That tends to get recognition from the public. And the more one produces the more recognition one gets. It is also helpful if other Gedolim recognize them.

Rav Ahron Kolter’s great acheivement was transplanting the European model of Yeshivos on American soil. Already a renown Rosh HaYeshiva in Kletsk, his actions in the United States catapulted him to the status of Gadol HaDor in the view of the Yeshivish wolrd.

What is the function of a Gadol? It is to guide the Jewish people via the light of Torah. It is to teach them Halacha and to advise them in matters of private and public welfare. Some people call this Daas Torah. I don’t like that term. It makes their views sound infallible. But the fact is that they are trying to express the wisdom of the Torah on all aspects of Jewish life.

But becoming a Gadol does not mean that one retains his abilities forever. Sometimes they lose them. And they don’t even realize it. This happens when they reach an age where dementia becomes a real concern. Elderly people, no matter how brilliant or how great often do suffer from various version of this disease - Altzheimers being the most famous. It is an insidious disease that sneaks up on people without them even realizing it. As it progresses one is usually not even aware that he suffers from it. It does however become increasingly apparent to the people around them.

Some of the greatest minds in Jewish history have suffered from the disease late in their lives – if they lived long enough. The Rav comes to mind. He suffered from both Parkinson’s’ disease and later Alzheimer’s. By the time he fell victim to it, he was no longer active and was taken care of by his family. His place in history was already assured by them.

This brings me to the latest controversy surrounding Rav Elyashiv. According to reports in the Hebrew language website Chadrei Charedim, Rav Elayishiv has forbidden entry into the Israeli Knesset. He calls it a house of Heresy. He has even forbidden is own religious Knesset members from entering the building -saying that they should conduct business from their homes!

I find this impossible to believe. He is the religious head of a political party that has elected members in the Knesset. Religious Knesset members have in fact been serving there for decades uninterrupted almost from the very beginnings of the State. I think we would have heard about this serious Issur by now. Either it is a lie, taken out of context, he was misunderstood, or he is beginning to suffer from dementia.

If it is the latter, then it must be made known. His Psak can no longer be trusted. And it casts questions upon some of his more recent Psak. If he has dementia we have no way of knowing when its onset was - or how it affected his Psak. But since those who surround him will out of Kavod, very likely hide that fact we may never know the truth. At least not until it becomes very obvious.

That is unacceptable. A Gadol who is losing his mind still requires our respect but can no longer be relied upon for anything. I only hope that if this is indeed the case with Rav Elyashiv, that his loved ones make it known. If they don’t - who know what kind of nonsense will come out of those quarters in his name.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Rabbis of Anatevka

There is a scene in the play Fiddler on the Roof that has always bothered me. It is a scene replayed countless times in various incarnations in theaters or in film.

The scene I am talking about is where a saintly rabbinic leader finally makes his appearance on the stage or screen. He is almost always portrayed as an ignorant old fool – probably suffering from dementia. And yet the entire population of Anatevka (Sholom Aleichem’s fictional Shtet’l) reveres him as though he was the pope. Making not only the rabbi look like a fool but the entire town of religious Jews look like fools!

It always bothered me because it was a terrible lie. It is a distortion of the reality of who and what rabbis were. When I saw a religious leader, I did not see that stupid idiot portrayed on the stage or screen. I saw a Rav Moshe and a Rav Shlomo Zalman, a Rav Yoshe Ber and a Rav Ahron, a Rav Yaakov and a Rav Pam. They were nothing like this portrayal, which is anti religious - bordering on anti Semitic.

The Sholom Aleichems of the world poked fun of our leadership – ridiculing sage individuals whose wisdom has guided us throughout Jewish history. It truly upset me. These people were not fools. They were great men! Real leaders. Brilliant men of high moral character. Men of distinction. Role models whose words reverberate to this day!

But… what can one expect from a Maskil who rejected Halachic Judaism. Sholom Aleichem - the pen name of a brilliant storyteller and writer - was not a religious Jew. He probably had an agenda with respect to religious Jews - especially their rabbis. He probably thought that rabbinic leaders were indeed ignorant fools married to a dead past. And that the modern world had long since passed them by.

So he treated them that way in his writings. Today the Jews of Broadway and Hollywood - though mostly ignorant of their own Jewish heritage - are not much better and follow suit – treating Sholom Aleichem as though he were a true Jewish historian and modern day Jewish scholar. Hence these negative caricatures of rabbinic leaders. One rarely sees Hollywood portray an Orthodox rabbi as anything but a moron! - an ignorant fool blind to societal progress, married to archaic laws, and living in the past.

But… I can’t help it. This new effort by Rabbis in Israel to ban the internet has all the markings of a Sholom Aleichem play. It feeds right into that stereotype.

From YWN:

Directors and principals of chareidi mosdos from around the Israel are expected to take part in Wednesday’s urgent kinos addressing the threats of the Internet in general, focusing on chareidi websites. The move is prompted by recent stepped-up calls from Gedolei Yisrael Shlita to close chareidi websites, a move that has resulted in the closure of at least two, Chareidim, and Etrog. In addition, employees of other sites have stepped down, including Dovid Rothenberg, the force behind Chadrei Chareidim and others.

The kinos will address the talmidim of families that have Internet in their homes, as well as those in which a parent is employed in a chareidi website or invested in such a project in any way.
While efforts to combat the internet were made in the past be Gedolei Hador Shlita, this time, it seems this time, the response is increasingly evident. The kinos will take place in Talmid Torah Yechavei Daas located at 17 Ohalei Yosef Street in Yerushalayim. At 8:00pm.

Interestingly, according to a Maariv report, the site is expected to follow the others and cease operation due to the increasing pressure from the rabbonim in Eretz Yisrael.

I have to admit, that after reading this - the picture I get of these Israeli rabbis is the one from Fiddler on the Roof. Now I know that is not the case. These men are very learned, many of them huge Talmidei Chachamim or Poskim, and certainly themselves meticulously observant of Halacha. They are in no way fools.

But that they keep doing things like this makes one wonder just how ignorant they are about what is going on around them. They live in a bubble - isolated from the world. They get almost all of their information from others and seem to react as though they were wearing blinders to reality.

They also seem to have lost the respect of their own people. Previous calls banning the internet have met with very limited success - probably observed mostly in the breach. I would be willing to bet that internet use has increased since their first call for a ban. And every time they bring it up, I would be willing to bet that the number of users increases.

What is their solution now? Increased intensity and emphasis on the ban - as though this time it will work.

I think Einstein got it right. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. In fact what happened here is the opposite. The Charedi websites they ordered closed are not only staying open but have been taken over by a secular Jew. That's because the Charedim who ran it resigned after the latest edict against them.

These rabbis have to know that their call for a ban over the years hasn’t been working. And yet here they are again trying to do the same. So they once again call for a Kinos.

Kinos usually consist of a large gathering of Jews who say a lot of Tehilim and listen to Rabbinic leaders or their spokesman haranguing about the evils of one issue or another. In this case it is the internet – blaming anything bad that happens to them on it - urging their people in no uncertain terms to give it up.

What makes this even worse is that these Israeli rabbis are increasingly living up to the image painted of them by Sholom Aleichem. One wonders if they can ever really hold on to their status as rabbinic leaders if they keep this kind of thing up.

Of Bombs and Underpants

You know… I am really getting tired of political correctness.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating lowering the bar with respect to treating people with dignity. And I include everyone from any background, religion, race, creed, or color. I abhor racism and reject it in all its incarnations. But what is happening in the US goes far beyond even the minimum standard for common sense.

