Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Is Harvey Weinstein Emblematic of Our Time?

Harvey Weinstein
Another giant has fallen. In a highly publicized expose in  the New York Times Harvey Weinstein has been outed as a serial womanizer that has been accused of sexually harassing many women (in some instances – even rape!) during his illustrious decades long career as an award winning film producer. He probably has accumulated 81 Academy Awards and over 300 nominations for movies he has produced. Many of them high quality films like ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘The English Patient’, and ‘My Left Foot’.  To say that he is a powerhouse in Hollywood would be a major  understatement.

No more. He has been ousted from the company he founded. And shamed beyond repair. Deservedly so.  As is often the case when an abuser is outed by one or more victims, many more have emerged since then to tell their stories. Whether he will be prosecuted for any of this remains to be seen. He claims it was all consensual.

The conventional wisdom about sexual harassment (…or more specifically rape) is that it isn’t about sex. It’s about power. I am not an expert on these matters and am not really qualified to dispute that. But you cannot get away from the fact that a sexual act is the ‘medium’ whereby this power is exercised. I don’t think anyone can - nor should – discount the fact that sexual gratification is a part of it - as is ego (i.e. a sense of sexual prowess).  Maybe that it is what it is really about - sexual power. Because until a few days ago there was certainly no one more powerful in Hollywood than Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstien is not the first man to be accused of this kind of behavior. Certainly not in Hollywood. The casting couch has been around for a long time. But Hollywood is not the only place where women are so freely sexually harassed and exploited. It pervades our culture. Presidents and paupers live in a world dominated by a Hollywood ethic that portrays women as sex objects. Ian Fleming’s fictional British spy, James Bond, is the quintessential role model for this. He is a notorious womanizer who has been a role model for countless numbers of young men throughout the many decades of James Bond film genre. He always gets the girl! Doesn’t that very concept objectify women?

I wonder if there has ever been any serious study about the impact of movie genres like this in how our culture treats women. Clearly this is the cultural norm in much of western civilization. Promiscuous sex is glorified. Illicit sex is sometimes even seen as heroic - even when is between a man and woman married to other people! The protagonists are praised for finally finding ‘true love’ with each other instead of with their spouses. The implication is that finding true love is the epitome of life.

This is Hollywood’s message. It is pervasive in almost all of its films either directly or indirectly. Only I wouldn’t call it true love. I’d call it true lust.

I am not saying that Hollywood invented sexual exploitation of women. It’s been around since the beginning of time. But they have surely capitalized on it – and have influenced the sexual mores of this country to where sexual prowess is a high goal for men to achieve. 

It isn’t only movies and TV. It’s a culture of pornography that an evil genius by the name of Hugh Hefner invented and promoted in his magazine ‘Playboy’. That was the first magazine to feature a centerfold picture of a naked woman in suggestive poses - and advising young men on how to get women to go to bed with them. Hefner was the first. But he was certainly not the only. Today’s pornography and the ease with which one can access it makes Playboy look tame by comparison.

It is in this culture that Weinstein found himself.  He probably thought he was just reflecting the sexual mores of the time - proving his sexual prowess to himself with each ‘conquest’. 

Although there are some stable marriages in Hollywood where husbands and wives are faithful to each other – it is probably also true that there is more sexual promiscuity in this community than in any other segment of civilized society. But as noted above, it doesn’t begin and end in Hollywood. Not is every case as high profile as Weinstein, Cosby, or Polanski. But the culture is there.To paraphrase a popular phrase - life does not only imitate Hollywood. Hollywood imitates life.

Presidents like Kennedy, Clinton and Trump have either sexually exploited women or made derogatory comments about exploiting them. It is not a coincidence for example that President Kennedy was an avid reader of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. How many prominent senators, governors, mayors and congressmen with pretenses of moral authority have been exposed as far less moral than they pretended to be - ruining their careers in the porcess! Just to name a few at the top of my head, Jim McGreevey, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Hart, John Edwards… 

Many professional athletes are notorious womanizers that have had many sexual ‘conquests’.

And need I mention the number of religious figures that have been caught with their proverbial pants down?

None of this excuses Weinstein. He deserves what he’s getting. And more. But to say that he is all that different from so many other prominent and not so prominent people is an insult to my intelligence. 

If there was any single factor we should be looking at – it is the culture that makes it ‘cool’ to be a womanizer. James Bond ought not be looked at as a hero. The values generated by Hollywood are not Torah values. 

The Torah is very clear about unsanctioned sexual activity. Rashi interprets the words of the Posuk ‘Kedoshim Tihiyu’ exegetically in the following way. The presence of illicit sexual activity is inversely proportional to holiness. Holiness is what God demands of us in those very words.

Our sexually permissive culture is the exact opposite of that. It contributes mightily to the likes of Weinstein. It would behoove our nation to take a few steps back in time where sex was not as exploited in the media as much as it is today. Instead of ridiculing the morality standards of Hollywood past, where sexual activity was never explicit - it might not be a bad idea to take another look at that. I’m not saying that Hollywood is the only cause of this problem. Far from it. The Weinsteins of the world may still exist. And have existed well before Hollywood. But I can’t help but believe that pulling back from the ‘anything goes’ policy of our day will not help reduce their number.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Bye Bye Bet Shemesh - We Will Miss You

Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph
Back to Chicago. My wife and I are on our way back from Israel – having spent yet another wonderful Yom Tov in in Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph (...except for Yom Tov Sheni of Simchas Torah – see post from last week for the reason.) 

