Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Best/Worst Technological Advance of Our Time

An increasingly ubiquitous sight 
A few years ago at the height of the anti internet campaign by the right, I asked a young Charedi Avreich why he didn’t have the internet in his home. I knew this fellow quite well since he grew up in my community. He was not one to parrot the harangue against it by so many of his Rabbinic  leaders. He was someone who actually thought for himself and knew the benefits of the internet quite well. He understood what he was missing. Which is why I asked him that question in the first place.

His answer made a lot more sense to me than the reasons constantly given by Charedi rabbinic leaders. They kept pointing to porn addiction as the primary reason for forbidding it. His reason had nothing to do with porn addiction. He said he knew himself and if he had it, he would become addicted to it. Even if it was all in a good way - it would take time away from his learning and other responsibilities. He did not believe that porn addiction was the main culprit (although he agreed that it was a problem for some). He understood then what we all know now. It is the addiction that is the real enemy. An addiction that has now found its home mostly on smartphones and texting. (I use the word addiction loosely.)

Studies show that smartphone addiction may very well be the most serious issue of our time outpacing any other issue in terms of the overall harm it is doing to the human race. And now that smartphones litteraly place the entire world in the palm of your hand, the problems is exacerbated exponentially.

Pew Research made the following observation:
The vast majority of Americans – 95% – now own a cellphone of some kind. The share of Americans that own smartphones is now 77%, up from just 35% in Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership conducted in 2011.
When it comes to teenagers the numbers are even scarier:
(S)martphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.
There seems to be agreement among mental health professionals about the harm this causes even to physical health.

Off the top of my head - included among the more serious problems generated by this phenomenon are: spending enormous amounts of time taking away from ones responsibilities to work and family; disrupting the education of young people; decreased attention spans; reductions person interpersonal social skills, increased numbers of people suffering from clinical depression; increased bullying; increased numbers of suicides…   

Porn addiction is way down the list of negative consequences. Although it is definitely an extremely serious issue for those that access it which can destroy marriages and families, my guess is that the majority of people that avail themselves of internet technology do not access porn. At least not on purpose.

I’m sure that all this just scratches the surface of the problems this phenomenon has generated. The real problem  is the addiction itself.  If we are to be honest, my guess is that we all know people that are addicted at one level or another. Some of whom might be us! 

So what’s the solution to this problem? Do we throw out the technology as some rabbinic leaders on the right insist we do? Even though we may not agree on the reasons to do so, clearly the seriousness of the issue is not in dispute.

My answer is an unequivocal no. The technology is way to valuable to  throw out. Furthermore, it would be futile to even attempt it. Although some people will follow their leaders directive - forbidding it is a sure fire way to get more people to use it. ‘Mayim Genuvim Yimatku’ say Chazal – stolen waters are sweet.  

It is rather well known that the Chasidic community whose rabbis are among the fiercest in their opposition to smartphone use nevertheless finds a significant minority of Chasidim (if not the majority) owning or using them.

I need not go into the benefits of a smartphone. Suffice it to say that the benefits are huge. There is nothing going to stop that.

What about the obvious downside that this post has clearly acknowledged? Indeed! …perhaps the downside is worth abandoning the technology after all - no matter what the consequences!

The solution is not that clear cut. Use of a smartphone is wide that it will someday no doubt become the primary means of communication for everyone - if we are not already there.

Nevertheless, I think key to beating this scourge is something we all already know. It is something we should all strive to achieve: Self control. 

It is imperative to learn how to limit its use. Some of us can do it easily. I for one do not spend a lot of time on my smart phone. I do not need to text all of my thoughts to a friend or group of friends. I do not feel the need to immediately respond to every text I get. I rarely initiate conversations via text.  

I would, however, never go back to a time where I did not have the world in my hands. When I want to get information on any subject, I get it instantly in most cases. And if I wish to convey a message to someone without having an extended conversation I can do it with just a few words. All of which saves a lot of valuable  time I might otherwise spend trying to do it the old fashioned way.

When used in this way, it is used the way it was intended to be used, It is when it becomes your whole life that it becomes a serious problem.

The problem is in getting everyone to use it that way, instead of being attached – even enslaved to it 24/7.

Once you get into a habit, it is hard to change. This is the problem lies in my view. If you can’t do it on your own, then therapy might be necessary. Because the alternative of continued addiction can ruin your life.

Updated: 7/15/18 at 3:00 PM 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Liberals, Conservatives, and Orthodox Judaism

Democratic Party nominee for Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Axios)
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be both a political liberal and an Orthodox Jew these days. Not because of the ideal itself. There is much to admire about a liberal political philosophy. I am in fact liberal on some issues myself although I tend to lean towards a more conservative approach on most issues.

My political views are completely informed by my religious views. Which are based on  the Torah. The Torah is neither liberal or conservative. But on most issues the Torah is better served by a conservative approach. Which is why Evangelicals tend to be politically conservative. They too see the values of the Torah (what they call the old testament) better served that way.

I’m sure that my liberal friends will challenge me on this with an analysis of their own. And that’s fine. But I stand by my view. Being a liberal does not in and of itself make one anti religion or anti Torah. Clearly there are some very religious Jews – even some Charedim that describe themselves as liberal or hard core Democrats. The party of their choice in the 2 party system of American politics.

But liberal political parties are being taken over of late by a form  antisemitism disguised as legitimate criticism of Israel. For liberal Jews - that comes in the form of bashing its current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. While some of their grievances with him might be legitimate, liberal criticism does not stop with Netanyahu. The more liberal one is the less likely they will be to support Israel regardless of who the Prime Minister is. They will more likely support the critics of Israel. And although this is not an absolute - the reality is that as far as liberalism goes - the less religious one is (whether Jewish or not)  the more likely they will be anti Zionist. (Unless they are of the Satmar mentality who are anti Israel for reasons beyond the scope of this post).

This is what came to mind as I saw a protest of President Trump during his visit to England on this morning’s newscast. As the cameras were focusing on the protesters carrying anti Trump placards I saw at least one that was anti Israel - Pro Palestine. It seems as though those signs were as welcome there as any of the others.

