Friday, September 30, 2016

A Legitimate Charity's Deceptive Practices

Written message is unclear. Does the  Hebrew match the English translation?
In just a few days, the new year will be upon us. As most religious Jews know, this is a time of reflection and prayer.  The sages tell us that on the first day of the year, the heavenly decree with respect to the future of every single human being is written. The new year s also called the Yom HaDin - the day of judgment. We are judged in Heaven by God on how we have lived our lives over the past year. Our future depends on that. 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, the ‘written’ decree  is sealed. These 10 days are called the Aseres Yemei Teshuva – the ten days of repentance.

We appeal to God for mercy in judging us. Both individually and collectively. It is in fact God’s infinite mercy upon which we rely. Which is why in preparation for the new year we begin saying Selichos – prayers and supplications asking God not to judge us on our merit but to show us Divine mercy.  This is why most of us increase the amount of Selichos we say in the period between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. Usually in the morning before Shacharis – our daily morning prayers

Needless to say, for those of us serious about our Judaism this is a somber time. Not a time to celebrate with frivolity as is the case for most of the rest of the world on January first.

Our sages tell us that prayer is one of the three elements that we use to supplicate God for forgiving our transgressions and hopefully granting us a good year.  Another element is actual repentance - expressing regret and committing not to transgress them anymore. The third element is Tzedaka – giving charity.

Unfortunately there are unscrupulous people that take advantage of the latter. Which at this time of year seems to be particularly egregious. In what is probably the widest misuse of tactics for funding an otherwise a very worthy Tzedaka, Kupat Ha’ir seems to stop at nothing to generate funds.

What they have done now, just  few days before the new year is send out an ad (including a video) with a message that Rav Chaim Kanievsky will pray for you – IF – you give them money. (They have also said in his name that preferably people should give $180 per month to them.) From an ad on YWN:
If you give to this important cause, imagine the Rosh Hashanah that you will have, knowing that the gadol Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a is davening on your behalf...
What is well known about R’ Chaim and other rabbinic leaders is that they have said to never believe anything that is said in their name if they did not hear it directly from them. People lie or twist the words of a rabbinic leader to fit their agenda. They assume that since their agenda is supported by the people they lie about, anyway – why not tell a little white lie to enhance that support?

For me a lie is never acceptable just to raise funds – even for a worthy cause. Now they might rationalize this – knowing that R’ Chaim is an enthusiastic supporter of this charity who urges people to donate money to it – therefore justifying their means. But has he actually promised to specifically pray only for a list of people that have donated to Kupat Ha’ir? - I cannot believe this is the case. But even if it is, is that the way you raise money for charity?! By selling the side benefits?! 

You cannot justify a tactic that will cause others to give money they might not be able to afford; or might otherwise give to a different charity  - by using deceptive practices as leverage.

If you have a worthy cause - which I am told Kupat Ha’ir is - they should be urging people to support it based on its own merit only. Not by preying on religious people’s personal problems, fears or desires with promises to have great rabbis pray for  you – IF - you give them money.

This is not the first time Kupat Ha’ir has used the questionable fundraising tactic of preying on people’s fears. They have used versions of it for years. Decades perhaps! And have done much worse.  

Like promising young couples with infertility problems that a great rabbi or group of rabbis will pray for them. Or to promise Shiduchim to  unmarried young women or their parents, that giving them money will help their cause. Each time with a different twist. Like getting the ‘Gedolei HaDor’ to say Tehilim at the Kotel for 40 straight days. Or using some archaic ‘Segulah’ by some 18th century Chasidic Rebbe which requires a certain amount of money be given specifically to a charity like theirs for his Segulah to work.

Why do they keep doing it? The answer must be that it works. People keep giving them money – not necessarily for the sake of the charity itself but for the side benefits promised by it. Side benefits that are deceptively shown to work in ads by using testimonials from the few people that say it worked for them.  

I am not the only one to note this disgusting tactic. People much greater than I have noted it and condemned it. And yet it continues unabated.

How can this kind of thing be allowed to continue? True, the Tzedaka needs are great and money is in short supply. But does this justify deception? With all the bans coming out from rabbinic leaders in Israel, how can they not clearly and specifically ban the type of deception used by this charity?

This does not mean you should refuse to give them your charity dollars - or stop giving it to them if you have been doing so in the past. But it should be for the right reasons and because that is where you want your charity dollars to go. Not because you have been promised prayer on your behalf by a great rabbi if you do.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Holy People or a Bunch of Criminals?

Is this our new image?
I am not a member of Agudah. Nor do I always side with the views and pronouncements of their rabbinic leadership. I am in fact occasionally disappointed at some of what they say and do. And when that happens I generally say so, publicly. However, I never thought – nor do I think now that Agudah’s leadership is anything but L’Shma.

I am not one of those people that sees evil in everything they do. Just the opposite is true. Agudah’s lay leadership (which has the approval of its rabbinic leadership for everything they undertake) has done a lot for Jews of all stripes in this country. They are one of the most effective lobbying agencies in Washington… as they are in a number of state legislatures where a lot of Jews live. Again I don’t agree with every position they ever promoted, But I do agree with most of them.

One of my criticisms in the past has been that Agudah has not focused enough on how Jews should interact with the non Jewish culture in which we live. The way they have treated this subject in the past was to try and avoid that culture as much as possible… treating it like evil incarnate! Contact with that culture should be limited as much as possible - they would say - so as to avoid those evils which could end up infiltrating our own culture.

The problem with constantly characterizing the culture as evil, is that it gives the impression since they are such an evil culture we can cheat their government in financial matters as long as we can get away with it. They come to feel that their ethics are not our ethics and can be ignored. Which can lead to fraudulent conduct by all too many of us.

