Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Truth about YCT

Zev Farber, clearly labeled an Apikores by YCT
Zev Farber is an Apikores, a heretic. This unambiguous statement by YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Y’soscher Katz, is a welcome clarification of YCT’s acceptable parameters of Jewish theology.  Zev Farber is an Apikores because of his characterization of our biblical patriarchs as fictional – never having existed.)

I for one was very gratified to hear one of YCT’s top faculty members say this. It similar to an earlier statement made by YCT President, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. How to deal with heretics in our midst is where I might differ with YCT. But at least the theology itself is clear.

For me at least, that makes YCT’s theology - Orthodox. If one believes in that theology and is observant, they are Orthodox. However, I still have major issues with some of the things YCT does, has said, or supported. (For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.)

I believe that Rabbi Katz is a Yorei Shomayim - a God fearing Jew. This is what I got from an interview with him by Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein on his radio show ‘Headlines’.

And yet, he says things which are problematic. That he does so L’Shma (which I believe to be the case) does not mean that his approach is OK. The fact is much of what he says and advocates is not accepted at all by mainstream Orthodoxy. 

But it helps to understand what his rationale is for doing things the way he does. There is one word for it. Kiruv. That’s right. The sole purpose of YCT is Kiruv. Reaching out to a segment of Jewry that would otherwise reject observance.

These are bright, educated Jews that have little to no religious background but may be drawn to the beauty of an observant lifestyle. And yet they have been heavily influenced by the culture, morals, and ethics of our time. Which in many cases contradicts some of the things written in the Torah (and its interpretation by rabbis throughout the generations).

These Jews cannot reconcile their values with those of the Torah. For them issues like egalitarianism or gay rights are seen as positive values and the Torah’s condemnation of them is seen as archaic, unethical, unfair, and immoral.  They might also value modern scholarship of the bible that rejects  the belief in a ‘Single Author’ in favor of multiple authors at different times. Rabbi Katz maintains that if we do not validate their feelings in some way, they will be lost. Since 90% of Jewry is not observant, we need to make some changes in the way we reach out to them. It’s hard to argue with that.

Where I part company with him is in how we do that. Using shock value to get their attention may work. Like when he said in a Facebook post that a conversation about the events at Sinai by the ‘4 sons’ in the Hagadah never happened. That he clarified it by saying that the conversation never happened; that the 4 sons are mythical; but that the events actually did - can still lead to a misunderstanding that implies the events themselves never happened. 

Another example which is dwelt upon in that interview is in how he says we should approach gay rights. First he qualifies his approach by considering it appropriate to speak with two faces. One to the outside world. And one to ourselves .

When speaking to those of us that are believers and practitioners of Halacha, we are clear about the forbidden nature of homosexual relations. It is in the Torah and there is no question about that. But when speaking in public to non Jews or secular Jews, we put a positive spin on it by approving of things like gay marriage. What  we should be saying, he says, is that opposition to gay rights is a denial of human rights.

This, he continues, is not contradictory to the Torah because it is not advocating or approving forbidden homosexual acts. All it does is approve formalizing in secular ways the companionship between members of the same sex.

In other words we are just looking at the reality of our world today and expressing a way to treat gay people humanely. Rabbi Katz adds that of course we would never speak that way to religious Jews. Nor would he perform a gay marriage himself. He was once asked to do that by a gay couple. He told them he would not do it because it there is no such thing as a gay marriage in Halacha.

The problem with an attitude like this is that it is extremely misleading. A prominent rabbi telling the secular world that Judaism supports gay marriage implies that we accept all facets of it – including the forbidden act itself. That he might explain it as supporting only formally legalizing companionship and not endorsing the actual homosexual act is not what people hear. 

We cannot reach out to Jews by leaving the false impression that modern ethics and morals trump what the Torah clearly says. It is dishonest. One must tell the truth about what the Torah says. We can’t be two faced. We can’t fudge it. Observance based on a lie is not observance at all.  It would be like keeping Kosher for health reasons.  If you don’t eat a cheeseburger because you don’t think it’s healthy, you have not observed Kashrus.

Telling one group of people what they want to hear while telling another group of people what they want to hear is doublespeak and not an ethical way to reach out to people.

Still, I lament the fact that the left wing of Orthodoxy has gone to lengths that have caused it to be rejected as legitimate by virtually all of mainstream Orthodoxy in America. We do need to do what Rabbi Katz says and reach out to this type of Jew. But you can’t do that by rejecting traditional values that have been accepted for centuries, just because they don’t fit the times. Nor should it be done by fudging the truth about Halacha.

How sad it is that YCT Musmachim cannot be accepted. YCT does an excellent job in actually training their students how to minister to their congregations. I understand that their practical rabbinics courses are superb! Something that all Semicha programs would do well to emulate.
But YCT has crossed too many lines.  

I only wish Rabbi Lopatin would have done what I thought he would when he accepted his position as YCT president. To pull back on the reins of its leftward move; and even pull it back a bit the right. But he has done the opposite – which makes its acceptability by mainstream Orthodoxy less likely than ever.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Prioritizing the Trivial

Guest Contribution by Rabbi Baruch Turkieltaub*

One among similar portraits once available at Walmart
A few days ago, I discussed a deplorable facet of Satmar Chinuch with respect to the State of Israel.

In short I condemned the indoctrination of their very young children to hate the State of Israel and its leaders. I also condemned how in their summer camps - they taught them to act on that animus by setting up a mock scenario of the Israeli Prime Minister being driven in a car though a crowd - and giving campers eggs with which to pelt his vehicle while shouting, ‘Bibi Netanyahu, shame on you!’

