Monday, January 31, 2011

The C Word

I read with interest Rabbi Avi Shafran’s complaint about the term used by the media to describe co-religionists of his Hashkafa. He does not like the term ultra Orthodox. He sees the word ‘ultra’ as meaning extremist – which he categorically rejects. He prefers the word Charedi.

The funny thing is that in his description of Charedi Hashkafa, there are only a few relatively minor points of difference between my own Centrist Hashkafos and his. In fact I think what he is really describing is what I would call moderate Charedim. He is certainly not describing Chasidim. The only difference between us might be the following paragraph:

Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun what passes for music, entertainment and popular culture these days. We even have the chutzpah to buck the contemporary assumption that witnessing thousands of enacted murders and other immorality on screens is benign.

In fact even on this I would have partial agreement with him. My only disagreement is that I do not shun all of popular culture – only that which contradicts Halacha. But I can certainly understand and even respect his view. I would posit that many Centrists would even agree with him about the impact of watching the enactment of ‘murders and other immorality on screens’.

For me this is yet another indication of the direction I see Orthodox Judaism taking. The values of Centrist Jews (or right wing modern Orthodox Jews) and moderate Charedim are virtually the same. But I respectfully challenge him on the validity of his term of choice – Charedi. Of course I use that term to describe them too. But is it really a fair description of who they are?

The term Charedi is derived from the Hebrew expression ‘Chareid L’Dvar HaShem’ - trembling about the word of God. It is meant to show the seriousness with which truly devout Jews see their obligations to God. Charedim feel God’s awesomeness and understand His requirement of us – His people – to do His will. They literally tremble in their desire to perform the Mitzvos properly . This for example often results in taking the most stringent approach (being Machmir) in doing any Mitzvah out of fear that using a leniency might - according to one differing rabbinic opinion – not be fulfilling the Mitzvah at all.

If one looks at the care a Charedi Jew gives to even the minutia of Mitzvos one cannot fail to be impressed by their devotion. For example the care a Charedi Jew takes to buy the Daled Minim (the four species - usually referred to as the Lulav and Esrog) for Sukkos.

One will find Charedi Jews looking at every leaf of the Hadas, checking the Esrog with a magnifying glass for any blemish, and myriad other technicalities that may invalidate any of the four species. This truly testifies to the devotion. As does the time and money they are willing to spend on as perfect a set of Daled Minim they can find. No matter how modest their income – it seems like money is no object. I think this kind of behavior can be seen among the vast majority of Charedim.

And yet, 19th century Gadol Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (pictured above) had a different view about the majority of Charedim in his time. In the Torah portion we read just a couple of weeks ago, we find Yisro advising the Gadol HaDor of his time - his son in law Moshe Rabbenu - to delegate authority and how choose those to whom he will delegate it. One of the qualities Moshe was told to look for is that they should be Anshe Emes – men of truth.

Commenting on this - the Sefer Meorah Shel Torah (p.82)* relates the following anecdote. Rav Spektor was once asked to settle a dispute in his community between Charedim and secular Jews. He said the Emes lies with the secular Jews. The Charedi Jews were surprised by the answer and asked him how he could side with them against the Charedim? He answered that the secular Jews are truthful in their secularism. But it is truly hard to find many Charedim that are completely true to their name.

One has to understand R’ Spektor’s words. Were most of the religious Jews of his day not religious enough to be considered trembling before God? I think the answer may lie in observing how many of today’s Charedi Jews act.

Their trembling seems to be manifested mostly in Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom – ritual Mitzvos. When it comes to Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro it is another story. How many people – Charedim as well as modern Orthodox – are truly as careful in interpersonal relationships as they are in choosing a Lulav and Esrog?

Not that any of us are mean to our fellow Jews. I believe that the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox Jews of all stripes treat others well. But do Charedim in particular live up to their name? Do they go over their interactions with others with the same magnifying glass that they do an Esrog?

How about other Orthodox Jews? Do they look at Modern Orthodox Rabbis with the same respect they do Charedi rabbis? Do they tremble before God before they address all of their fellow Jews – no matter what their Hashkafa?

What about secular Jews? Do they tremble before God when addressing a secular Jew?

What about non Jews? Are they treated the way God wants them to be treated – as creations made in His image? Do they tremble before God when they interact with a non Jew? Do they examine their words with the same care they do an Esrog? Do they tremble before God when considering cheating on an income tax return?

Of course these questions may be asked of all of us, no matter what our Hashkafa. Most of us are honest and treat others well. And I would add that there are many people of all stripes that do ‘tremble before God’ in all those instances. But can anyone say that most people who call themselves Charedim live up to their names? Are they really Charedim in all areas? Or is Rav Spektor right?!

Perhaps the term ‘Charedim’ is then misused. Perhaps it should be a redefined as those who truly are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem in all areas. Not just ritual. And not just interpersonal relationships. Charedim should include those of any Hashkafa who live up to the meaning of the term. And certainly not apply to those wearing the uniform typified by the black hat. Perhaps those who do not tremble at all Mitzvos but only Lulav and Esrog type Mitzvos should not be called Charedim at all.

*taken from Torah L'Daas

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Déjà Vu - Is Egypt the Next Iran?

There is a lot of turmoil going on in the Middle East right now and it scares me. First it was Tunisia and now it is Egypt.

Egypt is the most populous Arab country in the Middle East and people there are clamoring to ‘throw the rascals out’. Demonstrations there are reminiscent of what happened in Iran over thirty years ago. They want the 30 year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak to end one way or another. They are tired of his oppressive ways. And the current economic crisis has brought the situation to crisis level. Mubarak for his part is doing his best to retain control. He has in the past not been reluctant to physically eliminate his competition. That’s what dictators do.

But there is a fly in his ointment. The United States - ever the Medina Shel Chesed - has said that Egypt must institute reforms if it wants to keep American support – which includes a huge chunk of financial aid. The Obama Administration like previous administrations before him sees injustices being carried out by foreign government s against its people and will not countenance it.

Americans see western style Democracy as a panacea for all that ails the world. That is a very understandable and even admirable position to take – considering the fact that it has worked so well for the United States and many other countries around the world. The problem is that we are talking about the Middle East. That is a part of the world where radical Islam trumps democracy any day of the week.

The last time this happened it changed the world. And not for the better. Then too - a dictator used undemocratic means to suppress his enemies and our President at the time insisted that he institute reforms along the lines of our democracy. Once he started going down that path it led to his downfall and the beginning of an Islamist revolution that is responsible for terrorist bloodshed the likes of which was unheard of until that time.

The country was Iran. The dictator was the Shah. When the Shah of Iran ruled that country, it was a friend of not only the United States, but even of Israel. Israel had an embassy there. El Al had regular flights scheduled to Iran. The Jewish community under the Shah was a thriving one that had centuries old roots. But the freedoms that then President Carter forced the Shah to introduce as a price for continued support was too high. The US intelligence community completely misread that country and no one predicted what would happen next.

Those freedoms led to student protests which ultimately led to the overthrow of the Shah. But instead of a democracy forming, Islamic fundamentalism took root. Ayatollah Khomeini who had been exiled from Iran had been teaching Iranian youth Islamic Fundamentalist doctrines via smuggled cassette tapes. These doctrines preached hatred of the West and all its culture. They preached hatred of Israel. And they preached hatred of the United States because of what they saw as a decadent society but mostly because of their support of Israel.

Ultimately the American embassy was overtaken and all its American employees were taken hostage for well over a year. Meanwhile Khomeini returned to Iran like a conquering religious hero. He was seen by all those Iranian Islamists- mostly young people - as their Gadol HaDor. And was treated with the kind of awe and deference one would expect for an elderly man of God who preached nothing but the purity of his religion.

There were many citizens in Iran that were not interested in their new Islamism and were quite happy with how things were under the Shah. There was a failed attempt at democracy during this period but that didn’t last long. The country Iranians once knew was gone. And they there was nothing they could do about it. The result is what we have today - the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It has been over thirty years since we tried to impose democracy on a country that wasn’t ready for it. This is a regime that has absolutely no interest in compromise. They are true believers. They love death more than we love life. They are all willing to die for their cause –celebrating every suicide bomber as a Martyr for Allah. Islamic Fundamentalist mothers express great joy when their children blow themselves up in suicide bombings.

If there is a terrorist anywhere in the world today, chances are he was trained by Iran or one of their surrogates - any number of fundamentalist Islamist groups that have sprung up in the last 30 years as a direct result of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaida, and many other groups like them are a direct result of the Iranian revolution of 30 years ago.

