Friday, February 12, 2016

Learning the Lessons of a Failing Movement

The new Conservative Siddur (Forward)
Yet another attempt by the Conservative Movement at reversing the trend of diminishing numbers can be seen in the publication of its new prayer book. And a huge trend it is. There has been fully a one third drop in its membership according to a Forward article. They have published this new ‘Siddur’ with that in mind.

What it basically boils down to is how to be relevant to the masses. There has been a lot of talk about how to do that which has included things like rebranding the movement. An idea put forward by Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative movement’s organizational arm, the Rabbinic Assembly. And now there is this new Siddur. They are changing the liturgy to fit the spirit of the times. From the Forward
In the new siddur, editors made an effort to include “women and women’s experiences,” Feld said. Miriam is evoked alongside with Moses; Sarah, Rachel and Leah revered with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and not just in the Amidah, but throughout the siddur.
The Rabbinical Assembly group also sought to appeal to families with non-Jewish parents and same-sex couples, said Feld. “We take into account the various family situations that exist in the Jewish community these days.” 
As my mother used to say about the Don Quixotes of the world. “S’vet Zei Gornisht Helfin”. That is Yiddish for “It ain’t gonna help them”.  They are tilting at windmills. Most people that have any affiliation at all with the Conservative movement these days don’t really care that much about what is going on in the Shul their parents used to  take them to. 

They are mostly focused on the here and now; their careers, their relationships, the internet, and their smartphones. And raising their families if they are married and have children. We live in an era that has little patience for prayer at all, traditional or otherwise. Even if it is updated to conform with modern sensibilities. 

Having been educated in public or private schools without religion why would they have any interest is a Judaism they have no clue about? It is meaningless to them. That’s why so many of them have dropped out in recent years. Writing a new prayer book is not  going to change that. They can’t even get them into their synagogues. How are they going to get them to read a new prayer book? Even one as progressive as their new one?

There is something they can do, though. The solution is staring them right in the face. It was even alluded to in this article: 
Years ago, when Blank was teaching rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she noticed many of them used ArtScroll prayer books—an Orthodox siddur with staunchly traditionalist commentary and explanation—rather than Siddur Sim Shalom; and this, in Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary. The students were drawn to ArtScroll’s literal translation, expanded commentary and “halachic stage directions,” Blank said.
If the Conservative Movement has any hope of staying alive, they need to note that the truly motivated among them seek tradition. Not innovation. That is what the ArtScroll Siddur gives them.

To an extent, they have noticed it and have included an ArtScroll like commentary in their New Siddur. But while they are trying to appeal to the traditionalist mind, at the same time they are trying to appeal to the modern anti-traditionalist mind . You cannot be all things to all people. You cannot mix fire and water. Structure and tradition is what inspires the devout. But the progressive spirit of the times rejects tradition as archaic and regressive. Oppressive even!

A while ago, DePaul University Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote an article that I believe to be the truth about the trajectory of Conservative Movement and what to do about it. She suggested that the only real way to survive: 
… is for the Conservative movement to narrow its audience by refining its mission. A tribute to Conservative Judaism is that it has produced a core group of Jews whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews.  
The new Siddur will not do that. What they need to do is what Professor Kwall recommended. And she is not the only one who feels that tradition is the way to go. It is what some of the Conservative Movement’s leading lights have been suggesting for some time now.

And the best (perhaps the only) way to assure that traditional practice is followed is via a good Jewish education of the type that does not water it down by mixing in fashionable trends. Tradition, like fine wine should rarely if ever be diluted. Doing so will only ruin it. Hear that, Open Orthodoxy?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dependency and Isolationism as a Way of Life

Chasidic children. What does their future hold? (Image fromVIN)
People who belong to Chasidic communities like Satmar and Skvere are known to have some of the happiest lifestyles in the world. Family life is relatively stable. People there not only get along, but are like one big family. Their lives surround serving God in joyous ways. They are led by a Chasidic Rebbe who sees them all as his children. They see him as the ultimate caring parent that will go to superhuman lengths for his ‘family’ of Chasidim. 

Some of the benefits include being relieved of major life decisions, most of which are decided by the Rebbe. People get married very young - with minimal effort. No dating takes place. One or two meetings in the home of one of their parents who have put this young couple together – and that’s it. They get married, have a family and live happily ever after. There are few communities where the divorce rate is so low. (Although I’m told it is increasing.)

Even those that have left these communities angry - and under less than ideal conditions - will tell you about the beauty of that lifestyle. So why in heaven’s name would I have any problem with a community like this?

Well, we’ve been down this road before. But when I see a video like the one below, it really makes me angry. Because to whatever extent they are successful, it comes with a price. One that shows a less than flattering picture of what is really going on there. A material price for many of the families. And an actual cost to federal and state governments distributing funds they could not live without.

With all of that legitimate joy experienced by these families, that is one other thing they have in common. Poverty. Now they will probably say that they are happy to live in poverty because of the trade-off of in satisfaction and happiness they get. But at the same time I have to wonder if they could survive even at a poverty level without government aid in various forms of welfare. Or even if they are all telling the truth about how they really feel about the level of poverty they live under. 

Are they as happy as they say they are? Are they perhaps afraid to say anything negative for fear of communal consequences? I know that there are some in that community that complain about it and blame their circumstances on the lack of preparation they get to help them help themselves. That was made clear in that video by a Chasid that is still a part of that community. The only question is how many of them are like him but fear the consequences of dissent?

Not that I would deprive anyone in need of legal government assistance. Certainly they have the same right as anyone else to take advantage of our government’s generosity. But when their needs are based on a purposeful failing, I begin to question the morality and ethics of it. Their poverty is real. But the reason for their poverty is due to (among other things) a lack of a decent secular education in a culture that extols ignorance and isolation. A community that rightfully places a high value of religious studies, but wrongfully ignores the basic elements of an education that will allow their members to function in a 21st century world.

