Friday, July 29, 2016

What Should a Yeshiva Education Entail?

Is learning Gemarah all there is?
A thought provoking post on Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer’s blog, YGB, asks the  following question: What do we expect kids to walk out of Yeshiva to know? The question is posed by a relative of his on another blog called Divrei Chaim.  It is asked of both boys and girls.

I would expand on that a bit. What is actually taught? Do schools teach everything we as parents would like our children to learn? What should a core curriculum of a Yeshiva high school look like? And how much of it should we expect the graduates of that school to retain?

Divrei Chaim provides a number of answers he feels are of critical importance in which he feels most children fall short. Implying that the schools fall short in their mission to teach it to them. They either do not teach certain subjects at all, or don’t teach them well enough for the students to retain.

I agree with his thinking. Although not entirely with what he says is lacking. Especially in one area. Back to that later.

As it pertains to Yeshiva high schools for boys, most do a decent job when it comes to Gemarah. At least for the top tier students in any given class. Unfortunately much of the bottom tier probably tunes out and ends up becoming uninspired adults at best. If they do not go OTD. 

They will go through life as perfunctory Mitzvah observers without giving thought as to why they do them.  That can be fixed by expanding the curriculum to reflect more of what goes on in girls’ high schools. There are a variety of Jewish subjects studied by girls that are practically ignored by boys. Like Tancah, Chumash with Meforshim (commentaries like Rashi and the Ramban), Jewish History, and Machsava (Jewish thought/Hashkafa/philosophy). Most Yeshiva high schools ignore those subjects. They should not. Especially that last one. They do so at their own peril. And ours.

Understanding basic principles of belief is probably the first thing any Yeshiva student should learn. Even before he opens up his first Blatt (page) of Gemarah.  Girls do a bit better in that department through their Machshava classes. But boys get nothing! In our day where belief is so frequently and easily challenged, the teachers themselves need to better educated on this subject so they can answer all of these new challenges. Without understanding our core beliefs, one can easily become dislodged from observance? What’s the point of following Halacha if belief in God and His Torah (where Halacha originates) is so easily challenged? And teachers can’t give answers?  

This is one reason why there are so many young people that fall away from observing Halacha – seeing no point to it in the modern world. They end up uninspired with no understanding or even knowledge about the fundematals of belief.

Focusing on only one subject ( i.e. Gemarah in Yeshiva high schools) can so easily be undermined when challenges from the outside world found so easily online hit them in the face. That is where I would focus the attention of educators now if I were in a position to do so. I would require ever potential Mechanech to be trained to answer those questions in order to be certified!

What about the other subjects Divrei Chaim believes are necessary? Like at a minimum - Chumash and Rashi for girls?  In my view there is no bare minimum for girls. Just as there is no maximum. Girls should be taught the way Mishlei tells us to. Chaonch L’Naar Al Pi Darko - teach your children according to their own path.

If a girl doesn’t know every Rashi in the Chumash it should really matter. What she does have to know is Halacha. That should be the 2nd most important focus of Mechnchim. For everyone. Boys and girls.

What about Gemarah? That too should be based on each individual. Both for boys and for girls. If a girl wants to learn Gemarah, she should be entitled to… and learn it to the best of her own personal ability. That should be the case for boys too. Pushing them into a curriculum of Gemarah only leaves a lot of boys out in the cold. They too should study the Torah that they are capable of studying and not pushed into something they are not.

Not everyone has a ’Gemarah Kop’ - an aptitude for studying Gemarah. This is not necessarily a function of intelligence, although it can be. It is a function of a person’s psychological makeup too. Some people like chocolate ice cream and some don’t. Those that don’t should try another flavor. Everyone is different. The requirement to learn Torah is fulfilled  – not only by learning Gemarah – but by a variety of other Torah subjects as well.

The one thing lacking from Divrei Chaim’s list, is Limudei Chol. In my view that is a vital part of living in the modern era. I’m not talking about preparing young people by giving them the tools to succeed later on in college. True an education there will enable one to make a better living. That is certainly of primary importance. But I’m talking about something else.

I know it’s a cliché, but one needs to be ‘well rounded’ in areas outside of Torah as well if we are going to represent ourselves to the world as knowledgeable people. We can’t expect to be respected if all we know is a Blatt (page of) Gemarah. If we don’t for example know who the founding fathers of this country are… or we don’t know the basic principles of democracy or the constitution; or know some world history; or basic science; or we don’t know how to read, write,  or in some cases even speak English well… we won’t be respected and will then be unable to fulfill out mandate of being a light unto the nations.

This of course does not mean we ignore or minimize our knowledge of Gemarah. That is foundational. All of us need to know it at some level. But we can’t be focusing ONLY on that. If we cannot show the world that we are an enlightened people, then our Torah will not be as meaningful to them.

So yes, Limudei Chol should be a vital part of our children's education... along with the aspects of Limudei Kodesh mentioned above; and what we should expect our children to know when they come out of Yeshiva. Anything less short changes them, us, Klal Yisroal, and the world.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The View to My Left

Rabbi Chai Posner, Associate Rabbi of Cong. Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore 
One of the obvious defining characteristics of being a Centrist in Orthodox Judaism is that you have legitimate Hashkafos both to your right and to your left. That there are Hashkafos to my right is very clear. Charedim are very much to my right Hashkaficly. But what about my left? I once thought there were legitimate Hashkafos there. But Open Orthodoxy (OO) seems to have hijacked the left. I and many others have questioned their legitimacy as Orthodox.

Orthodoxy in Judaism is by definition Halachic, Which means that one is required to follow Halacha as we understand it today via the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. Of equal importance is Orthodoxy’s theology. Requiring a belief in the fundamentals of our faith. Which includes the belief in the Divine authorship of the Torah - and that the events at Sinai actually happened.