Unfortunately that didn’t surprise me. Since England’s 2 party system  has its own version of Democrats called The Labour Party. Whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn has been called an antisemite by Jonathan Arkush, the outgoing leader of the Jewish Board of Deputies in England. And for good reason!  Of course he vehemently denies it. But ‘denial’ in his case is nothing more than a river in Egypt.

This is reflected by the fact that there is a internal dispute among Labour Party members to get Corbyn to more fully reject all forms of antisemitism which has has thus far resisted.
Furthermore…  as the New York Times recently noted: 
In Britain, the once center-left Labour Party has become so infused with anti-Zionist sentiment that Jews recently took to the streets of London to protest a drift in the party toward anti-Semitism.  
I think this clearly indicates where liberal-left thinking and the political parties identifying with them lies.You will not see anything remotely close to that among conservative parties.

One might counter by saying that this is England… and the Unites States is different. Because here there has always been 2 party support for Israel.Democrat and Republican alike. That was true. Until it wasn’t. Which is not that long ago.

Liberal Jews - even very religious ones might take umbrage at this. Claiming that the 2 party support has been weakened by the Prime Minister of Israel who has cast his lot with Republicans thus alienating Democrats that otherwise support Israel. I don’t think Netanyahu can be blamed for this. Although he may have contributed to it.

It is true that the Democratic leadership still strongly supports Israel. Both the Senate and House minority leaders (Chuck Shummer and Nancy Pelosi) are ardent supporters.

But the same cannot be said for some of the other party leaders like the Deputy Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Keith Ellison - a onetime supporter of Louis Farrakahn. And it is certainly not true for 28 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who challenged the Democratic Party’s establishment and won  by a huge margin  -  ending the 20 year career of her opponent, Congressman Joseph Crowley - who was seen as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi.

Is Ocasio-Cortez an antisemite? I doubt it since she supported a Jew (Bernie Sanders) for President. But she is clearly anti Israel whose narrative is right out of the BDS playbook.  Hard to be pro Israel and pro BDS at the same time.

It seems pretty clear where the young liberal-left blood of the Democratic Party is going. And it isn’t Israel. Nor is it going in any kind of a religious direction. It is going the way of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  And I don’t think the old Democratic guard can stop it. 

Blaming Netnayahu for all this is a bit naïve. Since much of  criticism of Israel by the liberal-left is for things Neatnyahu did that were supported by the political opponents to his left. Such as Ocasio-Cortez calling Israel’s defensive measure at the recent border clash with Gaza terrorists posing as protesters - a massacre. It wasn’t a massacre . Israel’s defensive measures at the Gaza border were supported by Israel’s main opposition parties.

The lament by some of my liberal friends about losing 2 party support for Israel is something I sympathize with. I’d love to still see that. And as noted think it’s  technically still there. But the handwriting is on the wall. I don’t see it lasting in light of what I believe is a reasonable analysis of the increasing move to the left by mainstream liberal parties. Who see humanism as the highest ideal of all, trumping religion considering it to be an ancient and archaic value system countering the higher values of humanism. And in the process seeing a conservative Orthodox friendly Israel the same way. They otherwise see Israel only as a Nazi-like occupier of an indigenous people.

This is why I am glad that at least the political conservative parties (Republicans in the US and the Conservative Party in the UK) are in power now.

As a religious Jew it is also quite gratifying to see that conservative justices will now become the majority on the Supreme Court. Thus stopping the swing away from religious freedom. And if Republicans can retain the executive branch for the full 2 terms - possibly adding more conservative Justices to the Supreme Court as the current aging liberal ones retire - that’s even better. God bless America.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Never Happened! (Or Did It?)

OK. I’ll talk about it. Not because I think it what happened a couple of days ago makes much of a difference. But because so many people think it does. 

There was a story widely reported in the media a couple of weeks ago about flight delay on El Al because of 2 Charedim that refused to be seated in their assigned seats. They were displeased with the seat they got because each of those seats were next to a woman.

They asked to be switched. Nothing wrong with that. It is when they insist on it and disrupt the flight until they get their way that it becomes a problem and in my view a huge Chilul HaShem!

In this case the incident was reported inaccurately. The initial report was that the flight was delayed over an hour to the great discomfort of all the passengers. But a Charedi passenger by the name of Katriel Shem-Tov who witnessed the whole thing informed a reporter for the Times ofIsrael that it never happened. The insistence to have their seats changed by those 2 Charedi passengers was accommodated in less than 5 minutes. The rest of that hour delay was for reasons unrelated to those 2 Charedim.  The delay was already posted in the terminal before any of the  passengers even boarded.

Everyone is jumping all over media reports and resultant outrage over this event believing those 2 Charedi passengers were responsible for over an hour delay which we now know is untrue.

But the fact is it did happen. It just didn’t take as long as was originally reported. There was therefore no unreasonable delay because of it. Which means that it would have never been reported let alone so widely condemned.

The fallout of the original report gave way to a lot of anger on both sides. El Al said it would in the future remove any passengers that refused to sit in their assigned seats. A Charedi MK threatened a Charedi  boycott of all EL AL flights because of this. I added my own two cents as well. All because of a false account of it by the media.

Some people have asked me to retract what I originally wrote about this or at least correct it in a new post. I suppose that is a reasonable request. Which I am doing here.  But my criticism is still valid. Even though in this particular case it did not lead to a Chilul HaShem it easily could have. Because it has happened before.

I have seen this kind of behavior first hand. There is a sense of entitlement that certain Chasidic passengers seem to have that ends up being a Chilul HaShem. I witnessed it personally on a flight to Israel when a large Chasidic family boarded the plane and started ordering the flight attendants around as though they were their personal servants! I’m not so sure the 2 Chasidim in this case wouldn’t have prolonged the flight had they not gotten their way.

It is not the time it takes to find passengers that are willing to exchange seats that is the problem. It is the insistence on it that is.

It’s one thing to have a religious issue with sitting next to a woman on a flight. Whether anyone agrees with it or not, people have the right to their own standards.  Even if they are extreme. Provided they do not inconvenience others by insisting on them. They can ask politely if it is possible to switch seats. If they are told no, that should be the end of it. 