The idea of guaranteed and immediate great reward in the afterlife creates an enemy almost impossible to defeat. There are no rules of engagement. There is no playing fair. There is only doing Allah’s will as defined by their Gadol HaDor – the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. Their mandate is to accomplish their goals by any means necessary.

Why is there no counter revolution by the many that remain unhappy with their government in Iran? Because nothing motivates like religious fervor. The regime will do whatever it takes to crush opposition to it. That is exactly what they did a couple of years ago when it was tried.

All of this ultimately this spawned the group and the man responsible for the events of 9/11. Which in turn has spawned two wars and countless deaths.

That is what misplaced good intentions can do. President Carter had nothing but good intentions with Iran. For him it was all about notions of freedom and democracy. But instead of succeeding in spreading those two noble goals he is – in my view - almost single handedly responsible for the world in which we live today.

Now imagine if another very large country goes that route today. Egypt now has diplomatic relations with Israel and a peace treaty with them that has lasted for over 30 years. One can call it a cold peace. But peace it is. In fact there has not been any war between Israel and the Arabs ever since. But Israel is no safer today than it was then. All because of the Islamic Fundamentalism that took root in Iran over 30 years ago.

The United States is pressuring Mubarak to ease up on his people in favor of a more open and democratic country. I believe it is a huge mistake that could have the same type of impact on Egypt that Carter’s pressure had on Iran. If the largest Arab country becomes the next Islamic fundamentalist regime - there would be little stopping it from going to war with Israel. And the Egypt of today is not the Egypt of 1967. The soldiers of Egypt will become soldiers of Islam ready to die for their religion like no other soldier anywhere. Every single one of them a potential suicide bomber. The threat of Israel’s nuclear option will not deter them.

I’m sure that the Obama administration sees this ‘cry for reform’ in Egypt as a cry from the grass roots for freedom. I’m also pretty sure he relies on his intelligence community to tell him what the protests are all about and what the goals of the protesters are. I’m equally sure that many of those protesters actually do it out of desire for freedom. But how many of those protesters are fundamentalists ready to take over given the chance?

They are the most motivated and determined group there. And they will do whatever it takes to succeed. I fear that fundamentalists have the numbers there to succeed despite what the intelligence community thinks. They have been wrong before. Most notably and seriously with their assessment of Iran 30 years ago. We cannot afford another Iran. One Iran has wrought enough damage upon the world. If I were the President, I would be thinking very hard about the consequences of a call for Egypt to allow more democracy there.

If President Obama succeeds in forcing reform and that ends up ousting Mubarak we may not like his replacement and what follows. And Obama’s legacy may very well be the same as Carter’s if not worse. A lot worse.

Friday, January 28, 2011

As the Pendulum Swings

I never met Mrs. Bracha Goetz. All I really know about her is that she is an author of books and has penned columns for magazines like the Jewish Observer, The Jewish Press, and Chabad.org. Perhaps most importantly she is an executive committee member of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, an organization in the forefront of the fight against child sex abuse in the Jewish world.

I have always admired her from afar for her work and dedication to this important cause. I have had one or two e-mail exchanges with her and the one thing I noticed is that she is very receptive to criticism. She is not a ‘my way or the highway’ type of person. Her natural inclination is to seek truth. Not to self aggrandize. For that I very much look up to her as a role model for all Jews.

That was before I read an article she wrote for a the Lakewood View, a website that apparently caters to mainstream Lakewood community. After reading her essay there - my admiration increased many times over. And it validates my perception of her as a seeker of truth. An Isha Emes.

I must also give credit to this website for publishing her point of view. This website caters to a community whose views are the exact opposite of the views expressed by Mrs. Goetz. That they published this without comment means that insular walls of Lakewood are being breached and the people there are hearing reasoned opinions that are a lot different than the ones they usually hear. Of course if they are connected to the internet, that has already happened. What makes this unique is that it is on a Charedi website called the Lakewood View. That implies that this website is more or less in concert with the predominant views of Lakewood Rabbanim. Or at least Lakewood residents.

Her story is quite remarkable. If I understand correctly she is a Baal Teshuva who became observant over 30 years ago. She tells of a conversation among some guests she had over for a Shabbos meal a couple of years ago. That conversation stuck with her.

One guest was there to experience Shabbos in his own quest for truth. There was another couple there who had become Frum about 15 years ago. The conversation between that couple revealed an attitude that is one of the things that I truly feel has gone awry in Orthodox Judaism. The perception by more and more people that Rabbinic opinions cannot be questioned. Or put another way that rabbinic views and edicts are infallible:

The wife stated very emphatically that one must never question a Rav.

Those who read this blog regularly know my views on this subject. Human beings no matter how great - make mistakes. We have also seen all to often that even the greatest of Gedolim alive today admit making mistakes - Rav Elyashiv among them. And more recently in America Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky.

And yet the feeling among many on the right is that a Rav – let alone a Gadol - may never be questioned.

After witnessing this exchange Mrs. Goetz opines that the Judaism she grew into 30 years ago has changed. When she was becoming religious, she was not only NOT forbidden to ask questions, she was encouraged to do so! Today questions are stifled.

Just to be clear, we are not talking about Halacha Shailos. Of course people should ask questions to find out what the Halacha is about anything they don’t know. No one would say that is forbidden.

We are talking about challenging Hashkafa type questions. This is what is being quashed by the right. If for example a ban comes out against a Jewish website like Vos Iz Neias it comes out with a ferocity akin to banning murder, adultery or idol worship! Questioning it as I did brought a quick response from a Charedi website basically throwing me out of Orthodoxy.

The trend has been obvious. It seems like almost every day new bans and edicts come out and no one better dare question them.

Of course most people ignore them anyway. But that is besides the point. Even when they are ignored the bans and their rabbinic signers are defended and questions are treated as insults to those Rabbanim. On the other hand maybe the point is exactly the fact that so many of their own people ignore those bans. And that is why an article like this was published in Lakewood. So perhaps I should not be so surprised. Either way I am certainly pleased.

Here is the money quote from Mrs. Goetzbolded in the article:

It no longer tastes like the Torah we were first offered, when those with clout invalidate sincere questioning by dismissing it as being presumptuous. When people only feel unafraid to voice their doubts and questions as anonymous comments on frum blogs, we can be grateful for these opportunities for suppressed voices to be heard, but it also highlights that a fear of speaking up is prevalent. Instead of feeling threatened by these anonymous comments, and seeking to forbid them by imposing bans on these venues, we need more leaders who can garner genuine respect by encouraging as much open questioning as possible. Then they too can actually benefit from the perspectives and challenges presented.

Amen! The entire article is worth reading. It is a must! Pure gold.

I truly appreciate Mrs. Goetz words here and all she does for Klal Yisroel. And once again it is a truly courageous act for a Lakewood publication to publish these words without any editorial comment on their part. My black hat is off to them. (Yes, I wear one on Shabbos with my Kipa Seruga underneath.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Differences in the Modus Operandi of Gedolim

Guest Post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman

In my search for Emes I am once again pleased to present a guest post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman. He is a Charedi Jew that I truly believe represents the wave of the future. As I have said in the past, I honor his intellectual honesty and though we sometimes disagree I think it is safe to say that we both seek similar goals.

The following was sent as a comment on the last post – but it describes a truism about the state of authoritative religious figures that deserves far more exposure than it would get near the end of a very lengthy comment thread of the post that generated it. The following are his words.

I am not an authorized spokesman for either Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv or for Rav Ovadia Yosef; nevertheless, I think that it is critical to try and understand where each is coming from. As is the case with many public issues in Israel, there is a fundamental difference in approach that is manifested in their opposing views. R' Elyashiv - and the rabbanim who follow his direction - choose to live in a halachic bubble where the only issue of concern is what halachah demands.

The political ramifications of a halachic stance are immaterial because, in their view, the political exigencies of a state and its need to satisfy the needs of all of its constituents are immaterial and have no bearing since the state itself has no real legitimacy. In this view, the chiloni majority in the state has no standing in terms of being a part of the klal for whom they are responsible and they can therefore be ignored.

Rav Yosef, on the other hand, in his dual role as posek and political leader, must by force take other factors into consideration. If there is a means of relying on a lenient opinion, then for the sake of the needs of the entire klal it is within the posek's authority to do so, even if the majority of opinions holds differently.