Open Orthodoxy’s flagship institution,Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) had been challenged along those line because one of its brightest products had questioned it. Mostly by buying into the arguments made by the modern scholarship of the bible which has concluded that the Torah must have been written by different people at different times in history. Thus making the events at Sinai at best allegorical never to have actually happened.

YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin was quick to publicly assert that YCT believes in those fundamental principles and teaches their students accordingly. And yet the questions remained because some of their rabbinical students expressed similar doubt and had not been dismissed from their Semicha program. So questions remained about Open Orthodoxy’s tolerance of questionable theology. Which of course leaves a possible void to my left - making Centrism a misnomer. You can’t be in the center if there is no one to your left.

I am not happy about this. Orthodoxy needs a left. There are too many sincere Jews that are fully observant and do not feel at home in any other Hashkafa. Even though I do not agree with many of their innovations, I refused to see observant Jews to my left as anything but Orthodox. But if there is a possibility that their fundamental beliefs are unacceptable, observance alone doesn’t help. The underlying belief must first be there.

Until the advent of Open Orthodoxy, I used to see Rabbi Avi Weiss as the quintessential leader of the left. A place where that type of observant Jew could find a home. So that things like Women’s Teffilah Groups that are frowned upon by rabbinic leaders of both the right and center can still take place without being ‘expelled’ from Orthodoxy. For whatever reason some people need things like that. And they ought to have a place in Orthodoxy to go for them lest they find a home elsewhere. 

But that option seems to be gone – replaced by an Open Orthodoxy that has gone way too far in some of these practices – coming perilously close to violating Halacha. Perhaps even crossing that line in some instances. But none of that comes close to tolerating a theology that discards a fundamental principle of our faith.

That has made me very sad. Observant Jews on the left are now finding OO their home. Thus possibly placing themselves outside the orbit of Orthodoxy albeit in some cases unintentionally. I don’t want to lose those Jews. I want to reach out to them and keep them within the fold. I want to consider them to be Orthodox even if they are far to my left. As I always have. Disagreement does not have to mean rejection.

I was heartened by a recent article by YCT Musmach, Rabbi Chai Posner in the Times of Israel. It included a statement about these issues made by a group of YCT Musmachim (ordainees). In my view this establishes the existence of a viable left wing. Here in part is what they said: 
We, the undersigned musmachim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah… felt it necessary to clarify our stance on two critical issues: Torah miSinai (the divine authorship of the Torah) and Partnership Minyanim. We should add that we believe that many in the YCT community share our values and the positions we express below.
We are committed to the principles of faith as understood by the Rishonim  and  Achronim  (medieval and modern authorities), and as accepted by the Orthodox community. We believe the Torah is Divine. We believe that the Written and Oral Torah were given by God to Moses and that that is the same Torah that we have in our midst. This is a sine qua non of Orthodoxy. Nothing different has ever been taught or suggested by our rabbeim  (rabbis/teachers).
The Torah connects us to previous generations, to our ancestors who experienced the Revelation at Mount Sinai. This ultimate transformational moment is inextricably linked to our practice of Halacha (Jewish Law) and engaging with God’s Will in this world. It is the foundation of our values and morals, our rituals and traditions. It touches our very souls when we hear the words of theRibbono shel Olam (Creator of the world) speaking to us through the Torah.
The question of Partnership Minyanim is more complex... We wish to affirm and uplift the motivation of men and women who are searching for an increased connection with our Creator. Their desire to enhance their relationship with God resonates with us deeply. 
However, we do not and would not attend a Partnership Minyan, nor would we sanction them we follow the serious concerns that were voiced by HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz shlita and HaRav Yehuda Herzl Henkin shlita on this matter, and we, together with many of our colleagues, musmachim of YCT, RIETS, and other rabbinical schools, are deeply uncomfortable with Partnership Minyanim and their place within the Orthodox community. We do not believe that a consensus of poskim (halachic authorities) currently exists to allow a departure from existing norms. 
This is good news. If this is indeed the majority view of YCT Musmachim it gives me hope that a viable left wing in Orthodoxy is still here.

I will close with a personal observation I made a few years ago about one YCT ordained rabbi. He was the Mesader Kedushin (officiating rabbi) at the wedding of the daughter of some friends of mine. 

I recall his demeanor and the respect he had for every detail of Halacha regarding those nuptials. From the Kabbolas Panim; through the Chupah; through the Yichud (which takes place immediately after the Chupah). 

One of the 2 witnesses was a prominent Rosh Yeshiva and Posek whose Hashkafos are virtually identical to Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He stood there under the Chupah and watched as a woman read the Kesubah. (I should add that she read it much more clearly and smoothly than many male Orthodox rabbis I’ve heard do it.) This was obviously not something this Rosh Yeshiva would have done. But it would have been something he would have protested immediately if it violated Halacha in any way.  

Just before the Yichud took place, there was a Halachic problem this Rosh Yeshiva noticed. When he told the Mesader Kidushin about it, he did not question it. He instead asked what could be done to rectify it. And followed the recommendation of that Rosh Yeshiva even though it was inconvenient and created a bit of a delay.

I remember thinking that if all YCT graduates were like this, I would have no problem accepting them. There would be far less controversy about them. Well it seems there are more. Perhaps a lot more. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Charedi Generation Gap

More Charedim in Israel than ever are in college
Updated. See below

I’ve always said that the revolt (or at least the change) would be at the grass roots level. 

According to an article in Commentary, this seems to be what is happening. The character of Charedi wolrd in Israel is changing from one where there is a mandate for men to learn Torah full time for as long as possible  (virtually cradle to grave - if they can manage it) without any distractions - to one that incudes Limudei Chol (secular studies). The old paradigm has produced a Charedi level of poverty that is among the highest in the Israel. One that will be growing exponentially over the next few generations if things don’t change.

