Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur (Chabad)
Today on  Erev Yom Kippur I want to take the opportunity to wish all of my readers, commentators, and contributors a G'mar Chasima Tova and and easy fast. 

Monday, October 03, 2022

Flying High

Neighborhood in Ramat Bet Shemesh - Aleph (Yigal Realty)
Today is a travel day. I'm off to Israel. My wife and I will - God willing - once again be privileged to experience Yom Kippur and celebrate Sukkos in the holy land with my son and his family . A family that has expanded to include 2 great grandchildren. One born to my grandson and his wife; and another born to my granddaughter and her husband.  Both great grandchildren are nearly a year old now. Haven't seen them since last Pesach, Looking forward. 

We will be staying in Ramat Bet Shemesh - Aleph and I will be Davening most minyanim at Maasas Mordechai on Dolev. If your are in the neighborhood and happen to Daven in one of their many Minyanim - look for me. If you see me - come on over and say hi. 

Next new post after Yom Kippur.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Thriving or Abject Failure. It's Complicated

Satmar school bus (Brownstoner)
One of the things that have made me so supportive of requiring Chasidic schools in communities like Satmar to offer a core secular curriculum is that without one, it limits how they can earn a decent living. I still feel that way. But let me hasten to add that this is not the only reason. More about that later.

The pushback by defenders of this community is that they do just fine without it. That they are in fact a very financially secure and productive community with a variety of ways to make a living. That is in fact quite true. Nowhere is this point made more clearly than by an expatriate Chasidic woman who gives tours of her former home base, Williamsburg. 

One would think that just like other expatriate Chasidm that she would be bitter and cry the loudest about the lack of a secular education.  But that is clearly not the case. a 15 minute video (below) by Frieda Vizel paints a very different and positive picture about the legitimate ways Satmar tyoe Chasdim make a living. It is well worth the 15 minutes of your time to see it. It will surely change the misconception by so may people that with the exception of a few wealthy businessmen, Chasidim have menial jobs and live a life of poverty. That is far from true.

That being said, the lack of an education still limits their options since very few of them are able to overcome it, catch up with those who had one, and have careers that require a higher education. Be that as it may, the fact is that they do quite well within the limits of their (non) education within the confines of their insulated lives. 

But as I keep pointing out, making a living is not the only reason to require a secular education. It is outrageous to me that people who are motivated to study and master complex subjects in the Talmud, remain ignorant of the English language to the point of not being able to construct a single sentence without gross errors in spelling and grammar. That too limits their earing potential. But as I keep saying, it makes the most religious looking Jews among us seem ignorant to the rest of the world. 

Not in terms of their humanity. They often project a very positive image as charitable kind people willing to help their fellow man at the drop of a hat. But that does not remove their image as ignorant of the language and basic knowledge about the country in which they live.  

It should concern us all that this type of Chasidus does that on purpose They see it as a way to counter the negative values they see in the outside world.  It is beyond me that it doesn’t seem to occur to their leadership that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews were educated that way- and managed to remain true to the ideals of the Torah without a hint of being influenced negatively. Including many Gedolei HaDor

The near universal Orthodox opposition to any government interference in Chasidic education is being characterized as an assault on our religious rights and a virtual assault on the Torah itself. 

I do not see it that way at all. The government has a right - perhaps even a duty to demand minimum educational standards as long as they do not interfere with  religious values. Furthermore those defenders ignore the value of ridding a huge religious community of ignorance of the language of the land. It isn’t only about being able to communicate without being fluent. Of course they can. It’s just that it makes the most religious Jews among us seem ignorant. Why their supporters keep ignoring that very important point eludes me. 

This brings me to an article by ‘Open Orthodox’ Rabbi Ysoscher Katz.  Rabbi Katz and I could not be further apart on issues like female rabbis and LGBTQ issues. I am in complete disagreement with him on these issues. That said, he has a perspective about his former Satmar community that few people have. On the issue of education, we see eye to eye. A position he recently articulated in a Jerusalem Post article.

It’s true that he too is an expatriate Chasid. But he did not go OTD. He is still observant. Not only that but he has Semicha from R’ Yechezkel Roth, a giant of Psak Halacha respected by virtually all Charedim. 

