Thursday, March 23, 2017

Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way

Rabbi Baruch Zalman Melamed (Arutz Sheva)
If there is anything about me that people can be assured of, it is that I am a centrist (small c). I am not talking about my Hashkafa or world view. Although I am a Centrist in that regard too, I am also a centrist in a general way. I am a firm believer in the Rambam’s ‘Shvil HaZahav’ – the golden mean. With apologies to Barry Goldwater I actually believe that extremism in pursuit of just about anything is a vice. And that includes what passes for religious fervor in both the Charedi and religious Zionist camp.

My issues with the Charedi camp in Israel are well known. It is not I am opposed to their values. I am opposed to the extremes to which they take them, and the negative impact that it has not only on themselves but on the rest of the country - and even the world. 

For example - abandoning secular studies while increasing government subsidies as their population grows is not the best formula for survival. Not for themselves and not for the country. And although I am a firm believer that a Jewish state needs an official rabbinate, it troubles me that it seems to have been taken over by people that don’t recognize them as their own religious leaders.  Control of an institution that is not accompanied by belief in it - is what led to choosing the previous Chief Rabbi who was recently convicted of corruption.

One might surmise that my issues with the Charedi camp in Israel would lead me to support the religious Zionist camp. But I have issues with them too. And just like th Charedi world, it isn’t that I am opposed to their values. I am a huge supporter of the State of Israel. Which is clearly a Zionist State. Israel is the ancestral home of the Jewish people.All of them, including me. Originally given to us by God. That is what gives us, the Jewish people, the right to be there and call it our own. Not to mention the fact that Israel’s doors opened up for Holocaust refuges and Jews all over the world. And the ‘Never again’ aspect of living in a land where we Jews can, with the help of God, determine our own fate, and not rely completely on others for our salvation.

I am not, however, a believer that we are witnessing the first flowering of our redemption. Which means that living in Israel means that you are still living in Galus (exile). Until the era of the actual redemption, that is where we all live - no matter our geographic location.

Unfortunately it is the belief by far too many religious Zionists that by the establishment of a state we have begun the redemptive process. That in my view is the source of much of the extremism. Like those who view settling all of Eretz Yisroel (including the West bank) a goal worth shedding blood over. Not just Palestinian blood but even our own. This mentality produced the Baruch Goldsteins and Yigal Amirs of the world. And the many admirers these two murderers still have.

And now both the Charedi world and the religious Zionist world seem to have combined in the person of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein the religious Zionist rabbi who is one of the heads of a prestigious mechina (pre-IDF preparatory) yeshiva in Israel. 

One may recall a few months ago when Rabbi Levinstein made some truly disgusting comments about the IDF’s approach to a variety of groups and issues. It isn’t that he had religious problems with them. I have them too. It is the extreme – even inflammatory language he used about the IDF in raising those objections. Placing himself squarely in the extremist camp.

Arutz Sheva has found another ‘eminent’ religious Zionist, Rabbi Baruch Zalman Melamed backing him up. 

The issues are real. For example I agree that blurring the differences between the sexes in the IDF is wrong. I agree that it would undermine the moral values that ‘have preserved the Jewish people for millennia’. I too am in vigorous opposition to same sex units in the army. But to back up a man who said what Rabbi Levinstein said - backs up extremism. And that almost always leads to no good. 

There has to be a happy medium between agreeing with the underlying Halachos expressed by Rabbi Levinstein and endorsing a man who used such extreme rhetoric. That can only turn people away from the very values that he promotes. Rabbi Levinstein deserves to be reprimanded for those comments, Not supported. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way. And the right way is to abide by the Shvil HaZahav. That is always the better choice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chasing Chasidic Chumros

Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky - Should this image be banned?
Modesty has become a big item in the 21st century Charedi world. But not in the broad sense that this Jewish value is intended. The way modesty – or Tznius is used today in this community is mostly applied to women and how they are to be seen (or not seen) in public. This is a subject that seems to be hammered into the psyche of every Beis Yaakov girl.

