Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Will the Lubavitcher Rebbe Lead Us Out of Exile?

The letter (COL)
I have been reluctant to write about a troubling paragraph in a letter published on  COL-Live, a mainstream Chabad website. First because it is probably a waste of time since it will fall on deaf Chabad ears. And secondly I don’t really want to hurt Chabad since they are the best at what they do by far. Which is reaching out to  unaffiliated Jews. But at he same time truth supersedes those two considerations. So… here goes.

A few days ago on the third day (Gimmel) of the Hebrew month of Tammuz (June 13th) Chabad/Lubavitch observed their Rebbe’s Yahrzeit on the 27th anniversary  of his  death.  That generated a public letter by one of their mainstream leaders, Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov of Agudas Chassidei Chabad that ended with the following words: 

We beseech our Merciful Father in Heaven: Ad Mosai?! How much longer?! May we merit together with all of Klal Yisroel, may they live and be well, to witness the fulfillment of the verse, “Arise and rejoice, etc.” with the Rebbe at the lead, to take us out of this bitter and dark exile and bring us, upright, to our Holy Land, through the true and complete Redemption, immediately and literally, Mamesh. (Emphasis mine) 

This confirms what I have always suspected about their messianic beliefs. Which is that deep in their hearts they actually believe that their beloved Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, will rise from the dead to become Moshiach! 

That this is believed by many Lubavitchers is not news. When the Rebbe died, instead of lamenting it, many of them celebrated it in the belief that this was the first step towards our redemption from Galus by the Rebbe - who will arise from the dead and reveal that he is the Messiah. There was singing and dancing as the Rebbe’s body was being carried out of his office where he had died. 

For a short period of time after that, this is pretty much what one heard. After awhile it quieted down among most Lubavitchers. However, in their world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, (known as 770) that belief is not only held, it is celebrated daily with declarations about their Rebbe being Moshiach. 

That became a contentious issue with the mainstream, who referred to those in control of 770 as Moshichists. Not in a flattering way. The mainstream has gone to great lengths to disabuse the rest of Orthodox Jewry of the notion that Lubavitch was in any way Moshichist. They strongly denied they were and claimed that any hyperbolic comments about the Rebbe made in this way were merely an expression of how much they loved and missed him. He was a virtual father figure to them! But they insisted that they did not believe he was Moshiach. They did however leave the door open for that possibility using Talmudic proofs that Moshiach can come from the dead. 

Now 27 years later, I have not heard much public talk about that among the mainstream. In fact the few that are still like that here in Chicago were banned from Chabad’s mainstream Shul here many years ago. They are easy to identify because they have literally printed that declaration on their Kipot. (They opened up their own Shul about a mile away.) 

I had always suspected that deep down even the anti Moshichists Lubavitchers were secretly Moshichists themselves. Even though they no longer said it out loud - suppressing that urge for fear it would hurt their image when doing outreach. That’s because there is another religion that believes their Messiah will be resurrected from the dead. They just believe it about another person.  

The above excerpt however makes clear what even mainstream Chabad leaders believe. I have been told by a Lubavitch insider that Rabbi Shemtov is one of the biggest opponents of Chabad Moshichicts and in the forefront of trying to wrest control of 770 from them. That he made this comment 27 years after the Rebbe’s death reveals what is in his heart. 

It’s not only him. I have heard almost that identical comment made by prominent Lubavitcher personalities after the speak . It is for course not uncommon to hear a wish for the coming of Moshiach after any Orthodox personality speaks. But not in this way.  Even if they don’t mention the Rebbe’s resurrection, they will always end that wish with the word ‘Mamesh’. Which when spelled in Hebrew are the Rebbe’s initials.  

When confronted with this, they might just answer that the Hebrew word ‘Mamesh’ just means ‘in actuality’. Which I think is just a clever way of disguising what they really mean - identifying who they believe Moshiach really is. No other Orthodox personality ever uses that word. I am told that the Rebbe also used it when referring to the coming of Moshiach. (Not sure why he had to use that word since it adds nothing to that wish other than his own initials.) 

Add to this that its been 27years since the Rebbe’s death and the epicenter of Chabad is still controlled by overt Moshichists - and it makes me question the veracity of their claim that they have been trying to get rid of them since then. 

27years?!

I have no choice but to believe that the vast majority of Lubavitch still believe their Rebbe is Moshiach 27 yeas after he died!. 

The question is why? Why after 27 years do they hold on to a belief that has always been rejected as false? A belief that is the foundation of Christianity? …albeit about someone else. A belief that one of the greatest medieval rabbinic authorities, the Rambam declared to be false? 

They will provide answers and explanations about why their beliefs do not contradict the Rambam.  But their fervor about this can be placed right at the Rebbe’s doorstep. Near the end of his life, he focused almost exclusively on the coming of Moshiach  - making the astonishing claim that his arrival; was imminent.  That the Jewish people were just a few Mitzvos away from his coming.  

There is no group of Chasidim that are as devoted to their Rebbe as Chabad Chasidim. Even long after his death, they hang on his every word. Indeed - almost every word he had ever uttered has been published. If the Rebbe said Moshiach’s arrival is imminent - it is! 

The Rebbe’s talk of Moshiach was so strong prior to his death that many (most) Lubavitchers believed the Rebbe himself was Moshiach and was about to reveal himself to world Jewry. That was a mainstream belief among most of them. So that when he died, they reinterpreted those beliefs into an imminent resurrection as Moshiach. 

For his part the Rebbe denied he was Moshiach.  But his denials were tepid in comparison to what most of Lubavicthers believed. They probably thought he was just being modest. Or that he did not want to give it away until the appropriate moment where he would reveal himself . 

I believe that since that was the last big project of the Rebbe it has stayed in the forefront of their minds. 

Why should it make any difference what they believe? Because we cannot allow a belief that has been thoroughly rejected throughout history to become mainstream. Judaism cannot be built on falsehoods no matter how much good is done by the people that believe them. 

One rabbinic authority, R’ Eliezer Menachem Mann Shach had branded those Chabad beliefs heretical  and had some very unkind words blaming for the Rebbe for it. Rav Schach’s disciples will not even eat from their Shechita. 

My own Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik was very close to Chabad and did not go that far. He just called it a Shtus (foolishness). But perpetuating foolishness for 27 years is not normal. There is a danger of it becoming an integral part of their very theology – if it hasn’t already. And then being spread to the hundreds of thousands of Jews they reach out to. 

This would cause a major split among Jewry. A split that will nonetheless entail strict observance to Halacha by both sides. If the belief that a man will arise from the dead to become the Messiah would spread beyond Chabad via their massive outreach - it would be a tragic distortion of an unprecedented nature. 

At this point I don’t know that there is anything we can do about it.  But at the very least I think we need to know the truth.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Of Forgotten and Ignored Heroes

Community activist, Andrew Holmes  (Chicago Tribune)
Black lives matter. It is quite sad that this slogan has to be even uttered, let alone become a movement. Because the implication is that to many Americans black people don’t really matter that much. It also implies that black success hardly exists. As though we must first make America realize that black lives matter first before black people have any chance at success. Which is ridiculous. 

And yet I completely understand why it is an important slogan in light of what happened to George Floyd. He was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white cop that used a restraining technique so severe that it ended up killing Floyd. He was indifferent to Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe . Which he kept screaming until he ran out of air and died. Chauvin seemed to be unmoved by what happened probably feeling justified in using that technique. Black lives did not seem to matter to him.

