Sunday, March 31, 2013

Yeshiva University Needs to Do the Right Thing

Yeshiva University Beis HaMedrash
After thinking long and hard about the sex abuse scandal at Yeshiva University’s high school, I have come to the conclusion that more needs to be done.

A lot of mistakes were made that resulted in many young students being subjected to sex abuse. This is certainly not a happy episode for YU. A lot of people share culpability for the overlooking or ignoring what happened during the employ by YU of Macy Gordon and George Finkelstein.

Some of the people who need to answer for their mistakes are people I respect. Some are icons. I am not going to go into specifics of why I so admire and respect those people. Those who read this blog regularly will for instance know how much Dr. Lamm has influenced my own Hashkafos. I still honor him for that. I don’t think I would be who I am today without reading some of his works.

To the best of my understanding, his level of culpability is as follows. As president of Yeshiva University he was informed of abuse by the above two individuals. Instead of reporting them to the police and firing them immediately, he let them go quietly… and did not feel the need to inform other communities about them.

If I recall correctly - his explanation for this was that he did not want to hurt them professionally since he had no hard evidence for their abusive behavior. He also felt that it was the obligation of those who in the future would employ them to check them out… and not his obligation to warn them. That was pretty much the thinking in those days – wrong though it was.

We all know by now that predators when ‘kicked out’ from one community will set up shop in another. It is also true that the victims of Macy and Finkelstein were not properly dealt with. If I am not mistaken they were basically told to just keep quiet, get over it, and get on with their lives.

We also now know that it doesn’t work like that. There are lifelong residual effects suffered by sex abuse victims that stay with them for the rest of their lives.  Some handle it better than others. But it is no secret that in many cases abuse victims suffer lifelong depression if untreated - leading to suicides in some cases. There is ample evidence of that.

I do not think Dr. Lamm is a bad person. Quite the contrary. But I do think he made a mistake and should say so publicly.

One can say with a certain amount of legitimacy that as President of a University that was in such financial trouble when he took over that his time was consumed with turning things around. He set about to literally save the school. Which he did. With such a heavy responsibility he could have well just seen the ‘goings on’ at the affiliated high school that he was not directly involved with was an intrusion into his primary function as the head of the University - charged with literally saving it from closing down.

This of course is no excuse. But it is a fact and should in my view be taken into consideration. It is equally true that his busy schedule did not diminish his responsibilty to the individual student. It did not diminish the pain suffered by students who were victims. It should not have been a back burner issue.

It is now my view that YU needs to do the right thing and come clean. They need to admit that mistakes were made by leaders  both past and present. What happened ought to be fully investigated and all results made public. To the extent that mistakes were made, they ought to be fully recognized and apologized for.

I also agree with Stacy Klein  who said in a Forward article that YU should indeed set up a fund for victims in order to help pay for any therapy needed by the victims of Gordon and Finkelstein.

However, I do not agree that at age 85, Dr. Lamm should be fired from his position-  as she suggests. His intent was not malicious. Just mistaken. And his contributions to Judaism are immense. I think a sincere apology admitting his mistakes  - along with that therapy fund - would go a long way towards helping to heal the victims. I do not see anyone gaining from his being fired.

After discovery of all the facts YU needs to not only make them public and officially apologize  - it needs to take concrete steps to make sure it never happens again. And to try and make things right for the victims via funding their path to healing.  

I hope that victims of Gordon and Finkelstein will agree with this approach.

Once YU does all this it can get on with its holy mission of teaching Torah U’Mada to future generations of Jews. YU has a great legacy. But it is not perfect. Once it does the right thing here – their reputation can be restored and their legacy will continue well into the future.

Unlike the typical Yeshiva - there is only one Yeshiva University. Mistakes were made. But it ought not lead to its downfall. Mistakes can be corrected. That’s what needs to happen here.

Friday, March 29, 2013

An Appalling Critique

Gilad Schalit - Photo credit: Jerusalem Post/REUTERS/Handout 
I don’t know who this character Ben Caspit is. But I have absolutely no respect for him. What he has done – no doubt in the safety of his own office at the Jerusalem Post - is write a hit piece on Gilad Shalit. I can think of little else morappalling than ripping into a man who while serving his country was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists for 5 years.

Admitting that he was opposed to the deal that freed him and asserting that the jury is still out about whether it was the right thing to do – he goes into detail about the circumstances of Shalit’s capture. Based on Shalit’s own detailed account he hammers away at how this could have all been prevented had Shalit done his duty properly.

How a man sitting in an office can criticize someone who sat in a prison for 5 years fearing he could be be-headed at a moment’s notice – is beyond me. It is beyond Mentchlich in fact.

His criticism amounts to Shalit’s dereliction of duty in that he did not follow procedure during the attack. Had he done so, Caspit says – the entire episode may have been prevented. That’s easy for him to say. He was not under rocket attack when he made these judgmental comments. Shalit and his fellow soliders in that tank were under deadly attack. Can Caspit say that he would have acted any differently?

Taking advantage of Shalit’s soul searching debriefing by the military - Caspit reports that by Shalit’s own admission he did not pay attention to details provided by his tank commander. He simply relied on him and would follow any order by him based on his knowledge. But even if he had known the details- it is not that uncommon for people to panic when they are under attack. No matter how much training they had. In fact the tank commander panicked and did not follow procedure either. By leaving his tank he got himself killed. Shalit stayed in the tank and his life was spared.

Caspit says that he could have notified nearby troops or used the weapons in his tank that were still operational… or just come out of the tank with ‘guns ablazin’ …and that could have very well taken care of the situation. He decided not to do any that. And instead was ultimately captured.

All easy for Caspit to say. But Shalit had no way of knowing how many attackers there were or whether they too had nearby reinforcements. He believed that if he had left his tank firing he would have been killed by an overwhelming force outside the tank. He decided to stay put and not resist by force. And because of this his life was spared; he was captured… and ultimately released.

One can debate whether Shalit did the right thing or not. In my view saving his own life was paramount. So whatever action he took in that vein was the right thing to do. One could argue that he should have died trying to resist being captured. I think that’s what Caspit was getting at – without actually saying so. But… let him walk a mile in Shalit’s shoes and see what he does then.

Today one and a half years after his release, I am proud to say that I supported the deal that got him released. I cried out for any deal that would save Shalit’s life - a Jewish life involved in serving his country in dangerous ways.

I strongly urged the Israeli government do whatever it took (short of actual murder) to ascertain his release Even in the face of strong criticism by those who felt the price for saving Shalit’s life was too high. The claim was made that the danger that terrorism would increase and more people would die as a result did not deter me. 

Releasing all of those Palestinian prisoners – some with blood on their hands in exchange for his release was a scary thought. But not as scary as allowing an innocent soldier to remain in captivity in enemy hands. A cutthroat enemy. Literally. Prime Minister Netanyahu did the right thing. He authorized the exchange and saved a young soldier’s life. A young soldier that clearly was put in harm’s way to guard the border between Gaza and Israel.

What about all the predicted fallout by the naysayers? Didn’t happen! Could it still? Sure. World War III could break out too. But neither of those have happened and the more time passes the less likely that the release of those prisoners will have anything to do with anything bad.

Caspit says that despite his opposition to the deal that gained Shalit’s freedom, he teared when Shalit was actually set free by his terrorist captors. What human being with a heart didn’t have those feelings? I sure did. Caspit showed his humanity then. He should have stopped while he was ahead!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Solving One Problem – Sort of...

New "Satmar" dwellings - photo source: New York Observer
My issues with Satmar notwithstanding, I must give credit where credit is due. The Williamsburg area where Satmar Chasidim live has quietly created a trend of development that is somewhat counter culture – in a good way. In an era where gentrification has become standard for urban renewal Satmar has had its own – much more affordable version of that going on in its outer edges.