That generated the following communication from a prominent Charedi personality who shared some misgivings about the broader Charedi community. For obvious reasons he prefers to remain anonymous. I have featured his thoughts here before. I truly value his opinion even when we disagree.  In this instance as in many instances before, I thought them worthy of sharing with my readers.  So I asked for - and received - permission to post it as a guest contribution. His thoughts follow:

I agree with you about the horrific legacy that contemporary Satmar displays as if it is the will of Reb Yoelish.  We might fault him for leaving that impression, if it is for us to have such opinions. Personally, I shudder at the nastiness with the ensuing chilul Hashem that are dominant features in present day Satmar. 

However, I am one that does not see this as (only) a Satmar problem, though they certainly have their unique portrayal of a much larger issue.  The real problem flaunts itself in every frum community, and each specific community has its own flavor.

Frum Yidden have flipped around the missions and goals, affording far more significance to trivia, and trivializing the real ones. 

Our Ani Maamins order things properly,  We make no mention of neviim until after we have made it thoroughly clear about Hashem’s dominance, His Torah, etc.  HKB”H (God) has never had a problem with Yidden having a leader.  After all, He created them.  He designated Moshe Rabbeinu, set up Aharon to be Kohen Gadol, nesiim, 70 zekeinim, etc.  Each leader has a specific task list and responsibility.  None of them was to approach the importance of HKB”H Himself. 

As a community, we have watched this wither away.  We glorify, almost worship photos of all of these leaders.  Every event has become the subject of numerous photographers, from nichum aveilim, to simchos, Chanukah licht, hatoras nedarim, Kinos on Tish’a B’Av, etc.  

This has come at the steep price of shrinking the respect given to HKB”H.  I recently commented to a good friend  that a quick walk though the buildings of their mosdos reveals a substantial number of large, framed photos of their rebbe (estimate anywhere between 25-40).  In all of those buildings, just how many Shivisis are found? (The signs that say שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד.  They can glorify their rebbe.  But do their yeshivas push the agenda of Emunoh in Hashem?)  

We have regressed to a childish “hero worship” that has extended far beyond the concepts of Kavod HaTorah, Emunas Tzaddikim, or any of the great maamorim about the role of the tzaddik that are found in the many sifrei chassidus (in particular the Noam Elimelech).  The secular teenager who adorns the walls of his room with posters of various celebrities, whether actors, sports figures, etc., is quite similar to the obsession with photos of Gedolim.

Reb Yoelish had his shittah about Zionism.  I have followed others with different shittos, and I can respect his.  But the nonsense we view today is not truly his shittah at all.  It is an obsession, one that makes the vilifying Zionism the most important mitzvah, which is a grave distortion of the true shittah. 

Neturei Karta that began with a mission to safeguard the kedusha has turned into a hate group, which has flipped over Torah values on its head. 

Some years ago, I heard a story that a Satmar chossid informed the rebbe (Reb Yoelish) that he had a nephew who was in IDF and was killed in battle.  Reb Yoelish began to cry.  This chossid then told the rebbe that he thought he would make him happy with the news.  The Rebbe was enraged.  A Yid was killed and I should be happy!?  The Chassidim seem to have failed miserably in getting the message.

I have been personally embarrassed at what the Litvishe velt has done to their Gedolim.  Almost none of them ever say shiurim anymore.  Very, very little of their wisdom or learning is shared with us.  All they are busy with is “photo-ops”.  Appearances at simchos, where they are given (often well deserved) kibudim, visits to everywhere where they are followed by teams of cameramen, and other events where their appearances involve less from them than candidates seeking election.  The chitzoniyus is all there.  And we are addicted to viewing all the photos in virtually every single publication, from print, to digital.  I question whether all this is contributing anything positive to our existence.  I fear that we have violated the Torah prohibition of לא תעשה לך פסל וכל תמונה.

The “pomp and glamour” of many events, particularly weddings of celebrity families is inciting.  I am apt to recall the wedding of Prince Charles, and the extravagance that ended in divorce and pain for all.  There is an air of competition that has no place in Klal Yisroel.  Does anyone really believe that this fulfills Ratzon Hashem?

Satmar misplaces their energy into this anti-Zionism nonsense.  Others divert their energies into other things of dubious value. 

This is one of the challenging nisyonos of today’s generation.  Everything must look good for the pictures.  Have you noticed the many photos of people of stature dancing at weddings?  When was the last one that exhibited a smile?  I always see them scowling, as if they are busy in dveikus with HKB”H by doing the mitzvah of being mesameyach a chosson. 

How ‘terrible’ it might be if they were happy for the simcha and indicated this with a facial expression of joy!  It would be awful for the pictures.  Is this where we have fallen?  Just what chinuch do we give our children?  Is it about Torah, or have we shrunk to the “hero worship” like the sports stars?

* Not his real name

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Destruction of the Charedi World?

Will we be seeing more images like this? (VIN)
There is good news and there is bad news. First the good news: Charedim are joining the Israeli army (IDF) in greater numbers than ever. Now the bad news (See: good news).

What I of course mean is that this statistic is either good or bad depending on your perspective. If you think that joining the army is a ticket to destruction of your soul (which is the view of most mainstream Charedi leaders) than you will obviously see this as bad news. If you think that joining the army is an obligation to be shared by of all able bodied men no matter what their Hashkafa, then it is a good thing.

To the uninformed observer, it might be perplexing as to why anyone would see serving one’s country in the armed services as anything but patriotic. And certainly not as a path to the destruction of one’s soul. 