I would posit that Rav Goren zt'l issued his decision on the Langer mamzerim issue on this same basis. Although the halachic consensus would have had him declare them mamzerim, the political exegincies at the time, in his view, called for him to reach a conclusion - with precedent albeit limited - that was politically potable. The same might be true of the psak of Reb Yitzchak Elchanan regarding the heter mechirah. The needs of the time may have caused him to decide to rely on a leniency that he would not have considered in other situations.

Obviously, Rav Elyashiv is aware of political realities. I would conjecture, however, that he is reluctant to follow Rav Yosef's analysis of the political needs at this juncture because he is reticent to create these kinds of precedents which, in his view, will only lead to demands for a more amenable approach to questions of halachah vs. medinah. Better to take a stand on this issue and protect halachah than to compromise and be subject to pressures.

As such, what we have here is a political debate between gedolai yisrael on a subject that, in truth, has never really been resolved since the founding of the State. Until such time as a consensus can be reached that will bind all poskim [something that only Eliyahu ha-Navi can bring about], we will continue to be subject to these types of arguments. I only pray that they remain civil and respectful to both sides.

[As a paranthetical aside, in his biography, former MK R. Shlomo Lorincz recounts a number of conversations he had with the Satmar rebbe in which he asked R. Yoelish if he would be prepared to join the Agudah if the party left the knesset. The rebbe demurred and Lorincz writes that he assumes that the reason was the rebbe's opinion that before the coming of mashiach, each kahal must remain separate and not attempt to create a unified body since we lack the tools [sanhedrin] with whhich we can reach a decision that will be binding on everyone. This would seem to me to underlie the position of Rav Elyashiv and cohorts who are dead set against creating a unified body of shomrei mitzvot - from left to right - to represent the interests of the klal. Doing so, would require compromises that they would prefer to avoid.]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Conversion and the Unity of the Jewish People

One of the biggest issues facing Judaism today is the conversion issue. This is not a new problem. It is a problem as old as Judaism itself.

I have always said and continue to believe that Gerim – converts to Judaism (along with Baalei Teshuva) are shining examples to us of what it means to be a Jew. While there are many reasons one may seek conversion to Judaism, the sincere among them do so because they have found Emes. We who are born into religious homes and indoctrinated to believe in Judaism and perform the Mitzvos often do not have that advantage. There is no better way of serving God than by finding Him yourself. I think that defines L’Shma.

The problem is when some converts do not do it for the right reasons. Sometimes those reasons are not good enough to qualify for conversions. For example among many illegitimate reasons is when two people fall in love and one of them isn’t Jewish. Intermarriage has (until recently in the Reform Movement) been anathema to even the most liberal streams of Judaism. So even secular non observant parents seek a fast track conversion for their child’s fiancé. The non Jewish party will want to please their Jewish fiancé and his or her parents and ‘convert’ in name only - never really intending to observe any Mitzvos. That of course is unacceptable. And yet for many years even some Orthodox rabbis converted people this way. Rav Shach once famously said about such converts that you can sell them your Chometz on Pesach.

The core issue here is Mitzva observance. A convert must pledge to keep all the Mitzvos. Although there is some debate as to whether this was indeed always a requirement with Rishonim quoted and interpreted as not requiring it, in our day this is no longer in dispute. Orthodox conversions require a commitment to observe all the Mitzvos (along with an immersion in a Mikva - and for men circumcision).

The problem came to a head when a huge influx of Russians - many of them of questionable Jewish status immigrated from Russia to Israel. Most of them were Jewish by birth - both parents being Jewish. But a great number of them were products of intermarriage. They were Jews only if the mother was Jewish. Statistically that means about half of them were not Jewish at all. This included even mothers who converted in Russia by non Orthodox rabbis who believed they were Jewish. All of these immigrants believed they were full fledged Jews having been raised that way culturally albeit irreligiously. Many serve in the army some fighting and dying for their country. There are enough immigrants in this category to make them a demographic time bomb for Israel with the potential of making the majority citizens of Israel not Jewish.

The government of Israel wants to keep Israel a Jewish country. They have therefore embarked on a policy of converting them all using every leniency possible. That has caused the issue to explode into the consciousness of all segments of - not only Israel but - the entire Jewish world. The conversion issue remains contentious and unresolved. The latest and perhaps most serious manifestation is IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) conversions. And the sticking point is still Mitzvah observance.

The requirements for conversion are circumcision (for men); immersion in a Mikva; and a sincere promise to observe all the Mitzvos. The first two components and are pretty straight forward and without controversy. Mitzvah observance on the other hand is the issue that is causing what may be the biggest spilt in Orthodox Judaism to date.

What does Mitzvah observance mean to a potential convert? What must they know? What must they pledge?

The Gemara answers that question for us. We examine the applicant to see how sincere they are, tell them of the huge body of Mitzvos to be observed, require them to agree to fulfill all of them as they continue to learn them post conversion. We then tell them some of the basics Mitzvos and complete the conversion process immediately.

The Halacha clearly states that if a convert is sincere in his commitment to fulfill all of the Mitzvos at the time of his conversion and then proceeds to violate all of them –her she is a Mumar Yisroel - full fledged Jew who is treated as any Jew who violates Halacha.

This might seem like a simple answer for these new immigrants who convert while making this commitment and then proceed to violate the Mitzvos right away. But it is not that simple. Rav Moshe Feinstein famously Paskin’d that if it is obvious from the start that there was never really any intent to observe the Mitzvos, than any such statement by a potential convert is meaningless. He calls it an Anan Sahdi. This is a principle which essentially means that ‘we are all public witness’ to the lie of Mitzvah fulfillment. If one for example eats Treif just before their conversion and then immediately eats Treif afterwards, their s no greater sign that their commitment was never sincere. Their conversion is therefore null and void. Never happened!

When the IDF converts someone, they require a statement of Mitzvah commitment but in most cases Halacha is not followed afterwards.

Are they Jewish?

The dispute is not between lightweights. It is between some very big people. Rav Elyashiv and other Ashkenazi Rabbanim have signed a document rejecting all the IDF conversions claiming there was never any intent to observe Mitzvos. Rav Ovadia Yosef and other Sephardi Rabbanim say that IDF conversions are valid. Apparently Rav Yosef holds that their commitment to observe the Mitzvos at the time of conversion was sincere enough to make them all full-fledged Jews. That they sin afterward makes them sinning Jews. Not gentiles

When Rav Yosef was asked about it during a Shiva call to Israeli President Shimon Peres he said ‘that the guiding principle in his ruling was the unity of the Jewish people, within the framework of Halacha’.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Rav Elyashiv issued some very strong words against his great colleague and counterpart in the Sephardi world expressing his “great protest” and pain over the “breach of the boundaries of the vineyard of the Jewish people to ‘kosher’ conversions that are not according to Halacha, and [that] bring gentiles into the vineyard of the Jewish people.”

“these gentiles had no intention to accept any principle from the religious principles, neither Shabbat nor Kashrut nor the sanctity of the family, and everyone knows and can almost vow that these gentiles had no intention to accept Judaism.”


“And we turn to whoever can do anything to prevent this terrible desecration... and God may give the hearts of those erring wisdom,” the letter ends in what appears to be a wish aimed at Yosef.

Rav Yosef is not some low level rabbi who doesn’t care what Rav Elyashiv says. He is a Gadol - every bit the Gadol Rav Elyashiv is. Who is greater? It doesn’t really matter. Both are giants and have the standing to make rulings on these issues. And yet Rav Yosef has decided to take the same position that many non Charedi left wing critics have on the issue of conversions – for much the same reasons – national unity.

Up to this point – it was an argument between left and right. But now it is the right versus the right. Sepahrdim versus Ashkenazim. What Charedi Jews have in the past thought was a settled issue for them, is far now from settled.

Are these new non observant converts legitimate? Are Sephardim going to accept them, while Askanazim reject them? Will there be a breach between these two worlds so great that we will not be permitted to intermarry with each other? Stay tuned. I think the fight has just begun.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Punishment for Sexual Misconduct? Not if You're Leib Tropper!

Arayos – sins dealing with sexual activity is one of the most focused upon issues of the Charedi world. And for good reason. In its most serious manifestations – among them adultery (sexual relations with another man’s wife) it is a Yehoreg V’Al Yaavor. Halacha mandates giving up one’s life before transgressing it.

In other manifestations it is treated almost as seriously. The lengths that the some segments of Charedi world go to prevent Arayos violations are pretty extreme. To that extent, enclaves like Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak have mandated dress standards for women that go well beyond normative Tznius (sexually modest) dress.