Gentrification is what happens to slums (or at best neglected neighborhoods) where the poor live when a city council and developers get together to try and eliminate those slums. Developers will buy out dilapidated buildings and either demolish them to build new upscale living quarters or rehabilitate existing structures that in their hey-day were quite upscale themselves – turning into slums as the neighborhoods changed and the poor started moving in.

They could not afford to keep up the buildings and they became run down.  When the original tenants moved to the suburbs (what used to be called white flight) and the poor started moving in these neighborhoods became neglected – some of them turning into slums. That is an oversimplified – but I think fair description of what has happened.

Developers - seeking to attract singles or a working couple with no children whose incomes are well above average and expenditures far less that the average family would build housing suitable for this demographic… making them unattractive for most families and too expensive in any event. These dwellings are steeply priced. As an article in the New York Observer  points out – in the trendier section of Williamsburg, a half a million dollars will barely buy you a studio apartment. 

Satmar developers ever mindful of the need of their growing community have taken a different track. They have lobbied government officials successfully and have received zoning variances enabling them to build housing on what were once commercial and industrial zoned areas of Williamsburg. And they have built brand new and affordable housing for Satmar families where that same half million will buy a three-bedroom condo in a new elevator building.

True these structures will not win any architectural awards. “Strolling down Bedford Avenue, you’re greeted by a solid wall of new six-story brick buildings” says the New York Observer. They are obviously more functional than aesthetic.  But they do have a clean and new functional look to them. In an area where a modest lifestyle is promoted, this type of housing is ideal. And again from the Observer (here comes the good part): “…the ultra-Orthodox have succeeded in building thousands of units and keeping the neighborhood affordable for families—on private land, and without public money!”

I have been to these neighborhoods and seen these buildings. They are a far cry from the impoverished conditions I used to see there just a decade or so ago.  It appears to be populated entirely by Williamsburg Chasidim.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something missing from this seemingly idyllic picture. For one thing a half million dollars isn’t pocket change. The ‘modest’ incomes of most Satmar Chasidim doesn’t seem like enough to buy one of these units. Even if you factor in low down payments – there remains the very high mortgage payments. Which begs the question, where do these families with 6, 7, 8 or more children get the money to pay for that? It would therefore appear to be that only a more upscale (by Satmar standards) family can afford these units. Either that or some of these families must be getting subsidized. And if so, where is that money coming from? Philanthropists? Government welfare programs?

The building boom also had some controversy attached when public land was bought along with private land. From the New York Observer:
Black and Latino leaders claimed that the affordable housing complex—to be built on city-owned land, some of which would be seized by eminent domain—would give a disproportionate number of units to the ultra-Orthodox, as traditional public housing projects nearby had in the past…
 Rabbi David Niederman, leader of the United Jewish Organizations, begged to differ, saying that both the public and private aspect of the rezoning are needed. “We believe in supply and demand,” he said. “Imagine if 200 people are fighting for one unit”—something that New Yorkers outside of Hasidic Williamsburg won’t have to try very hard to do. “Prices are going to go up like crazy.” 
I personally see no problem with what Satmar did. They lobbied for the land and they got it. Black and Latino leaders could have done the same.

But questions remain.  Does this really address the poverty problem that is so rampant among Satmar and Chasidim with similar Hashkafos? It does address one issue – housing. But only for those who can scrape up the money for a down payment and monthly mortgage.  What percentage of Chasidim are actually able to do this? And for those who are able - where do they find the money to pay for other expenses incurred by their increased family size. Expenses for food, clothing, and education for a large family (of 10 - a fairly common family size in Williamsburg) is taxing even on families with good incomes.

Even though I admire the way this community has sought and found a partial solution to the housing problem for their growing public, I think most families are a long way from being able to live anything but a modest and in some cases a near impoverished lifestyle – relying heavily on charity, welfare, and who knows what else. Even if they live in one of these new housing units.

So kudos to Satmar for succeeding to some extent in solving one major problem. But they have a long way to go in my not so humble opinion.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Short Vort (or Two… or Three…) for Pesach

The four cups of wine that we drink at the Seder are symbolic of the four expressions of freedom that God used in telling Moshe about our salvation: V’Hotzesi (I will take you out of Egypt): V’Hitzalti (I will deliver you from slavery) ; V’Goalti  I will redeem you); and V’Lokachti (I will take you for a people). The question arises as to why we pour a 5th  cup? And why do we not drink from it?

This cup is called the Kos Shel Eliyahu, (the prophet) Elijah’s cup. After Birchas HaMazon - we pour a large cup of wine and immediately open the door and read a passage from the Hagadah.

Legend has it that Eliyahu comes to each door on Pesach and drinks a tiny bit from that cup. I recall as a child looking to see if I could tell if there was any less wine in the cup after we closed the door than there was before we opened it. The thinking was, of course, that Elijah’s cup was indeed meant for Elijah himself… that somehow even though we can’t see him that he came in a drank a little wine… and the reason that he drank so little is because he had to drink from all of the cups in every house of every Jew who had a Seder and opened his door for him.

That is a cute story for little children… but of course not true. We do not open the door for Eliyahu. We open it to say a specific portion of the Hagadah unrelated to that cup.

There are many reasons given for this custom. The one which I like and makes the most sense to me is the one given by another Elijah, the Gra.

The 5th cup is based on a Machlokes in the Gemarah. There is actually a fifth word used by God in that section of the Torah, V’ HeVeisi (I will bring you into the land which I promised your forefathers).

Those who say this is a fifth expression of freedom - say that a 5th cup of wine is required. Those who say it is not is because it does not speak to being freed but rather to the promise made that will occur in the future well after the Bnei Yisroel have been freed – say that we do not drink a 5th cup.

Our custom is based on the second view… so we only drink four cups. But we recognize that this question remains unresolved. So we compromise. We pour a 5th cup, but we don’t drink it.

Why is it called the Kos Shel Eliyahu? Because we have a tradition that says that all unresolved issues in the Gemarah – including this one - will be answered by Eliyahu when he comes to herald the coming of Moshiach.

*source - Torah L’Daas by Rabbi Matis Blum.

With this short vort I would like to extend my best wishes for a happy and Kosher Pesach for the entirety of the Jewish people.

I include below links to Divrei Torah from years past.  Feel free to use them at your Seder table. The print function on the right margin will enable you to a print a ‘printer friendly’ copy of each post.

The Torah is Not in Heaven
Pesach, Matza, Marror
Yochel MeRosh Chodesh
Maschil B'Gnus U'Mesayem B'Shvach
Heseibah L'ikuva
Kol Difchin
Baruch Shomer Haftechaso
The Haggadah and Kriyas Yam Suf
Kriyas Yam Suf
Torah Thoughts for the Seder

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Welcome to the Club

HaGaon R' Moshe Sternbuch
This morning on the Daas Torah blog, there was a document posted that was verified to have been written by R’ Moshe Sternbuch.   In so many words he is clearly of the belief that the proposed draft of  Charedim in Israel is a government ploy to uproot the Jewish people from Torah observance. He is the latest of just about  all the rabbinic leaders in Israel (and even in the US) to be opposed to the draft in Israel. They seem to all believe that the draft is an existential threat to observant Jewry.

I am not surprised at this. But it is quite telling that people who venerate these leaders are not walking in lockstep with them.

Just to be clear. If the true motive of those who are promoting the draft was to uproot the Torah, I would be on the same page with those who oppose it. But I am not at all convinced that is the case. And neither are some of the most prominent Charedi writers who are published in Charedi magazines.