The recent failed attempt by a would be suicide bomber sent by Al-Qaeda is a case in point. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who is Muslim become so radicalized that he volunteered for a suicide mission. He was in fact on a watch list in the US. A watch list is made up of people who have been reported as suspicious to The Department of Homeland Security. He was reported as a danger to the US by his own father, a devout Muslim himself. But he saw his son being radicalized. What did the US do about that? Nothing. Since there were apparently no significant corroborating reports - they did not feel the need to go any further and put him on a no-fly list.

But they should have. His Muslim religious beliefs and name along with that warning from his own father should have raised the reddest of flags. But our political correctness prevents us from doing that. It is not PC to be more suspect of a Muslim.

Muslims say it prejudicial. They call it ‘Flying while Muslim’. Well it’s too bad. It is primarily Muslims that are the suicide bombers. Of course they should be profiled and treated differently than the rest of the world. But in the topsy turvy world of political correctness we have to treat an elderly beshaitled Jewish grandmother - who very possibly is a holocaust survivor traveling to Israel - the same way as a young Muslim flying alone and buys a one way ticket with cash. That's what Mr. Abdulmutallab did. And then he flew to Detroit with an explosive device in his underpants.

That is the reason we have problems like this. Instead of focusing on the Muslim and giving the little old Jewish lady a relatively quick pass, everyone gets the same shabby treatment. There is simply not enough time to do a proper investigation of everyone. It simply is not enough to prevent what happened last Friday.

What is the solution for our brave new PC world? A type of x-ray machine that can see right though your clothes. That’s right. These machines do a full body scan and provided the security staff with a picture of you virtually naked!

Now we aren’t there yet. Although some airports have this technology, it is not yet mandated by law. Congress correctly felt that this was an uncalled for invasion of privacy. But this technology would have prevented the suicide bomber from boarding the airport. That bomb was in his underpants. It would have been seen – right along with all of his body parts.

Since this fellow was able to get on board an aircraft without that explosive being detected – this option is now seriously being considered. It would be monumentally expensive and a major violation of privacy. But what price is security worth? To quote a popular commercial it’s ‘priceless’! So, ladies prepare to bare more than your souls as you pass through the security gates when you next fly!

Protecting human life is worth paying a price for. But is this degrading and voyeuristic new virtual full body search really necessary? Let us look at a country whose national airline should in theory be the primary target for any suicide bomber: Israel. El Al has not had an incident in over 30 years! They do not have any of these ridiculous invasive security measures. Their process is very thorough and totally un-invasive. How can it be so successful and at the same time so relatively simple an unobtrusive?

It is because they profile. Israel is unapologetic about it. Arabs and Muslims get extra scrutiny that others don’t. Israelis will readily tell you that not all Muslims or Arabs are terrorists. The vast majority aren't. But the vast majority of terrorists are Muslims or Arabs.

That is what makes them so effective and superior to other countries, including the United States.

Isn’t it about time that we do the same? Let the Muslim community squawk all they want about unfair treatment – or being singled out. Singling them out is exactly what is needed. No Arab or Muslim will suffer if he or she is innocent. They will just have to go through a few additional and more thorough security checks. And they should realize why. It's not personal nor is it perjorative. This is not to say that Muslims are inferior - or second class citizens. It is to recognize the reality is that terrorits are almost always Musilm. An honest Muslim should concede that. It's just plain common sense.

The necessity of profiling is now more apparent than ever and well overdue. It should be implemented world-wide. As long as some Arabs and Muslims keep trying to blow themselves up for the sake of Allah, profiling them is the only rational thing to do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reversed Wisdom: Daas Torah vs. Daas Baalei Batim

Guest Post by Rabbi Yossi Ginzberg

The following is a lengthy but important post which I believe expresses the frustration of many responsible people in the Orthodox world. Although I sympathize a great deal with much of what the writer expresses, it does not necessarily reflect my views. - HM

I have sat on this for over a week now, afraid to send it and yet afraid not to.

I’ve had it reviewed by a dozen people whose judgment I trust, and most say to publish it. Even those against it say that it would be a wasted effort unless I could get it on a site like VIN, YWN, Hamodia or Yated, which won’t happen.

Yet I can’t swallow my outrage. Unsure of whether I am fulfilling the rabbinic edict of “B’makom sh’ein ish” or just emulating Don Quixote tilting at the barely animate, I must speak my piece.

I’m not eager for abuse, nor do I have any desire to start a fight, and certainly not with Gedolim who may see themselves implicated here. Still, to publish anonymously as most bloggers do would dilute the urgency I feel in this message.

The pro-publishing faction makes a good point: Those with the power and ability to change things are affected by the printing of such things. Whether they see it directly or whether it is reported to them later, it’s easy to see that revelations and suggestions made online are having a strong and direct effect on the pronouncements of the Gedolim. Thus it pays to risk publishing, even if it involves potential mesiras nefesh, just to perhaps influence someone to take action and do something.

Some will see this as a shot across the bows at some particular target. It’s not. It’s simply a call for restored sanity, because it’s time to stop letting the ignorant and the proven corrupt steer Judaism. In industry, inept leadership is fired: In politics, revolutions occur. What can or should happen in a religion? I am passionate about the religion, I have taught and written about it for many years, and those in the front lines of Judaism outside Boro Park & Lakewood are seeing the results of the many scandals: the OTD trickle has turned into a large flow, and the non-Frum and non-Jewish attitudes have become borderline anti-Semitic thanks to the constant flow of unpleasant news about the Frum world.

Something must be done, and a few speeches at a “convention” aren’t enough.

(Even before starting, let me apologize to those whose feathers I may ruffle. I have to wonder how it is that the situation has deteriorated to such a point that bloggers and gadabouts like myself have more credibility than alleged Torah scholars.)

An oft-repeated idiom in the circle of those who follow the pronouncements of today’s Gedolim is “Daas Torah is hepech daas Baalei Batim”. Loosely translated, this conveys the idea that a lay opinion is not only invalid; it is the polar opposite of true Torah wisdom.

Allegedly a quote from the S”ma (a commentator on the Shulchan Aruch), it seems to be more of an urban myth, a somewhat misquoted version of something else that he said, and also seems to be intended to convey an air of papal infallibility on the Gedolim of the generation. Whatever the source, the line is being quoted more and more frequently as issues of Torah concern more and more frequently hit the news.

This idiom is important because of a basic tenet in Halacha: If the Gedolim of previous generations enacted something, we must abide by it, irrelevant of the current state of knowledge.

Application of this principle is the problem, though. Things are different now than they once were.

For example, Ezra and his Bet Din at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple were highly vocal and outspoken about issues of concern at the time, such as intermarriage and the return to Israel. They preached, coerced, and even cursed (at least according to some) those who didn’t listen.

Yet when they saw that perhaps their enactment requiring mikvah for men was too onerous and had been enacted too hastily, they retracted it. Sadly, today’s Batei Din rarely retract anything, no matter the issue and the collateral damage of chilul Hashem. Most often, it is likewise for the grave pronouncements of the Gedolim.

So we as observant intelligent Orthodox Jews have to weigh between following the “Daas Torah” opinion of the Gedolim automatically or rejecting it and following one’s own opinion, based on the failure of the system to be self-correcting. A tough choice indeed, for one raised to revere the established rabbinate.