The requirement of Judaism to study Torah does not mean that studying other basics of living in the 21st century should be discarded.  And yet they not only do they not offer such studies (to anyone over the age of 13) they discourage it. They even discourage speaking English properly, learning it as a second language. Seeing it as a necessary evil so that one can function at a rudimentary level in the world.

If one listens to a typical Satmar or Skvere Chasid born in the USA, they speak a grammatically incorrect broken version of English that sounds like they just immigrated from Europe. They do this on purpose as a means of isolating themselves from the outside culture. All of which they see as bad - the antithesis of a Torah lifestyle.

Since they are so ill equipped to deal with the outside culture – where most of the jobs are they end up menial jobs that are very low paying. And because most of them have such low incomes and large families they qualify for welfare at maximum levels. Which they are encouraged to take full advantage of. So in essence you have a community where people are raised to be poor and to depend of the government for their basic sustenance.

At this point I should mention that there are exceptions. There are some Chasidim of this type that are multi millionaires that have somehow found success in business. And to their credit most of them are very generous to their fellow Chasidim – providing financial aid to them in a variety of ways. Like funding free loan societies. But these multi millionaires are tiny in number compared to the vast majority.

It’s one thing to be poor because of circumstances beyond your control. No one would deny government aid to people like that. But when an isolationist Hashkafa discourages people from gaining the means to help themselves, that is a horse of an entirely different color. Do such people have a moral right to these funds – even if they have the legal right?

As upsetting as this is to me, it is only half of the story. According to statistics cited in this video, government funding for their schools are in the 10s of millions of dollars every year. Remember, we are talking about parochial schools, not public schools. Just to cite one statistic -in 2014 Satmar received $20 million in federal funds for its Brooklyn schools. That is $1800 per student. Contrast that with the $9 million in federal aid to the Catholic schools. That’s $112 per student.

It would be one thing if that money was used as intended. Much of which is supposed to be for government mandated secular studies programs. But the fact is that not a dime of it is used for that. How could it be if a secular studies program does not even exist past age 13. What does exist before that age is minimal - consisting  of rudimentary English and basic math. Hoe basic? During the course of an interview with an expatriate Satmar Chasid in this video, he tells us about a bright young Chasid who desires to learn more than he is given and when he tells him that he is studying advanced math he that thinks that means studying fractions!

The defenders of these communities will argue that they have a right to live the way they choose. Freedom of religion assures that. Their happy and successful lifestyles should be something to admire and even emulate. Avoiding the evils of the outside world fills their lives with pure Kedusha - holiness of the type the rest of us can only dream about! Why would we want to do anything to undermine that?

If they are happy despite their poverty who are we to challenge their way of life? Who are we to take away the legal welfare resources they need to in order to just survive at very basic levels? Who are we to take away funding from their schools which could destroy them? We should not only not undermine them, we should help support them!

I’m sorry, but I see this as an abuse of the system at so many levels that as a coreligionist - it embarrasses me.

Why should we care? Because they are our brothers. We should care about how the fastest growing demographic in all of Jewry operates in this world. A demographic that touts itself as the most devout among us. What they do, how they live, affects all of us.

Alas, nothing will change. They will continue to get funding because the politicians that get elected and make the laws, need their block vote. There is no way they are going to mess up their chances of getting re-elected by taking away or reducing funding

So why am I writing about this? Because it is the truth as I understand it. And because I needed to vent.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Avrohom, Marc, Asher, and Me

Professor Marc Shapiro
There has been a lot of buzz about a blog-post written by Professor Marc Shapiro entitled Open Orthodoxy and Its Main Critic.  One might suspect from the title that Professor Shapiro was defending Open Orthodoxy (OO). But a careful reading will show that he was not so much defending Open Orthodoxy as he was sharply criticizing ‘its main critic’, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer. Nor was he even challenging Rabbi Gordimer’s opposition to OO, granting that he has every right to criticize them.

In fact in response to a comment made on his blog, Professor Shapiro said, ‘I probably am much closer in some ways to Rabbi Gordimer than to the Open Orthodox’.

His main objection is the way Rabbi Gordimer criticized them.  Among that criticism is his perception that Rabbi Gordimer is so obsessed with destruction of OO,  that he refused to recognize the good they have done. Of which he provides some examples.

Another criticism is Rabbi Gordimer’s alleged  obsession with OO, to the exclusion of serious problems in the Charedi world. And though he acknowledges that Rabbi Gordimer himself tries to stick to the issues, comments to his posts ‘which have to be approved before being posted, sometimes do contain derogatory and insulting remarks about individuals’.

There are other issues that Professor Shapiro has with Rabbi Gordimer, but I think this is the main thrust of his complaint.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer
Rabbi Gordimer has responded in a Cross Currents post. But I have my own take on all of this.

First let me say that I generally agree with Rabbi Gordimer’s views on  Open Orthodoxy. Although I am not as strident as he is, I do believe that his views on OO’s lack of legitimacy as an Orthodox movement reflect the mainstream views of the entire Orthodox rabbinate.  In both the Charedi (Agudah)  and Modern Orthodox (RCA) world. As well as the Chief Rabbinate and Charedi world in Israel.

This is not an opinion. It is just a reality. An unpleasant one no doubt for the leaders of OO.

I completely understand why Professor Shapiro feels this way about Rabbi Gordimer. He explained that well. But I accept Rabbi Gordimer’s defense of his position. That although he sees the wrongdoing to his right, it is by individuals acting irresponsibly and not the Movement itself that is unacceptable. Or just evil interpretations by some individuals. Or simply the crooks and deviants among them. Which every movement has. Professor Shapiro actually alludes to that. But there are problems with  the Charedi world as a group. And he cites some example of that too.