In the latest issue of Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman (brother of Ner Israel Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Aharon Feldman) has taken a similar view to the one I have: that the Israeli public is not necessarily anti Torah …that even secularists like Yair Lapid have come around to the view that “Charedim have won”. To me and any thinking person who has noticed it, that says that the idea of drafting Charedim is not at all about uprooting the Torah but about actually “sharing the burden”. 

They key phrase in that last sentence with respect to the Israeli rabbinic leader ship is: “any thinking person who has noticed it.” They are thinking people. But I don’t think they noticed it.

Rabbi Feldman is just the latest Charedi albeit a moderate one to ‘notice’.(Technicaly this former editor of Tradition Magazine may not characertize himself as Charedi. But Mishpacha is a Charedi magazine and his columns generally reflect that perspective). Among others who have noticed are: Mishpacha publisher R’ Moshe Grylak, Jonathan Rosenblum, and R’ Yitzchok Adlerstein. I’m sure there are more.

These are people who would never dare to contradict those they consider to be Gedolim. They tend instead  to modify their own views to be in accord with these leaders when they have differed - and found that out.  And yet these rabbinic leaders have never been more unified about an issue than they are on this one.  

Why the rift? (...if one can call it that – I’m sure they would not characterize it that way.) I think they realize that these leaders are not seeing the reality that they see. They do not know for example that the majority of Israeli people believe in Torah Min HaShomayim. That is what a recent statistical study has shown. 

Being so focused on their own world these leaders do not see or hear those statistics. Or they just don’t believe them. Or they say it doesn’t matter because the Knesset is comprised of non-believers that can be compared to the Maskilim of Czarist Russia who did in fact collaborate with the Czar to uproot observant Jewry.

These writers may not say so publicly, but If they were to be approached privately – I think they would admit that these venerated sages are  -via their myopia - living in the past. They still respect them as Gedolim. But at the same time they see a different reality than do their leaders and therefore have a different approach.

While I am sure that they are opposed to the draft too, these moderates do so reluctantly mostly, I believe, because they do not want to be seen as opposing their Gedolim… a hallmark of Charedi Jewry.

This is a very significant development. It shows that Charedi Jews are increasingly finding the perceptions of their Gedolim to be occasionally flawed. The arguments oft quoted by them for listening to their Gedolim in all matters apparently do not hold as much sway as they used to.

I believe this has privately been the case among the majority of the Charedi public for quite some time now. At least for moderate Charedim which I believe comprises their majority.  

Here is what changed. Arguments that bolster defacto if not dejure infallibility have eroded. Although they may still pay lip-service to it – rhetoric heard at the Agudah convention about how we must listen to the Gedolim in all matters – both Halachic and Haskafic is increasingly being ignored. Arguments like Yifatch B’Dor, K’Shmuel B’Doro and concepts like: ‘even when they say right is left and left is right – we must listen to them ‘ are no longer automatic. The idea that they know the most Torah and therefore the rest of us have no standing to disagree will not be automatically applied either. Not in instances where the perceptions of reality differ as they do here as is the case with the above-mentioned Charedi writers.  

This change might be perceived as a very subtle one. Perhaps it is. Subtle though it may be I think it is huge. It is a reflection of Emes to be able to see that these rabbinic leaders are fallible at least in their perceptions of reality. By expressing a more positive view of the Israeli secular public and not seeing evil intent behind every move in the Knesset they show not only what they see as Emes but a willingness to not repeat the harsh rhetoric of their leadership even while supporting their opposition to the draft.

It is huge because if they can see their leaders perceptions as wrong here, they can be wrong in their perceptions anywhere. Perceptions that in the past that have resulted in bans. Like those on both R’ Nosson Kamenetsky’s and R’Natan Slifkin’s books.

I think it is fair to say that up to this point, some moderate Charedim have walked in lockstep with their Gedloim on these issues. I’m sure that they probably still do on rulings of the past. But as new issues like this come up in the future, the ‘mold has been broken’.

It seems to me that their own perceptions of reality will no longer be subsumed by their blind acceptance of how their leaders perceive reality. This is how those of us who are not Charedi – have always seen things.  It is the basis of my many posts questioning some of their rulings – like those about the aforementioned bans. Although I’m not sure they want to be members - all I can say to these writers is – welcome to the club.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Quick Analysis of the Trip

President Obama being awarded Israel's highest civilian honor
What a far cry he is from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I cannot think of two more opposite ends of the pole with respect to their views on Israel and the Jewish people. The President has already amply shown his support for us in both word and deed. Financially, militarily and in world of intelligence cooperation. That is old news. But with this visit he exceeded even my own optimistic expectations.

The President’s visit to Israel ended this morning as he continues on to Jordan.  But he has left behind a far better understanding between himself and Israelis… and dare I say even many Jewish people who have been skeptical about his true support - suspect of his underlying motives. Unless one is completely detached from reality, I don’t see how anyone can come away with anything but appreciation for what the President has done, and what he has further committed to.

I have been paying pretty close attention to what he has been saying over the last couple of days. I am now convinced that he understands what Israel is all about. He understands the biblical connection and the millennia of yearning to return to our homeland. Up until now that was not clear. He also still recognizes the additional imperatives of Israel as a Jewish homeland because of the Holocaust. Where ‘Never Again’ can be worked upon with the freedom it requires.

The President understands our need for security as well as anyone. He knows that Israel is surrounded by enemies that would destroy her if they could. He recognizes that many countries in the world unfairly criticize Israel. And perhaps most importantly, he recognizes that any peace deal must be predicated on security. One cannot move forward without insisting upon it.

He also recognizes the amazing contrasts of our ancient biblical homeland and its modern contributions to humanity in medicine, science and technology; business and the arts. Israel has given the world 10 Nobel Prize laureates.

He respects Judaism and has even incorporated a Pesach Seder into the White House. Not that it is an entirely Halachic Seder. But that he knows enough about it to think it a valuable addition to the White House and its message of freedom as a lesson for his daughters to experience.  

There are those who might cynically say that he says and does al of this just to get Jewish support. But I truly believe that is not his reason. I think he is genuine in his expression of appreciation - and even admiration for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

And yet there are those who still compare the President to his former Pastor, Jeremiah Wright. How, they say, could he be a part of that church for so many years and not share Wright’s negative extremist views of both Israel and the Jewish people?

I can’t answer that question. But I do not have scintilla of doubt in my mind. He does not share those views. He truly repudiates them. Those who somehow still think he does must have a mental block against reality when it comes to him. I can only speculate why… and won’t attempt to do so here.

The issues I did have with him in the past have mostly disappeared on this trip. I did not think he had any warm feelings for Israel… and that his support was based on an intellectual understanding of ‘the right thing to do’.  Which is one reason why I supported Romney in the last election.  I felt his relationship with Israel was a much warmer one.

The President’s  cool relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu  bothered me too. But I no longer feel that way. The relationship between the two leaders seems to have improved considerably. I never thought the two hated each other. But it seems from this visit that they might even like each other.

Not only that, but their positions on key issues are either identical or very close to it. They are on the same page with respect to Syria. They are nearly on the same page with respect to Iran. The President even went a step further than he has in the past supporting Israel’s right to act unilaterally against Iran. He understands that Israel’s proximity to Iran plus the constant threats to wipe it off the map pose a far more immediate and greater danger to Israel than the lesser but very real danger it poses to US and the rest of the world.

Even his position opposing the settlements seems to have moderated a bit. Although he still opposes them - he seemed to understand the need for construction within established areas due to natural growth. His criticism in this respect was mild, but understandable as he still sees it as an obstacle to peace. 