Well, there are some things to worry about in that department. Especially if you are Charedi. This was expressed recently by Rabbi Tuvia Schulzinger, one of the leaders in the fight against drafting Charedim. In a short Arutz Sheva article he said the following: 
(I)t's clear to everyone that those haredim who join the army do not remain haredi. "Whoever says otherwise is simply lying. In our city of Kiryat Atta, out of 10 graduates of the local school, 3 joined the IDF, 2 in the 'Nachal haredi' and 1 in the Givati brigade. Two out of the three became completely secular and one is semi-religious. 3,200 draftees in 2016 means 60 buses worth of lost souls." 
"This piece of data is sickening, the Kollels [post-marriage Torah study institutions] in the smaller cities are emptying. I think that all haredi public figures and Rabbis need to reassess things because it can't go on like this. 
Rabbi Schulzinger then lamented that none of the Charedi newspapers were talking about this ‘calamity’, claiming that if this trend continues there will be nothing left of the Charedi community.

I disagree with his assessment. Even assuming the numbers he cites  are accurate (which is far from clear) I do not think the Charedi community will disappear. I believe the opposite will happen. They will thrive. They will however have to readjust their paradigm of full time Torah study for all men for as long as possible without any distractions.

They will have to return to the glorious model of the past, where the best minds that are suited for Torah study will do so. And the rest will go where their innate talents lead them, while being Koveiah Itim - studying Torah in regularly established time periods. They will spend time studying Torah full time for a year or two prior to army service, do their army service, after which they will find jobs. For which they will get training. Hopefully there will be an additional adjustment in their educational paradigm. One that will lead to establishing a few Yeshivos that offer a secular studies program based on the American Charedi model. This will be the ideal. Charedim can continue living as they choose, serve their country, support their families and contribute to the economy.

But what about the Nisayon - where your faith and commitment to observance is tested - that Rabbi Schulzinger refers to? A Nisayon that one encounters when joining the army?

I think it exists to an extent. I know people to whom this has happened. But I don’t know how pervasive it is. I believe it depends on how committed one is to Yiddishkeit. A good education will protect most people from the pull of a secular lifestyle one finds in the army.

The best example of that is the Hesder student. Through their education as Religious Zionists they become highly motivated soldiers. They opt for a lengthy program that alternates periods of Torah study with army service. I tend to doubt that there is a significant number of them that go OTD – if there are any at all. They are committed to God and country.

And then there is Nachal Charedi, which provides a Charedi environment. Recruits have no secular lifestyle pull at all.

In his example of Charedim going OTD, Rabbi Schulzinger’s included someone that joined Nachal Charedi, implying that it does. I strongly doubt that serving in Nachal  Chaedi caused him to go OTD. That he found an example of that does not make it the rule. Anyone can go OTD at any time in his life.  There are tons of reasons someone will do that. Joining Nachal Charedi is surely not one of them.

There are those that might argue that the typical draft age of 18 is when an adolescent is highly vulnerable to Arayos – temptations of the flesh. A Charedi recruit not used to being around women, will come into contact with Chayalot, female soldiers. Making them highly  vulnerable to that type of temptation. I think that is a legitimate concern.

But Nachal Charedi doesn’t have women in their units. So that problem is solved for the most part. Besides, Charedim will be drafted at an older age. Since they will be spending some time learning in Yeshivos post high school they will be older and a bit more mature when they serve. Some of them may even be married by then, reducing the impact that coming into contact with Chayaolt might have.

So at the end of the day, I would tell Rabbi Schulzinger not to worry. Charedim will not disappear at all. Neither will Kollelim. They will still exist and they will flourish. There will be less of them, but they will be better Kollelim. Instead of elite Talmidei Chachamim (Talmudic scholars) being unfairly disparaged as parasites by far too many people, they will be respected as true rabbinic scholars and leaders of the future. By more people in more diverse segments of Judaism than ever.  And with greater communal acceptance and more people working, it will be easier to support them financially. Allowing them to earn a living wage. So the way I see it, it is a win/win for everybody.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Satmar Chinuch Lesson

The Two Satmar Rebbes: Brothers Aharon and Zalman Teitelbaum (5TJT)
“Bibi Netanyahu shame on you!” These words were heard on the streets of New York recently. I know a lot of people are – shall we say, not completely enamored of the current prime minster of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

That is an understatement. There is actually a visceral hatred of the man by his political opponents. Even among American Jews that otherwise support Israel - I have heard the vilest of comments about him. He is a hated man. How strange it must be to support a country but hate the leader democratically elected by its own people. One that has served as its leader longer than any other Prime Minister, including David Ben Gurion.

I understand why some people feel that way. They believe that his words and actions have done much to alienate world leaders – no less the one that leads this country, President Barack Obama. He is a individual whose primary interest is in promoting himself. He would sell his mother to the devil to secure his position as Prime Minister. (I completely disagree with them for reasons beyond the scope of this post.) 

I agree that he is an ambitious politician. And that he will do whatever it takes to stay in power. But that doesn’t really make him much different than any other politician. That’s why even Presidential elections in the United States are filled with negative advertising by both candidates against each other.  They will stretch the truth to cast their opponents in the most negative light possible. At no time was this truer than it is now.  But this election is certainly not the first time negative ads have been used. It has been going on for decades. Politicians are all birds of a feather when it comes to using unethical means to win elections.