The suburbs of Bet Shemesh are growing by leaps and bounds. Construction is everywhere. All residences there are built using 'Jerusalem stone' - making for a very aesthetically pleasing look. The view of the surrounding hills are quite beautiful and can be seen from many of the homes there. 

An entire new city (Ramat Bet Shemesh Gimmel) is being built (mostly condos) adjacent to Aleph with many people already living there.  Greater Bet Shemesh is about to become one of the largest cities in Israel. It will be populated mostly by observant Jews (Charedim and Datim). Shabbos and Yom Tov there is palpable. You can feel it in the air. The only traffic on those days are occasional emergency vehicles. The streets become filled with children playing in them. 

Although I'm told that the percentage of English speakers there is at about 40%, I could almost swear that the most common language spoken there is English.

The new 4 lane highway (38) connecting Bet Shemesh to the Jerusalem Tel Aviv Highway (1) is a dream! It is operational and fast. What used to be a long and slow haul - of sometimes up to an hour just a few short months ago now takes minutes to traverse. 

But you do have to watch out for those 'crazy' Israeli drivers. Just kidding.

We truly enjoyed spending time with our son, daughter in law, and our American-Israeli grandchildren. Loved the Shul (Masaas Mordechai). Loved the people in it. The skies were blue, and the temperature as warm as the people we encountered. Can't wait to come back.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Fallacy and Destructiveness of Stereotyping

Charedi Jews
One of the more unfortunate by-products of labeling various groups of people is how they are often associated with certain types of behavior. Orthodox Judaism is not immune to that at all. Usually in very unflattering - negative ways.

Two examples of that are the following:  Charedim all cheat the government whenever they can get away with it. And modern Orthodox Jews don’t really care about Halacha that much. These are common prejudices that many among each a group think about the other And they are both false. Charedim do not as a group cheat the government any more than any other ethnic group, whether Orthodox, Jew or non Jew. And modern Orthodox Jews care about Halacha as much as Charedim do.

When such negative stereotypes are utilized by people from without, it is naturally upsetting – even insulting to the people from within. For me that is a clear violation of Lashon Hara. And the result is often responding in kind using prejudices about the people in other group in increasingly disparaging ways. It is a vicious cycle that amounts to no good with a resentment that can spiral into a virtual hatred of the other group.

This does not mean that there aren’t some individuals within those groups that are guilty of a particular stereotype. There clearly are. But to characterize the many because of the few is grossly unfair and wrong.

Why is this case?  Why do these groups become stereotyped that way? Unfortunately because there too many instances of the negative stereotype within those groups. Which leads to bad publicity and false generalizations by observers. That misinformation then spreads and if you are not a member of that group you begin to believe the negative stereotype about that group. Which becomes hard to defend against. Once the reputation becomes established – every future instance or observation of it becomes a - ‘What do you expect from them?!’

Isn’t that how Lashon Hara works, though?

I happen to be of the opinion that the level of character, honesty, integrity, and kindness are the same among both groups.  

I believe the ability to reach great heights in character  is the same for all people in any civilized society. As is the ratio of those among them to veer into the opposite direction. There are good and bad people among all groups.

Why do I believe they are the same? I base it on another statistic that might be disputed by the religious world and yet according to experts (both religious and secular) is the same among religious Jews as it is among secular Jews and even non Jews. The ratio of sex abusers is about the same in all communities. Religious or otherwise. I think that’s probably true about all types of behavior.

Modern Orthodox Jew
One may ask, isn’t the Torah supposed to give you a higher sense of ethics and honesty? Of course it should. But people are human and fall prey to their own particular failings and prejudices. There are individual differences between people - whether through nurture or nature - that account for all sorts of behavior from good to bad.

The modern Orthodox Jews I associate with are as meticulous in observance as any Charedi I know. But I also know both modern Orthodox Jews and Charedim that are ‘Lite’ in their observance. There are righteous Jews and miscreants in both segments. I also know some very ethical Charedim and some very unethical modern Orthodox Jews. The point is that personal failings have nothing to do with Hashkafos. With respect to this issue - the differences between them are only in their outward appearance.

What bothers me is when one group claims superiority over another. Such as when Charedim claim to be more religious than Modern Orthodox Jews or when Modern Orthodox claim to be more ethical than Charedim. Neither is true. I’ll bet if there was a way to do an accurate survey of each group, we would find that the proportions of each are the same in both groups.

On a personal note, I have found the Charedim of Ramat Bet Shemesh to be the kindest and most ethical people I have ever met. As have modern Orthodox Jews (Datim) I’ve encountered here.  