The consequences of violation of these dress codes is so severe that self appointed ‘Tznius squads’ have sprung up to ensure compliance. Hechsherim for clothing stores that sell only Tznius clothing now exist. In one instance a few years ago a store in Geulah (a religious neighborhood bordering Meah Shearim) was torched for allegedly selling clothing that was not Tznius by their standard.

Separating the sexes is a priority among all Charedim and there is great vigilance to do so at virtually every level - all in the name of preventing violation of Arayos. Some of the lengths are so extreme they seem absurd to the average religious Jew. There are Chasidim for example that never walk together with their own wives in the street. Women are always several paces behind the men. I witnessed this many times when my parents lived in Bnei Brak where the custom is to take Shabbos walks down their main street (R’ Akiva Street) after the Friday night meal.

Examples of how far the Charedi community goes to separate the sexes are far too numerous to mention. The point is that sexual sins are seen as among the worst offenses one can commit.

And yet when it comes to sex abuse accusations among their own there is an almost 180 degree change in attitude about it. There is almost complete denial of any sexual misconduct in that world. Every accusation seems to be treated as a lie. This trend is changing a bit in some of the more more mainstream Charedi circles – at least in the US.

But there are far too many Charedi enclaves where the operative word is denial. One of the more recent and egregious examples of this is a published document proclaiming – not only the innocence of a convicted sex abuser (multiple times of his own daughter) but proclaiming him to be a Tzadik!

But now we have an even more recent and perplexing example of this attitude. The story was reported on the Charedi website B’Chadrei Charedim (Hebrew). Rav Daniel Eidensohn has a translation (in the comments) of a portion of that article on his blog Daat Torah that states Leib Tropper was accorded great honor by several Charedi Rabbanim. We should remember that the Tropper case was not one that is typically attributed to biased anti Charedi secular media coverage - a media they claim lies and distorts everything Charedi.

One can perhaps understand the naiveté of an insular group that is paranoid about media bias not believing any negative reportage about one of their heroes. Especially when that hero denies it all. But this is not the case with Tropper.

He was caught on tape encouraging one of his potential female converts to participate in some pretty kinky sex. In fact it went way beyond encouraging her. He practically used extortion implying that her conversion to Judaism was on the line if she didn’t give in to his sexual fantasies. After several conversations like this, that woman had the foresight to record later phone conversations with him. It is all on tape. There was no way for Tropper to spin this. He knew it and resigned from his post as head of EJF an organization he founded to ostensibly help standardize conversions to Judaism.

Until he was caught trying to indulge his own sexual perversion he was seen as a leader in the conversion controversy – garnering much support from Charedi Rabbanim that many consider Gedolim. So it is clear that he not only abused the power of his position – he did it to gain sexual favors from a person vulnerable to his whims!

How they can allow this man to show his face anywhere in their world is something I do not understand. But to treat him as a hero and to lavish praise on him is so ridiculous that it makes a mockery of the very thing they are strictest about!

On the one hand their extreme attitudes about sexual matters produces aberrational behavior that give the thugs among them an excuse to beat up a religious woman who sat in the unofficial men’s section on a bus to the Kotel. And many similar thuggish acts like it. And yet a lecherous Rav who is a proven sexual pervert – caught preying on a vulnerable protégé is treated like a conquering hero of Kiruv!

What does this say about the leadership of a community so strict on matters of sex and yet honors a man who abused his power to gain sexual favors from a female under his wing? Is there any possible way to spin this in a positive way?

I guess it is the same mentality that moved a group of Chasidim in Israel to successfully fight the extradition to the US of one of the most infamous child sex abusers of all time, Avreimal Mondrowitz.

I guess that in certain Charedi circles if one has a beard, wears a black hat (let alone a Chasidic Bekeshe and Shtreimel) and talks the talk, it doesn’t matter what he did sexually. Denial rules the day even when the evidence is clear. It only matters when a non Charedi woman sits in the men’s section on an empty bus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

When Modern Orthodoxy is Not an Option

This morning a friend of mine told me about his nephew in Lakewood who is going ‘Off the Derech’ (OTD ). Unfortunately this is no longer news. This has become all too common an event among the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.

Every segment has issues that contribute to this phenomenon. Certainly modern Orthodox Jewry has its share of young people going OTD as does the Charedi world. The causes of a young person going OTD in both segments may be different, but I believe the numbers are huge in both. It doesn’t matter whose numbers are greater. It’s not a contest. The problem is that there are any significant numbers at all.

Modern Orthodox young people who are not properly prepared to deal with the attractions of ‘the forbidden fruit’ which permeates the general culture can all to easily succumb to it. There is much less sheltering from those influences thus making it a challenge to resist when so often encountered. That is why it is of paramount importance to make sure to not limit Jewish education to the intellectual - but to include the ethical and moral. One must know what they may encounter in life and be taught how to properly deal with it.

The Charedi world has the opposite problem. Rather than exposing their young to any of the culture they believe sheltering them from it as much as possible. That- they believe - will better insure their Yiddishkeit. In a vacuum they may be right. But no matter how much they try to eliminate the outside world, it is impossible to do so. Of course that does not stop them from trying –issuing bans and constantly haranguing against just about anything secular.

Both modern Orthodoxy and Charedism has its pros and cons with respect to dealing with the phenomenon of going OTD. But the large population of Charedi OTDs should put to rest the claim that insularity helps prevents going OTD. It obviously doesn’t.

With that in mind I wonder if their opposition to modern Orthodoxy contributes to this phenomenon. I think it does.

Many Charedi leaders treat modern Orthodoxy as unacceptable as Conservative or Reform Judaism. Of course in theory they know very well that this is not so. Even the most right wing of Charedim if pressed will admit that someone who is a Shomer Torah U’Mitzvos but leads a modern lifestyle is a religious Jew with all its rights and privileges.

And yet that is not the message they transmit to their young. Modern Orthodoxy is Treif/Passul – illegitimate! It does not matter how Ehrlich – sincere a modern Orthodox Jew is about his Judaism. Nor does it matter how Medakdek B’Mitzvos, careful in all their observances they are. If they have the modern orthodox label attached to them in any way, they become persona non grata.

This is of course not true about every Charedi leader. There are some who do not act this way. Nor do I think that this was the norm back in the days of the previous generation of Gedolim. But that is the case now in far too many of their people in various rabbinic leadership positions. There are so many examples of this attitude it would take a book to cite them all. Just to mention a few:

* The attitude expressed by the Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva about Bernard Lander, founder of Touro College. After calling him a ‘Finer Yid’ he went on to slam his Hashkafos calling him less than an ideal Jew.

* The fact that there is boycott by virtually all Lakewood students against dating young women who attend YU’s Stern Coellge for Women. I’m sure there are exceptions to this boycott. But as a rule, a Lakewood Bachur will rarely consider a date with a ‘Stern girl’ no matter how religious she is.

* There is the way that Agudah treated not only YU’s then president Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm but also Rav Hershel Shachter during their last DafYomi Siyum HaShas ceremony - begrudgingly seating them buried among a group of Rabbanim way out of sight of the crowd and completely ignored during the ceremonies.

* And of course there is that shameful and infamous obituary of Rav Soloveitchik approved by members of the Agudah Moetzes.

With so much haranguing against even the Frummest of modern Orthodox Jewry, it should come as no surprise to my friend that his nephew from Lakewood who - dissatisfied with his own Hashkafos – is going straight from Charedism to becoming complete OTD. Why even look at modern Orthodoxy? It is Pasul/Treif anyway! Modern Orthodoxy is not an option. If they don’t like what they are fed at home, they do they go straight out the door of observance.

This is true for enclaves like Lakewood where the sheltering is pretty high and the attitude about modern Orthodoxy is pretty negative. But it is even truer for the world of Satmar type Chasidim – whose sheltering practices make Lakewood seem modern by comparison.

Of course there are always unique circumstances that pertain to every individual who goes OTD. Dysfunctional families, an abusive parent, or educational issues among them. But often those are not the causes. Far too often perfectly fine families who abide completely by the norms of their community and whose children easily conform - may find one or more of those children dropping out. And when they drop out of their Charedi upbringing they completely skip modern Orthodoxy as an option.