Rabbi Katz also expresses a love of learning Torah to this day and teaches Gemara at YCT. He also exprsses very warm feelings about his former community where he said he developed his thirst for Torah study. . However, he also says, his successes should be seen as an exception. His reaction to the (now infamous)  New York Times investigative report is quite revealing in that it comes form a former insider that still loves his old community: 

On one hand, the article brought back painful memories of violent corporal punishment, and also reminded me of the time, many years ago, when I suddenly realized how little my more than twenty-five years of education had prepared me for the world outside the invisible fence surrounding my native community. Once I made a decision to poke a hole in that fence and step outside, I was confronted with numerous intellectual inadequacies… 

I WAS fortunate to find employment in a field where my robust Jewish education gave me an advantage, and my lack of secular education did not put me at too much of a disadvantage. As a Talmud teacher, I am able to utilize everything I was taught in Satmar to make me successful at my job. 

Were I, however, to choose any other career path, I would have been an abject failure. My years of schooling did not teach me how to conjugate a proper English sentence, master modern technology, or be equipped to pursue a decent professional career. Knowing a lot of Talmud does not help with any of that. 

Indeed. it is interesting to contrast the information in the video with the what Rabbi Katz descreibes. One might think that one of these narratives must be false. Either they thrive or they become abject failures.

But as in most things in life, it’s complicated. There is no black and white here. Just a lot of gray. There are pluses and minuses that do not necessarily contradict each other.  Yes they do well overall in the sense of supporting themselves and their families financially as a self contained community .But if they try and venture outside of it into the world at large they will very likely find themselves at a great disadvantage. Careers open to the secularly educated will be closed to them. Very few will be able to overcome it and most will indeed find themselves as abject failures in trying to reach that goal.  

I have therefore not changed my view. I support the goal of requiring a core secular curriculum into those schools that currently refuse to offer them. The same core curriculum that the vast majority of other orthodox schools do to one degree or another. A government has the right to demand reasonable standards of education of its citizens. That is NOT called interfering in their religious rights. 

Like Rabbi Katz, it bothers me that the defenders outside of the Chasidic world would never send one of their own chidren to a school like that. And would surely consider their chlidren deprived if they did. Why don’t they feel the same way about other Jewish children? Why do they support the right to remain ignorant?  

One more thing. The fact that Rabbi Katz is on the far left of Orthodoxy (some even consider him an Apikores) will surely cause a lot of people to discount everything he said.  But truth is to be found wherever it lies. It doesn't matter who articulates it. One needs to think about that before dismissing what Rabbi Katz says.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Undue Hardship

6 of 9 SCOTUS Justices are politicly conservative (Harvard Gazette)
Outside of Israel, no where in the world is it easier to be an observant Jew than in the United States  of the 21st century. Freedom of religion here is sacrosanct.  Especially now that the Supreme Court has a 6 member politically conservative majority. 

Politically conservative values generally tend to reflect a more deferential approach towards religious rights while politically liberal values tend to be more favorable to secular humanistic rights. So that even as justices will claim to be even-handed when rendering decisions, their political biases - whether are on the left or the right - will surely influence them. That has proven to be the case in decisions by both liberal and conservative Courts when there was conflict between religious and secular rights.  

For observant Jews, one of the great accomplishments of Orthodox Jewish advocacy groups was in protecting Jews from fired for refusing to work on Shabbos. This was especially significant when there were ‘Sunday Blue Laws’ back in the 50s. Although America was officially a secular country where freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment, the reality is that the vast majority of Americans were Christians. Whose ‘day of rest’ is Sunday. 

A lot of municipalities had laws against stores and businesses being open on Sunday. There was a lot of pressure to work on Saturday by businesses that needed more than a 5 day work week to meet their needs. That created a hardship for many Orthodox Jews. 

That has become less of an issue since Sunday Blue Laws were themselves considered a violation of the separation clause of the First Amendment. But the issue has not gone away: In 1977 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of TWA (Trans World Airlines) over a member of a Christian sect who sought Saturdays off. TWA claimed undue hardship as the reason for firing that employee. This is pretty much how things stand today

The problem is that undue hardship was never clearly defined. 

Which brings us to today. Recently someone was disciplined for refusing to work on his Sabbath and quit his job. The claim by the employer was that his business would suffer undue hardship if employees refused to work on that day. From JTA:

Groff v. DeJoy involves a Pennsylvania mailman who sought accommodations after the U.S. Postal Service in 2013 started Sunday deliveries on behalf of Amazon. At first, Gerald Groff was able to work around Sunday deliveries, but as demand for the service grew, USPS disciplined him for declining Sunday shifts. He quit and sued. (Louis DeJoy is the postmaster general.)