Just today I was in a Makolet (a small grocery/convenience type store) to buy an Angel’s Bakery poppy seed coffee roll for my morning coffee. When I presented my credit card, the cashier said there was a 20 Shekel minimum in that store. As it happened, I had no Shekels on me at the time. I was all set to be disappointed and put that cellophane wrapped and sealed coffee roll back on the shelf when a very nice young Charedi women waiting in line behind me saw my dilemma and disappointment - and insisted that she pay for it.

I appreciated the gesture and told her that it wasn’t necessary. I could live without it. But she insisted and placed the money on the counter for the cashier to take. Which she did before I had a chance to stop her.  What a nice lady and what a nice gesture – one that cost her some money. A complete stranger that I had never met – and would likely never see again.

I don’t think this kind of kindness is the exclusive to Charedim. But it is clearly a part of who they are in Ramat Bet Shemesh. More than half of which is a microcosm of the Charedi world.

I think we should all just step back from our prejudices about those outside our camp, and see the world for what it really is. A collection of human beings whose character ranges in the same ratio with respect to the entire spectrum of ethics, honesty, and kindness. We should also to strive to view the level of observance in all Orthodox Jewish groups to run along the same spectrum. From strong commitment to weak commitment. No  one group has a monopoly on those things – for good or bad. Being Dan L’Kaf Zechus - judging fellow Jews favorably is the way we should all be thinking. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to improve our lives after the Days of Awe we just experienced?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Open Orthodoxy - Truth Versus Exaggeration

Orthodox Jewish billionaire and philanthropist - R' Shlomo Rechnitz
Even though he is Charedi, and I am a Centrist - Modern Orthodox (MO) Jew,  I tend to agree with Shlomo Rechnitz on many matters.   As I did a couple of years ago when he expressed empathy for the pain experienced by parents in Lakewood who could not get their children registered in even one of that town’s Charedi schools. I also laud him for his generous philanthropy to causes inside and outside of Judaism. But I have to part company with him on recent public statements with respect to Open Orthodoxy (OO).

I say Open Orthodoxy even though Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT) head Rabbi Asher Lopatin now prefers to simply call it MO. I cannot agree to defining his movement that way since MO is a broad category that isn’t limited to his definition. I’m not even sure that a movement that is rejected by virtually every legitimate Posek within Orthodoxy  (e.g. Poskim of institutions like the RCA, OU, YU, Agudah,  the CER (The Conference of European Rabbis ) , and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate - can use the prefix ‘Orthodox’.  You can’t insert yourself into a group that whose primary rabbinic leadership so clearly  rejects you – no matter how much you claim to be a part of it. So for purposes of this essay and no alternative term, I will be referring to them as Open Orthodox or OO.

It might seem ironic that I am criticizing R’ Shlomo for criticizing Open Orthodoxy  since I have been critical of them myself.  But the fact is that he has gone too far. It’s one thing to say the movement is wrong  in being guided by the current Zeitgeist of things like egalitarianism. But calling them ‘Fake Jews’ crosses a line.

The people that populate OO are anything but fake. I believe they are sincere Jews that have fallen victim to the spirit of the times and are trying to reconcile that with Judaism.  OO Rabbis try mightily to to accommodate that. That they do so by going too far does not take away from their legitimacy s Jews. They want to be observant and egalitarian. Rabbis like Asher Lopatin believe they have found a way to accommodate them. There is nothing fake about that. It is just misguided.

And yet this is what R’ Shlomo has said about them. From Arutz Sheva
(G)oing to synagogue doesn't make you religious, just like standing in the parking lot doesn't make you a car... There is nothing Orthodox about them, and the only thing that is 'open' about them is their stores and businesses which are open on the Shabbat and Yom Kippur. 
… if someone doesn't want to keep Torah and mitzvot [commandments] according to tradition but still be called 'Orthodox', he can join the 'Open Orthodox'… 
It is one thing to criticize them even strongly. It is another to make up ‘facts’ about them which are not true. Open Orthodoxy clearly does not approve of Chilul Shabbos or Yom Kippur in any form. To say that they do is by itself ‘fake news’.  This is not to say there aren’t members of that movement that are not observant. I’m sure there are. But there are non observant Jews in all of segments of Orthodoxy. That they exists doesn’t mean that Orhtodoxy is defined by their non observance. Orthodoxy does not define itself that way and neither does OO.  

That they welcome non observant Jews is no sin. That is called ‘Kiruv’ – reaching out to Jews and showing them that observance - which is the hallmark of Orthodox Judaism - is the correct path to take. 

We should all welcome non observant Jews that approach us. If someone wants to learn about  Orthodox Judaism we should welcome them with words of encouragement and tell them that if they choose that lifestyle, they should begin to observance Halacha at their own pace. Which means that they will not necessarily be fully observant right away. In fact someone that comes from a completely secular background with no religious training whatsoever - and suddenly becomes completely observant overnight –will likely just as quickly drop out in very short order.

I doubt that that Open Orthodoxy has a different approach to outreach. That they also extol the virtues of egalitarianism to the extent that they reject tradition - and the views of all major Poskim is a tragic flaw that – among other things -  has caused them to be rejected. But to call them tolerant of Chilul Shabbos and Yom Kippur is both wrong and untrue.

