Thursday, August 13, 2020

Charedi Bashing

Coronavirus lab at Hadassah (Jerusalem Post)
This is not the first time I’ve talked about this issue. But I think it needs to be revisited.

It is time for a reality check. I am often accused of Charedi bashing. Some of it because of my critical posts about behavior of certain individuals and segments that constituted a Chilul HaShem. The accusation is based on the fact that my criticism unduly focuses on Charedim. Rarely on Modern Orthodox Jews. 

I actually admit that I do focus more on the Charedi world. But not because I have any particular animus towards them. I absolutely do not. I love all of my people across the entire spectrum of Judaism. Regardless of their Hashkafos or how observant they are. It does not matter to me what they look like or how they spend their days. As long as they do it in honorable ways. 

There are two reasons why I focus on Charedim. First because there are simply more stories published in the media about Charedim than there are about modern Orthodox Jews. A lot more stories. The reason for that,  I think, is that someone who commits a crime or just behaves badly and is perceived as being the most religious among us, that is counter intuitive... and that is a Man Bites Dog story. That increases readership (or viewership) which increases ad revenue. 

And that segues into the second reason. When the most religious Jews among us commit crimes it is a far greater Chilul HaShem. Because it tells the world that instead of ultra religious Jews being exemplars of honesty and ethics, they are no better than any other crook. And that Judaism is OK with commiting these crimes or behaving badly.  

That is when I feel the protest must be the loudest. We must assure anyone that might encounter these stories that Orthodox Judaism has absolutely nothing to do with what a particular Charedi or subset of Jews did. We must shout that at the top of our lungs. Which is what I do when I find such a story in the media. 

I think most people that read this blog regularly understand that and realize that I am not anti Charedi at all.  But there is another reason that I am accused of Charedi bashing. Which is that I allow a free flow of comments that generate general Charedi bashing. So that whenever I write a post like this, some Charedim roll their eyes and point to those comments. 

I hear that. And it bothers me too when all Charedim are placed into the same box. Which does happen quite a bit here on the part of some commentators. 

The fact is that this is unfair on their part. Charedim are no more monolithic than any other segment. Sure!...some Charedi looking Jews are evil. But many more are righteous. The percentage of wrongdoers is minuscule. For every miscreant you will probably find hundreds if not thousands of Charedim that are exemplars of Jewish behavior, ethics, and values. 

One can disagree with their Hashkafos, but one cannot in good conscience deny their basic goodness. Stories abound about the generosity of spirit, time, and money of the Charedi world. Both in individual cases as well as a group. It behooves all critics of the Charedi world to recognize this fact and limit their criticism to specific cases rather than general about them as a group. The good ones are not the exceptions. The bad ones are. 

There is one area that this has been demonstrated in today’s Jerusalem Post. It was mentioned in passing as part of a story about the potential of ‘passive vaccines’ made from blood plasma taken from recovered and no longer contagious COVID patients: 

The first three patients treated with a new COVID-19 “passive vaccine,” which was developed by Hadassah Medical Center and the Israeli biopharmaceutical firm Kamada, demonstrated rapid, clinical benefit and have already been released from the hospital to their homes, Hadassah reported on Thursday. 

Buried somewhere deep into the article is the following: 

...the plasma was collected with the help of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) organization Yad Avraham and the haredi community. Patients who tested negative for the novel coronavirus twice and showed high levels of antibodies in their blood were asked to donate.  

Of course this is not the first time the Charedi world responded to a crisis in order to benefit all of society. (Not just themselves as is often asserted by Charedi critics.) This also happened in Monsey, New York several months ago. 

I think it would be wise for anyone that wishes to generalize in negative ways about the Charedi world to remember this story and recognize that we are all human. There are good people and pad people in all segments of society. And that the vast majority of Observant Jews behave in the ethical and honorable ways of the Torah. That is what caused these Charedim to donate their blood plasma. There was probably not a single miscreant among them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The President's Values Are Not Torah Values

Yaakov Shwekey singing an ode to the President (VIN)
A short while ago, I discussed an open letter strongly criticizing those of us that fawn all over politicians whose flaws are anathema to our values as Orthodox Jews. It was signed by a group of very prominent Charedi personalities. I pretty much agreed with them. 

Although the post seemed to be directed specifically about the President, it was later clarified that this letter was not directed at any specific candidate of either party.  But I am hard pressed to believe that it was as generic as claimed since the only candidate that is currently being idolized in some Orthodox circles is the President. Surely that is what generated that letter. 

That said, a careful reading of that letter will reveal that technically - that clarification was correct. It was not intended as a message about who NOT to vote for. It was just to remind us of the following: 

The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.  

Point being that we can vote for someone with a despicable character based on policies that favor us without embarrassing ourselves by treating him as the he was our hero and savior. 

This is exactly my view of the President. He is a despicable human being - with questionable values at best. But I believe his policies have been favorable to us as Orthodox Jews and supporters of Israel. 

One may quibble about how valuable that support is. Which in my view is heavily weighted by how you feel about him personally. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that his policies towards the Jewish state as reflected by the many things he has done for it - in both symbolic and substantial ways - is more pro Israel of any of his predecessors.  Nor is there any doubt in my mind about his economic policies which – prior to COVID – contributed mightily to one of the strongest economies since the end of World War II. 