This is amply demonstrated by a film now in circulation called, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish - a movie produced and acted in by Satmar dropouts. It is a film that contains nudity. From the New York Times:

(Lead actor Lazer) Weiss (pictured above) was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and broke with the faith in his teens. “Romance wasn’t something we talked about growing up,” he said. Not only that, Mr. Weiss, 26, had “never even heard of Shakespeare” until the film’s director, Eve Annenberg, enlightened him…

Mr. Weiss, who grew up in the Rockland County Satmar stronghold of Monsey, N.Y., got kicked out of yeshiva at 14 for smoking cigarettes. For a while he led a life of petty crime that included credit-card fraud and filing fake lost-baggage claims, he said.

For her part, (Melissa) Weisz, 27, (Weiss’s co-star and girlfriend - pictured above with Weiss) who had left Borough Park’s Satmar Hasidic community, and her marriage, in 2007, said she “hadn’t seen a movie before I turned 19.” She added: “I was about to meet my ex-husband’s parents, so my friend and I rented ‘Meet the Parents’.” It wasn’t what she expected, she said…

Then there was the sex scene, in which Ms. Weisz bares her breasts — a major taboo in the Orthodox world. The scene caused several Hasidic men to storm out of the London screening, though they sneaked back in minutes later, Ms. Annenberg said.

“It was pretty uncomfortable, appearing nude like that,” Ms. Weisz said, gazing at Mr. Weiss. “But it sort of made our relationship easier, you know what I mean?”

I have to wonder - had they not been indoctrinated to abhor modernity in all of its manifestations would these two young people have chosen a better path. As might have my friend’s nephew in Lakewood.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Orthodox Racism: Why not?

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

One of the rarely-spoken-of but important underlying principles of Judaism is that the belief in Reward-and-punishment has a corollary: Like over-ride commissions, if you were a causative factor in one’s doing a mitzvah, you get a little piece of the reward for that. That carries on ad infinitum, as long as that person keeps doing what you taught.

This is part of what makes Kiruv attractive and likewise for Chinuch (pedagogy) in general. It’s part of why we allow Sabbath violations for doctors to save lives. It’s also what makes the Mourners Kaddish possible- otherwise, how can a child’s actions affect the deceased? It’s the parent’s credit for teaching them or for paying tuition.

My wife and I have been extremely privileged over recent years to be the founders and facilitators of a support group for Gerim-in-process. I have never written of this because there was no reason to. That changed last week, because of a short comment in this forum.

First, let me explain the group Unlike the mandatory conversion classes all would-be Gerim are required to attend, coming to the group is totally voluntary. Attendees hail from every part of the world and every race: We have Japanese, Dominicans, Albanians, Greeks, Argentineans, French, Germans, and more. The largest group is the people of color, which includes Africans, Trinidadians, Dominicans, Haitians, and more.

While not highly visible in most places, there are hundreds of Gerim-in-process in the metropolitan New York City area alone. (I now interpret the ingathering of the exiles as an ingathering of the holy souls that heard the Giving of the Torah and were spread amongst the future converts, as the Medrash relates.) The group is run like an open forum, and any topic is allowed. The most common issues are dealing with non-Jewish family, relationships, choosing a Kehilla/Nusach to attach to, and….Jewish racism.

We truly do consider ourselves to be very privileged to be involved in this. Quite aside from the Chesed we get the opportunities for, we are inspired by the behavior we see exhibited by those inspired to seek a place under the wings of the Shechina.

Amazing things can be seen from this group, things that give “Mesiras Nefesh” and dedication an entirely new meaning: The 38-year-old African Black man who undergoes circumcision, those who convert fully aware of the great difficulties that they will have ever finding a Jewish soulmate, those who join us despite the alienation they will get from their families.

In one case, a 15-year-old converting with his mother found out at the last minute that because his Bris had been done by an Orthodox Mohel (His mother had first converted Conservative), he wouldn’t have to have another ritual drawing of blood. His reaction? Instead of the expected sigh of relief, he cried, because he had looked at that ceremony as a “sacrifice” he was bringing to Hashem, out of love. Is that any less than a contemporary Akeidah?

These Gerim, as a group, are amazing people. Obviously, they are highly spiritual, and they are so driven and dedicated that they are abandoning everything and everybody they know to step into a totally new and strange world. Perhaps you think keeping kosher is a big sacrifice- You’d be wrong, as kosher is a small thing compared to abandoning your family, or dealing with a grandmother who cries because you’ll be forever damned for denying their God, or knowing you’ll not be able to attend your sister’s wedding in a church.

So why am I breaking my silence on this topic?

A week ago, in a comment that slipped by the usually very careful moderator, an extremely racist anti-Black comment was posted. There were rebuttals posted, my own amongst them, as well as an apology for allowing the post by Rabbi Harry. Despite this, the opinion exhibited and the fact that it could even exist in a body that considers itself religious, keeps me from sleeping. It’s akin to the “TV Sheitel case” a few weeks ago- apparently either you “get it” or you don’t, but this issue is more important than deciding if Heidi and husband are idiots or criminals, it’s a question of the very soul of the Jewish people.

As stated, the issue that most often drives away Baalei Teshuvah (I have been teaching BT’s for decades, too) and potential converts, is perceived Orthodox racism. I can offer dozens of examples:

* The pretty young woman, totally “eidel” and devoted, who enters a new Shul and the Rebbetzin says to her. “So you have a Jewish boyfriend?”

* The Black man who reads the Israeli news daily and is reconsidering his conversion because of all the reports of racism in Israel.

* The young Black man who went to a dozen Shuls before he found one where he was offered a Siddur and a smile.

* The women who report that Orthodox men hit on them more after they announce they aren’t yet Jewish.

Many, too many, drop out of the conversion process because they cannot abide these nasty or hurtful comments. Sadly, some of these dropouts occur after conversion, causing (from a Halacha perspective) a lifetime of sin. (Yes, it shouldn’t happen, but evaluating converts is an imperfect science.)

Recently, one of the women from the group went on the Zev Brenner radio show to tell her story. Someone with a heavy Brooklyn/ Yiddish accent called to offer "Shadchan” (matchmaking) services, and got her number. After the show, he spoke with her off-air and made all sorts of increasingly obscene suggestions. What could he have been thinking? For his moments of perverted thrill, he could have a lifetime of sins that he’ll have a part in!

My point in posting this is simple: I believe that the converts in general and the African-Americans in particular are offering the Jewish people an important asset, an expanded gene pool and a chance to actually start the process of judging people by what they ARE as opposed to what their skin color (or hat color!) is.

Equally important, in the same way that in teaching or saving someone’s life, a part of that mitzvah accrues to you, I am sure that if your racist or insensitive comment causes someone to NOT convert, to NOT become a Baal Teshuvah, or to go off the derech, then a part of every mitzvah that they DON”T do, every sin that they do, also accrues to you. Imagine: for a single stupid comment that caused someone to either leave Judaism or not join, you could be accumulating sins daily. Forever.

To be clear: I am not arguing that racism can come back as anti-Semitism, or that it can cause Chilul Hashem, or the other myriad reasons. I am trying to make the point that from a purely self-interested point of view, if you cause a person- any person- to sin or to not do Mitzvoth, even if you do so obliquely, you will get a small part of that person’s sins on your account, forever.

I cannot hope to control what small-minded people think, but I truly hope that at least the consideration of potential consequences will stop them from saying it out loud.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm and Torah U’Madda

One of the most maligned figures in the Torah world is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. And that is a travesty. But it is understandable if one realizes that much of the criticism is based on a comeplete misunderstanding of his views.

Dr. Lamm is one of the most important figures in modern Orthodxy. He is a brilliant Talmid Chacham and a brilliant Baal Machshava. Having attended Torah VoDaath and then Yeshiva University, studying under the Rav, receiving Semicha, receiving his PhD in philosophy, and ultimately becoming president of of his Yeshiva - he is in a unique position to offer insights in both Torah and Mada and formulating a Torah Hashklafa that combines the two disciplines. He is one of the few people alive qualified to do that. I can think of few others that can. In fact only two other people come to mind: Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

It is in part because of Dr. Lamm’s bold advocacy of Torah U’Madda as a philosophy of Judaism as outlined in his classic work of the same name that he has received much of his criticism. It is a criticism that is undeserved. It is criticism that is based on a misunderstanding of his views.

For example he has often been accused of equating Torah with Mada which is completely false since he clearly says that Torah knowledge is of superior value. That he places a very high value on the independent study of Mada does not mean he equates it with Torah. Only that he considers it an important – if lesser discipline.