This is why I was in favor of the government requiring a core secular curriculum in Charedi schools. Which would be roughly comparable to the secular curricula in American Charedi schools. My belief was (and still is) that a core curriculum would enhance the prospects of relieving their poverty level and make Chareidm more inclusive and contributory to the overall Israeli economy. I was hopeful that this would somehow be accepted even though the Charedi leadeship didn't like it. Or at least that there would be some sort of compromise.

Those hopes were dashed recently by the government dropping those requirements. The Charedi schools can breath easy now. They will not have the government breathing down their necks. But their joy may be very short lived as the poverty level will continue to increase to unsustainable levels. Unless Commentary is right about what is happening: 
Younger Haredim, while remaining passionately committed to Orthodox Judaism, are increasingly rejecting their rabbinic leadership’s hardline positions on numerous issues, including work, army service, academic study, and communal isolation. 
They go on to describe the revolt in some detail. Charedim are now participating on the work force at over a 50% level for the first time. More of them are enrolled in college programs than ever before there has been an 83 percent increase in enrollment from 2011-2015.

73% of Charedi women work – many of them outside of their own community allowing them to interact with non Charedim in the work place and see that they are not all anti Charedi.

Yisroel Porush, the 36 year old Charedi mayor of a Charedi city has made it his goal to get as many of his city’s residents into the work place as possible. He has gotten 2 neighboring local governments (one secular and one Arab) to agree to build  joint industrial parks. 

What is noteworthy about Mr. Porush is that his father and grandfather were Kenesset members that were opposed to his kind of thinking. The last thing they would have wanted is to get  ‘as many Charedim as possible into the workplace’. They were focused on keeping as many of them as possible in the Beis HaMedrash for as long as possible. As of now, Charedim seem to have won that battle.

But they may be losing the war. At least in terms of promoting the ideals promoting full time Torah study at all cost. And considering secular studies to be a waste of precious time that would otherwise be spent on it: 
(T)he Jerusalem Post quoted a new survey which found that 83 percent of Haredi parents would like their sons to attend high schools that teach secular subjects alongside religious ones, as Haredi girls’ schools already do…
The number of Haredi boys attending yeshiva high schools, which prepare students for the secular matriculation exams, has doubled since 2005. Though the number remains tiny (1,400 enrollees last year), the survey results indicate that this may be due less to lack of demand than to lack of supply: Today, just over a dozen such schools exist.  
This is great news. 

I have to admit that force has not worked. The more it was tried, the more it was fought. And it created a backlash that was counterproductive to this phenomenon. But this phenomenon is indeed happening. Charedim – at least they younger generation – are beginning to understand that they cannot continue to exist with a status quo that rejects secular studies. They are beginning to understand what is obvious to so many of the rest of us. That they need to be better prepared early on so that can gt the tools they need to succeed.

I don’t mind being wrong in my methods if my goals are achieved. I have been told many times by Charedim that agree with me about my goals but disagreed with my methods, that force will not work and only be counterproductive. That – left alone things will change  in the right direction… and already are. Force would only slow things up – if not stop them altogether. 

It seems that they were right. Things are changing.  That 83% of Charedi parents would like their sons to attend a school where secular studies are taught alongside religious ones – is (to quote a favorite word of Donald Trump) - HUGE! 

Who knows. Maybe the demand will spur a new supply of American style Yeshivos that will meet those demands. And then the Charedim of Israel can join those educated and working American Charedim that are increasingly becoming the mainstream moderates. Who along with Centrists are the future of Judaism.

H/T  Marty Bluke

Marty Bluke just reported the following in a comment. If true pours some water over the change I was so enthusiastic about:
Arutz Sheva is reporting based on government and other statistics that the Charedim are not succeeding in academic programs:
1. The dropout rate in pre-academic mechinot (programs that fill in the educational gaps that Charedim are missing) is at least 50% maybe more. 
2. 0% of Haredim test out in the top aptitude group in reading and only 9.7% in math (vs 17.5 in the general population).
These numbers would seem to put to rest the idea that Charedim don't need to learn a core curriculum in school because they can make it up later. These numbers show that for the average Charedi not learning the core curriculum puts them at a severe disadvantage and in many cases prevents them from succeeding in an academic setting

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Obstructing Mitzvah Observance

Typical look of a Mikvah (TOI)
I get it. But I don’t agree with it. At least the way the new law regarding Mikvah use in Israel is concerned. According to the Times ofIsrael
The Knesset on Monday passed into law a bill that permits regional religious authorities to turn away individuals from using the state-run ritual baths (Mikvahs). 
The reason for the law is to prevent conversions that are deemed invalid by Orthodox standards. Something that the Reform and Conservative Movements have been trying to get a right to perform in Israel.

(My how the Reform Movement has changed. They now want to be allowed to perform a ritual that would have been seen as archaic, backward and primitive to their principles back when they were founded. And frankly even now, they do not require a Mikvah as part of their conversion procedure. So why the need for them to insist on the right to use it? But I digress.)

The Chief Rabbinate doesn’t even want to allow conversions by some Orthodox rabbis… let alone Conservative and Reform rabbis. They have tightened the rules about what is and isn’t considered a legitimate conversion and have limited conversions to an approved list of Orthodox rabbis and conversion courts. 

Conversions done by those not on the list are not considered valid. This came to a head recently when in the city of Petach Tikva - one of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s converts was rejected by a satellite court of the Chief Rabbinate. That issue was resolved in Rabbi Lookstein’s favor. I mention it only to show how stringent conversions standards have become. And why the new Mikvah law was passed. 

Like I said, I understand it but I don’t agree with it. Yes, conversions do need to be standardized in order to stop the abuse of that law which was so common even among some Orthodox rabbis in the past and seemed to be increasing. How far to go with that – is a legitimate question, but beyond the scope of this post. What concerns me here is the following.