There is a very good reason for this focus today. It doesn’t take much effort to come across images of the most immodestly dressed women when one is out in public. Whether on billboards, in movies, on TV, in magazines or shopping malls that that will have at least one shop exclusively selling women’s intimate apparel with pictures of women wearing their products in seductive poses.  It is almost impossible to avoid all these images. Even the corporate world where modest attire was once standard has given way to this new culture of less modesty. The typical young woman today must feel compelled to have that ‘look’ if she wants to be accepted as ‘normal’.

External influences being what they are it should therefore come as no surprise that Orthodox Jewish educators focus on modesty in dress.

It is this cultural climate that has spurred Charedi world to pursue other less desirable and even questionable restrictions. Among the many unfair restrictions is banning the publication of any pictures of a woman. No matter how modestly she is dressed.

This restriction seems to have always existed in the Chasidic world. (Why that is the case is beyond the scope of this post.) But this was not the case in the Lithuanian based Yeshiva world even among their Gedolim until very recent times. I am not here to debate the right of Chasidim to do as they please. As long as their own women are comfortable with this restriction, or any of the restrictions placed on either their men or their women, God bless them.

I am here to protest what has become a habit in the non Chasidic Charedi world to chase down every Chumra practiced by the Chasidic world. There seems to be an attitude among some rabbis on the right that cannot countenance being ‘out-frummed’ by anyone: ‘If Chasidim are doing it, we better be doing it too, lest we lend credence to their claim of superior Torah observance’.

What many of them may not realize (or perhaps even care about – feeling that their concerns override it) is how this affects their own community.

If women in their own community are negatively affected by such strictures, I believe that their rabbinic readers have an obligation to review their policy to see if it does more harm than good.

One may ask, what possible harm can there be from raising modesty standards? Isn’t that a good thing?

For me the answer is clearly no. Not if it goes too far and there are negative consequences. Not if there is absolutely no Halacha or even a Minhag requiring it. And certainly not if great religious figures like Rav Moshe Feinstein and other Gedolim of the past didn’t require it or practice it themselves.

What harm might there be? Plenty. I was sent a list of reasons by a woman who is a concerned public figure. One which reflects many of the things I have mentioned in the past: 
•  It fails to provide healthy role models for girls and women 
Such a void is short- sighted considering the myriad inappropriate images of women that bombard us in the secular world. Our blank spaces have no chance of competing with their powerful images.

•  It communicates  a negative message about how our community regards women
Taking women literally“out of the picture”implies that they are unimportant, uninvolved, or irrelevant. A page containing  only images of boys and men carries the message that only males are important. The literal erasure of all females calls into question the weight accorded to women’s opinions and contributions and may act as a deterrent to intelligent, accomplished  women who may otherwise be interested in adopting a Torah lifestyle.

•  It contributes to the objectification of women and girls.
The message that a mere glance at a tzenua woman or child can lead a man into temptation fuels the notion that women are essentially dangerous and men are weak. By viewing women as simply as a source of temptation rather than as sentient, intelligent human beings with brains and  hearts, we are ironically saying  that the only thing that matters about women is their bodies.

•  It is a failure of journalistic integrity and creates a Chilul Hashem.
Erasing images of women from photographs of historical moments is a form of censorship and historical revisionism. Many of these photoshopped pictures are from large news agencies that prohibit altering them in any way. Secular media inevitably publicizes this practice while making a point of mentioning that excluding pictures of women and girls is standard practice in  the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. The impression given is that traditional Judaism is on par with the most radical elements of Islam, a view which is not only untrue but also a chilul Hashem.

•  It makes a mockery of our precious ideals.
Photographs and illustrations of Shabbos tables, parks, and chasunas depicting only men and boys ultimately present an inaccurate and at times even absurd portrayal of religious life.  This presentation of a world with no female figures may have the unintended consequence of making a mockery of our ideals and even of the idea of tzinyus itself.

 •  It sets a dangerous precedent
 Look back at biographies of gedolim from just a generation or two ago, as well as historical pictures of yeshiva dinners and community gatherings, and you will see pictures of a world populated by men as well as their wives and daughters. Today not a single photograph or image like these is to be found. At a time when fringe clusters of observant women have taken to wearing burkas and some communities have instituted “men’s only” shopping hours at stores, we are concerned that the major chareidi publications present their distorted view of the world as something to aspire to.  
I am convinced that the vast majority of the mainstream Charedi (non Chasidic) world is moderate and more or less agrees with the above. The question is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ I was asked to publish a petition that reflects these concerns and am pleased to do so.I am told that are already almost 80 ‘Yeshivishe’ Rebbetzins and laypeople signed onto it. Please click on this link to find out how you can help.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Is This the New UN?

