Monday, September 01, 2014

Time to Move On?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying before congress
On September 11, 2012, the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by Islamic terrorists. America’s Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens and 3 other Americans were killed.  With the State Department being in charge of embassies and their personnel - Secretary of State (at the time) Hillary Clinton was called upon to testify  at congressional hearings. When she was challenged by Senator Ron Johnson about what really happened and whether she had any responsibility in the matter - she became very irate and in an emotional and somewhat angry tone responded with the following: 
…what difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.” 
In my view that testimony may very well be her Achilles heel when she runs for President in 2016. In essence what she did was try and avoid responsibility by saying ‘Let’s move on!’

Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn
I bring this up in light of a post by Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn that pretty much says the same thing about the Meisels seminary scandal. To quickly review... 

The Chicago special Beis Din created to handle sex abuse cases convened and found Elimelech Meisels (who owned and headed 4 seminaries in Israel) guilty of having ‘unwanted contact of a sexual nature’ with some of his students. They then published a letter telling prospective parents that these 4 seminaries were not recommended. After Meisels was forced to sell his seminaries and remove himself from their presence - an Israeli Beis Din (IBD) which had been contacted by the CBD quickly restored the reputation of the school. The CBD stood its ground. That’s where the dispute stands. And to the best of my knowledge its accreditation by HTC and Touro - colleges that formerly extended that courtesy to them has not restored it.

Not satisfied with that, 5 prominent American Rabbonim were contacted and convinced that the seminaries are safe and wonderful institutions and that no one should refrain from sending their daughters there. They based this on additional measures that have since been installed for the protection of the girls… which included the installation of trusted female head (Rebbetzin Birnbaum)  and a Vaad (committee) of distinguished Israeli Rabbonim that would oversee those seminaries.

The CBD has still stood its ground. The reason is because there are teachers still on staff that knew about the abuse and did nothing. They looked the other way while the abuse continued. This was determined to be the case by the CBD in its original findings.

Rabbi Eidensohn wants to ignore that very important fact. His view is, What difference does that make? The seminaries are safe. He goes on to explain why he feels that way: 
The IBD has proposed and is instituting fundamental changes in the seminary culture - which are widely views as needed for all seminaries - not just these four. The new owner had hired Rebtzn Birnbaum - a widely respected educator - to supervise all 4 seminaries… 
…the head of the IBD - Rav Shafran - traveled to America  and succeeded in convincing 5 American gedolim of the need of a letter publicly supporting the seminaries and indicating that they are safe and productive places of growth and spirituality. In addition, the Novominsker had a vaad hachinuch of the highest level rabbonim added to reinforce the work of the IBD and to ensure that things were properly supervised.
First of all, I think it is fair to ask whether the 5 distinguished Rabbonim made a ruling based solely on the facts as presented by a Nogeah B’Davar - someone who had a clear bias by being on the IBD. But even leaving that aside, I don’t understand how anyone in good conscience can allow a seminary to continue to function when there are staff on board that knew about the abuse and did nothing.

These teachers must go. It isn’t only about how safe those schools are now. It’s about giving a pass to enablers. These teachers share some of the blame and do not deserve to teach. Can anyone imagine Joe Paterno getting a pass for his ‘looking the other way’ about the sexual abuse his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of?  Who would not be outraged by that?! What parent would want to send their child to a school where enablers are given a pass?

No parent should consider those schools as long as they are there. Nor should any parent who made deposits with these schools prior to this event be forced to send their daughters there now. That money should be refunded in full.

And yet, Rabbi Eidensohn says that all we need to know is that safety measures are now in place and this cannot happen again. Maybe so. But justice will not be served if those teachers are still there. Nor would I want my daughters influenced by a teacher who put her job ahead of their students’ welfare.

I am not going cast aspersions on Rabbi Eidensohn’s motives. I’m sure he believes that he is acting L’Shem Shomayim here. But I can’t help feeling that there is an unspoken consideration here that is at least in part motivating the IBD and their supporters.

The fact is that many of these teachers are the sole (or primary) support of their husbands in Kollel. Losing their jobs will create untold hardships on their husbands and large families. Not to mention the fact that their reputations will be ruined when people find out why they were fired. I don’t know how many teachers would be affected. But even if only one is destroyed - it is one too many.

It is compassion for the families of the teachers and staff of those 4 schools that might be behind the thinking of those who are so quick to Kasher these schools. If those schools fail and close because of this event, hundreds of people will be affected. Every employee in those 4 schools will be out of a job and their reputations ruined. That is a pretty strong motive.

The problem is that the lives of the young girls victimized by Meisels and his enablers are also ruined. As Rabbi Eidensohn himself says about cases of sex abuse, ‘A serious loss of emunas chachomim ( lack of respect for all rabbis and Judaism - is occurring and threatens to get much worse)”. Is there any real justice in protecting the lives of the enablers here? Do they deserve to get a pass?

I also strongly object to his characterization of the class action lawsuits by parents asking their deposits to be refunded – saying that it is ‘A lawsuit of outrageous claims threatens a tremendous chilul hashem.’ The plaintiffs are acting under the guidance of respected rabbonim. I don’t see what right Rabbi Eidensohn has to characterize as a Chilul HaShem a parents right to have his deposit refunded under these conditions.

Time to move on, Rabbi Eidensohn?! I don’t think so.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jewish Education and the Smartphone

The evolution of the current state of Orthodox Judaism has proven to be a major success in maintaining and perpetuating itself. That success as evidenced by its exponential growth over the last sixty years is largely based on how it handled its encounter with modernity.  That is mostly due to how it educates its children. But all is not well.

