Friday, July 03, 2015

Sex Abuse and the Shidduch Crisis

Rabbi Ratzon Arussi (from A Mother in Israel blog)
The so-called Shidduch crisis has caused problems beyond the parameters of the Shidduch crisis itself. This is particularly true of the right wing Lithuanian type Yeshiva world. The crisis has caused a lot of parents to go overboard in how they present their daughter to Shadchanim, the almost exclusive way that young men and women in the world meet and date.

By ‘overboard’ I mean that they become somewhat unscrupulous in their zeal to put on the best possible face on their daughter, often to the point of lying about them in serious matters. They feel justified in doing so because of the very nature of a society where so many young women become ‘old maids’ by the time they are 25.

Their chances of getting married at that age decrease significantly. This is not news. There has been much angst expressed by the right over this phenomenon for many years. And many suggestions have been made to try and change the dynamic. Including various types of financial incentives for Shadchanim to set up older singles.

So it is understandable that parents would go to great lengths to hide information that could harm their daughters Shidduch chances. A lot of this would change if this world would adopt more ways of meeting and dating – broadening the chances for a successful Shidduch. But in the world of the right where extremes of Tznius seems to be increasing almost daily, this is not going to happen. There is no chance, for example that a Charedi wedding will ever have mixed seating for married adults let alone unmarried singles. So that young people can have a chance to meet on their own. The trend is for ever increasing separation of the sexes. That makes the Shadchan (whether paid or family member) very powerful. They are the only game in town.  And it makes for some very concerned parents - fearful for their daughter’s future.

This situation has been used by some rabbis – with the best of intentions – to tell female victims of sex abuse to not report their abuse to anyone, including the police. They justifiably fear that news like that will hurt a young woman’s chances of getting married.  I don’t think there is any question about that. In a world where fine young women with no baggage at all have difficulties finding a mate, young women that have been sexually abused or molested may find in nigh impossible!

This situation was demonstrated in a media sting operation in Israel as reported by Hannah Katsman on her blog, A Mother in Israel.

Briefly a young woman disguised herself as a victim of sex abuse by the Charedi father of a friend of hers. She went to Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Ono, asking him for advice about what happened to her (which of course never happened at all). After a discussion about the exact nature of the act, he advised her that she should stay away from this man and his daughter (her friend) and not report her molestation to the police or anyone else. Because if she did, it would ruin her Shidduch chances.

What about the danger of that ‘molester” doing this to other potential victims? His answer was that as important as that was, if it got out that she was molested, it would ruin her life. Chayecha Kodman. Protecting one’s own life precedes protecting those of others. He then advised her to go out and find her Zivug (marriage partner).

When confronted with the truth, Rabbi Arussi wrote a long letter explaining in great detail his perspective on what happened. He defended his actions in this particular case adding that he otherwise always tells victims to report the abuse to the police. And he also excoriated the media for tricking him for nefarious reasons (ratings and to ‘hang the religious public’.) He was in fact the victim here, he said.

Mrs. Katsman ends up summarizing her issues with Rabbi Arussi: 
1.The media’s “agenda” is irrelevant. The public has the right to know how its officials respond to complaints.
2. A chief rabbi of a city is a paid employee of the government, not a volunteer as he implies. Unlike most private therapists, he even has clerks to answer his phone calls.
3. He did not consider whether a victim of sex abuse might need treatment. At no point did he express sorrow about the incident, or inquire about the caller’s emotional state.
4. He told the caller not to report a crime.
5. He made it all about whether or not there was penetration. According to this theory, which abuse advocate Yerachmiel Lopin calls the “penetration fallacy™”, there is no harm done if intercourse did not occur. However, this is merely a justification for protecting the abuser. Penetration is irrelevant as far as Israeli law or trauma to the victim.
6. He fancies himself an expert, yet has little or no training in issues surrounding sex abuse or in questioning abuse victims. The police have specially trained investigators. They know how to ask the right questions in order to determine whether a charge is credible, what kind of help the victim needs, and if the case is prosecutable.
 
I can’t really argue with her conclusions. However, even though his advice to her was misguided, there is not a doubt in my mind that Rabbi Arrusi had anything but the best of intentions for his petitioner. This was not a case of protecting the abuser. Although it obliviously ends up that way when abuse is kept secret.

Who to blame for Rabbi Arussi’s  reaction to this young woman? I think the answer is clear. It is the Shidduch system in the right wing world. A system that has evolved into a crisis that is so severe that protecting the public comes second - lest a young innocent woman that was raped or molested gets punished a second time by reducing her chances for marriage considerably. I don’t think this is arguable.

I have  long been arguing for a broader approach to dating in the Charedi world. One that would provide opportunities for young men and women to meet on their own (as well as retaining the Shidduch system). No avenue should be closed to young people in finding Shidduchim. 

It may not be the panacea to end all dating problems in that world. But it would certainly help if young people were given a chance to meet on their own without the extensive research by parents and Shadchanim where even the slightest defect – let alone a sexual molestation - can prevent a young woman from ever being recommended to a young man.

Of course my words will fall on very deaf ears. No respected religious leader in the Charedi world will ever suggest doing something that would get him ostracized from his rabbinic peers. He will be labeled as lax about morals. 

Which is too bad. What will it take for the Charedi Rabbinic leadership to see that their current paradigm for Shiduchim is not working? When will they realize that throwing money at Shadchanim in order to motivate them to set up older singles is at most a band aid. I wonder how that’s all working out for them, anyway? Has there been any significant improvement in the Shidduch crisis?

When will they do something to prevent circumstances like that which befell Rabbi Arussi? That this one was fake does not mean it can’t happen. I’m sure it can and probably does. And that gives sex abusers and molesters free license to chose very young Charedi  women as their targets. Because they know they are going to get away with it.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Why Do They Do it?

R' Aharon Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel
Jews are a bunch of greedy criminals. That’s one of the canards leveled at us by the antisemites of the world.  What basis do they have for saying this? Unfortunately a very real one. Once again we see the most religious looking Jews among us committing financial fraud against the government. The kind of Jews who see themselves as exemplars of Judaism – serving God beyond the letter of the law.  Only this time they have more in common with Reyna Martinez and Angel Campos.  2 non Jews who cheated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payments, a government welfare program designed for the poor.

