Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Daas Torah Vs. Daas Baalei Batim, Redux

Guest Post by Rabbi Yossi Ginzberg

Because there was some criticism of my lengthy preface on part one, I’ll not write one this time. I will, however, again attempt to make clear that while I feel I speak the truth and therefore fear not, this is NOT meant as an attack on the Gedolei Torah, it is an attempt to offer constructive criticism that will allow them to do what they, deep down, must know needs doing.

My own conscience is my harshest critic, and it told me that the previous article could be read as focusing too much on the negative. There’s no great talent involved at pointing out past mistakes. Brains come into play when planning for the future.

That thought was percolating in my mind through a recent exceptionally busy week. Erev Shabbos, as I started to relax a bit, I sat down with a cup of coffee and two Jewish newspapers. One, a very Orthodox one, had as a front-page story the issue of “Toeivah” marriage. The other, a secular Jewish paper, had a letter to the editor referring to the rabbis who spoke out against the YU Gay panel meeting, with the following paragraph: “One would think that rabbis of all stripes would speak out with outrage against those congregants and associates who are found or even suspected to be involved I illicit business dealings and certainly not be willing to accept ill-gotten gains for charities, Shuls, and Yeshivot” (Joyce Lampel Semel, Manhattan, in the 1/8 N.Y. Jewish Week).

The confluence of the two made me wonder about why it was, in fact, possible for so many rabbis and activists (Askanim) to work together quickly and efficiently to combat the looming specter of gay marriage becoming legal in New Jersey, while they cannot seem to work together on other issues that seem to me to be far more pressing needs of their constituent communities. The logistics of getting signators, raising the funds for the ads, designing and placing the ads- all these indicate that when there is sufficient desire, things can get done quickly. This lends credibility to the left-wing anti-frum rhetoric of “when there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way”. If the Orthodox world rejects this thesis, as I do, why in fact is there efficient movement when it comes to fighting “Toeivah” and not something equivalent for the Agunah situation? For over 30 years, Agunah has been the rallying cry for attacks on Orthodoxy; why not finally deal with it?

Too complicated an issue? I’m being simplistic?

Okay, forget Agunahs. How about a simple pre-nuptial; agreement? If one that is accepted universally is agreed upon and insisted upon by all those who officiate at marriage, the Agunah problem will disappear with time. It’s decades since I first heard that observation, yet we seem no closer to having it in place. Why?

If you’re like many readers of the religious blogs (i.e., you support the bans on TV and internet but have both in your bedroom), at this point you’re likely thinking, “Ah, he’s foolish. We must have Emunas Chachamim (faith in our sages), the Gedolim have been working on these very complex issues for centuries and haven’t found a solution for such serious things. He’s being simplistic and foolish”. The problem is that you’d be wrong. You would be exhibiting the traditional frum response to adversity: Denial. And it’s denial that got us into this mess in the first place.

The thoughts outlined above combined with my guilt over the negativity that I felt leads me to make an attempt to right the wrong by offering not just criticism, but actual examples of what I expect the Gedolim (If you prefer, insert here “The Agudah”, “The Badatz”, “The RCA”, “The Rebbes”, “The OU”, or your preferred choice of who should lead Judaism in the 21st Century.) to do, instead of a list of what they did wrong. Here’s a list of items that could & should be dealt with, that could presumably be solved more easily than the Toeivah issue, and that appear to lack only the rabbinic desire to solve them:

Agunahs- See above.


Too often, a reserved stance gives the impression of being stand-offish, and while innocently meant, is perceived as hostile. Among the top 10 Jewish Religious gripes (JW, 1/15/10) is “Self-righteous and judgmental Orthodox”. The Orthodox world would be far better served if Yeshiva students were taught to interact better socially, even while maintaining their separateness. Once upon a time, Gedolim were known to everyone in the town, and were distinguished by their demeanor, greeting people in the street, even non-Jews. Learn from Chabad’s singular success- It’s due to their open and friendly attitude, not their politics.