The fact that in this case it didn’t take that long to accommodate them might have solved the problem here. But who knows whether that will be the case the next time someone insists on changing their seats for that reason.  Here is what Mr. Shem-Tov, the Charedi passenger  that witnessed the whole thing said: 
My guess is that the whole business with the Haredim didn’t take more than five minutes. Of course, I am not justifying their behavior and one should not cause a delay of even one minute…  I certainly do not intend this post to defend those two passengers
That is exactly right. The outrage expressed at this particular incident may have been misplaced. But as the Charedi passenger indicated, it is not really defensible no matter how much time was spent on it.

Even though when a bad act happens in a short amount of time (and does not exacerbate the situation) that does not turn it into a good – or even a justifiable act. As I told one individual who pointed out this media error to me (perhaps hoping that I would retract) - if a mass murder is reported to have taken an hour and it is later corrected by a witness saying that it didn’t take an hour at all - but less than 5 minutes… would that make any difference? The crime was still committed.

What does all this say about accuracy in the media? I think its says something we all already know. Sometimes they get it wrong. Which can have unfair negative repercussions and consequences that end up being unjust. Perhaps this happens more times than we realize. Does that me we just discard the free press as unreliable? Hardly. Most of the time they do get it right. It is a free press that protects us all. Knowledge is power.  What we don’t know CAN hurt us.

The lesson here is that the media should be a lot more careful about accuracy in the reporting. It may not end these kinds of errors. Reporters and editors are only human. And can make mistakes no matter how careful they are. But hopefully it will reduce these kinds of errors in the future.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Grey of Feminism

Typical 70s ad for Virginia Slims
We’ve come a long way, baby! That was the slogan created by the tobacco industry’s product for women, Virginia Slims cigarettes. It was the acknowledgement that women have finally arrived - empowered by what was then known as the Women’s Liberation Movement – now better known as feminism. And they had their own brand of cigarettes to prove it!

Living in the 21st century has its challenges. The issue of our time is indeed feminism. I don’t think there is a single issue that takes up more of the public discourse than does this subject. This is a subject I have dealt with many times in a variety of ways.  But I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface of its impact on society at large, and Orthodoxy in particular. It is a huge subject with many facets and opinions. It is a subject that has very positive and very negative aspects - depending on one’s perspective.

I recall hearing back in the 70s that Ner Israel’s Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Yaakov Weinberg predicted that feminism will become the most difficult challenge to Orthodoxy for years to come. Bigger than any other challenge. How prescient he was!

Feminism has for the most part been vilified by the right wing of Orthodoxy as anathema to Torah values. But I have to disagree with them. Because as I said, there are some very positive things that feminism has done that benefit that very community. I would even say that without the advances spurred by feminism much of the Kollel lifestyle would not exist.

It was feminism that enabled Kollel wives to support their husbands in Kollel. The job market has expanded for women as has their financial compensation. Although there is a long way to go before there is parity, there is not a doubt in my mind that without the struggle for equality between the sexes there would be few if any opportunities for women to make enough money to support their husbands in Kollel. Which would mean that a lot of men in Kollel now would be working instead of their wives.

It would be nice if the right wing would acknowledge that and express some gratitude to the movement for that.

It is also true that feminism has equalized societal attitudes about sexes. Both sexes are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. One sex is not superior to the other.  Although that goal has yet to be fully realized even in the general culture.

Those are the positives of feminism that are fully compatible with Orthodox Judaism. And why I considered myself a feminist for supporting those goals. By today’s standards, I am no longer considered as such - it seems.

That’s because of the more controversial side of feminism as it exists today. It goes far beyond equal pay for equal work and being treated with equal dignity. Feminism on this level wants to eliminate all differences between men and women except for the obvious biological differences. This has become an almost inviolable ‘religious’ tenet for them. Any other differences are seen as cultural and subject to bias. And therefore ought to be discredited and discarded.

I do not agree with that assessment. I believe that there are legitimate studies that show that there are differences between the sexes that go beyond the obvious physical ones. I also do not necessarily believe that all cultural differences are automatically bad and should be discarded.  They should not be discarded just because society created them.

More importantly however is how religious values are to be seen in light of this new feminism. Should they always be discarded when they conflict with feminist values? And who makes those determinations? I believe these questions sum up the current struggle between feminism and religion – particularly as it impacts Judaism.

As an Orthodox Jew, the answer is relatively easy (although there are some grey areas). If one believes in God and that His will for the Jewish people is expressed in the Torah as interpreted by the sages and rabbinic authorities throughout Jewish history… then it cannot be trumped by anything. No matter how noble a cause might seem. When the 2 value systems conflict, God’s will must prevail.  When they do not conflict then the feminist value of equality can be considered.

Who are the religious authorities that make determinations like this? This is where it gets tricky. As an Orthodox Jew I look at the above mentioned Torah and tradition as interpreted by rabbinic authorities throughout Jewish history.

So an article in JTA that extols the advances feminism has made in the Conservative movement is completely meaningless to me.  Apparently the Conservative movement considers equality of the sexes in all areas as the ultimate ideal that cannot in any way possibly contradict the will of God.  Centuries of tradition is discredited as having been influenced by the  misogynist culture of the past. We now know better and can see what happened. It was a misogynist culture that drove those rabbis decisions.

Our more educated and informed modern sensibilities have taught is that ‘truth’. And now we can ‘right the ship’ of Torah to conform to God’s true ideal: feminism.  Orthodox rabbis they say are living in the past and ignorant of that ‘truth’. How could they not be ignorant cloistered up in the ivory towers of their Yeshivos!

Equality of the sexes is what God really wants in all spheres of Jewish life.including all religious spheres. As though God Himself is the ultimate feminist and never having intended the separate but equal roles that men and women traditionally had.  It is only the rabbis of the past that were negatively influenced by the misogynist culture of the time that made it so. (As if Conservative rabbis are not culturally influenced today!)

Unfortunately a lot of that kind of thinking has filtered into the left wing of Orthodoxy where some its rabbis think that about all the mainstream Poskim. They have decided that feminist values are so just that they can effect drastic change to centuries old  tradition and discard it.