Mordechai Friedman and Chayim Deutsch, both of Kiryas Joel have stolen tens of thousands of dollars in Medicaid benefits (also designed for the poor) by underreporting their income and creating false documents.

These people are crooks, there are no two ways about it. The question is, how can people  in Kiryas Joel – Satmar Chasdidm - that are so careful about observing Halachos like Shabbos and Kashrus, be so careless about Geneiva – stealing? Which is forbidden by the Torah.

I see several possible reasons for this. But first let me say that they are Frum in many areas because that is how they are brought up. They are taught from the earliest age that the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (religious rituals) are – not only to be observed but to be enhanced.  So that in matters of Kashrus for example, they only trust their own Hechsherim. They believe that their Kashrus standards are much higher than any other Kashrus agency. They do not rely on any Kulos or leniencies. Their Kashrus agency – the Central Rabbinical Congress - prides itself on that. No Kiryas Joel Chasid would be caught dead with a product bearing only an OU or OK Hechsher.

They are also taught to be meticulous in Bein Adam L’Chavero matters (interpersonal relationships). Which is why they have a Bikur Cholim society of world renown.  They visit hospitalized Jews of all denominations and Hashkafos. They bring home made food for patients and even family members so that they can spend more time with their sick loved ones. They do not discriminate. They treat all Jews the same as they do their own. They are the nicest people!

So how one may ask can deeply religious Jews who have such a fine reputation in helping fellow Jews be such crooks?

Well, for one thing, every sect has their criminal element. A lot of people are ‘surface Jews’. By that I mean that their exterior appearance is that of a pious Jew. But underneath the beard and Kapote lives a crook who will do anything they can get away with for personal gain. But I think there is more to it than that.

There is clearly a disdain for ‘Goyim’ whom they generally see as anti-Semites to be taken advantage of. In the minds of many, cheating the government is therefore justified. They are stealing money from antisemites who deserve no better. Esav Sonei L’Yaakov. ‘The Goyim HATE us!’  Some Satmar Chasidim - like the ones caught in a major fraud - take this to the next level.

Of course they won’t do it openly. But they will do it in ways where they think they won’t get caught. They figure no one gets hurt when stealing from the government and everyone does it anyway. Doesn’t everyone under-report income when filing tax returns?

That attitude is buttressed by a long history of European antisemitism that they believe continues here. The Goyim hate us here just like they did in Europe. Even though there aren’t the pogroms here - the hatred remains.

Unfortunately there are many Jews that learned this attitude from parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who actually lived through vicious antisemitic pogroms in Europe. By living in closed isolated communities like Kiryas Joel they are denied any real contact with the outside world. They have no way of judging their fellow non Jewish man. To the extent that some of them do come in contact with non Jews in commerce or the business world, it is all business. Social interaction is avoided or minimized. It is no small wonder that old prejudices carried over from Europe transmitted to them by their parents remains unchallenged by reality.

Of course most Satmar Chasidim don’t rip-off Medicaid or other government programs. But for those that do, there are enough of them that it seems like a never ending parade of religious looking Jews  getting caught with their hands in the till. There are so many ‘religious’ Jews in prisons, that a Sefer of practical Halacha was written for them entitled Assurei HaMelech (Prisoners of the King).

There is another factor that plays into this. Satmar Chasidim are deliberately denied an education that would enable them to get good jobs. Even though they are encouraged to work rather than to stay in Kollel, they are not given the tools needed to sustain their very large families. 

How to survive? Among other things (like free loan societies) they are taught to ‘game the system’. They take advantage of every government welfare program available. So in essence while they are encouraged to work, they are encouraged to supplement their meager incomes with government charity. Most of them are poor enough to do it legally.

This practice, however, lends itself to tremendous abuse. Once you get used to income from a government welfare program, you come to rely on it. So if you increase your income beyond the threshold of eligibility it is all to easy to simply not report it. 

Now I’m sure none of them are getting rich over this. They need the money to survive. With their large families and meager jobs, they rationalize that they have no choice but to rely on government funds even if they have to cheat ‘a little bit’ to get them. A slight increase putting them beyond eligibility will not sustain their families without the help of the government subsidy they are used to getting. But the slippery slope of going from the legal to the illegal is an all too easy one to slide down - and has all too often led to major crimes of fraud. As is once again the case with the above mentioned Satmar crooks. 

I actually feel bad for the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel. They have been sold a ‘bill of goods’ by their leadership. I find the idea of using government welfare as a means of income to be reprehensible even if they are technically eligible for it - if they can make a living more honorably. Which in many cases could be achieved through a better education.  

But their leadership remains firm. They believe that avoiding a secular education enhances their Yiddishkeit. Secular studies typically found in most elementary schools are seen as unimportant compared to their religious studies. Leaving them unable to pursue any knid of higher education. Which is OK with them since the influences in college (even one like YU or Touro) are so terrible that they are better off being poor. Taking money from the government will not hurt their Yiddishkeit as much as going to college would.

The problem with that is that by keeping their people poor they are hurting them in ways that undermine the very thing want to achieve: perpetuating their holy way of life. Poverty is a major cause of family dysfunction. Which in turn is a major cause of children abandoning observance. 

I do not see things changing. Which means we are likely to see more things like this in the future. There will always be unscrupulous Jews that think of themselves as holy and see cheating the government as a Mitzvah. And believe they can figure out ways to outsmart the government so they won’t get caught. But they will. They always do. Which means perpetuating a major Chilul HaShem.  

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

An Obama Critic Gone Mad

President Obama seen here with Prime Minister Netanyahu
Here is yet another disappointment from the Obama administration. From the Jewish Press
The Obama administration has clearly stated it will not enforce the anti-boycott language of the Trade Bill it signed, which extends protection to the disputed territories. 
I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in the President. Even though I did not vote for him, I never thought he would take these kinds of actions. I realize that US policy opposes settlement activity in the West bank. But to go so far as to tacitly endorse the actions of a group that is committed to Israel’s destruction goes too far.  Especially when a document the President just signed makes it very clear that Israeli products from the West Bank will not be boycotted.