If the President would just stop talking, then the discussion would be about polices rather than what comes out of his mouth. 

Unfortunately his mouth is his worst enemy. His polices on the other hand deserve to be discussed, debated, and evaluated on their merit. Voting for him should be based on that. If you don’t like his polices, don’t vote for him. If you do, go ahead. 

If you are like me and like some of his polices and not others the decision should be based on weighing the policies each candidate and voting for the one whose polices we believe benefit us and the country the most. 

With respect to this President, there is in my view a lot of grey – if you leave out his mouth and some of his values (or more correctly his woeful lack of much of any values). 

Which leads me to an event reported in VIN that is exactly what that open letter was opposed to: 

Orthodox Jewish pop star Yaakov Shwekey sang an ode to Donald Trump at an Orthodox overnight camp based on his hit song “We Are a Miracle.” In videos of the performance shared online Monday night, Shwekey sings a rewritten version of the song with lyrics supporting Trump’s re-election. No one in the video appears to be wearing a mask.

“May God hear our prayers, four more years, cause we are America,” Shwekey sang.

“Every day you fight a battle. On the news they try to hide all your victories, your accomplishments, the way you lead with pride,” the song continues. “But truth is always stronger, so join us as we sing our song.” 

This is wrong. I am disappointed in Shwekey. We are supposed to be a light unto the nations – praised for a wisdom that reflects the values of the Torah. Singing an ode to a man that whose words and much of his personal behavior are the opposite of those values does not stand us - and by association, the Torah - in good stead. If one praises a man like that, one is implying that his values are Torah values. Or at least they don’t contradict them. 

And this doesn’t even touch upon the open disdain for the advice by health officials by refusing to wear masks and social distance from one another. The apparent lack of concern by Orthodox Jews about spreading COVID  does not speak well of us. To say the least. 

And that, my friends, is a Chilul HaShem.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Jewish Education Conundrum

Arie Crown Hebrew Day School
If the religious school tuition crisis will ever have a breaking point, the current situation might, God forbid, usher that in. 

Those of us that have or had children in religious schools know the financial burden of parents who want to provide their children with a decent education. It is also no secret that prior to the pandemic, tuition was back-breakingly high. Most parents struggled to meet their tuition obligations regardless of how they otherwise fit into middle class (or even upper middle class) brackets. The pandemic may very well go beyond that breaking point. For both parents and the schools. 

It was not always that way. When my children first started school back in the mid seventies, full tuition was actually affordable for middle income people like me. At least here in Chicago. For several years after that I paid full tuition for all of my children. That eventually changed, causing me and other middle income parents to apply for at least a partial scholarship. 

What happened was that religious teachers used to make peanuts for their time. They needed second jobs and summer jobs just to pay for the beat up old car they were driving and to pay the rent for  the 3rd floor walk up apartment in a 75 year old building they lived in. 

That was the state of education back then. The overhead in the school was low. There was one principal, one vice principal, one or two secretaries and a janitor. No real other expenses. As the Mechanchim (religious teachers) started to age, new blood was sought. The board of directors (on which I served for many years) quickly realized that no Mechanech worthy of the name would work for peanuts anymore. If we wanted top quality teachers, we were going to have to pay them something close to a living wage. 

As the school grew so did the teaching staff and the administrative staff. Valuable enrichment programs were added as well as other professionals whose services were unknown to parents when my children first started school. Someone had to pay for all these things. Long story short tuition had to be substantially increased as did the school’s fundraising. 

This is where we are at today. Schools with great programs and great teachers cost a lot of money. Which most parents cannot afford to pay via tuition. And fundraising rarely meet their budgetary goals.  Schools often operate on deficits. in worst case scenarios, teachers do not get paid on time.

This is a real conundrum. On the one hand we have the legitimate cost of a good Jewish education being high and on the other and the inability of the vast majority parents to pay anywhere near those costs. Additionally those costs keep going up at a faster pace than does most parental income. If we want a quality education for our children, then how are we going to pay for it? 

This is not a new problem. But the current pandemic has exacerbated it tremendously. Fundraising has perforce gone down. A main staple for fundraising are annual banquets that raise substantial amounts of money through sponsorships and ad books. Another main staple is concerts - which also has sponsors. Neither of which is possible now. How the money those fund raisers generate will be replaced is a question no one can answer. Except to say they can’t be. 

Meanwhile teachers, administrators, and all the ancillary staff and programs still need to get paid. Many teachers are in fact working harder now trying to be creative via zoom lessons than they were before in an actual classroom. Same thing administrators that have to coordinate all those things. And yet it is quite well known that these zoom classes are no substitute for the classroom.

This is quite the crisis! Costs are the same, education is not what it was before, fundraising is way down. And many parents are earning less or not at all because of the pandemic. 

Which brings me to a couple of articles suggesting solutions of a sort that in my view cannot work. They will result in less revenue for the school and an even greater budgetary deficit. 