What about those gray areas, mentioned above? Is it possible that there actually are misogynistic motives in some segments of Orthodoxy? Are women discriminated against that way there?  If one views the trailer for an upcoming episode of PBS’s POV series entitled 93 Queen, (trailer below) one will see the great Ruchei Freier decrying that very misogyny.

The Chasidic community tried to ban her all female EMT group. A group founded ironically for women whose extreme sense of modesty makes them uncomfortable around men  even when there is a medical necessity. Which sometimes requires uncovering parts of the female body that are otherwise covered for modesty reasons. While most Chasidc women know that Halacha requires it when there is a medical necessity,  many might still feel uncomfortable when men do it. They will certainly feel more comfortable when women do it. Which is why Ruchie Freier rose to the occasion and founded her all female  EMT group.  For which she still gets opposition.

Hoe ironic that the extreme obsession with modesty that is so typical of the Chasidic community is exactly what created  the need Ruchie Freier has filed with her all female ambulance corps. And yet it  is being fought for exactly those reasons. It is considered immodest in the Chasidic world for a woman to be an EMT.

Is it really modesty that drives them? Or is it a form of misogyny? Or is it that anything that has the remotest  connection to feminism is automatically seen as evil no matter what the benefits  - even if they can be lifesaving in some cases.

It that is the case, it’s unfortunate that the extremes that 21st century feminism have created this mindset. And a shame that in general, the good things about feminism have been set aside because of it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The 'Frumkeit Train"

Men in front; women in back - bus ride between Wlliamsburg and Boro Park
Like it or not, the ‘Frumkeit Train’ has left the station.

I have long lamented the fact that Orthodox Judaism has moved – and continues to move - to the right. I know I am not alone on this. Nor is it all bad.  As a Centrist, I am glad to see those to my left move towards the center. Nor does it bother me that those to my right are moving even further to my right. The problem I have is  the pressure that this has on the mainstream to move to the right too. And some of the collateral damage that has resulted. And some of that pretty extreme.

Let me be clear. Every Jew has the right to be as religious as they choose – and adopt any stringency they choose. But the phenomenon of the mainstream moving to the right is not necessarily a good thing. The best example of this is the disappearance of mixed seating at banquets and weddings. 

I have written about this before. Without getting into too much detail my opposition to this is based on the fact that there is nothing Halachicly wrong with men and women sitting together in public at a dinner table. The society in which we live today considers this normal. Although this was at one time considered immodest behavior, that has long ago ceased to be the case.  

I am not going to go into the Halachic sources for this. I will however say that it is easily demonstrated by the fact that the non Chasidic Gedolei HaDor in America of the 20th century were not only happy to sit together with their wives at mixed tables in public – including wedding banquets – they were happy to introduce their wives to passersby they knew.

In the Chasidic world however - separation of the sexes is far more extensive and common. In some cases extreme (compared to the mainstream even by  today’s standards). Separate seating has always been the case. 

What changed? I believe that some mainstream rabbinic leaders (starting in about the mid 1960s) saw Chasidim who had arrived in great numbers after the Holocaust doing it and decided they would not allow themselves to be ‘outfrummed’ by them . So they started doing it too.  The mainstream laity soon followed suit.  It is now rare to find a mainstream wedding that has mixed seating. Except for modern Orthodox Jews and a few of us die-hards in the Center that still insist on it when we can.

The Frumkeit chase didn’t end there. It seems that the mainstream keeps looking to their right and finding other things to emulate. Such as the new phenomenon of not publishing pictures of women. Except for Lubavitch - the Chasidic world has never published pictures of women considering it immodest. This was not true in the rest of the mainstream Charedi world. That is evidenced by the two largest mainstream Charedi publishers, ArtScroll and Feldheim, publish pictures of women. And by the fact that the Gedolei HaDor that were on Agudah Moetzes clearly approved of that - which was evidenced by Agudah’s now defunct Magazine, the Jewish Observer which occasionally had women featured on their cover.

But then came the Charedi magazines. They decided to follow the Chasidic standard. No pictures of women.

Meanwhile certain communities have taken modesty to such extremes that they are causing a Chilul HaShem. As was the case recently on an El Al flight when Chasdim refused to be seated in their assigned seats because they would be sitting next to women. This and other such instances (of even worse behavior such as using physical force to remove women from the front section of a bus where men are seated) have become far more common.

It therefore seems to me that the move to the right is common in the area of modesty between the sexes. Of course not all instances of modesty considerations are the same. But the motives are the same: the exaltation of modesty well beyond Halacha as a means toward ‘Frumkeit’.

About 20 years ago Chasidic friend of mine asked me why one of my children’s weddings had mixed seating. I told him I saw nothing wrong with and that most of the people I knew - including those that were Charedi preferred sitting together with their wives. I also pointed out that many Gedolei HaDor of the past sat with their wives. His response was telling. He said that was then. Now our modesty standards have improved and sitting mixed is considered immodest. Adding that no Gadol today would sit mixed.

I had to admit that this was  true. But I also thought how sad it was that we have gone backwards in time to a practice that had no longer had any Halachic significance – only because of the ongoing Frumkeit chase.

What, one may ask, is wrong with returning to a ‘higher standard of modesty’? Nothing except that it isn’t really a higher standard anymore. Most people prefer siting with their wives. and the custom of the society in which we now does not consider mixed seating the slightest bit immoral. Mixed seating is the norm. It’s only because the Frumkeit chase makes it seem less that moral.  And that begets the slippery slope into extremism - beginning with not publishing pictures of women. 

It doesn’t help matters when the concept of modesty has become over-emphasized in girls high schools and seminaries. I believe that modesty issues are the primary focus in these schools. Is it any wonder that modesty is what the Frumkeit chase is all about?

True, here has been some push-back. And there has been some positive results of that. In fact I noticed Mishpacha Magazine had a cartoon on the inside back cover featuring caricatures of women. But that is not anywhere near enough.  I am afraid there is little we can do about it. The train has left the station. Frumkeit is here to stay. I do not expect any significant change in the mainstream any time soon.