Contrast that with what the State of Illinois (a 'blue' state) just did. In a unanimous vote by both the Illinois House and the Senate, a bill was passed that forbids the state from doing business with any company that the honors the BDS boycott of Israel in any way.  

I still maintain that the President is not anti Israel. He is just misguided, perhaps blinded by his desire to force a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians in the form of a two state solution. Such policies have caused some people to ridicule the President for having said that he is the closest thing to a Jew to have ever occupied the White House. But that isn’t fair. He believes he is for the following reasons. He has chosen 2 Jews to serve on the Supreme Court, had a Jewish campaign manager, a Jewish Chief of staff, and chosen an Orthodox Jewish Secretary of the Treasury. And he is pro Israel. Which is demonstrated by the unprecedented level of financial support (as in 'Iron Dome'); and by the unprecedented level of military and intelligence cooperation Israel now has with the US. He’s just wrong in how he is pursuing the noble but illusive goal of peace.

Which brings me to a post on Lazer Beams, a blog run by Rabbi Lazer Brody, a Chasid of Breslov. The only way I can describe his comments is to say that they are ridiculous in the extreme and they show him to be an irrational Obama hater.  His views ought to be exposed to the world for the drivel they are. 

His post is derogatory from the start – using Obama’s middle name ‘Hussein’ as a means to suggest he is sympathetic to Islam. He does not in fact mince words. Here is what he said about that: 
As an American who grew up with a Muslim education and orientation and who still holds the strongest affinity for Islam... 
That is distortion number 1.  Then there is this: 
(Obama) combines the power of Edom and Ishmael, who come together at the end of days in attempt to destroy Israel. This too is indicated in his name, for the gematria (numerical value) of writing Barack Hussein Obama in Hebrew, like this - בראק חוסיין אובאמה - is 502. The gematria of "Edom Ishmael", like this - אדום ישמעאל - is also 502.
Hashem is talking to us loud and clear. This year, the 239th USA Day of Independence falls on Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz… This is the beginning of the USA's 240th year. On this very day, we will be reading the Torah's prophecy in Parshat Balak, how Amalek, Israel's arch-enemy, will become the leader of the nations. The Hebrew numerical equivalent of Amalek - עמלק - is exactly 240… 
The Jewish People, both in Israel and America, are faced with a clear choice: do you want your fake 4th of July celebrations and giving your continued homage to America, or do you yearn for Hashem's kingdom on earth and the rebuilding of His holy temple? If the Jews were punished for participating in Achashverush's celebration of his monarchy, then you certainly want to steer clear of the Amalekite celebration this Shabbat. And by the way, if you're not yet convinced what we're talking about, ארור המן, or "cursed Haman" is also gematria 502. What's the connection? 
Mr. Obama came to power because Hashem put him in power. Like Haman of old, he too has and will continue to betray Israel and the non-assimilated Jewish People… Only a Haman-Amalek president would make an official celebration of legislation that tramples G-d's will. 
I am speechless. The kind of hatred and venom being spewed by Lazer Brody at an American President is unprecedented for someone that considers himself to be a spiritual guide for Orthodox Jews. His views are disgusting, and need to be publicly repudiated and condemned. And that’s what I am doing here.

It is one thing to disagree with the President - as I do. But even if you think his policies are dangerous to Israel’s existence (which is possible) - to say that he is the reincarnation of an ancient Hitler called Haman is so wrong, that it completely delegitimizes him.

In my view, the President  is wrong in his latest policy decisions which affect Israel. He may not be the closest thing to a Jew in the White House. But he’s no Hitler. He’s is not even close to being an anti-Semite. Lazer Brody has lost any credibility he may have ever had with me. And at this point he ought to be thoroughly rejected by his followers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What the Supreme Court Really Did

BuzzFeed LGBT
H. L. Mencken once said, "When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money' – it's about money." And when you hear somebody say, "This is not about sex" – it's about sex.

These lines were quoted by Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers during the congressional debate over President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The charge leveled against Clinton was that he lied under oath about his sexual relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinski. But anyone with half a brain knew that this was all about sex and not about his denial of it under oath. No one would have cared about it otherwise.

Of course the President’s detractors most of whom were Republicans denied that. They insisted it was about Clinton perjuring himself  under oath. But we all know it wasn’t really about that. Lying was just the technicality that enabled them to impeach a President they hated. And they got their wish. Clinton was impeached. (Although he was not removed from office).

I believe the same thing is true about gay activists. Their victory in the Supreme Court was a victory for gay sex. Including the biblically prohibited form of it - male to male anal sexual intercourse.  This is not however what was being promoted publicly nor did the Supreme Court frame their decision that way. Gay activists were promoting fundamental human rights. That two people of the same sex should be able to get married under the law. Same as heterosexual couples. A right that was denied to them in many areas of the country until now. The Supreme court in a 5-4 decision characterized gay marriage as a civil right protected by the constitution.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. His rationale being that even though historically marriage between 2 people had always been between a man and a woman, times have changed. Since society now approves of gay marriage, it now becomes a protected right under the constituion.

The minority dissent written by Justice Antonin Scalia was scathing. He called the majority opinion “a threat to democracy”.  Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision had nothing to do with the constitution. (I interpret that to mean that the founding fathers who wrote the constitution certainly never had in mind to grant marriage rights to gay couples. Had they been specifically asked they would have said so. Had they anticipated any such movement in this country, they would have specifically written it into the constitution.)

This decision was met with cheers all over the country. Media pundits and personalities all hailed the decision. They saw the denial of the right of gay couples to get married as a terrible injustice. Television images were awash with reactions from gay couples some of whom were in tears about finally being given the dignity and acceptance they have so long been craving. They were given the right to live together under the sanctity of marriage. The ultimate sanction of their lifestyles.

The only dissent featured in media coverage was by politically conservative politicians and media personalities, and clerics of various religions. With respect to Orthodox Jewry, major organizations registered their protest. Including Agudah, the RCA, and the OU.

But this dissent is overwhelmingly overridden by massive public support for it. The images are clear. Everyone is happy for their gay brethren.  What was once (recently) a public rejection of gay marriage (as demonstrated  in California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 where the majority voted against gay marriage) has turned into public support for it in 2015.