Lower courts have ruled in favor of the post office, which is arguing that not being able to schedule a mail career to work Sunday shifts represents an undue hardship. Groff last month appealed to the Supreme Court, which has yet to say whether it will consider the case.   

As noted in the article, this is an opportunity to revisit the issue of undue hardship and to better define it - with workarounds for employees whose religion forbids them from working on their Sabbath  As it stands now the lack of any clear definition of undue hardship makes requiring work on those days almost arbitrary. Rendering any protection from being fired  because of Sabbath observance almost meaningless. What is an undue hardship? It appears that currently an employer can define it any way he chooses 

I am happy to report that even though the plaintiff is a Christian, the lawsuit is getting support from 2 of the largest Orthodox advocacy groups in the country: 

The Orthodox Union joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church in one amicus brief. (The Adventists mark Sabbath on Saturdays). The Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents a number of Orthodox groups, including Agudath Israel of America, spearheaded another amicus brief.

It’s nice to see Orthodox advocacy groups joining Christian advocacy groups fighting for the same cause – the religious rights off all Americans.

I believe this is a chance for the Supreme Court to reinforce religious rights - making life for observant Jewry a little bit easier. With a conservative court in place, I think we will see a positive outcome here. If they decide to take the case. I hope they will.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Understanding and Acceptance Versus Normalization

Back in 1973 the American Psychological Association removed Homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. That caused a sea change in how people with same sex attractions were treated. Not only by society towards them, but even in how they saw themselves. 

Up until that time a Gay person saw himself as abnormal. A view supported not only by the rest of society, but by the entire medical establishment.  That meant that if someone wanted to act on their homosexuality they would do it on the ‘down-low’. Meaning that in most cases it  was kept hidden from their peers and families. (Yes, many gay men were married) They feared the real consequences of being discovered. A fear that may have meant losing their families, being ostracized by peers and friends, losing their jobs, and even violence in some cases. 

Although there were a few exceptions where gay people were open about who they were, they were for the most part seen as group of misfits to be ridiculed at best and even beaten to a pulp by anti gay vigilantes. That lead a lot of gay men to lead a double life. And it must have been extremely painful to be treated as  mentally ill. Especially in an area as morally sensitive as sexuality. Depression surely ran rampant among them at the time. As I’m sure suicide did.

That whole dynamic began to change that fateful year. It was a slow process. But homosexuals began to come out of the closet. Society started becoming sympathetic and tolerant of them as human beings.  

Helping this new image develop was an entertainment industry that produced a number of films (On both TV and in movies) that depicted them sympathetically. In 1998, the TV series ‘Will and Grace’ debuted. That caused a monumental shift in how the public saw gay people. The lead character was gay and depicted as bright, witty, well educated, well dressed, with a great job. You wouldn’t know he was gay unless he told you. That became the new image of a gay person. Sympathy had turned into full acceptance. That series changed the majority American view of gay people as normal in every respect other than their innate homosexuality. Deserving all the  rights and privileges given to heterosexuals. 

This is the brief history in the evolution of an attitude. I mention it in light of an excellent article by Rabbi Rafi Eis on Torah Thoughts. It is very long but well worth the investment in the time it will take to read it. 

Rabbi Eis points out that Orthodox Jewish awareness happened a bit later than 1998, the year of ‘Will and Grace’. It was the result of a 2001 documentary: 

The 2001 documentary Trembling Before G-d, changed the trajectory of Orthodox Judaism’s approach towards homosexuality. Until that point, a mainstream Orthodox view considered homosexual activity as a promiscuous lifestyle choice. The film, however, profiled several Orthodox Jews for whom homosexuality was nature.  

His views closely resemble my own. Views I have stated many times. Which I will briefly describe.

The consensus among mental health experts is that whether through nature or nurture - sexual orientation cannot be changed. Attempts at changing ones sexual orientation have proven to be disaterous to the point of suicide in many cases. Claims that some homosexuals were ‘conditioned’ to become heterosexual were either premature (i.e. they reverted to their natural inclinations after a while) or the result of treating younger individuals that were confused about their sexuality - but that were actually heterosexual. 