While the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry does not behave in that manner, unfortunately there has been an increase in the number of us that do. Making matters worse is when religious leaders get caught doing it and then apologize for making a Chilul HaShem. That strengthens the perception that getting caught was the only real problem. Otherwise they would not have done it in the first place. What kind of religious leader would deliberately violate Halacha for purposes of money – even if it is only to fund his religious and charitable institutions? It therefore must be OK from a Halachic standpoint. Because it is only the Chilul HaShem that we have to worry about, Not our behavior towards people and governments whose culture is so evil.

Unfortunately that has caused an explosion of fraudulent behavior among Orthodox Jews.
I was sent a video by Avi Schick, an attorney who is a lay leader in Agudah. It was of his address at an Agudah 'Yom Iyun - Emes and the Law' which he titled ‘Yashrus and Kashrus’.

It was a well attended event. And it was recorded for as wide a distribution as possible. His address was eye opening on several accounts. It was frank and it addressed the specific concern of fraudulent behavior by Orthodox Jews. The goal was to change the culture from one that tolerates such behavior to one that abhors it!

The primary point Avi made was one that I have made here before. More than once. That all too often Jews that are meticulous about ritual behavior are cavalier about dealing with their non Jewish neighbors, or government.

Many Frum Jews are careful to be stringent about things like Shabbos and Kashrus. Like not opening a bottle of pop (that’s soda - for all you New Yorkers out there) because you may be creating a Keli (vessel) out of the cap on Shabbos. Or using only Chalav Yisroel products and not relying on the Heter of Rav Moshe Feinstein with respect to Chalav Stam - milk produced by this country’s non Jewish dairies.

But when it comes to dealing with the government, the opposite attitude can be found in those same people. They will look for any loophole in the law to take advantage of. No being stringent there! Why? The rationale is that we are dealing with an evil culture anyway - so why not if you can get away with it?

Avi said that his law practice has seen a substantial increase in the number of ‘Frumme Yidden’ that are being investigated by the government. When he started his practice he had none! …no Frum clients at all.. Today, a very large percentage of his practice are Frum Jews and Mosdos (Orthodox institutions)! His non Jewish employees are now used to seeing Jews that are meticulous about things like Kashrus coming into the office because they are being investigated by the government! So common are such meetings that they are used to a routine that accommodates Frum Jews.

Avi suspects that on the minds of these non Jewish employees who see this parade of Orthodox Jewish clients is the question about why this religion of ours that has so many rules and regulations - doesn’t have anything to say about the conduct that brought the client there in the first place!

The video below is about 25 minutes long. It is well worth watching for several reasons. Among them is to realize that there are a lot more problems like this in the Orthodox world than most of us might think there are; to understand why such behavior is wrong; to try and change the culture from one that tolerates such behavior to one that abhors it; and to see that Agudah realizes that a thing like this in the Frum world is so bad that they felt moved to address it in such a public way. 

Yom Iyun Emes and the Law Avi Schick from Agudath Israel on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Shimon Peres of Blessed Memory

Shimon Peres and Barack Obama at a 2014 meeting in DC (JTA/Getty Images)
I will miss him. 

It is a sad day for the Jewish people. With the passing of Shimon Peres, we find ourselves bereft of all the original pioneers of the State of Israel. Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Meir, Begin, Rabin, Dayan… all gone.  

A generation passes and a new generation arises. Rarely replacing the greatness of the previous generation. Peres was a member of what has been called the greatest generation. They were people that were called upon for great sacrifice and rose to the occasion unlike anyone in our day. 

I often speak about the last generation of Gedolim – rabbinic leaders of the past that have no equals in our day.  In the realm of nation building, sacrifice, and dedication, Peres has no equals in our day either.

Many know him from his long political life in Israel serving in government in many capacities. Including as Prime Minister and President. Others will remember him as the architect of Israel’s nuclear program. Still others will remember him for winning the Noble Peace Prize along with Itzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat. Or they might remember him for being honored in America with the American Presidential Medal of Honor. And there are those who will remember him for his pursuit for peace which generated his participation in the Oslo Accords. Which outlined a plan for peace intended to end decades of conflict with the Arabs. All true and worthy of note. 

For me, the warm relationship he had with the Yeshiva world is just as memorable. I do not believe he was observant. At least not in the Orthodox sense of the word. But that did not diminish his respect and even admiration for those that were and dedicated their lives to Torah study. Matzav  - in their tribute to Peres put it this way: 
Peres had a special connection with the chareidi public. The gedolei Yisroel, both today and those of the previous generation, will never forget his status as the patron of the yeshiva world. Peres was responsible for the original arrangement that allowed yeshiva bochurim to be exempt from the draft, an arrangement that is still in place today. Whenever the status quo was challenged by various voices in the country – usually on the grounds that there were only 400 yeshiva students when Ben-Gurion agreed to the arrangement, while there are now tens of thousands of bochurim,kein yirbu – it was always Peres who spoke out in favor of it. 
After his recent stroke, his illness did not go unnoticed. He was visited in the hospital by politicians (even those that were his political opponents) and rabbis. There is no doubt about his contributions to Judaism, to Israel and to peace. That the peace he sought was so elusive can in no way be attributed to him. He was a man of principle who fought just as hard for peace as he did for the right of Israel to exist, to be strong, and to be a home for all of the Jewish people.

Peres surely had his critics on the right. But agree or disagree - no one can deny his genuine contributions and sincere pursuit of peace. Although I no longer consider it possible as things stand now, I for one supported his pursuit of peace. Even if it meant implementing the Oslo Accords - if it would have produced a true and lasting peace. With no more violence between us and no more wars.  

It won’t happen. But one can dream. One can dream the dream of a Shimon Peres that a true and lasting peace would be a boon to Israel, the Jewish people, the entire Middle East and even the world. Alas, it’s a dream. A very elusive one. We will probably have to wait for Moshiach for that dream to come true.