How can people change their minds so quickly? At the risk of answering a question with another question, I think the answer is obvious. How can someone not be affected when they see two people that have experienced a lifetime of discrimination physically moved to tears being declared normal with full rights. What better indicator of normalcy is there than the Supreme Court granting them the right to get married? ...making it the law of the land?  

I have to admit that watching the reactions of gay people who are otherwise fine and decent human beings; people whose values are otherwise very similar to my own: was very touching. They see a future where gay married couples will not be given another thought. That their lifestyle choices will be just as legitimate as anyone else’s.

I wonder though if public opinion was influenced by what they saw on the surface and ignored what was underneath it. The truth is that what gay activists were asking for on the surface was not anything I am opposed to.  They wanted the right to live together, and have the loving companionship of another human being that happened to be of the same sex. They wanted the same rights granted to married heterosexual couples. Inheritance rights; end of life issues, were denied to people that were not married. They wanted to end discriminatory hiring practices, in housing, in social situations (like being served in restaurants) and in adoptions. The images and messages were all about these things. Things that no one should be denied because of their sexual orientation. They just want to be treated like everyone else.

Who could be against that?! Who wouldn’t shed a tear of joy when seeing good people being granted rights previously denied to them?

The problem of course is that it doesn’t end there. What gay activists really seek is legitimizing gay sex. The most common expression of which (for men) is male to male anal sex. This is never mentioned at all. It is as though it doesn’t exist. But this is precisely what is being sanctioned. The government has now added its imprimatur to the violation of God’s laws.

True, this is a secular country whose mission is to protect human rights without regard to any religion. On a humanistic level, there is no moral difference between heterosexual sex and gay sex. But is this the kind of country Americans really want to live in? Do Americans want a country that abandons biblical laws… laws that have been honored for centuries? Just because of a new spirit in this country? A new spirit based on a great public relations campaign by gay activists with humanistic values?  

I happen to believe that when biblical values are ignored civilizations fall apart. And increasingly in this country that is what’s happening. At least in the area of sexual mores. Government sanction of male to male anal sex is a huge step in that direction.

Just to be absolutely clear, I have no issue with two men living together under one roof.They can love each other and seek companionship. They should be treated with dignity. No rights should be denied to them. But I do have an issue with legitimizing a lifestyle that in the vast majority of cases includes male to male anal sex - a biblically forbidden act. Granting them the constitutional right to get married does that.

It is now the law of the land. And we have to deal with it. But we should all recognize what really happened here. Marriage is not a rights issue. It is a legitimization issue. The Supreme Court  has done away with centuries old American traditions based on the bible. Traditions valued by their parents and grandparents going all the way back to founding fathers. I think it’s important to recognize that this is what just happened. And it is equally important to make sure to teach our children that our eternal biblical values override the ever changing and fleeting values of the culture.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Fence Sitter Embraces Orthodoxy

Neilia Sherman is a woman after my own heart. Her intellectual honesty is refreshing in a world of polarizing certainties. Although she has some serious questions about Orthodoxy she nevertheless embraces it.

Writing in the Forward, she tells us that she was raised in a totally secular household. Both parents are Jewish. Although her father believes in God, he apparently does not practice Judaism in any meaningful way. Her mother leans towards atheism!

Her first experience with Orthodoxy was at age 14. She went on a retreat where she was inspired by the people, “the passion, the sense of community, the music, and intellectual discussions”. But she was dismayed by what she perceived as the “sexism, rigidity, countless rules and frightening Torah passages”.

But the positive overcame the negative. Upon her return home she wanted to keep kosher. That was denied her with a slam dunk “No!” from her mother. Which she punctuated with a pork chop dinner.

She is now conflicted she and describes herself as a fence sitter.  As a feminist, her politics and philosophy are more in line with those of the Reform Movement. But she does not relate to Reform lifestyle which lacks the sense of belonging she finds in Orthodoxy.  A sense that is aligned with her the strong identity as a Jew. A sense she has always had.  

After she got married she eventually joined a Reform synagogue. There she appreciated the focus on social justice and other of Reform’s trappings. But she missed being part of a community. Shul members had little to do with each other once services were over. Inviting someone over for a Shabbos meal on a Friday night just did not happen. The one time she tired, she was turned down because that was hockey night on TV!

As her son’s Bar Mitzvah approached she wanted more. And convinced her husband to join an Orthodox ‘outreach’ community near her home. There  she found what she was looking for and became observant.

But her intellectual honesty did not leave her alone. The problems she always had with Orthodoxy remained with her. Even though she got used to sitting behind a Mechitza, she never felt comfortable being separated from ‘the action’. She admired the other Baalei Teshuva in her community who embraced Orthdoxy without any apparent reservation. But she could not let go of her issues. And to top it all off she still remains unsure of God’s existence.

Neilia Sherman is resigned to her ‘fence sitter’ status and  is staying put in the world of Orthodoxy. And ends off with the following: 
In the end, my Torah-observant friends offer me a great feeling of security and belonging. I feel uplifted by their desire to do what is right, and inspired by their unwavering trust that God will never let us down. If I can’t believe it myself, it is comforting to be next to people who can.
As I indicated I admire this woman’s intellectual honesty. And frankly I am not sure what to say to her to get her off the fence. Perhaps there are a few things. 

Her questioning of God’s existence is a function of the fact that His existence cannot be proven. You cannot prove the spiritual by physical means. All you really have is belief. But it is not a belief without substance. There are plenty of reasons to believe that do not require empirical proof. There is a lot of evidence of God’s existence albeit not conclusive proof of it. Beliefs can thereby be as strong an indicator of existence as physical evidence can be.

With respect to her feminism, that is probably the hottest topic in the world of Orthodoxy today. One might advise her to join Open Orthodoxy where feminism is a huge influence and widely worshiped. But Open Orthodoxy will not take her out from behind  the Mechitza that separates her from ‘the action.’ 

Obviously the emotional uplift Neilia Sherman gets from Orthodoxy is worth the sacrifice of compromising her feminist values. That’s why she’s there. My hope is that she can resolve her inner conflict by reevaluating her feminism with respect to Orthodoxy. And perhaps come to the realization that her role of a woman in Judaism does not look how equal she is to a man. It is about how to best serve God. Which has more to do with what God requires of her and less to do with the equality of the sexes.