One proposal actually asks schools to provide greater scholarships during these times because of the financial hardships parents are having. The point being that if these scholarships aren’t granted, a lot of parents will simply be unable to bear the burden and will stop sending their children to a religious school. Which would very likely have tragic outcomes in many cases. 

Without a decent Jewish education and sending a child to public school, the chances are pretty strong that a child may abandon his Judaisms at some point. Either because of a lack of sufficiently understanding and valuing their Judaism or because of the non Jewish influences in the public schools. Or both. Even if there are attempts at homeschooling  their Jewish studies. 

Under these circumstance the chances of retaining their Judaism has a dubious chance of success. There is no substitute for the kind of religious education a child gets in the religious environment that a school provides. 

I understand the need. But giving scholarships at a time when fundraising is so drastically down cannot happen. Schools will ultimately shut down if teachers aren’t paid what they deserve. 

Another proposal is to base scholarships as a percentage of the adjusted gross income (AGI) listed on a family’s tax return (their 1040).  That might seem like a simple and fair approach to providing scholarships.  But as the article notes (and yet dismisses) that does not take into consideration assets that are not taxed as income - which can and should be available for tuition. For example contributions to a 401K or an IRA.

Nor does it take into consideration  how a family allocates their their discretionary income. Such as sending their children to an expensive summer camp where scholarships are rarely if ever given.  Why should their children’s school subsidize their summer camp? Is 4 weeks at a religious summer camp more important that the 10 months a year where their children get their primary Jewish education?

A 1040 is a valuable document to help determine what kind of tuition assistance a parent will be granted. But it is only one thing that should be looked at – if one is going to be fair to the financial needs of the school. 

I am sorry to say, that neither of these well intentioned solutions will work. Especially now during COVID. 

What the solution to this conundrum might otherwise be would in my view require the wisdom of Solomon.

Monday, August 10, 2020

When Silence is Not Golden

Howard Beale - from the 1976 film, Network
If there was ever a time to support the Police Department, now is that time. Early this morning in Chicago (at about midnight) Chicago was attacked by violent looters. Stores and Businesses along Michigan Avenue (Chicago’s Magnificent Mile) - where some of the more upscale exclusive shops are located were broken into and looted. Major department stores and small ‘mom and pop’ establishments were ransacked and merchandise stolen. 100s of people swarmed all over the mile long area. And beyond strecting south for miles. Police that were called were shot at. (Fortunately no one was hurt.) 

There is absolutely no excuse for this. The people that did this are violent criminals. This was not a ‘black lives matter’ issue. Although I am absolutely sure that that was the excuse they used. It is quite clear that this was an organized attack. 

I’m not sure what generated this. But Police Superintendent David Brown suggested it was generated by a police involved shooting yesterday of a black man with a record of arrests for a variety of violent acts.  He shot at the police and they returned fire - hitting him. He survived and is in the hospital. No police were hurt. That was a righteous shoot by police defending themselves. But that didn’t stop a group of black people congregating in the neighborhood where this happened from and accusing the police of yet another ‘George Floyd’ event. Then came midnight and this happened. 

What began a few months ago as a justifiable movement to protest racism has now given way to a violent rampage using what happened yesterday as an excuse . Looting is not a protest. It a crime. But I am sure that they wanted the world to think that this was a from of a ‘black lives matter’ protest. (Some of them may have actually believed that.)

There is a lot of blame to go around here. Not the least of which belongs to the mainstream media. They have been focusing solely on the issue of racist cops.. Rarely do they report a case where the police had a justified shooting. The message is pretty obvious. There is systemic racism in this country and all violence is a outgrowth of that. That has led many liberals to demand defunding all police departments. Which the city council of Minneapolis has voted to do. And other cities actively considering it. 

The police have been emasculated – weakened and demoralized. They are unable to enforce the law effectively, lest they be accused of racism. 

For their part Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot and Superintendent Brown have declared the looters to be guilty of a felony crime. They will be apprehended The police will seek out these criminals and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Nice words. I just hope the judicial habit of revovng door justice will no longer take place. 

If there is anything that might change the outcome of the next election, this might be it. Although Trump’s ‘funeral’ has all but been assured, that prediction may be a bit premature.  His ‘Law and Order’ approach may be more appealing now than ever. especially to what has been called the silent majority.

The silent majority are people that do not tend to protest of hold rallies. They live their lives quietly and honestly. They are the hard working middle class and appreciate what this great country has given them - a standard of living that is the envy of the world. These are Americans with great values and understand that there is racism in this country. They are opposed to it and acknowledge that it needs to be eradicated. 

But they also realize the absolute necessity of law enforcement. Without which - begets lawlessness and anarchy.  We have been getting a taste of this in some parts of the country over the last few months. The latest of which was early this morning in Chicago. 

The silent majority is not exclusively white. The vast middle class includes a significant number of black people. I am absolutely convinced that they are just as appalled at what is happening as I am. They do not want to see the city torn apart and their lives upended. 

There are also a great many poor black people that are just as honest and just as upset by this. These are the ones whose young children are shot almost daily by violent gang members - right in their own neighborhoods. They are saying ‘What about us?!’ ‘Yes – there is racism that needs to be dealt with.’ ‘But our babies are being killed by our own people’. ‘Why can’t the police protect us?’ 