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Triumph of Evil

The look of street gangs in Jerusalem (Ynet)
What is the matter with these people?! I know we’ve seen this many times before in a variety of different incarnations. But it still upsets me every time it happens.

Once again we have protesters spitting on and otherwise harassing people they don’t agree with. I don’t know if it is the same one doing it each time. But this has been going on for years. And it is almost always done by youth. Which indicates to me that there is a culture in Meah Shearim that promotes this kind of evil. 

The question is, how wide is the support for this kind of thing? And how much of it is supported by their rabbinic leadership (e.g. the Eida HaCharedis). My guess is that those numbers are pretty big. And the Eida is not all that outraged by it. Because if that were the case there would have by now been some counter protests. Or at least one. I don’t recall anyone ever counter-protesting it. At least not from the Meah Shearim crowd. 

From the leadership we have at best seen only tepid apologetic responses amounting to, ‘We disagree with their methods but agree with their goals’. Or... ‘These are the delinquents of our society and don’t judge us all by them’. Or... ‘They are just a tiny minority’. 

Sorry. That doesn’t cut it. It happens too often to be responded to that way.  Their leaders either support it clandestinely – or are they are the most inept leaders in the Torah world. 

There is NEVER any excuse for this kind of behavior. To say it is uncivilized is an understatement. No innocent human being should ever be subjected to what this Charedi family was.  Non Jews; Secular Jews; Religious Zionist Jews; or Charedi Jews. NEVER!  None of that matters to these people as Tali Farkash reports in Ynet
A Haredi family participating in a graduation ceremony was attacked Monday evening after leaving the Strauss Campus, the academic arm of the Hadassah Academic College for Haredi students, situated in the heart of Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods. 
Protesters in the Mea Shearim neighborhood spat on, pushed and chased the family as they left the ceremony, after earlier one of them burst into the hall where the ceremony was taking place and disrupted proceedings. 
David Ben Naim, one of the ceremony's attendees, told Ynet, "An extremist entered and started screaming that academia is bad and tried shutting the thing down. The college's people removed him and locked the doors. 
"We thought it ended with that, but when the ceremony was over and we went outside, we found about 60 people standing there and shouting, with the police holding them back from getting into the hall." 
"For some reason, they decided we were the event's organizers and the entire group just started chasing us and screaming,"  
Protesters chased Ben Naim's entire family, including his mother... 
Ben Naim… (in) describing the evening's events... wrote, "I was attacked, humiliated, swore at and received bone-chilling wishes... 
"People who clearly had sons my age stood there, and wished me things I'm horrified to even repeat. An older man approached my father and told him, 'You wicked man, you'll be accompanying your son (on his funeral)…' God forbid! A puissant 14-year-old boy called out derogatory remarks to my father, who's 60." 
Ben Naim said he and his family were called "Hitler" and "Nazis" by the rioters, but that those were "peanuts. These harsh words were uttered by people calling themselves Haredim...
There are no words. Although I tend to believe that these people are something other than just street gangs, let us for argument’s sake say that is what they are. Street gangs that are equivalent to the street gangs of New York or Chicago. Where is the outrage?! Why does the leadership do little more than give tepid responses? 

Why aren't these gangs expelled from Meah Shearim?!  Why are they allowed to masquerade as members of their society?!  How can the leadership not fully cooperate with the police?! Why hasn’t at least one counter protest ever taken place by Meah-Shearimites together with their leaders?! 

Enough with the lip service. Enough with ‘there is nothing we can do about it’. Enough with every community has its  delinquents and gangs. 

How many more times will this be allowed to happen? My guess is - it will never end. I’ve quoted Edmund Burke before. But I think it applies here as much as it ever has: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Defending the Indefensible

Voter in Kiryas Joel casting ballot in 2010 (Ha'aretz)
Frimet Goldberger is an unusual expatriate Chasid. (Chasidah?) She left her former community  of Satmar’s Kiryas Joel but has remained observant. Why she did that is irrelevant to the post. I mention it only to show that those who accuse expatriate Chasidm of having an anti religious agenda cannot say that about her.

They do however say that about Naftuli Moster. They claim his efforts  towards implementing a secular curriculum is done with an ulterior motive. One whose agenda is far more nefarious and based on an anti religious vendetta attempting to ultimately destroy it. 

I have seen no evidence of that. Nor do I even know whether he is still observant or not. Accusations about that come from people within his former community that say they know him. Hard to know whether they have any credibility about him since they endorse their current educational system, thereby opposing efforts to change it. But Frimet is observant. This is what she claims and no one has challenged her on this. (If I remember correctly she is modern Orthodox now.) I believe her criticism comes from the heart.

So now we have an observant former insider with family still living there - with warm feelings about it telling it like it is in an oped in Ha’aretz.  Chasidim educated in places like  Kiryas Joel are so illiterate that they can barely read a sentence in English. She is not the first one to make this claim nor will she be the last (unless things change).

Her op-ed was written as a response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s own op-ed in Ha’aretz. Therein he defended the right of Chasidic enclaves to educate their children as they see fit. That we need not pity them even though they do not educate their children in anything but religious studies. That they do quite well without it.

Rabbi Shafran says that as an adherent of Torah Im Derech Ertetz, he would never educate his children in a school like that. But that - he says - doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to educate their children that way.  He then goes on to show that they live their religious values quite successfully and happily. They live modest lives based on their financial means. And they don’t measure success in terms of successful careers or money. Most have decent jobs. Mostly in the trades. Not in the professions. For which they can find training when they need it. Is he right? More about that later.

I thought Frimet’s response to Rabbi Shafran was unnecessarily harsh. But her challenge to him resonated with me: 
If this is what Rabbi Shafran believes in, how then does he justify his support of denying children a basic education?
There is no fine line to toe here, rabbi. You either believe that children should be kept cloistered or that, like you’ve done with your own, they deserve to be educated in the language and workings of the land they live in. 
Rabbi Shafran might say that it isn’t about what he thinks is objectively right. It is about freedom to choose the education parents see fit for their children even if it is not something that most others personally believe in. As long as they are happy; do not become a burden on society; and their educational choices  have no ill effects on them or their future.