A lot of young people from Orthodox homes of all stripes have gone astray from their religious practices and beliefs. This is commonly referred to as going Off the Derech (OTD). This phenomenon seems to have reached epidemic proportion. I don’t know if things are worse now that they were when the age of enlightenment took hold in the Jewish world. A lot of people went astray of their Judaism via the Jewish version of enlightenment called Haskala.

What makes this phenomenon unique in our era is how we have adjusted to the land of freedom and its open society. A society that is a direct result of the enlightenment.  When the enlightenment first happened we were not prepared for it.

In the pre-enlightenment era, Judaism was practiced pretty much the same way it had always been practiced in its European (Ashkenazi) incarnation. Life as we know it today did not exist. One generation lived pretty much the same way the last one did. Generation after generation - Jews were treated the same way by their European hosts: shabbily. We were segregated into ghettos and persecuted. We were pretty much cut off and shut out from the outside world.

There was thus much more control over our lives by religious leaders. Pressure to conform was great. Those who did not conform had no place else to go. Not to mention the fact that few Jews had even the slightest notion of desiring to know more than they were taught by their teachers. Because of all this - outside distractions were of little significance to us.

When the enlightenment suddenly opened up new vistas for us, the floodgates of assimilation, free thinking, and heretical thought were opened along with them. Many Jews saw a new world of knowledge and lifestyle previously unavailable to them now beckoning. And they took advantage of it. The rabbis of that era were unprepared for this openness and had no way to control it. A lot of people from observant Judaism went astray of their traditions and beliefs.

Fast forward to  1950s. The Holocaust had just ended. There were millions of European Jewish survivors that had no homes to return to.  A large number of them were the most devout among us. They would never have immigrated to America pre-Holocaust. They are the ones that listened to their rabbinic leaders who forbade them from immigrating to America. The fear was that the ‘Treifena Medina’  would (via freedom and the pull of assimilation) cause them all to go astray.

Post Holocaust - all those who refused to go, were suddenly survivors. They could no longer go back to the European cities and towns that were bastions of religious life pre Holocaust. They no longer existed. Furthermore their gentile neighbors were not all the anxious to see them coming back (to say the least!). These devout Jews immigrated to America. And that changed everything .

Over the last 60 or so years these people have created a society of religious Jews which I believe to be unprecedented in Jewish history since the destruction of the 2nd Temple. Because of the very foundation of religious tolerance upon which  America is built - the Jewish people had the freedom to build the religious world of their choice in complete freedom.

And build they did. The one drawback of the complete freedom this country offered is the threat of outside influences drawing our children away from observance. The  assimilationist ‘melting pot’ pull was the hallmark of America back  in the 50s. To combat that pull a strong day school and Yeshiva high school system was built. That kept the draw of the outside world at bay. Which has worked out very well for the most part. Over the last 60 or so years the Orthodox Jewish community has had an explosion in growth.  As is rather well known by now, Orthodox Jewry in the US is the only segment in America that has experienced growth. Every other segment has  experienced a decline in its numbers.

But all is not rosy. There was still that ‘pesky’ draw from the outside world. A draw takes many forms. From the easier lifestyle, to events and activities that even most fervent Orthodox  Jews can easily be drawn to… as well as intellectual challenges to the very core of our faith. This impacts Jews across the Orthodox spectrum.

That draw has always been there. But until relatively recently the right wing of Orthodoxy was fairly successful of keeping those influences out. The constant vilification of ‘the outside world’ and the lack of any easy means to be influenced by it has kept the vast majority of their young people in the fold.

The rest of Orthodoxy allowed more exposure to the ‘outside’  culture and that too took its toll. There have been many young people who have found outside influences to be irresistible and have gone astray themselves. The more exposure, the greater the pull to go astray. My guess is that there were probably a lot more Orthodox Jews going astray from those exposed to the culture than there were from those that were isolated from it.

All this has changed. Now everyone has easy access to the culture and all of it s vices, both social and intellectual. There is no such thing anymore to insulating ourselves from the outside world. The isolationist polices may still work for some. But increasingly it has become far lesseffective. The advent of hand held devises can now access anything in the world in a matter of moments, without anyone being the wiser.

This has destroyed isolationist tactics. What makes things worse is that isolationist polices have a disadvantage. Young people that have been educated forbidden any contact with the outide world including via hand held devices -  lack the wherewithal  to combatthe images and anti Torah forces that are so prevalent. Past vilification of what is so easily accessed is questioned. Not everything they see is evil. And what’s worse they are ill prepared to handle the intellectual challenges they suddenly encounter. Isolation offers no preparation for that.

In my view the danger to the right is now even greater than to the center and left. Those of us who have been exposed to and are taught how to deal with it stand a far better chance of staying on course than those that haven’t.

At this point in time, I’m not sure which of us are at greater risk. But even if one were to concede that Modern Orthodox world is still at greater risk – the Charedi world is catching up real fast. Putting up additional fences is not the answer. Trying to combat the pervasiveness of outside influences so easily accessed by increasing isolationist tactics is only going to increase those who go astray.

It seems to me that the best way to handle the word as we know it today, is not by digging the hole of isolation ever deeper. It is in my view a much better option to teach our young how to interact with it and to prepare them for the challenges they may encounter. This does not mean that we should just allow unfettered access to our young. But it does mean minimizing its use and limiting the chances of harmful encounter via filters. 

It also means teaching them how to deal with idea they may encounter that challlenges our faith. This is not an easy task. My guess is that most religious educators are woefully ignorant about how to do that. That’s why I would suggest that all teachers undergo mandatory training in how to teach their students these things.  I would also recommend that schools require parents to attend lectures meetings where they can be advised about how to handle it from their end.

It is a brand new world out there. There are far too many parents that are not sufficiently dealing with this problem and allow their children full access to the internet via their smartphones.