Hilchos Niddah (commonly referred to as Family Purity Laws or Taharas HaMishpacha) are some of the most important Halachos in Judaism. A Jewish man may not intentionally have sexual relations with a menstruant Jewish woman (a Niddah) - even long after her period has subsided if she has not immersed in a Mikvah. The Torah tells us that a man and woman that intentionally have sexual relations while she is a Niddah will both be subject to penalty of Kares. Which is death by heavenly means. And their souls will also cut off from the world to come. The only permissible way for Jewish man to have sexual relations with a Jewish woman after her period is if she has immersed in a Mikvah. (Details of this are also beyond the scope of this post.) 

This is why Hilchos Niddah is considered so vital in Judaism. Right up there with Shabbos and Kashrus (which has a far less severe penalty in Halacha than violating Hilchos Niddah). The problem is that in most of the non Orthodox Jewish world Hilchos Niddah is not observed. Which makes sexual relations between a Jewish man and woman sinful albeit unintentionally so in most cases.

This brings me to the problem I have with this new law. If women that identify as Reform or Conservative want to use a Mikvah, there should be no law to stop them. Even if they are not generally observant at all by Orthodox standards. Because if they use it properly they will no longer be Niddos when having sexual reations. Which makes this law an obstacle to following Halacha.

It’s one thing to want to prevent illegitimate conversions. It’s another to take this law so far that it ends up causing Jewish men and women to sin.  If - as the statement implies - this is a law forbidding any Conservative or Reform woman for using a Mikvah, the Keneset is complicit in sinful acts it could have prevented in those women that might have otherwise used it.

There is also this. Back in the 70s no less a Posek than Rav Moshe Feinstein actually permitted the Chicago Mikvah Association (CMA) to allow Conservative conversions to take place in their Mikvahs. What about the problem of aiding an illegitimate conversion? R’ Moshe said that looking the other way when they used the Mikvah to convert someone, was not considered aiding them.

The reason that was an issue back then is because the Chicago Jewish Federation was asked to help finance the construction of a New Mikvah. The primary old one had become irreparable.  Their condition was that the CMA had to allow Conservative conversions. Since without federation help the new Mikvah would never have been built, R’ Moshe gave his Heter (Halachic permit).

Now it’s true that this Psak was unique to the circumstances at the time. R’Moshe surely would not have permitted it otherwise. But it shows that allowing Conservative and Reform Rabbis to use a Mikvah even for their conversions has no inherent Issur involved. At least according to R’ Moshe.

(I should add that Rav Ahron Soloveichik had already Paskined that they could not allow Conservative Conversions in the new Mikvah under any circumstances. He was the senior CMA Posek. So that if the condition for contributing Jewish Federation funds was to allow those conversions, they should not take federation money. Desperate for those funds, the CMA then went to R' Moshe and without telling him that they had already gotten a Psak from Rav Ahron, asked him the Shaila for which he gave the above answer. Had he known that they went to Rav Ahron first he wouldn't have Paskined for them.)

In the case at hand, I nevertheless understand why the Charedi parties in the Kenesset want to prevent Reform and Conservative rabbis from using their Mikvahs to perform illegitimate conversions – even if it might be technically permitted. They believe it to be an existential issue.

I agree with Yesh Atid Kenesset member Aliza Lavie who said: 
“This law is not Jewish, not legal, not democratic...”  
To issue a blanket prohibition from using a Mikvah against any women identifying as Reform or Conservative is in my mind a violation of another Torah prohibition: Lifnei Iver Lo Sitain Michshol – Do not put obstacles in front of the blind.

Updated for clarity

Monday, July 25, 2016

Unleashing a Storm

Rabbi Herzl Hefter
Once again, I am saddened by what a brilliant Torah scholar is doing. I am saddened that his innovation – if expanded – will surely contribute to the rift in Orthodoxy that is taking place right now. A rift that is being caused by a Hashkafa that has departed from tradition.

I am not going to make my usual argument about why I have issues with Open Orthodoxy. Especially in its pursuit of women’s ordinations which is the main subject of this post. This is strictly about the rift that Rabbi Herzl Hefter is contributing to. It is a rift not only between Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews. It is a rift even from the majority segment of Modern Orthodoxy that I call Centrists.

I have said it before. Regardless of how one feels about the religious justification or propriety of this, there is not a doubt in my mind that that ordaining women will never be accepted by the right wing. Nor will it be accepted even by the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy (also known as Centrists) This was made clear by the RCA’s statement about it.

In a sense, Rabbi Hefter actually acknowledges this. When asked about whether he thought his mentors, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein would have approved of what he is doing, he clearly answered, ‘No. I don’t think so.’ He added that he thinks about that a lot. 

Unfortunately I don’t think he thinks about it enough. For if he did, he would come to the same conclusion I have. That ordaining women for the rabbinate – no matter how justified he feels it is – will never be accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy. Which means that there will be a break. On the one side between the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry that is comprised of Charedim (of all stripes) and Centrists (which is how the majority of RCA members would define themselves)... and on the other side those that support and accept a female rabbinate. The chasm will (or perhaps already has) become so wide that it will be unbridgeable! Much the like what happened to the Conservative Movement.

I understand where Rabbi Hefter is coming from. I even agree with him when he said, ‘I know men who have ordination and are not worthy of serving as rabbis, and women who are...’ 

I know more than a few Orthodox male ordainees that can barely read Hebrew. And I also know some very bright women whose knowledge of Torah on a variety of Torah subjects is so superior to mine, that I am embarrassed by it. .

So it is not too hard to understand why Rabbi Hefter feels that the time has come to recognize such such women with an ordination. But the price too high. His heart may be in the right place. But he could not be more mistaken in undertaking and perpetuating this enterprise. It is simply not worth the break in Orthodoxy this is causing. A break knowing that his own rabbinic mentors would not approve.

That he has gotten a few other knowledgeable rabbis – like Rabbi Daniel Sperber on board with this will not help getting it accepted by the mainstream. It will not be. Despite his high level of Torah knowledge, Rabbi Sperber is not a mainstream Posek and not accepted outside of his own left wing constituency.

