Friday, May 29, 2015

Another Modesty Chumra Hits the Fan

Female Chasidim of Belz in England have been forbidden to drive (IBT)
“Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us we have to cover our faces in public!” According to an e-mail from a member of an online Jewish forum to which I belong - this sentiment was apparently expressed by R’ Ovadia Yosef’s daughter.  She was reacting to the Charedi newspapers blocking out the faces of women in the widely distributed  picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new cabinet members. 

Whether this is true or not (and I suspect it is) I’m sure that this is how the majority of Orthodox Jewish women feel about the kinds of things going on in the far right of Orthodoxy. And that isn’t even the latest nonsense coming out of that community. Nor is that community limited to Israel.  From the International Business Times
The leaders of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in North London have banned women from driving, in a move that has sparked outrage and comparisons to Saudi Arabia’s widely condemned ban on female drivers. A letter endorsed last week by rabbis of the Hasidic Belz sect in Stamford Hill said that women drivers defied “traditional rules of modesty” and that those who continue to drive would risk having their children barred from school, the Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday. 
These kinds of modesty extremes keep on piling on. With claims by these people that they are the most devout among us. As I have said many times in the past, the various religious camps in Judaism have every right to do as they please. They can be as Machmir as they want to be. But when their extreme versions of modesty become public it makes Judaism look like it belongs in the dark ages. And I am going to publicly protest it.

It is not good enough to dissociate ourselves from people who are otherwise seen as the most religious among us. Because these people are not a cult. They are mainstream Chasidim.

If they were a cult, it would be easy to make it clear to the world that they are. And positively reject them as being in any way representative of authentic Judaism. Belz has been around since the early 19th century. They are a very large group that has many adherents in many countries. Tens of thousands of people are Belzer Chasidm. So when they come out with ban against women driving with a sanction of expelling the children of violators from their schools, a lot of people will think that this is a serious violation of Jewish modesty standards. Even as they – might - know there are modern Orthodox or even Charedi Rabbis that do not keep these kinds of stringencies and consider them extreme, They will surmise that the more devout Jew will adhere to them.

Consider all the extremes like this that have been on public display in recent times: Separate sides of the street for men and women in both Israel and the US; Separate seating on public transportation; Never publishing pictures of women; not even mentioning a woman’s name in print; demands to exchange seats on an airplane so that a Chasid can avoid sitting next to a woman; panning Shaitels (wigs) that are too long…

And then you have the vigilante types that will not countenance infractions. From rebuking women in public, to throwing rocks at them, to spitting on them; to spilling acid in their faces, to beating them up in a bus; to torching a clothing store that does not measure up… and God only knows what else. And then there is the often cited reason for world disasters: lack of sufficient modesty on the part of our women.

That driving is forbidden is not new. The ban on women driving has existed for some time now in these circles. Just as it has in Saudi Arabia. I recall a very Chasidic Rebbetzin here in Chicago that started driving against her father’s wishes back in the 70s. Her father was a widely regarded senior Chasidic Posek in Israel who forbade his daughters to drive. But she felt she had to because she did not want to burden her very busy husband with driving car pools for their many children who were spread by age across different schools (elementary boys and girls; and high school boys and girls).

 It seems that in certain Jewish circles we are approaching the Muslim versions of modesty. Which seems to make R’ Ovadia’s daughter’s statement a distinct possibility.

There are those who will say that we should admire this level of sensitivity to modesty. Or at least that we should ’live and let live’. Normally I would agree. But not if it makes Judaism look primitive or silly. When a mainstream religious sect touts itself as being the most religious among us, it is quite normal for the uninitiated readers of a secular newspaper to see their extremes as a just more devout expression of Judaism – instead of seeing it for the extreme it is.

It’s kind of like this for me. If a sect wants to require wearing underwear on their head as a matter of Tznius, that is their right. But I am not going to be quiet and allow the world to think that is in any way a normal modesty requirement. I only wish mainstream rabbis in all versions of Orthodoxy would do the same, instead of praising them for their extreme sensitivity to modesty.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dating, Marriage, Divorce, and the Agunah

Scene from the movie, Gett  (Jew in the City)
It seems that Israeli Chief Rabbinate is hated (or at the very least, considered irrelevant) by virtually every segment of Jewry in Israel. Secular Jews because they see them as forcing religion down their throats. Dati Leumi (or Religious Zionist) Jews because they see the Rabbinate under control of Charedi Rabbininc leadership. And Charedim because the rabbinate is part of a Zionist government which is anathema to them.

All this is really too bad. If you are going to have a Jewish state, you are going to need rabbis to determine what is and isn’t Jewish. And they ought to have the power to enforce all matters religious. Such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. It’s therefore sad to see political and religious agendas undermining what I see as a necessary component of a Jewish state. A component that was agreed upon by the founders of the State and most of its religious leaders at the time.