That event turned that slogan into a movement.(Often referred to by its initials - BLM.)  Which I supported. What I do not support is where the movement has gone ...reflected by what the current administration and some members of congress are doing: 

Last week, the Senate, on an almost straight party-line vote, confirmed Kristen Clarke to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. There were many good reasons to oppose her confirmation on policy grounds — her support for investing less in the police, i.e., defunding; her organizing a conference as a law student in support of a number of cop-killers as “political prisoners”; and, most relevant to her new position, her expressed belief that the race of the applicant should be a factor in all hiring decisions, even for heart surgeons and airline pilots.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Clarke wrote an opinion piece in the Harvard Crimson, asserting that blacks have “superior physical and mental abilities,” citing the “melanin” thesis of Dr. Carol Barnes that because of their higher levels of melanin, blacks are endowed with greater mental, physical, and spiritual abilities. Clarke told the Senate Judiciary Committee that her op-ed was a satire. But the editors of the Crimson at the time found not the slightest “trace of irony” in her piece, which they retracted. She refused their request to specifically repudiate the pseudo-science she quoted.

Not only that, as head of the Black Students Association, Clarke invited as a speaker Professor Tony Martin, a proponent of many of the same black supremacy theories that Clarke had cited, and, for good measure, an outspoken anti-Semite and author of The Jewish Onslaught: Dispatches from the Wellesley Battlefront. In his speech, Martin denounced the Torah, Talmud, and Maimonides as racist texts. Subsequently, Clarke defended Martin to the Harvard Crimson as “an intelligent, well-versed Black intellectual who bases his information on indisputable fact.”

It is also quite apparent that BLM is selective in what it protests. They seem to ignore black lives that were killed in their own neighborhoods by black gangs. Many of which are innocent black children. I have yet to hear any BLM leader complain about that. I have yet to see any mass protest against that. Even a non violent one.

And yet every night the late night local news it pains me to see reports about another black child that was hit by a stray bullet meant for a rival gang member. Where is their outrage? Why focus only on police brutality?! Of course police brutality should be protested. But for BLM to ignore the far greater problem of daily gang violence by black gangs in their own neighborhood is an outrage! 

As much as I support the intent of the movement to create a just society for all people where black and white people are treated equally in all situations. I cannot support the movement itself because of the direction it is going. 

BLM wants to decimate law enforcement as a solution to police brutality. Which is at best a questionable tactic in service to that goal. What is far more likely to happen is that less law enforcement will increase gang violence. Which means more black children will be killed. I have not heard one word of protest about that. All we hear from BLM these days is about the systematic racism, white privilege,  that the country was founded on the belief in white supremacy, and reparations to descendants of slaves. Children being killed by gangs? What gangs?!   

Which is why one of my heroes is Andrew Holmes. He is a black community activist in Chicago that actually cares about black children. But not the leftist black leaders that have commandeered BLM. 

It is for that reason that I can no longer support the movement. At least until such time that they start paying attention to all black lives and not only those killed by the police. And return to the ideals of one of the most eloquent leaders in American history who said that people should be judged NOT by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Remember him? In its current state, I doubt that BLM does.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Biden's Attitude Towards Israel

Ilhan Omar (D-MN) at an April press conference (JP)
It was very nice of the President to call Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet upon his ascension to office. Biden assured Bennett that the relationship between the 2 countries is as secure as ever. And that the US will continue to fully support Israel. That said I am disappointed with the people Biden has chosen to serve in high level positions at the State Department - and his silence about  antisemites in his party - like Ilhan Omar. 

His choices for that office is based on his desire to even things out with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank - both of whom are suffering  greatly. 

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that they are sufering. No human being deserves to live the way many (most?) of them do. One would have to be made of stone not to have sympathy for these people and want to relieve their suffering. Biden is good man - a decent human being - and that is his goal. The problem is that he buys into the Palestinian narrative that it is all about  Israel’s oppressive ‘occupation’. As such his goal is to free them via a 2 state solution. 

But his underlying assumption is wrong. Although to the naked eye it does seem like Israel is to blame. Israel has indeed prevented a lot of needed goods from entering Gaza. Which harms their welfare greatly. And it is no secret that Palestinians on the West Bank often suffer indignities that Israelis do not. 

But all of that is due not to Israel’s inherent animosity to Palestinians. In Gaza it is due to their own leadership (Hamas) who will not rest until Israel becomes Palestine and Jew free. Their people are deprived of the basics by virtue of Hamas diverting most financial aid towards that goal. Or by their leaders pocketing much of it for their own lavish lifestyles. 

That is also why Israel boycotts some of the goods they are shipped. It’s because they smuggle weapons to use against Israel – hiding it among those goods. For Israel it’s all about defending themselves against terror. Which is also the reason Palestinians on the West bank suffer their indignities. They are put though a lot of extra scrutiny because of past attacks against Israel coming from their people. 

As I have said many times, Israel would have liked nothing better than to have a strong but friendly neighbor on its southern border – and would have helped them achieve prosperity if only they would have chosen that peaceful path instead of immediately attacking Israel the minute Israel gave them Gaza. 

That is of course not how Palestinians characterize things. They blame all their misery on Israel as though Israel wants to do to them what they want to do to Israel. The President seems to buy into that. Which is why he is trying to be more ‘even handed’ even while expressing full support for Israel. 

I was disappointed to read  Jonathan Rosenblum’s Mishpacha column last week wherein he described Biden’s policy shift. He has chosen for the State Department a number of people that have a history of hostility towards Israel. They will be high ranking officials with much influence on American policy that will directly affect Israel  From his column

Of even greater concern — at least to those of us living in Israel — is President Biden’s appointment to senior policy-making positions of a veritable all-star team of officials hostile to Israel.

Chief among them is Assistant Secretary of State for Israel-Palestine Hady Amr, the senior State Department figure setting policy with respect to Hamas and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Amr previously served as the national coordinator for the anti-Israel Middle East Justice Network, which has criticized Israel for “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid.”

 In 2018, Hady Amr wrote a 52-page working paper for the Brookings Institute in which he recommended a complete reordering of American policy toward Hamas, after the next outbreak of conflict between the terror group and Israel. The paper strives to legitimize Hamas...  

That is only part of his problem. Read there for a lot more. There are others on Biden’s foreign policy team that also hostile to Israel. 

Sadly there are a lot of American Jews that buy into this argument, too. Which helps explain the following: 

...in the midst of Operation Guardian of the Walls, 90 non-Orthodox American rabbinical students took the occasion to castigate the American Jewish community for “support[ing] violent suppression of human rights and enabl[ing] apartheid in the Palestinian territories....” 

And then there is Ilhan Omar’s latest lament. She tweeted the following:

We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.

Why is the President silent about this? Even some of his fellow Democrats condemned this comment! Furthermore, why fellow House Democrats allow her to serve on the foreign relations committee is beyond me.  

Maybe it’s sympathy for her image as a persecuted Muslim refugee who escaped to America to find freedom - and rose to become a member of congress. Which is kind of a ‘rags to riches’story. That is what America is all about. Maybe it’s her tiny sweet innocent look all dressed up in her hijab demonstrating how pluralistic America is. But  none of that explains or excuses her extreme bias against Israel – and now the country that gave her all this.

This is why I am not all that happy with the President reaffirming America’s support for Israel. Yes, I am happy that he said that. But  what some people call support may end up being quite harmful in the end. It’s kind of like the support for Israel that J-Street has. I fear that Biden and his foreign policy team may be headed in that direction. And that worries me. 

I was far happier with the last administration’s attitude. Which saw no intifada during its tenure; no rocket attacks from Gaza; Israel’s unprecedented new relationships with Arab countries; US recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights; the US and a number of foreign countries moving their embassies  to Jerusalem; a new approach to peace with Palestinians (that some Arab countries thought should be taken seriously by Palestinians); the strongest American defense of Israel in the UN in its history; a rejection of the argument that settlements were the primary obstacle to to peace; the cancelation of the terrible Iran nuclear deal; and just a warmer, friendlier, relationship with Israel than any other administration in history.  This is not to say I miss the last President. I don’t. But I sure miss his Middle East policy.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Preventable Chilul HaShem

Charedi extremists tearing up a prayer book (TOI)
Two wrongs do not make a right. That little piece of wisdom is something we ought to learn quite early in life. But don’t tell that to the hooligans who took what should have been an exercise of their legitimate right to peaceful protest and instead turned into a Chilul HaShem! 