Nor does he precisely define Torah U’Madda. He only opens up the discussion by describing why he feels that studying Mada independently is of paramount importance. He suggests various models based on existing frameworks such as Chasidus or Torah Im Derech Eretz, and such great historical figure as The Gra and Rav Kook. He mentions his own preference (Chasidus) but leaves it open for discussion.

And yet for this he has been vilified. There have been other criticisms of him which are also unfair. But this in my view is the most significant as it attacks an entire Hashkafa. It isn’t that one cannot disagree with him. That is perfectly legitimate. One can reject all of his models and even the very philosophy itself. But it is completely unfair to malign him for proposing the idea as legitimate – especially if one doesn’t even bother to understand it or reflect accurately its contents.

In my view trashing Dr. Lamm’s Hashkafos by de-legitimizing them and thereby Dr. Lamm himself does a disservice to one’s own Hashkafos as it does not allow for the concept of Shivim Panim LaTorah – that there are 70 different ways to understand the Torah. This is a clear and undebated Hashkafic principle of the Gemarah. But then again even Rav Hirsch’s classic version of Torah Im Derech Eretz is seen by the right as only B’dieved at best.

It is this rigid and rejectionist view of Torah Judaism that is so troubling for me. Why must they deligitimize everything but their own views? Whatever happened to Elu V’Elu? But I digress.

If one reads my bio at the top of this blog, one will see the importance I place on Dr. Lamm’s Hashkafos as outlined in his seminal work. It had a profound influence on how I view God’s word and God’s world. I think it is Emes. But I do not deny that other Hashkafos are just as legitimate. That’s because I realize that I do not have all the answers. Just a lot of questions. Questions that Dr. Lamm helped answer.

Rabbi Gil Student has reviewed the 20th anniversary edition of Torah U’Mada and his take on this great work and the man who authored it is exactly on target. It is a short essay but it says a lot. It is entirely worth reading.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Money, Sex, and Blackmail

Dudi Zilbershlag (pictured) is a person who under any other circumstances would be a role model for the Charedi world. And an inspiring figure for everyone else. Aside from publishing a successful Charedi newspaper his accomplishments are among the most laudable any man can achieve in one lifetime. His warm and welcoming approach to secular Jews is one we should all emulate. As are his Tzedaka activities.

He founded Meir Panim – an organization that sets up soup kitchens for the needy regardless of their religious backgrounds. He is chairman of ZAKA- an organization respected world wide for their work dealing with the human remains after major tragedies strike. Like suicide bombings in Israel and catastrophic earthquakes in Haiti. He is also chairman of the board of Bikur Cholim Hospital – a Charedi hospital in Jerusalem.

Not too many people have an impressive resume like this. So how does one explain how this mighty man can fall so low? How does one explain accusations of pocketing tens of thousands Shekels (NIS) in contributions meant for the hospital? How does one explain altering checks worth over a hundred thousand NIS written to charity and depositing them in his personal account? How does one explain evidence of these and many other financial crimes?

And how does one explain the photographic or video evidence of Mr. Zilbershlag receiving massages as well as other intimate acts by an actress posing as a Bikur Cholim donor ?

How can such an apparent Tzadik be so terribly flawed as a human being – almost the opposite of his image? I cannot answer the question. Nor can I answer the question about the people who tried to blackmail Mr. Zilbershlag after setting him up with that actress.

Apparently two people who head charity organizations set him up in order to blackmail him. From the Jerusalem Post:

Hirschenbaum and Roth allegedly sent an actress who pretended to be a Bikur Holim Hospital donor to a Jerusalem hotel with Zilbershlag, and took pictures of the woman giving Zilbershlag a massage, as well as other intimate photos.

Sex, money, and blackmail... No – this is not a movie plot. This is what is happening in Israel right now. How much of this is true remains to be seen. The alleged blackmailers who of course deny everything are in the process of being investigated.

On the financial side there seems to be evidence of Mr. Zilbershlag’s financial crimes but as of now – it is all allegations. But on the sexual side – there seems to be visual proof in those pictures or as another Jerusalem Post article says - videos.

Is there any question why religious Jews are now seen in such an ugly light? There shouldn’t be. Not after so many instances of people who look like Mr. Zilbershalg being caught literally and figuratively with their pants down. There is no use in denying it or hiding it. It is all out there for the world to see.

Nor is there is any celebration in all this. This is not a cause for any kind of triumphalism by modern Orthodox Jews. We can’t point to Charedim and say, ‘See what they’re like?!” Because we can all be tempted to sin and many of us fall. There are far too know people of all stripes who have succumbed to temptation.

It is human nature. The sex drive is very powerful and under the right circumstance who knows how many of us would fall? The Gemarah speaks about great rabbinic figures of that era who were tested in exactly this way and almost failed.

What makes this so difficult for me is that I looked up to Dudi Zilbershalg. We always hope that our heroes are better than that. That they act like the heroes we believe them to be under all circumstances. And when they fail – they become a huge disappointment to us. This is what happened here. Mr. Zilbershlag and former President Bill Clinton share a common feature - the weakness of the flesh.

If he is guilty of those financial crimes, I have lost all of my respect for him. That remains to be proven – but as in most cases like this which have been reported in the media, I fear the worst. But… innocent until proven guilty.

Those pictures and videos on the other hand… hard to explain those away. Whether he was tricked into that situation or not, Mr. Zilbershlag has shamed himself, his family, and all of his co-religionists. Much the same way Bill Clinton shamed his fellow Americans.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pictures Don’t Lie

Just when I thought the Meshiach issue in Lubavitch was going underground, I was surprised to see that it is alive and well and in full bloom. One can see it in the pictures of the installation of Rabbi Yossi Braun as the new Rav and Dayan on Lubavitch’s mainstream Beis Din in Crown Heights. Those pictures show a ‘packed house’.

There were hundreds of Lubavitchers in attendance -some wearing Yechi Yarmulkees. But more telling are signs all over in both Hebrew and English declaring: Long live our master, our teacher, the Rebbe, the king Moshiach forever and ever. These were not some ad hoc signs put up by a few renegade Lubavitcher Meshichists. These were big signs prominently displayed behind the dais and elsewhere.

Meshichism is the most problematic thing about Lubavitch – the one that has caused much of the Yeshiva world to avoid all interaction with them – in many cases boycotting their Shuls, and in some cases avoiding their Shechita – as per the Psak of Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach.

This Meshichism has caused Telzer Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller to write some of the harshest criticism he has ever written about any segment of observant Jewry including YU. Rabbi Dr. David Berger has completely condemned them and calls Orthodox indifference to it - a scandal!

I don’t think most Lubavitchers are aware of just how rejected they are by the Yeshiva world (and some parts of the Chasidic world). They make the claim that opposition is based on the venom of irrational Lubavitch haters who spread lies about them. And that it isn’t working in any case since they are so widely accepted by the mainstream. It is true that many in mainstream Orthodoxy do not boycott them. But in the world of Yeshivos most people do. It isn’t just a few crazy Lubavitch haters that causes this attitude but their Meshichism. A Meshichism that exists despite their best efforts to keep it quiet.

In their campaign to keep Lubavitch acceptable to mainstream Orthodox Jewry Lubavitcher Rabbanim – especially outside of Crown Heights - have gone to great lengths to show just how ‘anti’ Meshichist they are. They minimize their number claiming they are a small but vocal group centered in Israel.

But the pictures from Crown Heights give lie to that. It is obvious that all in attendance there feel perfectly fine with signs declaring their now deceased Rebbe to be the eternal Messiah. Among the huge crowd are Lubavitchers wearing Yarmulkes printed with those same words. All is fine. The new Dayan felt perfectly comfortable addressing his audience beneath a sign boldly proclaiming it.

Just to be clear, I am not being mean spirited about this. Please do not read this post this way. I am just being truthful in what I observe.

Nor do I God forbid hate any of them in any way. In fact on a personal level I actually like them very much. I live among them and consider many of them good friends and I think the feeling is mutual. They are some of the nicest people I know. Their dedication to Judaism and their fellow Jews is something for all of us to emulate. Most of my Lubavitch friends and acquaintances know the problem I have with their Meshichism. Frankly I don’t know why they put up with me.

I daven with them every morning and evening. I am in fact their Shaliach Tzibur most mornings. It is a true testament to their tolerance of even sharp criticism. But despite our friendship my strong objection to their Meshichism - or at least tolerance of it – remains unchanged and has been reinforced by these pictures. Rabbi Yossi Braun who may very well be an overt Meshichst is now a Dayan on their main Beis Din in Crown Heights. Those signs speak louder than words.