As unlikely as it is, my sincere hope is that this movement comes back home and sees the error of their ways. If they want to be considered Orthodox by their rabbinic peers in the rest of Orthodoxy they have no real alternative.  As I’ve said many times. Orthodoxy needs a left wing. But not one that has crossed so may lines. 

R’ Shlomo’s exaggerated  over-the-top  comments pushes them even further away. Making this goal more remote than ever. Even when rejecting a movement, one must be truthful about who they are and why they are being rejected.

So, yes, R’ Shlomo and I see this movement as problematic. But in no way do I see them as tolerating Chilul Shabbos and Yom Kippur at any level. Lo Zu HaDerech. Truth requires that R' Shlomo reconsider his remarks.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

For the Love of Torah? Or the Love of One’s Self!

Simchas Torah is a joyous time. In Israel it combines with Shemini Atzres. So that all the dancing takes place on that day. There is not second day in Israel - unless you are a visitor from outside the country. As I am.

I’m not much of a dancer. To say the least. The phrase ‘two left feet’ could have been coined because of me. Fortunately, Simchas Torah does not require one to be any kind of talented  dancer. That’s because what passes for dancing is really not dancing. It is stomping your feet as you go around in circles with a Sefer Torah. Which for me just isn’t all that exiting, again – to say the least.  This may sound sacrilegious. But it really isn’t. Dancing the way it has evolved on this day is a relatively new phenomenon.

SimchasTorah celebrates the competition of the annual Torah reading cycle… and the commencement of the new one. Why should that be a cause for dancing your heart out? I don’t really think that this is what all that extended dancing is really all about.

The basic custom is to do Hakafos.  And even that is a relatively recent custom dating back at most about 500 years or so. We take out the Sefrei Torah and walk around in a circle 7 times with a Chazan leading it while chanting a series of 7 prayers related to one of the themes of this particular Yom Tov – Hoshanos.

Today, that ‘foot stomping’ has evolved into a huge ‘dance’ marathon that can go on for hours before it ends. What was once at most a 20 minute custom now seems to take forever to conclude. So if this was not part of the original custom, why is it so strongy observed now? As noted above – none of the dancers are thinking ‘Wow!’ We just finished the annual Torah reading cycle. 

For the truly Ehrlich, they are celebrating the Torah itself. This is the only time of year where they can dance while holding and hugging Sifre Torah. It is quite inspiring to see that, even if I can’t dance that way myself. But there are some  - mostly young Yeshiva students - that take this too far and insist on violating protocol by continuing to pound their feet and sing at the top of their lungs – overpowering the Gabbai who asked them to stop! And when they succeed they smile as though they pulled off a fast one.

Those that insist on doing that might want to think of themselves as zealous Bnei Torah showing their devotion to God by wanting to dance and hug the Torah for as long as possible. That may be true in some cases. But I think there are a fair amount of them that are just self centered and want to have fun at everyone else’s expense. Most older people do not like the prolonging. They are tired, want to go home and have their Yom Tov Seudah (meal) But they often stick it out and just sit out the later Hakafos. 

They continue waiting while others continue to stomp their feet endlessly to the same song. Most of those sitting are good sports, though. So they just let it happen. Thinking, ‘How could they possibly complain about these young people that so exuberantly celebrate the Torah?’ But some of them eventually leave early because it just becomes too boring for them.

What does it say about the values of those that are doing the prolonging? ...even against the wishes of the Shul Gabboim that invited them in the first place? When the Gabboim say ‘Stop’ - these young people ought to stop. What kind of values are reflected by those that consider prolonged ‘dancing’ to supersede everyone else’s desire to end it at a reasonable time and go home?

I am one of those that just leaves early. I take my two left feet and go home. But I also take with me the knowledge that there are just too many young Yeshiva students that are way too self centered. What is a great and joyous time of Simcha for some is not so enjoyable for others. Especially those a bit more elderly then them. That is not the feeling that should be left with at the end of Yom Tov. And because I am in Israel, I get to experience it twice.

Chag Sameach

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Has Yiddishkeit Become a Spectator Sport?

Chasidic family in Boro Park for illustrative purposes only
I hate labels. I really do. I’ve mentioned this before. But for those that are not familiar with my view on this subject let me explain it.

One might think that just because I label various types of Jews, I am a strong supporter of using them. I am not. I use them as a matter of  convenience in order to explain my own Hashkafos in contradistinction to the Hashkafos of others.

Labels tend to divide. I would prefer that there be no labels. Hashkafos should not divide us. If I believe in Torah U’Mada and someone else believes in Torah Im Derech Eretz, while yet another person believes in Torah only and still another believes in Chasidus, that should not divide us as a people. Differing world views does not mean we can’t be one people with a variety of paths towards serving God. The only time labels among us should bear any significance is when it involves a break from Halacha and/or the historic traditions of Judaism.

If someone has an ideology different from another but is still observant, maintains traditional beliefs and religious values, it should not matter what their Hashkafa is. We should all just be one unified observant Jewish people. Not Charedim. Not Modern Orthodox. Not Chasidim, Not Yeshivish. Not Centrists. Hashkafos should not divide us. But alas, they do. So I deal with them that way.