Even though our ways are timeless, our teaching methods are not. In far too many cases they are outmoded with respect to dealing with the reality of our times. If we want to stop losing our youth to technological advances we need to be ahead of the curve. As it stands now we are behind the eight ball. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Courage of their Convictions

Letter by American rabbis endorsing controversial seminaries
I cannot think of two more establishment Rabbis in the Charedi world than Rabbis Shmuel Fuerst and Zev Cohen. Both of them are steeped in the culture of Daas Torah. This means that when their Gedolim speak, they listen. At least that’s what I thought it meant.

This does not mean to say that they can’t disagree… or think for themselves. But what it does mean is that when their Gedolim make a statement, they will not publicly contradict them. One need only listen to every single Agudah banquet where at least one speaker will talk about how Charedim are defined through their fealty to Daas Torah as espoused by the Agudah Moetzes. 

The passage in the Torah that Charedim use to justify this attitude is taken from this week’s Torah portion (Devorim 17:11): Lo Sasur Min HaDavar Asher Yagidu Lecha Yemin U’Smol. (That which you are taught according to the Torah - you shall do.) Do not veer away from what you are told – to the right or to the left.

Lo Sasur is what gave Chazal their biblical authority to create D’Rabbanans - Halacha beyond that which the Torah mandates.  Many of these D’Rabbonons were established by the Sanhedrin HaGadol - the ‘great court’ that was extant during the 2nd Temple era. The 70 Members of this great court were called the Anshe Kenesses HaGedolah – the men of the great assembly.

Charedim apply Lo Sasur to our own day as well. They tell us that current Gedolim are to be treated with the same degree of authority.  Lo Sasur means that you heed rabbinic authority to such an extent, that (as Rashi says) even if they tell you right is left and left is right, you must nonetheless obey them. Rabbis Fuerst and Cohen are strong proponents of this interpretation of Daas Torah. These same two rabbis made up 2 of the 3 Dayanim (Judges) of the Chicago Beis Din that adjudicated the Meisels seminaries case. The 3rd Dayan was the highly esteemed (in all circles including Charedi ones)  R’ Gedalia Dov Schwartz.

Which is why I was astonished yesterday by a letter signed by several Rabbis that make up part of the Agudah Moetzes. It was published on Rabbi Eidenshon’s blog. In essence these distinguished Rabbonim gave their full endorsement to the seminaries that were headed by Elimelech Meisels. 

Recall that Meisels was accused of sexually abusing some of his seminary students. The Chicago Beis Din (CBD) had publicly discouraged parents from sending their daughters there – even after Meisels had transferred ownership. They (rightfully in my view) held that the seminaries were still not considered safe since there were teachers still there who knew about the abuse (via students who confided in them at the time) and did nothing – thus enabling Meisels to continue his abuse.

Originally after they made their warning to parents - the CBD deferred further action to an Israeli Beis Din (IBD) that consisted of distinguished rabbinic jurists of their own. After they quickly got rid of Meisels, they immediately restored the reputation of those seminaries. They further forbade any other seminary from accepting students that were already registered there. Letters were then sent out by at least one of those schools touting their renewed approval by the IBD.  But the CBD stood their ground.

It appears that the CBD is still doing so despite the new letter by the esteemed cosigners of the new letter that have also endorsed the schools as safe and wonderful environments for growth in Torah and Yahadus. Apparently Yerachmiel Lopin has verified that this is indeed the case. The CBD is standing its ground. From Yerachmiel’s blog
I have received reports from people who have spoken to the members of the CBD. All of them are staying the course, advising against attending until they are convinced that all staff guilty of enabling Meisels are removed. Touro and HTC will abide by the rulings of the CBD. Naturally the CBD is unhappy about the letter by the roshei yeshiva, but they are staying the course. 
For Rabbis Fuerst and Cohen to stand their ground here takes a lot of courage.  I give them tremendous credit for that. They apparently feel that the issue will not be entirely resolved until the enabling teachers are dealt with. I agree with them.

Here is how I feel about it. I have no clue if these seminaries are safe, despite assurances by distinguished American rabbis that they are.  They base these assurances on the prestige and reputation of prominent rabbis in Israel that will be monitoring those schools. But if I were a parent considering sending my daughter to a seminary in Israel, I would never send my daughter to any of these seminaries.

I wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole. I don’t care how many assurances are given – or by whom. As long as there are people teaching there that put their own welfare and that of the school ahead of their students, those schools are Tameh – spiritually impure! Enablers must be expunged.  

Furthermore, if I were one of those parents suing those schools in a class action suit in order to get my deposit back, I would continue doing so with all my might. Because even if those schools were now the safest schools in Israel, they have no right to keep those deposits under these circumstances. It isn’t as though they changed their minds on a whim. May God help these parents prevail in court.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unresolved Dilemmas

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Once again, I am amazed at the insight a Conservative rabbi has into Orthodox Jewry. Professor Jack Wertheimer has written yet again on the subject of Modern Orthodoxy (MO). This time addressing responses to his original article on the subject.  

The sense I get from his essays on the subject is that in his heart of hearts, he wishes he was part of it. His praise of it - combined with his frequent criticism of his own movement leads me to believe that. To the best of my knowledge he is an observant Jew even by Orthodox standards. Leaving aside the critical issue of belief in Torah MiSinai – which I think he questions based on biblical criticism - he would fit right in. And he would love it here.

What Professor Wertheimer likes about Modern Orthodoxy is what the Conservative Movement was initially supposed to be about: successful engagement with the culture combined with strict adherence to Halacha.

So where in Modern Orthodoxy would Professor Wertheimer fit in? Just as there is denominational divisions in Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), so too are there divisions in Orthodoxy itself. For purposes of simplicity let us break it down to 2 divisions: Charedim and Modern Orthodox. 