The tributes are coming in from around the world including the Vatican. Even Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had some nice things to say about him. One of the most impassioned tributes is from President Obama as reported in JTA
“Shimon was the essence of Israel itself — the courage of Israel’s fight for independence, the optimism he shared with his wife Sonya as they helped make the desert bloom, and the perseverance that led him to serve his nation in virtually every position in government across the entire life of the State of Israel,” he said.
“Perhaps because he had seen Israel surmount overwhelming odds, Shimon never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors — not even after the heartbreak of the night in Tel Aviv that took Yitzhak Rabin,” referring to the 1995 assassination of Israel’s prime minister by a Jewish extremist.
“A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever,” Obama said in the concluding paragraph. “Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves — to the very end of our time on Earth, and in the legacy that we leave to others. For the gift of his friendship and the example of his leadership, todah rabah, Shimon.” 
It is relatively rare that a sitting President attends the funeral of a foreign leader. Especially one that has been out of office for a while. That honor usually goes to the Vice President. But President Obama will be personally attending that funeral to be held this Friday along with many other world leaders, including Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and England’s Prince Charles.

Shimon Peres surely had his critics. Mostly on the right side of Israel’s  political spectrum. But I believe that there is not a responsible politician in the world that didn’t respect him and his lifetime of contributions to the Jewish people. May His memory be a blessing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A House Divided

Israeli Chief Rabbis Yaakov Yosef and David Lau
A few days ago I strongly criticized the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s treatment of converts to Judaism. Converts whose legitimacy was certified by no less a Posek than Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beis Din of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).

This was (and still is) reprehensible on 2  counts. One - it violated the Torah’s prohibition against mistreating legitimate converts to Judaism. And two – it dishonored a Zaken. Rav Schwartz is an elder – a rabbinic leader who is a major Talmud Chacham and a widely respected Posek.

It was this act that caused me to re-examine my support for that religious body as it exists now. I had concluded that unless there was a retraction of its invalidation of Rabbi Schwartz’s certification, and a public apology was made to the converts and to Rav Schwartz, it is the Chief rabbinate themselves that has lost its legitimacy as the rabbinic authority of religious matters in Israel.

There has however been a development about who in the Chief Rabbinate hierarchy is responsible for that deplorable behavior. I have been informed through an intermediary that a high ranking official at the RCA explained the situation as one of incompetence. Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi has rejected the protocols set by his predecessor, Rav Shlomo Amar whose knowledge about the American rabbinate enabled him to decide who to trust - and who not to trust - to certify the legitimacy of a conversion.

This was in addition to the agreement made between the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate about standardizing conversions standards. Back in 2008, the RCA had set up the Geirus Policies and Standards conversion system (GPS).  They certified only those conversion courts that followed these standards. The GPS protocals were acceptable to the Chief Rabbinate. On that basis all converts certified by the RCA after the GPS was set up would be automatically accepted as legitimate by them. 

What about those that were converted prior to that? Since there had been abuses by some RCA members that performed questionable conversions, the Chief Rabbinate had made provisions that trustworthy rabbis could certify which of them were are legitimate.

Rabbi Amar knew which rabbis could be trusted to do that. Chief among them, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz. Rabbi Amar’s successor, Rav Yosef, had no such knowledge and decided to no longer grant automatic recognition to such conversion no matter who certified them, thus reneging on the agreement made with the RCA. 

It has now come to light that Rabbi Yosef’s counterpart, Asheknazi Chief Rabbi David Lau disagrees with him. He   was quoted in the Jerusalem Post* saying the following: 

“approvals issued by the Beth Din of America and signed by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz should be recognized, …and should be relied upon for the purposes of approving [conversion] certificates which are received from the US.” 
The Department of Marriage and Conversion is under R’ Yosef’s jurisdiction and is run by Rabbi Itamar Tubul. The Post reports that sources in the Chief Rabbinate are saying that R’ Yosef instructed Rabbi Tubal to follow his directive: 

On Sunday, a spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate said that every case requiring conversion verification from the US “is examined on an individual basis,” and that “there are no all-inclusive approvals or rejections,” indicating that the Chief Rabbinate, under Yosef’s direction, no longer considers the 2008 agreement to be binding.  
This does help explain what’s behind this outrage. But it does not make matters much better. It’s nice to know that there are more reasoned leaders there. But if the two top rabbis are in dispute over such a fundamental issue it serves no one. Least of all those Jews whose legitimacy has been put into question.

I applaud Rabbi Lau’s position. But unless he can convince his Sephardi counterpart, R’ Yosef to restore the agreement with the RCA made by his predecessor, the rabbinate remains in a state of uncertainty and ineffectiveness. 

Rabbis are certainly allowed to disagree. But when that disagreement is on an issue that is so fundamental to the very nature of the state - who is and isn’t a Jew - it diminishes the confidence its citizens have in it in all other matters. 

The Rabbinate must restore that agreement, and apologizes to those hurt by R’ Yosef’s apparent willful ignorance. If this does not happen, I remain skeptical of it as the ultimate religious authority in the Jewish State. Anything they may say or do in the future should in my view - be completely ignored. And a new Chief Rabbinate should be established that does not have the kind of hubris that one of its leaders appears to have. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

*I have not linked to that article in the Jerusalem Post. I believe it may be infected by a virus.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Condemnable Act

Thousands of Jews protesting Israel at the UN  last week (Matzav)
There is a story about the Satmar Rebbe, R’ Yoel Teitelbaum that goes something like this:

When in 1968 Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to visit the Satmar Rebbe seeking his support for election to the Presidency, he asked the Rebbe what he could do for him. The Satmar Rebbe is purported to have said "Sell weapons to Israel!". People in attendance later asked the Rebbe, ‘How can you have advised Humphrey that way - when we know you are opposed to the State?’ The Rebbe supposedly answered that we have a disagreement with our family members but we don't want to see them hurt’. Supposedly the Rebbe added that when a Jew criticizes Israel it is anti Zionism. When a non Jew does that, it’s antisemitism.