Bearing this in mind, I received an e-mail from a respected Charedi personality who has posted here before anonymously and chooses to remain that way. His views are in concert with what I just said.He finds  little meaning in the articles appearing in much of the Frum media that addresses Orthodoxy, its artificial subcategories (e.g.  Yeshivish, modern...). He considers them vague and without much concrete definition.

He charges that in all cases, they veer strongly away from what honestly matters:  Torah and doing all of the 613 Mitzvos.  Trimming this prohibits entry.  As such the Conservative and Reform movements that do so become almost meaningless.  He noted that in the discussions like the one in my last post there tends to be an obsession with the focus on children and youth.  Omitted and ignored is what he deems to be a serious, epidemic of adults at risk.

The same people that make the shuls in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush, Crown Heights, Monsey, Monroe, and Lakewood hustle and bustle - with multiple Minyanim, Kiddushim, Simchos, and fund raising events populated by the ostensibly chareidi, yeshivish, and chassidishe adults, we are deluded into believing that there is the ideal of Yiddishkeit brimming over in abundance. 

This rabbinic personality has experience that allows him to gaze with a bit more of a critical eye than many who are immersed in the religious culture of the above mentioned neighborhoods. Because of his position, he has been the recipient of confidential  discussions by participants in those environments about what really goes on among these ostensibly holy families. Without specifying - it involves serious and severe violations of Halacha that are part of an accepted lifestyle. 

In his view there is a near absence of Yir’as Shomayim and Ahavas Hashem that begins in our G-d free zones in yeshivas and girls’ schools, and continues throughout the lifespan where the ‘Frum’ are focused only on the chitzoniyus.  It has become all about appearances. It matters more what someone wears on top of his head than what is inside of it!  For so many ‘religious’ Jews, it is all about pursuing pleasures, primary and secondary drives, all of which are plainly narcissistic, and devoid of attention to the Shechina.

He therefore finds the Pew statistics and those of similar studies to be irrelevant.  The answers do not lie in the numbers.  The answers lie in what we do as individuals and communities to make the Shechina dwell among us. 

With attention on everything else, there is so much diversion that God really gets knocked low on the list of priorities.

There is a Rav in Boro Park who has a framed sign in Yiddish that asks ‘Voss Zugt Gut? (What does God say?) He takes it seriously.  But he is lost among the masses that are busy with trivia like hair length, socks and shoes, glasses frames, the number of sections on a yarmulke, and such criteria that are used to accept or reject kids from yeshivas. 

He concludes with the following: 
The obsession with discipline in chinuch is pathological, and makes the experience of going to school and yeshiva a contest.  The individual attention to each student to help him learn to love Torah and Mitzvos is claimed at their annual dinners, but the dishonesty in that is known to all parents. 
So before we worry about whether Modern Orthodox Jews are really Orthodox, let us first look at those who filter NYC water, follow strict halachos about chodosh/yoshon, spend fortunes on their esrogim, and wear the most holy forms of malbush: Are they truly Orthodox?  Do they really believe, or are they just monkeys performing because they are being watched by their neighbors? 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Dangers Inherent in the Modern Orthodox Left

Image taken for the New York Jewish Week
I am a modern Orthodox Jew. I say that with pride. I do not hide that fact from anyone. Although there are some modern Orthodox Jews that will dispute that as my true identity.  That’s because there is some controversy about how one defines that category.

Any fair minded person would allow for a variety of different sub-identities that would fit into modern Orthodoxy. No fair minded person should deny any of them. For me being modern Orthodox means placing a high value on secular education and those parts of the secular culture that do not contradict Halacha or contradict the Torah’s values.  Which include both Halacha and tradition.

I am therefore not only proud of my religious education, I am proud of  my secular education. Nor do I have any guilt enjoying various aspects of the secular culture that fit into the above mentioned parameters. I incorporate much of it into my life daily and have done so as far back as I can remember. I believe that this is how the Centrist component of modern Orthodoxy by and large see themselves. As I have mentioned in the past, both Hirschean Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) and Torah U’Mada (TuM) fit into that category.

(Although adherents of TIDE don’t like to be called ‘modern’ and do their level best to discredit TuM, I don’t see much difference between them with respect to the actual embrace of both secular education and secular culture.  True, there are philosophical differences between TIDE and TuM as to why and what toe embrace. But that is not an impediment to being called modern Orthodox as I and many others like me define it.)

Alas, my critics from the left do not accept that as a definition of modern Orthodoxy. They see a more theological component to it that accepts disciplines such as modern scholarship of the bible.They even allow for a belief that the Torah was written by man in its entirety as an allegory - albeit Divinely inspired perhaps. 

They also would posit that modern Orthodoxy should embrace the egalitarian ethos of our time as more just than our Torah based traditions are. In some cases they even grant some form of legitimacy to heterodox movements. They will say that as long as the strict letter of Halacha is kept, you can add the word ‘Orthodox’  to modern.

I can understand why they might say so. But I am in profound disagreement with them for reasons beyond the scope of this post. 