But this is all a side issue. I mention it to contrast it with the reality of the Chief Rabbinate. Which in the case of the Agunah is exactly the opposite of what many of its detractors believe it to be.  As commonly defined, an Agunah is a woman that seeks a divorce (Gett) but whose husband refuses to give her one.  Contrary to the conventional wisdom (as reflected in the movie ‘Gett’) the opposite seems to be the case. Sender Haber, a rabbi who has dealt with many cases of Agunah, said the following in a Jew in the City article: 
As opposed to what the film would like you to think, women regularly file for divorce and plead their cases before Rabbinic courts. In addition, there are male and female “Rabbinic Advocates” (some of whom are secular Jews) who stand ready to represent their clients in a professional, effective, and empathetic manner…
Are there women out there waiting for their Jewish divorce? Yes, and it is heartbreaking and tragic…

The fact is that the Rabbinate in Israel has made some of the greatest strides in Jewish history to eradicate the Agunah issue. One in five women experience some form of extortion over their get, according to Mavoi Satum, but the Rabbinate is dealing with it…
A husband who refuses to grant a get has no chance of ever getting married by a competent rabbi. That is not always sufficient incentive, so the Rabbinate in Israel has developed a powerful arsenal: The Rabbinic Courts have the ability to freeze bank accounts, revoke driver’s licenses, seize property, and incarcerate husbands who refuse to grant a get. They can order solitary confinement or send a husband to a prison where they will not receive religious privileges granted to other prisoners. They can hire private investigators to track down recalcitrant husbands. They have even found ways to compel husbands who have fled the country to return and grant a get… 
So much for castigating the Israeli Rabbinate. Not everything is as black and white about them as many people seem to think it. Especially those with their own agendas - whether religious or political.

While it is nice to see improvement in this area, it brings to mind the troubling increase of divorce in our time. When I was growing up and well into the 80s, divorce used to be so rare, that one hardly ever heard of it. At least among Orthodox Jews. If someone was divorced, they tended hide it if they could.  The fact that there are so many cases of Agunos today underscores the fact that things have drastically changed. I know dozens of people in my own community here in Chicago that have gotten divorced. The question is, why? What is different today that was not the case yesterday?

One answer is that divorce in general society is so common and so accepted that it is almost celebrated. And this attitude has trickled down to us. There is little if any shame these days in getting divorced. So that issues between husband and wife that in the past that might have been worked through, are now enough to consider divorce as an option.

It is true that today’s attitudes about divorce has a positive side. Couples in truly bad marriages no longer have to suffer through them because of the embarrassment. But the fact is that a lot of marriages that can be saved, aren’t. If a marriage can be saved with a little work and compromise and yet divorce is the option taken, that is a tragedy. Especially when there are young children. I don’t think people that take this option so easily are aware of the psychological damage a divorce does to their children. In my view they aren’t even fully aware of the difficulties they will encounter themselves as divorcees.

As accepted as divorce is today, divorcees are often not fully accepted by the vast majority of people whose lives are geared to intact families. Even as many good and decent people try their best to include them. A whole new class of singles is created that are not quite compatible in a world where being married with children is the norm.

No discussion of divorce would be complete without a discussion of the so called Shidduch crisis. Which I think is a contributing factor to divorce.  The fact that there are so many young people that are having a difficult time getting married for a variety of reasons; and the fact that there are so many women as young as 25 that are seen as over-the-hill; makes many people jump into marriages with people they with whom they are not compatible at all.

Either problems are overlooked, or felt that they can somehow be dealt with when in reality they can’t. Or there just isn’t enough time during the dating process to discover problems that would have ended the relationship.  Divorce in these cases often ensue after just a few weeks of marriage. (Or even less in some cases. I know of at least 2 couples that filed for divorce right after the week of Sheva Brachos!) And in some cases like this Agunos are created.

For those that do manage to get a divorce, the Shidduch crisis is even more difficult as they now have baggage that their never married counterparts don’t have. All while competing for the same thing.

It seems to me that we ought to take stock of where our community stands right now on issues dating, marriage and divorce. We need to be just as concerned about the way we date and get married as we are about the Agunah crisis. Because if we get the dating and marriage part right, there will be a lot fewer Agunos in the world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The New Rabbi Riskin

Rabbi Shlomo Riskn, current Chief Rabbi of Efrat
How sad it is for me to see the demise of a great rabbi. But that is the only way I can see what is happening now to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He has essentially moved himself firmly into a religious position so far to the left that he seems to have effectively cut himself off from the mainstream.

I am sure that Rabbi Riskin’s large core of supporters will challenge me. They will say it is not Rabbi Riskin whose demise we are watching, but the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. They will say that the Rabbinate is the one that has moved out of the mainstream by coming under the influence (if not outright control) of the Charedi rabbinic leadership in Israel. While I agree that the Rabbinate has moved in a rightward direction that is influenced by Charedi Rabbonim, I am not convinced that their motivations with respect to Rabbi Riskin are necessarily a refection of that.  From JTA
The Chief Rabbinate has declined to automatically renew Riskin’s appointment and has summoned him for a hearing on the matter on June 29.  
Rabbi Riskin is defiant. He says he will remain Chief Rabbi no matter what the Rabbinate decides. For as long as the Efrat community wants him. 

Rabbi Riskin has been the Chief Rabbi of the West Bank city of Efrat since 1983  when he co-founded it. Before that he was the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS).  There is not a doubt in my mind that his contributions to Klal Yisroel are vast. He was an eloquent  defender of Orthodoxy against Reform and Conservative Judaism.  His principled view of living in Eretz Yisroel moved him to make Aliyah in the middle of a highly successful career.There he built a community of devoted citizens that absolutely adore him.

His commitment to Orthodoxy had always included the recognition that there were rabbis greater than he.  Chief among them - his Rebbe and mentor, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik (RYBS). He also consulted with R’ Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He always consulted with the likes of these great rabbis before embarking on ambitious projects designed to advance the cause of Orthodoxy.

Although there were some things about him that I saw as controversial (like his penchant for psychoanalyzing the Patriarchs of Judaism) I gave him a pass because of those overwhelming and indisputable  contributions. 

But as Gil Student points out – Rabbi Riskin has changed. He no longer feels the need to consult. And some of his programs have surpassed by far any possible approval from his Rebbe and mentor, RYBS. Like his decision to start ordaining women. Or his aggressive embrace of Christianity to the point of making flattering comments about Jesus in his attempt to increase and enhance Christian support of Israel and the Jewish people.