A few days ago, a feminist group that calls themselves the Women of the Wall (WOW) led by Reform Rabbi Anat Hoffman took part in their monthly prayer service at the Kotel. While many of the women that participate in this prayer group are Orthodox and sincere in their desire to serve God in a way that is spiritually meaningful to them -  and that technically does not violate halacha, it has been made clear more than once by its leaders that the primary purpose of this monthly exercise is to break another ‘glass ceiling’. 

Most Orthodox Jewish leaders consider this kind of service a break from tradition and an unnecessary provocation in the name of the most egalitarian form of feminism. Which in my view has no place in Judaism. Just because someone has a positive personal spiritual experience in doing something - that does not mean it  should be done. If WOW disturbs people who are practicing traditional modes of prayer - egalitarianism ought not be pursued. That’s just basic common decency. 

It’s kind of like when a bunch of people celebrating Simchas Beis HaShoeva - which entails vigorous dancing while singing loudly - keep doing it at the top of their lungs late into the night when neighbors  nearby are trying to sleep.  It is a selfish thing to do despite the spiritual inspiration it may give the participants. 

But what has happened more than once is that violence breaks out from some of the people protesting this monthly WOW event. And what happened in this latest attempt was more of the same and purely evil. From the Times of Israel: 

Dozens of Haredi extremists harassed Women of the Wall worshipers at their monthly service at the Western Wall on Friday, snatching a suitcase carrying their prayer books and tearing out the pages.

Several of them shouted that the prayer books were “sifrei ha-minim” — “books of the sectarians,” which Jewish law orders be destroyed. 

First of all, if these prayer books were the traditional prayer books used by Orthodox Jews all over the world, they are NOT sifrei ha-minim. There is no reason to believe that the Orthodox women participating would use anything other than traditional prayer books published by reputable Orthodox publishers. Tearing them up is a grave violation of the biblical level law forbidding the erasure or destruction of God’s name. Which is of course printed many times in prayer books. 

But the people doing this are ignorant extremists that care only about causing trouble – using a legitimate protest to do that. In doing so they have caused a major Chilul HaShem. If their goal was to prevent this from ever happening again, that will clearly not work. It never has – even when these women were physically attacked. What it does instead is create worldwide sympathy for WOW.  Especially in a world that increasingly sees egalitarianism to be the highest ethical imperative superseding all other values – including biblical ones. 

The last thing those of us that oppose this monthly feminist event need is negative publicity. That will not serve our purpose. It serves theirs. 

The question is, how did it come to this? What motivates these hooligans to constantly cross all lines of legitimate peaceful protest? I think there is a lot of blame to be shared by both sides. The rhetoric by some of the Charedi leadership and Charedi members of the Keneset has been pretty inflammatory. It may not be their intent , but that rhetoric is taken by protestors a a clarion call to do whatever is necessary to stop WOW. Even if they need to resort to violence. 

On the other hand, when WOW organizers attempt to violate the conditions of those monthly prayer services with provocative measures like trying to smuggle a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) into the Kotel Plaza, they should not be surprised that it is going to incite protestors to act more aggressively. 

The irony of all this is that a compromise had almost been worked out where WOW would get their own Kotel space near the Kotel Plaza. That would have (hopefully) eliminated all the friction and bad publicity. Unfortunately the devil in this case is what it always is: in the details. Agreement couldn’t be reached and that is where things stand now. 

If there is going to be any solution to this monthly problem - executing that comprise is it. It ought to be one of first things to be resolved by the new Keneset. It may not be the most important item on their agenda. But it should be one of the easier ones to resolve. All it needs is to have people of good will on both sides to reach a compromise that everyone can live with. 

In the meantime the hooligans that were involved in that Chilul HaShem ought to be treated with the severity their Chilul HaShem requires. Perhaps a significant amount of time in the hoosegow will chastise them enough to never attempt that kind of behavior again. Will it happen? Probably not. But one can hope…

Friday, June 11, 2021

Looks Like It Will Happen

United Torah Judaism party chief Moshe Gafni (TOI)
Stunning!  That is the word that came immediately to mind about the level of condemnation the Charedi parties in Israel had for their incoming prime minister, Naftali Bennett – who will be the first Shomer Shabbos Jew to lead the country. From the Times of Israel: 

In a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, the heads of the Haredi political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism launched a stunning assault on the leader of the Yamina party and prime minister-designate, Naftali Bennett. 

With the so-called change government set to be sworn in on Sunday and the ultra-Orthodox headed for the opposition, Haredi leaders branded Bennett as “wicked” and claimed his new government’s policies would endanger the Jewish state. 

Bennett, who is set to become Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister, dismissed the attack as embarrassing and unhinged, a “hysterical outburst,” and vowed he would safeguard religious life in the country.

How is it possible that something many of us prayed would happen someday be the subject of such an ‘unhinged hysterical outburst’?   Can they seriously believe that a Shomer Shabbos Jew would undermine the very religious principles he believes in? 

Of course they don’t believe that. Religious life itself is not threatened. It is the Charedi way of life that is. In many ways that I believe it should be. It is a way of life that avoids a basic secular education for their children – replaced with full time Torah study for as long as possible. Well through marriage and children. It is a way of life where the women are educated instead so that they can get the kinds of jobs that will pay enough to provide minimum support for their families. (As long as their husbands help take care of the children while they are at work. Which in any case reduces the amount of time they should be learning. But I digress.)

They may be about to lose the ‘privilege’ of denying their young a basic secular education. They may be forced to implement some sort of minimal secular curriculum akin to what the majority of Charedi world in America has. (At least for now. That too is changing and not for the better. But again I digress). 

This ‘sticks in their craw’. They cannot handle the fact that someone outside of their own religious leadership will have something to say over how their young are educated. To the Charedi world, this step is considered anti Torah… a destruction of religious life so severe that it endangers the state. (If you can believe that! I don’t. If anything it may save the state from bankruptcy. As the Charedi community grows exponentially larger with each generation,  so too will government stipends that will support them. This situation cannot possibly be sustained generationally. 

But that is not their only concern. They refuse to allow their young to enter the army – or even do national service. That is considered a waste of time away from their Torah studies (Bitul Torah). Furthermore they see it as undermining their religious structure and values. Once outside the halls of the Yeshiva, they will never return. The robust Kollel system will be reduced to a shadow of its former self. Not to mention the fact that outside of those Yeshiva walls they will encounter negative anti Torah influences that may even undermine their religious observance and beliefs. 

There are numerous other concerns as well, like giving recognition to heterodox movements trying to make inroads to religious life in Israel. Or removing the exclusive authority over religious life in Israel from the Chief Rabbinate and sharing it with alternative non Charedi rabbinic organizations like Tzohar. These are some of the issues. There are even more concerns. Too many to mention.

To be honest some of these issues concern me too. But none of them rise to the level of condemnation expressed by those Charedi politicians. And some of them I actually support. Which are probably the very ones they object to the most. 

I believe that Bennett will try to keep his promise to safeguard religious life in Israel. The only question is whether he will be able to do that – even as prime minister - if the majority of his coalition actually wants to undermine that promise. I hope he can. 

Charedim are not the only ones worried about the incoming government. Bennett’s natural politically right wing allies are appalled that he is partnering with the ‘devil’. They are livid that he has veered so far off course from his ideology. Livid that he joined with parties whose ideologies are anathema to theirs. The majority of his coalition partners are the left wing and Arab parties that oppose the very things Bennett and the right have stood for. Such as expanded settlements and the eventual annexation of the West Bank. This will not happen under his watch as the coalition is now constructed.  