I agree that they seem to lead happy well adjusted lives. Frimet decribes the positive image she saw on a recent visit to her old community on Purim: 
The streets were teeming with costumed children - clowns and cops, fancy ladies and doctors - and music blasted from loudspeakers. On that day, every year, the village turns into a festive, boisterous, almost-anything-goes circus; it’s a boozed-up Halloween of sorts. 
Inside my parents’ home, crispy homemade challah was passed around on platters, then dipped into gelatin fish sauce and stuffed cabbage, followed by a bountiful spread of fish, kugels, elongated deli sandwiches, every kind of sweet and savory puffed-pastry turnover one could concoct, and enough wine and hamantaschen for days. The men danced around the table with a buoyant fervor, and the women gave the obligatory oohs and aahs for the children’s costumes. 
Is Rabbi Shafran right? Perhaps he has a point. But I still disagree with him and communictaed that to  him privately. Ironically it was very similar to Frimet’s response: 
I have to disagree with you here. It isn't only about jobs... or the number of wealthy Chasidim that support the poor. It is about the total lack of - in fact opposition to - even the ability to write or even speak English properly - thereby severely limiting their opportunities in the job market. 
The skills they learn in Limudei Kodesh are limited not sufficient - leaving out many of the study tools required in a secular educational environment like a college. 
The few doctors and other professionals found among some Chasidic communities are not from environments like New square or Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. Those Chasidim have probably attended one of the more mainstream Yeshivos like TvD (Torah VoDaath). 
The programs you mention like COPE do offer training to these Chasidim. But how many actually take advantage of them? Most of these Chasidim have menial jobs with meager incomes that fall far short of their need to feed their large families. I have heard that a lot of these types of Chasidim quietly complain about not being given any secular studies but refrain from doing so publicly for fear of the repercussion.
And you can't dismiss the statistics that say that something like 77% of (..I think it was Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg) is on welfare - which lends itself to  fraud (e.g. hiding income in order to qualify.)
You may be right about a community that chooses to remain isolated and ignorant about the world having the right to do that. But when it involves public funding and the possibility of fraud and Chilul HaShem, I think it trying to get them to offer a secular curriculum similar to most mainstream yeshivas in America is goal worth pursuing. 
I have been critical of those that have tried to undermine attempts to improve the lives of my fellow Jews in Kiryas Joel. Defending the rights of people to choose ignorance may be wonderful for the first amendment. But it may not be so wonderful for the people choosing it. Are you really helping them by defending that right? Is ignorance really bliss?

And how far does this ignorance go? I saw this in a Facebook forum which dialogues between religious and OTD Jews. I realize the social media is notorious for ‘fake news’. But I trust the person who posted this: 
A question to anyone brought up Chassidic: In an article I read today, someone said that in his Chassidic community (in Canada) kids were taught that secular Israelis cut up Sifrei Toah to make sandals. In addition, any mitza that a dati leumi person might do will leak out of the holes in his kippa srugah. 
I can’t help but wonder whether this is an attitude that those children learn and then believe. Even if it isn't directly taught as in that excerpt. Even as they might deny it publicly.  I don’t know, but I hope not. Because if it is, their Chinuch  is far worse that I could have ever imagined. If true, is this what their defenders believe is worth defending?

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I have no problem with any religious lifestyle that any Jew might choose. I have no particular animus toward Chasidism even though I believe in a different Hashkafa. My motives are based purely on improving the welfare of fellow Jews. That is it! I have no reason to otherwise change the lifestyles they choose.

Friday, July 06, 2018

A Message From God

MK Yinon Azoulay speaking fro the Knesset podium (TOI)
There are few things that upset me more than people who think they can read God’s mind when there is an agenda attached. Even if it is one that I might support or at least understand if not fully support.

It happened again. This time by Shas Knesset member (MK) Yinon Azoulay. From the Times of Israel:  
Lashing out at Reform and Conservative Jews, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker said Wednesday that a minor earthquake in the north of the country may have been caused by their ongoing efforts to build a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall.
“Today we heard there was some sort of earthquake,” Shas party MK Yinon Azoulay told the Knesset plenum during a debate over the prayer area. “Perhaps we should consider that this earthquake was because someone is trying to get at what is holy to us.” 
Adding insult to injury he has added his voice to those who made the outrageous claim that Reform and Conservative Jews – are not even Jews.

I do not suffer fools gladly. (Yes, I know the origins of this phrase – but it fits.) MK Azoulay has decided to open his mouth and confirm his what we might have otherwise just speculated about.

First of all the vast majority of Conservative Jews are Jewish. And I dare say that the vast majority of Reform Jews still are Jewish. (Although that may change in a generation or two for reasons beyond the scope of this post). What is true, however is that their movements are not legitimate by Orthodox standards. And the vast majority of them are for the most part - not observant.

That is the reason that I agree in principle that they should not be allowed to pray at the Kotel in non Halachic ways.  I hasten to add that every Jew, indeed every human being should be allowed to pray at the Kotel. Provided they respect traditions that have been established and have been in place there for decades. This is in fact how the Kotel operates. Which is why the Pope was able to pray there with the full cooperation of the Orthodox rabbi charge. 

Allowing Jews to pray as they wish in non Halachic ways is at the very least distracting if not upsetting to those who come there to pray in traditional Halachic ways. 

The sad fact is that most non observant Jews in America don’t even visit the Kotel to pray there. They see it as a tourist attraction – an archaeological remnant of ancient Jewish history.  The only people agitating for non Halachic prayer there are Conservative and Reform rabbis and some of the more left wing modern Orthodox rabbis.  

And even they would have to admit that the vast majority of non observant Jews that are in any way  affiliated with Conservative and Reform Judaism have never even been to Israel, let alone the Kotel. And even of those that have - most (as noted) saw it as a tourist attraction. The space already dedicated to  non Halachic prayer remains virtually empty most of the time. How many times have I seen images from there showing it to be vacant on days where the Kotel is packed (like on Tisha B’Av)?! 