One might admire the fact that the Rebbe did not let his antipathy to the State of Israel get in the way of protecting the people living there. And that he rightly labeled non Jewish critics of Israel – antisemites. One could admire that  if it were true. But apparently it never happened. The true story went something like this:

Humphrey visited the Rebbe and was treated cordially as he spoke about his support for Israel. The Rebbe listened to him without saying much. After leaving, the Rebbe was asked why he didn’t tell Humphrey that he was opposed to Israel. His answer was rhetorical, “What should I do, tell him about the Shalosh Shevuous (the 3 oaths mentioned in the Gemara which form the theological basis for his opposition to the State)?”

Was Rav Kook an Ish Tzar V'Oyev?
When asked whether a non Jew’s anti Zionism was tantamount to antisemitism he said, ‘No’. The video below explains all this – debunking the urban legend about the difference between the Satmar Rebbe’s public versus private persona vis-à-vis Israel. If the Rebbe was anything, he was consistent in his vitriol for the state.

As I’ve pointed out many times, his published statement that Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook was an Ish Tzar V’Oyev - which basically compares him to Hitler - underscores that vitriol.

I have always maintained that it is the Satmar Rebbe himself that inspired people from extremists groups like Neturei Karta. Some of whose members have embraced Holocaust denying antisemites like former Iranian President Ahmad Amadinijad who along with Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei has called for the annihilation of the Jewish state.

But Neurei Karta is not the alone in harboring this attitude. It is the same as the current Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, R’ Zalman Leib Teitelbaum - and virtually all of his tens of thousands (if not more) Chasidim.

When I have made this accusation in the past, I was severely criticized for it. The claim was that even though they did not support the state, they would never make the kind of Chilul HaShem that those ‘Ahmadinijad kissing’ Neturei Kartaniks did! Well, apparently my critics have been proven wrong. Because as reported by Matzav - last Thursday in front of the United Nations at exactly the moment that Israel’s sitting prime minister spoke, the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg succeeded in hosting thousands of his Chasidim in public protest against Israel. The supposed purpose was to oppose the new draft laws – which have already been defanged to the point of irrelevance by the very person they protested against.

They are of course entitled to express their views in public no different than any antisemite would. It’s called free speech. But I am also free to condemn it in public as a massive Chilul HaShem with the potential to do great damage to the Jewish people. Not to mention the fact that it could end up endangering the lives of all of Israel’s residents, including the many Satmar Chasidim that live there. 

That the US is now at its peak level of support to the Jewish State is based in large part (albeit not exclusively) on how the current politicians perceive American Jewish support of it. God in His infinite wisdom has given under 2% of the population tremendous influence on how their government treats Israel. 

But that support is not automatic. There are plenty of politicians in office that could easily turn on us. Some because they are closet antisemites, and some because they see the Arab world as a far more important strategic partner because of their oil and their exponentially greater  numbers. When these people see that many Jews – Jews that appear and claim to be the most religious among us protesting the state, that might turn the tide of support. Or at least lessen it to the point of reduced aid or elimination of aid altogether. It might also embolden more of those those politicians to support BDS which is increasingly becoming exposed as a purely anti Israel movement - and not just anti ‘West Bank settlement’ movement. 

I can’t blame the Chasidim themselves. They have been indoctrinated to see Israel only in the way the Satmar Rebbe sees it. In the rare circumstance that any of their Chasidim might see things differently, such dissent is not tolerated. That is the nature of relying on a supreme religious leader – whose views they see as Godly. If the Rebbe says it’s so, it is so. Period! End of discussion! Which is why so many Chasidim showed up for that protest.

What makes this protest so worse than those Neturei Karta protests is that Satmar is one of the fastest growing Jewish demographics in the world. They are multiplying exponentially with each succeeding generation - hating the Jewish state as much as their founder did. And becoming more public about it in greater numbers than ever. True - what Neturei Karta has done by raising he Palestinain flag, or attending pro Palestinians rallies, or by going to Iran to support their anti Israel views - are by themselves much worse acts. But they can be chalked up to a few crazies. When thousands of people show up to protest Israel at the UN during the prime minister’s speech - it is mainstream Chasidim doing it.

I therefore cannot condemn what they have done here enough. Unfortunately I am just a lone voice. And I’m sure there will be those that somehow find ways to defend them – adding to the Chilul HaShem – and the danger it may bring! 

I only wish other more prominent voices in the Jewish world would join me. It is time to once and for all sever any ties to this community and let the world know that Satmar does not speak for the Jewish people. Not even the Orthodox ones. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Chief Rabbinate's Folly

Rav Gedaia Dov Schwartz
Israel needs a Chief Rabbinate. If we are going to have a Jewish country, it has to be Jewish in more than name only - or even as a culture. It has to based on the very thing that makes the Jewish people a distinct nation, the Torah. Without which we are not a distinct people at all. It is the Torah that separates us from the rest of the world and gives us the right to exist as an independent nation in the land of Israel. As I often  heard Rav Ahron Soloveichik say, ‘Without the Torah, the Arabs would be right’. We have no more right to that land than the Arabs. 

But there is a Torah that gave us the land of Israel.We therefore have every right to be there – as a Jewish State. And defining that is key. Without a body that can interpret what does and does not make us  Jewish, we may as well just give up the title ‘Jewish State’. 

So when the issue of conversion to Judaism came up, I supported the idea of a central governing authority that would assure that all conversions to Judaism are legitimate. To an Orthodox Jew there is no other legitimate expression of Judaism than Orthodoxy. Which is defined as full acceptance of fundamental principles of our faith and uncompromising fealty to Halacha as interpreted by the most learned rabbis of each generation.

In furtherance of that goal the Chief Rabbinate has strengthened its control over what is and is not an acceptable conversion and has fought all non Orthodox movements attempts to have their conversions recognized. They have further coordinated their efforts with the North American rabbis in both the right wing and Centrist camp. The latter of which is represented by the RCA. 