Some may have been surprised at how such a coalition could ever happen.  I among them. But if one can see the true motives behind this coalition, they can understand it. The purpose was simply to remove the hated Benjamin Netanyahu from power. They hate him more than they love their own ideology. And are willing to put that aside in service to that goal. Which they are about to achieve, it seems. As things stand now, Keneset approval will happen Sunday

I am not all that happy about this. Although Bibi is quite unpopular with the liberal left and the extreme right, I found him to be an effective leader who did a lot for his country despite his many faults. His detractors would argue he has done more to\hurt Israel than help it. But I am with the Israeli citizens who voted for him. That he got almost double of the number of seats than his nearest rival tells you how poplar he still is with the electorate despite all the slings and arrows thrown at him by his poliitcal opponents and leftist media like Ha’aretz

But as this change seems to be inevitable, I am quite pleased – even proud - of the fact that Israel is  about to see its first Orthodox prime minister. All of this angst by both the religious and political right,  and left is premature. We will have to wait and see what actually happens before he can be fairly judged.

You never know. With both the right and left pulling at him, Bennett may end up in the center. Which in my view is a good place to be. On the other hand, the cohesiveness of a coalition as disparate as this is tenuous at best. It may very well become the shortest lived coalition government  in Israel’s history. But they will have accomplished their mission of removing the hated Bibi. Who knows, that may have been their plan all along.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Frumkeit Chase: Incrementalism, Indifference, and the Bottom Line

Invisible - NY City Council candidate Amber Adler (Politico)
‘It doesn’t really bother me’. That comment in Politico was made by an Orthodox Jewish woman in New York about the increasingly common practice of not publishing pictures of women. 

This might come as surprise to those of us that feel a great injustice is being done. Not only to Orthodox Jewish women but Orthodox Jewish men too. As I have said many times – eliminating pictures of women presents a distorted picture of Orthodox Jewish life.  And young people at the age when they are most impressionable will be the most negatively affected by this.  

Making this phenomenon particularly insidious is that the feelings these young people will have are not coming from a place of normal mental development but instead from an exaggerated - even distorted indoctrination about Jewish morals and social values. 

This may already be happening. If one is not used to seeing even modest pictures of a woman - having been indoctrinated to believe it can a generate improper thoughts - it may actually make it so for these young people. It’s kind of like telling someone not to think of an elephant. The immediate image that comes to mind is an elephant. The same mental dynamic might be at play when young people are taught that any such picture will elicit improper thoughts. So that when they encounter a innocuous picture of a woman, they might actually have those thoughts! 

So how can anyone not be bothered by this new and unwelcome phenomenon? Here is her explanation: 

 “There are so many issues for politicians to take on right now,” she said, noting a recent uptick in crime that has been affecting her neighborhood. “This just isn’t going to be the hill I die on.” She added that she “does not feel erased as a woman because my picture can’t be in the paper.” “My life is bigger than any publication that chooses not to post my picture,” she said. 

To be honest, I have personally heard that before from other Orthodox women. Even some that are not Charedi. I admit being a bit surprised at their lack of caring. But there are apparently lots of Orthodox women that simply do not care. They may understand and agree to the objection, but do not think it’s worth their time even thinking about it, let alone doing something about it. 

What is happening is nothing short of the radicalization of normative Judaism. It is succeeding because of incrementalism and indifference.

It’s kind of like evolution. Changes take place so gradually that nobody notices. Those that might notice and complain will be seen as overreacting at best, and reactionary and prejudiced at worst. They might even be told, ‘What’s wrong with being a little more religious?!’ ‘Shouldn’t we all be striving to improve our lives that way?’ 

The answer to that is yes. We all need to do God’s will. That is what being religious is all about. But we first need to define what being more religious really means. And it is not the phenomenon taking place right now among the largest Orthodox segment in all of Jewry - the Charedi world.   

This new innovation is only the latest move to the right. But it is more about ‘Frumkeit’ than it is about doing God’s will. They are not one and the same thing. Frumkeit is about showing off how religious one is. If one Charedi segment of Orthodoxy has a custom that makes them look more religious, other Charedi segments will follow suit so that they will not be looked down upon by the ‘Frummer’ segment. When in fact there is nothing really ‘Frummer’ about it. 

This has happened before in the area of mixed seating. 

The Chasidic world never had weddings where men and women sat together at the same table. Husbands and wives sat apart from each other at opposite ends of a banquet hall - usually divided by a Mechitza. 

The Lithuanian Yeshiva world generally did not do so. Husbands and wives sat together at the same table with other couples. There is ample evidence of that even in my own lifetime. Telshe Yeshiva used to have mixed seating at their banquets. Until they saw that the Chasidic world had separate seating, From that point forward all of their banquets had men and women sitting separately. 

Lest anyone think that Telshe had always wanted to have separate seating at their banquets but felt America wasn’t ready for it yet, let me disabuse you of that kind of thinking by quoting 20th century Gadol, Rav Mordechai Rogov (Ateres Mordechai). When this change of custom was beginning to take hold in the late sixties, one of his Talmidm who was about to get married asked him if he should have separate seating at his wedding. His immediate response was the following: ‘In der Lita, zennen mir nit g'ven makpid’ (in Lithuania we were not particular). It is also well known that back in the late fifties, 20th century Gedolim like R’Moshe Feinstein and R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky sat with their wives at weddings and proudly introduced their wives to acquaintances that were passing by.

Slowly over time things changed. Today, some Charedi Roshei Yeshiva will boycott a wedding that has mixed seating.  And any Charedi couple that has one will be considered ‘Chutz L’Machane’ – outside the camp of the Charedi world. 

One might ask about the origins of this excessive Tznius mode of thinking. Why is the Chasidic world so obsessed about this? Here is how YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz - put it. He is uniquely qualified to comment having grown up and religiously educated in Satmar:

“In Hasidic thought, lack of sufficient sexual mores is viewed as a literal barrier to the coming of the Messiah,” a particularly stringent ultra-Orthodox sect headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Today, Katz chairs the Talmud department of a progressive Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx. “One yeshiva boy having a physical reaction to a woman’s picture is viewed as a grievous communal setback.”

This worry is amplified by a perception that secular culture prizes immorality. “At the heart of the practice is the deep-rooted and sincere fear that an external culture of sexual promiscuity could infiltrate the community,” said Katz. “As they see it, the best way to protect the community is for members not to expose themselves to anything that has even a whiff of sexuality.” 

First it was about separate seating and now it’s about pictures of women. The two largest weekly magazines are Charedi - but not exclusively Chasidic. Neither of them will publish any pictures of women, no matter how modestly they are dressed. 

Until about 10 years ago, this was unprecedented. And yet there is clearly no halachic or even Hashkafic problem with it. This can be demonstrated quite easily. Agudath Israel of America’s former mouthpiece, the Jewish Observer (now defunct) often had pictures of women on their cover. As does their current website and some of their current publicity pictures. 

Then there is the recent publication of a book about Rav Elayshiv’s daughter, the late Rebbetzin Batsheva Kaneievsky. It was published by the Mesorah Publications (ArtScroll) - which is Charedi - with the obvious approval of her husband, R’ Chaim - a man many Charedim consider the current Gadol HaDor. 

But those Charedi magazines decided to be Frummer than Agudah, ArtScroll, and Rav Kanievsky. They and have adopted the approach of Chasidic groups like Satmar.  And as Politico notes the practice is spreading. 

In my view (they might deny it) the real reason those magazines do it is their bottom line. Their target readership includes a very large segment of Chasidm that would never allow into their homes a publication that has any picture of a woman. The publishers of those magazines do not want to lose that large demographic since circulation numbers affects their advertising rates. Those among us that don’t like it, will mostly not likely boycott those magazines anyway. 

But even if some of us did, the numbers would probably be too small to affect their bottom line. So that makes it a financial issue and and not a Halalchic or Hashafic one. Which is corroborated by the fact that at least one of those magazine’s online presence does feature pictures of women. That will not chase away the Chasidic demographic from their print edition since they don’t access the internet anyway. 

One might say that they can’t be blamed for wanting to increase their circulation numbers and thereby bottom line. At the end of the day, magazines are a business which is all about the bottom line. But there is a price to be paid. Which in my view is way too high.  