Which  brings me to a recent article in the New York Jewish Week. It suggests that there is a greater ‘crisis of faith’ among modern Orthodox young millennials than at any other time in history: 
The recent, first-ever study on the Modern Orthodox community, reported on here for the first time last week, found data to support Weisberg’s intuitions. The study shows more wavering on Orthodox theological fundamentals — including full belief that God loves his creations (at 46 percent) and the bible was given at Sinai (64 percent) — than one might expect nearly 4,000 self-identified ‘Modern Orthodox’ responded. 
Among millennial respondents (aged 18 to 34), belief in God and the divinity of Torah decreased across the board compared to older respondents. While 86 percent of respondents aged 55 and older believe the Torah was given at Sinai, only 78 percent of younger respondents believe the same thing. While 71 percent of those 55 and older believe the oral Torah was given to Moses — condensed into the Talmud— 62 percent of younger respondents said they adhere to that belief. 
First I think it should be noted that these figures are based on an opt-in survey rather than a random sample. Which is statistically flawed, in my view. If you pursue  participation in a survey rather than being randomly chosen to respond, I think it might be because you want to ‘make a statement’ by responding in a counter intuitive way.  So I have to question what the real percentages are.

But let us for the moment say that these numbers are somewhat accurate. If your definition of modern Orthodoxy allows for these kinds of responses as a legitimate form of Orthodoxy, then this survey might have little meaning to them. If all modern Orthodox Jews started to believe that the events at Sinai never really happened, that’s OK with them.

But if you are a Centrist like me, it is troubling. For us Emunah requires one to believe that the events at Sinai actually happened. Because if they didn’t, than what you are really saying is that our sages lied to us. Even if they made it all up for the best of reasons, a religion based on lies is a religion of Sheker.  Fudging that by saying it was divinely inspired is just speculation at best. Why bother with it altogether?!

The response by many such skeptics who nonetheless are quite observant of Halacha, can be seen by the following: 
In an open-ended question, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 42 percent — gave “community and a sense of belonging” as the key driver of Orthodox observance.  
As Jay Lefkowitz put it when asked why he is observant despite the doubts he had about the events at Sinai: I do it because I’m a ‘Jet’. (This was the name of a fictional street gang in the play/movie West Side Story.) In this case substituting the word ‘Jew’ in place of ‘Jet’.

But what is it exactly that is perpetuated if you don’t believe in Sinai? Are you not perpetuating a lie?! Why would anyone want to be part of that kind of heritage?! Furthermore, what difference does it really make whether you keep Shabbos or not? -Just to preserve us as a people?!  Who cares?!

That is where the danger lies in accepting the left’s version of modern Orthodoxy. Millennials will ask these questions and can easily answer them by rejecting Judaism entirely.

Charedim do not have these issues as much because they are sheltered and not as exposed to these kinds of questions. They are rarely if ever discussed. Belief in the events at Sinai is so ingrained that the mere thought of questioning their legitimacy is rejected before it can even reach their consciousness. (Although there are increasingly more exceptions to this as these issues become more discussed in the larger arena of the internet where religious assumptions are constantly being challenged.)

There are more skeptics and atheists among formerly Orthodox Jews than ever before. However, many of them are outwardly observant. Sometimes even meticulously so – depending on the culture in which they live. They do so for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to retain their status as observant Jews among their family, friends, and peers. Or for the ‘peripherals’ of a family life Halachos like keeping Shabbos engenders. But how long can that really last if it is based entirely on a cultural desire rather than an actual belief?

These young modern Orthodox millennials are probably the most vulnerable to these new influences. Their religious background allows them more freedom to pursue ideologies that contradict the Torah. and perhaps more significantly because the left finds that kind of thinking acceptable and the fact that they have institutions and role models to follow in that regard. This means increasing levels of doubt will happen among our young. 

This is a major problem for modern Orthodoxy and to a lesser extent – even in Charedi Orthodoxy. What to do about this problem is a question I really have no answer for.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Boy For Sale

Yeshiva students - How much will you pay them to marry your daughter?
The title of this post is taken from a song in the 1969 movie Oliver. But never has a song title been more appropriate than it is for Shiduchim in Charedi Yeshiva world. Especially in Israel.

The way young people in this world get married is so warped that it defies common decency. Personal character is secondary. Physical attributes too. What matters most is money. Lots of it. If a young woman or her parents do not have enough of it to offer for a ‘good’  Shidduch, they are out of luck. ‘Show me the money’ is the first thing on the table in these circles. If you can’t do that, don’t bother trying. What kind of money are we talking about for the cream of the crop? Often in the high six figures.  

Not that money isn’t the prime concern in the American Yeshiva Shidduch scene. It is. For example - it is rather well known that Lakewood (BMG)  has a ‘freezer’ policy with respect to their students dating. As I understand it they will not allow them to begin dating for at least 6 months after enrollment. (They are put in the ‘dating freezer’.)

Lakewood does that so that young men won’t come there for the ulterior motive of getting the ‘Lakewood resume’.  Because learning in Lakewood means you’re prime Shidduch material. Of the kind that can demand big bucks from future in laws. So that you don’t have to go to work and can stay in Kollel indefinitely. If, however, a new Lakewood enrollee is willing to date the pauper class (daughters of the Avrecihim that learn there) he gets to date right away. If that doesn’t spell money, nothing does.