The RCA for its part tightened up its own conversions by certifying which of their conversion courts’ converts would be considered legitimate. This needed to be done. I am personally aware of wholesale conversions in the past by certain Orthodox members of the American rabbinate that by most standards were sham conversions – done to satisfy parents who could not face the fact that their child was marrying out. This move has for the most part ended that practice.

Unfortunately the Chief Rabbinate has apparently not been the honest broker that these steps should have made them. There has been more than one instance where legitimate Orthodox converts have been rejected by them. In some cases there was some back-pedaling where those that had been rejected had later been deemed legitimate after all.

But that problem has not been solved. I don’t know what it is, but I suspect that there is a lot of incompetence in the rabbinate. Because in my view the unthinkable happened. If the story in Ha’aretz as reported in the Forward is true, one of America’s most Torah knowledgeable and ethical elder rabbis has been dishonored. Not just any rabbi, but the sitting head of the RCA Beis Din, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz: 
The haredi Orthodox-dominated rabbinate rejected the conversions approved by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, according to documents obtained by Haaretz
Itamar Tubul, who heads the rabbinate’s conversion department, rejected three conversions approved by Schwartz. He accepted a fourth, but it was turned down by the rabbinate.
Ultimately, the four converts in question were not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, according to Haaretz.
All of the converts had approval letters signed by Schwartz, according to Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy. 
I could not agree more with the reaction of the RCA: 
Rabbi Shalom Bau, president of the RCA, said, “We have already begun an investigation into this latest disgrace and we demand a thorough report of how this could happen.” 
To call this a disgrace is an understatement. In my view this casts the entire current  enterprise of the Chief Rabbinate into question. They either have no clue what they are doing, or have let power go to their heads. Or both. I have been defending them albeit with some reservation because I believed they were acting in the best interests of the Jewish people. Even when they made some mistakes – which they clearly did. Some of which were corrected. Mistakes happen and as long as there is a good faith effort to correct them, I stood behind them. But this goes too far.

I hate to admit it, but all of the critics of the Rabbinate as currently constructed and empowered seem to have been right all along! If this is not corrected… if their decision is not reversed with a public apology to Rav Schwartz, they have lost all legitimacy in my eyes. 

That said, I am still a strong believer in the need for a Chief Rabbinate for the reasons I mentioned above. But not this one.  They are an embarrassment to the Jewish people! If they don’t change their ways, I call upon them to disband and be replaced by a new Chief Rabbinate - or at the very least I call for the resignation of those in leadership positions responsible for this kind of behavior to be replaced by rabbis that have a lot more integrity than they appear to have.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Chabad Outreach Model

Havdalah ceremony at a Crown Heights campus outreach event (RNS)
What should the goal of Orthodox outreach be to non Orthodox Jews? At first blush one might be tempted to say to convince them to become observant. Obviously it would be an ideal scenario to be able to convince God’s chosen people to obey His directives. Which He set forth in His Torah as interpreted by rabbinic leaders throughout history.

In some cases that does happen. But as Lubavitch-Chabad will tell you a very tiny slice of non Orthodox Jew that they reach out to, actually become fully observant. What Chabad will also tell you, somewhat surprisingly, is that full observance is not necessarily their goal. Or at least not their only goal.

‘Who is actually fully observant anyway?’ …they might ask. Every Jew sins. Some more. Some less. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived – sinned, as the Torah quite explicitly tells us.

Their goal is to connect Jews to their Judaism enough so that they will want to do more. They start small and hope that Jews looking for truth will seek to constantly improve their level of observance – as we all should. The best way for someone to become fully observant is do it incrementally – at their own pace. Doing it all at once is often disastrous. Going from no observance at all to becoming fully observant all at once is a prescription for failure in many cases. The change is too drastic.

This is a lesson all outreach organizations must learn, if they don’t already know it. I believe the successful ones do.

Which brings me to an article by Menachem Wecker in Religion News Service about a study of 2,400 Jewish graduates and their interactions with Chabad. It was led by Mark Rosen, an associate professor at Brandeis University. It  might surprise people to find that so many of the Jews Chabad caters to, are not observant at all. And yet Chabad never harangues them for not making any progress towards further observance. Chabad believes that whatever progress they make – even if it is just instilling pride in their Jewishness where it wasn’t there before – is considered a success. 
Only 15 of the 2,400 respondents said they joined ranks and identify as Chabad. About 88 percent of those who visited Chabad at least once do not identify as Orthodox. 
According to the article, Chabad has 3500 centers in more than 85 countries! That is quite an accomplishment. If the percentages of Jews becoming observant through Chabad is the same as it is with the graduates of Brandeis, that is less than one percent! One might therefore question whether all that effort is worth it.

Well, of course it is. 1% is better than 0%. And that 1% adds up to a lot of Jews.Aside from that - their goal of just instilling pride in fellow Jews about their heritage is alone worth the effort. It is also true that any successful outreach first requires instilling pride in one's heritage. And even if they never become personally observant at all, they may be motivated to better educate their children Jewishly. If they don’t do that - at the very least they will appreciate their kindness and their not being judgmental thus in many cases becoming Chabad supporters for life.

There may be some that are turned off by Chabad and will go the other way. But my guess is that this is a very small percentage of those Chabad comes into contact with.

What many people don’t realize is that when Chabad sees a Jew becoming observant through their efforts,  they consider that a milestone no matter which Hashkafa they choose. This does not mean they don’t prefer that Jew become a Lubavitcher. They do. And they work towards that goal, too.

To that end, their outreach is specifically designed toward Chabad Chasidism. Their outreach includes teaching Jews uneducated about their Judaism - customs specific to Chabad but not necessarily mainstream. Without making that distinction. 