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
I used to think the UN was - at best - a complete waste of time and money. And at worst an antisemtic body whose primary goal was to destroy Israel. Despite the ironic fact that the State of Israel was created in 1947 - partitioning Palestine in a majority vote by the UN General Assembly.

It is no secret that this body extreme bias with respect to Israel. Israel has been the constant focus of condemnation and scorn.

In recent years, the Middle East was the subject of 76% of country-specific General Assembly resolutions, And 100% of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions. These resolutions most often criticized Israel for its ‘occupation of Palestinian land and its oppression of Palestinians.’ They condemned Israel almost exclusively about committing violence against Palestinians, and rarely about the reverse. On the other hand UNHRC has mostly failed to condemn other human rights abuses. Like what is happening in the people in the East African nation of South Sudan. Which by comparison makes Palestinians in West Bank seem like they are living in paradise!

This climate of anti Israel animus culminated with the recent US abstention on a vote condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It was them passed with all the other members of the Security Council voting on favor of it. I could go on. But any unbiased observer of the UN’s attitude towards Israel can see the obvious. No matter what kind of atrocities were going on in the world. Syria, Libya, East Africa… they are all practically ignored by the UN when one looks at who they focus the majority of their animus on.

It did not help matters that the UN Secretary-Generals in the past seem to harbor that same anti Israel bias. Even though they tried to hide it – it wasn’t that hard to notice that they did little to stop the Israel bashing going on there. Nor did it help that one of their past Secretary-Generals was Kurt Waldheim, a Nazi officer during the Holocaust.

Until a short while ago, when former US representative to the UN Samantha Power refused for the first time to veto a one-sided resolution condemning Israel (on instruction from her boss, the former President) it that seemed like things were only going to get worse. But just when I thought the UN was hopelessly antisemitic, Nikky Haley was appointed US representative to the UN by the New administration. She was not only aware of the bias that permeated that body, she actually did something about it. She minced no words in forcefully condemning it!

But I was not prepared for what happened on January 1st of this year. That is when former Portuguese Prime Minister, António Guterres was elected the new Secretary-General of the UN.

Unlike past leaders of the UN, he actually understands what Jewish suffering was all about throughout history. He even acknowledged his own country’s participation in that during the inquisition when they expelled all the Jews from their country. And he spoke about the Holocaust in terms of it being primarily Jewish tragedy.

It is one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard by a non Jewish leader. Mr. Guterres addressed entire body of diplomats in the UN on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The very same diplomats that focus on condemning Israel all the time.

I had no clue about this speech given back in January. Someone sent me a link to it yesterday. I would have publicized it sooner if I had. This 11 minute speech is well worth listening to. If this is the ‘New UN’ then I am a fan.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sliding to the Left

Intermarriage. Is this the new normal for Conservative Judaism
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall has written another insightful article in Commentary responding to the direction the Conservative Movement is going. She suggests that recent innovations will have the opposite effect from the one they intended.

I have always had a fascination with Conservative Judaism. In many ways their founding fathers had the same thoughts Modern Orthodox leaders of their day had. They saw the challenges of the new world in America where assimilation endangered our very existence as Jews. They felt – with some justification – that the American Jew could not relate to the Orthodox European rabbis that had come here to serve them. They felt the need to train American rabbis that understood the culture. 

This was the same rationale Dr. Bernard Revel, founder of Yeshiva College (later to become YU) had. He felt the need to relate to the American Jew on American terms. In his day Jews sought to fulfill the American dream the same way their non Jewish counterparts did:  by going to a good university, and getting the kind of education that would enable them to get good jobs. If there was any chance of getting them to continue their religious studies and thereby better insuring their commitment to observance, Orthodoxy would have to accommodate them.