And then there is the sticky issue of conversions. Rabbi Riskin seems to feel that this is the primary issue that the rabbinate has with him. He disagrees with their requirement that all conversion should be done through them. And that only those conversions will be recognized as legitimate.  Rabbi Riskin believes that conversions should be allowed by local municipal rabbinical courts not subject to the rabbinate whose conversion standards vary.

His reasons are pure. He believes that the Rabbinate’s requirements are too strict for purposes of converting the masses of Russian immigrants who were born of a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother. There are Halachic opinions that allow for leniencies in such cases. And he feels that because of the demographic time bomb that these immigrants represent, every leniency should be employed even if they are no longer accepted by the mainstream. 

I’m not here to judge who is right and who is wrong as I am not qualified to do so.  What I will say is that matters of converting to Judaism should not be taken lightly. And that matters of state cannot supersede Halacha.

I suspect that this Rabbi Riskin may be right about why the Rabbinate is now reluctant to renew his status as Chief Rabbi of Efrat. But even without that, there is ample reason to question what he is doing in those other areas. One cannot look at past accomplishments. One must look at what that person is about now. One must make judgements about fitness based on the present. Not the past.  

I agree with Gil. Rabbi Riskin has changed. It is a change that clearly includes a radical agenda. I don’t blame the Rabbinate for carefully reviewing his fitness for the post. Radical agendas are not what Judaism is about. This is the new Rabbi Riskin. I miss the old one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What Did They Think They Would Accomplish?

A beachfront protest of Chilul Shabbos by Lakewood rabbis
I have to wonder about the wisdom of this ‘protest’. A ‘protest’ is how an event that took place last Shabbos was characterized. This protest was organized by BMG (Lakewood) Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Malkiel Kotler together with the Satmar Dayan of Lakewood. Its purpose was to protest the violation of Shabbos by the religious youth of Lakewood that have have abandoned observance of Halacha.

I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking. Does the world really need to know that religious rabbis protest the violation of Shabbos? Do young people that have abandoned the ways of their devoutly Orthodox parents not already know how these rabbis feel about it? Does the world in general need to be informed that Orthodox Jewish leaders protest violations of Jewish law? Or do they even care?

If these rabbis were expecting them to be moved to repent by walking through their midst on a Shabbos afternoon reciting Psalms, that is not what they got. What they got was pure ridicule. It makes me kind of wonder if these rabbinic leaders even have a clue as to what is going on in the world of Orthodox dropouts. Which is kind of strange since this is one of the biggest topics of discussion - even in their own world. It appears that they don’t care to know why did these young people abandoned the heritage of their parents.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades. And discussed to death by all sorts of people. Even those on the right. There was a feature article on this subject in Agudah’s now defunct magazine, the Jewish Observer back in the 1990s. If I recall correctly it was their most popular edition ever published. They sold out and there had been many requests for reprints. As recently as last year, Mishpacha had series of editorials by its editor in chief, Rabbi Moshe Grylak dealing with this problem in places like Bnei Brak.

Even back in the 1990s it wasn’t just a few wayward kids that were abandoning Halacha.  There were enough young people abandoning observance to create an entire community of young dropouts from observant families. They were no more an isolated few people. They had a huge community just like them that gave them comfort and support. A community that would envelop them with a sense of belonging. They were no longer outsiders. They were a community.Organizations like ‘Footsteps’ developed that would help the dropouts from the most extreme isolated communities transition from the world of observant Judaism to a secular lifestyle devoid of it.

We now have outreach organizations both in Israel and the US that cater to these young people. Many of whom have gone on to indulge in every vice imaginable. Alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and various and sundry other antisocial behaviors have become a common occurance. Some of these young people come from the finest of religious families. One can even find children of Roshei Yeshiva. There is no family that is immune to this phenomenon. No matter how religious; No matter how fine.

As I have said many times in the past, there are many reasons why someone would abandon his religious heritage.  But in Lakewood, I sense that the abandonment does not come so much from intellectual pursuits. My guess is that many of these dropouts are there because of antisocial reasons – having more to do with parental rigidity and rejection.

I sense that in many of these cases a father will not tolerate the slightest deviation from the rigidly religious lifestyle he chosen for his family. And that can easily turn off a child that is a somewhat independent minded. Or just feels that he can’t compete in that world. There are the schools that are so competitive that the level of success they require of their students can only be achieved by the best and brightest – and only if they work very hard at it. The parents tend to want to send their kids to these schools. Whose very high standards  have earned them their reputations. Thus putting impossible pressure on a child that can’t cut it. And that can easily discourage a child to the point of just not caring about his religion any more.

Or they may have a child that wants a taste of some of the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the secular culture that they constantly speak out against – painting it all as evil. In some cases if a child sees himself as violating the strict religious guidelines set by his parents, it might make him give up on religious observance altogether.

One of my closest friends has a son who is involved in outreach to formerly religious young people who have gone astray. Many to the point of drug abuse. He told me of one young man he was working with got to a point of getting off drugs. The father of this young man was pleased – and asked how soon his son would be ready to go back to Yeshiva!

I think this kind of clueless reaction is common and explains a lot about the mindset of Lakewood type parent. It is almost as if getting his son off drugs was irrelevant to his main goal of getting him back into a Yeshiva. For him getting him off drugs – a possibly life saving achievement on the part of this organization was seen as merely a first step towards getting him into the only kind of religious mainstream he could accept, that of being a Yeshiva Bachur.