One becomes completely fulfilled as a human being; as a Jew; as either a man or a woman. That happens when one knows they are following God’s will to the best of their ability. There is an element of equality though.To the extent that each sex succeeds in their obligations to God is to the extent that they are equal in His eyes.

Whether or not she accepts my understanding of how a Jew can best serve God, thinking, intellectually honest people like Neilia Sherman are the kind of people I like. And I’m proud to have her as a member of the tribe.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In a Position to Know

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US,  Michael Oren
There is a lot of angst among supporters of The President about comments made by Michael Oren in his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide..

Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States  during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term in office (2009-2013). Oren is a rare breed of Israeli patriot. Raised in America where his religious upbringing was in the Conservative movement, he became so enamored with Israel that he made Aliyah. When he was asked by the Prime Minister to be his ambassador to the US, he agreed but was saddened to renounce his American citizenship, as is required by Israel law for its major public servants.  

This is usually the case with American expatriates in Israel, They all love the country of where they were raised and hate renouncing their citizenship. But as lovers of Israel and wanting to serve their new country they did so.

Michael Oren is a respected historian. And I believe that his tenure as the ambassador to the United States is seen by most observers as well executed. That was my impression, too.  

One of the things that added to his prestige was his honesty in assessing events pertaining to Israel and the people in them.  As such he received high praise in parting company with his political mentor and his party, Likud -  and joining Kulanu, a party more in line with his political philosophy. He was widely praised by Obama administration supporters for criticizing Netanyahu’s acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address congress.  And then later - criticizing him again for the way he conducted his political campaign during the last election.

I therefore don’t believe Oren’s integrity can be challenged. But, challenged it is because of what he revealed about Obama’s change of America’s longstanding policy with respect to its relationship with Israel. A revelation he saw ‘up close and personal’. One that should make Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama more understandable if not totally acceptable – even to his Netanyahu’s critics.

First it should be made clear that Oren did not accuse Obama of hating Israel. He actually said the opposite and blames his changed policies with Israel on his view that his new policy will result in peace. It should also not be lost on anyone that it was the President that pushed for and got funding for Israel’s ’Iron Dome’  protection system.  And it was Obama that increased military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries. There should be no mistake about that. Nor should that be underestimated and under appreciated.

What Oren is saying is that Obama’s the negative policy shift with respect to Israel outweighs the aforementioned benefits.

The current relationship between the two countries is not Netanyahu’s fault, says Oren. The fault lies almost exclusively with the President. Netanyahu was just reacting to that. From the very beginning Obama seemed to turn away from Israel and seek to improve relationships with Arab nations. Not that there was anything wrong with that. But the way it was done was wrong. It was done without consultation with America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israel was completely snubbed early in his Presidency when he chose to ignore her entirely on a speaking tour to major Arab states. Netanyahu had nothing to do with that decision. That was the first Obama snub… not of Netanyahu, but of Israel.

An important change – which Oren believes to be of fundamental importance – is that Israel was not consulted when the United States went on a mission that would have great – even existential significance to her: negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Again, this ‘snub’ had nothing to do with Netanyahu. The President chose to ignore Israel and had no input from them despite what the President must have known was an issue of great concern to them. Seven months of secret negotiations ensued without Israel’s knowledge.

Another thing the Obama administration did that dismayed Israel was in how he pursued the so-called peace process. He put immense pressure on Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians without asking a single concession of them. It was always Israel that was criticized about actions it took that Obama saw as counter to the peace process (like building in the settlements) without ever criticizing the Palestinians about anything.  He surely did this to increase his credibility among the Arab States.

What many people forget is that under an agreement made with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  the Bush administration agreed that major settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any future agreement. And yet Obama insisted on a total freeze on construction in those settlements. Obama also chose to ignore Israel’s numerous peace offers to the Palestinians which they rejected.

The fear now is that the Obama administration will no longer veto anti Israel resolutions at the UN. That would put Israel into a position where it could be deemed an outlaw state with sanctions being against it being honored by the entire world.

Those who say that this is all about a personality clash between the two leaders, are not reading this correctly. It isn’t about personalities. It is about policies. The two leaders have different visions of how to go forward.

Predictably, Oren is now being discredited for parting from the conventional wisdom that blames Netanyahu for the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. But one has to be consistent. One cannot say he has credibility when they like what he says and then say he doesn’t when they don’t. And all the criticism coming out now reflects exactly that, in my view.

I believe Oren. He was there. His critics were not. I trust him. He is in a far better position to know the truth than all of his critics.

I don’t know how this will all play out during the rest of the President’s tenure. Nor do I know what the next occupant of the White House will do. But for the moment, I do not like what I see. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Jury is in - JONAH is out!

Chaim Levin
I was never a fan of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing). Even as I believe they had good intentions - if ill conceived methods. JONAH is a New Jersey based organization that offers therapy claiming it can change a homosexual’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. As I have said in the past, I believe that in cases where they have been successful, it was not with actual homosexuals but with either bisexuals or those who were confused about their sexual orientation.

I don’t know whether sexual orientation is caused by nature or nurture. But I’m pretty sure that whichever the case may be, once ingrained, it is highly unlikely if not impossible to change which sex you are exclusively attracted to: same or opposite.

I became more opposed to them after reading an account of their ‘therapy’. Chaim Levin described it as one of the most humiliating experiences in his life.

I understand why a gay man or woman might want to undergo such therapy. Even in the age of acceptance, they are still shunned by significant numbers of people. And if a gay man is an Orthodox Jew, he realizes that acting on his inclinations is Halachicly forbidden. There’s  lots of motivation in that. But the results of JONAH’s therapy for many of its clients was - failure. Their orientation did not change at all.

A lawsuit was filed against JONAH by some of those former clients. Yesterday the jury handed down a verdict. From the Forward
In a first-of-its-kind decision, the jury awarded $72,000 to several mostly Jewish victims who said Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing and co-founder Arthur Goldberg made bogus promises that they could ‘cure’ gays… The jury determined that JONAH violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by marketing homosexuality as a mental illness and by claiming that their conversion therapy services could successfully turn a gay person straight – and that they had done so many times before. 
I am happy for the litigants. It is very likely that JONAH will be shut down. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has already signed into a law a ban against conversion therapy organizations like JONAH for clients under the age of 18. That is a good thing. 