While I think Professor Shapiro is correct about problems in the Charedi world, I don’t necessarily fault Rabbi Gordimer for not dealing with those issues. He might even agree that such problems exist. But he believes as I do that OO as a religious movement has to be identified as unaccepted by Orthodoxy. So that people who seek to be Orthodox know that they are not an option. Joining the Charedi world on the other hand – even with all of its problems – will still make you a member in good standing of Orthodoxy. Is he a zealot? Perhaps. But he believes that issue so important that it is something one must be zealous about.

And yet while I defend Rabbi Gordimer, I am also an admirer of Professor Shapiro. I applaud his work on researching and publishing works on the truth of history. If we are to know where we are going, I think we first need to know from where we came. We have to be honest about that. Omitting the truth of history when it is inconvenient to one’s agenda is the quickest way to turn people away from that agenda, when the truth becomes known. Lies of omission are still lies, no matter how noble the intent.

I understand why he felt the need to criticize Rabbi Gordimer. He sees ihm  as unfairly attacking only one side – hurting good people and their families in the process.  So while I agree with Rabbi Gordimer, I know where Professor Shapiro is coming from. He is not only a brilliant scholar, he is a good man with a good heart.

I’m not sure how Professor Shapiro feels about my own criticism of OO. Which has been very strong. But no one can accuse me of ignoring Charedi misdeeds. My goal is seeking Emes as I understand it wherever I find it.

I have no pleasure in OO’s departure from Orthodoxy. They have a lot to offer. For example OO’s Yeshiva Chovevei Torah has a superb practical rabbinics program, where rabbis are trained how to be rabbis. Most rabbis in the Charedi world have little practical training. The vast majority of Charedi rabbis had no ‘programs’. They simply studied the pertinent texts of the Shulchan Aruch after having spent many years learning Gemara in depth, and if the pass the exams, they get Semicha.

Modern Orthodoxy is a bit better. HTC and especially YU have Semicha programs that involve some practical rabbinics. But  I think YCT probably does a more thorough job of it. It’s too bad they have gone off the reservation in so many areas. YU and HTC would do well to look at YCT’s practical rabbinics programs and incorporate their own version of them into their Semicha programs.

On a tangential but significant note, one of the biggest issues I have with YCT is their tolerance of Kofrim in their midst. Deniers of Torah MiSinai that have bought into the bible critics argument that the Torah was written by man at various different times in history. And that the events at Sinai never actually took place. Nor that the Torah reflects any historical facts at all.
Even though they do not teach that, YCT has not done enough to make clear that they reject that notion as Apikurisus.

A couple of days ago I had a discussion with YCT President, the very talented Rabbi Asher Lopatin. It included among other things this very issue. Here is what he said - an exact quote:
I don't agree with those who reject a traditional understanding of Torah MiSinai.  They haven't figured how to properly interpret academic source criticism in light of our emunah in Torah Misinai [which is non-negotiable]. 
YCT President, Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Non-negotiable! I’m glad to hear that. Unfortunately that is not enough to get back into the good graces of the rest of the Orthodox rabbinate. They have rejected OO and its Yeshivos (YCT and Yeshivat Maharat); their ordainees; and much of their agenda as an unacceptable break from tradition. Nonetheless it is a step in the right direction, away from Apkirsus.

I have been very clear that I lament this whole development. There is a need for a left wing that can appeal to a type of Jew that would be lost in the Charedi world. A type of Jew that values egalitarianism and seeks an Orthodox way of practicing it.

My view is the same as Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. As much as he opposed left wing innovations like Women’s Tefillah Groups, he realized that – right or wrong - there are Orthodox women to which that has an appeal. And that they might leave Orthodoxy for the more egalitarian Conservative Movement without it. So when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin asked him for guidance in how to create one that was within the framework of Halacha, Rav Soloveitchik told him how to do it.

That option has now been compromised by the way the left has evolved. A way that was clearly rejected by Rav Soloveitchik – by their founder’s own admission. Now that OO is not recognized these sincere but in my opinion misguided Jews are left without a recognized Orthodoxy to find what they are looking for. This is a huge loss that should trouble us all.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Incredible Opportunity!

------------------------------------Adverstisement------------------------------------

The David Shapell z'l, Memorial Married Couples Fellowship
  
Yeshiva Darche Noam/Shapell's 
Shapell’s/Darche Noam is excited to announce the establishment of the David Shapell z’l Memorial Married Couples Fellowship.  The Fellowship will provide a married couple with outstanding academic and leadership potential a full scholarship, room and half board during the 5777 academic year. 

The fellowship includes full time learning in the regular programs for the husband at Yeshiva Darche Noam/Shapell’s and for the wife at Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya, in Jerusalem. In addition, the couple will benefit from special programs and classes throughout the year designed for couples seeking to build stronger marriages and homes, on the foundation of Torah.

We encourage observant young couples who are committed to Torah study, spiritual growth, and service to the Jewish community, to apply for this fellowship. Prior Yeshiva/Midrasha background is not a prerequisite, but previous learning experience is an advantage.

Midreshet Rachel V'Chaya
Shapell’s/Darché Noam enjoys renown for its structured approach to teaching how to access Jewish texts, its integration of different approaches in Torah Judaism, its diverse staff, and its high quality student body. With an emphasis on derech eretz and teaching a love of Israel, students are instilled with an appreciation of their uniqueness as individuals and responsibility as Jews. 

Built on the philosophy of  Deracheha Darché Noam, “the ways of the Torah are ways of harmony”, the Yeshiva and Seminary have facilitated the spiritual and personal growth of thousands of men and women. 

Over the years, our married couples program has proven to have a powerful long-term impact on the lives of its participants in building those families. 

The Fellowship was established in memory of our benefactor, David Shapell z'l.  Mr. Shapell (along with his wife Fela, tb'l) was particularly proud of the Torah families built by our alumni. We are proud to honor Mr. Shapell’s memory by making this extraordinary opportunity available to a deserving couple. 