An example of that is their view that every woman in a household (even young girls under the age of 12) should light candles for Shabbos. Signs to that effect can be seen everywhere. However, the prevailing mainstream custom is that only the female head of the household (usually the mother) light candles. Chabad's approach steers their outreach prospects unwittingly to include Chabad customs without their realizing it is only a Chabad custom.

If I have any quibble with them (aside from the Messianism issue which is beyond the scope of this post) it is that. The vast majority of the Jews they have successfully convinced to become observant - become Lubavitchers. Chabad will argue that since they are doing the outreach, they have the right to persuade them to become Lubavitchers too.

I get that. But I just wish they would explain that not all the customs of Lubavitcjh are universal to all Orthodox Hashkafos – and show them all the options. This is what NCSY does in their outreach work. Those who become observant through NCSY can be found in just about all Hashkafic segments of Orthodoxy including Chabad. NCSY does not favor one Hashkafa over another. They favor only the ‘fit’ of an individual to a Hashkafa. In my view this is a better approach.

But you can’t argue with success. Nor can you argue with the kinds of religious goals they set. Nor the fact that they retain a positive relationship with every single Jew with they have had any interaction. Even if they do not become observant at all. Nor with the massive numbers of Jews that have become observant through them which probably outnumbers all the Jews that became observant through other outreach programs combined! On this level we all have a lot to learn from them.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Right Choice

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman superimposed on an image of YU (Forward)
“Two years ago, the school lost $83 million. Last year it lost another $84 million. And six months ago Moody’s reported that it expects the school’s financial condition to continue to deteriorate.” This excerpt from a Forward article by Josh Nathan-Kazis in the Forward underscores the question he asks in the title: “Can New President Ari Berman Save Yeshiva University?

Losing $167 million in two years ain’t beanbag. Institutions with major budgets like those of Yeshiva University cannot survive if things keep going in that direction. Which is what Moody expects to happen. Of course Josh is not the first one to publish these concerns. Forward columnist Bethany Mandel asked the same question in a previous Forward article – asserting that Rabbi Berman was the wrong man for the job. And that in order to avoid the school’s collapse, YU needs a money man rather than a scholar at its helm. I hear her point. But I cannot agree with her conclusions despite what seems to be the catastrophic financial crisis YU is in.

It’s true that the survival of YU supersedes the Centrist Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada it promotes. If there is no school, it can’t promote its Hashkafa. But the reverse is also true. If a President is hired based strictly on his fund raising ability – the Hashkafa of the school can easily be compromised. At the very least it will have no direction and no one at the helm to articulate its ideals. YU’s centerpiece – its essence - is Yeshiva (RIETS). From which all else flows. That could be reduced to just another program of the university. Which would in my view be a disaster.

It is true that  both the Yeshiva and the University are essential to the core value of Torah U’Mada. But the primary function of a Yeshiva University should be the Yeshiva. Torah study is the primary value in Torah U’Mada. Mada (secular knowledge) is secondary, albeit of high value and to be studied diligently. It cannot be the reverse.

Current YU president Richard Joel’s immediate predecessor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm,  knew that. He should be seen as the prototype for all future Presidents. That is the kind of President YU needs now. He articulated best YU’s mission and philosophy. He was the rabbi/scholar hired to replace another giant, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin.

When Dr. Lamm took over, YU was in financial crisis as well. I don’t know if the crisis was of current magnitude, but YU was definitely in deficit mode. Yeshiva University’s directors could have gone the financial route then too. It may have been the prudent thing to do, considering that without funding, YU might have eventually closed its doors. And yet they chose a scholar. Not a fundraiser.

Dr.Lamm rose to the occasion. Under his tenure, YU’s financial fortunes were reversed. By the time of his retirement, they had a surplus instead of a deficit. At the same time YU’s philosophy was not only maintained but clarified and promoted by its president. He was not only a scholar but a Talmud Chacham. This is what the image of YU president should be.

What about the financial crisis? Ye of little faith! Being a scholar does not mean you cannot rise to meet the financial needs of the school. Dr. Lamm proved that. To the best of my knowledge he had little to no fundraising experience and yet was able to put YU on its financial feet – and then some! Torah  and Mada are not mutually exclusive. And neither is Torah knowledge, scholarship, and fundraising ability.

In my view someone like Rabbi Ari Berman is the right man for this job. Like Dr. Lamm, he was a pulpit rabbi before he became YU’s president. And like Dr. Lamm he is both a scholar and a Talmud Chacham. Ironically both men served as rabbi at the same synagogue before coming to YU. Although Rabbi Berman had a bit of a detour – living in Israel where he received his PhD from Hebrew University, that just adds to his resume in my view.

We are at a pivotal time in Jewish History. There are many forces pulling us in opposite directions. The left is trying to pull us away from tradition while the right pursues an ever increasing type of insularity. There has to be a strong institution with a strong leader at its helm that resides in the center – living and loving Torah while engaging with the rest of the world without compromising our values. That will be to our benefit and to theirs.

That is what I believe YU’s mandate should be. It has been and still is considered the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. Perhaps the only ‘ship’ of Modern Orthodoxy. YU should lead the way and be a light unto ourselves, the Jewish people, and to the world. At the helm of such an institution you cannot place a fundraiser. You need someone with a background and credentials that can articulate the mission of the school. That was Rabbi Dr. Lamm.  And that is what I believe Rabbi Dr. Berman could be – given the chance.

What about the money? You have to have faith in quality people that they will to rise to the occasion. Based on what I have read about him, I believe Rabbi Berman is that man. I agree with his vision of Achdus. It is the right message for our time. I will end with an excerpt from the Forward that excerpted my own excerpt of a Cross Currents excerpt from Jewish Action magazine - to which I say Amen:   
(Rabbi Berman’s Hashkafos published in old edition of) Jewish Action magazine, resurfaced this week in the widely read Orthodox blog Emes Ve-Emunah. In the 2-decades-old article, written while he was at The Jewish Center, Berman advocates solidarity between the Modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. “The more we emphasize this for ourselves and develop intra-Orthodox programs that focus on our common bond of Torah and mitzvot, the more likely it will be that we can develop into one united community,” 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Objectifying Women and Women as Rabbis

Shabbos without mothers or daughters (TOI)
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a friend. I met her on my last trip to Israel. She is an intelligent woman whose sense of fairness and justice I admire. I often agree with her view on how certain segments of Orthodoxy treat women. But sometimes I don’t. Her latest contribution to the public discourse is featured in the Times of Israel and demonstrates both.