Netanyahu bashers might find some comfort in Satmar’s feelings about him. The opening words of this post were chanted by very young Satmar children in New York. In two separate incidents. One was from children in a summer camp  affiliated with one Satmar Rebbe (R’ Zalman Teltelbaum) and one affiliated with the other Satmar Rebbe (R’ Aharon Teitelbaum). And they backed up this chant with eggs. (See video below) From YWN
(T)he young children are all given eggs and when the mock vehicle with the “Prime Minister of Israel” drives through the crowd, the children pelt the vehicle – covering it in eggs. Chants of “Bibi Netanyahu shame on you!” can be heard as the children cover the vehicle in eggs. 
I wonder how Netanyahu haters feel about this. Would they join Satmar in this endeavor? Given the chance would they pelt his vehicle with eggs and scream “Bibi Netanyahu shame on you!”? I hope not.  I doubt that they want to be seen as aligned with Satmar? And yet, when it comes to bashing the Prime Minister, they are of like mind it seems.

What makes this particularly egregious is that it was not a spontaneous demonstration of protest against a prime minister they disapprove of because of his policies. It was a Chinuch lesson. The entire event was staged to indoctrinate the very young children of Satmar to viscerally hate the Jewish State and its leaders. It was not so much an anti Netanyahu protest. He was just a surrogate for the State!

This is the legacy that  Satmar founder,  R’ Yoel Teitlebaum, has left his people. A people that may very well be the fastest growing demographic in all of Jewry. It is a legacy of hatred. A legacy that generates an international Chilul HaShem. One that generates the worst epithets at other Jews that do not toe the Satmar line on Israel.

I know that Satmar does many good things. They have some wonderful service organizations where their Chasidim donate time and money (from the wealthier of their Chasidim) to help their fellow Jews. Like their famous Bikur Cholim society that visits the sick and tries to help them out in any way they possible can. Regardless of their level of observance.

And yet I still cannot understand how anyone can support people that indoctrinate their youth to hate fellow Jews they disagree with about Israel.  Teaching them at such an early age - not only shout hatred – but to act on it. That they are otherwise nice people does not erase this very egregious Chilul HaShem. Doing a good deed does not erase doing a bad deed. When that bad deed is a Chilul HaShem, there is nothing that can erase it. (They of course think it is a Kiddush HaShem.)

It is not often that find myself agreeing with editorial comments of a Charedi website like YWN. (Although I probably do so more often than people might think.) But in this instance I agree with their closing comments completely: 
If anyone wonders where the deep hatred comes from to yell Nazi at other Jews, to have the Chutzpah to call 100-year-old Mahigei Hador “reshoyim” and “lowlives”, it begins at age 5 and ends in violent Hafganos in Meah Shearim, where public property is destroyed, the lives of tens of thousands are inconvenienced and people are violently attacked.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Extreme Orthodoxy

Street scene in  New Square
New Square. That is a city of extremes. Extremes that according to most religious authorities are not required to the life of an observant Jew in service to God. As Agudah spokesmean Rabbi Avi Shafran put it: 
The Skverers of New Square — with 7,700 people occupying less than half a square mile — are extreme, even among highly observant Jews… 
I don’t think anyone would dispute that the way Skverer Chasidim lives their religious lives is extreme. I do not say this pejoratively. I say it only as a factual matter. As information about a segment of Orthodox Jewry that believes what it does – that the rules it follows are the best of ways to serve God. Rules that their supreme leader, Rabbi David Twersky increasingly spells out for them. 

Those who wish to follow those rules should be allowed to do so, without interference from anyone. As long as they do not harm anyone internally or externally in any way. If this lifestyle makes them happy, no one has a right to stop them.

Is theirs the right way for a Jew to live? Obvioulsy, as a Centrist, I believe Centrist Orthodoxy is the best expression of doing God’s will. At the same time I think there are other good ways of doing that. Ways that do not reflect my Hashkafa - but are not extreme. 

For example most mainstream Charedim do not live extreme lives. They may have stringencies and customs that they observe which a Centrist like me may not. But those stringencies are generally not anything one would characterize as extreme. Like using only Chalav Yisroel products, not having a TV in the house, not attending movies, avoiding the internet, or men wearing black velvet Kipot under their black hats. These are of course stringencies and customs accepted by New Square too. But they have a lot more rules which are extreme.

What are some of those extremes that separate mainstream Orthodox Jews from the Jews of New Square? An article in Lohud lists a number of rules that must be agreed to in writing. Which if violated - subject their children to expulsion from their schools. They include the following: 
(M)others are banned from driving, and they must shave their heads and wear only clothing that extends at least 5 or 6 inches below the knee… fathers (are) require(d)to pray regularly with a quorum and refrain from cutting their beards. Mothers are prohibited from using smartphones — even for business purposes. (Men are permitted for business purposes but only with a special permit.) Mothers and fathers must cease using WhatsApp, a popular smartphone messaging application... Radios, televisions, Internet connections and newspapers are also banned… men and women (are required to) walk on opposite sides of the street to preserve modesty… 

(As has been stated here many times, their educational system does not include any significant level of secular studies. How that impacts them and others is beyond the scope of this post. The point I’m trying to make is as I said. If this is how they choose to live they have that right.)

Why do they choose to live that way? Here is how Yenti Holczler, a 50 year old grandmother, put it: 
"We are human beings. We also have families and we live the way life was given to us…" "Our way of doing things is trying to do it spiritually, the way the Torah brings it for us." 
I get that people believe that this way of life brings them closest to God. This is what they are taught by their parents and teachers - practically from birth. Isolated as they are from contact with the outside world (a world that includes other legitimate forms of Orthodoxy) they know no other way of doing things. 