Couples who wish to apply for the Fellowship should contact Rabbi Shimshon Nadel (Director of Recruitment) atrsn@darchenoam.org  to receive application information. 

For more information about the programs at Shapell’s/Darche Noam please visit www.darchenoam.org .

This is an incredible opportunity for a young, married couple.   Please spread the word to those who can benefit!

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle

Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Chris Christie (New York Post)
He had a bad day. Despite his insistence to the contrary, Marco Rubio did not do well in the recent Republican debate. Which disappoints me. I still believe he is the best candidate running for President right now.

I was surprised that he did not answer challenges from his competitors about his lack of governing experience and instead went into a tirade against the President. He is not the first candidate to avoid a question by substituting a prepared message – desiring to embed it into the minds of the viewing audience. But he oversold it. He repeated it over and over again.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called him on it several times - referring to that comment as a memorized 25 second sound-bite speech. Thus painting Rubio as - although very bright - nothing more than an experienced  politician that doesn’t respond to questions – and will carry that inexperience into the White House, if he wins.

That was his first mistake. His second mistake was that he should have acknowledged his error. An error so obvious that if you support him, it is cringe worthy watching it repeated over and over again in the news media. It would not have hurt his message to acknowledge he made a mistake during the debate. It would have instead helped, by showing humility.

But instead he kept insisting that he is glad that message is being replayed in the media so often because that is the anti Obama message he wants to get out. But he totally ignores the negative commentary that accompanies those clips. And the way the negative way audience at the debate reacted to it.

Two very big mistakes. Which is too bad since he had so much momentum going into tomorrow’s New Hampshire Primary. Nonetheless, I still believe he is the best candidate for the job even after his dismal performance at the debate - and how he’s handling afterward. I do not believe those mistakes are fatal. He can and hopefully will turn things around and have a much better debate next week before the South Carolina primary. Besides, I’m not so sure debates win elections.

For me support for Israel is the dciding factor in who I will vote for. This does not mean I have dual loyalties. No one should challenge my love for this country. I am a proud American; support the ideals upon which this country was founded; and am grateful to be living here in the 21st century.

But Israel has only one true friend in the world, and since I care deeply about the Jewish people, that is the number one issue for me. Among those running for President there is no who supports Israel more than Marco Rubio. If he is elected, the relationship between our two countries will improve substantially. There will no more be any personal enmity between the leaders of our two countries. I believe our ties will be closer than ever. Not that they are bad now. But forgive me if I think they could be better in a more positive political climate that shares conservative values. As does Likud and the Republican party. And whose leaders views are far more in line with each other – sharing mutual views on existential issues facing both countries. Like the nuclear deal that grants Iran the right to move full speed ahead towards nuclear weapons in a decade or so. With a promise to annihilate Israel - while already having the ballistic missile capacity that can carry an eventual nuclear payload right into its heart.

While all candidates (Republicans and Democrats) swear that support Israel is ‘unshakeable (to use an Obama term) Forgive me if I think relations will improve under a Republican. And we need one that is electable, like Rubio.

Not that I agree with Rubio on all things. For example I support bettering relations with Cuba, something Rubio adamantly opposes. I am also in favor of more gun control, which I believe he isn’t. But overall, his views are the closest to mine. Especially where they count the most,  support for Israel.

Rubio has the best chance of winning against Clinton, who will no doubt be the Democratic candidate, despite the problems she’s having. Sanders, and avowed socialist, will in the end lose. I don’t think the majority of the Amercian people – even Democrats - will support a socialist. And no one else opposes her.

What about Hillary Clinton? Would she be so bad? Truthfully I don’t know. But my guess is that she would more or less continue the President’s agenda in all areas, including the bad deal with Iran. And continue harping about the settlement issue being the biggest obstacle to peace in between Israel and the Palestinians when we all know that the real obstacle to peace is a long history of Palestinian violence against Israelis.  Which has not subsided!

In a recent blogpost, I said that if Mrs. Clinton was elected she would not only be the first woman President, she would be the first feminist President. There should be no mistake about that. In just about every appearance she mentions that fact that she is a woman and how important that is. That feminism is high on her agenda was made clear once again by a weekend campaign appearance by former Secreatry of State, Madeline Albright. She said there is  a special place in hell is reserved for any woman that votes for Bernie Sanders. That practically received a standing ovation. There’s more. Renowned feminist pioneer, Gloria Steinem who has much use for men as a fish has for a bicycle just added her prestigious feminist credentials to the Clinton campaign.   If you feel about men the way Gloria Steinem does, then Clinton is your 'man'.

Back to Rubio. I would not count him out yet. One glitch – even a big one like this, is not enough to count him out. Even if he does not do as well in the New Hampshire primary as expected because of his debate performance, he will have ample opportunity to redeem himself in future primaries. I do not see any of the other Republican candidates winning in a general election against Clinton, despite her possible legal problems. Which surround her use of a private e-mail account to send classified messages when she was Secretary of State. That will make her vulnerable. But not unelectable - if there is a strong mainstream Republican candidate like Rubio opposing her.

I don’t know who will end up winning between the two if they end up running against each other in a general election. It may end up being very close.  But in my view Rubio has the best chance of beating her from among all the other Republicans running. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Wearing a Kipa

“I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.”  This line was uttered by someone many people think is not a friend of the Jewish people. But I contend now as I have in the past that the person who made this statement is a true friend of the Jewish people, despite my profound differences with him on some of his policies, especially as it relates to Iran.

President Barack Obama made this comment in an address given in the Israeli embassy, the first American President to do so. It was to honor Roddie Edmonds, a righteous gentile – a Tzadik who laid his life on the line to save the Jewish members of his platoon in a prisoner of war camp during the Holocaust. When asked to identify the Jewish members, he answered, ‘We are all Jews’.