Shoshanna discusses two entirely different aspects of how women are treated and asserts that in both cases, there are great injustices being done. I agree with her on the first and disagree on the second. I have discussed both issues in the past. She knows my views.

First there is the issue of erasing women entirely from the public square. I am with her on this 100%. Her point is that it has become increasingly popular in right wing circles to erase women from the public square.

In the more extreme right of certain Chasidic groups this has always been the case.  But this idea has been slowly creeping into the mainstream. Orthodox publications that in the past have had no Halachic - or even Hashkafic - issue with publishing pictures of modestly dressed are now beginning to restrict them.

Not long ago, for example, Agudah published 2 pictures of a group of Agudah activists that were in Washington DC. One picture had all of the participants in it. And one had the women photo-shopped out of it. They did this to accommodate those who wanted to publish a picture but do not publish pictures of women.

The Agudah Moetzes apparently see nothing wrong with publishing pictures of women. And even though I disagree with them about photo-shopping women out of a picture, I understand why they did it. They did it out of respect.  So that to those who will not publish such pictures they offered a photo-shopped version of it sans women. They simply want the publicity in as many Orthodox publications as they can get.

We are beginning to witness this type of censorship more than ever. It’s almost becoming the norm. 2 major Charedi magazines refuse to do it even though they know there is nothing wrong with it.  Why? What possible reasons does even the extreme right have for not publishing pictures of women?

They will explain it a question of Shmiras Eynayim – guarding your eyes. Men are too easily enticed by the sight of a woman – even in a picture. To avoid being a Michshol – a stumbling block to their male readers they have simply avoided publishing any pictures, not matter how modestly a woman is dressed. That normal men are not enticed by the sight of a modestly dressed woman seems to be lost on them. In our day women are as much in the public square as men. We all encounter each other all the time in all places. Which kind of makes eliminating pictures of women for purposes of Michsol ridiculous. Shoshanna also notes another argument they make. That they do this as:   
a direct response to the permissiveness and sexualization of women in contemporary society and a way to protect them from men’s inevitable attractions. 
That one segment of Orthodoxy still feels this way is up to them. However, once other segments start doing it, it hurts all of us. How does it hurt? Shoshanna explains: 
Erasing the female form objectifies women just as much as the secular world’s overexposure does. And removing all images of mothers and daughters implies that a normal nonsexual image is somehow lewd and improper. And so we end up with images of Shabbat tables with no mother or daughters. 
I am in complete agreement with her on this. But then she touches on an entirely different subject. Which has been the source of much controversy: leadership positions (as in rabbis) for women in the realm of Orthodoxy.

There I am in total disagreement with her. But not for the reasons she suggests. She believes strongly that women should be able to do whatever a man does as long as they are physically and intellectually capable of doing it - limited only by Halacha. In principle I agree with her. Outside of Orthodox Judaism, the only qualifications for any position in the world are the 2 things I mentioned: physical and intellectual capacity. Gender should not be a factor at all. But when it comes to leadership positions in Orthodoxy that is another story.

I have no personal issue with a female rabbi. I have mentioned this before. When I was a rabbinic student in the early 70’s I wrote an essay in a now defunct Chicago Jewish publication advocating the ordination of women. I saw no problem with it then. But I failed to consider the break with Mesorah (tradition) this would be. Although there are other reasons breaking with Mesorah is the one most frequently given by those opposed to  it.

For me, the more important issue is the broad based opposition to it by virtually all of mainstream Orthodox leadership. The one thing my opposition is not based on is misogyny. To imply that there are misogynistic reasons for my opposition is insulting.

Like it or not, unless there is legitimate dissent among the Poskim - we do have to listen to the majority rabbinic leadership in cases where their agreement crosses Hashkafic lines. And that is the case here. Even if there is a legitimate opinion by a Daas Yachid – a rabbi of stature who can show them why they are wrong. 

At the risk of citing an analogy to illustrate this point - there is a famous story of the Tanur Shel Achnoi in the Gemarah in Bava Metzia (59b). God gave man the rabbinic authority to do decide matters of Halacha using certain hermeneutic principles. When they arrive at a decision based on them – it is the law even if they are proven wrong by a rabbi of stature. The highly respected rabbi in the Gemarah that tried that was excommunicated!

The opposition to female leadership roles in Orthodoxy is just about universal except for the extreme left. You can’t assert your views against that kind of opposition no matter how knowledgeable you are or how righteous  you view your cause.

This is not to say that women can’t have any public role in Orthodoxy. They can and they do. But there has to be a consensus… an acceptance by at least some legitimate rabbinic segment of Orthodoxy if not all of them.  This is the case with Yoetzet Halacha - which I support. As it stands now, only the most extreme left wing of Orthodoxy accepts women as rabbis. (Some would argue that segment is no longer even Orthodox).

What about the prophetess Devorah? Was she not a leader? How could she as a woman do it while we say a woman today cannot? The answer is quite simple. She was a prophetess and accepted by all. Being a prophetess puts her into an entirely different category that even the brightest and most talented woman or man in our day! But perhaps more importantly - Devorah was accepted by all! She was the exception that proved the rule.

I cannot therefore support Shoshanna in this. It has nothing to do with my own personal views. It has to do with acceptance. If a woman is not going to be accepted by virtually all of the mainstream leadership, then she cannot be considered a leader in Klal Yisroel no matter how many laypeople or individual rabbis on the left do.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Who Will Be More Effective Against Terror?