But he also understands that a bigger obstacle is the security that Israel requires before any peace deal can be achieved. A security that is far from being realized at the moment. The “Arab Spring” has toppled old despotic regimes but has caused instability. Egypt, the largest Arab nation has been replaced by Islamists far less sympathetic to Israel than the previous Egyptian government. That lessens – rather than increases security.

Barack Obama seeks peace in that region. He correctly says that peace is ultimately the only real way to achieve security. And he has repeatedly emphasized that to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He also correctly says that there are many Palestinians who reject the violence of Hamas et al and their supporters. He feels that Abbas would be a partner for peace. I agree with him. Not that Abbas wouldn’t rather take over all of Israel and expel all the Jews if he could. But he knows he can’t. He is a realist. I think he would make peace if Hamas et al were not ‘players’ interested in undermining that goal.

My only difference with the President is that the religious fanaticism that has been driving much of the Arab Spring and has democratically elected an Islamist government in Egypt. It is the dominant force in the Middle East. Syria, Iran, Egypt, Gaza… all those places are governed and mostly populated by religious fanatics whose fanaticism outweighs common sense. Just yesterday in Syria 42 people were killed by a suicide bomber whose target was a cleric that supported Assad. Suicide bombers are what Israel sees when they think about security issues.

One cannot make peace with a realist like Abbas when the religious fanatics are in control. Increasingly so it seems. So the President’s idea about taking chances for peace are at best wishful thinking. But I agree with him in principle. If we could eliminate the Islamist terror, I think we could - and would - make peace very quickly. As of now. It is at best a pipe dream. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if the President even understood that deep down – and only advocates ‘taking chances for peace’ for political reasons. Secretary of State, John Kerry’s upcoming trip to ‘restart’ peace negotiations is probably not going to produce anything. But it will at least send a message that the US is trying.

The bottom line for me is that after this visit, the President leaves no doubt in my mind that he is a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Perhaps the best friend Israel has ever had. And I didn’t even vote for him. But I also know that there are those who refuse to believe it… and that they will always see him in a negative light. 

Which is too bad. I think he deserves Hakoras HaTov for what he’s done, and what he has promised to do. Israel recognized that and that is why they presented him the Presidential Medal of Distinction - Israel’s highest honor… the first sitting President in history to ever receive it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Charedi Draft – An Analysis by a Charedi Rav

Israeli Charedim in College - photo credit: David Bachar/Ha'aretz
I always love it when prominent Charedi rabbis agree with me even if they don’t make any reference to me personally. (Not that he necessarily should have made such reference - he may not even have read my recent post on this subject. The point is that he basically agrees with my positions.)

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and I often agree. That’s because he is a moderate Charedi thinker and not an extremist as is so often the case with prominent Charedi leaders. And it also helps that he is an American and sees the world through American Charedi eyes. Not Israeli ones.

Rabbi Adlerstein has written a thoughtful analysis in Cross-Currents about the current coalition plan for Charedim in Israel. 

The new coalition government there does not have any Charedi parties in it. And all the coalition members – no matter how disparate their views are along the right-left political spectrum – agree that Charedim have to ‘share the burden’. Meaning that no longer will all of them automatically be exempt from a draft.

Much the same way I do - Rabbi Adlerstein cautiously sees this situation as a net gain for Charedim.  And he goes into a bit of detail about why he thinks so.

I think his assessment is basically correct. I have written similar thoughts about how this actually bodes well for the future of Charedim in Israel. But I am not as optimistic about it as he is because of the stridency of the opposition to it by rabbinic leaders in Israel.

Comparing the draft of Charedim to a Shas HaShmad (an era of forced conversions) seems to be the clarion call by those rabbinic leaders. These are the leaders that the Charedi world looks up to as their “Daas Torah”. These leaders are not known for reversing their opinions on these matters. I do not see any one of them agreeing with his assessment.

In fact there was one moderate Charedi Rav in Israel who is a Musmach (ordained rabbi) from Ner Israel (R. Tzuriel If I recall correctly) who has ‘Paskined’ in his own Kol Korei that the government plan for drafting Charedim should be opposed and also considered it a Shas HaShmad (or something akin to that – I don’t recall his exact words - but I do recall their flavor). I have even seen article claiming that even Chardal Rabbanim have joined in common cause with Charedim opposing it.

If I had to guess, I would say that if any of these rabbinic leaders saw R’Adlerstein’s post – or mine – on the subject, we might both be cursed right along with Naftali Bennett for even suggesting there is anything good about it.

And even though R’ Adlerstein mentioned that privately a lot of Charedi Rabbonim agreed with him - my guess is that they remain quiet precisely because they do not want to oppose their rabbinic leaders and become ostracized.

Rabbi Adlerstein points out that Charedim are ‘voting with their feet’. The ranks of Charedim serving in the army are growing. Classes offering training to Charedim for good jobs in the work force are swelling. Some are even taking courses in college.

But as I said I am not optimistic that the official policy of “Daas Torah” in Israel will change. So we’re in sort of “an irresistible force meets and immovable object” phase right now.How this will eventually play out, therefore – remains to be seen.  But I am happy to see that thoughtful Charedi rabbis like Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein are basically on the same page with me – and on the right side of the issue.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oh No... Not Again!

I can’t stand it anymore. I almost wish the target of this investigation was Modern Orthodox. Because I know I will be accused of bashing Charedim again and I’m  tired of it. As well as being battered by the right wing for my publicizing it.

But I am not the one publicizing it. At least not as much as the New York Times whose readership is a tiny bit larger than mine. Many of them Orthodox Jews – some of whom are my readers. My purpose is not to publicize it. But as an Orthodox Jew I consider it my obligation to condemn it in no uncertain terms.

Yet another fraud perpetrated by a religious figure has taken place in New York City. From the New York Times
One of New York City’s largest providers of special education services to preschoolers with disabilities illegally diverted millions in taxpayer financing to a girls’ religious school, summer camps and a kosher supermarket owned by the group’s officers and board members, state auditors said on Monday…
 After subpoenaing more than 13,000 checks from the agency’s bank, auditors said they gave up counting after the first 1,549 checks they reviewed turned up $5.8 million in what they said was fraudulent spending over a six-year period when Island Child billed the state and the city more than $27 million…
 Island Child, in Far Rockaway, Queens, paid nearly $2 million to Bnos Bais Yaakov, a nearby school for Orthodox Jewish girls, of which the auditors said Rabbi Samuel Hiller, the assistant executive director of Island Child, is both dean and an owner. Another $877,000 went to various Jewish summer camps, two of them tied to Mr. Hiller, and more than $330,000 in non payroll checks went to Mr. Hiller himself, the auditors said…
 Auditors cited what they said were many other improper or fraudulent expenses, including $200,000 in construction, $12,000 to two jewelers, $235,000 to credit-card companies, $44,000 to “cash,” and nearly $200,000 to five fictitious workers…
Reprehensible. That is the word used by New York State Comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli about taking for personal use taxpayer dollars meant for special-needs children.

I’ll say it is. But that is not all it is. It is also a major Chilul HaShem – a desecration of God’s name!

I have no clue who Samuel Hiller is. Maybe he is Modern Orthodox even though his beneficiary was a Bais Yaakov. Anything is possible. But his acts are no less a Chilul HaShem.

I am even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – that none of these diverted special needs funds were actually used for personal gain – even though it does seem that way from the Times article. Let me even stipulate that every penny he diverted was to help fund religious schools and camps.  

We all know how desperate Jewish education is for funding. And we all know that there is just not enough money to do it through tuitions or fundraisers.  School deficits are constantly increasing while revenue to the schools are decreasing… or staying the same… or even best case scenario increasing but not keeping pace with increased budgets!  Sources of revenue like tuition are at maximum levels. Parents are squeezed for every extra dollar they have.