And yet despite this obvious and growing problem these Lakewood rabbis continue to be oblivious to it. And see a protest like this as a method of counteracting it. This attitude can only result in an increase the number of its dropouts. Fewer and fewer young people will be able to cut it in the this increasingly religiously rigid and overly competitive world.  Can rabbinic leaders in Lakewood really think a protest march on a Shabbos where these dropouts hangout is going to change anything?!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Superficiality or Ehrlichkeit?

This evening begins a 3 day Yom Tov. We start with Shabbos and immediately veer into Shavuos on Motzei Shabbos. Shavuos is when we celebrate Matan Torah. The day that God gave the Jewish people His Torah at Sinai. It is a culmination of a period of counting that began on the 2nd day of Pesach. The Gemarah in Shabbos (88a) tells us that the statement in the Torah (Shemos 19:18) which says, ‘They stood under the mountain’ means that God lifted the mountain above our collective heads and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, all will be good.’ ‘If not, this will be your grave!’

And yet immediately after receiving the Torah the people of Israel later proclaimed ‘Na’aseh V’Nishma’ (Shemos 24:7)  -  we will do and we will listen. This is quintessential proclamation of accepting the Mitzvos before we even knew what they entailed. Are not these two verses in the Torah contradictory?

The Gemarah addresses this question (Shabbos 88a).

So which is it? Coercion or blind obedience? This is a famous question which has many answers.  One of which is that this is the very nature of our relationship with the Torah. On the one hand we are forced to accept it. If we don’t there are severe consequences. That is expressed by the first verse. On the other hand, in the second verse we show our enthusiastic willingness to do so. 

This is an important facet of our relationship with God. The idea being that Judaism is a religion that requires more than a forced relationship with God. Forced relationships are often characterized by the superficial nature of them. Na’aseh V’Nishma represents a willingness of the heart to observance of Halacha. It requires more than a forced version of observance. Which might be perfunctory and performed resentfully. It requires clinging to God. That idea is expressed in the biblical story of Ruth (Megilas Rus) which is customarily read on Shavuos.

To briefly summarize - Ruth and Orpah were the Moabite women whose Jewish husbands had died. Naomi was their mother in law whose husband had also died. Having lived in Moab at that time, Naomi decided to return to Israel. Both Ruth and Orpah loved their mother in law and wanted to follow her to Israel and convert.

Naomi tried to talk them both out of it – as is our custom when a non Jew wants to convert. We try and explain how difficult Judaism is to observe and fear that if they convert and then find observance too hard they will revert to not keeping the Mitzvos of the Torah. As non Jews there was no sin in that. But as Jews there would be and they would be better off as believing gentiles.

Orpah was convinced to return to Moab and resume her Moabite way of life. She kissed Naomi on the cheek and went on her way.  Ruth on the other hand would not budge. She famously said, ‘Where you  go, I will go.’ ‘Your people is my people.’ ‘Your God is my God.’ (Ruth 1:16-17) And she clung to Naomi.

The Gemarah in Sotah (42b) tells us that Orpah’s descendants were distinguished by viciousness, immorality, and anitsemitism. Ruth’s descendants were kings, prophets, and poets. Orpah produced Israel’s arch enemy the Philistine giant Goliath. Ruth produced David. Israel was constantly at war with the Philistines both militarily and culturally. This was epitomized by the battle between David and Goliath. People against people.  Culture against culture.

All this can be traced back to their grandmothers, Ruth and Orpah. The difference between them in how they expressed their love for Naomi were subtle. But that subtlety made all the difference in the world. Orpah kissed Naomi on the cheek and parted with her. Ruth clung to Naomi.  One’s affection was superficial – a kiss on the cheek. And the other showed a far more deeply held conviction. Orpah returned to her formerly pagan ways and her progeny were evil. Ruth became a Giyores (convert) that ultimately produced David, the great King and poet who authored Tehilim.  And from whose line Moshiach will come.

The moral of this story, I think, is that superficiality will never suffice in Judaism. Hats and jackets do not substitute for Ehrlichkeit - sincerity and devotion to God and his Torah. All of it. The Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (man and God) and the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero (man and his fellow man). Half measures will not do. We cannot be sincere Jews if we only honor one side of the Asseres HaDibros - the 10 Commandments. We must honor all of it and cling to it. We cannot be a pious Jew is Shul and a thief in business. We must be like Ruth and cling to the Torah and perform Mitzvos willingly and lovingly. That will help  give us a bright future.  Orpah’s superficial kiss showed who she really was. And ended up as the progenitor of an evil people.

Chag Sameach

*Loosely based on a sermon given by Dr. Norman Lamm, published in ‘Festivals of Faith’

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Calling Out Absurd Notions of Frumkeit

Photo of new cabinet as it appears in the Hebrew B'Chadrei Charedim
Chava, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Yocheved, Miriam, Devorah, Ruth, Naomi, Batsheva, all have something in common. They are all heroines of either the Torah, Nevi’im or Kesuvim (Tanach). I mention all these names in the hope that a bolt of lightning doesn’t come down from heaven and strike me down.

‘What’s that,’ you ask? Why in Heaven’s name would I think mentioning these names from Tanach would cause God to be angry at me? Well, by mentioning the first names of women, I might come to improper sexual thoughts.

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Not so fast. It isn’t ridiculous if you are the publisher of the Israeli Hamodia. They seem to feel that mentioning any woman’s first name will cause men to sin. So they simply don’t do it. From JTA
HaModia’s list of the new government’s ministers omitted the women ministers’ first names. So while it listed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, it noted only Justice Minister Ms. Shaked. 
Whew! Saved by a clever editor at Hamodia.