The recent spate of exploding bombs in New York and New Jersey (and a series of stabbings by an Islamist radical in Minnesota - making sure that his victims were not Muslims) once again raises the question of how safe we are from terrorist attacks.

After 9/11 unprecedented steps were taken by the US government to protect us from the kind of savagery perpetrated by suicidal radical Islamists on that day in 2001. Including the creation of the new cabinet level Department of Homeland Security.  For the most part this has kept us relatively safe. At least when compared to European countries. But being ‘relatively’ safe is not the same as being safe – as this weekend has shown.

Thankfully no one was killed or seriously injured from those bombs. But the same cannot be said about other attacks this country has experienced from radical Islam. Boston, Orlando, San Bernardino, among other locations have experienced terrible carnage at the hands of those ‘true believers’.

As much as security has been increased in this country ...and as much as we seem to be safer than Europe, we are not free from the terrorism that is Radical Islam.

One may ask, ‘How can we improve our security?’ What can we do to eliminate or at least significantly reduce the incidence of deadly terror that hasn’t been done yet? This brings me to the current Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Most people know that I am voting for Clinton… or more precisely against Trump. The reason is quite simple. As bad as Clinton might be, Trump scares me. I don’t want his impetuous hand on the nuclear trigger. Nor do I like his seat of the pants decision making process. Or his waffling on the issues while denying his views have ever changed. Or the other blatant lies which he refuses to acknowledge. Or his penchant for insulting women, immigrants, and the handicapped among others. Or his support from racists, bigots, and antisemites like Louis Farrakhan and David Duke. Or his lack of any experience governing. Or his obvious lack of knowledge on many issues of the day. Any one of those reasons is enough to reject his candidacy, let alone all of them. But I’ve said all this before.

There is one area, however, where his rhetoric is far more appealing. It is his determination to more effectively deal with Radical Islam. While it is true that he has not revealed his plans about how to do that, I like his attitude. So does the electorate, apparently. Mrs. Clinton’s double digit lead in the polls over Trump has completely evaporated. (Although that's probably due as much to her e-mail troubles, her own penchant for lying, health issues, and some foolish statements about Trump voters - as it is to his anti terror rhetoric).This means that half of the voting public in this country prefers Trump over Clinton! And no... half of them are not ‘deplorables’.

I have said in the past that based strictly on what I believe to be a better attitude towards Israel and its current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, I would vote for Trump enthusiastically. Add to that his greater determination to fight radical Islam, and it would otherwise be a no brainer.

But there are those other ‘little details’ I mentioned. So the ‘no brainer’ is to vote for Clinton. I just wish she would be a little more ‘Trump-like’ in her approach to radical Islam. The initial responses of the two candidates to the bombings in New York and New Jersey tells you the story. 

Trump said that we have to get tougher. Clinton said we need to examine the facts before we make any conclusions. Well… of course we have to examine the facts. But I did not hear any determination in her voice. Not this time and not really ever. What I have heard is a lot of gobbledygook about how it isn’t Islam doing this. It is just Jihadists doing it… as though Islam had nothing to do with it.

First let me reiterate what I have said many times. Most Muslims abhor what is being done by Islamist radicals in the name of their religion. The vast majority of the mainstream Islamic community – both lay leaders and clerics - have forcefully condemned it each time it has happened.

I live among Muslims here in West Roger Park. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t see several women dressed in Burkas walking down the street. They do not bother me in the slightest. They are as peaceful as can be... and very polite on those occasions when I interact with them. In fact there is a Muslim owned and operated grocery store near my home that has a sign in its window saying they carry products bearing an OU, OK, or CRC kosher symbol! 

But you cannot get away from the fact that in just about every single case of recent terror in Europe and in the US, the perpetrators were motivated by a version of Islam that is preached by numerous Islamist clerics all over the world. This is an Islamic problem despite protestation to the contrary by peaceful Muslims and political apologists like Hillary Clinton.

What can Clinton do? …one might ask.  Even if she granted that the problem is sourced in a radical version of Islam (which she hasn’t done and probably never will)? Well for one thing she should be advocating for the kind of extreme vetting of Muslims entering this country that Trump is advocating - and not increasing the quota of Muslim refugees.

Still, my heart goes out to these refugees, the vast majority of whom are suffering the ravages of war and are not terrorists. Of course this Medina Shel Chesed – benevolent nation - should be taking in these refugees under normal circumstances.  But these are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measueres.

All it takes is one. All it takes is one radical Islamist to sneak into this country disguised as a refugee and perpetrate the kind of terror experienced last weekend in New York and New Jersey by an immigrant from Afghanistan. 

In this regard, Trump is right. Much as we would like to live up to our reputation as a benevolent country, protecting our citizens comes first. Which is why many states (including my own - Illinois) have barred Muslim refugees from entering. There is a reason Europe has had so much terrorist carnage recently. They have allowed a virtual free flow of Muslim refugees into their country. It was therefore impossible to vet them all properly and Islamist radicals snuck in disguised as refugees. While extreme vetting may not be foolproof, it is a lot better than opening up the floodgates.

Would a Trump presidency improve our security? Will his polices more effectively deal with terror? Will his administration be more adept at ridding the world of ISIS and like minded radical Islamists? I don’t know. But I assume he would be listening a lot more to his hawkish advisers than to his dovish ones… as our current President does.

Hillary Clinton whose overly cautious approach combined with a political correctness - both of which mimics Barack Obama’s approach - will produce the same results we have had till now. The last thing we need is more of the same. Ask the families of the victims in Boston, Orlando, and San Bernardino. 

It’s too bad Trump is so unqualified for the job (for all the reasons I mentioned above – and probably a lot more). Because on the issues of Israel and fighting terror, I like what he’s saying a lot more than what I hear Clinton saying.