There are very few parents these days that aren’t on at least a partial scholarship. Donors and fundraiser are not able to make up the shortfall. Teacher – most of whom are underpaid - deserve to get paid. On time and in full. They have to eat too. And pay the same bills the rest of us do.

So I can understand the pressure on those responsible for these budgets. How can anyone with a heart tell a dedicated teacher there is not enough money to pay them on-time.

Rabbi Hiller probably felt this pressure. He may not be a bad person. He may in fact be a very caring person – which may account for his grievous ways. Desperate people do desperate things. He saw a way to get his teachers paid – even if it wasn’t so Kosher. I understand all of that. But what he did is still reprehensible and a Chilul HaShem.

Stealing money (via fraud) designed for charitable purposes in order to fund religious education and camps is Gneiva. It is a violation of Jewish law to steal money from anyone.

It pierces the depths of my soul to see special needs money go to a religious girl’s school, no matter how badly they needed it. Even worse to a camp. And if all the allegations are true then it is beyond disgusting that he wrote checks in the amount of $12,000 to two jewelers!

What makes this even more outrageous is the fact that people like this do not learn from the mistakes of others. It’s not like this has never happened before. Regrettably it has. Far too many times. Has he never heard of the Spinka Rebbe? Or those rabbis from Deal, New Jersey? In both of those cases fraud was perpetrated against the government – and in both cases it was for a ‘good cause’ and not for personal use.

How stupid and arrogant does one have to be to think that he is not going to get caught. Even if in some sort of perverted altruistic way he is willing to take a chance knowing he might get caught but in his desperation to pay his teachers he did it anyway, Doesn’t he realize that he is not the only one going to pay a price, here?

We all pay a price… the special needs kids who didn’t get the money they needed. The taxpayer – which includes all of us – Jew and non Jew alike. And perhaps most importantly the entirety of the Jewish people.

His actions embarrass us and make Judaism look devious, self-serving, and crooked. That is not what being a light unto the nations is all about. God did not make us His Chosen people for this purpose. It is therefore a Chilul HaShem. Didn’t he realize that all this might happen?I guess not. Did he think he was smarter than those who tried it before him and got caught? I guess so.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Information About Child Safety

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
I am happy to honor a request by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz to post the following video… and include a link to his recent post asking parents to speak to their kids about child safety before Yom Tov.  That post has links to lots of resources. I am also including a link to a downloadable safety book video for kids here. The Video follows:

A Brighter Future for Charedim in Israel

19th Keneset Party Leaders - photo credit: IB Times
Maybe I am a hopeless optimist. But I see a lot of changes happening in the Jewish world. And they seem to all be for the better.

One of those things is something that Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn wrote about today on his blog, Daas Torah. Rabbi Eidensohn is a Charedi Rav whose credentials are quite impressive.  His Magnum Opus are the widely respected indicies (in both Hebrew and English) to two of the greatest Halachic works of the 20th century: the Mishnah Berurah, by the Chafetz Chaim  and the Igros Moshe by R’ Moshe Feinstein. He has a PhD in psychology and has also written books dealing with the issue of sex abuse. He is also very close to Rav Moshe Sternbuch.

In the most recent contribution Rabbi Eidensohn has made what I believe to be an astounding admission. Especially in light of the very name of his blog. He said that with the passing of R’ Elyashiv, there is really no more Daas Torah!

That is pretty shocking coming from someone who is as close to Rav Sternbuch as R’ Eidensohn is. It is also shocking in light of the fact that there is a conflict going on between two Charedi factions – each loyal to their own ‘candidate’ as to who should succeed R’ Elayshiv for the ‘post’ of Gadol  HaDor – the ultimate expositor of Daas Torah: R’ Aharon Leib Steinman or R’ Shmuel Auerbach.

I have often said that the rabbinic leaders of today are not the Gedolim of yesteryear. The right wing has always countered with the following expression from the Gemarah: Yiftach B’Doro, K’Shmuel B’Doro. What the Gemarah is telling us is that  even my generation’s Gedolim (people like Yiftach) is is not as great as another generation's Gedolim (people like Shmuel HaNavi)…  they are the best available and we must listen to them.  What they therefore tell us is still Daas Torah. And yet a man of R’ Eidensohn’s credentials says we have no longer have it!

I would disagree with him. I think we do have Daas Torah – individuals who can speak to us using the wisdom of the Torah they have achieved. I just don’t think it is necessarily or exclusively in the hands of Charedi Rabbanim. Especially when there is such infighting among them about who should be representing it to us.

Which brings me back to my original point. I am optimistic about recent developments in Israel with respect to the Charedi situation in Israel. It seems like the Charedi world of the past is doomed. I do not mean Chas V’Shalom that it will disappear. Quite the contrary. I think it will be strengthened.

The new government in Israel  (assuming it has any longevity to it at all – which is a real question) is determined to change the Charedi paradigm of full time Torah study for every male for as long as possible without any preparation for the workplace and exemption from any military service. This is something I have been advocating for decades.

The fear of this change is on the minds of virtually every rabbinic leader in Israel. So afraid of change are they that they see it as a Shas HaShmad - something which a Jew is supposed to give up his life for even if he is asked to violate the most minute Mitzvah.

They fear that conscription of Charedim will destroy Yeshivos and that all serious Torah study will come to an end. Once a Charedi is drafted, and does his army stint, he will never return to serious Torah study. He will instead seek a job. This is existential for them. Life or death! To a man... it seems that every single Charedi rabbinic leader of all stripes – and even some of the more right wing Religious Zionist rabbis (Chardalim) -  have all called for resistance to the draft in various forms. Like going to jail; or leaving the country to study Torah elsewhere.

But their fear is misplaced. The new government is not interested in destroying Torah Study – despite its even religious members being accused of it and being vilifyied by some of those rabbinic leaders. Neither Naftali Bennett nor even Yair Lapid can be compared to the Czarist Russia of old. They are interested in mainstreaming Charedim into society to be more productive - outside the Beis HaMedrash as well as inside.

Adding to their fear is the loss of power that Charedi parties have until now enjoyed. Even as their population numbers increase along with their representation in the Keneset, they are no longer part of the governing coalition. That means they will not have any cabinet posts or the power that goes with them to allocate funds to their cause.

This is kind of ironic considering all the predictions that say Charedim are growing at such a rapid rate that they will eventually become the majority. That may still be true at some point in the future. But if things go the way they are now, it will not be the same Charedi world that exists now. It may very well be a Charedi world that looks more like the American version. There seems to be some realization about that too. From Daniel Eidensohn:
My niece who attends a chareidi seminary for American girls here in Jerusalem -  was recently told in all seriousness by a teacher that the New Chareidim constitute a serious threat to the Chareidi way of life and authority. My niece wasn't sure what New Chareidim are and why they are so dangerous - as she leads a very sheltered chareidi life - typical of many American chareidim.  She couldn't understand why Israeli chareidim are so afraid of a way of life which is typical in America.
Indeed. This is what all the screaming by Israeli rabbinic leaders is all about. But as R’ Eidensohn says, Daas Torah no longer exists. And as I said these fears are misplaced. Instead of looking at this as a Shas HaShmad - they should be looking at this as an opportunity to get their community out of poverty and into the mainstream so that their members can better  support their families.

I undernstand their fear. It is the fear of the unknown. Change means facing an unknown future. And they fear the worst. But the worst won’t happen. The IDF is not prepared to put every single young Charedi into the army. They don’t really have the room or the need. Although I still strongly feel that there should be no general exemption given to any single demographic group from being put in harm’s way, the reality is that most Israeli service personnel are not put in harm’s way - if I understand correctly. Most of the military jobs are not in the battlefield. Many soldiers have ancillary or supporting  jobs. And exemptions exist outside of the Yeshiva world too.