But still, I have to wonder, do Skeverer Chasidm do all of this  if with a full heart, or do they do it because this is how they were raised and know no other way? It’s really hard to know. But there are some clues that may tell the story: 
Just as some Skverers defy the ban on WhatsApp, plenty skirt the rules forbidding smartphone use. Enough people in New Square buy two mobile devices — a kosher one for calls within the community, another to keep up with the outside world — that authorities believed it necessary to post a sign on the synagogue wall this fall warning parents that they will be investigated. 
Once they are exposed to the outside world via the internet, I have to wonder whether they start challenging living their lives in such a controlled environment. They may love their lifestyles, but do they love them enough to not question it? ‘How ya gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?’

Well, here’s one way: 
There are a dizzying number of committees — or vaads — in New Square charged with enforcing school, modesty and technology rules. The rabbinical court, or beis din, is the community's ultimate judicial authority. The rebbe sits above them all and is surrounded by a few trusted advisers, including his eldest sons. 
And yet, I’m not sure that in this age of instant communication so easily accessible and so easy to hide, that enforcement committees like the above mentioned ones will be enough. On the other hand, because they are so isolated and different than even other Orthodox Jews, they may feel they have no other option. It’s either that or opting out of an observant lifestyle completely. An almost impossible alternative since it usually means a lot of guilt and severing your relationship with your family. Sometimes even from your own children as was the case with Shulem Deen.

This makes me wonder just how many in that community feign loving it and how many actually do. My guess is that there are many that fall in between both extremes. But those that are unhappy will never admit it publicly for fear of the sanctions they would get if they are exposed.

These are some of my thoughts. As I said, I completely disagree with their lifestyle, but will defend their rights to live it as they choose as long as their way of life does not harm them or others. My only question is, how many would walk away from it given the chance to do so without the terrible consequences that would surely result?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Belittling Survivors of Sex Abuse

Rabbi ZechariaWallerstein
It takes a certain level of naiveté and hubris to think you are serving God by angrily belittling people. Especially if they are survivors of sexual abuse. It is well known that these survivors have emotional issues that in many cases will affect them for the rest of their lives. It is also a well established fact that many are prone to severe clinical depression that often leads them to drug and alcohol abuse - and even attempts at suicide. Sadly in all too many cases, they succeed.

None of this is news. It has all been discussed here before. Why bring it up again?

A few days ago a speech by Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder and director of Ohr Naava, was uploaded to YouTube. Part of that speech was an angry rant - telling survivors of abuse to ‘get over it’ and stop behaving like victims all of their lives. I have to believe that it was less than encouraging for a survivor suffering from depression to hear. Their state of mind is often very fragile. It often doesn’t take much for some people in this emotional state of mind to be pushed over the edge, precipitating an attempt at suicide.

Obviously Rabbi Wallerstein cannot be held responsible for the sex abuse and the depression that followed. But to say that his insensitive words made so angrily in public did not or could not negatively impact someone like that is to not understand the severity of their pain and risk contributing to their demise!.

I am sure that this was not his intention. I believe he thought he was trying to help. He was telling survivors to get past their pain and make something of their lives. His anger was directed at the fact the survivors are their own worst enemies by dwelling it on their pain instead of ‘picking up the pieces’ and ‘moving on’. Easy for him to say.  I doubt that he or any of his close family members were ever victims of sexual abuse.

His speech was in response to a video on YouTube by Heshy Deutch. He is an expatriate Chasid. 

Heshy spoke from the heart. He spoke about doing more than just admitting how bad things are. He spoke about doing something. Changing things enough so that sex abuse will be entirely eradicated… never to show its ugly face in our world again.

We have a long way to go.

Rabbi Wallerstien’s response to Heshy’s video was shocking. He completely ignored the message and said what many other naïve people like him have said in the past. Yelling at times that they should just stop Kvetching and get on with their lives.

He compared abuse survivors to Holocaust survivors. Separating them from the observant from the non observant. Those that stayed observant even after suffering unimaginable pain he termed survivors. In short they stopped pointing fingers and moved on with their lives. Those that did not remain observant he termed victims that – instead of moving on - chose to dwell on their pain and constantly talk about their Nazi oppressors. He then said that sex abuse victims should follow the example of the observant Holocaust survivors. Telling them to stop ‘pointing fingers’ and move on with their lives. (I think that summarizes what he said.)

How dare he make such a comparison?!  

First, although he pays lip service to the fact they we have no right to judge any Holocaust victim - whether they remained religious or not, he went about doing the exact opposite. As though there were no successful non observant Holocaust victims that have moved on with their lives and have done well.

Of course there are.  Despite the pain they must still feel deep down, there are plenty of very successful Holocaust survivors who did not emerge from those horros as observant Jews. They have rebuilt their lives; had families; and have done quite well. Survivors that have not done well are comprised of both observant and non observant Jews.

Secondly, Rabbi Wallerstein does not seem to understand the difference between survivors of abuse and survivors of the Holocaust. I am not talking about magnitude. As a child of the Holocaust, I am well aware of the magnitude of what happened then. Trying to compare just about any tragedy to the Holocaust is a fool’s errand. There is no comparison to what those survivors went through. I am talking about making an analogy between Holocaust survivors and survivors of abuse. This is where Rabbi Wallerstein went seriously wrong in my view.