In that light, is the “Daas Torah is hepech Daas Baalei Batim” statement correct and applicable nowadays?

Certainly most formal organizations have clearly-stated stances on this. Agudath Israel’s proclaimed raison d’être is to represent the daas of the Gedolim, or at least those they proclaim as Gedolim. Likewise most other rabbinic organizations, including for example the one headed by an ex-con columnist and the one headed until just last week by a ultra-right-wing self-proclaimed “defender of the faith” and author of a book about avoiding sexual temptations.

Pondering this last weekend, I couldn’t help wonder at the basic premise. Is, in fact, Daas Torah the hepech of daas Baalei Batim? I came to the conclusion that it is, based on the following:

When a certain rabbi persuaded others to ban a learned author for expressing minority opinions on the age of the universe, a long list of rabbis signed on, creating a Chilul Hashem in the guise of protecting authentic Judaism. Yet when that same rabbi was arrested and convicted of a huge multi-million dollar mortgage scam, they were silent. Even when it emerged that the man had authored a torah book, and had previously served time for fraud, not a word was heard. Now we learn that his second, another zealot for alleged “Torah values”, has been adding entirely new dimensions to the term rabbinic abuse.

Daas Baalei Batim (of those I spoke with, anyway) was to laud the first author for his work, recognize that his work brought some people to torah belief, and encourage him to insert in subsequent editions that his opinions did not reflect all facets of the Orthodox spectrum. The same daas also strongly and harshly condemned the felonious instigator of the ban, as well as those who ignored his previous criminal record and allowed him to represent Orthodox Judaism vocally and in writing. About the second…there’s both too much to say, and not enough. Disgust is far too mild a term. His apparent silent admission to the charges would lead me to ban him from even entering any holy place, let alone lead a yeshiva. Daas Baalei Batim would also follow the money trail, no matter where it leads, and remove all those rabbis who were obviously bought with dirty money.

When a corrupt yeshiva faculty for years protected a molester, a certain very prominent rabbi refused to get involved because it was “outside his neighborhood”, by about a half-mile. Yet to lend moral support to an admitted felon caught red-handed in one of the biggest chilul Hashem cases of the decade, he flew hundreds of miles. (And he is not one of the rabbis who flew to lend moral support to Jonathon Pollard.) Lest the good rabbi feel offended, might I add that another 25 rabbis also felt the need to fly out there to lend moral support, not counting the many from his own sect, who actually correctly belong there.

Daas Baalei Batim was to condemn the Flatbush molester and all those who abetted him, and to stay as far away as possible from the Midwestern court carnival. Also to support the Markey bill (This allows the victims to sue, even many years later. It is opposed by those who worry about the schools potentially being forced to close after losing lawsuits), even though it might put that family business- and several others-at risk.

When a major yeshiva honored one of the last of the old-timers, a “Rabbi” who made his fortune in nursing homes and had been arrested along the way in a Shabbos-day bust leading to TV coverage of him being dragged out of shul, not a word was heard.

Daas Baalei Batim was to not honor anyone who’d ever been in prison, at any time and for any reason. Not at a dinner, not with a seat on the Mizrach wall, not with anything.

When a leading Mechaneches and founder of several girls schools was headlined with sensational accusations against her husband- that he had tried to poison her- not a word was heard. The scandal merited a dozen pages in an NY magazine! Nor was a word heard when she abandoned those claims and returned to him, presumably unafraid.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to have pity on her, but still remove her from any position dealing with impressionable girls as quickly as possible. Didn’t her return prove that either she lied, or she did something dangerous & stupid? Either way, is this person one that should be mentoring young women?

When the Gedolim were presented with “facts” about singer Lipa’s supposedly risqué (or at least envelope-pushing) behavior and stage presence, they immediately banned his concert from happening, without corroborating evidence and without consultation. This led to huge financial losses to the promoter, the singer and to the charity that promoted it, as well as a huge chilul Hashem as the media gleefully reported it.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to wait until after it was over, investigate properly and thoroughly, and at that point, if necessary, ban future events featuring him.

When an Orthodox Rabbi, with what appeared at the time to be permission, co-wrote a book with a famous reform rabbi about Jewish faith, the Gedolim banned not only the book, they barred the author from participating in any of the many scheduled debates between the authors. This led virtually every Jewish community newspaper in the country to publicly comment on how the Orthodox are afraid to debate modernity, and created what was certainly among the most widespread, long-lasting and most-publicized Chilul Hashem's in American Jewish history. The Reform rabbi still made the speaking tour, turning the debates into a victory tour for the Reform movement.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to let the debates happen, to at least attempt to minimize the chilul Hashem. Meanwhile, “Rabbi” Shmuley stages polemical debates with Christian ministers frequently and although most think he usually loses, the Gedolim don’t comment on that at all.

When Israeli police arrested a woman for brutalizing her own child due to mental illness, the Gedolim either (depending on who you believe) promoted anti-government demonstrations or failed to condemn them. Either way, the worldwide headlines certainly failed to bring honor to our people.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to immediately and loudly condemn the demonstrations and make every effort to stop them.

When yeshiva students were arrested in Japan for drug-smuggling, the Gedolim made valiant efforts to have them freed, and signed fund-raising letters proclaiming them “Shevuyim” or, in effect, unjust hostages whose release takes precedence to almost everything else in the Torah.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to publicize the scandal extensively amongst the yeshiva world, where the boys are apparently too naïve to realize that being offered significant payment for simply delivering a suitcase indicates something is seriously wrong. This example would have been a prime deterrent to prevent this from happening again. Essential, because next time it could be something even worse than drugs: It could be explosives.

When “Askanim” presented the possibility that sheitels made from Indian hair might potentially be forbidden to use, an immediate ban was instituted. That led to many humorous articles mocking Judaism, as well as public sheitel-burnings and the inevitable comparisons between the Orthodox and the Taliban.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to investigate fully and thoroughly before allowing any announcements to be made. In fact, they turned out to be okay, so all the fuss and attendant Chilul Hashem was for nothing.

I could go on and on easily, and it would be tempting to do so if I had a stronger stomach. Mentioning the failure of the Gedolim to act or even usually to comment on Agunos, on metzizah b’feh, on brain death, on organ transplants, on Mondrowitz, on the Lanner cover-up, on the too many cases of Frum fraud, on Rebbes being arrested for fraud and/or money laundering and/or arms dealing and/or drug smuggling and/or for molesting women on airplanes, on the radical burkha ladies of RBS, on the public statements by the Neturei Karta, and most recently of course on the EJF embarrassment, which could serve as the gold-standard example of what “ a shanda far de Goyim” really means.

By the same token, their pronouncements on thrips, on copepods, the internet, text messaging, music, women’s minyans, sheitels and the stores that sell them too close to yeshivas, all indicate a severe failure to comprehend reality.

Is it that they actually believe that “Daas Torah is hepech daas Baalei Batim” is in their favor? Is that why they can enact Takanos that exempt themselves? That Roshei Yeshiva so hostile to each other that they build a wall in their office are entrusted with young men to mold? That one who hijacked a famed Yeshiva name for his own private fund-raising empire got away with it? That self-proclaimed exemption may be tested against the standard of “v’hiyisem neki’im”, that one is obligated to behave not imperiously but rather the opposite. Even a Gadol owes the public an explanation.

Perhaps especially a Gadol.

As every adult knows, the conventional wisdom is usually correct and thus my own take is that in fact, the idiom is correct and Daas Torah is in fact hepech daas Baalei Batim.