The sad thing is that this isn’t just some idiotic editor of a newspaper being ridiculous on his own. This seems to be the mindset of an entire community of religious Jews. Their rabbinic leaders have apparently determined  that seeing a female name in print can potentially cause a man to sin. 

Once you plant that thought into the minds of people who are concerned about modesty, they may actually see these names as erotic. It has apparently been imprinted on their brains from earliest childhood to associate female names with erotic thoughts. So that when they see such a name they might easily have one.

Eroticism has some near universal applications. There are images and words (erotic literature) that are erotic to virtually any civilized society no matter how permissive or strict. But there are words and images that are erotic only to those that have been indoctrinated to see them that way. People will have an erotic response to things they see based on the culture in which they live. My guess is for example that in Muslim countries where woman wear burkas that covers even their faces, the exposure of a face may generate erotic thoughts in men.

In their own way this is apparently the case with the people Hamodia serves. They are sensitive to things that the Torah itself is not sensitive to. Like publishing the names of women. Their approach to reading these names is an extreme reaction to matters of Tznius that goes well beyond even Chumra. A reaction that is constantly being reinforced throughout their lives. They might even wonder why the rest of Orthodox Jewry doesn’t see that. Or believe that when we do see it, that we are in denial about what are innermost thoughts really are.

One might say that Hamodia and like minded publications have the right to whatever standard they feel is appropriate. And the right to treat their publications that way. I wholeheartedly agree. But I have a right to ridicule it – if I see it as harmful to the fabric of our people. 

Why ridicule and not simply protest? Because that is a normal reaction by normal people. A reaction the vast majority of the civilized world would have to considering female first names too erotic to publish. That is so abnormal - that it makes Judaism an object of ridicule. Unless those of us in Orthodoxy with any degree of sanity ridicule it right along with them. It is no Mitzvah to go to extremes so beyond the pale that the word Chumra doesn’t even apply. So extreme that it makes us look foolish.

Sure, we are obligated to follow Halacha even if it makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. But if we start making things up that look ridiculous in the eyes of the world -  things which make people laugh at Judaism, then in my view they are not serving God. They are serving the notion that their views are holier than anyone else’s - even within Orthodoxy.

I have no issue with how much Frumkeit they want to embrace. They can be as ‘Frum’ as they want internally. I could not care less. But when a (non)Chumra like this one hits the media, and makes us look ridiculous, they have crossed a line from Frum to foolish. They gain nothing spiritual at all (except perhaps in their own minds), for if that were a value at any level, the Torah would not have ever mentioned any female names.  

And all of this doesn’t even touch the foolishness of blurring out the faces of women in a group photograph of the Israeli  Prime Minster and his new cabinet ministers seen on the Charedi website B’Chadrei Charedim (…now there’s an oxymoron -‘Charedi website’) while allowing the rest of their bodies to be shown. (See above)

So even while they have a right to be as foolish as they want in private, when they do it in the public square, I have the right – and maybe even an obligation - to point out how foolish they are in public too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Night of Heterodoxy on Shavuos?

Rabbi David Stav, head of Tzohar
*UpdateRabbi Stav has apparently denied the report (published in both Arutz Sheva and Ha'aretz) upon which this post is based. If that's true, I apologize for contributing to the spread this false rumor. Instead of taking down the post, I am going to leave it up in slightly modified form because the controversy surrounding Tzohar still exists and because the point I am making about the propriety of such actions is still valid.

My feelings about Tzohar are mixed. Tzohar is an organization in Israel that was formed to reach out to - and serve the secular world. They see the current Israeli Rabbinate as failing miserably in that mission. Instead of serving them, they are seen by Tzohar as alienating them. As such Tzohar has embarked on a number of controversial projects. Among them trying to restore conversion rights to independent rabbinic courts in Israel. A right that was removed relatively recently by the Rabbinate.

That was done in response to the controversy over converting masses of Russian immigrants that came to Israel under the ‘Law of Return’ but who are not Halachicly Jewish. (Either because of their mothers were not Jewish or their conversions weren’t valid.) The Israeli government felt it needed to convert these people as painlessly as possible since they not only thought of themselves as Jews, but were serving in the military and risking their lives.

Special conversion courts were set up for this purpose. And great numbers of them were converted through them – despite most of them having no sincere intent to follow Halacha. Following Halacha is a key component of conversion, without which one cannot convert to Judaism. Which meant invalidating all of those conversions.  (I am not going to go into the Halachic discourse about the application of the ‘observance’ component. There are differing opinions about that. Suffice it to say that the majority opinion on the matter today is that without a sincere declaration that one will follow Halacha (lip service does not count) a conversion will be invalid.

Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s founder and head is an honorable man with good intentions. He wishes to interpret conversion laws more liberally for purpose of the national welfare. He also feels (with some justification) that the rabbinate commandeered for itself a monopoly over all conversions. They have thus been precipitously unfair in how it has been adjudicating the legitimacy of various conversions.

Just to be clear, I support the standardization the Rabbinate seeks. But I am reluctant to fully endorse the way they have put it into practice. This is however, really a digression from the point of this post. I just wanted to give some background about the controversy surrounding Tzohar. And to address a new controversy* surrounding Them.

In its attempt to reach out to secular Jews, (a most laudable goal and enterprise) one of the things Tzohar does is have an all night Torah study session on Leil (night of) Shavuos . There is a custom to stay up all night studying Torah on this night. Tzohar invited all segments of Israeli to attend.  Last year there were 1500 people there. I’m sure it was a most inspiriting experience for many.

This year they are doing it again. Only they have had tremendous pressure from Reform and Conservative rabbis (who have involved the Kenesset to push for them) to teach Torah as part of that event. Rabbi Stav had resisted. Tzohar does not recognize the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative movements. But it has been reported (since denied) that he had recently given in to pressure and was to actually allow them to give sessions under their auspices. Although Tzohar rabbis will not be present.