It is this kind of righteousness that personifies the American spirit of equality ensconced in the Declaration of Independence  which says, ‘All men are created equal’.  This is the kind of thing that represents what’s right about America. It represents values that we should all strive to live by.

The question is, what about us? What about Orthodox Jews? Are we proud of who we are? Or do we wish to diminish or dilute our differences? Should we try to ‘blend in’? Or should we wear our religion on our sleeves? ...or more correctly, on our heads?

I must be honest, I had once thought that identifying as a Jew, especially an Orthodox Jew by wearing a Kipa was at best a questionable exercise. Why advertise you are Jew? Is the Kipa what Judaism is all about? Is it looking Jewish that counts in God’s eyes? Shouldn’t Judaism be judged by our behavior, our ethics -  not by what we wear on our heads?

Adding to my misgivings is the possibility that as human beings, we Jews are not always on our best behavior. Often far from it. When we have a bad moment - when our guard is down  we night say or do something that we will later regret… and do so as an identifiable religious Jew. Why not avoid that kind of possibility by taking off our Kipot in public and blending in? It would be win/win. If in any given moment we don’t ‘behave’ in public as we should, we will not embarrass our people - and in the process create a possible Chilul HaShem. And if we do something praiseworthy we can make sure that we identify ourselves as religious Jews.

And yet the wearing a Kipa (or more correctly covering one’s head) has evolved into a Halachic requirement in our day. (It was not Halacha in Talmudic times although there were many Jews that did cover their heads). The question is why? I think the answer might be that it is a statement of pride. Pride in who we are. Wearing a covering on your head is done as a sign that there is a God above us. It  is supposed to remind of that and to realize that the whole world is watching us. And that we should always act in ways that reflect our standing as God’s chosen people.

But it is a two sided coin. On the one hand you have the burden of trying to make a Kiddush HaShem – sanctifying God’s name in every act you do. And on the other hand - as human nature will sometimes have it - you have the potential to make a Chilul HaShem. Being a Jew is not easy. But the level of  difficulty does not relieve us our obligation to sanctify God’s name.

What about identifying as a Jew when that poses a danger to us? Well, Pikuach Nefesh trumps all Halachos except for murder, idol worship, and biblically defined adultery.  (However, B’Shas  HaShmad, in times of forced conversion, we are not allowed to violate even the most  minor Halacha.)

This question came up in France recently where Jews were advised to remove their Kipot in light of the frequent attacks against them there. I do not have an issue with those who decided to do so for fear of harm.  Jews are being targeted for being Jews. Not a single one is asked to convert before they are attacked. At the same time, since not every Jew is involved in imminent attack, is that enough of a reason to remove your Kipa? Is the potential to be attacked, even if it is less than 50% enough to justify hiding your Judaism?

I was in this predicament once. I had to walk through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago on a Friday night exactly 24 years ago. Through a series of delays my wife ended up landing at Midway Airport  before Shabbos began. Midway is 18 miles away from my house.

I thought I had made up to meet with her and we would drive back until the last minute before Shabbos and then walk the rest of the way. My wife told me not to bother – that she would deal with the problem herself. Although I thought she understood that I would come, she thought she made it clear that I shouldn’t.

We missed each other, she landed and started walking herself, eventually accepting an offer by a very kind black lady who went way out of her way to take her home on a cold Friday night.

By the time I realized I missed her, it was Shabbos.  Since I did not want to spend Shabbos in a hotel all by myself, I was determined to walk home, despite the dangerous neighborhoods I would have to walk through.  

Those neighborhoods had three kinds of buildings on the street I traversed: bars,  churches, and abandoned ‘bombed out’ buildings. People were in the streets, making a lot of noise, getting drunk or buying drugs.

I thought for a moment that I might have a better chance of surviving that walk if I wasn’t wearing a Kipa. But then I thought that this was not the best time to abandon my faith in God. So I wore it all the way through. No one touched me, although I did get a couple of looks. I must have made quite a sight as the only white person openly displaying his faith on a Friday night walking quickly through a neighborhood famous for gang murders to this day.

I came home tired and in pain from walking at such a quick pace. I was sore for about a week. And then life went back to normal.

I now wear my Kipa proudly in public and no longer think I would be better off not wearing one. I try my best not to make a Chilul HaShem although, I must admit that I don’t always succeed. But I try to be conscious of how others see me as a Kipa wearing Jew. And I hope that most of the time, I succeed.

I believe that pride in expressing who we are has paid off. Despite all of the negative news that individual religious Jews are responsible, we are largely an admired people. And It is why the President said that in times of crisis for the Jewish people, we are all Jews. It is the verbal equivalent of putting on a Kipa. That the President of the most powerful nation on earth has said that in spite of all the criticsm he gets  is something we Jews – and all  of the American people - can all feel good about.  I am truly proud to be a Jew and proud to be an American.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Farewell Shmarya Rosenberg

Failed Messiah creator, Shmarya Rosenberg
There has been a lot of discussion about the departure from blogging world of Failed Messiah creator, Shmarya Rosenberg. He announced that departure in a lengthy farewell post earlier this week.  The news was greeted with a variety of responses ranging from glee to sadness. My reaction was somewhere in between those two extremes (...one of my Centrist traits, I guess). On the one hand I strongly objected to the vulgarity he allowed on his blog. I felt that using profanity detracted from the serious issues he often reported on. On the other hand those issues needed to be reported so that they could be corrected.

Two of the issues that I think he covered most was sex abuse and white collar criminal activity in the Orthodox world. Although he did not limit his reportage to the Charedi world, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of it was about Charedi misdeeds. He both reported on them and often said some very nasty things about them.

For this he was treated with angry resentment by the Charedi world. He was seen as someone whose agenda was to smear the world of Charedim as much as possible. And that he would go far and wide to find negative stories about them looking under every rock, in every nook and in every cranny (Whats a cranny anyway?) to find dirt and heap it on them - to the glee of all the Charedi haters that frequented his blog. 