It’s just that this correct conventional wisdom is on the side of the Baalei Batim.

Rabbi Ginzberg attended high school at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie and learned in Mir Yeshiva - attending R. Chaim Shmulevitz's Chabura for two years. He currently manages a grant program for Chassidim that want a vocational education.

He also volunteers his time teaching Baalei Teshuva (one of them wrote a book about the experience, the best-selling "the Year of Living Biblically", where he is extensively quoted).

Additionally he is involved with running an emotional support group for people involved in the Geirus process.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Agudah Misses the Boat

It’s not like they were wrong. In fact I agree with much of what they said. But they missed the boat. The focus was on the wrong thing.

I attended three of the major sessions given at the Biennial Midwest Convention of the Agudath Israel of Illinois over the weekend. The sessions were given by many prominent rabbinic leaders, Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshiva and lay leaders. The issues addressed were those often written about here. Issues like business ethics. Kiddush HaShem versus Chilul HaShem. Attitudes and relationships with secular Jews and non Jews. And ‘adults at risk’.

I give them credit for acknowledging problems in their own world. In fact this is not the first time they have admitted having these problems. The problem is no longer that they don’t acknowledge it. It is in their solutions to them. It’s all about Frumkeit. Here is a synopsis:

*The Torah world is just not Frum enough.

*True - we are better than Goyim, but we could do so much better.

*We should isolate ourselves even from Goyishe culture - more than we already are.

*Stay away from the internet and bloggers.

These were not the exact words they used but the message was clear. And most of the crowd just lapped it up. “Very inspiring” is a phrase I heard a lot during that weekend.

What I didn’t hear is any self reflection by the leadership. Nothing about whether their own system of Chinuch ever played any part in these problems. Not a word. It was all about the level of Frumkeit. As if what they have been teaching is fine - just not being followed enough.

Their answer as to why so many Frum people cheat the government? Conspicuous consumption by the wealthy! Big beautiful homes, fancy cars, and expensive vacations by the wealthy cause’s jealousy. People want to "keep up with the Cohens" so they will cut corners to do it - as in tax evasion.

Solution? Hide your wealth. If there is no conspicuous consumption there will be no motivation to steal.

Not a word about underlying causes or that the Chinuch itself is flawed. Was the Spinka Rebbe jealous of his wealthy friends? Is that why he created an elaborate tax evasion scheme for his wealthy friends? Did those multi millionaires who utilized it to evade paying taxes do it because they wanted to keep up with the Cohens?

The answer is no. They did it because they thought it was Mutar to cheat the government as long as they didn’t get caught and thereby create a Chilul HaShem. There was absolutely no mention of that at all. It is all about conspicuous consumption. While I agree that this may contribute to the problem significantly - it s not the underlying cause.

What about adults at risk? There have been increasing problems with Frum adults who have become addicted to pornography via the internet. And that has tragically destroyed many families. What is the cause of the problem? Goyim and their culture! We live in a culture that is hyper sexualized. There are erotic images all over the place. They are almost impossible to avoid.

Solution? Isolate from the culture as much as possible. The more isolation - the merrier. We are a holy people and the Goyim are immoral.

No nuance. No differentiation between good and bad people - Jewish or otherwise. It’s a war: The evil Goyim and their culture versus the holy Jewish people. That is how it was framed. Not a word about the fact that most of the non Jewish world has decent values too, often based in religion. They hate the smut just as much as we do. Their standards may not be the same as ours but to label the entirety of the non Jewish world as the cause of our problems not only avoids the issue but casts non Jews in such a negative light - that cheating them almost becomes a Mitzvah.

Nor does it address the underlying problem: Sex addiction. People with addiction disorders require professional help. Telling them to simply stay away from porn or avoid the internet simply does not work. Nor is it true that everyone exposed it will become addicted.

Of course everyone should avoid smut as much as possible. But to blame sex addiction entirely on the culture is to miss the boat entirely.

Besides, the super saturated culture we live in is the fault of an amoral segment of society with an over-whelming influence. It is mostly sourced in the entertainment industry. An industry heavily populated by secular Jews as much as secular non Jews.

They are the ones who in large measure are responsible for what we encounter in the so-called street. They influence the way we eat, the way we dress and the way we act. The majority of non Jews are upset by it too. It cannot simply all be blamed on the Goyim. But that was in part the message.

Doing that reinforces an attitude of permissiveness about cheating them. It’s called being Moreh Heter – a rationalization that incorrectly uses Halacha to justify it. “Why shouldn’t we cheat the Goyim?” “Look what they do!” “They deserve it!”

That they said stealing is Assur without even mentioning that the recent revelations about massive tax frauds against perpetrated by otherwise very religious Jews is not going to change what happened or prevent it from happening again.

Not a word about this kind of thinking. Only words about how evil America culture (read – Goyim) has become.

Then there was the obligatory swipe at bloggers and the internet. No, this time they did not say it should be banned. But it was nonetheless an object of scorn. The claim was made that whatever a Torah personality would say at the convention, it would be immediately ridiculed by bloggers - the Leitzanim or scoffers!

In fact one speaker said that the world of today is entirely filled with scoffers. He then told the story of Rav Wolbe who once gave a Sichas Mussar - a lecture on Jewish ethics. It was so good that it seemed impervious to any criticism. A listener approached Rav Wolbe and complimented him on it saying that no one will be able to refute what he said. Rav Wolbe said, what do you mean? I can refute it myself! The listener asked, “How is that possible?” Rav Wolbe answered, “With these three words: Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Yes there are bloggers that are scoffers. But not all of them.. Some of us try and be as respectful as we can when bringing up criticisms. I think it only fair that this be recognized.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Disappointed but not surprised. The convention messages were just more of the same.

It would have been a truly pleasant surprise for them to have had speakers like Rabbis Yakov Horowitz, Yair Hoffman and Jonathan Rosenblum. And to have allowed them complete candor.

Maybe next time.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Two Events

What a weekend. Four nonstop days. I am truly exhausted.

I spent a lovely weekend at NSCY Conclave. Watching kids become turned on to Yiddshkeit was an inspiration to me. It never ceases to amaze me that teens with virtually no background are swept up into the enthusiasm for Judaism that the advisors - NCSY's term for those who volunteer to mentor these kids - generate.

My hat is truly off to these young people for the job they do - volunteering so much of their time for only one purpose, to make a Kiddush HaShem. That includes the behind the scenes staff too - the techies - who work their magic and make several feasts that rival the best of caterers.

Of course it helps that the chief chef is a succesful caterer who has since changed careers. And as if that weren't enough he gives sessions to the NCSYers too. For those unfamiliar with NCSY - a session is when an advisor gives a short interactive presentation on various subjects. NCSY does not have an age limit for its advisors. This advisor is a grandfather.

Shabbos at an NCSY Midwest Mesorah Region conclave is a sight to behold. If all regions are anything like it NCSY has lot to be proud of.

Conclave was not the only event I attended this weekend. Thursday night, Motzie Shabbos, and this morning (Sunday) - I attended the Biennial Midwest Convention of Agudah . Among the featured speakers were members of the Agudah Moetzes. That was an entirely different experience. I will be reporting on that tomorrow.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Importance of Validation

I was made aware of a post on Divrei Chaim that wonders why everyone in the world of modern Orthodoxy, specifically those of us who tend more towards right are so giddy about the Mishpahca article. Well... I wouldn't say I'm giddy. But I am very pleased.