R' Aharon Lichtenstein
Even Modern Orthodoxy (which is the focus of this post) has divisions. Which I have classified in the past as follows: Right Wing MO, Left Wing MO, MO-Lite (meaning those whose religious observance is based more on social reasons than idealistic ones), and Orthoprax (meaning those who observe Halacha but do not necessarily believe in the fundamental tenets of Judaism). There is a lot of overlap… but I think these divisions are fair.

In his article Dr. Wertheimer discusses the influences on Modern Orthodoxy. The following is my take.

The influences of the left are in my view negligible. Open Orthodoxy was created by the left to cater to the left. But because of a Hashkafic approach that was long ago firmly rejected by their mentor, Rav Soloveitchik - and their acceptance as members in good standing of rabbis with heretical views - even some of the more liberal rabbis of Modern Orthodoxy (like Rabbi Barry Freundel) have rejected them.

MO-Lite is not a Hashkafic movement and has no impact on the Hashkafos of Modern Orthodoxy. 

Orthopraxy by definition is not really Judaism.You cannot say that you seriously question God’s existence or the truth of the Torah and claim to be Orthodox in any real sense of the word.

What interests me most is the Charedi influence.

I believe it is indeed very strong. And that it has both positive and negative aspects. As a Centrist I embrace many of the values of the Charedi world, primary among them the strict adherence to Halacha and the high value of Torah study.

Obviously adherence to Halacha is what makes MO – Orthodox. The better we are at observing it, the more Orthodox we are.

Torah study too enhances Modern Orthodoxy. The study and mastery of religious texts on Halacha; texts on the source of Halacha (which include Gemarah, Rishonim, and Achronim) are paramount in understanding who we are and how we got here. More importantly without studying Halacha, we can’t possibly know how to keep it.

Leadership is one area in which we clearly lag behind our Charedi counterparts. As was pointed out by several  of Professor Wertheimer’s respondants ( most directly Rabbi Barry Freundel):
“Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought,” Freundel asks? Nearly three decades after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ceased functioning as a leader, he remains the totem invoked at every turn…
But Freundel poses the right question: the failure of contemporary Modern Orthodox leaders to develop Jewish religious thought does indeed appear to be a symptom of theological uncertainty, if not malaise. 
If there is any failing that Modern Orthodoxy has, it is the current lack of great Torah personalities like Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav). There is no Modern Orthtodox thinker around today that has anywhere near the respect and authority that did the Rav. The closest one would be Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. But even if at age 80 he were to be granted the same degree of respect, there is no one else even close to him on the horizon. There is not a single rabbinic authority of great stature in Modern Orthodoxy today that anyone can point to and say: He is our guide in Halacha. He is our guide in Hashkafa.

I suppose that this is in part the ‘nature of the beast’. Modern Orthodoxy is less focused on central authority figures.  Those of us with a strong background in Torah study tend to think for ourselves… and take positions based on the teachings of our mentor. In some cases more than one mentor has influenced us. We also look at sources to corroborate our positions on matters of Halacha and Hashkafa. But that leaves a vacuum of leadership on matters not so simply clarified on our own – no matter what our background is.

This is why Charedim have made inroads into our world. For lack of any other authority figures, many RWMOs turn to Charedi leaders for guidance. And their guidance may not necessarily be what a MO thinker like the Rav would advise.

This is amply demonstrated by the gap year in Israel. There are many former MO Yeshiva and seminary heads that have moved to the right in a big way, relying on Charedi Poskim for guidance. Which is why some parents see their children ‘Flipping out’ (Becoming Charedi) during their time in Israel.

There was a study done awhile back on whether ‘Flipping out’ during the gap year was actually happening… and if so - what that entailed. The conclusion as I recall was that these kids were not flipping out at all. They were just taught to take their Judaism more seriously.

I think that’s true. But along with that came other behavior that not only reflected seriousness about Judaism but a Charedi approach to it. Like wearing black Hats; insistence on Chalav Yisroel, Yoshon and various other Chumros; putting all secular culture in a negative light; turning away from a university education (even in a Yeshiva environment like YU); And instead joining a Charedi Yeshiva; and possibly even deciding to join a Kollel and learn indefinitely after marriage.

Not every student that goes to Israel for their gap year turns out this way. I don’t know what the numbers are - but many do. I know quite a few like that. Is that flipping out or is it just becoming more serious about your Judaism? I think it in many cases it is the former.

There is also the Charedi influences from Israel. They  do not impact MO directly. They do however influence American Charedim. The differences between these two sets of Charedim are huge. Here is how Professor Wetheimer puts whatI believe to be the major divide between them:
American haredim, for example, are far likelier than Israeli haredim to seek gainful employment and pursue degrees in higher education. In fact, haredi rabbis in Israel have disparaged this American trend, while American haredi leaders have given their tacit if not explicit approval.
I think that’s true. It is the way Orthodoxy is evolving into what I have called the ‘New Centrists’ comprised of moderate Charedim and RWMOs whose lifestyles are essentially be the same.

There is however a trend in the more right wing segments of the Charedi world in America to emulate the Israeli system – which they see as holier. To that end they are minimizing or completely eliminating secular studies in some of their high schools. 

There seems to be a tug of war here between moderate Charedim and right wing Charedim. I’m not sure which will prevail. Perhaps there will be another ‘split’ in Judaism that will separate the moderates from the right. I don’t know. But I do know that whatever happens in the Charedi world will trickle down into the RWMO world.