He did not disappoint. He took every opportunity to smear that world. Though he denied it, saying  he was just the messenger… and the real villains were the miscreants he wrote about, I tended to agree with his critics about having an anti religious agenda. That his reports were true, does mean he didn’t find a sense of satisfaction in sticking it to them. 

I once had an offline conversation with him during the early years of my blogging ‘career’. I found that the real Shmarya Rosenberg was a complex individual who believed he was fighting for justice. But whose view of religious Jews turned sour based on an experience he had when he was a Lubavitcher Chasid (having become one from a formerly secular life).  As an idealist, he was disappointed that a just cause which he strongly believed in was not taken up by Chabad. That left him disillusioned and he left Lubavitch. And I believe that’s why he named his blog Failed Messiah. He is now completely secular.

I will speculate and say that this experience explains his antipathy towards Orthodox Jewry – and why he focused so negatively on it. I don’t think Shmarya is a bad man. I think he is fact still idealistic. But his views have been tainted by life’s experiences and perhaps (again - I admit speculating here)  without even being conscious of it, he focused on the negative parts of the Charedi world – and to a lesser extent – on Orthodoxy in general as a sort of unconscious vendetta.

Shmarya became the poster child for what’s wrong with the internet. At least the blogging portions of it. He was reviled by the Charedi world for his muckraking. Understandably so.Some of his posts were really ugly. But some were simply reporting what was in the media, exposing the abuse and corruption in the world of Orthodoxy that exists at levels far beyond what we would like them to be. 

On the other hand the Charedi world needed some muckraking. That’s how we all achieve consciousness about the wrongdoings. Some of it by various religious leaders. These people had to be exposed, lest what they did  would go unnoticed and unpunished – being swept under the rug for the sake of image.  

Hiding misdeeds from the public by covering them up or explaining them away with faulty rationalizations and excuses always makes things worse - when they are ultimtely uncovered. Exposing them to the public and the consequences to the miscreants and the community from which they come can have a salutary effect that will lead to change. And if that change is not forthcoming or coming too slow, publicizing that can help expedite it.

So at the end of the day, Shmarya performed a service – despite what I believe was at least in part, a smear campaign based on a subconscious anti Orthodox  agenda. Truth – even if spoken by people with bad intentions, is still truth.

The stuff Shmarya dealt with is some of the same stuff I deal with. I have been accused of some of the same things Shmarya has, including being a Charedi hater and basher with same agenda as him, only with a more polite way of doing it. I have been threatened by one prominent Charedi (obviously not one of my fans – but a reader of my blog) with his own public smear campaign against me. He never ended up doing that. But he still believes that I am no better than Shmarya in that regard.

In the sense that I want to expose and publicly condemn bad behavior, I am the same. But to say that I am a Charedi basher is just plain wrong. When I write about these subjects, I have no agenda other than to ‘clean up shop’ and to let the world know that there are Orthodox Jews that condemn bad behavior no less that any ethical person would. It is to make people aware that not every Jew is crook or deviant. Those images fuel all of the antisemitic canards against us. 

Not only am I not a Charedi hater or basher - I have often said that the vast majority of Charedim are fine people with the same values that any ethical individual has. That the miscreants are a tiny minority of the whole. But that the miscreants -  because of the high profile media coverage – make us all look bad. So I report and protest as an Orthodox rabbi to make the point that just like these acts are seen as bad by all good people, so too do religious Jews like me see them that way.

Interestingly, many people consider me Charedi based on some of my recent posts. I am not Charedi. But I am not insulted by being thought of that way. I am flattered. Because I have nothing but respect for the vast majority of these idealistic Jews even though I have some Hashakafic differences with them. Much of their behavior actually inspires me.

Some people say they will miss the hard core muckraking that Shmarya was so good at. But I am not one of them. Because I will not let go of my own determination to shout out wrong doings in the religious world. It may not come in the same form as Shmarya’s.  But it will come - when I feel it warrants public condemnation.

I will however say that Shmarya’s blog did some good despite the fact that he was so reviled by the Charedi world. He exposed things that needed exposure so that they would be properly dealt with rather than being swept under the rug in a business as usual fashion.

I believe that despite his obsession with the misdeeds of the Orthodox world - deep down Shmarya Rosenberg has a Jewish soul. And now that he’s leaving the blogging world to help the poor, I wish him success in the new endeavor.

His blog will continue under new ownership. Based on their first post, the new owners sound more like me than Shmarya. If that is the case, I obviously wish them much success.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Kavod HaTorah? A Misplaced Rebuke

Rav Uren Reich, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village (YWN) 
I am sometimes surprised by some of the prominent Charedim that read my blog and express approval. I have heard many times that even though they don’t agree with everything I say, they agree with most of it.

Just yesterday I received a short note telling me how much one prominent Charedi Rav respects my blog. I was truly humbled by his words. And it was not the first time I have been humbled that way by prominent members of the Charedi world. Names that are widely recognized.  Occasionally I get a heartfelt message from someone like that about an issue that I touched upon. Some of those are worthy of publishing so that as many people will get that message as possible.

I received a message like that yesterday which I want to share.  It speaks to an issue that I often address. It was generated by a response to the recent speech by mega philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz where he rebuked the educational system in Lakewood for rejecting students for reasons of elitism. R’ Shlomo Yehuda’s words were very strong. They were based on the gut wrenching cries he received from parents whose sons or daughters had not been accepted – and hung out to dry without recourse! 

While there are many reasons why a child will not be accepted to a school, many of them legitimate (like an actual lack of space – or a special needs child that a school does not have the means to address) there is no question in my mind that an elitist attitude is a major contributor to the problem. 