Here is an excerpt from Chaim's post:

OK, so you made it into the RW world, but what at what price? I recall a YU Rosh Yeshiva once say that he never saw the Rav open a secular book. Rav Shachter is quoted as saying that he never heard the Rav mention philosophy in shiur execpt once. I was never in the Rav's shiur (he was no longer saying shiur way before my time at YU), but judging his legacy from the fruit it has borne certainly leads me to think that his impact is greater than only the chiddushei Torah he left behind. What of the Talmud shiur at Stern? Religious Zionism? And that just scratches the surface. Is it worth forgetting about all that for the sake of acceptance?

The author seems to feel that this is some sort of validation process by a world that modern Orthodoxy does not need. Furthermore the world of the right has proven time and again that they reject modern Orthodoxy – right along with its leaders including the Rav. He says that the Rav should not have been whitewashed with their soap. They don't like him? It's their loss.

That's nice except for one thing. The Charedim are winning. I know that many people who share my Hashkafos vehemently disagree. But I have not heard any convincing arguments to sway me.

As a Centrist I consider myself to be mostly in the right wing of modern Orthodoxy. If they reject us - most of what we now know as modern Orthodoxy as a Hashkafa will end up in the dustbin of history. They correctly perceive themselves as a growing community and MO as a diminishing community relative to theirs. We either join them - or we are out!

Even though I wish it weren’t true - it is. I have said it before and I say it here again. I happen to agree with them on this point. Not that their world so perfect. Far from it. They have some big problems that could easily destroy their world as we know it. But whatever adjustments will be made - and they will be made - they will still retain their basic right wing Hashkafos.

I’ve made these arguments before, but they bear repeating.

They produce the lion's share of Mechanchim. It's the nature of the beast. As a group they are mostly under prepared to get any decent jobs outside of Chinuch. So a lot more of their much larger population become Mechanchim. Our population's options in Parnassa are far more diverse.

Besides all of that - there is definitely a move to the right by everyone - with the exception of the left wing of modern Orthodoxy. Many RWMO's are already sending their children to moderate Charedi day schools.

What is being taught in those moderate Charedi day schools? They are certainly not being taught that stories about how the Rav supported teaching Gemarah to young women at Stern - and gave the first shiur. Theyare instead taught that women are not allowed to learn Gemarah. They are not taught that the Rav walked out of Agudah and joined Mizrachi. They are taught that Agudah is Emes and Mizarchi is Sheker. They are not taught tha the Rav valued the study of philosophy and received a PhD in it - to become Orthodoxy's foremost philosopher. They are taught that philosophy is a forbidden subject.

They are also taught all the white-washed hagiographic bios of the right wing Gedolim; how pious they were - born Kodesh MiBeten – holy out of the womb. And they are taught how secular studies is at best a B'Dieved and should only be pursued for Parnassa purposes.

And even if the right wing Hashkafos taught there are countered successfully at home (which is often not the case) their year or two (or three ...or four) in Israel will certainly push them in the direction of the right.

Furthermore as Rabbi Berl Wein (whom I have quoted many times on this issue) has said the world of the (moderate) right and the world of (RW) modern Orthodoxy are already merging and changes in both worlds are already happening. There are an increasing number of Charedim who are going to college and professional schools and becoming professionals. There are also increasing numbers of RWMOs who wear black hats Daven in moderate right wing Shuls and interact socially with moderate Charedim. It’s almost impossible to tell them apart from each other.

All of this brings me to conclude that if we don't do everything we can to validate what we believe in - our beliefs will fall into the dustbin of history. Even if our children are taught otherwise at home - the school environment and experience is an overpowering one and will in many cases end up dominating their thinking - certainly after their time in Israel.

If we don't step up and insist that our ideas are valid - than they won't be. That's why this article in Mishpacha is such an important step. If the Rav is validated even if it is by spinning his Shitos as rightward as possible - eventually his other Shitos will validated to a certain extent be too - via the back door as they become more aware of them -even if the right doesn't agree with him.

Those who say I am over reacting and we have our own world to be proud of and our own future to look forward to – without the right wing - are seeing the world through rose colored glasses. They are simply ignoring these facts on the ground.

I’ve said this before too. There will be an independent modern Orthodoxy. But it will not be anything the RWMO will want to be a part of - certainly as the LWMO leadership keeps pushing the envelope leftward. We may be more accepting of them than our moderate Charedi new-found compatriots, but we will not be joining with them as a community. We will be (and already are) joining the moderate Charedi world.

So I will say it again. Yes, I am very pleased with the article in Mishpacha. It is - as I said before – promoting Achdus. But it is also to a certain extent about validation. Because we on the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy are joining them. They are not joining us.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gay Students in the Yeshiva

An overflow crowd. ‘Packed’ is the word used by reporter Michael Cinnamon. His article appears in The Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper. Over 100 people were turned away for lack of space.

A panel discussion on Homosexuality and tolerance took place on the YU campus. The panel was comprised of 4 Orthodox homosexual students - 3 former and one current.

The YU Tolerance Club was a sponsor of the event along with YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. What makes this even more noteworthy is the fact that the Mashgiach Ruchani of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Blau was the moderator of the panel discussion.

I have long been an advocate of tolerance for individuals whose sexual orientation is towards members of their own sex. My views can be summarized as follows:

As long as they don’t act on their desires, they do nothing wrong. Any more than a married heterosexual man might think about cheating on his wife with an attractive female colleague but would not act on it. Although one should certainly try and remove themselves from temptation if possible - thoughts are not actions and not punishable in Jewish law. For those who succumb to temptation and sin, they should be treated like any other sinner. And certainly greater compassion should be shown for a sinner whose temptations do not allow for any permissible outlet.

I believe this to be the Torah view. To that end I see nothing wrong and everything right with such an event in a Yeshiva setting. I was not there, but I suspect very strongly that that the participation of Rabbi Blau assured that this was the message of the evening.

A few hours prior to the event a letter was posted with signatures of several Roshei Yeshiva including Rav Hershel Schachter that said the following:

The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to a discreet individual who feels that he/she has a homosexual orientation, but abstains from any and all homosexual activity. Such sensitivity, however, cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity. The Torah’s mitzvos and judgments are eternally true and binding. Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.

I think that this is right. And I don’t think Rabbi Blau would disagree with it. But I do question one sentence - and by his attendance I think Rabbi Blau may question it as well:

Publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.

Why is ‘seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels’ forbidden?

What do they mean by that? Orientations are what they are. One cannot help feeling what they feel. As Woody Allen once famously said after being asked why he divorced his wife and married their adopted daughter Soon-Yi, ‘The heart wants what it wants’. Wanting something sinful is not a sin. Doing something sinful is. Feelings aren’t sinful.

I applaud Yeshiva University for having the courage to have this discussion and making it open to the public. It can only result in good. Homosexual Jews must be assured that it is not forbidden to have feelings. They need to be assured that the Torah does not hate them. And neither should they be hated by their fellow Jews. They should be treated like everyone else, judged by their deeds and not their thoughts or desires.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously indicated, it is the content of their character by which people should be judged - not the color of their skin. The same thing is true about sexual orientation. To that end such panel discussions should be encouraged in every Yeshiva - including the right wing ones.