The desire for a non Halachic prayer space at the Kotel is a thinly disguised attempt by Conservative and Reform leaders at getting official recognition. All their screaming and shouting about it is for purposes of getting support from their non observant members - casting their quest in terms of pluralism being denied. Making it sound like non Orthodox Jews are being denied the right to pray at the Kotel. Which - as noted - is a huge lie.
That said, I have nevertheless been supportive of a compromise that would give them a piece of the Kotel removed far enough away from the traditional site so that it would not be disruptive to those praying there in traditional ways. I support it because it would end the anger and divisiveness as well as the the angry protests and counter protests that are equally upsetting if not more so. That compromise has been delayed due to disputes over the details (also beyond the scope of this post) which are unacceptable to Orthodox legislators.

But none of the Orthodox legislators that I am aware of have made the kind of foolish statement MK Azoula did - suggestion that an earthquake that happened in the northern regions of Israel is a message from God. A message warning us that He is upset at Reform and Conservative Jews (and others that support their agenda) and wants us to prevent any attempt at giving those movements their own space at the Kotel.

Well... if he wants to play the game of trying to figure out the Godly message to us about a natural disaster let us see some of the other sins God might be addressing. 

As in the number of sex abuse victims that have resulted from a culture of denial and cover-up still happening in some cases. 

Or the advocacy of a way of life in certain Orthodox circles that has caused the vast majority to rely on government financial assistance making it ripe for committing fraud. 

Or the number of Orhtodox Jews that have already been indicted and/or convicted of fraud.

Or the the creation of a cookie cutter school system that leaves far too many students falling through the cracks – which contributes to the increasing number of OTDs. 

Or the increased incidence of divorce. 

Or the increased number of suicides. 

Or maybe even to warn us about people assuming to suggest Godly messages based on a particular agenda.

Maybe it’s God Himself that does not suffer fools gladly. Maybe that is what Azoulay should have thought before he opened his mouth.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Power Trip? I Don't Think So

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. (Jerusalem Post)
I have never been reticent to criticize the Charedi world when I believe it is warranted. That has earned me continuous accusations of being a Charedi basher by certain people.  I am not. But my constant denials fall on deaf ears all the time because of the frequency of posts criticizing them.

I mention this not to offer yet another explanation or defense of my criticism. It hasn’t helped till now and it won’t help in the future. I mention it, only to put into context what I am sure will be an unpopular view of what I am about to say. Especially to those that wrongly celebrate my criticism of Charedim.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has written an oped in the Jerusalem Post that I can best describe as an unfair and biased attack against the Chief Rabbaniate and the Charedi community in Israel. While his description of why there is a lack of popular support for the Rabbinate might be true, that does not mean that the Rabbinate is wrong in their decisions. And although he doesn’t say so outright - the subtext of his op-ed is that they are a selfish organization interested only in retaining and expanding their power for no other purpose than their own self interest.

Rabbi Riskin notes that the chief rabbinate has been taken over by the  Charedi leadership. This is in essence true.That has resulted in  what many – even religious Jews - see as a heavy handed  and overly stringent rule over religious matters. Which, he says was not the case when the Religious Zionist rabbis controlled it.

Although I sympathize with his concerns, I must object to his characterization of the Chief Rabbinate and Charedi leaders.  I do not see them as a self aggrandizing group of people on some sort of power trip. On the contrary. I truly believe that they act on what they believe is in the best interests of Klal Yisroel – the people of Israel. Despite the fact that some of their recent pronouncements have been very unpopular.

These are the issues Rabbi Riskin has problems with: The Chief Rabbinate  monopoly over Kosher certification; and their full control of personal  status issues such as marriage, divorce, conversions and Agunos (women whose husbands refuse to give them a Get – a Halachic divorce).  He says that the rabbinate has been unnecessarily strict on these issues causing much pain to people seeking their help to resolve these matters. He then goes about demonstrating it.

The problem he cites with respect to poor Kosher supervision is something that should surely be addressed and thoroughly investigated by independent experts. And they should not have ties to either the rabbinate or their newly minted competition. Their recommendations for improving Kosher supervision should be followed. Be that as it may, my main concern is Rabbinate control over personal status issues. Rabbi Riskin’s characterization of the rabbinate in this area is unfair. Let me just take one issue to demonstrate why.

The Halachos that makes a woman an Agunah  (as defined in our day) is one of the most difficult things to understand in Judaism. Briefly, a woman can only be divorced if her husband gives her a Get (a religious divorce document). If he refuses, she cannot give her husband a Get. She may not get remarried without committing biblical level adultery. She is stuck. There is no way out of the marriage that she has any control over.

A man on the other can find a way to get remarried while still married to his first wife. Although it’s complicated it’s possible and has happened.

Meanwhile rabbis have been trying for centuries to find ways to convince the recalcitrant husband to give his wife a Get. But at the end of the day, it’s is still up to him. If he refuses –  his wife remains an Agunah.  There are Halachic devices that have been used in the past to help these women out of their predicament. But using them now is at best controversial and rare.

A non Rabbinate court in Haifa  recently applied such a Halachic device to free an Agunah. The Rabbinate rejected it. Did they do this to be mean? Did they do it only to assert control over this issue? I do not believe that for a minute. That would make them beyond cruel. They are not.

They do not want to hurt Agunos.  They actually believe that the method used by that court to free her might be illegitimate leaving her technically still married. Which means that if she re-marries she might be committing adultery. And that any children of that marriage would be Mamzerim.

They simply want to prevent that by being strict. That there are lenient opinions about what that court did does not make it OK – just because of the terrible state she –as an Agunah - is in.  

Rabbi Riskin said they are not choosing the pleasant ways of the Torah by being so stringent. But the Rabbinate might respond by saying that by being strict they are being kind. They are preventing a situation that would cause a lifetime of hardship for their offspring.  A leniency that  might not be legitimate would end up being quite cruel.

Who is being more caring? The court that allows a woman to commit possible adultery or the court that tries to prevent it?

I am not here to impugn the motives of the court that tried to free an Agunah by those means. I’m 100% convinced that their intentions were to help her out of an impossible situation. I am here to defend the motives of the Rabbinate. And reject the notion that this is all about power and control.