I think the answer is obvious. The focus is by liberal politicians and the media is not on them. It is on police racism.  

Is there a root cause of the problem? Of course there is. Poverty can force a lot of people to take desperate measures. Some of which might be illegal. Especially when so many of them are out of work because of the pandemic. Why are so many black people so impoverished? There is not a simple answer to that. It is true that some of it is due to the historic racism - both overt and subtle. How to fix that is a huge and controversial subject - which is way beyond the scope of this post. But one thing is certain. That is no excuse to become a violent criminal.

Meanwhile - it is time for the silent majority to stop being so silent. Especially those among us that are black. We need to have massive rallies all over the country in support of the police. The message should be one that supports the rule of and supports the police who enforce it. The police have to be shown that they are appreciated. Not shunned. It should be led by city politicians. Especially those that are black. The vast majority of this country needs to be heard. A majority that includes the black middle class. 

What about the black lives matter protests? Yes, we must eradicate all forms of racism. But the greatest racism of all is ignoring the lives of innocent black people whose children are being killed by some of their own people.  And practically ignoring them is what the media seems to be guilty of. 

I firmly believe that Middle  America is upset. They see our values and institutions under attack. They see lawlessness taking hold. At the risk of sounding like Howard Beale, I think it is time for us to get up and say. ‘We are not going to take it anymore!’ In this case it is not an insane thing to do. 

I have no way of organizing this. But there are community activists – both black and white - all across the land that I am sure support the police. They are probably tired of the police being vilified. The police put their lives on the line every day to assure that our society remains one of law and order.  A system that needs to be rectified should not be abolished or demoralized. It needs to be fully suppoted.

If that doesn’t happen, the rabble rousers will keep doing things like this every excuse they get. And that might be the end of America as we know it. We must never allow that to happen!

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Opposition to a Trump Appointee, But…

Col Douglas Macgregor, Trump nominee for ambassador to Germany
I received an email from a frequent commentator that I have a lot of respect for despite the fact that we have substantial disagreements on some issues. He is a very bright and caring individual albeit a bit caustic in his retorts here. He expressed disgust at the President’s nomination of retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor as US ambassador to Germany. Referencing a CNN article with a title that reads:

 Jewish advocacy groups slam Trump's pick for German ambassador for bigoted comments.

CNN reporters, Caroline Kelly and Andrew Kaczynski tell us why The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, J Street, the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism and B'nai B'rith are so appalled at this: 

Macgregor, among other comments, criticized Germany for giving "millions of unwanted Muslim invaders" welfare benefits rather than providing more funding for its armed services, and downplayed the country's Nazi history. He described the German cultural concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which seeks to "cope with the past" and confront the atrocities the country committed in World War II, as a "sick mentality."

"There's sort of a sick mentality that says that generations after generations must atone sins of what happened in 13 years of German history and ignore the other 1,500 years of Germany," Macgregor said in 2018. "And Germany played a critical role in central Europe in terms of defending the serving Western civilization. So I think that's, that's the problem."

For someone like me, the child of Holocaust survivors, it is particularly upsetting to see someone that thinks that Germany ought to stop obsessing over its past, not compensate survivors for the unimaginable horrors they lived through at the hand of Germany’s leaders… and just move on. 

That is indeed a pretty disgusting attitude. No country that has that kind of blood on their hands has the right to just move on. Even decades after the fact. They must confront their past – even though the current leadership had nothing to do with it. They are culpable as a country. They know it. And they are facing it. To suggest that they move on and forget about it is about as insensitive a comment anyone could ever make to the people that – at the hands of that country - experienced the loss millions of its members - along with untold tortures experienced by survivors. 

So I too am appalled by Macgregor’s nomination for that post. That being said, I have to wonder why those that protested this so vehemently did not include other mainline Jewish advocacy groups (e.g. AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the OU, the RCA, and Agudah, among others.) 

I have to conclude that there is more to the story - considering that the groups articulating this condemnation are among the the President’s harshest critics. I have to suspect ulterior motives since they do not represent a united Jewish front.These are people that want to see the end of the Trump Presidency and are doing everything they can to make him look as bad as possible. They want Trump defeated at the polls next November. Which will usher in a Biden Presidency. More about that later. 

In any case - as opposed as I am to this nomination, it doesn't concern me that much. I don’t see a US ambassador undermining the policies of the President that appointed him. There is no a doubt in my mind that his policies with respect to Israel and religious freedom are things we ought to appreciate and be grateful for regardless about how we feel about him personally. 

There is not that much an ambassador can do to implement his own polices. Nor do I believe for a moment that the German government as now constructed would reverse a decades old policy trying to atone for its Nazi past. (Which it can never do, anyway. There is no way to atone for genocide. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an obligation to try.) 

If I am right about the ulterior motives of this particular group of Jewish organizations, I am much more concerned that a Biden win will a return the US to the Obama era foreign policy with a stupid deal that implicitly green-lighted Iranian export of terrorism...  and a return to  a policy that had become increasingly hostile to Israel - demonstrated by the fact that for first time we abstained on a UN Security Council vote to condemn Israeli settlements... 