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Truth or Fiction? A Former Moshichist Speaks Out

Chabad Shiluchim at the 2015 international conference in Crown Heights (HDB)
I am going to do something today that I rarely do. I am going to publish in full a rather lengthy but I believe very insightful article published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin written by Joseph (Yossi) Newfield - a former Lubavitch Moshichist. The article speaks for itself. Without further comment - it follows.

AS MY REBBE LAY DEAD on the floor of his office, I noticed a small group of men dancing and chanting outside on the street: “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah, Forever and Ever!” Only hours earlier, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, was pronounced dead by the hospital physician, but for many of his Hasidic followers, he was still the long-awaited Messiah.

It was a hot and muggy Saturday night in June 1994. As a 14-year-old yeshiva student, I joined the vigil standing outside Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, hoping and praying that the Rebbe would miraculously return to his followers and community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Alas, at 12:30 AM our hopes were dashed. Standing among the thousand Chabad followers, I saw the stretcher carried out on its way back to Brooklyn.

I rushed back to the Rebbe’s synagogue, known throughout the world by its address, “770.” There, a long line of mourners filed by the Rebbe’s office on the first floor to pay their final respects. When I saw the outline of his body laid out on the floor, wrapped in a prayer shawl, I was shocked and bewildered. He was surrounded by 10 burning candles and a small delegation of elderly Hasidim reciting the book of Psalms.

The crowd swept me outside to the street. Still in shock, I joined the dancing Hasidim and chanted along with them. I continued dancing throughout the night until daybreak. By 6 AM, completely exhausted, I made my way home and collapsed into bed.

Later in the day, I stood among the thousands of Hasidim gathered outside the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens as the Rebbe was interred next to his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn. It began to dawn on me that the burial would surely put an end to the Rebbe’s messiahship. Or so I assumed.

More than 26 years have passed since the Rebbe’s demise. Nevertheless, to this day, most of the Rebbe’s followers, known as Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, continue to believe in his messianic identity. How can this be?

For years leading up to the Rebbe’s passing, and with tacit encouragement from the Rebbe himself, Chabad followers came to believe that the Rebbe was the Messiah. To a large extent, this messianic attribution was connected to the Rebbe’s mission of reaching out to every Jew across the globe. Unlike other Orthodox rabbis and Hasidic leaders, who primarily concern themselves with their own flock, the Rebbe saw himself as the leader of world Jewry. To this end, he sent emissaries from his headquarters in Brooklyn to every corner of the globe. To date, the Chabad movement has established approximately four thousand outposts, or Chabad Houses, around the world.

No previous Jewish leader had such astounding global ambitions. As the Rebbe’s program of Jewish outreach picked up steam in the early 1990s, his followers became ever more convinced that he must be the long-awaited Messiah. The Rebbe had no children and his health was deteriorating rapidly. In 1992, at the age of 90, he suffered a severe stroke, which led to his loss of speech and his ability to walk. In his weakened condition, he would appear for the evening prayer service on a specially built balcony in the back of his synagogue. On cue, the moment the curtains parted and the Rebbe came into view, the Hasidim would begin chanting fervently, “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah.”

The Rebbe’s death on June 12, 1994, came as a total shock to all of us. For the Chabad movement, his death simply made no sense. Everyone I knew—family, friends, and teachers—was convinced that the Rebbe was the Messiah. As such, how could he have died? Prior to the Rebbe’s death, the movement took it for granted that the Messiah had to come from the living, not the dead. Jews knew that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he left the world in an unredeemed state. Likewise, most observers outside of the Chabad movement were convinced that upon the Rebbe’s death, his followers would cease to believe that he was the Messiah. But they underestimated the tenacity of his followers’ faith in the Rebbe.

 

After the initial shock of the Rebbe’s passing, the Chabad movement recalibrated itself and came to believe that now, with the Rebbe no longer among the living, the Messiah would have to come from the dead. All that was needed was for the Rebbe to return to his synagogue in Brooklyn and finish the work he began prior to his death. Upon his return, he would gather all the Jews back to the Land of Israel and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem. In effect, this new schema can be considered a Hasidic version of the Second Coming.

Until the age of 22, I, too, managed to shake off the Rebbe’s death and continued to believe in his messianic identity. Like so many of my friends, I also had the mantra “Long Live the Rebbe, King Messiah” emblazoned on my head covering, or kippah. One of the popular communal songs my friends and I would listen to incessantly proclaimed, “He wouldn’t teach us falsehoods, he wouldn’t tell us lies, if he said the Messiah was coming, he will be here at last.” Even though I couldn’t see the Rebbe anymore in the flesh, I was convinced that if the Rebbe prophesized the Messiah was on his way—and I was sure he was the Messiah—it was only a matter of time before he returned. In the meantime, I continued studying the Rebbe’s many messianic-tinged speeches and talks. 

I GREW UP IN A strange home. My father is a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Medical School, but he sent my three brothers and me to a school that did not even teach the ABCs. How this was possible had to do with my father’s disenchantment with secular Jewish life as a young man. By the time he was 25, he had finished medical school and had joined the Chabad Hasidic movement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My mother also gave up her comfortable secular Jewish lifestyle and joined the Chabad movement upon her graduation from Queens College. A matchmaker brought my parents together; they had nine children. My school, or yeshiva, was founded in 1956 with the express purpose of only teaching a Torah curriculum—with the language of instruction in Yiddish. This meant that we did not learn even basic English, math, and science. Instead, we studied the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish law, all day, every day.

I was aware from an early age that following my father into medicine was out of the question. My school did not give out high school diplomas—how could it?—we didn’t learn the English language. Grudgingly, I made peace with this reality because I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations to become the Torah scholar they couldn’t be. As the oldest boy in the family and the most scholastically inclined, I was going to be the one to help my family integrate into the austere Hasidic movement. Despite not gaining the education and skills to make it in the outside world, I took comfort in the fact that I knew my Rebbe was the Messiah, and it was only a matter of time before he would return and gather all the Jews back to our ancient homeland and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem.

When I turned 17, I enrolled in the Chabad yeshiva, or seminary, in Montreal, Canada. I discovered that most of the yeshiva students, numbering some 100 or more, also took the Rebbe’s messianic identity for granted. We assumed it was simply a matter of time before the Rebbe would return and complete his messianic mission.

As an inquisitive young scholar, I searched for books that were not included within the yeshiva’s restricted and limited collection of talmudic and rabbinic texts. One day, while perusing the stacks of the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, I discovered the Hebrew-language book, False Messiahs and Their Opponents, published in Israel by Rabbi Benjamin Solomon Hamburger in 1989. Without explicitly mentioning the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, it became apparent to me that the book’s real goal was to debunk the Chabad belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship.

The book described the numerous false messiahs who appeared throughout Jewish history, starting with Jesus and culminating with the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Hertzl. Its message resonated with me and I started to have doubts. On the one hand, I wanted to dismiss this book since I knew the author was an opponent of the entire Hasidic movement, including the Chabad sect I belong to. As a proud Hasid, I didn’t think I had to take the author too seriously. On the other hand, the book made a very important observation—that every Jewish messianic movement ended in failure. The thought that my belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity might be misguided began to haunt me.

The more I wrestled with this question, the more convinced I became that I would have to read the book that was strictly forbidden to Orthodox Jews: the New Testament itself. Perhaps it would help me understand if the Rebbe could still be the Messiah even after his passing. By the time I came to the book of John, it became apparent to me that the parallels between Chabad’s belief in the Rebbe and the faith of the early followers of Jesus were undeniable; both groups of Jews continued to insist on their leader’s messianic identity following his earthly ministry.

This realization frightened me. From the earliest age, I was taught that Christianity was false and Jesus could not be the Jewish Messiah. Over the years, I had argued with Jews for Jesus and tried to prove to them that Jesus was not the Messiah. Now, after reading the Gospels, it dawned on me that my own community was like the early followers of Jesus; we could not let go of our Rebbe. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the disciples of Jesus and my fellow Hasidim both insisted that our respective leaders were the long-awaited Messiah, their deaths notwithstanding. This parallel to Christianity made me exceedingly uncomfortable.

The belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity, while widespread in the Chabad community, expresses itself in different ways. For the vast majority of the Chabad movement, the Rebbe’s burial is not denied. In fact, they visit the Rebbe’s gravesite on a regular basis. But his burial is seen as merely temporary. If only we did one more good deed, or mitzvah, his return would surely be hastened. Perhaps for this reason, the Chabad movement has not appointed a replacement rebbe, since the “Rebbe” will be returning at any minute.

During the Rebbe’s lifetime, every couple would wait for the Rebbe’s blessing before getting engaged. If the blessing was not given, it was a sign that the Rebbe disapproved of the match and the engagement would be called off. With the Rebbe no longer among the living, the custom transformed to seeking his approval and blessing at the gravesite. This is accomplished by praying at the gravesite and laying a note on the grave, informing the Rebbe of the couple’s intention to marry. With this pilgrimage, the Rebbe’s approval is assumed. Upon leaving the gravesite, the couple will announce their engagement to their waiting family and friends and sponsor a small collation at the adjacent 24-hour visitor center.

Some Chabad members are not satisfied with assuming the Rebbe’s approval for individual requests, such as guidance on job offers or medical questions. They opt to divine the Rebbe’s guidance by consulting his 30-plus volumes of published letters, known as the “Holy Letters.” The individuals requesting guidance pen a letter to the Rebbe outlining their concern or question and insert the letter randomly into one of the volumes of the “Holy Letters.” Then they open up the book to the page where the letter had been inserted and read the printed letter found there. In this way, they find their answer in the published letter that the Rebbe had sent to someone else decades ago.1

A small but vocal minority of the Chabad movement continues to this day to deny that the Rebbe passed away at all. For them, the Rebbe is not buried in Old Montefiore Cemetery, but is still present in his synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. The fact that they can’t see him in “770” is of no concern. They are sure he is there and ministering, as he had for 40 years before the “Day that can’t be mentioned.” For them, June 12, 1994, is not the day the Rebbe passed away from this world; rather, it’s the day of the Rebbe’s “disappearance.” They set up his prayer lectern in the main synagogue, as was customarily done during the Rebbe’s “visible” lifetime. They also clear a path for the now “invisible” Rebbe to enter and exit the prayer service, and they reenact various public functions in which the Rebbe participated.2 Whether they believe the Rebbe is physically buried in Queens or is still residing in his synagogue in Brooklyn, the majority of Chabad followers continue to maintain that the Rebbe is the long-awaited Messiah. Not since the time of Jesus has a committed, traditionally observant Jewish community continued to maintain such a belief. This phenomenon raises many historical and theological questions.

For David Berger, a rabbi and professor at Yeshiva University, the messianic fervor currently gripping the Chabad movement is outside the pale of normative Orthodox Judaism.3 As such, he believes it should be condemned as heretical and those professing this belief should not be counted in the tradition prayer quorum (minyan). Despite his best efforts, the majority of the Orthodox establishment has not been moved to accept Berger’s call to arms.

With no replacement rebbe on the horizon, the Chabad movement today is just as dominated by the Rebbe as it was prior to his passing. They have not internalized his passing. Grieving for a loved one primarily consists of accepting the loss. The natural grieving process has been stunted, since the Rebbe is still very much alive for them on a daily basis. Besides communicating with him through his “Holy Letters,” the community incessantly watches historic film footage of his lengthy sermons.4

Ever since the Rebbe’s passing, scholars have debated whether the Rebbe himself believed he was the Messiah. One of the first academics to tackle this question was Joel Marcus of Duke Divinity School. Marcus concluded:

The recent history of the modern Chabad (Lubavitcher) movement of Hasidic Judaism provides insight into the development of early Christianity. In both movements successful eschatological prophecies have increased belief in the leader’s authority, and there is a mixture of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ elements. Similar genres of literature are used to spread the good news (e.g. miracle catenae and collections of originally independent sayings). Both leaders tacitly accepted the messianic faith of their followers but were reticent about acclaiming their messiahship directly.5

On the one hand, the Rebbe never emphatically stated, “I am the Messiah.” Still, the many hints he gave his followers over the years seem to have indicated that he believed in his own messianic identity. While, for academics, the question of the Rebbe’s messiahship may be interesting material for papers and conferences, for the Chabad movement, the Rebbe’s messianic identity is of existential importance. This was starkly evident when I examined the tombstone inscriptions of a number of recently deceased messianic Chabad members. I noticed that their families engraved the message that the deceased “faithfully believed in the Rebbe’s messiahship.”

After the Rebbe’s passing, his critics resumed their assault on his messiahship with new zeal. In 2010, Rabbi Hamburger of Bnei Brak, Israel, reissued his book False Messiahs and Their Opponents in an expanded 703-page edition. This time, unlike his first edition in 1989, he attacks the Chabad belief in their Rebbe’s messianic identity directly in his long introduction. He states that even those who may have given Chabad the benefit of the doubt in 1989 will surely now admit that the Rebbe never was the Messiah. Reading the new edition confirmed my ever-increasing conviction that the Rebbe was not the Jewish Messiah, while also validating my perception that the first edition was written in order to undermine belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity.

For many in the Chabad movement, Rabbi Hamburger’s book won’t dissuade them in the slightest of their belief. For one, he is a follower of their long-time antagonist Rabbi Eliezer Schach, who openly challenged the Rebbe even during his lifetime. Within Chabad, Rabbi Schach is seen as a sort of anti-Christ for challenging the Rebbe on theological and philosophical grounds. In any case, Chabad has seldom taken outside views into consideration when deciding what to believe or how to behave.

Tragically, the coronavirus has hit the Rebbe’s community in Brooklyn very hard. At least 100 members of his tight-knit community in Crown Heights passed away in the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020. Among the victims was the Rebbe’s personal long-time secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, a revered figure within the Chabad movement. Sadly, a close Chabad friend of mine, Rabbi Yehudah Dukes, age 40, recently lost his 10-month heroic battle with COVID-19. For his wife, six children, and the entire Chabad community, Rabbi Dukes’s passing was a terrible and painful blow.

In reading responses and missives following some of these losses, it has occurred to me that the denial over the Rebbe’s death has trickled down to personal tragedies as well. Now, the Rebbe is not the only one who is only “temporarily” missing; his followers are as well. This jump from the temporarily missing Rebbe to personal loss may not have been inevitable in 1994, but it may be the logical consequence of Chabad’s inability to come to terms with the Rebbe’s earthly passing. 

WHERE DOES THIS leave the Chabad movement going forward? Will a time come when the Chabad movement will cease waiting for the Rebbe’s return and appoint a new leader? Or will they continue indefinitely to believe in the Rebbe’s messianic identity and refrain from ever appointing a new leader? If the historical Jewish movement that grew up around the person of Jesus is any indication, it would seem that once a Jewish leader is perceived to be the Messiah, his followers will find it difficult to give up this belief, despite his death or “disappearance.” As long as Chabad followers can inspire their progeny to believe in the Rebbe’s messiahship, he will continue to be the Messiah—if not for the world, then at least for his tens of thousands of followers.

As for me, giving up the belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship has come at a terrible price. Until the age of 22, I believed heart and soul in the Rebbe’s messianic identity. But the more Jewish history I read, the more convinced I became that the Jewish Messiah has to come from the living, not the dead. My readings on the Sabbatean movement were instructive, highlighting for me the dangers of the messianic impulse. Once I gave up the belief in the Rebbe’s messiahship, I found myself outside the community, if not physically, then spiritually. I don’t see eye to eye with my friends and family. While they eagerly await the Rebbe’s return, I am sure that they will never see the Rebbe again. Chabad members are fond of saying, “May we merit to see the Rebbe in the flesh,” but I know the Rebbe’s earthly ministry has ended for all eternity.