But there is a part of me that says that there may actually be a place for such clinics – if handled by professionals. Because there are bisexuals that can be treated to seek only heterosexual partners – thus avoiding the sin of male to male anal sex that is so common among gay men.  

There are also those that are confused about their sexual orientation – having perhaps experimented with gay sex as a teenager. I believe that clinic should be allowed to practice therapy for those people. Why deny them the right to seek a program designed to help them achieve what they want? Provided – as I said – that the people running those programs are mental health professionals trained to do so. And who realize that actual homosexuals will likely not be changed.  And make that clear their clients.

All of this said, I am dismayed that we are living in a society – a world – that is determined to normalize gay behavior. This event is yet another cog in that wheel. Mainstream media personalities of all types are sending a message to the public. Which says that gay behavior should not be seen in any kind of negative light. As though they want to write that prohibition out of the bible.  That is a problem for me. The gay sexual act of male to male anal intercourse is forbidden by the Torah. No matter how many people want to now ignore that fact. If you believe in the bible, you must believe in that.

I have spilled a lot of virtual ink sympathizing with gay people who feel they are being discriminated against. I have publicly condemned that kind of discrimination. Many times. Gay people have the right to be treated with the same dignity as straight people. Being gay is not a sin. It is only male to male anal sex that is. 

But treating a gay lifestyle as normal means normalizing that sin. Which is why I am for example opposed to gay marriage. And yet as the influence of media personalities grows, so too does the abandonment of the biblical commandment against gay sex. 

The Supreme Court has just taken another step in that direction. They have ruled in a 5-4 decision that permitting gay marriage should be the law of the land. States prohibiting it would be denying their civil rights - making them guilty of illegal discrimination. States will also be required to recognize the marriage of gay couples married in other states.

This is not a good thing in my view. As I have said many times, there is a difference between treating human beings with dignity regardless of their sexual orientation – and normalizing their lifestyles.  I enthusiastically support the former, and I am absolutely opposed to the latter. In my view any bible believing individual ought to feel the same way.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Serving God and Empowering Women

Rabbi Lila Kagedan, - ordained by Yeshivat Maharat
The inevitable finally happened. Rabbi Avi Weiss has dispensed with his prior refusal to call his female ordainees ‘rabbis’.  I challenged him to stop dancing around that title with made up titles  (like Raba and Maharat) and he finally rose to the challenge.

His motivation in not calling them outright rabbis was the realization that the Orthodox establishment would not accept a female rabbi, no matter how much her learning qualified her to be one. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) admonished him when he even came close by calling Sara Hurwitz (his first ordainee), rabba, a feminized version of rabbi.

They told him that he would be expelled from the RCA if he ever did that again. He quickly agreed and reverted to his original title, the less offensive Maharat, a Hebrew acronym meaning spiritual leader. He then established a school for that purpose calling it Yeshivat Maharat with Rabba Hurwitz as its head. (For the record, Rabbi Weiss is no longer a member of the RCA.)

I had always maintained that calling a female rabbinic ordainee by any other name made her no less a full fledged rabbi. Which is why I challenged Rabbi Weiss to stop dancing around that title. He nevertheless stuck to the title Maharat.  Until now.

Rabbi Weiss has now dropped all pretenses.

Yeshivat Maharat  ordains women. Three graduating classes have come forth from that school. This year for the first time they are calling it a Semicha ceremony (Chag Semicha) and being given the degree all Orthodox Musmachim get, Yoreh Yoreh. Which states (based on my own Yoreh Yoreh Semicha document) that they studied Gemarah and Poskim diligently; passed exams;  may now rule on matters of Jewish law; and can be called a Rav in Israel.  It also states that they can now accept a position in any community as a rabbi.

Accordingly, Rabbi Weiss has told his Maharat graduates that if they choose to use the title rabba or rabbi because it suited their circumstances, that was just fine with him. One of his recent graduates has actually done that.

Ladies and gentleman, I present you with the first American Orthodox female rabbi, Lila Kagedan. She is one of this year’s 6 graduates of Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi Kageden now joins Rabbis Sally Presiand (Reform), Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist), and Amy Elberg (Conservative) as a pioneer in their respective denominations. She has finally broken the glass ceiling of the Orthodox rabbinate.

This must have thrilled Orthodox Jewish feminists all over the world. As human rights consultant Karen Mock put it in her CJN article
As I sang and danced and celebrated with Lila and her family, I was moved to tears… 
I have expressed my antipathy for ordaining women here many times. I am not going to rehash all my arguments against it except to say that these woman will never be accepted into mainstream Orthodoxy. Not in the Charedi world and not in the Centrist world of Modern Orthodoxy. The RCA has stood firm on this issue and has clearly stated its opposition to it as a violation of our Mesorah (tradition).

These 2 bodies (Charedim and Centrists) comprise the vast majority of the Orthodox Jewish world. Leaving only the fringes of the left wing to accept it. A fringe that in my view has long ago abandoned the Mesroah of their teachers… and possibly Orthodoxy itself.

There is one area I would like to address, however. I have been accused of misunderstanding the true motives of the women that do things like this. I have been told that I have no right to ascribe illegitimate motives since I can’t read their minds. How can I know what they are thinking? I have been told very clearly by their defenders - people that know them and know how sincere they are - that I am wrong. 

I have been told time and again that these women  are completely L’Shma and are doing all this only to serve God in the best way they can. Why have they chosen modalities of men? I have been told that that these are Mitzvos that they know actually exist and choose them as the best way to serve God in ways meaningful to themselves. They know it is a Mitzvah at some level since it is mentioned in the Torah. Indeed there are many Mitzvos women are not required to do - that men are. And they do those with permission and reward. And thus they feel they have a right to do any of those they wish. Whether there is a Mesorah about women doing it or not.