One of the arguments I keep hearing is that things are different in Israel. That a vibrant Orthodox community already exists that  accepts these kinds of innovations. That unlike America these innovations have been widely accepted and will grow. Whereas in America they are accepted by an almost insignificant minority that will ‘whither on the vine’ (to borrow Newt Gingrich’s comments about Medicare many years ago.)   

It may very well be true that Israel has enough of a critical mass to perpetuate these innovations as a viable community. But the simple fact remains that the mainstream will not be part of it. That should be clear from the many statements that have come out by a variety of mainstream spokesmen from right to center - clearly condemning it. I don’t see that changing any more than mainstream Orthodoxy's rejection of the Traditional Movement. Who had an even greater Posek allowing their innovation of removing the Mechitza from their Shuls. They were rejected by all other mainstream Poskim. And although they were once a powerful force here in Chicago - they have since withered on the vine.

To be clear, the point I am making here has nothing to do with my own Hashkafic opposition to what Rabbi Hefter is doing. It is simply my analysis based on how mainstream Orthodoxy is reacting to it and how such reactions in the past caused there to be a split, and/or a demise of the movement based on it. Either way, I see nothing positive coming out of this. 

One has to consider the practical consequences of one’s actions. Sometimes the price of one's convictions, when weighed against the massive opposition to them by those who reject them is too high. In my view - even leaving out the Hashkafic and Halachic arguments - causing yet another split in Judaism just isn’t worth it.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaufman, ZTL

Rabbi Kaufman at his Sheva Brachos in Beth Yehudah
Last Wednesday evening, a beloved Rebbe of mine passed away. Rabbi Shmuel Kaufman was my 5th and 6th grade Rebbe at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit. Which was one of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s pioneering day schools outside of New York. It was established and led by three of his top Talmidim, Rabbi Joseph Elias, (principal) and 2 vice principals: Rabbis Avraham Abba Friedman and Sholom Goldstein. They in turn recruited some really top talent as Rebbeim. One of whom was Rabbi Kaufman. A pioneering Mechanech!

Rabbi Kaufman had a profound influence on me. I was one lonely outsider that was constantly homesick. Living in Toledo, I commuted to Detroit every week beginning in 4th grade at age 8. Before that, my father saw the handwriting on the wall as I was slowly rejecting my Judaism. By attending public school I was influenced by my many non Jewish friends. For example I hated wearing a Kipa since I was the only one doing it. And I hated things like not being able to eat the birthday cake at a friend's birthday party. So my father made a hard decision to send me to the closest Jewish day school. Which was in Detroit 60 miles away from Toledo. This way my influences would change and lead me in the right direction.

That was a wise decision. Had it not been for that, I would probably not be religious today. But it was a difficult time for me since I was always homesick – going home only for weekends. I stayed by some very nice families over the 5 years I was there.  But I was not happy. Except when I was around my 5th grade Rebbe, Rabbi Kaufman. He made me forget my homesickness by making learning interesting. I used to love his ‘Jewish history’ lessons from Tanach. He was a master storyteller.  Hearing him tell the stories of Tanach was better than watching a good movie. It stoked my imagination. Tanach became alive for me.

He was not one for following the strict protocols of teaching. He was kind of a rebel that way. Which helped endear him to us. But he was a rebel with an eye toward serving God. And his goal was to get us on that same page.

His unorthodox teaching methods inspired his students to work hard towards achieving their potential. He was a real motivator by being ‘one of us’. One of the things he did was encourage his students to attend a Thursday night Mishmor. That was a weekly night time Torah study session with a Chavrusa (study partner) in the Yeshiva Beis HaMedrash. The reward for that was a free game (or 2) of bowling at the local bowling alley after the Mishmar. For 9 and 10 year olds, that was quite the treat back then. (Detroit was a big bowling town back then. I don’t know if it still is.)

He used to pick us up in his old car… packing 6, 7, or 8 of us into a six passenger vehicle. We had a blast during that ride. (This was in the 1950s pre seat belt era. He would never get away with that today.)

He was a fun Rebbe but also a tough disciplinarian. That did not, however, diminish our love for him. It only increased our respect for him. If we were disciplined by him, we knew we deserved it. I attribute my own parenting style to this. He was tough but loving. I told my children that I learned my disciplinary methods from him. And they turned out pretty good.

When I was informed of his death, I felt like a part of me died. He will forever be a lasting role model of Chincuh for me. What a loss to the world of Torah. They just don’t make ‘em like Shmuel Kaufman any more. How I loved that man. Baruch Dayan HaEmes.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Is Tim Kaine Jewy?

Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Senator, Tim Kaine
I hate to keep talking politics. But I can’t let this one go without comment. It seems that Forward columnist Ari Feldman has decided that Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Tim Kaine would be the Jewiest of Vice Presidents.

I’m not sure exactly what it means to be ‘Jewy’. Maybe what he means that Kaine is an exceptionally pro Jewish and pro Israel candidate. So much so that he should be considered an honorary Jew.

I don’t really know much about Tim Kaine. He seems like a nice guy. But to claim that he is especially pro Israel is ridiculous. Especially since he boycotted Netanyhu’s speech to congress last year.

The explanation Kaine gave is that he ‘did not agree with the timing of the talk, and Netanyahu’s perceived political motivations for delivering it before the Israeli elections’.

OK. I can understand his objection even if I didn’t agree with it. But does that mean you dishonor the sitting head of state of America’s closest ally? Do you boycott a leader that was invited by the sitting Speaker of the House to address both houses of congress? Kaine was one of the few senators that did that. There were many Democrats that had similar misgivings about  the timing of the speech. But only 8 senators out of 100 boycotted it. He was one of them.