My loss of belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity didn’t only affect my relationships with family and friends, it also affected my belief in the bedrock principles of Orthodox Judaism. The belief in a Messiah is only one of Maimonides’s (1138–1204) obligatory 13 principles of faith. If what I was taught regarding the Rebbe’s messianic identity is false, I reasoned, maybe other beliefs taught to me were false too. This doubt led me on a multiyear quest to investigate every belief I was ever taught.

And once I accepted that the Rebbe is not the Messiah and will not be returning, my lack of secular education came back to haunt me. Finding myself outside the community, without even basic knowledge of English grammar and math, made me bitter and angry. I felt like my education had been sacrificed on the altar of the Rebbe’s messiahship. Sitting through the GED exam at the age of 23 was a humbling experience. As I filled out the exam, I kept coming back to the same question: “How could my own father have denied me a basic secular education, when he was given the best education in the world?”

I did become the Torah scholar my parents envisioned me to be, but my loss of conviction undermined my ability to share this knowledge with others. I understand why Chabad followers tenaciously hold on to the Rebbe’s messianic identity, as letting go can call into question their very faith in Orthodox Judaism. My family and friends are not burdened by the New Testament since they consider such knowledge off limits. But my own inquisitive nature would not allow me to block out information and knowledge, however forbidden it was considered by my community.

With time, I came to understand that my parents joined the Chabad movement without fully understanding the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the community itself. The great irony is that it was my own belief in the Rebbe’s messianic identity that led to my disenchantment with the community my parents fought so hard to join. Ultimately, the Talmud was correct when it stated, “He who adds to the Torah will eventually come to subtract from the Torah.”

Today, I am skeptical of religious claims, especially of a messianic nature. I discovered classical music and opera at the age of 30. Listening to Mahler’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall can only be described as transformative. I wept though the heartbreaking Adagio. I guess I was crying for my lost faith and lost Rebbe. Verdi’s Aida taught me that from time immemorial, people have been trying to connect to the infinite and the eternal.

I suppose the messianic psychology of the current Chabad movement is not very different from the messianic fervor that took hold of the early followers of Jesus, or that occurs in other movements that hold up a leader as the one and only savior and embrace apocalyptic visions of the “end times” when their deceased leader will return. The times may have changed, but the impulse is the same. If only I could join in.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

No Education and a Warped Sense of Ethics

Image from Rationalist Judaism
I know Rabbi Natan Slifkin meant it tongue in cheek. But the sad reality is that his latest post praising Vizhnitz is exactly that:  a tongue in cheek comment that ‘applauds’ their acknowledgement that their students are woefully undereducated and unprepared to function in the real world. That their inability to make a decent living is a direct result of this lack. 

But if one realizes the context in which they said it. It is a mere a tactic deployed to defend the criminal activity of Chaim Stern, a Vizhnitz  Chasid who is a big supporter. He has given Vizhnitz huge sums of money in support of their religious and charitable institutions. Much of which were ill gotten gains involving all kinds of fraud to which he plead guilty. Here is their ‘money quote’ (no pun intended) from Rabbi Slifkin’s blog: 

"Mr. Stern was not a good businessman. He had no business experience, no secular education, limited ability to read, write (in English), or do math... and he has no business schooling or training. As a result of these limitations, Mr. Stern has no appreciation for the niceties of bookkeeping or proper business management... Even though Mr. Stern had barely any secular education, having only attended a religious school up through approximately 8th grade, had never run even a small business himself and certainly did not have any experience running a complex and highly-regulated company like a nursing home, nonetheless, with “the blessing of the Rebbe,” Mr. Stern decided to enter the nursing home industry. This naïve optimism in his ability to carry the day through nothing but hard work would lead to financial disaster and, eventually, to the crimes to which Mr. Stern has pleaded guilty..." 

If this statement were sincere, they would be in hyperdrive - changing their educational paradigm to correct that situation. So that it would prevent anything like this from ever happening again. They would be consulting with the best educational experts in the world to implement a secular curriculum in all their schools.

Now I have no knowledge about whether they are doing this. But I would be willing to bet that they have no intention at all of changing anything. 

The sad thing is that their statement makes perfect sense. Changing their educational paradigm would surely help reduce financial crimes like Stern’s  – if not eliminate them completely. True - there will always be wise guys that think they can outsmart the system to the tune of millions of dollars. But making sure that their students get a basic secular education will enable many of them to get higher paying jobs and be less tempted to resort to shady business practices. 

I have been preaching this for as long as I can remember - and I am not the only one. Their statement makes it seem like they finally got the message.  But instead of taking the obvious steps suggested by it they will no doubt continue to do what they have always done. Which is to vigorously fight any and all attempts at change.

Furthermore, let us examine if that statement is really any defense at all. I would suggest that it doesn’t really require much of an education to understand that defrauding the government is wrong. Knowing right from wrong takes honesty and integrity. Something that should be taught at the earliest of ages by their parents.

The sad truth is that they do not consider fraud all that unethical. Especially if those ill gotten gains go to their religious institutions. The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Slifkin’s  earlier post on the subject - quoting from the Charedi website B’Chadrei Charedim:

A rare and unique assembly took place on Tuesday this week, in the Hall of Vizhnitz Chassidus in Bnei Brak. The Rebbe sought to glorify and support the greatest supporter of their institutions, R. Chaim Stein, who would be entering prison the next day for tax fraud. The Rebbe surprised everyone with words that an Admor has never stated about a Chassid... "Tomorrow, our precious Chaim ben Sara Rivka does not go to prison for something that he did for himself. He goes for something about which I can attest was all for the place that we are in right now - it is all in his merit... My holy father is standing in Heaven and wants to show an example, for the sake of the education of future generations, of what mesirus nefesh for a Rebbe and Chassidus looks like! ...If people ask me, which sect of Vizhnitz do I belong to, I will say: I am the Rebbe of R. Chaim Stern!" 

Unfortunately, there was another event that corroborates this kind of thinking. If you can commit government fraud and get away with it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Just do not get caught. Funding religious institutions has become a monumental task. There is just not enough money  to pay for all the good their Mosdos (religious institutions do).  Making it praiseworthy to get those funds whichever way one can - even if it involves defrauding the government.

That was made clear many years ago when a respected Chasidic Rebbe with many Mosdos to his credit was caught in a widespread money laundering/tax evasion scheme so complex that it crossed international borders.  After he was sentenced he made a public apology – which basically amounted to apologizing for getting caught. And suggested that there were legal ways to  meet financial needs - for which he has hired lawyers to advise him. Adding that there was no need, therefore to defraud the government. The subtext of which might read – but if there is a need then go ahead and defraud them. Just don’t get caught like I did! 

I think this might still be the attitude – despite their admission about Mr. Stern’s utter lack of any secular education being responsible for his troubles. 

I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could be proven wrong. I wish they would take their own words to heart and do something about it. But in saying that - there is something about snowballs in hell that comes to mind

Monday, June 07, 2021

Of Flag Wavers and Incitement

2018 Flag Dance March at Damascus Gate in the old city (JP)
I will never forget it. June 6th 1967. That was the day the Jewish people recaptured East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. 

This should not be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. I have made my feelings known here many times. Usually around this time of year when Israelis celebrate that event. I repeat it again to make it clear how strongly I feel about that momentous event in light of an upcoming event. The feeling of joy and gratitude to God and his ‘agents’ the IDF for enabling that return is immeasurable. 

And yet I find myself agreeing with Israeli left. I cannot protest the Jerusalem Flag Dance march celebrating that event enough. It is scheduled for this Thursday - delayed from its original date due to the mini-war with Gaza!. Form the Jewish Press

…leftist Israeli politicians are calling to cancel the “do over” march.

Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak claimed while speaking at a “Culture Shabbat” event hosted by Daphna Liel in Modi’in on Saturday the rescheduled event is an attempt to “thwart the change government.”