But I always say,  Judaism is not about rights. It’s about obligations. So that even if someone has a right to serve God in ways they are not required to, it doesn’t mean they always should. Especially if it has no tradition to it. It is more in line with God’s wishes to serve Him in the ways he commanded them to serve.  Focusing instead on other even permissible service -  instead of trying to find ways to improve their mandated service is in my view misguided. 

Something that seems meaningful to an individual – even if it is based on the fact that it is mandated by God to a specific segment of His people does not mean that it is always meaningful to Him when non mandated segments do it. Sometimes what seems like a legitimate service to God is in fact completely unacceptable to Him.

There is an event in the Torah that illustrates this fact. Much like Orthodox feminist women, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu had similar motivations. Sacrifices being known to be pleasing to God they were inspired to act on their own and offer God an unasked for sacrifice. They were instantly killed for that.  

How could it be that an act designed to please God based on what they knew about such acts would end up being their demise? When Chazal analyzed this event, they concluded that Nadav and Avihu were not as L‘Shma as this event made them seem on the surface. I think we can learn from this that personal feelings about how to serve God are not always right. Sometimes they are very wrong. Especially if they are not as L’Shma as those doing them think they are.

Everything I read about Orthodox feminism is about empowering women. The accolades are about Orthodoxy finally giving women a leadership role. Nothing about giving women better ways to serve God.

I am often accused of mis-attributing ulterior motives to Orthodox feminists. But I don’t see any other way to understand it – if over and over again one reads articles like the one in CJN. Which talks about women’s empowerment. This seems to be the message in every instance that Orthodox feminists challenge Orthodox tradition.

Sure, Orthodox feminists will say it is ultimately all about serving God when they are directly challenged along those lines. But when they are unchallenged and talk freely about their goals - it is mostly about empowering women and a lot less about serving God. I don’t think that is arguable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Conversation about Racism in America

Mass murderer Dylann Roof and the symbol of southern bigotry
This is a bit off topic for me. But as a religious Jew I feel moved to comment on the horrible mass murder in Charleston South Carolina. Racism and bigotry affects all of us.

Last week a young 21 year old man by the name of Dylann Roof walked into a church filled with black congregants, sat down next to one of them, and after about an hour sitting quietly got up, took out his pistol, and started shooting at them, murdering 9 people! Then he walked out. What this evil human being and numskull did not realize is that he was recorded on a closed circuit TV and was apprehended almost immediately.

That this fellow is not too bright is an understatement.  Not being raised that way, at some point in his young life he became a racist, buying into the kind of racist and antisemitic drivel one can easily find on internet websites run by white supremacists.  I have to believe that anyone with half a brain would laugh at the kind of nonsense presented as truth there. But I guess there are a few people around with half a brain.

To Dylann Roof, this was pure truth. So convinced was he of this ‘truth’ that he felt he had to act – since his fellow racists weren’t doing anything but talking online.  The results are tragic beyond words. 9 high caliber people were killed. People whose lives revolved around God. People who could set an example for all of us.

What concerns me however is the idea of having a public conversation about racism in America. One can look at this event and say, “Yes, it is still very much alive!”

Racism of the Dylann Roof type surely still exists. Obviously. But much like antisemitism, it only exists on the fringes of society. A fringe to which this young mass murderer belongs. We must therefore continue to be vigilant and guard against people on the fringe of society that might do something horrible like this in the future - in pursuit of their racist goals. But to say that this type of racism exists at any significant level beyond these fringes is simply not true. Even in the South.

One need not look any further than the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States. A black man freely elected by a country whose vast majority is not black. The people who voted for Barack Obama twice in 2 elections against some very decent white candidates were certainly not racist. They reflect the views of the majority of this country. And even those of us that did not vote for him, in the vast majority of cases it was not for any racist reasons but rather for political ones. I for one was proud of my country the day Barack Obama took office - even though I didn’t vote for him. We have “overcome”. 

What about the South? There was a time not too long ago where a white man that murdered a black man would have pretty much gotten away with it. What happened this time is that law enforcement pursued this felon with vigor and zeal. They caught him immediately. There was not a decent human being that was not touched by the sorrow and tears of their loved ones. The entire nation- black and white - grieves along with them, denouncing the racism that caused this to happen. The sense of sympathy and outrage was near universal across all racial and ethnic lines.

But despite this reaction I don’t think we can yet say that there isn’t a more widespread and different kind of racism. The kind President George W. Bush called soft bigotry. It is the kind that looks down at a fellow man because of his color – even though he wouldn’t harm him and be outraged if someone did.  It still exists in the North and in the South. But it is so subtle that those who are soft bigots may not even realize they are.

That there is discrimination against blacks is a fact. It might be unintentional. But it’s there. The recent spate of police brutality against blacks suspected of crimes is illustrative of that. Even though we are talking about the criminal element and even though in some cases violence was justified, it cannot be true that in all cases violence was justified. I believe that all things being equal - it has been shown that white suspects get treated differently by law enforcement and the justice system than black suspects do.

There may be sociological reasons (beyond the scope of this post) that explain this phenomenon as not necessarily always racism oriented. But the facts remain the same. Black suspects are generally not treated as favorably as white suspects.

Soft bigotry is far more evident in the South. That is made clear by the ubiquitous presence of the Confederate flag (the so called ‘stars and bars’) in public areas; on license plates; and on merchandise.

Proud white southerners claiming the flag demonstrates their heritage - heatedly deny any connection between the flag and racism.  But how is that flag any southern black man’s heritage?  It is the flag of slavery, no matter how much they deny it. I doubt that there is a single southern black that ever saw that flag as their heritage.

Yes, southern whites’ ancestors fought with pride in the Civil War. Many of them died in that cause. They have always claimed the fight was over states rights, not slavery.  Well, sure it was about states rights. It was about the states’ right to allow slavery .  And to not allow the federal government to take that right away from them. They can say it was about states’ rights until they are blue in the face. It wasn’t about that. It was about slavery. Slavery is what drove the economy of the South. Without slaves cotton could not have been picked so cheaply and their plantation economy would collapse. Or so they thought. That is the heritage that the Confederate flag  stands for. That is what their ancestors fought and died for.

It is finally dawning on the South that this flag is not seen by all in the positive light they see it. Not because of any epiphany. Not because they stopped believing it is their heritage. But because of what it has come to represent in the fringes that produced a Dylann Roof.