Acceptable Halachic forms (Living will, shtar chatzi zachar, heter iska, etc)

I once lent someone money using a Heter Iska form I had in my office, issued by a well-known NYC Beis DIn. When it ended up in a Brooklyn Beis Din a year later, the presiding Rabbi said, “I don’t like this form, so I am going to waive all the interest”. While it ended up not making any difference (I never even got the principal back), it could have been a big problem. Why should simple things be so random? I know that any stationary-store lease or other form is good, why should Torah-related things be so uncontrolled? I tried recently to find an Iska form for someone, and found dozens online, but none that were clearly acceptable across the spectrum. Instead, most said, “As per Rabbi Xxxxx”, leaving validity questionable.

Business Ethics

Why does Daf Yomi take such a prominent place in virtually every rabbi’s Drashas and schedule? (Don’t misunderstand- I am pro-daf, and have done the cycle myself several times) Why the emphasis on learning Shemiras Halashon? Would not that very same effort in time, organization, and money have easily solved many of the problems we are speaking of? Even if not that, wouldn’t you think that learning halachic business ethics (halacha l’maaseh) is a better investment of time? It’s the failure to think that way that has led to having authors of seforim behind bars or under dark clouds. 19th century America is famous in Jewish history for having had noted Talmidei Chachamim and authors in far-flung towns where they languished. This century appears to be rapidly gaining a reputation for having the same type of people, but in prisons wouldn’t it be a good idea to replace Daf Yomi (or augment it) with business Halacha in a practical, applicable way?

Combined Batei Din

Another case of “Lo achabar ganva, ela Chura ganva” (It’s not that the mouse is a thief, but that having a hole where he can enter that’s the issue).

The absolutely unorganized system of Jewish Courts is an obscenity. It allows the lowest forms of life to label themselves “Toanim” and do irreparable harm to our people. Chilul Hashems are caused almost daily, corruption stories abound, and it’s a shame. One of the basic seven mitzvos of Bnei Noach is having a court system, yet here we are, a presence in the country for better than a hundred years, and we still have no organized system.

A well-known Flatbush Rav, consulted by someone close to me about whether she should take part in a Din Torah her boss was bringing, told her, “Your Emunah isn’t strong enough to survive a Din Torah”!

Day School Tuitions

How is it that millions were raised for Shemitta support (I heard that $11 million was raised), and Shemittah nowadays is at most a rabbinic mitzvah? We’re not even certain which year Shemittah is! Yet day-school tuition has become a major cause of the plummeting Orthodox birth rate in the Charedi community, despite the relevant Halacha.
Where are the Rabbis to protect our interests, to set priorities? Something must be done to bring this situation under control.


This topic has been in the news far too much of late, and is an absolute scandal. The only redeeming factor is that few potential Gerim read the Jewish blogs.
I have no idea why there is such resistance to allowing Gerim in, nor do I understand why there cannot be simple minimum standards set. Certainly all the talk about revoking conversions and so on has created Chilul Hashem on a large scale, and I cannot imagine why there is so much resistance to having a simple printed set of rules that everyone would agree to.
The Torah commandments of kindness towards Gerim should be sufficient reason to stifle the inane impulsive blurts of self-appointed guardians of the faith.


This is a good example of the Halachic principle of not making prohibitions which will not be observed. The TV ban had very limited success, and TV has almost no redeeming qualities. Banning internet, very simply put, cannot succeed. Far better would be teaching moderation, warning that parental supervision is needed, and constructive ideas of how to minimize the ill effects. Only idiots could think that the major problems facing us are caused by the web: They are just becoming more visible because of it.