Rabbi Eis notes that since that film, most of the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate has changed from condemning homosexuals to having compassion for them - and urging the Jewish community to treat them with understanding, compassion, acceptance – and most of all the human dignity they deserve.  These are exactly my views. Agudah Moetzes member, R’ Aharon Feldman expressed similar thoughts publicly back I 2012.

But as I have said numerous times there is a difference between acceptance and compassion on the one hand - and complete normalization on the other. That is what ‘Will and Grace’ did. From that point forward the vast majority of Americans saw the lifestyle of gay people to be considered as normal and that of a heterosexual lifestyle. Which of course means giving them the same marital rights.  

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision ruled marriage to be a civil right extended to all people regardless of whether they were gay or straight. Since then gay married couples seem to have exploded in number. And quickly becoming normalized.

This is where Judaism parts company with the rest of society. Our values are informed by the Torah. Not by ‘Will and Grace’. We are commanded to be compassionate to all human beings regardless of their sexual orientation. But we cannot consider a gay lifestyle normal. Therefore we cannot consider a marriage between two gay people to be legitimate. Marriage by definition normalizes a lifestyle that is conducive to that which the Torah expressly prohibits. Where if acted upon is considered a capital offense.

Rabbi Eis goes on to explain that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. That is the first commandment in the Torah to all of mankind. Companionship and alleviating loneliness are important facets of marriage too. Which are also mentioned by the Torah. But they are not its the primary purpose. 

This doesn’t mean that if one cannot have children because of a medical condition that they can’t get married. They surely can. But that does not take way the fact that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. This most important Mitzvah cannot be fulfilled by 2 gay people. Adoption - as laudable as it is is not procreaion. If a gay couple wants biological children, they have to ‘borrow’ a uterus or get a sperm donor outside of their relationship.

Western culture no longer considers procreation to be the primary purpose for marriage. But it should. If the world consisted of only Gay couples, it would signal the end of humanity in very short order.

I have oversimplified Rabbi Eis’s discussion of this issue. But I think i got the gist of it and I think he’s right. If one is a serious about following the directives of the Torah one cannot condone the normalization of a lifestyle that is counterproductive to the directive demanded of mankind by the Torah to be fruitful and multiply.. Not to mention the message it would send of normalizing  a lifestyle conducive to one of the most serious sins in the Torah.  

This should not be taken as an excuse to treat gay people with any less dignity they deserve as human beings created in the image of God. But as an observant community we must not confuse that with normalization.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Progressives, Israel, and The US Constitution

House member and progressive, Rashida Tlaib (Progressive Caucus members)
Is Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib right? Does supporting Israel mean that you can’t really be progressive? Tlaib is a member of the Progressive Caucus in the US House of Representatives.And this, according to a report in WIN is what she said at an online forum hosted by “American Muslims for Palestine” and “Americans for Justice in Palestine Action.” 

“Israel’s apartheid government” is incompatible with “progressive values.”

“I want you all to know that among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine... 

Her statement was immediately condemned as antisemitic by the ADL’s Jonathan  Greenblatt as well as her fellow mostly Jewish progressive Democrats in the House.

The question remains, however, is she right, anyway? The word ‘progressive’ is bandied about without many of us knowing exactly what it means. Here in part is what Wikipedia says about it: 

Immanuel Kant identified progress as being a movement away from barbarism toward civilization  18th-century philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet predicted that political progress would involve the disappearance of slavery, the rise of literacy, the lessening of sex inequalityprison reforms which at the time were harsh and the decline of poverty. 

If this is what progressivism is all about, than we should all be progressives, Right? It’s not that simple.

In the late 19th century, a political view rose in popularity in the Western world that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor, minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with out-of-control monopolistic corporations, intense and often violent conflict between capitalists and workers, with a need for measures to address these problems. Progressivism has influenced various political movements. 

I think it’s safe to say that in our world today, Progressivism  is viewed as a function Social liberalism. Defined by Wikipedia in part as: 

...a political philosophy and variety of liberalism that endorses a social market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights. Social liberalism views the common good as harmonious with the individual's freedom... In the United States, progressivism began as an intellectual rebellion against the political philosophy of Constitutionalism as expressed by John Locke and the founders of the American Republic, whereby the authority of government depends on observing limitations on its just powers. 

A social market economy? Sounds a bit like communism. Be that as it may, in short  a true progressive does not let something like the constitution stand in the way of social justice as they understand it. If the ultimate goal of progressives is justice for the individual, governments derived of documents conceived of and executed by racists ought to be rejected out of hand. Freedom can never be fully achieved when such documents are seen as inviolable. 