So there you have it. It is a mixed bag with forces on all sides impacting each other. I don’t think any of these segments of Orthodoxy will survive in their present incarnation.  I think that after all is said and done, a new sociologically centrist mainstream will be formed. The only question is, with all these influences at play - what will it look like?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shidduchim – The View from the Other Side

Prototypical Shidduch material (FrumPics)
I received an e-mail from young man who asked to be identified only by his initials, JS. He otherwise prefers to remain anonymous. Considering the sensitive nature of his post I have agreed. His letter follows.
Dear Rabbi Maryles, 
We have been in touch in the past. While rarely commenting, I have been an avid reader of your blog since the last 4 years.
As a frum Jew, the frum world has disappointed me again with the age gap theory. I am a 25 year old male, and it drives me crazy to hear things presented as if only girls have a hard time in shidduchim. 
In the last 2 years, I have gone out only 5 times. Truth to be told, I don't buy it that nice guys are in short supply or that it is an age gap problem.
Do you think that if people were told that it is because of corrupt values and lack of meeting opportunities that we have a shidduch crisis? No way!
Hint: what happened to mixed seated weddings and kiddushim that used to be common 40 years ago? And why on earth is it so wrong to ask a girl out after having met her at a kiddush (whether directly or asking a mutual friend). Yet dating in a hotel for hours is ok (I am sure you are aware that rooms can be booked to fool around and it DOES happen)????
The reason I write to you this email is to give a voice to the men aged 18-30 who have no voice at all in this so called shidduch crisis.  
This letter was obviously written out of a sense of frustration at what he believes are flaws in the Shidduch system. 

As I have said before many times, the dating game in the Charedi world has evolved into something untenable as evidenced by the massive numbers of young women who have little to no chance of getting married once they reach the age of 25. 

But as JS points out, it is not the one way street as is commonly believed. It isn’t only young women who aren’t getting a lot of dates. There are plenty of men who fall into that category.  I know some very fine Charedi men who are still not married well into their 40s. And it’s not for a lack of trying. It is because they do not measure up to the ideal mate that young Charedi women are indoctrinated to seek: The full time learner. While being Charedi in every other sense these young men have opted to prepare for and join the workforce. They set aside time for Torah study either before or after work. (Sometimes both.)

The fact is that there are a lot of fine young Charedi men who are simply not cut out for the Yeshiva life for various different and very legitimate reasons.  And though some of them (maybe even most of them) tend to stick it out and stay in Yeshiva anyway - they do this either because of peer pressure – or so they can have the ‘right’ resume for Shidduch purposes.

This is why many young men of dating age become students in Lakewood Yeshiva. And it is why Lakewood instituted ‘the Freezer’. Which is a policy of not letting their students date for at least six months so as to discourage those who attend their Yeshiva mostly for dating purposes. To a Charedi - having ‘Lakewood’ on your resume when looking for a Shidduch is as important as having Harvard on your resume when looking for a job.

There are a few brave young Charedi men who realize that staying full time in the Beis HaMedrash is not the best use of their time. They realize that their strengths lie elsewhere. Instead of staying in a Yeshiva and learning Torah at a mediocre level because of peer pressure or for Shidduch purposes - they opt for choosing careers where their true talents lie, prepare for them… and then go to work.

Unfortunately for them, the young women coming out of Beis Yaakovs and seminaries these days aren’t interested in them. They have been indoctrinated to seek only full time learners  – those who are learning full time in Yeshivos and will continue to do so in a Kollel indefinitely after marriage. They will not accept dates with those who don’t, no matter how fine their character.

To that end these young women are encouraged by their teachers and mentors to support their husbands by being the bread winners. Ironically many of them get the kind of education that will give them great incomes. Some attend colleges and universities and become professionals in various fields with good paying jobs. All with the goal of supporting their future husbands in Kollel.

For their troubles, they seek true Talmidei Chachamim, and will not date anyone that does not fit that bill. And we wonder why there are so many single women? There are a lot of women who seek such men… but not all that many men who measure up. What about the fellow who decided to work for a living and be Koveiah Itim? They won’t even look at him.

But... as I have said before, the definition of a good girl is one that wants a good ‘learner’. The definition of a good boy is someone that IS a good learner. It is a lot easier to want a good learner than it is to be a good learner. The ‘cream’ that these young women are looking for just is not there in sufficient numbers to satisfy the numbers of young women seeking them.

So it is no small wonder that there are so many ‘good’ girls and so few ‘good’ men. It’s not that they aren’t there. They are. But they do not make the cut. These are all men of fine character, that will make wonderful husbands and fathers. They are bright; they are kind; they are generous; and they are loving. They have the same values that these young women have. But instead of learning full time they found another way of serving God. What do they get for all their introspection and honesty? They are thrown off the dating grid. Charedi women will not consider them at all for a date.

How strong is that indoctrination? I am reminded of a story from a few years ago about a young Charedi working man who had great character and values. He related a horror story about his Shidduch experience. No matter how much he tried he had a very hard time getting dates. Sensing that he was being seen as a 2nd class citizen in the Charedi dating world, he decided to ask a former Rebbe (or Rosh Yeshiva… or Mashgiach…) why he was having such a hard time.

His Rebbe’s answer was astonishing! This young man was told that he was indeed a 2nd class citizen! In fact this Rebbe told he was sub par compared to the full time Torah learners… and that is how he was seen by the pool of women he chose to date.

Where does all this leave people like JS? It leaves him unmarried - with only 5 dates in 2 years. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Missing: Aharon Sofer

Border police and volunteers involved in the search for Aharon Sofer (VIN)
A few words about Aharon Sofer, the 22 year old Yeshiva student from Lakewood New Jersey who has been studying in Israel over the past year. He went missing last Friday during a hike with a friend in the Jerusalem Forest. The two split up on a steep hill somewhere near Yad Vashem and Aharon has not been seen or heard from since.