I understand the pressure. But one does not give up one’s principles for expediency. Even in the great cause of outreach. While one might say that the greater good is served by looking the other way that is not the only concern here. When you allow rabbis of movements that consider heretical beliefs to be legitimate;  and rabbis that say that Mitzvah observance is at best optional to teach your students, what are you really promoting in the end?

One thing you are not promoting is Judaism as Orthodoxy defines it. If you are going to call yourself Orthodox, you have to stand on the principles of Orthodoxy. Just because no Tzohar rabbis would have attended those session does not wipe away the fact that they would have been teaching under their auspices. And that grants them a legitimacy that they do not have.

Even if they were to promise to teach only the Orthodox viewpoint, that legitimacy would still be inferred.  Besides, what would be added by Reform and Conservative rabbis if they were limited to teaching the Orthodox viewpoint?

If the report were true, I think it would have been a huge mistake for Tzohar to have been involved in any official way with the Conservative and Reform Movements. 

The Reform and Conservative movements want to gain a foothold in Israel. Something that they have not yet been able to do. I think the reason may be because of their diminishing numbers (at least for the Conservative Movement) in America. They believe that secular Israelis might better identify with them and their movement can grow there. Those of us that are Orthodox do not want the religious character of Israel to change. Something that would happen if Reform and Conservative rabbis are recognized as legitimate by the State of Israel. That would change the status quo that balances secular and religious interests preserving the rights both segments enjoy today without encroaching too much on each other. It is compromise that has been working since the founding of the State.

That said, I happen to know some Conservative rabbis that could pass for Orthodox. In fact one Conservative rabbi (ordained by the flagship institution of Conservative Judism, JTS) I can think of is observant and has children that are Orthodox. The many columns by him I have read in a Jewish newspaper here in Chicago do not contain anything that would be incompatible with Orthodoxy. (Admittedly I have not read them all.) But even so, that doesn’t mean I can endorse the core values he received from  JTS. Even if I were to accept him, there are so many others to his left that are not even observant. And this doesn’t even speak to Reform rabbis who have no pretensions at all about the need to follow Halacha.

I actually believe that there are some Conservative and Reform rabbis can be reached – if only given the opportunity to learn from some of our best and brightest minds. That’s why Rav Ahron Soloveichik permitted teaching Conservative and Reform Rabbis Torah. Many years ago there a class of these rabbis that met once a week to study Torah based on this permit. If I recall correctly, it was well attended and taught by Rav Ahron’s son Rav Moshe.

What I would have liked Tzohar tohave done is the same. Invite these heterodox rabbis for study sessions with them. That I would have supported whole heatedly. But allowing them to teach Torah under your auspices on Shavuos night is a horse of an entirely different color. That should be vigorously protested. And I do.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Having Your Cake…

Last week I was sent a link to a website that for all intents and purposes was an Agudath Israel of America website.  It is called ‘The Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative’. It even identified itself as a division of Agudath Israel of America. (Note the subtitle under the logo.)When I asked an official at Agudah whether they were finally going to be dropping their official opposition to the internet  and refusal to have an official website, I was told  as follows:  Agudah will itself ‘continue to refrain from having an official site – as a symbolic warning about the Internet’.

This is not the first instance of an Agudah website and insistence that it doesn’t really have one. If there was ever a case of having your cake and eating it too, this is it. I cannot understand how they can clearly be taking advantage of the internet by having a beautiful website for one of their divisions and at the same time have us believe that by not having an official presence’  that they are somehow warning us about it.

I realize that they never fully opposed here as the rabbinic leaders in Israel did. They apparently approve of using it with filters. But I nevertheless remain stumped as to why they think this kind of ‘parsing’ will make any sense to even the most devout of their own constituency.

I recall the big internet Asifa (gathering) held in Citifield Stadium a few years ago. The internet was completely trashed. There was no parsing then.  Although it was not an Agudah sponsored event, I have to believe that they were in support of Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav  Matisyahu Solomon who was the organizer of the event. He was quoted at the time saying the following: 
“The purpose of the [gathering] is for people to realize how terrible the Internet is and, of course, the best thing for every [good Jew] is not to allow it in his home at all…” 
One may also recall the dire warning made at that Asifa by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman quoting from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. When multitudes of Israel gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action of the group, anyone who separates himself from the group has no chelek in Olam Haba'a. That was immediately followed by Rav Wosner’s harsh condemnation of anyone that uses it outside of the necessity of a job. And even then only with filters… and never in the home. It was the Avi Avos HaTumah.

The vehemence with which interent was opposed was demonstrated in a video I recall of a Charedi Mechanech symbolically smashing a computer (recorded an uploaded to YouTube – which has to be the one of the most ridiculous contradictions I can imagine).

There was a bit of backpedaling on this after that big Aisfa, but the bottom line is that the internet was seen at best as a necessary evil that should be avoided as much as possible.  And certainly not to be used in advertising anything remotely holy.

And here we are today. Not Only is Agudah fully engaged in (unofficially) promoting its subdivisions on the internet - internet use among Charedim even in Israel is at unprecedented levels. A report in Ha’aretz cites the following: 
The leading Haredi Internet site, by a large margin, according to a joint survey by Max Digital and SimilarWeb, is Kikar Hashabbat, which has been a partner of Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ynet site since 2012. Kikar Hashabbat gets almost 3 million monthly visits...
Hadrei Haredim, an older and even better-known site, which has changed ownership several times and uncovered many scandals, was in second place with 1.7 monthly visitors. 
It would appear to me that if one is to believe Rabbi Wachsman, there are a lot of Charedim that will not merit Oalm HaBah! And yet Agudah advertises to these very people (unofficially of course).