Rabbi Wallerstein was rebutted eloquently in a Facebook response by Sima Yarmush. She is an observant survivor of sex abuse and a grandchild of observant Holocaust survivors. Rather than trying to paraphrase her words I urge people to read her relatively short post in its entirety. Here is an excerpt:
The analogy of the holocaust is a chutzpa for obvious reasons. Among other reasons, the Jews were being persecuted by anti-Semites intent on annihilating them for no other reason than being Jewish – simple hatred. The atrocities of the holocaust are acknowledged by all.
I, and other survivors of abuse, on the other hand, are victimized by people who are meant to love us and then, our perpetrators are protected, again, by people who we are taught to trust.
We, as a community, have a problem. Until we acknowledge that we are victims of abuse, we can’t be survivors. You are stopping us from being survivors. 
a. As a granddaughter of a survivor of Auschwitz, I’ve witnessed my Bubby cry and grapple with the trauma of being a victim. It is a daily struggle for her; however, throughout, she remains a survivor, upholding the Torah, without diminishing idea that she was, and remains, a victim of the Nazi’s atrocities.
b. Being a survivor does not mean that you can’t discuss the perpetrators, point your finger at them, and hold them accountable. Look at Elie Weisel. 
c. We can, and will continue, to point fingers at those who have committed the crimes and atrocities, while saying “never again.”

Update
Rabbi Wallerstein has issued the following short video response to the criticism he has received for this speech.



Please see RabbiYakov Horowitz's take on this here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Science and Creation – Not a Contradiction

The Big Bang of Creation
I am always reluctant to discuss these issues because it brings all the skeptics out of the woodwork to challenge what I wrote. And as I have said numerous times, I am not interested in allowing that kind of debate on my blog. The underlying assumption here is that God exists and that His Torah is true. Everything else flows from that. Those who wish to challenge belief can do so elsewhere. There are plenty of skeptic blogs on line for those that wish to have that debate.

I know it’s not fair. I know I will be accused of only allowing one side of the argument. Guilty as charged. But this blog is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship. One of my goals is to promote belief (as the name of this blog suggests) not skepticism. I will therefore delete any comments I find along those lines. 

I had some thoughts on the subject recently that I want to share - based in part on my studies of philosophy with Dr. Eliezer Berkovits way back when I was a student at HTC in the late 60s. 

I am always amazed at the claim by atheists and skeptics that there is no need for a Creator. How did the universe and nature get here? Well, they say it was always there. What about the highly unlikely eventuality of world full of complex creatures with complex organs? The odds of that happening randomly are beyond astronomical!

They will answer that no matter how unlikely it was - and despite the fact that the chance that this universe in all its myriad complexities would happen is but one of an almost infinite number of possibilities... it was still possible and it did.  What about God putting it all here? Not necessary, they say. God cannot be detected in the material world and therefore should not be presumed to exist. How did the universe – all matter and energy - get here? They will just say it was always here. The universe as it exists today can be explained by using random natural selection. Thus they believe that they have obviated the need to believe in God.

The idea of matter being infinite (always having existed) is just as impossible to understand as the idea of an infinite Creator that is beyond scientific detection in the physical world. 

Besides, they will then challenge that idea of a Creator by asking 'Who created God?' - ad infinitum. Thus believing they have refuted the 'first cause' premise. They somehow do not understand the concept of 'First cause'. By definition, the 'creation buck' stops there! The Creator needs no creator because He has always existed. Difficult if not impossible to understand but no less so than saying the universe has always existed.

For me there is no intellectual satisfaction in believing in the idea that matter has always existed over believing that it did not, but was 'put there' by a Creator. 

How we got from the 'Big Bang' of creation that happened about 15 billion years ago to the point where we have a variety of biological species - then becomes a matter of detail that does not contradict God's 'hand' in it. This is where evolution and science comes in.

There is no contradiction between scientific theories of evolution and the existence of God who created the universe. Scientific inquiry and study can perhaps determine 'what' happened - and when it happened along evolutionary time. But it cannot determine 'how' it happened. 

To say it was random natural selection no matter how unlikely - is just a guess based on the desire to eliminate any metaphysical explanations. 

Intelligent design is far more likely scenario and  for me - a far more acceptable notion. It does not contradict science or Torah. Just because we can't conclusively prove the existence of a Spiritual Being doesn't mean He doesn't exist. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Who Should Get Custody?

Families stroll in Stamford Hill, North London (file photo) Getty (Independent)
As an Orthodox Jew, it is my firm belief that to be Jewish is to serve God through His Torah. That means being observant of Halacha. Which is based on the Torah as interpreted by the sages and religious Jewish thinkers and scholars throughout each generation. That is how Orthodox Judaism is practiced today.

This is not an option for us. It is a requirement. And - one - reason I support reaching out to non observant Jews. I am also very supportive of  ‘in-reach’. Reaching ‘out’ to religious Jews that are vulnerable to the draw of a secular lifestyle. And yet I am troubled by an announcement out of London, by the Charedi community of Stamford Hill that deals with a special type of in-reach. From The Independent
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are raising £1m to prevent “pure and holy” children from leaving the strict faith community and living with “irreligious parents” in an “evil culture”, The Independent has learned. The fundraising drive has been established to fund the legal fees of divorcing parents involved in child custody battles with ex-partners who want to join mainstream society. 
The problem I have is that this initiative does not seem to factor in the overall well being of the child. It is strictly about making sure that in any custody battle where one parent is religious and the other is not, that the religious parent will get custody. So that even if the religious parent is the abusive one, they will still fight to get him or her custody. Which if true, I would be in extreme opposition to.

One might  ask, if keeping the child religious is the main concern, then why allow any non observant parents any access, let alone any form of custody?

The answer that we must first be concerned about the physical and emotional well being before we think about the spiritual well being. But even if the child's spiritual well being were the main concern, it doesn’t always work out that way. If a child is in an abusive relationship with a parent, what are the chances that they will stay religious anyway? In what way is placing a child with an abusive parent justified just because they are the observant one? How can an abusive parent even be considered observant in the first place?