And as soon as Yeshivos like Lakewood’s Beis Medrash Govoha (BMG) has its gay students run a panel discussion with their Mashgiach, Rav Matisyahu Salomon, as the moderator – I’ll know that great progress has been made.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yair Hoffman - of Elephants and Nachum Eisenstein

I don’t know who Yair Hoffman is. But near as I can tell he is a Charedi writer who often posts on VIN. And just about everything I have read by him I agree with. He is a bold individual who has gone out of his way to seek and find truth.

It is people like this that allow me to maintain my faith in the idea of Achdus. He is joined in this by other Charedim for whom I have much respect. They include Jonathan Rosenblum, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and most recently Rabbi Moshe Grylak. And there are others.

I am reminded of an interview he had with Yoelish Kraus the supposed unofficial Edah HaCharedis organizer and coordinator of the protesting mobs of Meah Shearim. He has also written about other ‘elephants in the room’ in right wing Orthodoxy and has taken positions virtually identical to mine. His post in VIN is yet another example of that and is one of his best yet.

It is a strong indictment against Tropper’s EJF and he questions why there is silence by the right about it. I applaud him for the courage to publish his views. He minces no words. He doesn’t have to. The anecdotes he wrote about speak for themselves.

What stood out in this article is the following true story:

Picture a young woman who is struggling to put the funds together to get to seminary. Amazingly, she succeeds. Her excitement is palpable. She works, she borrows, and somehow, someway - she purchases a ticket.

But alas, upon her arrival, she is not accepted to the seminary. Since her mother was a giores many years ago, the gairus needed to be rechecked. This was all based upon the new criterion established and or promulgated by the EJF.

Mind you, the gairus was a good gairus. Indeed, it was checked and relied upon by Rabbonim with unimpeachable credentials. The mother’s level of observance is unassailable as well.

No matter. The girl must undergo another tevilah. Since almost every seminary and yeshiva in Israel checks with the EJF about whether a Gairus must be redone or not, she does not have much choice. It is off to the Mikvah with her – with three Rabbonim in tow.

A quick glance at the EJF website is revealing. Only 19 Batei Din are on the approved list – in the entire United States. Nineteen in the whole country. Every other Bais Din? The plug has been pulled on them.
And so, apparently, the girl has no choice.

Or does she? What about the Mitzvah of Kivud Av V’Aim? If she capitulates to the demands of the EJF – what does this have her saying about her mother?

“Sorry, mom – I don’t believe you are really Jewish – so I am dipping again just to be sure..” Is this true Kivud Av V’aim? Is this not a complete and utter abnegation of the Mitzvah of “VeGair lo sonu”?
And guess what? This remarkable young lady, who does not possess an ounce of Chutzpah within her, chooses not to budge. She did not dip again.

Instead, she waited for a phone call. Perhaps they may change their minds. Perhaps some more evidence would emerge from America. It was a phone call that never came.

The young lady took a job helping a harried mother with her young children while she waited.. And waited. And waited.

The end of the story was that she never got into the seminary. But she remained pure of the horrific stain of hurting the two people in her life that she loves most - her parents. Her observance of Kivud Av v’Aim remained intact. And perhaps that devotion, that “Dama Ben Nesina” type of experience - may have been a greater spiritual elevation than any seminary in the world could have provided.

My reaction to this story was visceral. I literally shook with anger that an organization comprised of so many top rabbinic personalities can be involved in an organization that has devolved into one such as this!

Was it all Tropper? I’m sure he had a lot to do with it. But I have to blame another prominent member of EJF. It is no coincidence that Rabbi Nochum Eisenstein was in the forefront of this organization. He was one of its staunchest supporters and if I am not mistaken – attended every meeting. His arrogant and self serving recommendations – supposedly coming from Rav Elyashiv - seem to have all been automatically adopted by them.

I tend to doubt that Rav Elyashiv would have approved of what happened to the young lady in the story. But I am just as certain that Eisenstein’s arrogant attitude resulted in pride. Pride that his new rules were being followed. Letting the chips fall where they may. Who cares who gets hurt. Eisenstein's Judiasm prevailed!

This story is but one of many horror stories I have heard from other honorable rabbis about outstanding rabbinic figures that were dismissed by Tropper.

One rabbi with rich rabbinic heritage performed conversions firmly based in Halacha and his own Mesorah. He now had to cater to EJF's new standards. People who had in the past been converted by him now had a cloud hanging over their heads. Are they or aren’t they...? They will read the above anecdote and wonder why this religion - with all its strictures that they voluntarily and lovingly embraced - is doing this to them!

Long standing Batei Din in major cities with impeccable records that did not tow the EJF line were rejected. Their conversions were all deemed invalid by EJF requiring new ones.

Rules that have nothing to do with Halachic conversions were implemented – like the one about the illegitimacy of a Dayan who believes in an ancient universe. And who knows what other nonsense.

I realize that many of the rabbinic personalities who are associated with this organization are there for the right reasons. They wanted to end problematic conversions. One can quibble about which ones were or weren’t but few would argue that there were - at least more than a few - that were probably not valid.

To be fair I have since learned via some personal contacts in rabbinic organizations that many of the rabbis listed in EJF's website had long ago dropped out - well before this story broke. Their personal experiences with EJF and Tropper led them to realize that EJF had tremendous problems. Stories like this confirm it! Is there any question that this organization should now disband? The sooner the better.

That Tropper and hopefully now EJF has seen their downfall is a good start. But it is not enough. Because of his association with Rav Elyashiv - Nachum Eisenstein was at the top tier of those who dictated EJF policy. He must now be wondering what hit him.

Nonetheless it is long past time to put this individual and his polices where they belong – in the trash bin of history. He has done enough damage.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Chasidim and the Spinka Rebbe

Are Chasidim more prone to fraud against the government than other religious Jews? Is it common in their circles? According to this document it is not only common but generational.

I just received and read a copy of the US attorney’s sentencing recommendations for the Spinka Rebbe. It seems pretty clear that the type of thing that the Spinka Rebbe was found guilty of is a fairly common and widespread practice among other Chasidic groups. From that document:

The Court has already made findings in related cases involving Spinka contributors that this scheme is far reaching and widespread. According to the informant, the tax fraud and underground banking network is a tradition engaged in by a number of Hasidic groups… Public news reports similarly indicate that this tax fraud scheme, money laundering, and hawala banking network is widely engaged in by Hasidic rabbinical organizations other than Spinka.

In fact this very point was mentioned as a mitigating factor (among others) arguing for a lighter sentence:

The government concurs with the PSR’s (the probation office) assessment that the offense predated Weisz’s involvement, having origins generations past, and that it appears to be replicated by a number of other Hasidic organizations throughout the world today. This is a mitigating factor in that Weisz cannot accurately be considered the “mastermind” of the scheme.

One might say that is is forbidden to believe such things from non Jewish sources and that the informant was a Moser not only against the Spinka Rebbe but against the entire Chasidic community. But I would argue that the Chilul HaShem of such criminal activity is so huge… so entrenched… and so taken for granted that only public exposure will have any chance of affecting a change in their behavior.

It is very apparent that they see nothing wrong with cheating the government in this way. That it is so widely done is a shameful black mark all of Jewry. This is an almost unprecedented Chilul HaShem in scope and size. I am embarrassed and ashamed that those who pride themselves on being the most religious among us are so deeply involved in governmental fraud.

As for the Spinka Rebbe himself - it is quite clear from that document that he knew what he was doing and that he was not all that forthcoming in his admission of guilt. He tried to shift the blame to others saying that he was not involved with the details of the money laundering. He even claimed mental deficiency!