The reality is that even though  millions of Charedim have been banged over the head about the evils of the Internet, they don’t care. They use it anyway. Now I’m sure that many use filters – which is a good idea anyway if you have children. But no one seriously sees using it as necessarily meaning the loss of one’s eternity. They see it the way most other thoughtful people do, as an extraordinarily useful tool of the 21st century that like many other useful things in life can be misused. Badly.  And destructively. 

It’s kind of like drinking fine wine. If done properly it can gladden the heart. Wine is used in many Jewish rituals. And during the Temple era it was sued for libations on the alter. But If misused it can cirrhosis of the liver and even death.

I have said this before. Unlike Agudah’s detractors, I actually believe they serve a valuable function in the Jewish world. Their public affairs division is incomparable in the many ways they have advanced the cause of observance in this country. Whether it has been via their lobbying efforts in Washington or in their petitions to the Supreme Court. And although I have had some differences of opinion with their Moetzes Gadoei HaTorah based on the Hashkafos of my own Rebbeim, I nonetheless honor them as Gedolei Torah. 

But on this issue – not only do I think they are wrong, I believe they are harming their own image by playing these ‘parsing’ games. It’s time for them to admit they were premature in their decision to avoid an official internet presence; to admit that it at least appears to be a contradiction to their stated policy of not having one while actually having one via one of their divisions.

They realize just that the Internet has permeated their environs. Perhaps even saturated it.  Maybe it’s time for another internet Asifa. One that teaches that the interent is a useful tool that will not automatically land you a place in hell if you use it properly. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Orthodoxy and the Search for Truth

One of the more enlightening posts I have written of late was the one last week where I briefly speculated why people change their beliefs. Either to become observant or non observant. (As in the post referenced - I define observance as Orthodox Jewry defines it.)

It wasn’t anything I said that was all that enlightening. It was the comments of some of the people who had undergone that process of change. The greatest move in the direction of becoming observant comes from someone that converts to Judaism. That is the greatest gap that is leaped over from non observance to observance.

Not only is such a person not observant, they are not even Jewish. If they are Christian, which is most often the case with converts in America - their belief in the divinity of Jesus was about as far removed from Judaism as one can get. And considering the strongly held belief by Christianity that there is no salvation without believing that – it’s a pretty strong change. So as much as I am in awe of a secular non observant Jew that becomes observant, I am far more in awe of a Christian that does it. It is also interesting to note the reaction of friends and family to such conversions. We Jews are not tolerant at all when the reverse God forbid happens. (Of course in Judaism a person born a Jew  remains a Jew even if they convert. But that is an entirely different subject.)

With that in mind I am posting two of the more fascinating comments from that post. Both started out as non Jews. Both adopted Orthodox Judaism. One converted and one did not. What makes these comments so enlightening is what brought them to observance; the proccess; the trials and tribulations; the beauty they both found in observant Judaism; and  the fact that in the end each of them turned out so radically different.

As might be expected of a believer like myself, I am disappointed in the end result of one and am inspired by the end result of the other. The two comments follow - slightly edited for style, grammar, spelling errors and readability.

I came to Judaism at the age of 17, and was initially attracted by the closeness of the Jewish community and the way that religion and spirituality were interwoven with the fabric of daily life. It was a time in my life in which I was looking for purpose, authenticity and community. I saw Judaism as a very life-affirming religion which sanctified ordinary life instead of demeaning it in pursuit of lofty and transcendent spirituality. 
I explored the various heterodox denominations but found the claim of orthodoxy's 'authenticity' to be compelling, especially that of haredi orthodoxy, and once I had reconciled, in my own mind at least, halacha and my homosexuality I was able to fully throw myself into observance.
For 14 years I lived a completely observant life, not easy considering I lived in a small town with no Jewish community. Despite wishing to, I never formally converted (for several reasons, including my relationship with my now husband, who I met just as I was becoming interested in Judaism. I realised (it) would not be accepted despite what had become our fealty to the relevant halachos. Which incidentally fills me with awe for him, as he made this considerable sacrifice out of love for me, despite not being a believer in Judaism himself!!). 
I taught myself Hebrew and Yiddish and learned several hours a day and found Judaism to be intellectually and spiritually satisfying. That said I did have some significant doubts about elements of Jewish belief, but these I successfully suppressed because I very much feared that examining them would overturn my belief and as such my only real connection to the Jewish people.
Ultimately despite how happy I was living a Jewish life, I was made uncomfortable by a growing sense of my increasing intolerance and dogmatism which I saw reflected in elements of the haredi society that I felt part of. This combined with no longer being able to hide from my doubts, led me to re-examining my beliefs fully in the light of scholarship both Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular. 
The conclusions of this examination led to my eventual letting go of orthodoxy. For a while I held on to much observance as a way of maintaining my Jewish self-identity, but slowly my diminishing observance allowed me to rejoin fully the non-Jewish society around me, and for the first time I actually felt a sense that I had 'come home', of genuine belonging, which in time gave me the confidence to drop my observances completely.
I now live a very warm, purposeful, spiritual and religious life without Judaism, (indeed my religious beliefs are as far from Judaism as it is possible to get) but I still hold the Jewish people in huge affection and regard the Jewish religion as a valuable source of wisdom and beauty even though I no longer believe in it. My years since leaving Jewish observance have been the happiest, satisfying and productive of my life, but I retain much gratitude for all that I enjoyed and all that I learned when Judaism was my faith.