It is also no secret that this community considers the ‘outside world’ to be evil. Any exposure to it is considered to be detrimental to the child’s Neshama (spiritual well being).  Which can easily mean that they actually do consider an observant abusive parent to be better than a non abusive unobservant parent.  Furthermore I have to ask if they even consider an observant parent to be unfit if they choose an observant - but non Charedi Hashkafa? As this article points out: 
The Independent earlier this year found more than a 1,000 children in Charedi communities are attending illegal schools where secular knowledge is banned and they learn only religious texts, meaning they leave school with no qualifications and often unable to speak any English… 
In a 2013 ruling, a judge told the court: “The mother and father come from the… Charedi community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. A major reason for the marriage breakdown was that the mother no longer wished to follow the strict tenets of that community. She remains an orthodox Jew but wished for a way of living for herself and the children which allowed greater diversity of educational, personal and economic opportunity. Her wish has come at a price. Her own parents and siblings are no longer in contact with her. 
If that was in fact the case, I have to wonder if this group will advocate for the Charedi parent – even if he or she is the abusive one.

It is also very troubling the way this community reacted to a woman filing for divorce that revealed being beaten and raped by her husband throughout her marriage: 
She said that once she did speak out and seek custody of her child, community members spread rumours she had been sexually promiscuous. “A member of the community threw eggs at me for disclosing the violence and allegedly bringing shame upon the community,” she said. 
It’s not that they denied her claims, it seems. It’s that she exposed them to the world. Which appears to be a bigger sin in their eyes than the beatings she suffered throughout their marriage.

It is for these reasons that I am skeptical about the stated mission of this group. It sounds righteous to be advocating that custody of children should given  to religious parents. All things being equal, I too would advocate for that.  But in no way should that be our only concern. If I were to support such a group, it would have to first assure me that the physical and emotional well being of the child was as important to them as the spiritual well being.

We should never say that the parent’s religiosity is all that matters. Because even if your goal is spiritual well being of the child, leaving them with an ‘observant’ but abusive parent is quite likely a ticket right out of observance anyway.

Monday, August 15, 2016

When Antisemitism Infects a Just Cause


This picture speaks for itself (Atlanta Black Star)
Black lives do matter. I repeat that now despite what has happened to this movement. It now actually ‘boasts’ a manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Movements are entitled to explain what they are really all about. They are entitled to include many ideals which they support that ties in with their mission. Which clearly in this case is about making sure this country lives up to its ideals of equality for all its citizens. Even though America has elected its first black President (twice), it is still something that we have not quite lived up to. 

That has unfortunately manifested itself recently in many cases where black people have been killed primarily because they were black. Not that they were specifically targeted as black people. But because black people are often seen as dangerous criminals whereas in similar situations whites are given the benefit of the doubt.

There is an inherent and grossly unfair bias in society whether we admit it or not. It is a fear not only among whites. Black people have it too as black activist Jesse Jackson once admitted when he was confronted by it. He was being followed at night and feared for his life until he saw it was a white man following him. At the time he admitted feeling a sense of relief.

I cannot imagine what it’s like being a black man in this country... being suspected of being a criminal just because of my skin color. It seems to be a common experience among blacks that they are stopped more often than whites for minor traffic offences. And are treated roughly by police as suspects in bigger crimes. Black comedians have called this phenomenon ‘Driving While Black’. They are joking. But there is truth in humor.

So when black people were killed by police in various cities, black citizens rightly protested that black people were being killed unnecessarily at the hands of police. This was corroborated in many cases by videos that showed exactly what happened. Hard to deny it when you see it. There is little doubt in my mind that bias was involved in those police shootings – some more than others. Not that the police were overtly racist. They probably weren’t. But there was still an innate prejudice about the likelihood of a black man being criminal more than a white man.

Which is why in theory I supported the Black Lives Matter movement. And why I rejected those that wanted to challenge them by saying ‘all lives matter’. Well, of course all lives matter. But by saying that – it ignores the specific issue at hand. Which is that there is prejudice against black people in our world today. Which results in unnecessary tragedy. Especially when the police armed with deadly weapons are involved.

But my support stops at that door. It does not include support of their new manifesto which has absolutely nothing to do with the issue that people of conscience should support: the racial prejudice that still exists in this country. For some reason, this movement decided to go outside the bounds of its mission and deal with Israel. From Tablet Magazine
(T)he platform (of the 40,000 word manifesto)… contained a vicious bigoted slur against the Jewish state, which the document’s foreign policy section accused of perpetrating “genocide” against Palestinians. (The platform also labeled Israel an “apartheid state” and joined with the BDS movement in calling for the total academic, cultural, and economic boycott of the country—a demand made for no other state.) 
How to shoot yourself in the foot! This statement has been condemned across the board even by leftists groups that have been highly critical of Israel itself. Genocide?! Really?!

This is nothing more than pure antisemitism at its worst. One can be critical of Israel. One can be critical of its leaders and policies. One cane even say that they believe there is prejudice in Israel against Palestinians – similar to the prejudice against blacks in this country. 

While I would dispute that for reasons beyond the scope of this post, it is certainly not antisemitic to see things that way. But to go from there to genocide is to expose a deep seated hatred for Jews. The kind of hatred one finds on some university campuses these days by leftist professors that have managed to spew their venom under the guise of intellectualism and academic freedom. Pretending that they are not antisemitic since they use the word ‘Zionists’ instead of  ‘Jews’ (Although they sometimes give themselves away by actually using the word ‘Jews’.)