Nor can any nation derived of a specific religion (e.g Judaism) be seen as progressive. Let alone when such governments deny equal rights to people seen as the non Jewish indigenous population under occupation by a people using its military might to do so.

Israel is therefore seen by Tlaib as an Apartheid state because of all that. Which in her mind justifies armed struggle against their Israeli occupiers. Those who support a government that does that cannot be called true progressives. And yet so many progressive Democrats do support Israel. 

I realize of course that her views are devoid of context and do not reflect the full reality of life on both sides the divide. Her views are clearly one sided to the point of being antisemitic. Views that fuel all of the left wing antisemitism found mostly on collage campuses theses disguised as antizionism.

But still that Jewish Progressives have to explain why supporting Israel still allows them to be progressive makes progressivism a dubious distinction. Why for example should context matter to a progressive when human rights are being currently denied? Context is  irrelevant to perceived injustices that are current. 

Taking this a step further, the Constitution which was derived of a political philosophy conceived by racist founding fathers who did not consider black people equal human beings. It ought to be discarded and replaced by a document that reflects the greater good that progressivism promises. 

I don’t see how any US official can call themselves a true progressive if they support the Constitution.. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Year in Review

As we about to enter the year 5783 I want to reflect a bit on the year we are leaving. This is the third year in a row we are under the cloud of COVID. That’s the bad news. The good news is that even though there is still concern about getting seriously ill from that disease, that danger has been significantly reduced. All the subvariants of the COVID virus thus far seem to be milder than the original. And there are in general far fewer cases than before. 

Additionally we have effective treatments for those who get it. Most of whom get a very mild case  when they do. That means that we can pretty much go back to life the way it was before COVID albeit with some significant changes resulting from the experiences from that period. 

But all is not good. The world is a changed place. The economies of most democracies are in shambles - the US included. Inflation effects us all. Prices of many goods and services have doubled (or more than doubled) since before the pandemic with no end in sight. The Federal Reserve is trying desperately to curb inflation with substantial raises in the prime interest rate every quarter. They are not succeeding. Demand is still high causing increased pressure on higher prices. I do not see inflation being tamed without a recession. At this point that is the only way to bring prices down or at least stop them from rising so quickly. 

The state of the world is not that great either. Where nuclear war was once unthinkable even during the height of  cold war between the FSU and the US - when both of us had nuclear missiles pointed at each other, today President of Russia in a bid to take over the Ukraine and incorporate it into his country he has threatened to use nuclear weapons if he can't get it trough conventional warfare. Putin has already proven he does not bluff. Nor is conventional warfare working for him.

On a domestic level our political leaders and representatives have never been so polarized. The left and right are further apart than ever. The prospect  of compromise where legislation for the good of the nation can be passed has never been more remote. The party in power will have their way to the great chagrin of the opposition. I see nothing good coming out of that. I am not a fan of either party right now.  

Meanwhile God is having His way with the world with climate change. Those who deny it are either not paying attention or are delusional. I just don’t think there is anything we can do about it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. But I think it might be too late.

The world of Jewry has seen an increase of antisemitism by both the right and the left. The Israeli political situation isn’t faring much better than it is here. The world of Orthodoxy still has not seen an end to sexual abuse, problems with young people going OTD,  dating issues, Shalom Bayis issues leading to divorce. and assuring that a good religious and secular educational curriculum be available in all segments of Orthodox  Judaism... just to name a few of the many issues still plaguing us.

In short we are in a mess both domestically, worldwide and in our own Jewish world. 

My personal life this year has been a mixed bag but mostly good. First the bad. I had a nasty bicycle accident where another rider crashed into my bike while I was riding at a relatively high speed. She knocked me off the bike and I hit the ground pretty hard injuring my hip. Thank God nothing broke. But I was in a lot of pain for about a month and could only get around with a cane. Then Just as I was beginning to heal and get off of my cane, my older brother Jack passed away sending me into Aveilus for a month. 

On the plus side,  I met 2 new great grandchildren over Pesach and I attended my granddaughter’s wedding this month. Both of these events were highlights of my life.

At age 75 I am healthy  (to the best of my knowledge). Thanks to a good set of genes, a daily exercise schedule, and not overeating I am physically fit.  The same holds true for my wife, children, and grandchildren. For this I am eternally grateful to God - Who is ultimately responsible for my good fortune. I take nothing for granted. Which is in part what Rosh Hashana is about..