My guess is that there will be a compromise that will require some sort of military commitment by most Charedim… but that it will be along the lines of the old Tal Law – that allowed Yeshiva students to stay in the Beis HaMedrash full time until age 23 or so… and then they will be required to do some sort of military service – perhaps combined with their continued Torah study. They will not have to completely leave the Beis Hamedrash.  After fulfilling their military requirements, they can continue to learn in the Yeshivos  they are in – and go back to full time study if they choose.

Some, on the other hand, may actually leave to find a job – and the skills they picked up via their army training will aid them in getting better jobs. Additionally full exemptions will probably be given to the top students in any case so their Torah study will continue full time without interruption. The percentage of those exemptions can be worked out amicably in my view. Where there is a will, there is a way.

The future that I see does not change the commitment to Torah study. It just allows for options that heretofore were not available.

I am not saying that the version of the future I just outlined will happen exactly in the way I suggested. It may take some sort of alternate form. But whatever form it takes it will be for the better. Because it can’t get much worse. There is no reason in the world why Charedim should continue to be the single biggest  - and fastest growing - welfare demographic  in all of Israel. The result will be the ‘new Charedi’ the teacher in that seminary so feared. And hopefully will stop fearing when she realizes the better world it has created for them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Visiting a Friend

The Prime Minister and the President
A lot of people are trying to spin President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel this week  in their own image. People on both sides of the divide see this trip designed to re-start the peace process.

The left that think settlements are an impediment to peace and know the President shares that view. So they are hopeful that he will somehow use his personal charm and considerable influence to halt settlement construction with an eye towards re-starting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Those on the right see the same thing, only instead of supporting it, they are vehemently opposed to it - believing that settlements are not the real issue. They instead see the President’s mission as forcing Israel to stop settlement construction at a time when they need it most  (...because of natural growth and the perceived (by the right) value of outlying settlements as bulwarks against terrorism).

I think they are both wrong. I don’t see any plan. I see an impasse. I think the President sees that too. If he had any kind of plan that he thinks would have even the slightest chance at success at re-kindling the peace process he would have suggested it by now.

The President doesn’t need face time with Israeli leadership to make these kinds of suggestions. Israeli leaders know full well how important the relationship with the United States is. Even the current Prime Minister bends over backwards to accommodate the President’s wishes whenever he can if he doesn’t see it as compromising their security or other national interests.

I have always maintained that the President is sincere in his attempts to convince both Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate peace in the form of a two state solution believing it to be the best of all possible worlds for all concerned. Whether  settlements are an issue on any level can be debated by people of good will. But I don’t think any fair minded observer (and I emphasize fair minded) on either side of the issue can dispute the President’s  noble intent.  

My view on this issue is somewhere between these two extremes. I do not support settlement building at this time because the gain does not outweigh the loss of good will generated by acceding to the Presdient’s wishes.  But I don’t believe they are the main impediment to peace either. With little exception, I would therefore prefer if Israel does not move forward with expansion of settlements at this time.  There is no advantage to spitting in the face of the leader of a country that is your biggest supporter. Especially while he’s there. That would be a major mistake.

That said, I do not believe that the President will press Israel to stop settlement during this trip. Not that he has changed his mind. But that he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to build on the relationship between the two countries.

Unlike some of his biggest detractors, I believe that the President actually likes Israel and values the friendship of the Israeli people.  I doubt that he buys into all the anti Israel rhetoric one hears so frequently from Israel’s enemies. Like accusations that they are guilty of Apartheid for instance. I’m not saying he doesn’t see Palestinian suffering. I’m sure he does. But like me, he understands that their suffering is due in large part from security measures Israel takes because of a history of being attacked by their own people  through terrorist organizations like Hamas.

Hamas is still considered a terrorist organization by the US. The President never suggested for a moment that Hamas be removed from the State Depratment list of terrorist organizations. Same thing Hezbollah. Although he may feel that Israel could do better I also believe that he understands Israel’s position and for the most part does not blame them for the suffering of the Palestinians.

I also believe that he values Israel as an important ally as well as a friend. That’s why he approved scarce budget dollars to be spent on the very successful ‘Iron Dome’ anti missile defense system. And why military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has never been closer! He sees a Israel as a country of shared values and its people much like those of his own country.

The problem is with the way he started off his Presidency with respect to his Middle East foreign policy. Although that too was well intentioned, it was a mistake. He made overtures to the Arab nations by going over there intending to reset the US relationship with them while at the same time being highly critical of their their anti Israel attitude and their revisionist attitude about the Holocaust. But he erred by not visiting Israel as well. Although he did not intend it that way - he in effect snubbed his closest ally in the Middle East.

That began a cycle of mistrust of the President by the Israeli people.  He was initially seen as tilting towards the Arabs. He has not fully recovered from that perception. Israel and many of its supporters felt that once he was in the neighborhood he should have at least stopped off and paid his friend a visit. The perception of  being snubbed set the tone.

The second thing that further caused a perceived rift was when Israel’s Prime Minister showed poor judgement on his first visit to the White House by publicly lecturing the President. That did not help matters cooling off of the relationship even further– at least publicly. Especially when the President was caught off guard telling the French President what a hard time he had with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Some pundits characterized the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister  as one where the two leaders hated each other. I don’t think that is accurate. I’m not saying that they are kindred spirits. But I don’t think ‘hate’ is the right word. I think that the two actually respect each other even while they disagree on some key issues. I do not think Netanyahu is his enemy by any stretch of the imagination – any more than House Speaker John Boehner is.

So why is he going to Israel? I believe that this trip is to repair the negative image he has in Israel. I doubt that he will do or say anything to them about the peace process or settlements – except to perhaps pay some lip service to it.

It is therefore my considered opinion that Israel should put on an unprecedented charm offensive - and treat  him like he was – well… the President of the United States and their best friend. They should go out of their way to thank him for the considerable amount of things he has done for them . They ought to make sure that they talk as much as possible about the special relationship between the two countries; their shared democratic principles; and their commitment to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

There certainly ought not to be any demonstrations against him by any dissident extremists like the die-hard price-taggers. Although there may be some. As well as demonstrations about Jonathan Pollard – not that it will help him one iota. If any demonstrations do happen I’m sure that the President will see it as an example of the great freedom of expression that Israel grants its citizens – just like the United States does.

The Israeli public’s real concern right now is not the Palestinians. If the last election showed anything it showed that their main concern is how to solve the problem of ‘sharing the burden’.  Meaning what to do about Charedim who insist on remaining exempt from the draft. If the fractious new coalition government  has any one thing in common – it is that. To the chagrin of all the Charedi parties, they will have little to say about it having been left out of the coalition. They are now in the opposition.

But I don’t think this will influence any part of the President’s visit to Israel. I doubt that Charedim will be making an issue of this to the President. So after all is said and done I think this trip should be a resounding success that will enhance the relationship between Israel and the United States to an unprecedented level.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Rav Shachter Said…

I met Rav Hershel  Shachter about 25 years when he was the scholar in residence at HTC. I was the chairman of the culminating Melave Malke event. I remember being mesmerized by this Gadol as he addressed the Melave Malke guests.  I no longer recall the topic. But I do recall that it was a brilliant and well sourced exposition of a Halachic principle that was not well known and counter intuitive. I also recall that this clean shaven (at the time) Rosh Kollel was as comfortable quoting his college English professor as he was quoting his Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik.

What was particularly significant at that time is that HTC had no Rosh HaYeshiva. In fact the Yeshiva had hit its nadir just a few years before that and had a hard time getting new students. With the innovative help of the newly hired President, Rabbi Don Well - the Yeshiva had restored itself to a place of respectability and was on an upswing by the time of that weekend.