I have no clue who exactly was responsible for this manifesto. But I am happy to see that it has been entirely rejected by at least one prominent black group. From the St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Ecumenical Leadership Council of Missouri, representing hundreds of predominantly African-American churches throughout the state, rejects without hesitation any notion or assertion that Israel operates as an apartheid country. We embrace our Jewish brethren in America and respect Israel as a Jewish state. Jewish-Americans have worked with African-Americans during the civil rights era when others refused us service at the counter — and worse. 
I believe that this is the feeling of all mainstream black organizations. Since the cause of black lives matter is a just one, I would hate to be opposed to it because of the antisemitic forces that wrote its manifesto. It is therefore my sincere hope that this movement excises this disgusting part of its platform and rejects any language that refers to Israel in such hateful terms. I would further hope that the people that are responsible for that language be publicly repudiated and expelled from the movement. Because allowing them to remain will hurt their just cause immeasurably.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Rest of the Story

My father (2nd from right) at a wedding in Toledo  (Toledo Blade)
I cannot imagine what my father went through during the Holocaust. Which always comes to mind on Tisha B’Av. A couple of years ago I described the harrowing story of how my father lost his first wife, a brother, two twin baby girls and his oldest son. It can be read here – It is a riveting story - although I doubt that I did it justice. Here is the rest of the story.

The bunker that saved my father, his 2 sons, a brother, and about 40 other Jews during the Holocaust was in the basement of a home belonging to  a a righteous gentile. His name was Ivan Bur. It was sealed with a heavy cement cover. Which Ivan opened up every day to bring them food.

One day the sound of gunfire on the outside was heard in the bunker. The people there had somehow heard that the Russian army was on the move towards Drohobycz which was the Ukranian town where the bunker was located. The Russians had finally arrived… and what they were hearing were the sounds of battle. But they couldn’t be sure. And they dared not try and find out since if they were wrong they would be discovered.

Meanwhile  Ivan had stopped bringing them any food. They suspected that something was up. Maybe Ivan was killed. If so, how would they survive? When the gunfire subsided, they decided to take a chance and leave the bunker. Without any food, it wasn’t really much of a choice. But the only exit was covered with a cement cover that was impossible to open form the inside.

My father was the ultimate improviser. He grabbed a beam from one of the beds and managed to pry open the cover. They all went outside to see what their fate would be. To their great relief, the Russians had liberated the town. When the Russian soldiers saw these Jews weak and debilitated, they helped them. They fed and clothed them and nursed them back to their health.

My father, his brother Yosef and his wife, and my two older brothers survived the Holocaust in that bunker. They were now free. But the war was not over yet. The Russians desperate for manpower drafted anyone in sight. Including my father.  He was sent to the battle front. Putting his life at great risk once again.

My brothers were still too young (they were about 12 or13 years of age) to be drafted and were sent to a cousin living in Drohobycz which was trying to resurrect itself into the organized Jewish community it once was before the war.

The rabbinic leaders of that city were looking for Shochet, which my father had become just prior to the war. When they found out about my father, they somehow managed to get him to sneak out of his Russian army unit once a week so that he could Shecht for the town. This went on for a while until one time he was caught by his commanding officer. Who was ready to court-martial him for going AWOL during the war, a capital offence.  My father told him his story of how he had lost his wife, a brother, and 3 of his children. This kind soul had mercy on my father and told to just go back to his unit.

At that moment my father made a snap decision. After losing so many members of his family – and with two you teenagers to care for he did not want to end up as casualty of war on the battlefront - a highly likely prospect.

Instead of heading back to his unit, he headed back to Drohobycz. And immediately went to the rabbinic leaders he had Shected for and asked for their advice. They told him to grow a beard and change into Chasidic garb, and hide in plain sight.

The disguise was so successful that when that commanding officer came into town one day, he passed right by my father and did not say a word. There my father remained until after the war.

When the war finally ended, he had partnered up with another Shochet in Krakow to open up a restaurant business where they would Shecht their own steer. They both thought that they would go back to the life they had before the Holocaust. It was at about that time that my father was introduced to my mother. They were married shortly thereafter.

His time trying to rebuild his life in Poland came to an abrupt end when the Poles started to have pogroms against the Jews that came back after being liberated. That’s when my parents and 2 brothers decided they had enough of Europe. They approached the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) who gave them passage to Paris and promised to eventually get them to New York, where my father’s maternal uncle, Binny Mendel Maryles lived. He had been living there since the 1920s working as a Shochet. My brothers has gone ahead of my parents on an education visa to attend Torah VoDaath. But not before I was born in November of 1946.

Meanwhile the JDC procrastinated. My parents were anxious to leave Europe. Even though my father had been offered a job as a Shochet in Paris - he did not want to remain in Europe at any price. He finally prevailed upon the JDC to come up with passage to New York.

He was on a visitor’s visa. After 6 months he had to leave the country. He first went to Toronto and then to Cuba. (I have no clue why he went there). From there he saw an ad in a Yiddish paper about the need for a Chazan for a Shul in Toledo. 

He contacted the Mora D’Asra (Orthodox rabbi) of Toledo, R’ Nechemia Katz, and was hired immediately. Soon after he arrived he was also hired as one of the 2 Shochtim there. My oldest brother Jack remained in New York during all that time and ended up studying music at Columbia. My brother Barry, who moved to Toledo with us was drafted into the army during the Korean war but served his stint in Germany. In the meantime Jack got a job as a Chazan in Chicago. Barry followed and so did we eventually in 1962.  And I’ve been here ever since.

I don’t know how anyone can live through what my father did and remain sane.  I know that he was affected by it for the rest of his life.  And yet he survived – remarried and lived a to enjoy a wonderful life in America having much Nachas from his children and grandchildren. In 1974 my parents made Aliyah and had enjoyed the best years of their lives for the next 18 years until his passing in 1992.