We have a lot to pray for this Rosh Hashanah. For ourselves individually, for our families, for our people and for the rest of the world. 

With this I want to wish all of my readers, commentators, and all of Klal Yisroel a Kesiva v’Chasima Tova.  May 5783 be a year filed with peace, and a happy, healthy and prosperous year for all.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Of Torah Study for Women and Motherhood

 Nehama Leibowitz - a role model for women in Torah study(Wikipedia)
I received an email from Rabbi Nanthaniel (Nati) Helfgot about an article he wrote in Jewish Link entitled Roles and Role Models. He thought it would make for an interesting discussion on my blog. indeed it does. 

His bio at the bottom of the article notes the following: 

Rabbi Helfgot is chair of the Department of Torah SheBaal Peh at SAR (a coed) High School, serves as Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, and is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). 

As a faculty member of YCT he can surely be categorized as belonging to the most left wing segment of Orthodoxy. My opposition to a lot of what goes on at YCT has not changed. That said, I have in the past agreed with what he says on a variety of issues. However, his current article  gets a mixed review from me. 

First let me say that I am appalled by the following experience he described in his opening paragraph: 

(About 30 years ago at a NCSY regional convention) I was asked to hold a Q&A session on Jewish topics alongside another young educator. Midway through the session, a sincere young woman asked to discuss the issue of women learning Gemara. As I began sharing some sources and perspectives, a number of young men raucously chanted “she-lo asani isha” in the immature fashion that kids sometimes display. 

That disgusting behavior was inexcusable. It showed a complete lack of caring for the feelings of fellow human beings. Sadly, I think this attitude is more common than I would have thought. I have seen similar things like that myself.  

Like Rabbi Helfgot, I have no problem with women studying any Torah subject as deeply as they wish. Including Gemara and its commentaries.  This has never been an issue for me. It is one of his main points with which I agree. Torah study is always a positive thing.

But I absolutely disagree with the idea of coed high school. As I have said many times I believe it is counter-productive to put teenage boys and girls in the same classroom. They are at an age where raging hormones can easily lead them astray – or at the very least be a distraction from their studies. 

It’s true that a coed school provides a good learning experience for proper socialization between the sexes.  But I know of too many instances where male female relationships in high school led to Halachicly inappropriate behavior. The gain of learning how to properly interact with the opposite sex is not worth the pain of what can all too easily become serious violations of Halacha. 

That being said, I understand the need for coed schools. If there were none - there would be many parents that would end up sending their children to public high schools. Without any further Jewish education or religious guidance about interaction between the sexes.

Which brings me to what might be the inevitable consequences of teenagers studying Torah in a coed environment: The idea of male/female Chavrusos (study partners). I don’t know if this actually happens. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it does. 

Learning with a Chavrusa is the cornerstone of Torah study. The give and take between 2 people studying Torah together enhances their understanding of what they are learning.  But when Chavrusos are members of the opposite sex it can easily create an emotional bond that goes well beyond the intent of their Torah study. A bond that they are surely not mature enough to handle during their teenage years. 

I’m not saying it will always happen. I’m sure in many - perhaps even most cases – the boy/girl Chavrusa does what it’s supposed to do. Which is to learn Torah in an enhanced fashion.  But all too often there is something else going on in their brains. They may not act on it. But I would be very surprised if they don’t think about it. I just don’t think it’s emotionally healthy for a boy and girl in high school to pair up in Torah study. 

I do not have a problem with woman teaching men Torah or men teaching women Torah. I think we can all learn  from each other – each brining perspectives we would otherwise not experience from teachers of the same sex. I agree with Rabbi Helfgot about that. This is especially true when the students are well beyond high school and mature adults. 

A word about female role models. I think that women have a lot more to offer than just being role models for Torah study. For those women that want to do that, it is surely a good thing to have women that are successful in their Torah study as role models. But I never thought that Torah study was the only area where a woman – or a man for that matter should be a role model.  What about being a good role model as a parent? What is more important than a man or woman fulfilling those roles and being role models in this regard? 

By talking only about women as role models for Torah study, I think Rabbi Helfgot short changes that very important aspect of a woman’s life. Not that a woman must be a mother to be fulfilled. But surely that is at least as important as succeeding in Torah study or any other field. 