This is not the behavior of someone that is exceptionally pro Israel. It may not make him an antisemite. But I can’t see calling such behavior Jewy. He could have done what other Democratic senators did and expressed those same reservations about Netanyahu without boycotting him. To the best of my knowledge Kaine has never boycotted any other head of state, let alone one that is such a close ally of the United States.

What about the other reasons that Feldman gave that make him Jewy? Let me answer one of them -reason number 3 - with a question: Hummus? Really?  That Kaine wanted an Israeli Hummus company to set up shop in his state that would provide create jobs is not what I would call being Jewy. I would call it wooing an industry that would help boost his state’s economy.

That he supports a two state solution for Israel and the Palestians (reason number 1) makes him no more pro Jewish than it does pro Palestinian. I’m not saying that he’s wrong about that. But that does not make him Jewy either.

That Kaine is a religious Catholic is cited as reason number 2. I agree that this is a plus. Religious values have increasingly been challenged in recent years. I think we could use a little more of those values these days – as more people than ever are rejecting them on the alter of instant personal gratification, humanism, and political correctness.

But I don’t see those values being translated into policy. Catholicism opposes abortion even more than Judaism does. And yet Kaine is pro choice. I am pro choice too. But that’s because my religious views require me to leave that medical option open to women who would be permitted – and even required by Halacha to have an abortion.  For Kaine, however, what is the point of having religious values if they don’t inform you policies? If you believe in the righteousness of your values, then you ought to be promoting them.

But even if he did, being a devout Catholic does not him any more Jewy than the Pope.

Another thing that is cited is that as Virginia’s Governor he hosted a Passover Seder (reason number 4). OK. That’s a nice gesture. But not enough to make him Jewy if you factor in the other stuff.

All of that said - I am still supporting the Democratic ticket this year because of who is running against them. Even though I do not see Kaine as particularly Jewy, he is not an antisemite. I just can’t stand it when the secular Jewish media needs to go to ridiculous lengths to show how pro Jewish a candidate is. The truth matters and it ought not to be stretched in order to get more Jews to vote for a favored Presidential ticket.

Both Clinton and Kaine will continue the current status quo. Their policies with respect to Israel will be a carryover from the current administration. Which is by far not the end of the world. But it isn’t the best of all possible worlds either. Not even close. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Israel, Republicans, and Democrats

Donald Trump accepting the nomination last night
One of the more lamentable things that disturb me about  my inability to support Donald Trump’s candidacy is the tremendous show of support his party now has for the State of Israel. Although support for Israel is bipartisan, the current administration has somewhat cooled its support for the State because of the President’s antipathy for Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reason for that is petty in my view.  The President did not like being lectured in public by Netanyahu early into his Presidency. And then the relationship got worse when Netanyahu’s strong opposition the nuclear deal with Iran moved him to address a joint session of congress expressing dismay over - and being highly critical of - the President’s decision. Far too many Democrats agree with the President’s antipathy for Netanyahu and see him as a fear monger whose sole purpose is to hang on to power for as long as he can by any and all means he can.

This is not the case with the Republican Party. They seem to have an unabashed love affair with the Jewish State and with Netanyahu. Which is why there were so many standing ovations for Netanayahu when he addressed congress. They love him and see in him the strength lacking in their own President. The love they have for Netanyahu is synonymous with their love for Israel.

That love was again evident several times during the Republican National convention. To say that this convention was not unified is an understatement. It was one of the most contentions conventions since 1972 - the year the Democratic Party nominated George McGovern for President.  But the one thing that seemed to unify everyone, was support for the State of Israel. Whenever Israel was mentioned, the crowd cheered. Both Cruz (who can’t stand Trump and refused to endorse him) and Trump mentioned their support in the strongest of ways. Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence said it best (to similar cheers) when he said
If the world does nothing else, it will notice: America stands with Israel. 
In other words that is what the world will notice most about America if the Republican Party wins the White House in November. Which probably means that there will be little if any daylight between Netanyahu and a Republican President.

I do not see that kind of support being expressed at the Democratic National Convention, next week. Which if they win the election will be carried over to the White House. Of course Clinton will continue to support Israel. I do not question that at all. Both she and the current administration will continue to give it financial aid, have joint military exercises, and share intelligence. But Democrats are far more critical of Israel than Republicans. 

That was evident when Netnayahu last spoke to congress. The reactions to his speech could not have been more different. Democrats realize they need Israel as an ally. It is the most reliable one and the only true democracy in the region.  So they will continue that support. But if current attitudes are transferred to the next administration – it will be a cold support. Not the warm one we saw at the RNC this past week.

So, I lament the fact that I will not be voting for the Republican candidate. There is no doubt in my mind that he supports Israel a lot more warmly than Obama and Clinton… despite some controversial statements he made about being even-handed in a peace making process. One can see that his heart lies with Israel in countless other statements he made about it. Like his warm embrace of Netanyahu.

Much as I would love to see a White House that considers America’s interests to be in line with Israel’s - I can’t vote for a man that is so in love with himself that he doesn’t know too many other words besides the word I. He has no core values that anyone is aware of (beside his children – if there are any values).

He tends to tell people what he thinks they want to hear. More so than what he actually believes - it seems. He reacts to criticism with a type of road rage. And has no problem insulting his rivals (including personal insults) - or anyone else that may make a negative comment about him. Including world leaders.  

He makes promises that everyone knows he cannot keep. And he says he will do it all by himself without the aid of congress. He is erratic and unpredictable.  Which in my view makes him – not only unqualified but very dangerous as a world leader with his finger on the button.  

He envisions himself as a virtual dictator that will stop at nothing to get his way. That’s the way he apparently ran his business and that’s the way he thinks he is going to run the country. Not even having the slightest clue that the Executive branch of government does not have that kind of power. So that even if his intentions were good. I do not trust him.