The US attorney’s office recommended the 3 year prison term which is apparently the minimum standard sentence for this kind of crime. The probation office had their own recommendations: a reduced sentence of 2 years instead of three due to the mitigating circumstances.

I am not here to argue in favor of either sentence. I in fact feel sorry for the Rebbe. I’m absolutely certain that his entire purpose in doing this was to fund his Mosdos. There was no direct personal gain.

But I also understand the US attorney’s point. The widespread type of criminal activity by Chasidim needs a deterrent. And a stiff criminal sentence for a high profile Chasidic leader might just send the necessary message. Lest someone say that the Rebbe is being scapegoated… I would contend that he is not. He is guilty of a crime and the sentence is being fairly applied to him. And less severe than would be the case if he had for example used the proceeds for his own personal gain.

The fact is that he used the funds for his charitable causes - like his Yeshiva, Imrei Yosef. They will most certainly be fined all the amount of all the ill gotten proceeds and then some. The Rebbe will only receive a nominal $100 fine, if I understand correctly.

Although he acknowledged his crime and afterwards went to great lengths to preach compliance with the law post conviction, he still tried to claim ignorance - shifting the blame away from himself. But as this document clearly shows evidence not only of his involvement but that he masterminded the whole thing. He knew very well what was going. A sample of a conversation with his Gabbai and co-defendant Zigelman excerpted in this document amply demonstrates this.

Here are some more damning excerpts:

Weisz directed others to perform the actual transactions and tasks; however, he worked out the financial intricacies himself. His conversations with co-defendant Zigelman appear clear and lucid, he corrects Zigelman’s errors and engages in mathematical calculations with precision and accuracy.

This transcript (of a recorded conversation with Zigelman) as well as other transcripts filed with the Court in connection with the sentencing of Weisz’s co-defendants, reveals Weisz to be a very hands on director of the scheme, painstakingly going through every contribution and reimbursement, reconciling accounting entries for both contributors and money remitters, determining reimbursement rates, and determining when, how and where money should be remitted.

The government agrees that the Defendant has accepted responsibility for his actions and that his outreach efforts urging similarly situated religious institutions to initiate compliance programs are helpful and extraordinary. These statements are not without qualification, however… the tardiness of his plea also goes to his level of remorse and his acceptance of responsibility.

Defendant’s characterization of his wrongful acts pose similar concerns. In his plea agreement, Weisz states that his error lay in his participation in the quid pro quo arrangement of giving cash back for contributions, his knowledge that contributors could use the charitable contribution receipts to justify tax deductions, and his “failure to inquire” as to whether receipts reflected the actual amount contributed after refunds.

The government holds a much more stark view of this case and Weisz’s involvement in that the entire purpose of reimbursing contributions appears to have been a device to promote a tax fraud and operate as a money laundering vehicle. There is no legitimate explanation for reimbursing contributions with millions of dollars of cash, or assisting individuals in wiring money from Israel to the United States by routing it through a series of Spinka nominee accounts. Moreover, there is ample evidence that Weisz was keenly aware that contributors were using the receipts to justify unlawful tax deductions.

There is much more in this document but I do not need to belabor the point.

That there is widespread fraud against the government in Chasidic circles is all but an established fact. The Spinka Rebbe knew what he was doing. He was caught and eventually admitted guilt. But in his plea agreement he did not fully admit the extent of his culpability. And in public comments he never publicly said that he was all that wrong in what he did but mostly just regretted being responsible for this massive Chilul HaShem.

I do not wish this man any more harm. He meant well. For him - it was all about his Mosdos. He has certainly already paid a very high price for what he has done. His stature has been substantially diminished. His institutions may suffer irreparable harm and even close down. And he will most certainly be serving some jail time.

I don’t want to pile on. But it cannot emphasized enough that none of this outweighs the Chilul HaShem he has caused. His ‘apologies’ did not satisfy me. My hope is that the Chasidic groups involved in this kind of thing are paying close attention and change their ways. Because if they don’t this could end up being the biggest Chilul Hashem in American history.


It's a 2 year senetence: From today's Ha'aretz:

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Weisz, the Brooklyn-based Grand Rebbe of the Spinka sect, was sentenced to two years in federal prison Monday for a decade-long fraud and money-laundering scheme.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Eternal Jewish Con of Leib Tropper

Rabbis – Aharon Feldman, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Norman Eisenstein, Hershel Schachter, Ovadia Yosef, Shlomo Amar, Yona Metzger, Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, Simcha HaKohen Kook, Reuven Feinstein, Moshe Meiselman, Moshe Soloveichik, Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, ZTL (The Bostoner Rebbe), Yisroel Meir Lau, and many many more…

What do all these illustrious names have in common? It almost sounds like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Torah world. They are indeed members of an exclusive club of rabbinic leaders But that is not all they have in common. They have all either attended or supported the Eternal Jewish Family. And they have all been duped by its founder Leib Tropper.

One of the biggest problems with EJF's founder long before this sex scandal broke is that he somehow managed to commandeer and virtually control one of the most important aspects of Judaism: The ability of any sincere human being to convert and join the people of Israel.

Leib Tropper is not a stupid man. He managed to connive and cajole leading rabbinic figures both here and in Israel to come on board and endorse what he was doing. International meetings were held and attended by very prominent rabbinic figures or their representatives - traveling from all over the world to attend – as the above list from their website shows.

The names of those involved with EJF is mind boggling in its depth and Hashkafic scope. The above photo of some of them sitting on an EJF dais was taken from their website and is but a small sampling of those who attended and who supported Tropper and his EJF.

All of these illustrious Rabbis were all duped by this man.

This gave Tropper an enormous amount of power and boosted his ego accordingly. He could virtually act in any way his heart desired towards any potential Ger or Giyores without ever worrying that he would be questioned - so certain were his supporters of his Ehrlichkeit. And act he did. Like an actor in a porno movie! And his sense of power made him feel infallible. But the sex scandal is only where it ended. His boosted ego wreaked havoc on converts long before that.

Like canceling a promised conversion for one woman who was completely qualified fully accepting keeping all the Mitzvos. But because she refused to move away from where her husband’s career was, she was denied conversion. Why? Because a Mikvah was not nearby. Never mind that this is not written any where in the Shulchan Aruch. Never mind that this woman was willing to drive monthly to that Mikva. Application denied- have a nice life!

And then there was the report about revoking a conversion of a woman he caught wearing pants.

In both cases the converts were women. (One wonders whether the real reason they were treated this way was because they rebuffed his sexual advances…) The point is that his power over conversions was unchallenged. Everyone trusted him.

And who can forget the EJF meeting where Rabbi Norman Eisenstein- supposedly speaking on behalf of his mentor Rav Elyashiv – decreed that no Dayan - no judge on a conversion court would be accepted if they believed the universe was more than 5770 years old. Of course that casted aspersions on not only the judges but on sincere converts who believed in an ancient universe same as one of the Gedolei Olam - the Tifferes Yisroel. Same as one of the most accepted rabbi/scientists in the Charedi wolrd, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ZTL.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a convert who believed in an ancient universe questioning his own status after hearing about this supposed decree – articulated by Rav Elyashiv’s Askan, Rabbi Eisenstein, in his name. I cannot think of a more widely damaging decree coming out of EJF than that. The repercussions of that statement with respect to the clear Torah prohibition against mistreating converts cannot be clearer. This is what EJF has wrought.