Unfortunately in the world of the left, being a mother is no longer as highly valued as it once was. It seems that the culture is such that only women that achieve success in business, academia, the arts, the professions... and if they are observant Jews, Torah study are considered valuable.  In fact talking about motherhood as a value seems to be almost insulting in more progressive circles. Which is a  sad commentary on the cultural values of our day.  

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Best Article Yet on Chasidic Education

R' Aharon Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiyas Joel (Jerusalem Post)
Finally. An editorial I can identify with. publihsed in First Things, Cole S. Aronson hits the nail on the head on the issue of education in certain very large segments of Chasidim. Like those of the largest segment, Satmar. 

Rather than paraphrasing, I am going to do some heavy excerpting.  A lot of what he says mirrors what I have said. It is just too bad that so many Orthodox rabbinic and lay leaders haven’t said the same thing in their critique of the Times. Although if one reads between the lines, in some cases they do. But it goes virtually unnoticed because of their primary focus on the antisemitism they attempt to show is behind the now infamous New York Times article on the subject.

As I have said more than once, I think their accusations in this regard have merit. But as I also indicated, their focus on attacking the Times misses the more important point about how seriously short changed their students are by their lack of learning even such basic skill as speaking and writing the English language fluently.  

First, the politically conservative Aronson has no mercy on the Times long history of having a ‘Jewish problem’:

The way to fix well-funded, failing schools is more funding––unless the schools are privately run. Welfare dependency isn’t lamentable––unless the dependents belong to religious sects. Standardized tests are bigoted and tell us nothing about minority achievement––unless the minority is pious and speaks Yiddish.  

For many readers, such left-wing hypocrisy explains the New York Times’s recent report that New York’s Hasidic schools (which educate thousands of children and take millions in public money) produce alumni with dreadful command of English, social studies, mathematics, and science. These readers argue that the article was a double-spread fusillade in the Times’s hundred-year war against Jewish particularism... 

Agreed. But here is the money quote: 

But what matters right now––if the Times story is correct, which I’ll assume it basically is––is that numerous Jewish children are not getting educated in the language, history, and civics of the country of which they are citizens.  

Aronson goes on to say: 

The stats are astonishing. “Only nine schools [in New York] had less than 1 percent of students testing at grade level” in 2019, the Times reports. All were Hasidic boys schools. Hasidic girls schools did better, with an 80 percent fail rate. That’s worse––far worse––than public schools with high numbers of poor children, to say nothing of non-Hasidic Jewish schools and of private schools in general. Teachers in boys schools testify that most of their students can’t speak and read and write English fluently. At many boys schools, secular studies pretty much stop after bar mitzvah age––thirteen. 
These failures don’t seem explicable as isolated cases of negligence. Rather, whole schools knowingly produce alumni unequipped for American life. Indeed, in 2018, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, a Satmar Hasidic leader (Satmar is one of the largest and most reclusive sects), proudly declared in Yiddish that Satmar schools taught virtually no secular subjects and that Satmar would refuse to comply with state education laws and commissions. 

This is exactly right. It pains me that not a word about this terrible situation was mentioned by any of their many defenders. Instead – they just extolled the virtues of this community while criticizing the Times article as an anti Chasidic hit piece for ignoring them.  

It could very well be that there is more than a grain of truth about the bias of the 2 Jewish investigative reporters that investigated and reported this story. It wouldn’t be the first time fully assimilated Jews looked down at fervently religious Jews that refused to fully assimilate like they did.  

Another thing worth mentioning again is the pushback by defenders against the Times insinuation that these Chasidic schools were essentially stealing government funds from the poorer communities that needed them. They explained that those funds were minuscule compared to what public schools get. And in any case they were given for purposes other than education - like COVID relief for example. They accused the Times of purposely leaving out those pertinent facts to exacerbate the anti Chasidic enmity their article would generate.

While there might be some truth to those accusations, the point is that if these schools were receiving funds based on their status of a school in compliance with state educational guidelines. But that was the furthest thing from truth. Purposely so, That they studiously and surreptitiously ignored those guidelines should have disqualified any money earmarked for a school. Even if it had nothing to do with education. 