Not that I trust his Democratic opponent. She is no better than Trump in the ‘trust’ department. And her polices will just be a carryover of Obama’s.  Or worse. I am not enthusiastic about a Clinton Presidency to say the least. But as bad as she is, she is gold compared to Trump. She is not erratic and will deliberate long and hard about the tough decisions she will have to make. Many of which I’m sure I will disagree with. But she is more knowledgeable and not as reactionary as Trump. She will not react to crises the way I am afraid Trump will.

If Trump is so obviously bad (which I don’t think there is too much doubt about in the minds of most rational people) how could he have won the nomination so handily? …and with the largest number of voters in the history of Republican primaries?

I think it’s because those voters see Trump the agent of change they believe this country so desperately needs. That he is an agent of change could not be more true. If change from the status quo is what you want, then Trump is your man. But be careful for what you wish. The change you seek may not be the change you get. Trump might bring the kind of change that is disastrous to the country and to the world. I would prefer avoiding that kind of change. I prefer a government that is stable even if it means furthering the status quo.

So, there you have it. A party that I would love to endorse but can’t. And a party that I am loathe to endorse but will. At least as things stand now. Because as I’ve said in the past it is the lesser of two evils.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fomenting Hatred Instead of Understanding

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein speaking at the 'Zion & Jerusalem' convention (TOI)
I have no clue what he expects to accomplish with his hurtful words. Even if I might agree with the underlying thoughts.

I do not know – and have never met nor heard of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, He is apparently a Religious Zionist head a prestigious army preparatory academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli. And he seems to have gone off the reservation with his remarks about the Reform Movement, and even more so with his remarks about homosexuals.

Just to reiterate my own views on these two subjects. I do not believe that the Reform Movement in any way represents authentic Judaism. They completely discarded all Bein Adam L’Makom (ritual) Halacha – at first to such an extent that they castigated those who practiced it calling it anathema to their definition of Judaism (A kind of ethical humanism). I recall back in the late 50s when I was a young boy in Toledo passing by a Reform Temple on the way to my father’s Shul on Shabbos. My father once told me that the Temple’s rabbi refused to allow anyone into his Temple wearing a  Kipa, calling it a sign of disrespect for the customs of this country.

Of course now 60 years later – realizing that without performing any ritual at all, there was no real Jewish identity to a Refrom Jew, they actually encourage ritual observance. But only if you feel like it. This is not Judaism. This is anti Judaism. Because Judaism without ritual law is nothing more than ethical humanism.

I have expressed my views on homosexuality many times. In short I believe in respecting my fellow man no matter who he or she is attracted to – members of the opposite sex or members of the same sex. People cannot help who they are attracted to. That said I am opposed to sinful behavior – whether performed in a heterosexual or homosexual manner. The Torah point of view is to hate the sin, not the sinner.

Rabbi Yigal Levenstein will not have any of this. With respect to the Reform Judaism - he called them a Christian Movement. He justified this by saying that Christianity began as a branch of Judaism – just like Reform did.  Christianity left to become their own religion and so too will Reform.

I have no clue where Refrom Judaism will end up. In my view they will probably end up in the the way many Jewish sects of the past ended up. There are (for example) not too many Sadducees (Tzedukim) left in the world today. By redefining who is and isn’t a Jew, Reform Judaism will be including so many non Halachic Jews into their  community that a couple of generations hence - it will be impossible to know if a person identifying themselves as a Reform Jew – is actually Jewish!

But to call them a Christian Movement is simply false. They do not believe in the Divinity of Jesus and certainly do not believe in a second coming as the messiah! They do not believe in the Trinity. Most of them believe in one God. The same God Orthodox Jews believe in – with no other god beside Him.

Furthermore, the current Reform rabbinate are victims of generations of distorted teachings by their Reform progenitors. They have been indoctrinated to see their distortions as ‘Truth’. I would call them all Tinokos Shenishbu – children that were ‘captured’. Meaning they never had a chance to study the Truth of Torah as it has been transmitted throughout the generations since the days of Moses. They only know what their ‘breakaway’ founders have taught them.

The anger and hurt that Rabbi Levenstein generated with his remarks served no purpose except to alienate, not only all Reform Jews, but all Jews that seek to reach out to our no observant brothers. So that even though I agree that Reform Judaism is not an authentic expression of Judaism, I condemn the hateful way in which he expressed that view. I prefer treating them without the rancor. And with dignity. We need to befriend them as Rabbi Yosef Reinman did with a Reform rabbi with whom he co-wrote a book.

And then there is what Rabbi Levenstein said about homosexuals. That could not have been more hurtful to people with same sex attractions. He called them deviants and perverts! From Israel Hayom
"There's a crazy movement of people who have lost sense of what's normal in life. This group has whipped the entire country into a frenzy, they force their way into the IDF, and no one dares say anything. There are perverts giving lectures in [the officers' training school] Bahad 1." 
This is inexcusable! He has - in one brief moment - thrown an entire group of people under the bus. Just because someone is a homosexual, doesn’t necessarily mean he preaches it as a lifestyle. Nor does it necessarily mean that he violates Halacha anymore than a heterosexual. No one should be peeking into  - or even speculating about what goes on in - someone else’s bedroom. This applies not only to homosexuals, but  even heterosexuals. If for example we would suspect that an officer violates Hilchos Niddah (family purity laws) do we say he has no right to give military lectures to the IDF?! Unless they flaunt it, it’s nobody’s business.  I therefore join those who condemned his remarks.

While we’re on the subject, what I will say is that flaunting sinful behavior or a sinful lifestyle should be condemned. Whether it is promoting ‘open marriages’ (mutually consensual sleeping with other people’s spouses) or sleeping with members of the same sex. Which is why I oppose things like Gay Pride Parades. There should be no pride in wanting to commit sinful behavior or promoting a sinful lifestyle.

Many well intentioned defenders of Gay Pride Parades claim that their purpose is not to flaunt behavior. It is to instill self confidence in gay people so that they will be proud of who they are instead of being prone to depression because of how they see society looking at them.