US opposition to settlements at that time involved even normal expansion by growing families living in border line cities established long ago . Cities that would almost certainly become part of Israel in any kind of two state solution. Which was already agreed upon at Oslo during negotiations more than 20 years ago by Palestinians in exchange for some land swaps. I am not opposed at all to ‘settlement’ activity like that. 

It is true that I am not a fan of settlements. But that mostly applies to ‘trailer park’ type settlements deep into the West Bank for purposes of antagonizing local Palestinians. I have no problem with a growing family living in border town Maale Adumim needing to add a room.  

If Biden wins, it will once again be our policy to condemn such things. And frankly that appalls me a heck of a lot more than appointing an ambassador to Germany that doesn't think they ought to dwell on their Nazi  past.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Message to the Chief Rabbinate: Women are People Too

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef
Once again, it seems that common sense is lacking. This time  it is on the part of the Chief Rabbinate. They apparently do not want to test women on the Halacha they study and certify them in some way. I think they should. 

As I repeatedly say, there is absolutely nothing wrong with women studying Torah on any level they choose. And to obtain as much knowledge as they can. With respect to Torah knowledge, there is no such thing as too much. It is also perfectly acceptable to give them recognition for any such achievement. 

Not doing so is as discriminatory as the 3 womens groups challenging them in the Israel high court - say it is. This has nothing to do with my opinion of any of these groups. It only has to do with this one issue as described in the Jerusalem Post. About which they are right, in my view. The high court has given them 90 days to come up with a plan to do that.

I can see a lot of anti Rabbinate people rolling their eyes just about now. They have no use for a rabbinate they see as corrupt and unresponsive to community needs. They would like nothing better than to ‘defund’ the rabbinate (to use a popular phrase these days). And replace it with a rabbinate that is not corrupt and is responsive. 

I am not in favor of defunding the Rabbinate – for reasons beyond the scope of this post. But I am in favor of a major overhaul that will clean things up there without compromising any of their principles. A responsive rabbinate needs to be responsive to every Jewish constituency. Whether Charedim on the one end or  secular on the other. That has to be fixed. Big time. One way to start doing that is to recognize that women are people too. And that they have a right to be recognized for their accomplishments in Torah and Halacha. 

This does not mean that they should be getting Semicha - and become rabbis. I am opposed to that – again – for reasons beyond the scope of this post. But I don’t think they are asking for that, specifically. Just recognition of some sort they can take to the ‘marketplace’ as experts that can be used in ways other than becoming a rabbi. Such  as (among other things) becoming Yoatzot, teaching Torah at a high level, school administration, pastoral counseling, and chaplaincy work in the military, hospitals, or prison.  

If the Chief Rabbinate did that, I think it would be  a step in the right direction of. It would help blunt criticism from the left. They would show that they are as inclusive as they claim to be. I am therefore very sorry to see that they are so opposed to this. It just chases people further away

I’m not even sure why they are so opposed. Perhaps they see it a slippery slope towards becoming rabbis? I don’t know. If it is, I would advise them not to worry about it. As long as they stay true to their core principles – one of which is that women cannot become rabbis, they should have no problem granting some form of recognition here. 

What about the next ‘wave’ of challenges that might include demanding Semicha? They can cross that bridge when they come to it. For now, they need to do what’s right. 

Just some of my quick thoughts on this issue.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

When Double Standards Should Apply

We ought to do better. Our mandate to glorify the name of God as his chosen people requires us to be exemplars. Not followers. Especially those among us who claim a higher mantel piety.  That is what the term ‘Chasid’ actually means. The Gemarah uses it describe Jews that are more meticulous in mitzvah observance. Nothing really to do with how the term is used today. I am sure, however that this is the reason Chasidim chose that name for themselves. They consider themselves to be more pious than the rest of us.

 There is of course nothing wrong with being pious. It’s quiet meritorious in the eyes of God. But along with that lofty identity comes responsibility. The kind that demands being judged by a different standard that the rest of us. Chasidm have an obligation - a duty to exemplars of Torah based behavior. 

I mention all of this in light of what happened in Israel yesterday. Which I can only call a dereliction of duty. From Arutz Sheva

Thousands of Belz Hasidim participated on Wednesday evening in the wedding of the Belzer Rebbe’s grandson, which was being held in a closed hall in Jerusalem, in violation of the guidelines of the Ministry of Health. 

This was an unconscionable act. 1000s of people tightly packed into a hotel ballroom for hours without a stitch of protective gear?! 

Really? !

I do not understand it. The Belzer Rebbe is not stupid. He is in fact one of the good guys. He has shown his sincere empathy for suffering Jews many times in the past without looking at how observant any of them were. And yet he goes and does something like this?! And that isn’t all. These Chasidim were very aware that they were doing something wrong and went to great lengths to conceal it: 

Many of the participants did not enter the wedding through the main entrance, but rather through side entrances. Participants were instructed not to bring into the hall in which the event was held any device that could document the goings on inside...  