When you combine Messianic beliefs with a Kabalistic idea that their rabbinic leader is Atzmus U’Mahus Melubash BaGuf – the essence of God clothed in a body - you have one very dangerous formula for apostasy.

There is no hiding their messianic view of the Rebbe at some level. It is part and parcel of their belief system and it resides openly in their world headquarters in Crown Heights. Look at those pictures! They speak louder than any denial. It is now about 15 years after the Rebbe’s death. And the Meshichism is as strong as ever!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Son’s Perspective

Guest Post by Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski

Last week I wrote a post about how Torah and Mada is viewed by three different Hashkafos within Orthodoxy. I used the words of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski to show how a Charedi professional whose knowledge of Mada in his field has few peers nevertheless sees such knowledge as undermining the ability to make a decision based solely on Daas Torah.

Although I greatly admire Rabbi Dr. Twesky and his work, I profoundly disagreed with him about this and explained why I believe the opposite is true. That generated a heated debate on this issue in the comments section. Debating an issue like this is one of the benefits I see to this blog as it helps to find Emes.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s son, Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski has been gracious enough to share his perspective with us. Rather than being buried in a long list of comments in a post that is several days old, I have decided to turn it into a guest post. His words follow:

As the son who went into psychology, I will take the liberty of sharing my perspective. It will change the debate a bit.

From our midteens, I and my siblings were often asked, though without pressure, to contemplate the issue of career. I do not recall specific discussions, but the seed was planted and replanted many times. Years later, when I was in Eretz Yisroel, I went to several people to discuss the ideas I had.

I spoke at great length with the Amshinover Rebbe (Reb Meir'l ZT"L), the Machnovke Rebbe (R' AJH ZT"L), and they independently told me that my interest in psychology should be pursued. I was cautioned to stay away from college campuses until after marriage. I feel their brachos empowered me. Without hesitation, I can say that my father shlit"a was as supportive to my brothers and sister who entered other fields.

I had no favoritism by choosing mental health. Nor was there the slightest caring whether the career direction we sought involved college or not. The focus was on making a living with honesty. I recall having the all too common fantasy that I would go into chinuch. My father neither supported nor challenged the idea. All we discussed was the importance of being honest.

My belief is that career learning should be for those who will excel and become the beacons of Torah, in whatever capacity. Ongoing learning is the obligation of everyone else, each according to their capacity and potential.

As our years move on, I see my father shlit"a from time to time, and our conversations tend to concentrate on divrei Torah more often than mental health. I do not see the discussion of his position, as referenced by commenters here reflected as such in how we entered our careers.

Taking the Right Stand

There has been a renewed emphasis by Charedi leaders in their opposition to the internet. This time specifically attacking Orthodox Jewish blogs. Most recently it was in the form of an editorial entitled ‘It’s Time to Take a Stand’ by Rabbi Pinchos Lipshutz in his newspaper, the Yated (republished on Matzav.com.)

The fact happens to be that I actually agree with some of the points brought up by Rabbi Lipshutz. There are far too many instances where lines of propriety are crossed. There are far too many instances where rabbinic leaders are unfairly disparaged. This is wrong.

As I constantly say, religious leaders who dedicate their lives to serving Klal Yisroel do not deserve to be disparaged – even when we feel they have made mistakes. Even if those mistakes are perceived as big ones. They clearly believe that they act L’Shem Shomayim. That should be respected under all circumstances.

None of this should not be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. My only real differences with Rabbi Lipshutz and those he speaks for is in how to deal with the problem. They believe in banning the entire enterprise:

Our response to them should be uncompromising. We have to be able to exercise enough self-control to shun their writings.

I believe in embracing the good and throwing out the bad. And if done properly an Orthodox Jewish blog like mine can be a resource for good. It can act as a place to vent frustrations and as sounding board for possible solutions.

While I agree with some of what Rabbi Lipshutz says I take issue with the following:

But after being exposed to a steady barrage of gossip, depicting one religious person after another as a lawbreaker, one’s attitude naturally becomes poisoned. Malicious speculation regarding the motives of rabbis and other community leaders, as well as entire groups, casting them as hypocritical or irresponsible, compounds the outrage.

On these blogs, religious leaders are consistently vilified. They can do no good. Regardless of what they do, their actions are twisted and portrayed as evil. When that fails, their motives are questioned and they are portrayed as corrupt, willing tools of strongmen…

So, instead of improving themselves and raising their own standards, they tar all frum people with one brush, dismissing an entire group as schemers, crooks and molesters, people lacking mentchlichkeit and decency.

While I agree with him that is some cases there is the maliciousness he talks about- not all Orthodox Jewish blogs are created equal. There are some – like mine – that decry malicious attitudes towards rabbinic leaders. But to the extent that he sees the very mention of Charedi wrong doing by Orthodox Jewish blogs as the cause of this problem - I would strongly disagree. I would call this ‘blaming the messenger’.

True a steady diet of evil in the Frum world coming out of Orthodox Jewish blogs can cause an unfair generalization about the entire community. But it isn’t the messenger that is the problem. Nor is the message condemning the behavior and asking why it exists at all among Frum people – the problem. Nor is the problem suggesting that there may be some institutionally flawed thinking that contributes it.

The real problem is the actual steady flow of religious people who commit these public indiscretions. When a blogger like me addresses it, it has long ago become public knowledge. The negative impact has already been made. It is left for us to make a public Macha’ah against such behavior – instead of trying to sweep it under the rug as though it never happened.

For the entire Frum community to ignore it publicly is to be contribute to the Chilul HaShem. It is as though we deny that a problem exists in the Frum world - when it is plain for all to see that it does. That can all to easily be interpreted as some sort of religious tolerance for this behavior. Especially when after being quiet about the crime and the criminal great public efforts are made to help them asx though they were innocent victims and in some cases heap praise upon them.

There are those who say that if not for Orthodox bloggers, the Charedi world would not know about these problems. That by talking about it – we are adding nothing to the discussion and instead are only guilty of Lashon Hara. The problem is that if we are ever going to get our house in order, we have to make sure we are fully aware of every single time it happens. And to be aware of who did it and how prominent the guilty party is. It is only when we realize the extent of the problem that then can we begin to try and deal with them as a community.

Ironically by inference - Rabbi Lipshutz makes a very interesting point:

Are there problems crying out for solutions in our community? No question. We have to motivate the people of fine character, steeped in Torah and mussar, to rise above the masses and join forces to find common ground and productive solutions. We should empower them to offer constructive criticism. We should support these people and motivate them to work for the klal without fear of being maligned for their actions.

Rabbi Lipshutz realizes that there are problems. Perhaps he even agrees that the problems are many of the same ones discussed here. But perhaps he also realizes that as great as current rabbinic leaders may be we have do not yet have the people that can do the job. We do indeed need to motivate ‘people of fine character’ to find these ‘productive solutions’.

In light of the fact that these problems still exist – and seems to be growing I would agree. Rabbi Lipshutz’s goal is my goal too. We need to find and motivate people to do what’s necessary to get the job done. Because what has been done until now has changed nothing.

The Greater Good

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

In the United States, Blacks compose about 12% of the population. Shockingly and sadly, in the prison population, they compose about 41% of the inmates.

Most attribute this disproportionate fact to be the result of many years of abusive treatment at the hands of the police and the judicial systems. That they were frequently denied proper justice, were unfairly tried, and were disproportionately forced into the penal system is an unarguable fact.

These facts triggered an unfortunate response within the Black community: disrespect for the police, automatic disregard of crimes committed by Blacks, denial of the existence of a very real problem, and ignoring of the effect of all this on the younger generation. The most vocal positions are taken by those who stand to profit from it: the demagogues, the would-be community leaders, and so on.

This situation has stood for decades, for the most part without any real action being taken by anyone, while young Black people continue to mature as criminals, entering the judicial and penal systems in an apparently unstoppable flow.

Why should we, as Orthodox Jews, care about this?

I remember fondly how many years ago, when the first (at least the first within my rather long memory) nursing home scandal broke, how the New York papers had a field day. It was a classic “Man bites dog” moment- a Rabbi that committed crimes! It captured the headlines for weeks. And it is from there that my fondness for the memory stems: It was a rare event, an unheard-of event.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. A Kipa, a black hat, a beard are no longer seen by a large percentage of Americans as symbols of integrity or fidelity, they’re seen as red alert symbols that this employee should be watched, and in too many cases, not hired. Even as these symbols are more visible all over the country, they are less taken as badges of good faith.