Again, as I have repeatedly indicated - just because you don’t like the messenger – and even believe they are prejudiced, doesn’t mean the message is untrue. It is with this in mind that I will end with one more excellent point made by Aronson. With which I entirely agree:

This is not good for the Jews. For an immigrant to struggle with English is one thing, and I am proud to know plenty who have done so. But many Hasidic communities raise American children in Yiddish while not fluently teaching them the language of their country. This is to deny children full participation in American public life and access to many great American institutions––of education, culture, finance, law, media. To not teach proper civics and American history is to promote ingratitude for this country’s many blessings, and to neglect a duty all Americans share to pass on those blessings from generation to generation. Which is bad enough, but the Hasidim have the chutzpah to fund this unpatriotic way of teaching with hundreds of millions of dollars in public money.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Hate Thy Neighbor?

Nissim Black - a Righteous Convert (Wikipedia)
Jeff Rubin’s observations about the sin of making people feel bad struck a chord with me. Perhaps it’s because of the personal attacks I see against people that disagree with  their views. I am often a victim of such attacks myself. 

It isn’t only that they disagree. But that they vilify ideological opponents because of that disagreement. Let me quickly add that this is not always the case. Sometimes the disagreement is innocuous and even respectful. I actually encourage that. 

There is no better way to get clarity on an issue than to hear both sides of it. But when a disagreement takes the form of a personal attack, it shows that they have no reasonable counter to their opponent. I guess they believe that resorting to a personal attack will somehow get their opponents to admit their ‘folly’ and see ‘the light’.But hurting others with whom one disagrees probably does the opposite. 

And it does more than just insult. It debases the character of individual resorting to that tactic. It is far better to try and see the other point of view and respect it even if you don’t agree with it at all. That is what honest debate should be about.

But Rubin doesn't really address personal attacks in circumstances of debating the issues. He makes his point in the following way 

I have been shocked lately by the number of my friends who have left synagogues because of a pattern of unkind remarks from rabbinic and volunteer leaders. A Jew-by-choice belittled. A twenty-something shamed. A professional demeaned. 

Jewish Twitter is full of accounts by Jews by choice or Jews of color who have been challengedpatronized or “othered” when they show up in Jewish spaces. Essayists lament that too many synagogues don’t seem welcoming or sensitive to single parents, or don’t accommodate people with disabilities

Saying and doing hurtful things is not just ethically wrong, it’s destructive to organizations, and has no place in the sacred communities that congregations strive to be. 

I see this all the time. More often than not the disapproval is subtle. A look. A quiet comment to a friend. How often have I heard someone quoting what might be considered a derogatory statement in the Gemara about a Ger Tzedek - a righteous convert: Koshim Geirim L'Yisroel KSapachas – Converts to Israel (Judaism) are as difficult as a (Leprous) lesion! Spoken without any context about what the Gemara might mean. That Gemara is more a commentary about us than it is about converts. 

One of the explanations given by the Gemara for that comment is that it makes those of us that were born Jewish, into a religious family, and raised that way look bad by comparison. Where our observances are all too often done by rote, theirs is done with a lot more serious intent. Their sincerity in doing Mitzvos puts us all  to shame - like a disgusting blemish on our bodies.

And yet the attitude by many of us is to look down at them. Even though it may not be expressed openly. It is often expressed privately between friends adding comments like ‘God forbid we let our children marry a convert!’ 

It isn’t only about converts. Another egregious example of this is when a former member of that community has changed Hashkafos from Charedi to Modern Orthodox or vice versa. With respect to the former - all too often when they walk into the Shul they attended in their former Charedi incarnation, they are at best given the cold shoulder or even a nasty look as though signaling that they no longer belong and are no longer welcome.

That goes double if they have stopped being observant (gone OTD). Sometimes they are even asked to leave.  

It is as though there was no dignity of difference.  As though being different than the narrow slice of Judaism in which one resides is the only legitimate slice. Jews that are ‘not like us’ are seen as ‘the other’ an almost different breed of human being.. Instead of welcoming Jews that are different – at best we ignore them – hoping they will go away.

As we approach the New Year and reflect on what we can do to better ourselves in the eyes of God, we would do well to reflect how we treat our fellow Jew. Whether they are  a righteous convert; changed Hashkafos; are homosexual or transgender; OTD;  secular; or even people with whom we disagree - none of these should generate personal attacks. Treating people with respect is not the same as agreeing with them. Treating people with respect does not mean approving of any sinful behavior they might be engaging in. No one should be judged without first walking a mile in their shoes. Attacking them will only chase them further away from God. Is this really what God wants us to do? I don’t think so.