I don’t buy that. The parades I’ve seen (mostly in news reports on television) show people flaunting their homosexuality in highly inappropriate ways. That is not pride. It’s exhibitionism!

Furthermore, if pride is the point of these parades, why have black people or other minorities that have experienced disdain and disrespect never had a pride parade? Surely the black community deserves that kind of validation. But the black community does not have pride parades. They have protests and demonstrations about the injustices members of their community have been victims of. That is a legitimate enterprise. 

But a Gay Pride Parade does not demonstrate about injustices. They celebrate their lifestyles. They are not asking to be accepted for who they are, but for what they do. Which in many cases is a grave sin.  And that is an entirely different enterprise. It equates the sinful with the permitted. And that too should be condemned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Charedim Win – and Lose!

Charedim in a classroom (Jerusalem Post)
In practical terms it really doesn’t matter much. Because the law wasn’t being enforced anyway. But it should matter and it should be enforced.

According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, it appears that the current coalition government in Israel is about to repeal the law requiring reduced government funding to schools that do not provide a core secular studies curriculum. Which they defined as teaching at least 11 hours per week in the subjects of English, math, and science. As the Charedi poster child for evil incarnate -  Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said, 
“How will the ultra-Orthodox youth support themselves without mathematics and English and without a basic toolbox for the labor market? 
I have been a vocal supporter of requiring a core curriculum. Primarily because I see the poverty that has resulted in a growing community that refuses to get a basic education in those subjects. Their devotion to studying Torah is so strong that it precludes them studying anything else.

What about making a living? They have claimed that if and when the time comes for an Avreich to leave the halls of the Beis Hamedrash they will ‘find a way’ to make a decent living without it. How often, they might for example ask, does Euclidean Geometry come into play when earning a living? They consider it a waste of time. And they will point to the many among them who have made a successful transition from the Beis HaMedrash to the work place.

Granted there are a lot of Avreichim that do ‘find a way’. There are a growing number of training programs just for that purpose. The only question is what percentage of them are able to do it without having received the basic study tools one gains in elementary school and high school. I have to wonder how many Avreichim left the Beis HaMedrash and couldn’t quite ‘make the grade’. And were then forced by that circumstance into menial low paying jobs.

In a related note, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein pointed out a fascinating statistic in a recent Cross Currents article. It appears that the highest pass rate for those taking CPA exam for the first time for all universities in the state of New Jersey, is for students at BMG - better known as Lakewood Yeshiva! Rabbi Adlerstein wonders if: might pay to rethink educational strategy altogether, at least for some students. If motivated people in their 20’s with practically no secular education at all can compete effectively with products of conventional educational systems, what can we learn about all the drill and reinforcement that is part of elementary education? 
I am not at all surprised that there are some very bright students in Lakewood. Nor am I surprised that very bright students that are motivated to succeed will do what it takes to get there. Like study for a CPA exam.

I am reminded of Frank Abagnale, the infamous fraudster who – until  he got caught - impersonated a variety of professionals without ever having been trained in those professions. In his guise as an attorney, he successfully passed the Louisiana Bar exam without ever attending law school! If you are smart enough and motivated enough, I guess you can do things like that.

But I am not sure I agree that we need to rethink our entire educational strategy. These are the exceptions – exceptional people that do not reflect the needs of the majority.

Which brings me back to the state of Charedi education in Israel. That they will ‘find their own way’ without any preparation may be true in some cases. Just as it is in Lakewood.

But even in Lakewood there is a significant difference between Avreichim there - and those in Israel. Lakewood Avreichim have in most cases had a secular education to one degree or another through high school. Israeli Avreichim for the most part, have not. Those that have are frowned upon as having taken away precious time where they could have been studying Torah. They fall behind their peers that have been studying Torah full time. So it isn’t only the Charedi leadership that opposes it. It affects their social standing among their peers. Secular studies is therefore a ‘hard sell’ at almost every level. Which means it will never voluntarily change from what it is now.

So I am disappointed that these core curriculum requirements are about to be rescinded instead of being enforced.  It will hurt them. And it will hurt the Israeli economy. They will continue to be denied getting the tools they need until – it may be too late for far too many!

What about the detractors - those who argue against requiring a core curriculum?

I have heard arguments accusing the government of requiring more than just the basics. And requiring a curriculum to have subjects that are taboo. But I don’t see how 11 hours per week in basics like English Math and science is ‘overdoing it’. As for taboo subjects like the theory of evolution – that can be taught in ways that are compatible with Torah. But even if it is not taught at all, that doesn’t mean that everything else should be eliminated. The important thing here is to eventually get them into the workplace with decent jobs.

What about the principle that no one - not even a well intentioned government - has a right to tell people how to educate their children. I have never disputed that basic right. But only if it does not negatively impact on society as a whole. Furthermore - this has never been about the government forcing Charedim to teach a core curriculum. It was about not funding those that don’t. No one was forced to do anything.

Why should the Israeli taxpayer pay for a system they see producing a growing number of people that will rely on financial aid well into adulthood? Why shouldn’t they demand a curriculum that will help them be less dependent? So many of them end up illiterate while they are in Kollel indefinitely - because they can’t get decent jobs! And then demand to be supported!

So, yes. I am with that ‘evil Rasha’, Yair Lapid on this one. It is only right that Yeshivos get government support if they teach English, math, and science for at least 11 hours a week. I don’t think it is asking too much. And for those that refuse to do that? Well, God bless them. Let them teach – or not teach – whatever they want. But the Israeli taxpayer should not have to pay for it.

It’s too bad that the political system in Israel depends so heavily coalition partners in order to function. I would love to see direct elections for Prime Minister – same as we have for President of the United States. I know it’s been tried and failed. But I’m not sure why. They should try it again. That would give their government far more stability. And they would not be able to be blackmailed into doing things which I believe are detrimental to entire population of religious Jews.  And to the Israeli taxpayer.