This is not the first time this kind of thing happened. There have been other massive Chaisdic weddings attended by thousands since the pandemic began.

What is it about Chasidus that makes Chasidim feel attending a wedding of the grandson of their spiritual leader is so important that it would be detrimental to their mental well being if they couldn’t? Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, this is exactly what the Belzer Rebbe apparently believes: 

Belz Hasidim explained that in the Rebbe's opinion, the restrictions could cause greater mental damage than the health damage that the virus brings with it. 

There are some who complain that there are many others - secular Jews and non Jews - who violate these restrictions the same way or worse. But they do not get anywhere near the scrutiny or condemnation that Chasidim do when they do it. This is what Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said about that: 

“We must enforce the rules. But it isn’t fair. Every Thursday and Saturday there are more serious violations. Is the entire area of Balfour [the street Netanyahu lives on in the Rehavia neighborhood] free of coronavirus? When it comes to a Haredi area, there are headlines and photos right way. I certainly don’t support it, but let’s not enforce things selectively,” Lion told the Kan public broadcaster. 

“I watch what is happening at Balfour with great pain,” added Lion, who lives nearby. “The Health Ministry and police explain to us, from morning till night, the ban on gatherings — yet we accept this gathering with equanimity, as if there is nothing we can do. I respect the right to protest, but we are in a difficult time.”

He’s is probably right. The religious community is picked on more than the secular community - when they do virtually the same thing. That is a double standard. 

But that is as it should be. The religious community has an obligation to be exemplars rather than use what others do as an excuse to do the same. 

There are some that defend of this type of thing in the following way. Religious communities that initially had so many cases of COVID-19 – haven’t had that many since. They therefore conclude that they might have some sort of herd immunity in those neighborhoods. So many of them got the virus, survived, are now immune, and no longer contagious. That means that the probability of community spread has decreased to the point where their positivity rate is insignificant. They probably also believe that their piety in doing this Mitzvah will protect them even if they do get exposed. 

I don’t know how accurate their sense of how many people are infected these days. But the reality is that Israel has had a huge spike in coronavirus infections. Many of them so serious they require hospitalization. Hospitals are ‘buckling under the influx of COVID-19 patients’. They are running out of space. That means an increased probability of people in that community that got lucky and avoided infection the first time around can very well get it now. And spread it to others like them in their community.

At the end of the day, having a wedding of this size in the middle of a pandemic is the height of irresponsibility in my view. And when those who claim a higher standard of piety deserve to be judged on that standard. 

The role of religion in response to this pandemic was discussed by journalist Jordan Kelly-Linden in the Telegraph. I think she got it right: 

Religious leaders have both been able to “support and amplify health messages, providing credibility to national public health efforts”, as well as undermine them… 

This is as true among us as it is among people of other faiths. 

Some of our religious leaders have been exemplary of Jewish values by adhering and exhorting us all to follow – or even exceed the precautions health experts are telling us to follow. And offer us spiritually uplifting words of encouragement in that task.

And then there is the Belzer Rebbe.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Abortion and Halachic Common Sense

Updated*  I sometimes have to wonder whatever happened to common sense. Which to me,  means looking at a contentious issue from both sides of the argument. This is why I found a recent debate on the Jewish view of abortion so problematic. 

On the one hand, language used by  JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance - a liberal Jewish feminist organization which - as their name indicates defines itself as Orthodox) seems to have adopted the position advocated by humanists. Excerpted in First Things it says:

“We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.” 
Which implies they believe that Orthodox Judaism endorses the concept of abortion on demand.  

That is of course ridiculous. As an article in First Things by ‘Various’ (whatever that means) points out: 

Nobody has the right to kill anybody else. Killing is only justified in a situation where killing an assailant is the only way to protect the right of their victim not to be killed. Hence there is only a mandate (hiyyuv) to abort a fetus when the only way to save the life of the mother is by aborting the fetus in utero mortally threatening her life there. 

This is of course true. But as noted there is more to the story. Here is a more complete quote:

"JOFA’s position has consistently been that women and couples should consult their physicians and personal halakhic advisers in making decisions about abortion and reproductive health care without the involvement of the government. We support every woman’s legal right to make decisions about and have control over her own body.

It turns out that JOFA has essentially the same position I do. Which is that for Jews, Halacha should be the determining factor. Not the State.  It is nevertheless troubling that the last line is somewhat ambiguous - seeming to contradict the first part of the statement. Abortions do not only affect the woman. They affect the fetus - an eventual human being. That last line implies that the only thing significant here is  the woman’s own body.

The Gemarah tells us that when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, the Uber (fetus) has the din of a Rodef. When someone (in this case the fetus) pursues you in order to kill you- your killing such an individual is considered ‘justifiable homicide’. Halacha in fact requires it. However, abortion on demand, although not a capital crime, is nevertheless Halachicly forbidden. 

This same article notes, that in this country the incidence of abortions to save the life of the mother is less than 1%.  Although they don’t say so explicitly, the inference is that we should embrace the Pro-Life Movement and reverse Roe v Wade. 