Blacks are still not seen as equals. They are seen as second class citizens with no heritage. Well in my view not having the heritage of fighting for slavery makes blacks better citizens than the whites that do have that heritage.

So the stars and bars are going to quickly now disappear across the South. White southerners now seem to understand that  rabid bigots like Dylann Roof use it as the symbol of their bigotry. It is a symbol of bigotry. Whether the whites in the South realize it or not.

So, yes, we do have to have a conversation about racism in this country. We have come a long way since the sixties. But indeed we have a long way to go.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Making Your Children ‘Yeshivish’ the Goal?

The current  Yeshivishe 'look' of Bnei Torah
This past Sunday night I attended an elementary school banquet. There were two beloved couples honored. One couple that has contributed much time and effort not only to the school but to many Orthodox organizations. The other couple I will get to in a moment.

After the presentation was made, the wife who also teaches at the school addressed the attendees. What she said resonated with me and it is one reason (of many) that I support that school. She said that this school honors women far more than any other Orthodox institution she has been involved with.

Which brings me to the second set honorees. Both husband and wife are involved in Chinuch at that school. The husband is retiring after over 50 years of teaching Torah there.

The outpouring of affection and  gratitude was overwhelming. That Mechanech - a man who shuns Kavod (honor) spoke after the presentation and was humbled to the point of tears… having accepted this honor only after being convinced that it would benefit the school.

There were people from all Hashkafos there who came - many only because of this man, whose reputation extends beyond the school. People who otherwise have nothing to do with the school, having sent their children elsewhere attended in order to recognize this man’s contributions. It was a truly classy event.

It has become common practice to produce a video of what a school is is all about and show it at banquets like this. In this particular case, we saw various children at the school having fun; praising the school and loving it; saying they will have eternal gratitude to their Rebbeim, teachers, and even the administration for all they have given them.  It is difficult to fully appreciate what was on the screen. You had to have seen it. All I can say is that it made me proud to have been involved with that school for so many years

As I was watching it I wondered what parents there who were not in any way affiliated with the school thought of it. My almost immediate thought was they probably didn’t think much of it. As happy and well adjusted as those children were, this was not a selling point to them. Even with all the attributes the school promotes and instills in their children - the joy, the good Midos, the acts of Chesed, and feelings of gratitude - the reaction on the part of the left was no doubt, “Where are the academics?” And the attitude on the right was, ”Where is the Torah learning?” “Look at the Kipot.” “Look at how they dress.” “Midos development is nice, but this school does not emphasize what is really important.” 

(For purposes of this essay, I am not discussing Chasidic education. Much of what I am about to say, does not really apply to them.) 

This is not to criticize other schools for a lack of Midos development. I’m sure they try to instill that too. Nor am I saying that children in other schools aren’t happy. I'm sure they are. But the primary thing parents in those schools seek is something else. For the left it is about academics. They will choose the school where they perceive academics are the best. And the school that most reflects their left wing Hashkafos.

The same is true for the right – whose growth and strength in numbers is far more significant than the left. I have been told that many community rabbis with Yeshivishe backgrounds when asked for advice about where to send children - although outwardly very supportive of this school - will privately recommend the more Yeshivishe school. They see this school as not Yeshivish. 

They recommend a Yeshivishe school whose values are the same as their own. Values they were indoctrinated with when they were in school. They believe the Torah true way is the Yeshivishe way. A way that emphasizes Torah study to the near exclusion of everything else. A way that shuns virtually all of secular culture.  A way that de-emphasizes other important things, like secular studies.
   
For the parents that send their children to the Yeshivishe school - the prototype of  prefect Jew is the Yeshiva man - commonly referred to as a Ben Torah. This is someone whose life will be dedicated to Torah study. And even if that Yeshiva man ends up working for a living at some point, he will remain a Ben Torah - realizing that Torah study is still the most important thing a Jewish man can do. They will thus put almost all their energies toward support of schools that emphasize that. Such schools are identified by their black hat Yeshivishe culture (i.e - black velvet Yarmulke, back hat and jacket, white shirt and black pants). A school that does not have this culture - they will see as not having those values.

I am again reminded of a graduation ceremony I attended at a right wing elementary school where the English principal addressed the graduates. He spoke only of his role as a Rebbe and teaching them Torah. (He is also a Rebbe in that school). Not a word about his primary role as the English principal. There was no value at all placed on that, as though it didn’t exist.

Now it’s true that not all right wing schools are exactly the same in this respect. But I do believe that most of them are and that those that aren't - are going in that direction.

How sad it is for me to see how right wing Torah education has evolved in the 21st century. There was a time where even those schools valued secular studies. At least most of them. Some of the biggest Torah personalities of the right attended schools where secular studies are valued. The dress codes were not ‘black hat’ at all. 

If one will look at some of archival pictures from just a few short decades ago (60s and 70s) they will not see many black hats. They will more or less see the kind of ‘look’ on the part of the students that was seen on that video. And somehow those conditions produced, a Rabbi Avrohom Pam, and a Rabbi Yaakov Perlow. Many right wing rabbinic leaders of that era like Rav Yitzchok Hutner valued secular studies, and guided their students along those lines.

It’s too bad that so many parents today whose own parents were raised that way, now feel their way was not ideal. They look at the way the children in the more moderate schools dress and the kind of Kipot some of them wear, and wrongly conclude, “Nebech, so many of those kids will end up Amei Ha’aretz - ignorant of Torah”. “Or worse, lose their Yiddishkeit altogether”. They want their children to be Yeshiva men - Bnei Torah. That is the ideal.

What they fail to realize is that a serious secular studies program does not negate the possibility of becoming a Ben Torah. There are plenty of graduates from this school of all ages that are Bnei Torah of the highest caliber. Nor is there any guarantee that the more right wing Yeshivishe school will necessarily turn your child into a Ben Torah.

They also believe that this will almost certainly keep their children Frum. Personally, I don't think that’s true any longer. Right wing schools certainly have their share of dropouts. 

There is a price to pay for ignoring the future of your children in all ways but one. Are they willing to pay it?  Do they even realize it?

Warning: Please do not use this post to disparage any schools. Those comments will be deleted.