Life insurance for frum men

It is with increasing frequency that we see ads begging for charity to support the widow and orphans of Rabbi Xxxxx, who devoted his life to true Torah learning, etc., etc. Why is it that so many look at basic life insurance as a luxury? Especially if you have a large family, this is a very basic requirement, and should be treated as such. The fact that it goes on, year after year, case after case, and not just from unsophisticated Meah Shearim Yidden but from world-travelling Boro Park Jews too, is a sign of total failure to understand basic economics and mortality. Throwing oneself (and even more so one’s widow & children) upon the mercy of the community is a Shanda, and should not be considered an option. Having $2000 Tefilin, a $3000 sheitel, and a silver atara on your talis but no insurance is obscene, and an easily-solved problem. Most men with large families are young enough to buy protection inexpensively.

Limiting Sefer publishing

It’s ironic that two of the recent crop of scandal-producers were both published authors of seforim. While these books may someday be collector’s items, for now they are an embarrassment.

I’ve never even seen either, so I’ll limit my comments to noting that Haskamos, approbations, have become an industry in themselves, and no longer have any meaning at all. Being a published author is no longer the status symbol it was when printing was expensive.

It’s just sad that anyone can print a sefer, and if he finds a fertile field to claim expertise in, have it accepted. Obvious examples that spring to mind are Tznius, where the extremes have become the norm thanks to often-unsourced chumras, and music, where total ignorance of both music and source material was accepted. (I’ll not name names, as that would be purposeless Lash on Hara- Either you know whom I mean, or you don’t need to). Blatant falsification of sources, misrepresentations, and simple distortion is sometimes used in these “seforim” to impose the author’s will on an unknowing religious public that seeks only to better follow the directives of Hashem. The Tznius standards of many schools have been altered to fit the rulings of that “authoritve” text’s author, and recent news includes reports of an Israeli “Hechsher” on music, probably based on bad data like this.


Too complex a subject for here, Sheitels have become so necessary and so expensive that I have reliably heard that theft from Frum stores has become an issue. This sounds vaguely absurd, like stealing Tefilin, but it is apparently happening frequently. When Boro Park girls started shoplifting in numbers, uniforms were imposed in the schools. Perhaps something similar might be called for. It’s not the rabbi’s who are causing this problem, but they are the only ones who might be able to solve it.

The appearance recently of the “Pretty Woman” sheitel style only points out the absurdity. Wearing a sheitel named after a famous hooker? If some gentile wrote a parody implying it, he’d be called an anti-Semite!

Stop supporting criminals

Accept that crime happens, sometimes even done by good people, good people from good families. Accept that the ONLY way to combat it is to stop protecting them, and while it is very sad that their innocent spouses and children suffer; covering up crime only makes it happen more often. This is easily provable: Since the powers that be have greatly reduced media coverage of Frum crime, the rate has increased greatly. As the Mishna says, “Ilmalei Moraah shel malchus….” (Were it not for fear of the authorities, man would live in anarchy)

Takanos (Sumptuary laws)

The rules regulating allowed expenses for weddings and such have a long history, and this would argue for their being a necessary part of Jewish life. Unfortunately, as they exist now, they are simply a mockery, observed only in the breach. I have a plan for a new, more effective, formulation, but it is too lengthy to insert into this post. I hope to submit it on its own soon.


That there are thousands of young men who cannot earn an honest living is nothing less than a disaster. It is contributing greatly both to the rapidly-increasing divorce rate and to the rising Orthodox white-collar crime rate. Not teaching your child a trade is the same as teaching him crime. I realize that things are different from what they used to be, but an honest profession is crucial. The days of pots of money being found in IPO’s, hedge funds, Silicon Valley, real estate, silver, and so on are clearly over.

Tzedaka verification

Several cities have successfully instituted supervision over collectors of charity funds. It’s about time someone did the same for the organizations with big ads and those that claim to be “the” best tzedaka. Are the gedolim really going all out for these places, or are they simply being manipulated into being photographed as if they were?
Likewise with the new-ish “segulah” charities. Do they really go to the Kosel, distribute food, do all that they claim? Do the alleged Gadol endorsers of them actually check at all?

Baalei Batim have done amazing things: Hatzalah, Bikur Cholims, Gemachs of all types, amazing Chesed projects all over the place. When will the rabbinate step up to the plate and do the same?