I reject that notion. I support the Pro Choice position on Roe v Wade. Not because I believe in their agenda of abortion on demand. I am firmly opposed to that on moral grounds. The idea that a woman has a right to do with her body whatever she wishes extends only to her body. Not to the eventual human being she carries within it. 

I prefer the procedure be legal so that when Halacha permits it, it should be as accessible as any other medical procedure.  That permit is not necessarily limited to saving the life of the mother. There are legitimate Poskim actually permit an abortion (up to the third trimester - if I remember correctly) in other cases – such as a Tay-Sachs baby. There is also more latitude for abortions during the first forty days after conception. A fetus is Halachicly considered mere ‘water’ until then. 

Making abortion illegal would therefore go against our best interests as Jews. We need to be able to decide for ourselves when an abortion is permissible and when it is not. Not the ‘State’. 

The Jewish position on abortion needs to be made clear. We should not be joining the Pro-Life movement whose ultimate goal is to return to the pre Roe v Wade days. But neither should we join promote the Pro Choice position of abortion on demand. 

We should be in favor of keeping the procedure safe, legal, and rare. Common sense!

*The original  post was written with a misunderstanding of JOFA’s views on abortion.  I apologize and have updated the post accordingly.(HT dr. bill )

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Sadie Hawkins Day

Tu B'Av (OU)
Tomorrow is Sadie Hawkins Day. For those too young to have any clue what I am talking about, this ‘holiday’ is a figment of the late cartoonist Al Capp’s imagination. Capp was the creator of a popular satiric comic strip of the mid 20th century called Li’l Abner. The idea of that day was role reversal. Instead of men actively seeking out women for marriage, women actively sought out men. 

Though not an exact analogy, tomorrow is Tu B’Av – the 15th day of the month of Av (when the moon is full). This is a day where back in Mishnaic times, young Jewish women became more active in seeking out husbands. The Mishna (Taanis - 26b) tells us that there were no other holidays as festive as this day and Yom Kippur  (at night  - post fast). All the young single women of Jerusalem would dress up and go into the vineyards and dance. They would tell young men, to raise their eyes and see what they should choose! …adding (among other things) that they should seek women of piety rather than beauty. 

My how times have changed. The very idea of a man watching a woman dance is considered immoral. An act that might generate improper thoughts. Young wome doing that would today be considered promiscuous.. 

One may ask, if that is so, how can the Mishna describe it as such a festive holiday? Since when does  Torah law (which is what studying Mishna is all about) promote promiscuity like that?

 The classic answer is that our generation isn’t anywhere near as holy as the generation of the Mishna. Young men did not have lascivious thoughts when they saw these women dancing. They saw them merely as possible Shiduchim. So then it was appropriate today it would not be. 

I have to wonder about that considering the many Gemarahs that indicate otherwise. Such as where we are told that looking even at the little finger of a woman is forbidden for that reason. Were young unmarried teens less likely to have such thoughts back then? 

Be that as it may, this is not going to happen today. No Beis Yaakov is going to teach their girls to dress up and dance before a group of boys on Tu B’av – even for Shidduch purposes. And certanly no Yeshiva would ever allow their boys to watch them if they tried.

I mention all of this to contrast it with today’s so called Shidduch crisis.  The fact is there are an increasing number of young women that have a difficult time getting married.  They ‘age out’ of the system pretty quickly. So that by age 29 when most American woman are still single and far from ready to get married, a young Orthodox woman might be seen as over the hill by her community. Or at least not the first choice of young men seeking Shidduchim.  Especially in the Charedi world. They tend to date ‘younger’ women 19 to 23 years of age. The older they get, the less likely they will be considered for a date. There are of course many successful exceptions. But that is what they are. Excepceratintions. 

I have talked about this problem before. Many times. But I am not the only one. This has been a discussion among many Charedi leaders  who have tried to come up with solutions to the problem.  Tu B’av is when this problem seems to get more attention. For obvious reasons. 

I am not opposed to all of the various suggestions being made to help alleviate the situation. One of which is prayer. From Matzav:

On August 5th, Tu B’Av at 10:AM (NY time) and around the world, hundreds of thousands of Jews will unite at one time, reciting 8 perakim of Tehillim as a zechus for all singles in Klal Yisrael to find their shidduch, This historic worldwide event is called “Tu B’Av Together” and is a Yad L’Achim initiative.  

I am not God forbid opposed to prayer. I am opposed to how radically finding a Shiddach has changed from the days of the Mishna to our day. Even if one finds the idea of young single women dancing in front of young single men to be of a promiscuous nature, it can certainly not be the case that every way of finding a mate - other than using a Shadchan - is considered inappropriate.  And yet, in the Charedi world - and increasingly in some parts of the Centrist world - going to a Shadchan is becoming an almost exclusive way to date. The idea of young men and women meeting on their own is at best frowned upon.

Do not misunderstand. I have no problem at all with the use of a Shadchan. (Although I do have a problem with the way some of them operate. But that is beyond the scope of this post.) Using a Shadchan is a perfectly fine way to date. But  it should in no way be the only way to date.  There are multiple legitimate and appropriate ways for young men and women to meet. In my view they should not only be encouraged to do it, it ought to be facilitated. Or at least not actively prevented or discouraged. I know Charedi families that have been friends for years but stop inviting each other over for a Shabbos meal when their children become teenagers and were the opposite sex.