 I have been following the developments (or more accurately - the lack of them) since I found out he was missing. I cannot imagine the pain his parents must be going through, although one can get a hint of it by watching his mother pleading for help in the video below. 

Aharon Sofer
At this point in time there seems to be no clue as to what happened to him or his whereabouts. It does not do anyone any good to speculate about that. What is somewhat comforting to know is that all the stops have been pulled out in an effort to find him. As Aaron’s father notes in the video:
“The police are working tirelessly on all fronts, and all options are being strongly investigated...” “We would like to thank the American Consulate, the office of the Consul General, the FBI and the Israeli Police and ZAKA for all their efforts in trying to find our dear son Aaron.”
New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made the following statement:
“I am deeply concerned over the disappearance of New Jersey student Aaron Sofer in Israel and I stand in solidarity with his family…”  “My thoughts are with them and the Lakewood community during this trying time. ” 
“By all accounts, Aaron is a devout and dedicated student, who travelled to Israel to enhance his knowledge and deepen his understanding of sacred Jewish texts. For yeshiva students like Aaron, there is no greater pursuit than to live and study in Jerusalem, while worshipping at Judaism’s holiest sites.” 
“Ever since I was notified that Aaron went missing in Israel, my office has worked very closely with the State Department, US Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC.  While investigators are pursuing every lead, we keep Aaron and his family in our thoughts and prayers. ”
New Jersey Congressman  Chris Smith (whose district includes Lakewood)  made the following statement:
“I learned about Aharon Sofer over the weekend and became very concerned for his well-being. I immediately sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry Monday urging that the State Department take every action to help in the effort to locate Aharon,” said Smith. “In response, Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff, David Wade, assured me that the Department ‘was totally committed to assisting Aharon and his family,’”
I hold to hope that Aharon will be located and returned to his family safely,” “Until that day comes, he and his family are in our prayers, and I will work with the State Department to use all resources available to find him and bring him to safety.”
Aharon’s parents are now in Israel in order to aid in the search for their son. They have offered a reward of 100,000 NIS to anyone that can locate him. Anyone with any information is asked to call 02-5391520, or the Israel Police hotline on 100.

Tomorrow is Aharon’s 23rd Birthday. His mother has asked for prayers for his safe return. Specifically for those who are can - to say the second chapter of Tehilim for the merit of his safe return. May Aharon Ben Chulda be returned safely and speedily to his family.

Video source: YWN

Monday, August 25, 2014

Skipping the Middleman

Reform Rabbi Andy Bachman (center)
Liberal Judaism is dying. I don’t think that is even arguable. The reasons for that are abundantly clear.  And no one expresses them better than Commentary online senior editor, Jonathan S. Tobin.

As has been discussed ad infinitum and ad nauseum - this is what that famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Pew report showed.

There are those who have challenged Pew’s statistics. They have pointed out its flaws… or the presence of statistics within the Pew report that temper claims of Orthodox Jewry’s exponential growth. There are also those that point to different surveys that show different – perhaps opposite results. That Orthodox Jewry may in fact be shrinking. There are statistics that have shown that there are more people leaving Orthodoxy that there are people coming into it. There may be some truth to that. The OTD phenomenon is growing. By leaps and bounds it seems.

Even if that is so, I would posit that there is still growth. But that it is internal. While more Jews may be going OTD than becoming Baalei Teshuva, the typically very large families of Orthodox Jewry indicate to me that overall - it is growing.

Without getting into which statistics are more accurate or how to interpret them, Jonathan very clearly spells out what most Orthodox Jews already know. Something the New York Times actually makes note of.

The Times reports on a story about Reform Rabbi Andrew Bachman. He has decided to give up his very successful pulpit in favor of doing charity work.  When asked about it, he said that since one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is Tikun Oalm (repairing the world) he does not feel there is any contradiction between what he was preaching and doing as a rabbi and what he is about to embark upon. The Times notes that this ‘manifests a ‘challenge for Jews in America’. From the Times: 
His decision was deeply personal, but also touched on vexing questions at the center of Judaism’s future in this country as modern Jews — the secular, the unaffiliated, the questioning — grapple with what it means to be Jewish and what role a synagogue should play in that identity. Nationally, synagogue affiliation is falling as American Jews increasingly decide they do not need to live out their Jewishness in a religious context. 
Here is Jonathan’s reaction to that: 
…it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time. 
As Jonathan notes, when Universalist ideals are used to define Judaism, it doesn’t make a Jew any different than their non Jewish counterpart. Why even bother identifying as a Jew, if your goal is simply to repair the world via charity work?! How are you any different than any human being that does charity work? Why not simply skip the middleman? If Judaism is only about Tikun Olam, - well you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just go out and repair the world… as Rabbi Bachman will be doing. Judaism has no impact on the modality of doing that. There is nothing particularistic about it. As the Times notes about Rabbi Bachman’s decision: 
His decision was deeply personal, but also touched on vexing questions at the center of Judaism’s future in this country as modern Jews — the secular, the unaffiliated, the questioning — grapple with what it means to be Jewish and what role a synagogue should play in that identity. Nationally, synagogue affiliation is falling as American Jews increasingly decide they do not need to live out their Jewishness in a religious context. 
There are some who insist that cultural definitions of Judaism are just as valid religious definitions. Here is what Jonathan says about that: 
More (Jews) think (Judaism) is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice… As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.” 
The sad fact is that unless we accept as integral to our definition as Jews,  those things that make us unique, saying we are Jewish is a meaningless statement. This is where heterodox movements have failed. And that failure is now spectacular as Heterodox leaders scramble to stop the hemorrhaging . They are beginning to realize (too late I think) that adopting or focusing only on a Universalist definition of Judaism was a mistake of existential proportion.