But the’big bucks’ in Lakewood is chicken feed compared to what’s happening in Israel.

If you want to know what really counts in the Yeshiva dating scene ‘follow the money’.

Roshei Yeshiva are demanding top dollar for their top students from fathers seeking a Shidduch for their daughters. They want a guarantee of it before their daughters are even mentioned to these boys as a Shidduch prospect. 

And yet many Shiduchim are made. Most parents  do not have the kind of big bucks demanded by these Roshei Yeshiva.  Their daughters get married somehow. Where do they get the money?! And if they are able to find it for their first daughter – where do they find if for the second? Or third? Or fourth… ?

I know one Charedi family of modest means that had to sell their apartment (Dirah) in order to come up with the money for their first daughter (an apartment that was no doubt purchased for them by their parents when they got married.). They now rent. Where they are going to get money for the rest of their daughters is a mystery to me (and probably to them). What about the rest of their children and grandchildren? 

Their parents will no doubt help them to whatever extent they can. Working well past retirement, perhaps as long as they are physically able to. Where is the justice in that? Why should an 80 year old father work until he drops so that his grandchildren can live in this kind of financial environment? Where is the justice in that – EVEN if the 80 year old father wants to do it? Why are the children even accepting it?! Doesn’t the father deserve a bit of time for himself in his golden years?

This is just one consequence of the Charedi financial situation. They are asked to sacrifice financially so they can say in Kollel for as long as possible. When they finally feel the proverbial knife at their throat and leave Kollel and go to work, many do not have the training or time to pursue the additional education that will give them a more substantial income. 

Even though there are many programs that have been developed specifically for Avreichim that train them to compete for better jobs, not everyone is capable of catching up to their secular counterparts. A lot of these Avrecihim simply miss out - and settle for lower paying jobs. Or just continue to stay in Kollel dependant on their stipends and their working wives. Their combined income remains well below meeting the financial needs of their normally big family. 

And this doesn’t even take into account the above mentioned monetary demands of the Shidduch process.  

I don’t know how long this situation will last. It should have imploded long ago. The situation did not develop yesterday. This has been the case for quite a while now and is only getting worse. And yet it somehow continues to survive.

For me the system of encouraging young men to learn full time; have big families; low incomes;  and then asking them for big bucks to marry off their daughters is grossly unjust. This is not the way things always were. 

Not that long ago back in my day, if someone was determined to stay in ‘learning’ it meant he was an unusually gifted Talmud Chacham. Who had a character to match. Money was never a priority consideration. Living comfortably was not a condition for studying Torah. Such people studied Torah L’Shma and never thought too much about how they would live. They knew they would have to tighten their belts and struggle financially. They were willing to sacrifice. And they NEVER thought  of extorting money from a future father in law.  

When choosing a mate a couple looked for things other than money. Like compatibility;  temperament; character;  the kind of parent would they make; whether they  had  common goals, values and interests; and even whether there was any physical attraction.

Those days are gone, it seems. I know of one recent case where a Shidduch was suggested between a young man and woman by a friend of the young woman's father.. He saw a great deal of compatibility between the couple and suggested it to him. But the young man’s Rosh Yeshiva stepped in and said he’s not letting this boy go for less that a high six figure amount. The date never took place. Shortly thereafter, that boy got engaged to a girl from a wealthy family.

I would personally not put any value on a young man like that. Because all he is doing is marrying money. Those are not the values I want my grandchildren to be raised with. If I had daughters that were not married and someone came up to me with a Shidduch conditioned on a big payout, I’d tell him what I thought about this boy’s values and then say, ‘No thank you.’ ‘Your boy has no character and  I’m not interested in buying a husband for my daughter.’ 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Where's My Esrog?!

One of my talented 12 year old grandsons, Avraham Kirshner, has just sent out his annual Maryles Family Newspaper to the family. There are 16 pages of interesting articles, Divrei Torah, stories, crossword puzzles and word games (having to do with the family), pictures, and recipes - all contributed by family members. 

One of the articles is a riddle about an event that actually happened. It asks an interesting Halachic question and leaves it unanswered. I thought that this year, I would offer it as a change of pace in lieu of my usual short D'var Torah. Does anyone know the correct answer? It follows:

Once upon a time in Israel, there was a Jew named Yekusiel Schwartz[1] who had purchased an expensive esrog a few days before Succos. How excited he was to have such a beautiful esrog for the upcoming holiday. However, one morning before Succos he had brought his esrog to shul, went to daven, and when he returned – NO ESROG! 

How distraught he was to have lost this precious fruit. To his chagrin, he had no recourse except to go buy yet another esrog for the upcoming holiday. 

After Succos, Yekusiel received a letter in the mail from his friend Nosson Spitzer[2]. Nosson wrote that he too was in Eretz Yisroel before Succos and had purchased an esrog.  But unlike Yekusiel, Nosson went to his family in the USA for Succos. 

Upon his return, he was surprised to find the name of his friend Yekusiel on the box. He had taken the wrong esrog home! He apologized for what he had done. And then proceeded to say that he would be happy to send the esrog back to the original owner. 