In those circles, there is absolutely no way that a young man and young woman should meet unless it is done through a Shadchan of some sort. Where each potential Shidduch is researched and scrutinized for compatibility long before their first date. While there is certainly nothing wrong with finding out how compatible a potential couple may be, I am absolutely convinced that a lot of singles never meet because of too much research. 

It might take young people meeting on their own a bit longer to find out how compatible they are. But at the same time they are in a far better position to know that when they do it on their own - rather than through a Shadchan or even a parent. 

I truly believe that expanding the world of dating possibilities would help resolve - if not fully eliminate the so called Shidduch crisis.

Too bad it will never happen. We seem to be going I the opposite direction. Maybe we cant go back to the way Tu B’Av was celebrated back in Mishnaic times. But at least let us open things up a bit more rather than they are now instead of going in the opposite direction.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Rav Shmuel, Rabbi Shafran, and the President

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky and his son, Rav Shalom (Mishpacha)
An important Open Letter regarding Orthodox Jewish involvement with politics (or perhaps more precisely – support for certain politicians) was issued by Rabbi Avi Shafran. It was signed by the following prominent Orthodox Jewish personalities: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby, Eytan Kobre, Yosef Rapaport, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and Dr. Aviva Weisbord. Based on this I doubt that any one of them will vote for the President in the 2020 election.

The gist of that letter warns against  religious Jews endorsing political figures whose values are the antithesis of Torah. Although it did not mention any particular party or individual and said this applied to either political party, it was pretty much a thinly veiled rebuke of those among us that enthusiastically endorse the President - even though (for example) his support of Israel has been so strong. In pertinent part it said: 
As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.
Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.
Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.
Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships.
The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify. 
I of course agree with this perspective. How can I not? The Torah should be our moral guide. Not political philosophies. To that end we must be consistent in who we support and why. And for the same reason,.make clear what is objectionable about them from a Torah perspective even if we support some of their policies 

But there is another perspective to be heard. It was articulated by no less a rabbinic figure than Agudah Moetzes senior member, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky. (One might argue that since Rabbi Shafran is Agudah’s long time spokesman, that Rav Kamenetsky is his boss!) R’ Shmuel was interviewed by Mishpacha Magazine columnist Yisroel Besser for last week’s cover story. Here is the pertinent excerpt: 
(R’ Shmuel): “You see the matzav, the anarchy… it’s frightening. G-d has become a dirty word in much of America, religion and religious institutions are their enemy — we need rachamei Shamayim (heavenly mercy). If Trump doesn’t win in November, it’s worrisome.”
(Besser): I hear what seems to be an endorsement, and I push.    
(R’ Shmuel): “Yes, I think people should vote for him. He’s done a good job. It’s hakaras hatov, (gratitude)” Rav Shmuel reiterates.
(Besser): But what about the fact that the current president is sometimes less than a positive role model?
(R’ Shmuel): “That has nothing to do with politics,” 
There is no doubt in my mind that R’ Shmuel is as Ehrlich as they come. Aside from being a senior member of the Agudah Moetzes, he is the long time Rosh HaYeshiva of ‘Philly’ one of the most respected Charedi Yeshivos in the America. I am equally sure that he inherited all the traits of his illustrious father, R’ Yaakov.

Does Rabbi Shafran’s Open Letter contradict R’ Shmuel?

It would seem so on the surface. But I don’t really think it does. I’m sure that R’ Shmuel would agree entirely with the principles expressed by Rabbi Shafran. The Torah should be our guide. And that as Orthodox Jews we should never identify with one party no matter how pro Israel it is; no matter how much closer its values are to our own. 

What R’ Shmuel is saying is that we should vote for the person whose polices more closely favor our interests without identifying with the party that person represents and surely not in any way endorse that individuals character, or worse defending every word he says as though it was Torah MiSinai. I have to wonder how God sees defending and sometimes even praising a man like that, no matter how ‘good he is for the Jews’.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer ‘s response to the Open Letter was along the same lines. But I think he went a ‘bridge too far’ by saying: 
(T)here is a major difference between idolatrous devotion to a political candidate and robust support of the candidate for important practical reasons. 
I don’t think that ‘robust support’ is the right approach. If one votes for the President it ought to be made clear that it is not the man they support but his policies. And that perhaps one should vote for him with more than an ounce of regret about voting for a man whose personal behavior is so alien to Jewish values.

That said, I want to once again reiterate that this is not an endorsement. I just wanted to point out that Rabbi Shafran’s open letter and R’ Shmuel’s support for the President expresses my internal conflict.

My belief in Torah values  is also why I so often say that I ‘lean’ politically conservative rather than just declaring myself to be a conservative. The Torah is my guide. Most often these days I firmly believe that politically conservative values reflect my own Torah based values. But in some cases I am decidedly liberal for the same reason.

I remain conflicted because even though I support and appreciate the President’s strong support for Israel and religious values, I’m just not sure that is enough to endorse a man whose character is the antithesis of the Torah.