That was made obvious to me recently by an invitation to a Lakewood Beis Yaakov banquet someone showed me.  It promoted itself by referring to its ‘carefully selected student body’  from the ‘finest families in Lakewood’. This invitation was sent out at about the same time R’ Shlomo Yehuda made that speech. If that doesn’t demonstrate the kind of elitism that exists there, then I don’t know what would. How many children are not accepted to that school because they are not from the ‘finest families in Lakewood’?!

What’s worse is when a prominent Charedi Rosh Hayeshiva feels he must ‘kill the messenger’ by way of strong rebuke - in the name of Kavod HaTorah. How dare anyone point out a problem that makes Lakewood Ir HaKodesh look bad? Even if it were true, which he claimed it isn’t! People  - even if they are sincere -who speak with rhetoric like this about the Charedi world are no better than the common blogger who smears Charedim on a daily basis.

While he recognized R’ Shlomo for all his charitable work in the Charedi world, and recognized that his motives were pure - spoken forcefully with pain in his heart, Rav Uren Reich Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village nevertheless called it a Chilul Hashem! We do not advertise our problems to the world so that they can bash us. 

I listened to recording of it forwarded to me by the above mentioned Charedi individual. An individual who otherwise places Lakewood in very high esteem. His words were heartfelt as well. Is his reaction a Chilul HaShem too? Or is it the Kiddush HaShem I believe it to be- because one must first recognize a  problem in order to address it. And sometimes it takes a public rebuke so that those responsible won’t be able to ignore it. His sentiments – which I share  follow: 

I received this yesterday, and listened to the whole thing.  Nice guy, such a shame.

This shiur highlights one issue only.  Kavod.  That’s the overriding matter that we face today.  No one dare utter a word of question, no one can point out a failure, mistake, or imperfection.  That’s the same mentality that led to a self-driven heter to fabricate in order to ban the Making of a Gadol.

I’m sickened by the current mentality of straw men, images, only chitzoniyus to admire, to deify, to view as something other than human.  I peruse the galleries of photos that fall into my inbox, with photo shoots of the latest Rebbe who traveled, went on vacation, recited tashlich, davened on Hoshanah Raboh, burned the chometz, recited birchas ilanos, danced at a wedding, etc.  

There are some instances of bekeshes containing some really good Jews on their inside, but we will never know.  These figureheads have armies of gabo’im surrounding them so that no one can approach them with anything mundane and human.  

Nothing like the stories we were nurtured with about poshute Yidden, the mesiras nefesh of tzaddikim who sought to bring true Yir’as Hashem to the masses.  Nothing like the tzaddikim of yesteryear who did more for their following than just public performances.  

Kavod?!  That’s all it is?!  Someone finally said the truth, pointed out where Lakewood has failed, drew attention to the inconsistency of this with its identity as the Ir Hatorah, and all they can protest is about kavod?!

I am grossly disappointed.  The recovering alcoholic lives by the 12 steps of AA.  Step 10 includes the phrase, “and when we wrong, promptly admitted it”.

There is no doubt that the problem there, as well as in other communities is complex.  Highlighting one factor is a great step forward.  Don’t kill the messenger just because someone points out the fatal flaw of chasing after kavod.  This mecho’oh stuff is not just smelly, but indicates a serious resistance to confront issues.  It’s a disgrace.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A Peaceful if not Ideal Resolution at the Wall

A man and a woman praying together at the Kotel in 1936 (Getty Images)
There has been a lot of talk about a decision made by the Israeli government approving a section of the Kotel for ‘mixed gender’ prayer. The comments range from outright condemnation by Agudath Israel to almost giddy approval by heterodox movements.

The Agudah calls it ‘profaning’ the holy site. Those in favor of it called it ‘historic’ and a huge victory for egalitarianism.

I have long opposed the push by groups like Women of the Wall for egalitarian services at the Kotel (for reasons that will soon become apparent).  But I do not see the actual act of men and women praying together at the Kotel as a violation of Halacha. 

The only place where separation of the sexes is required is in a Shul. One may otherwise pray with a Minyan with women present. One will for example see ad hoc Minyanim for Mincha and Maariv taking place at wedding halls where women are present in the same room.  Even right wing Roshei Yeshiva will participate in them without any reservation.

So why is there a Mechtiza at the Kotel? Good question. When one looks at archival photos of pre State Palestine that feature the Kotel, one might come across images of devout men and women praying there together. The Mechitza came much later. My guess is that the reason for that is that when the Kotel Plaza becomes crowded during peak periods (like Birchas Kohanim) people are practically glomming all over each other. When men and women are together in situations like that it becomes difficult if not impossible to pray. I think a Mechitza was probably installed to prevent that kind of scenario.

Some might argue that in effect the Kotel is a Shul. After all Minyanim are constantly forming there. Hence in effect it becomes a Shul and requires a Mechitza. Perhaps. It is possible I suppose that the Kotel Plaza area has evolved into a Shul. 

But this is not true for the Kotel  area being assigned for egalitarian purposes. That area was never a Shul. And I don’t think a group of heterodox Jewish men and women praying together there will make it one.

So why am I opposed to it? Because of the motives behind it. It gives a victory to egalitarian ideal that inserts itself into a religious area where it does not belong. Insisting that egalitarianism trumps religion means (among other things) Shuls without Mechitzos; counting women as part of a Minyan; or female cantors leading a prayer service… are  all things that are forbidden by Halacha.  A true egalitarian ideal rejects those Halachos since they contradict egalitarian ideals.

Egalitarianism is sourced in the kind of feminism that does not allow for any exceptions. Including religious ones. Any treatment of women that is different from the treatment men is seen as misogynistic. Even if it for religious reasons. There is no such thing as separate roles for men and women. Whatever a man can do, a woman should be able to do. This is the kind of feminism that has been agitating for this an egalitarian Minyan at the Kotel .