“We are at the beginning of difficult days in which a lot of pressure and attempts will be made to thwart the change government, but in the end, a new era will begin here. The will to form a government that will unite the division in Israeli society will overcome all attempts to thwart it,” Ben-Barak tweeted. 

One may ask, how can I be so overjoyed at the return of this holy area into our hands and at the same time protest celebrating it? 

The answer is that I do not protest celebrating it at all. I just protest the way it is being celebrated. To put it the way Ben-Barak did: 

“It’s not a Flag Dance March,” he wrote in a separate tweet, “it’s a March of Matchsticks.” 

He is right. 

If it hasn’t been clear until now how Palestinians feel about us… if it hasn’t been made clear that the Arab in the street considers Israel an illegitimate country colonized by European Jews at the expense of indigenous Arabs (now called Palestinians) - the violent reaction to Israel’s defensive tactics in Gaza  by even Israeli Arabs living together with Jews in mixed neighborhoods for years should have spelled it out in bold relief. 

They do not want Jews in their country.  Arabs are a religious people consisting mostly of devout Muslims.  To them Israel is a contradiction to their theology. Which grants the land to them. Jews are considered occupiers - usurpers of their land. If they could they would expel us all. To the extent that they tolerate us is to the extent that they know they can’t do it. It is a physical impossibility – tried several times since Israel’s founding over 70 years ago - to complete and utter failure. They resent us for that. 

Let me quickly add that not all Israeli Arabs feel this way. Many (most?)  Israeli Arabs are quite happy with their personal status quo. They do not want to change a thing about it. Many of them actually oppose a 2 state solution. Asked if they would move to a Palestinian state in any such eventuality - many of them would answer that they would reject it out of hand. They are living well and prospering. But in the back of their minds, Palestinian pride still exists. Which came out in some of them with a vengeance during Israel’s latest defensive tactics in Gaza. 

It is for this reason that I oppose that march. There is nothing gained by waving the Israeli flag in their faces. That just makes them angry. 

What is gained by doing that? How is any Israeli’s life made better by it? How does that make our current status in the world any better? How does it promote peace and tranquility? 

The answer is it does not do any of those things. It does the opposite. That in years past they had this march without incident may be true.  But that doesn’t mean the Arabs living in Jerusalem liked it. They just put up with it.

I don’t know if anything would happen if they go ahead as planned this year. But why take the chance? To show them whose boss?! To tell them that we are here to stay and there is nothing they can do about it?! 

I think they know that. We don’t need to remind them. All this march will accomplish is to reignite the anger they expressed during the recent Gaza defensive. We saw the violence their anger brought out in some of them. Do we really need more of that? 

It’s true that a lot of their militants don’t need much of an excuse to attack us. But why give them any excuse at all? 

My advice to these flag wavers is to stay home and wave their flags there. Israel will still be in charge of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. And by staying home they may just save a Jewish life or two in the process.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

YU's Courageous Decision

Kay Lahusen (right) at a 1967 demonstration (WP)
Gay rights activist, photojournalist Kay Lahusen died a few days ago at age 91. 

Back in prehistoric times (the late sixties) I was a post high school Yeshiva student at  HTC. In those days almost all of us attended college with an eye towards Parnassa (making a living). My major at the time was psychology. One of the things that was written in stone back then was that homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. That is what we were taught by our professors. And that is how textbooks described it. I received my bachelor’s degree in 1969. A few short years later in 1973 the APA (American Psychological Association) removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. 

Kay Lahusen’s early advocacy for gay rights is largely credited for the APA’s decision to do that. Which makes me kind of wonder whether that change was more political than it was scientific. Be that as it may. That decision changed everything. Back then people who had same sex attractions were all in the closet. Identifying as gay made one a pariah among their friends and peers. They were forced to pretend to be straight. Which also caused many of them to be so clinically depressed that suicide was sometimes considered an option. As it so often is for anyone that is clinically depressed. 

Kay Lahusen got the ball rolling. Today, homosexuality is all but completely normalized. Going from being considered abnormal behavior to becoming completely normal. so much so that gay marriage is now the law of the land!  

The mainstream media is clearly on board with that. They consider the lifestyle of gay people to be just as legitimate as straight people. I suppose their sense of fairness leads them to feel that way.  I completely understand that if you consider that the current consensus by mental health experts is that human beings are hard wired to their sexual preferences. Whether or not there is a gay gene is a matter of debate. But what is not debated it seems is that - whether it is nature or nurture - sexual  preferences are determined at a very early age and do not change. One can change their behavior but not which sex they are attracted to. (Whether or not it is a good idea to change your behavior to something that is against your nature is beyond the scope of this post.) 

My own view is that as these things are now understood, we must accept that reality and treat gay people with the same dignity we treat straight people. Persecuting someone because of who they are attracted to should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. 

On the other hand, if you are a believing Jew (or even a Christian or Muslim for that matter), to completely normalize a gay lifestyle is also wrong. The bible is very clear on this matter. Gay sex is forbidden. There is no way to re-interpret a clear and unambiguous biblical statement. Homosexual sex is considered a capital sin in the ‘eyes’ of God. 

None of this is new. I’ve said it all before. How can we reconcile the Torah’s prohibition with the understanding of, and respect  for gay people that I advocate? I don’t see a problem. There is a difference between understanding and respect on the one hand and full acceptance of a lifestyle conducive to sin – on the other. In my view this is exactly what God wants of us. Which is basically to reject the sin and not the sinner. Leaving the sinner in God’s hands. 

Sadly respect for the biblical approach has long ago been abandoned by the mainstream media. They make no such distinction. They see no moral difference between gay and staright lifestyles. They are considered morally equivalent.  A matter of personal choice. They might argue that it is nobody’s business what goes on in the privacy of the bedroom – whether it is gay or staright sex. I actually agree with that. What I do not agree with is giving it moral equivalency.  

Unfortunately the  media is very influential in determining what is considered moral. As is the entertainment industry whose attitude  on the subject makes the media look almost conservative by comparison. They seem to celebrate homosexuality more than they do heterosexuality. 

These two massive influential entities cannot help but influence how most Americans view it. I don’t know the numbers. But it would not surprise me if most Americans actually agree with them. Certainly our public servants in various legislative bodies seem to agree as do the courts. Which is why gay marriage is now legal. 

That just tells me how the bible is increasingly seen as irrelevant by the American public. What man determines is moral is what makes it moral. 

But not this American. Nor any other American that takes the bible seriously. Life is complicated and careful distinctions need to be made if we are to maintain our religious beliefs..

Which brings me to the decision made recently by YU (Yeshiva University). To their credit they had the courage to resist pressure to allow a gay club on their campus - despite the fact that they are a nonsectarian college that that receives government funds conditioned on non discrimination: 

Yeshiva University is defending its decision to refuse official club status to the Pride Alliance — an unofficial, undergraduate LGBTQ club… 

Back in April, the Pride Alliance, several YU alumni and an anonymous student sued YU, President Ari Berman and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Chaim Nissel for discrimination under New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) for rejecting the Pride Alliance as an official student club. They argued that, as a nonsectarian institution, YU is bound by NYCHRL and must approve the club or lose their funding… 

The university is now arguing that an institution’s nonsectarian status is solely determined through its admissions of students — meaning that it does not discriminate in admitting students. YU adds that, while not being a “religious corporation,” it has always functioned as a religious entity, which exempts it from following NYCHRL that prohibits discrimination. 

Referencing its Torah Umadda mission, emphasis on “Torah values”…YU explained that it is “wholly committed and guided by Halacha and Torah values,” which is why it rejected other student clubs in the past, such as a Jewish AEPi fraternity and a gambling club,  because they appeared not “consistent with Torah values.” 

I believe that YU expresses exactly the attitude that I advocate. They do not discriminate in their admissions policy, but will not allow a social club on its campus. That would send the wrong message of normalizing that lifestyle. Which is not what any organization that calls itself Orthodox can do. It’s just too bad that it goes against the current tide of non biblical values overtaking the country.