Most Jews that have been raised in the Orthodox world know this intuitively. It is now finally becoming evident among not only heterodox movements, even the New York Times recognizes it.

All this does not bode well for the future of the vast majority of Jews in the country. In a few generations, apathy and intermarriage will take its course. Not that we shouldn’t try and do something about it. We should. And we are. There are many fine Kiruv organizations out there doing wonderful work. But our success in trying to keep Jews Jewish is but a drop in the ocean. 

The children of heterodox Jews do not have any reason to identify as Jews or to marry a Jew. This is a very sad fate for movements, whose agenda was ironically to save Judaism by making it more user friendly in a melting pot society by loosening (Conservative) or eliminating entirely (Reform) - the reins of Halacha. And now the chickens are now coming home to roost.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Single Charedi Women Speak Out

Traditional Jewish matchmaker Heather Sirota (The Guardian)
Once again my ire was raised by the terrible situation of Shidduchim in the Charedi world. I must admit that as bad as I knew it was, the truth is that it is much worse than even I had imagined. 

I recently addressed this issue based on an article in Mishapcha Magazine by philanthropist, Shlomo Rechnitz. Therein he quoted an experienced Shadchan who told him that young women 25 years of age or older have about a 15% chance (or less) of getting married.

True this statistic is anecdotal. But even if you double that to 30%. It means that a whopping 70% of Charedi girls over that age will never get married. Besides, the observations of an experienced Shadchan should not be discounted as they probably do reflect reality.

I am angry that a segment of Orthodoxy that considers itself to be the most religious among us has a problem like this to such an extent.

As I said in my previous post - I do not see the age gap to be the real problem in light of the fact that there are as many boys are born each year as there are girls born each year. That means one boy is available for one girl. Despite ‘explanations’ about an  age gap, I remain unconvinced.

I am not going to re-hash my reasoning here. What I will, however, say is that the real problem is the Charedi Shidduch system itself (as it is practiced in the Lithuanian type Yeshiva world).  There is so much wrong with it, I’m not even sure where to begin. But instead of being accused of Charedi bashing, I will quote what 3 young Charedi women themselves have said in the letters section of the most recent edition of Mishpacha Magazine (unavailable online).

This issue’s letters section is the largest one I have ever seen. It is many pages long and divided into different segments. It was eye opening to see these young women say some of the same things I have been saying for years on the subject.

The first was written by a 24 year old single woman. She describes herself as a typical Beis Yaakov girl. She has been ‘in Shidduchim’ for 5 years. In all that time she has dated a total of 10 boys. That’s 2 per year. She further claims that she is one of the lucky ones – that her friends who do not have her resume (which is quite impressive) haven’t had more than 2 dates in that entire 5 year period.

What is her suggestion? It is the same suggestion I have advocated for quite some time: Change the message imparted to young girls in high school. Do not teach girls about supporting their husbands and raising their children. She cringes when she reads her high school notebooks. By stressing a girl’s mission in life as a wife and mother that may never apply to so large a percentage of them, ‘they are literally destroying us’. ‘It’s time to change the way the Yeshiva system works.’

Another letter was written by a 28 year old spinster. (That’s right. Spinster. Get angry at that word. That’s why I use it. It is outrageous, but it is how a 28 year old unmarried girl is seen.) Her first dating experience was a disaster. Since then, 9 years have passed and she is now treated by her community as hopeless. And she is justifiably upset by that. They don’t see a person. They see a ‘Nebech’.  The biggest source of pain for her, however, is waiting for the phone to ring. Or watching others move on and feeling the pain of younger girls getting married and having families.

She compares how her Charedi community treats her at age 28 as hopeless - to the way she is treated at work by her secular colleagues.  A few years ago when she turned 25 she attended a team meeting and started crying. Her supervisor came in the next day and said, ‘I hope I am not being disrespectful toward your culture, but when I came home I felt so angry.’ ‘I felt angry that a society that can make a person feel that bad about turning 25.’

This 28 year old young woman agreed with her colleague. ‘She was right.’ ‘Why is it that  in the secular world I am viewed as a young adult with my whole life ahead of me, and the fact that I am single doesn’t even cross their minds?’

They do not pity her or think less of her because she isn’t married by age 25. By contrast in the Charedi world – with every passing birthday girls are made to feel ‘afraid, rejected, and undesirable’.

And then she suggests something I have advocated for years: Do not judge a potential Shidduch by their age. Judge them by their character. (What a concept!)

A third letter was written by a Charedi young woman that does not reveal her age. She makes the same common sense points I have made before. First, the idea of boys getting married younger means that husbands will be even less equipped for marriage than their older counterparts. Her biggest problem, however, is dating boys who are not worldly.

As many people know the Charedi world encourages their young men to learn Torah full time for as long as they can. In pursuit of that goal they minimize the value of secular studies (if not completely disparaging it) in favor of studying more Torah. Students do not interact at all with the outside world – other than when they have to, and even then they minimize it.

Girls on the other hand do get a decent education. They are in fact encouraged to do so in order to be better able to support their husbands. That makes girls better educated and more worldly than the boys they date. These young men do not even speak the same language as the girls they date.  The ‘Yeshiva Bachur’ is accustomed to speaking ‘Yeshivish’ which is the new language of Torah study in America. In pre-war Europe it was Yiddish. (Yeshivish is English that is heavily peppered with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic using many of the expressions found in the Gemarah as part of the lexicon. To the untrained ear, it may sound like gibberish.)

In my view these three letters by Charedi women ‘in Shidduchim’ tell the real story of what is wrong with the system. And why efforts like trying to close the age gap by lowering the age of marriage for boys, or offering huge payoffs to those who successfully make a Shidduch with an older girl (over 25) is nothing more than applying band aid to a major open wound.