As a convert, I find this post very interesting, and the discussion is even more fascinating.
My conversion was mainly based on intellectual reasons. It would be foolish to think that it was solely based on intellect, and the emotional factors were excluded, as there is no intellectual reasoning that is not influenced by emotions, except maybe for formal logic, but the latter also can be understood as an expression of certain implicit beliefs about the nature of the reality.

By the way in this thread someone quoted a research on decision making examined with the use of fMRI. (Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow - HM.I would like to point out that it's not really relevant to discussion, as the decision about conversion or becoming religious is not a fast one. Most of the people spend at least some time trying to think about pros and cons, and so one would rather assume that there is a lot of slow (frontal cortex) thinking involved.

I consider myself Modern Orthodox, and I didn't experience any ostracism from my friends or family after my decision to convert. It was a life-changing decision, but I think that more life-changing was a consequence of this decision: the fact that I had to leave my country to find a Jewish community, as I lived in a place where Jewish communities were almost non-existent.

I decided to share my experience, as I don't find Judaism more restrictive than my previous life. Reading this thread made me wonder, if I live in some delusions to think so. For me, there is no conflict between being Orthodox and studying science. Otherwise, how could there be any Orthodox doctors? Similarly, I live in a relatively RW area, and nobody ever suggested that I should get rid of my computer. There is only a suggestion of using an Internet filter. Of course, I can't marry a non-Jew, but why would I want to marry a non-Jew? I find the tznius clothing more stylish than current fashion. I don't want to bore you with more examples. :)

I converted almost 8 years ago, and went through an unhappy marriage. I had a bad luck to marry an Orthoprax, who was secretly enamored with a secular life-style. This didn't change my attitude towards religion. It just made me wonder how many outwardly religious people are not really religious. For them being religious might be really hard and all about restrictions. I would even venture to say, that they are so deeply insecure in their beliefs that they feel the need to impose chumros on themselves and others as a way to overcompensate for their lack of emunah.

I don't think it's fair to assume that any person deciding to go through a major life-change is not well-adjusted (=has some emotional issues). I think it's very dangerous to define the emotional well-being by the level of adjustment to one's milieu. What if the milieu is decidedly not healthy? We live in a world where we are privileged to experience unprecedented level of personal freedom. We are free to choose whatever path we want to follow. Personally, I think it's more healthy to live according to one's deepest nature and convictions, than pretend that one is someone else to conform.

Once again - please do not consider this post an opportunity to argue for your beliefs. Those comments will be deleted. Thank you. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yom Yerushalyim, Satmar, and Neturei Karta

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the Shofer at the Kotel in 1967
On this day as we celebrate Yom Yerushalyim I think back to the heady days of 1967 when Israel won the 6 day war. Back then Israel was the darling of all the liberals. They were the underdog being attacked and outnumbered by the Arab armies, constantly being threatened with annihilation by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar, who was the undisputed spokesman for that cause.

Egypt initiated the war by closing the Gulf of Aqaba– Israel’s lifeline to the sea. Israel made a decision to take preemptive military action because of this existential threat. The rest is rather famous history. The Arabs got whooped in 6 days. Israel took control of East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza. The words of General Moti Gur as he entered the old city of Jerusalem still ring in my ears, “Har HaBayis B’Yadenu!” The Temple Mount is in our hands!

What a great feeling that was. Israel became the most admired nation in the world. American military experts and generals at the time could not get over the brilliance of Israel’s victory. 

I cannot remember being more proud of my people. But there were some Jews that were not proud at all. The leader of Satmar Rebbe,  R’ Yoel Titlebaum called this victory a Maseh Satan – the work of the devil. And his spiritual heirs carry on his legacy.

No matter how much I try, I cannot understand how these people can teach their children so much hatred of the State of Israel. Watching the video (1st video below) of a Chasidic child bashing Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut to a classroom filled with even younger children was upsetting but not surprising.  He was no doubt parroting what he was taught from practically the day he was born.

This was not just an isolated event. There is a pattern of Israel bashing that is continuous among these Chasidim to this day. And they do so every chance they get. Not far from there in the town of Kiryas Joel there was a Lag B’Omer celebration that included a bonfire where an Israeli flag was brought in and burned.(2nd video below)

I can understand being against the State of Israel for ideological reasons as per the Satmar Rebbe. What I cannot understand is the way they do it. It is though their desire to show how much they hate the State supersedes all other considerations. Considerations like the very safety of their brethren. 6 million Jews living in Israel. It is videos like these that gives succor to Israel’s greatest enemies.  And it provides them with a group of religious looking Jews they can claim to be on their side. They might be called ‘Useful Idiots’. That’s what  Communist sympathizers in America were called by some during the cold war with the former Soviet Union.

Both of these videos are no doubt of Neturi Karta events. But hey did not make up this attitude themselves. I am absolutely convinced that the vehemence with which they express their opposition to Israel can be traced back to the Satmar Rebbe himself. No one expressed more hatred for the Jewish State than he did – comparing R’ Avrahom Yitzchok Kook to an ancient ‘Hitler’ named Haman. With rhetoric like that, it is indeed not surprising that some of his spiritual offspring would do the kinds of things seen in these videos. They say pretty much the same things all the antisemites of the world say. 

It gives these antisemites cover to deny that their antisemitic rhetoric. How could it be if these obviously religious Jews are saying the same thing? How ironic it is that their claim in this video is that Israel is manufacturing Antisemitism as an incentive to make Aliyah. All while they say and do things that encourage it.

Don’t they realize how stupid this is? Because that is the only real fruit of their labor. Their publicly advertised antipathy does not further their agenda of dismantling the state of Israel one iota.