Although at this point (after Succos) the esrog was extraordinarily devalued (...they are sold by the pound, not by the piece) - Nosson explained that he does not need to pay Yekusiel the purchase price, he only needed to return the object that he mistakenly took. Obviously Yekusiel denied the offer – what could he do with an esrog after Succos? 

The question is: Is Nosson right? Does he not need to pay Yekusiel the full purchase price?

[1] Names have been changed to ensure privacy 
[2] Names have been changed to ensure privacy

Chag Sameach (...or Good Yom Tov - if you prefer)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

American Politics and Judaism

Nikki Haley - one of the reasons Orthodox Jews support Trump
For Orthodox Jews, politics should not be the guide we use to choose our candidates. We should be guided by what the Torah teaches – and choose candidates who most reflect those values. And yet it is becoming increasingly the case the Orthodox Jews are moving to the political right. I think that’s because many – perhaps even most values of the right are in consonance with our own religious values.

But that does not explain why there is so much support by Orthodox Jews for the current President who is not really a conservative. Why did so many of my Orthodox friends vote for Donald Trump? If there was ever a man whose conduct and character seemed to be the antithesis to our values, it is him.

As many people know, I voted for Hillary Clinton, even though I did not like her as a candidate. But at the same time she would not have been the embarrassment to our country that the President is.  

Why is Hillary Clinton considered so terrible in the first place? There is almost a visceral hatred for her among Orthodox Jews. I admit that I can’t really stand her either. Why is that? I have asked myself that question many times and I have not come up with a rational answer to that question. Nor has anyone else I have asked this question to - who has expressed worse feelings toward her than I have.

So why do so many Orthodox Jews support him now (currently at 71% of Orthodox Jewry) despite the constant embarrassing conduct that does not reflect our values at all?  Compare this to the 80% of non Orthodox Jews that disapprove of him. Does that mean that non Orthodox Jews are more ethical and more sensitive to his boorish conduct than Orthodox Jews are?

I don’t think that is the answer.  As much as I didn’t like Clinton, for me she was clearly the lesser of 2 evils. That however was not the case with so many of my Orthodox friends and the rest of the 80% that supported Trump and still support him.

I think the answer might be found in how each candidate relates to both religion and Israel. Despite the fact that Trump is not really a political conservative, he does tend to lean more in a socially conservative direction.  For example in a constitutional contest between gay rights and religious rights, he sides with religious rights.  This is why Evangelical Christians supported him (although that support is waning somewhat). Religious people view his policies to be more in line with their biblical perspective.

As for his policies on Israel, although there has been no tangible improvement in Israel’s well being under a Trump administration, he is clearly viewed as more supportive of the current Israeli government. The rhetoric coming out of the White House about Israel is far more generous and warm.

This is reflected most strongly by Nikki Haley - Trump’s appointee to represent the US at the UN. There has never been a truth telling US voice like hers in the UN that speaks so eloquently about Israel.  There are no ‘equivalency politics’ coming out of her mouth. Refreshingly - only the truth. 

This does not fit the narrative of liberal Jews who tend to lend credence to the other side no matter how weak their arguments are.  So if Israel is attacked by Palestinian terrorists, they will condemn it - but then say something like what do you expect the poor Palestinians to do under such a harsh occupation? In some cases even comparing it to Apartheid as former President Carter does! This kind of talk resonates with the left. It is outsize garbage to the right.

Trump by far is more inclined to support the right on this issue. Because his advisers are very strong supporters of Israel. Which can be seen in his  appointment of the ‘settlement supporting’ David Friedman as the US Ambassador to Israel.

Orthodox Jew love all of this while non Orhtodx Jews reminisce about the former US narrative that said settlements are an obstacle to peace. A view shared by Hillary Clinton. That the Trump administration has not supported a ‘free for all’ settlement policy in Israel has not detracted from his being viewed as extremely pro Israel

What about all of the embarrassing boorish behavior that is unbecoming of any human being with any kind of dignity – let alone a President? Orthodox Jews will admit that they don’t like it. But at the same time are willing to overlook it – believing it is a small price to pay for the kind of pro religion and pro Israel rhetoric coming out of the Presidency now compared to the kind of sorry rhetoric about Israel exemplified at the end of the last administration that let Israel down at the UN. They see Hillary Clinton as more of the same.

I guess that all of this makes Trump a far better looking President in the eyes of an Orthodox Jew who values his religious beliefs and who has strong support for Israel.

As for me - I do not regret voting for Hillary Clinton. Despite the so called conventional wisdom about how terrible she would be. The truth is that despite my antipathy towards her - I don’t think that is accurate. 

Nor do I think Israel would be any worse off. That’s because in truth the last administration was not anti Israel at all. They supported Israel both morally, financially, and militarily. There is no indication that Clinton would have been any worse.  True the ‘anti settlement’ talk would have continued. But so too would the material support. And who knows, Clinton may have been able to improve the US relationship with Israel despite such criticism.

Most Orthodox Jews don’t see it that way and are glad Trump is in office. I just hope they don’t someday regret it. Because with man like this in office, the future has never been so uncertain.