And to what should this be attributed?

Obviously, media attention plays a part, and has been far too often overplaying the criminal appearances of our likeminded brethren. Still, with less than 10 minutes work on Google and old posts on the Failed messiah site, I compiled a list of over 50 Jewish men that actually are rabbis, and the list includes Litvaks and Chassidim, Roshei yeshiva and Rebbes, and even several authors of Halacha books. Orthodox from virtually every community appear. Of course, anti-Semitism on the part of a judge, a prosecutor, or a jury is also a favorite excuse, as is ignorance of the “illogical and unfair” laws.

But it appears to me that these are insufficient reasons for our proud community of people devoted to Torah principles, to the truth and justice and fairness and equal treatment of all that the holy Torah promotes, to become fellow-travelers to the problems facing the Black population.

So why is this happening, and how can it be stopped?

My analysis of this leads me to believe that the origin of the problem lies in the success of Orthodoxy. That same cultural assimilation of the Orthodox community that allows us to wear Kipas in court, avoid alternate parking on YomTov, build Eruvs, get synagogue variances, stop on-the-job discrimination, and so on has also allowed interventions on behalf of Orthodox under indictment and has created fast-growing Orthodox congregations within the prison system.

This act of mercy towards the Orthodox criminal has the effect, for the community at large, of decriminalizing the offense. There have already been cases where criminals (of financial fraud) have done more crimes while still awaiting trial for the first! Likewise, the friends who serve as straw men to buy the houses of criminals and bankrupts and then “give them back” may be doing a great Chesed to that family, but the message sent loud and clear to the community and particularly the young is, “Don’t worry, for us Jews there are no consequences”. This has been true even when the victims too were part of the orthodox community.

I am NOT saying that we should have no mercy on the wives and children of miscreants, nor that they should not appeal. I am simply saying that their appeals should be personal issues, not highly-publicized community issues. Likewise, I am sympathetic to the obscene 27-year sentence imposed for financial fraud, but still feel that these issues are not for the public to confront.

The burgeoning issue and the one that brought me to once again post is the recent trend toward the automatic defense of Orthodox miscreants of all stripes, where defenders have no reality check, no apparent scruples on spending, and no apparent care toward how the world perceives their actions.

There are sadly many cases that qualify for retrospection as to whether or not the greater Jewish good has been served in defending the criminal. The convicted and executed murderer from Florida being touted and buried as a “Tzadik” is only a symptom of how crazed this behavior can get. Is spending millions to defend the smugglers in Japan a reasonable cause?

Aside from issues of Chilul Hashem (media coverage has been greatly expanded thanks to these efforts), the communal charity pool is finite, and it is reasonable to make the assumption that money that goes towards attorneys is at least partly coming at the expense of day schools, yeshivas, and other charities. Likewise for the greatly promoted collection of funds for the extended defenses of others.

Perhaps even more egregious, and a step even further in the wrong direction, is the recent phenomenon of well-known rabbis traveling to prisons to extend “Chizuk” to the incarcerated. This has become more and more common, and while it perhaps started as a fair attempt to influence local media, it has now become a source of embarrassment. Whether one accepts the verdict and guilt of a man convicted of repeatedly raping his own daughter or feels that he simply erred in refusing to be represented by counsel, is this a message that we want to convey to our children?

I stop short of making the claim that the Jewish world has demagogues that encourage this willfully so as to profit from it, but find it impossible to understand that rabbis sign in the dozens on the most inane bans but somehow cannot get even a Minyan to comment on this issue that challenges our very future.

Sadly, I make this prediction: If this trend isn’t stopped- and soon- the Orthodox criminal statistics may soon rival the horrific statistics exhibited by the Black population. Their problem was caused by a lack of real leadership and a refusal to acknowledge the problem, and ours will come from the same sources.

One final note. I have purposely refrained from making any comments about valuing the biblical ban on theft over the issues of “Lashon Hara” and “Dan l’kaf zchus” and similar Halachic references because comments would digress from substance to arguing those points. I cannot resist, however, to note that on last week's Torah reading (Beshalach) the Meshech Chochma comments, (my own translation) “If the community becomes morally corrupt, it is worse than if they fail to observe the commandments…The generation of the Flood violated all the laws, but were condemned by Hashem for their thefts”.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Enabling Marvin

It is with great sadness and simultaneous great anger that I write these words. Marvin (Mordechai) Berkowitz was a friend of mine. We are both the same age. He lived here in Chicago for many years and raised his family here. He is actually quite brilliant… very knowledgeable Jewishly. He could easily be a Magid Shiur in any Yeshiva.

Marvin was also a nice guy with a great sense of humor. He was – in short – well liked and well respected. But he had one tragic flaw. He was a crook. The flaw was that he did not think of himself that way. That is because of a Hashkafa that has been the downfall of far too many Orthodox Jews of late. It is a Hashkafa that erroneously believes that it is Halachicly permissible to cheat the government as long as you don’t get caught.

That Hashkafa combined with his disdain for non Jews is what did him in. His disdain for ‘the dumb Goy’ was forever on his lips. Especially if they were government employees. He could not think of anyone who was dumber than a low level government employee – so many of whom he believed manned government programs like the IRS. He saw all that money to be his for the taking – and no dumb government employee would ever catch on. Well they did catch on. From the Chicago Tribune:

A Chicago man who portrayed himself as a rabbi pleaded guilty Friday to organizing a tax fraud ring that used the stolen identities of dead people and federal inmates to file for millions of dollars in phony refunds.

Marvin Berkowitz, 64, stood before U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall on Friday and listened as federal prosecutors outlined the scam to steal $54 million by using 3,000 stolen identities and filing bogus returns in 28 states.

Berkowitz, who was living in Israel at the time, led a group of about 10 people, including close family members, who ran the scam for six years, according to his plea agreement.

This was not the first time he was caught in a government scam. He has already served time in prison for another one. That one involved Frum investors who were misled into thinking his tax scheme was legal. Not only wasn’t it legal it was a complete lie. Those investors lost a great deal of money. Many of them were Frum people with modest incomes.

He actually asked me if I would be interested investing with him on that deal. He claimed it would have returned a tax benefit far in excess of my investment. Although unaware of the fraudulent part of that deal, I turned it down anyway thinking it just sounded too shady – even if it was legal. Thank God.

When Marvin was released from prison, his family and friends forgave him. He served his time and we all thought he learned his lesson. But he never got over his absolute disdain for the gentile mind. He devised a new scam only this time he convinced or duped his own children involving them in the scam.

How sad that such a brilliant man; a religious man; a man from an illustrious family; a man charming and delightful who could make anyone laugh with his great sense of humor - be so stupid and clueless about what he did. Stupid for thinking he wouldn’t get caught. And clueless about Halacha and the Chilul HaShem.

He must have thought that getting caught the first time was a fluke. But more importantly Marvin is of the same mentality that has resulted in far too many prominent religious Jews going to jail. To Marvin, the only crime he is guilty of is getting caught. He probably still sees cheating the government as perfectly fine.

I wish I could believe that this will be the tripwire for the vast majority of rabbinic leaders of all stripes who clearly know that stealing from the government violates Halacha to finally take action. I wish I could say that they will now finally speak out as loudly and forcefully on this issue as they have on other religious issues such a Tznius or the internet.

But I just don’t see that happening. Bigger people than Marvin are now in jail. And the silence is deafening.

Oh… there has been lip service paid in various venues about to the need to be honest in all our dealings. There has even been much discussion about the cause of some of these problems: Greed and ‘keeping up with the Cohens and Katzes’ are constantly being mentioned as something we have to guard against. But that is obviously not enough. That deals only with the motivation. It does not deal with the enabler –the Hashkafa that permits cheating the government.

For once, I would like to see a Kol Korei – a pronouncement stating that those Poskim who permit stealing from the government are Rodfim – Jews who pursue you with the intent to harm you. That the Issur of Chilul HaShem this causes is as great as or greater than any other issue on their agenda.

For once I would like to see a sense of anger and righteous indignation along the same lines as has been expressed on so many other issues. Much like the anger and indignation I recall being expressed against displaying a ‘headshot’ of a woman wearing an attractive wig in the front window of a wig shop. If only the same sense of anger and indignation could be shown for those who have committed financial crimes… maybe just maybe things might change.