So I don’t blame the Agudah and other Orthodox instructions for condemning it. But I kind of feel the way the Kotel Rabbi does: 
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, said he heard the decision approving the agreement “with a heavy heart and a sigh of relief,” 
I too have a  sigh of relief. I hope this will end the constant fighting over this issue. No longer will there be a disruptive distraction by a group of women at the beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar - each wearing talis and tefillin praying and reading from the Torah as though they were a legitimate Minyan.  Now they will have their own place to do so out of sight.  The women that have been praying at the traditional site -  each on their own side of the Mechtiza  - will be able to continue that practice in peace.

There will be no more shouting matches or people getting arrested. The traditional Kotel Palza area will remain as is. I believe that the vast majority of people that go there for prayer prefer it that way. They should have the same right to preserve that tradition as those who clamor for egalitarianism.

What I do not approve is what the following:
Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

There is no benefit to calling Reform Jews clowns. You can disagree with them. You can say that their views are anti Torah. You can oppose what they are doing. But name calling is not the way to do that. Whatever one says about Reform Jews, they are anything but clowns. They are sincere in their beliefs and are acting upon them. One might even say that they are religious in their own way. Much the same as one might say the devout of other religions are religious.

It is therefore insulting in the extreme to call sincere Jews who were raised in the Reform Movement clowns. They are not clowns. Being wrong about Judaism as we Orthodox Jews believe them to be - does not make them clowns. It just makes them misguided. So too is someone one calling them that.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Respect - Not Elitism

Lakewood Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Malkiel Kotler
I had a discussion earlier this week with a prominent Charedi Talmid Chacham. We were debating the merits of the kind of religious education that takes place in Lakewood these days. It was in the context of the recent rebuke by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz about the elitism in religious schools there which leaves too many children out in the cold. 

He told me that Lakewood Rosh HaYehiva, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler went to Betzalel Hebrew Day School.  There was no "cheder" in his days! Betzalel was a Modern Orthodox coed day school. Point being that one does not need an elitist school to become the Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. 

Nor does one need to be the son of the previous Rosh HaYeshiva. One may recall that the late Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, graduated from a coed high school. He was a distant cousin of the previous Rosh HaYeshiva. I believe that experience helped him better understand the broader Orthodox world and better relate to the American Bachurim that went to the Mir.

That reminded me of a belief I have always had about Jewish education in Chicago. If the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy were the only game in town, and everyone - right to left - had sent their children there for lack of an alternative - the academy would be a far different and far better school than it is today. Its products would be more unified having gained by experiencing peers from homes with a broad range of Hashkafos.

He disagreed saying that we benefit from different derachim by having different schools as long as they respect each other. The strongest case would be that Yeshivas should be more open like they used to be.

Citing views I have expressed here in the past, I responded by saying that the problem with diversification is that with rare exception schools with different Hashkafos don't respect each other. 

I'm not so sure we gain by each Hashkafa having its own niche. We have become exclusionary instead of inclusive. Which is the source of the problem in Lakewood. By not integrating we don't learn from each other anymore. Instead we each learn about our own Hashkafa - and the Mechachim of each segment extol the virtues of their own Hashkafos while disparaging the hashkafos of others. Sometimes indirectly. And sometimes directly.

I miss the old days where we were all in the same boat. We might have joked about each others different Minhagim, but we were all friends and nobody looked down upon the other.

That generated the following response. It is one that if implemented, would make Orthodoxy a far better society -  integrated in an Achdus that respects differences – as long as they do not cross heretical lines. It follows:

I think it is fundamental hashkafa that there should be different derachim in service of Hashem and all (legitimate) derachim be respected and that we learn from each other.  And not withstanding the problems you raise, Chicago has also benefited tremendously from the various mosdos that reflect different derachim. 
As someone that learned in Lakewood and knew the attitude of many Gedolim in my era, I am uncomfortable with the prevalent chinuch approach, which is not dealing with things in a nuanced way because black and white is easier. 
Some examples that come to mind. 
There are issues with tznius in girl's high schools, so institute uniforms! So instead of dealing with  the issue by giving the girls a deeper appreciation of tznius, just make uniforms .  Its easier.
 The price we pay is that there is no room for self expression, a cardinal sin to a Gadol like Rav Hutner and his Slabodka Hashkafos. 
Having opportunities for secular education and preparation for parnosa present challenges for some students, or may lead some who are destined for greatness in learning to pursue a career instead.  (I think all would agree that being a doctor or a lawyer is fine but it would have been tragic had Rav Noson Tzvi Finkel become a lawyer!)    
So instead of being a true machanech like Rav Hutner and guiding talmidim in their career choices, we just declare it taboo! 
... I agree with many of the issues you raise, but the (very small!) piece of Rav Hutner within me says that the way to address them is not to lower the bar and discourage different derachim and mosdos, but rather to rise to the challenge and learn to respect each other. 
It's hard for me to see Moshiach coming until we do!  
He added a story that was published in Parsha Encounters,  a weekly publication of the Chicago Community Kollel.  It demonstrates what it means to respect different derachim.  
The highly respected Holocaust survivor Yosef Freidenson had a brother Shamshon Raphael, a name not very common among Polish Chassidim!  He explained what prompted his father to name a son after Rav Hirsch ZTL. 
 “My father would visit Frankfurt on business.  There, for the first time in his life, he saw Jewish women who were accomplished doctors and lawyers and, at the same time, were meticulous in covering their hair.  He said to himself that if Rav Hirsch could build such a community, he wanted the merit of having a son named after him!” 
It’s important to keep in mind that what he saw was very different thanhis own approach in avodas Hashem.  He would not want his daughter to be a doctor or a lawyer.  Nevertheless, not only was he able to respect that derech, he was able to be inspired by it and to admire it! 
What a lesson in ahavas Yisroel, love of fellow Jews, did Eliezer Gershon Freidenson teach his family! And what a lesson he teaches us!