I do not fault any of the rabbis who were duped by this conman par excellence. They were trying to stop what they saw as a terrible trend in accepting false converts. Like those who wanted conversion for social reasons and had no intention of observing any of the Mitzvos. I am not going to go into the debate over that issue. The fact is that some conversions were shams. Others were not. Deciding which ones were and which weren’t is not in my pay grade. But there were real problems and they sincerely wanted to fix them.

I blame only one man. Leib Tropper. He did it all. And he has a lot to answer for long before we ever get to his sexual misdeeds. Thank God he was exposed.

What must now be done is to shut down EJF. It has already done more than enough damage. Damage to Klal Yisroel and more importantly - damage to every sincere convert who – because of EJF and Tropper wondered whether their conversions were truly valid. I think I can safely say that EJF and Tropper are no longer a worry for them. Anything he has done to hurt Gerim has come back to bite him and should be completely ignored by those who have sincerely converted. And by the same token

I think I can say that any EJF Beis Din that performed a conversion – that conversion was valid if it was constructed with the standards EJF had adopted. I can say with virtual certainty that the Dayanim used were of the highest caliber. That Tropper was EJF’s founder and director had no bearing on a duly constructed Beis Din. Unless he was one of the judges. That may indeed be a problem.

I will end with the following message from Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer sent to a private e-mail list. I present it here with his full permission.

In light of the recent revelations of the misdeeds of the founder of the organization called Eternal Jewish Family, it is an opportune time for you to make your rabbonim and chaverim aware of the reprehensible nature of an organization that throws geirim who are tzaddikim and tehorim into confusion over their status, declares that individuals who believe as the Tiferes Yisroel and others that the world is more than 5770 years old k'peshuto are pasul as dayanim, etc. There are some who maintain a "head in the sand" attitude and would cover up Rabbi Tropper's misdeeds, but I believe this is the Hashgocho manifest in retribution upon those who afflict geirei tzedek, u'mitzvah l'farsem.

Haloscan – Baruch Dayan Emes

I have been informed by haloscan that they will be shutting down in a few days. They have outgrown their capabilities and are starting to have problems. I was given a choice to buy into ‘Echo’ their upgraded system of commenting – or go back to the blogger commenting system (or some other system). I chose to upgrade for a nominal yearly fee because of the user friendly haloscan method of posting comments. I have been assured that ‘Echo’ will be similarly user friendly.

I have just converted to ‘Echo’ moments ago. As this is a new commenting system, I’m not quite sure how it will work. But I have been assured that it will be just as easy as haloscan only that it will work much better. If there are unanticipated problems and they persist I will immediately go back to ‘blogger commenting’ until I find a better one. I apologize for any inconvenience this may present in the short term.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Benefit of the Doubt? Not Always

There are some people who in their essence are so inclined to be Dan L’Kaf Zechus - giving others the benefit of the doubt that they end up sacrificing truth in the process. And that can sometimes produce harmful results.

I do not castigate such people at all. They are motivated by the highest ideals of Judaism. But by over focusing on one ideal they lose sight of the reality that surrounds them and the negative repercussions that might result. There is a difference between the requirement to be Dan L'Kaf Zechus and burying your head in the sand. One may not be Dan L'Kaf Zechus if damage to Klal Yisroel will result.

One very good friend of mine is constantly telling me that I am too quick to believe rumor and innuendo. The latest discussion we had on this subject surrounded the recent statements allegedly made by Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Malkiel Kotler. Which I wrote about a few days ago.

Therein he was quoted as comparing modern Orthodox Jews to either Esav or Conservative and Reform Jews that needed to be fought. It has yet to be proven that he actually said these things. These comments were made on Shabbos and there are conflicting reports about whether he actually said them or not.

It is my understanding that Lakewood Yeshiva has officially denied that he said them. But there is no doubt in my mind that there are mainstream right wing leaders like Rabbi Kotler that have these kinds of views and proudly state them. Some of these people are Roshei Yeshiva like him. And that is an attitude that they cultivate in their students.

That attitude was most recently demonstrated in in the comments section that dealt with the Mishpacha article on Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. To say the least not everyone on the right was pleased with the article or that t was even published. Here are a few comments representative of it:

*there is was and only will be one way…….that is the torah!!!!!”MO”is just a term or excuse not to follow the torah.


*Ahavas Yisroel is very important. So is maintaining a true mesorah. It’s time for mishpacha to honor our mesorah and not just Ahavas Yisroel - as important as the latter is. Mishpacha seems to take pride in it’s liberal style “acceptance” of everyone at the expense of possibly having people erroneously follow unsuccessful jewish movements.

If there is such strident opposition to Modern Orthodoxy in the world of the right - pretending it isn't there does not make it go away. And being overly Dan L’Kaf Zechus does not help matters. Based on solely on the requirement to be Dan L’Kaf Zechus … we should never believe anything we don’t see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears.

But that would mean yielding to the worst elements of Torah Judaism just because they scream so loud - even when their screams are not based in truth but in assumptions. Here are some truths about the right wing attitude by the rejectionists to Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions.

*Rav Elchanan Wasserman was considered by many to be one of the biggest Gedolim of the pre World War II era. He is the only person of that stature to have refused and invitation by Dr. Bernard Revel to give a guest Shiur at Yeshiva College.

Why? Because he was so opposed to that Hashkafa that he didn’t want to give even the slightest impression that he approved of it. His spiritual descendants live on and can be seen commenting on They will do their best to insure that this is only the Hashkafa in the Torah world because they think it is only one that is ‘Torah-true’ (a favorite expression of that community).

*The Rav was infamously denied giving a eulogy for Rav Aharon Kotler at his funeral. Can anyone seriously deny that this was based on what the students had heard about Rav Soloveitchik from their own Roshei Yeshiva?

*And let us not forget that infamous Jewish Observer obituary for the Rav by its editor Rabbi Nissin Wolpin. He very clearly stated that members of the Agudah Moetzes reviewed and approved it before he published it. Is being Dan L'Kaf Zechus in the unlikeliest circumstances going to serve the cause of Emes? Or Justice? Will silence help eradicate the extremism shown by commenters at the website.

Those who posted comments there are but a small sampling of those who think along those lines. Are we supposed to sit back and be quiet unless we hear it criticisms like those alleged to have been made by Rav Malkiel Kotler directly from him then we must assume it isn’t true even if there is strong evidence that it is?

That will not benefit anyone. It will not produce shalom nor will it promote Darkei Noam. It will not increase Ahavas HaShem nor Yiras Shamayim. And it certainly will not contribute to Achdus to allow such statements to go unnoticed and unchallenged. What it will do is create a climate where the right wing extremists will continue to harangue against modern Orthodoxy without the slightest defense from anyone.

They will claim that Modern Orthodoxy is evil because that's what their extremist leaders have taught them. Without calling a spade a spade - telling it like it is - the enmity against Modern Orthodoxy from those commenting on will continue and prevent any Achdus from ever taking place. Mishapcha Magazine might as well be spitting in the wind with that article if we don't stand up to these Kanoim and their rabbinic leaders.

Kanoim always have the advantage over the silent majority. Instead of standing back and 'turning the other cheek' by being overly Dan L'Kaf Zechus we ought to be screaming at the top of our lungs about the divisive Hashkafos being taught.

I for one refuse to sit still and I am going to 'hit back'! Thankfully I have a large 'pulpit' - a pulpit of Emes - to speak my mind and no amount of ‘Mussar’ about excessive Dan L’Kaf Zechus is going to stop me from seeking and speaking the truth. Because without it we are doomed.