I should note that not all the letters were all that wise. One in particular letter writer suggested that women be less educated so as to make them more equal to men.

The only real solution is to change the way Shidduchim are made. I’m not saying that Shadchanim be eliminated. But I do suggest that they be re-educated about what is important in setting up a young man with a young woman. That age never be mentioned at all. On that note parents too should be re-educated about that too - no less the young men doing the dating. I would put an asterisk by any boy  (or parent)who asked about a girl’s age… as lacking character. Same thing asking about dress size.

But dating should not be limited to Shadchanim. There should be other ways for a young man and young woman to meet – once they are ready to get married.

Another thing that needs to change is the way young men are educated. Even discounting the fact that they should be educated at least for purposes of making a living - they need to learn how to speak English properly and be more worldly so that can be a match for their better educated and more worldly spouses. A Yeshiva man who speaks only Yeshivish and has no clue about the world around him ought not to the ideal sought in a Yeshiva education.  

If the paradigm does not change, the situation will only get worse.  Unfortunately I don’t think it will, which is why I am so angry about it!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Beis Yaakov Feminist Experience

Torah reading by Orthodox feminists (from the JOFA website)
Talia Weisberg is a self described feminist.  And yet this young woman from a Modern Orthodox background - having attended a Modern Orthodox coed elementary school - made an odd choice in deciding to attend an ostensibly non feminist Beis Yaakov high school. How, one may ask, does this make any sense at all? No one could ever attend a Beis Yaakov and expect to hear anything about the equality of the sexes.

If feminism is mentioned at all, it is usually to condemn it as an anti Torah ideal. But after 4 years of Beis Yaakov, Talia still calls herself a feminist. Not only does she not condemn Beis Yaakov for being against her ideals, she actually thanks her Beis Yaakov experience in in the Torch - a blog sponsored by JOFA  ( Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) that explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. (It is republished in My Jewish Learning.)

How is this possible? Well I think the answer is quite simple really. Feminism is not monolithic. It means different things to different people. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I believe that feminism can be generally broken down into two different categories. One is highly compatible with Orthodox Judaism and the other is quite frankly anathema to it.

If one sees feminism as each sex treating each other with equal dignity, it falls in to the former category of compatibility. If one sees feminism as treating men and women equally in the workplace - as in equal pay for equal work… and an equal chance for career advancement, that too is compatible with Orthodoxy. If one is gender blind to academic achievement, it is compatible. If one sees it as a married couple sharing household duties, sharing child rearing responsibilties equitably, and making important family decisions togther, it is compatible.

However when feminism moves into the realm of Halacha, Hashkafa, and Mesorah, it becomse dicey.And can and often does make it incompatible with Orthodoxy.  For example the  Egalitarian Minyan (the ten man quorum required for public prayer) requires men and women to be treated equally in the synagogue. That is a feminist ideal that is completely incompatible with Halacha. 

Men and women are equally valued by God. But God requires different things of us. Even the most strident Orthodox Jewsih feminists would agree that an Egalitarian Minyan (so commonly found in the Conservative Movement) is not Halachicly  permissible.  You cannot join such a Minyan and call yourself Orthodox. In order for a man to pray at the higher spiritual level of a Minayn in a Shul, women may not be present. An ardent  feminist whose values of equality trump everything else including religion would reject this Halacha and insist on mixing the sexes in Shul. But an Orthodox feminist would never dream of it.

The problem lies in the grey area of things which are mandated to men and not to women. Although not mandated to women they are permissible - and in many cases even laudable for women to observe. For example taking the Daled Minim on Sukkos (commonly referred to as Lulav and Esrog). It is a universally practiced Mitzvah by women even though only men are mandated to do so. 

At the same time there are such areas that are traditionally and almost universally not practiced by women, but have been increasingly adopted by the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. Like Partnership Minyanim where a woman may lead certain portions of the service that are not technically considered prayer - like Kabbolas Shabbos. Or ordaining women to serve as rabbis (without giving them the title of rabbi) in Shuls in Halachicly permissible ways- staying behind the Mechiza during prayer. 

Tyipcal Beis Yaakov student
These kinds of innovations skirt Halacha and have historically never been accepted by women. I am not going to get into all the pros and cons other than to say I am opposed to breaking with tradition in ways that are influenced by ideals not consistent with the Torah, like full equality in all areas of life including religion.

The guiding principle should – in my view – be NOT to serve God the way WE want, but to serve Him the way HE wants. That is determined by the Torah via Halacha and the Mesorah - traditions handed down through the ages. Unless there is a Hora’as Shah ( an existential crisis) the Mesorah should not change. 

I obviously place myself into the former category of feminist.

Which brings me back to TaliaWeisberg. I believe she probably falls into that category as well. While as a feminist there were many things in her Beis Yaakov education that were hard for her to swallow, like - among other things - the excessive emphasis on Tznius - her overall experience was very positive.

Here is what she said in addressing her Beis Yaakov education: 
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it. 
Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes.
During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha andhashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary. 
Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing.  
I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.
What an amazing level of maturity this young woman had even at age 14 - the age when she most likely entered high school.

JOFA and My Jewish Learning should be given credit for publishing this article. It shows an uncharacteristic open-mindedness to a type of feminism with which they might not necessarily see eye to eye in the current zeitgeist. It also shows there is room in the feminist tent for people like Talia… and for people like me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

David Gordon, a Hero Who Suffered

David Menachem Gordon, OBM
Update
It appears that it has been confirmed to Rabbi Eliyahu Fink by reliable sources that, sadly, David did indeed commit suicide. That makes his eulogy and that of Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman's very appropriate and I retract my original post. But I do not retract the fact that he should be remembered as much for his heroism as he was for how he suffered.