The Rabbinate does not want to be cruel to Agunos. They do not want to prevent legitimate conversions. They do not want to monopolize Kosher certification as a matter of asserting their control for purposes of retaining unbridled power. They believe they are doing the right thing – despite it having negative consequences in some cases.

That popular opinion goes against the Rabbinate now should not matter to anyone. Judaism is not a popularity contest. Halacha cannot automatically follow the lenient path because of convenience or politics. It ought to be considered in the ideal. Which is to find out and follow the path that God wants His people to follow – wherever it may lead.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Growth and Divisiveness in the Charedi World

R' Chaim Kanievsky (VIN)
Once upon a time - I would have never thought it possible. There was a time where I actually thought that the religious Jewish world was united on virtually every issue. I believed that the Torah was seen by all observant Jews in the same way. But I have long ago been disabused of that notion (I was young and naïve.)

Different ideologies have developed over time based on how religious leaders view that same Torah. Which means different reactions to situations arising that challenge those Torah values. Ideologies are therefore a sure way of creating further divisions in Israel. (Not the country – the people.) Israel’s creation as a state in the modern era is a case in point. Whether to support or even recognize the state is one big challenge. 

Even for those that recognize the state at some level, how to deal with religious issues arising in that state is another challenge where differing ideologies make a difference. One of the hottest issues being debated in Israel today is legislation dealing with the drafting Yeshiva students into the Israeli army, the IDF.

First a little bit of history about the religious parties in Israel. (My apologies in advance for the inaccuracies about details or timing – but I think the basic history is more or less accurate).

There was actually a time around the founding of the state where Charedim and Religious Zionists actually wanted to combine as one religious party. There was even a document signed by prominent Rabbonim of both sides endorsing a the new Zionist State. It included signatures of highly respected Charedi figures such as R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.  

That lasted about 5 minutes on the history clock - since the most respected Gadol of the time, the Chazon Ish rejected the idea of joining the Zionist government in any way.  What happened then was that two parties were born. One was the National Religious Party (NRP) of religious Zionists (known as Mizrachi in the US). They heartily endorsed the State of Israel and its government. The other one was the Charedi Agudah party - whose mission was solely to protect the rights of religious Jews without endorsing the government in any way. The NRP was by far the larger of the two  parties  for quite sometime. It now no longer exists although there are parties that are seen as their ideological heirs on both the right and the left. 

Early on Agudah had a break away party called Poalei Agudat Yisroel. They were Charedi but much more inclined to work the land as did the NRP. (It was kind of a cross between the Agudah and the Mizrachi). They no longer exist either.

Then there was a further split in the Charedi parties. The Chasidic factions disagreed with some of the decisions of the Lithuanian leadership. Two parties were created: Degel HaTorah - based on the Lithanian Yeshiva Hashkafos and Agudat Yisroel based on the Chasidic Hashkafos. 

There was a reconciliation of sorts not long after the split - since there was so much overlap in the agendas of both. They operate under the banner of one political party called United Torah Judaism (UTJ).  But the two factions seek counsel from different rabbinic leaders on government policy issues that impact the Charedi world.

Somewhere along the way Sephardic leaders decided they were under-represented in UTJ and decided to form their own party – Shas. The nature of the Sephardi community is that there are no denominations or divisions between observant and non observant Jews. Shas therefore had the support of virtually the entire Sephardi community. Making them the largest religious party in Israel. Its spiritual head was one of the last generation’s Gedolei HaDor, R’ Ovadia Yosef. He was the one that guided all of their policy decisions and was never disputed by any Sephardi individual whether observant or not. 

Back to UTJ. A new split was underway based on the issue new laws with resoct to drafting Yeshiva students. It was a virtual war between  the peaceful and pragmatic Gadol, R’Aharon Leib Steinman; and the uncompromising R’ Shmuel Auerbach. 

The former believing that as long as Charedi students were allowed to continue studying in Yeshivios, they should follow the new law and register for the draft. 

The latter did not let pragmatism and peace get in the way of his ideology of rejecting the draft in its entirety - refusing to register Yeshiva students for the draft even under penalty of prison time! That generated another break away party called Peleg. This has caused major discord in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world.  Sometimes resulting in violent confrontation in the street between adherents of both factions

Now that both of these religious figures have passed on, the debate has not gone away or even softened. It is still being carried on as new proposals of a draft law are on the table. Proposals that are more challenging to the Charedi world than with previous versions of the draft law. R’ Chaim Kanievsky (who is seen as the by the mainstream Yeshiva world as the current Charedi leader after R’ Steinman’s passing) has weighed in. As have other rabbinic leaders in of the Yeshiva world. From the Jerusalem Post (and VIN): 
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, told senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Sunday that the recently proposed bill for haredi enlistment is acceptable and can be advanced through the Knesset.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that the rabbi described the bill as “the lesser of two evils,” that Degel Hatorah MKs – forming half of the UTJ Knesset faction – should not go to war over the legislation, and that it could be supported in general.
Gafni met with several other leading haredi rabbis on Sunday morning to discuss the issue, including Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch, Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrahi and Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky.
The decision is highly significant since the bill includes financial sanctions from the state’s budget against haredi yeshivas if enlistment targets are not met, meaning that Kanievsky and the other rabbis have ostensibly given consent to the notion that there can be negative consequences if haredi men do not enlist to the IDF.
Kanievsky’s approval comes following opposition expressed to the bill on Thursday by the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic half of UTJ.
The grand rabbis of the hassidic groups which make up Agudat Yisrael said that their MKs should quit the coalition if the bill is passed by the Knesset, although they seemingly left room for changes to be made to the legislation. 
The Post article says that they are trying to iron out differences. But I have read recently (no longer recall the source) that those differences are irreconcilable. It appears that UTJ will once again split into 2 distinct parties as before. One for Lithuanian Yeshiva type Charedim  and one for Chasidic Charedim.

All of this makes me wonder whether the growth of the Charedi world is being countered by the ideological differences that is causing them to break apart. How many times can a community divide itself before it becomes insignificant? Even as its constituent communities continue to multiply faster than any other Jewish demographic in Israel - will that growth outweigh the divisiveness? Or will the divisiveness outweigh the demographic growth? Time will tell.