The thought of many board members at the time, I among them, was to try and convince Rav Shachter to become the new Rosh HaYeshiva. The following Sunday morning we had an informal get together with Rav Shachter at the home of a nearby board member in order review the weekend and thank Rav Shachter personally.

I will never forget that meeting.  We were all sitting around Rav Shachter in a circle. And we were all thinking the same thing.  As someone who has little shame in trying to start a conversation about our desires - I posed the idea about his becoming the Rosh HaYeshiva to an unsuspecting Rav Shachter. I tried to convey to him what it would mean to us (HTC) to have someone like him in that position. After I opened those doors - we went around the room and every board member in that room gave his own pitch to Rav Shachter along those lines.

I recall Rav Shachter’s look. He seemed dumbfounded. He did not respond at all to any of us at that meeting. In retrospect I guess it was kind of an ambush. And I now feel bad that we put him on the spot like that. The next day it was reported that after that meeting he told key members of the board that he was not interested in leaving his position at YU. That was that.

Interestingly I recall my later approach to Rav Ahron Soloveichik on behalf of then President Well for a possible reconciliation with HTC – where he might return as Rosh Hayeshiva. During the course of an over three hour meeting, Rav Ahron wondered how HTC ever considered Rav Shachter for that position. He felt that Rav Shachter was a bigger Knaoi (zealot) than he was… which he felt was one reason he was let go by HTC many years previously.

I bring all this up to show that Rav Shachter was not a completely unknown entity to me. I had some personal experience with him and some input from my Rebbe about him. And to show how I came to admire him so much. My feelings about him have not changed. He was an inspirational figure for me then… and he remains one now.

Which is why I am perplexed by his recent remarks about reporting sex abuse and use of the word Shvartze – a Yiddish pejorative for a black person. I will deal with the latter issue first.

First let me say that the word for black in Yiddish is Shvartz.  People named Schwartz (…the European pronunciation of the letter W is as a V) are really named “Black” in translation.

This is often used as an explanation show that those who use that word did not have any insulting or racist intent. But that does not pass the smell test. Words have the meaning that society infuses in them via the way they are used. Just like the word gay now means homosexual where it once only meant happy and cheerful, so too – with rare exception the word Shvartze has come to be used as a pejorative against black people.

That Rav Schechter used that word is therefore wrong – even as I’m sure he does not have a racist bone in his body.

Why did he use it, then? I can’t speak for him. But there are two things that may explain it if not excuse it. One is that he actually meant it pejoratively in the context in which he used it. He would probably never use that word as a pejorative for the general black population. But here he was clearly speaking about those among the black population who are adherents of anti-Semitic movements. Like the Black Muslims of Louis Farrakhan. The violent criminals among them who are in prison would pose a mortal threat to any Jew who was jailed for any reason and put in the same cell with them.

The second reason is that the word is so commonly used among many of our own (unfortunately) that it just ‘fell of his tongue’ when referring to a violent anti Semitic Black Muslim.

But there is still no excuse for using that pejorative. I would be willing to bet if Rav Shachter had it to do over again, he would not have used that word.  Not only is it wrong to do so, it perpetuates use of such language among his students and admirers. And they will probably use it a lot more liberally that Rav Shachter did.

Yeshiva University has already quickly and forcefully disavowed those words as not reflecting the values of the school. My hope is that Rav Shachter will express his regret and do the same.

Rav Shachter’s remarks about reporting sex abusers to the authorities seem to be a bit perplexing, too. At least on the surface. Until now he was used a source to show that the Halacha of Mesirah (informing on a Jew to secular authorities) does not apply today for several reasons. One is that a sex abuser is in a category of Rodef (chasing after a Jew to do him harm) and one is required to stop him - overriding any issue of Mesirah.  Another reason is that in a just society such as ours, Mesirah wouldn’t apply anyway. This is the opinion of Rav Y. M. Epstein, early 20th century author of the monumental work on Jewish law – the Arcuch HaShulchan.

But Rav Shachter now said that in order to assure that suspicions of abuse are credible enough to report to police - they need to be vetted by rabbis. His fear is that innocent Jews who are falsely accused will end up being put in mortal danger when forced to share a cell with a violent anti Semitic Black Muslim.  That fear is not that misplaced. And yet - on the surface this sounds unacceptable. Rabbis are not experts in evidence of abuse. 

Rav Shachter did not however just say rabbis. He said rabbis who are trained psychologists.  I can only assume he meant psychologists that are trained and experienced in dealing with issues of sex abuse and can recognize when evidence is credible or not. I see no problem with such vetting. The fact that incidents of  false accusation are rare means that it does happen - if rarely.  

Sex abuse has become such a hot button issue that it is not too difficult to foresee an increase in innocent people being accused by their well intentioned neighbors that have heard ‘rumors’. Rumors do not equal credible evidence.  If one is unsure about a rumor they heard, they should not ignore it. But neither should they err on the side of caution and report it if there is a better way to deal with it, by first vetting it through professionals. That these professionals are also rabbis does not hurt the process.

How do we know such a vetting process works? Well because it already exists in Israel and worked quite well in the case of Rabbi Moti Elon. The Takana Forum was organized by many prominent rabbis, in Israel - and consists of rabbis, legal experts and psychologists. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is a member of that forum. If it can work in there it can work here.

Rav Shachter is on the right side of the issue here. He does not support going to some sort of rabbinic panel that has no professional expertise. He supports only the idea that evidence be credible to be determined by experts.  If psychologists experienced in sex abuse comprise such a panel – then suspicions of abuse will be properly vetted and justice will be served.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Societal Abandonment of the Bible as a Moral Guide

Gay couple protesting outside the Boston State House in 2007 - photo credit: ABC
This morning I noted that one of the original sponsors of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) - Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio - has changed his mind. He now supports same sex marriage. DOMA defines marriage applicable only to a man with a woman. It does not extend marital benefits to same sex marriages. This act was passed and endorsed by President Clinton who has also recently changed his views about it. Many states now have passed legislation that allows same sex couple to get married.

I have long ago stated my views about homosexuality and my opposition to gay marriage. The short version is that homosexuals should be treated like the human beings they are. And that we not focus on who they are attracted to. To the extent that they might engage in behavior that is forbidden by the Torah is not anyone’s concern. Unless they do so proactively with the intent of promoting it as a legitimate alternative lifestyle. That has to be opposed as would promoting any sinful act.

And let me be clear about the sinfulness of the forbidden homosexual act. There are some gay activists that have a certain familiarity with the bible that want to reinterpret it as somehow permissible. The very idea of doing such a thing gives new meaning to the word rationalization.  It is the height of absurdity to say that an act is biblically permitted when the bible clearly forbids it. The bible says what it says. You can’t rationalize it away no matter how much you would like to.

My opposition to same sex marriage is based on the fact that by its nature marriage is a religious ceremony celebrating the holy union between a man and a woman. Even though there is such a thing as civil marriages, in my view the source of all marriages is based on a religious idea. I don’t believe that there would necessarily be an institution called marriage without the bible.

Civil unions are an entirely different animal. The argument might be made that all legal rights granted to a male-female union should be extended to a same sex union. But in the phrase ‘marriage ceremony’ the very word ceremony has religious ritual overtones.

But this is not my issue today. What troubles me is the Zeitgeist of ridding the world of the idea that homosexual behavior is forbidden by God. It is becoming increasingly fashionable to view a clear act forbidden by the Torah as completely permissible and even laudable in that it is an expression of love that helps cement a loving relationship.

This is not a problem if one is an atheist. Or even a deist. It is not a problem if one is even generically religious without subscribing to any biblical doctrines. It is entirely libertarian. It is entirely humanistic. And even compassionate. But in my view as a bible believing Jew, it is wrong.

If one accepts the bible’s clear admonition against a forbidden act the way I do, they cannot be comfortable with the direction this country is going. It is one thing to be tolerant. That is a function of ‘live and let live’ – a dictum I subscribe to. It is not my job or right to tell others how to live, whther I approve of it or not. It is another to normalize a sinful act.

The forbidden act of homosexual  sex is no different than any other act that is forbidden by God. Normalizing it and treating it as though it is permitted does not, I believe, smell good in the nostrils of God. It would be no different than normalizing biblical level adultery. Adultery is forbidden even if all partners are consensual as would be the case in an open marriage. Just because there is a lot of adultery between consenting adults in this country does not mean we have to turn it into a positive value. The same thing is true about the biblically forbidden act of gay sex.

The increasing pressure to repeal DOMA and encourage legitimizing gay marriage across the land is a move in that direction. It may satisfy humanitarians and libertarians. But is disconcerting to those of us who believe that it is wrong to place even a quasi religious imprimatur via what we want to call marriage to a union between members of the same sex. Because such unions imply that the sexual act that accompanies marriage is just as legitimate as the sexual act between a married heterosexual couple.

This would mean another very serious step down the road of rejecting the dictates of the bible in a country that is increasingly becoming less religious and more libertarian. In the world of libertarians sexual morality is practically nonexistent as a societal value. Is this the kind of society we want to raise our children in? Where they are taught by society that gay sex is just fine… like eating kosher candy? Nothing wrong with it?

It is one thing to acknowledge the prevalence of homosexuality in the world and the attendant biblically forbidden sex that that usually accompanies it… and to tolerate it. It is also very just to not be judgmental to those who engage in it in the privacy of their own homes. It is equally just to treat homosexuals as equals in all societal encounters. Who they are attracted to is none of our business and shouldn’t influence our encounters with them. All human beings are created in the image of God and ought to be treated that way.

But when there is a push to completely normalize gay sex – making a biblically forbidden act completely equal to heterosexual sex which is blessed by God through marriage - it is just plain wrong. And in my view not pleasing to God. Those of us who are American citizens who feel the same way I do ought to discourage it. I am very disappointed that things are going in this direction.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Sabbath Observance Enough?

Egalitarian service at Cong. Kol Ami in Tampa, Florida - photo credit: Kol Ami
The David Brooks article in the New York Times about Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn has stirred up a lot of controversy. I first noted it on Sunday.  And once again I note it here.

This time it is a complaint in the Forward from an unlikely source – Jordana Horn, an observant Conservative Jew. I say unlikely - not because it is unlikely that she would complain, but because of her identification as an observant Conservative Jew. And by observant, I mean Shomer Shabbos. It is that particular Mitzvah that has in the past always been definitive of observance. At least in America  I suppose that’s because it was so difficult to keep Shabbos during the great influx of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There were plenty of Jews that immigrated to this country then who were observant in Europe and wished to stay observant. But because of the work ethic of the times, many of them succumbed to the pressure of working on Shabbos – even while keeping the other Miztvos (like Kashrus)to the best of their abilities. Many Jews felt that it was either working on Shabbos or starving.

That concession cost them greatly in their children. In many if not most cases their children abandoned the ritual observances of their parents in part because of the melting pot spirit of the times… but perhaps equally as important, because they saw their fathers working on Shabbos. They considered it hypocritical of their fathers to insist on their children keeping Shabbos when their fathers worked on that day.

I am not judging that generation. Times were tough. These are just the sad facts of reality. We lost a lot of Jews of the subsequent generation to assimilation back then.  Of course this is not the only reason we lost them. The utter lack of any meaningful Jewish education in those days had something to do with it too.

On the other hand there were a lot of Jews who toughed it out and did not work on Shabbos. They kept getting fired from their jobs when they didn’t show up for work. Or they somehow found jobs that did not require working on Shabbos even when it meant lesser pay. They were in the minority. But their kids for the most art stayed Shomer Shabbos too – as well observant of other Mitzvos.

Others may differ but this is why I think Shabbos is the defining characteristic of observant Judaism. Which brings me back to Ms. Horn. She is observant. She is Shomeres Shabbos. She admits that this is a relative rarity in the Conservative movement and although there are more than a few like her - I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of Jews in the Conservative movement are not Shomer Shabbos.

She complains that Mr. Brooks ‘waxed rhapsodic’ only about Orthodox Jews. …that her observance of Judaism is just as legitimate as in that of Orthodox Jewry.

The obvious question is, what makes her Conservative if she observes Shabbos? That is a very good question. In fact, if there were no labels like Orthodox and Conservative… we would all just be Jews with different levels of observance. (This is the way Sephardim live. This is one of the things I am envious of about them.)

Alas, there are labels. Labels that identify ideologies.  In some cases those ideologies contradict Halacha and Mesorah.  The problem I have with Ms. Horn is that she sees egalitarianism as an essential feature of her life. So much so apparently that she cannot imagine Judaism without it. She believes that equality of the sexes in all areas of life including religion is so important that Halacha can be changed to accommodate it. And she has found a movement that agrees with her and even encourages that kind of thinking.

The Conservative movement has done away with all Halacha that does not bow to egalitarianism. They have changed the entire nature of the Halachic process from one of adhering to Halacha as laid down before us by the sages as recorded in the Talmud and finalized in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries…  to one of changing it to fit with the spirit of the times. Egalitarianism drives Halacha in the Conservative Movement - instead of Halacha driving egalitarianism.

The claim by Conservative thinkers is that if Chazal were alive today, they would see what we see and respond along the same lines they do. Thus they do away with Halachos they see as being influenced by the ‘incorrect’ spirit of Chazal’s times.  Wouldn’t Chazal do that too if they lived today?

Well intentioned though they were - even the walls of Shmiras Shabbos were breached by the Conservative movement. By their own admission that has led to disastrous results. The permit they gave to driving only to Shul (if they were already driving) has morphed into driving anywhere they want.  Their intention of keeping their flock observant by guiding them into shuls has by their own admission been a massive failure. Which they say is the primary cause of their attrition problem. 

They believe that the breakdown of cohesive religious neighborhoods that are characteristic of Orthodox Jews are the result of the driving permit. Conservative Jews no longer had to live together in order to be close to a Shul. They could live wherever they wanted and drive there.

These problems do not even address the difficulties with some of their theology that allows for a denial of the events at Sinai. Or the exodus from Egypt.  Or even the divinity of the Torah!

It is one thing if an individual thinks this way. But when a movement does, it gives cover to anyone who does so bolstering their ranks with believers in heresy.

As an individual Ms. Horn’s her egalitarian ideas would probably not have stood in the way of full acceptance as an observant Jew. In any case she would not have any way to put her theories into practice. But when an entire movement justifies it and offers ways to facilitate those beliefs that is a horse of an entirely different color.  Furthermore belonging to Conservative movement means not only accepting the ritual changes, it means accepting the movement’s theology as well.  

This is very sad and troubles me greatly.  Ms. Horn is a sincere Jew who truly believes that her observance is in concert with authentic Judaism. Most of her observances probably are. I would love to consider all people who observe Shabbos as observant. That was once the case. It truly grieves me to say this but through no fault of her own she is mistaken in her belief that buying into the doctrines and practices of the Conservative Movement are in concert with authentic Judaism. They are not. 

This does not mean that I do not fully accept her as a Jew or respect her any less. I do. Especially her commitment to Shabbos. But as a believer in Emes, this is the way I see her state of observance.