Weren’t Orthodox and Conservative Judaism trying to do the same thing? Keeping Jews Jewish by via Halacha while participating in modernity? I used to think, ‘Why could we not work together?’ ‘Why do we have to fight with each other when our goals are ultimately the same?’

And yet, Orthodox rabbis saw Conservative Judaism as completely unacceptable. It had to be fought!  They were right. What started out as a noble cause to conserve Judaism has turned into something quite different. History is a great teacher.

I know why we have succeeded and they have failed. There are several factors. While they believed in Halacha in theory, they ignored it in their members practices. In the misguided attempt to keep them in the fold they looked the other way while their members ignored fundamental Halachos like Shabbos. Focusing mostly on issues relating to Tikun Olam. That is still true today. Even though there are Conservative Jews that still observe Kashrus as their rabbis interpret it and observe Jewish holidays, it would hardly be considered observance by Orthodox standards (in most cases).

Orthodox rabbis never compromised on the need to follow Halacha. If a Jew did not observe Shabbos,– even though he might have been accepted as a member in an Orthodox Shul, there was clarity about it being a violation of Halacha.

More importantly, however, was the fact that Orthodox rabbis knew that Jewish education was the key to our salvation.

It was a struggle to build day schools that could accomplish this. But once the mass immigration of religious Holocaust survivors arrived, many of them demanded it. Day schools mushroomed. Orthodox Jewish education has succeeded beyond its builders wildest dreams. And saved us from extinction.

Meanwhile the Conservative Movement was focused on the synagogue. They believed that as long as a Jew belonged to a Shul they and their children would retain their Jewish identities. Armed with an approach which was tolerant of non observance, the movement exploded to become the largest denomination of Jews in America. But that did not last. As we all know the Conservative movement is now dying a not so slow death. They have lost members in droves. By the time they realized what Orthodoxy already knew, their attempt to rectify it via their own educational system, Solomon Schechter - was too little too late.

Part of their problem was that most Conservative Jews consider their synagogue membership expense to be too high. They felt that synagogue membership was expendable. Also, as much as many of them might have liked to send their children to a good Conservative day school, the tuition was so high that Jewish education too was considered expendable. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars per child when they can get a quality secular education in their highly regarded suburban public schools for free? Conservative Jews believe that their children could learn how to be Jewish in the home. That has not worked out so well for them.

Most Orthodox parents on the other hand understand the value of a day school education and were willing to sacrifice in order to send their children there.

This is the dilemma the Conservative movement faces. For which they are now scrambling to find a solution. But as Professor Kwall notes, the latest innovation of opening up membership to non Jews is clearly the wrong one. Another mistake in the wrong direction.

The idea of dealing with intermarriages by allowing non Jewish spouses to become members is a bad idea. It gives ‘permission' to other young Conservative Jews to do the same thing. This is as bad a mistake as was their 1950 responsa allowing their members to drive to Shul. Which they were doing anyway only now it was with the permission of their rabbis. That they limited driving only to Shul and back home was basically ignored by most of heir members.

That was a mistake and destroyed any chance of creating a Kehilla (communal) structure. Something JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen admitted and lamented. He attributed Orthodoxy's success to the necessity of needing to live walking distance from a Shul. Thus creating and maintaining a Kehilla. (He was wrong in attributing our success to that. It contributes to it - but it is not the reason for it. As noted, education is the reason for our success.)

Professor Kwall points out Conservative Judaism is going in the direction of Reform. I don't see how anyone can stop it. Their membership is dwindling and their response has always been to go leftward. 

Ironically, for their part, Reform has done a 180. Although the very idea of practicing any ritual was anathema to Reform’s founders, they are now advising their members to embrace as many rituals as possible albeit without considering any of them mandatory. With Conservatives moving left and Reform right - it is even more likely that there will be a merger someday. Although the Conservative Movement does not yet accept patrilineal descent, it can’t be that far off if they are now accepting non Jews as members and embracing intermarried couples. All while some of their rabbis are beginning to perform intermarriages. The  chasm between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism widens as acts like these become standardized.

There are a couple of other impediments in that regard. The egalitarian ideal as practiced by their synagogues is incompatible with Orthodoxy. As is a belief system that legitimizes an allegorical view of the events at Sinai (and all the other events described in the Torah).

In the current sociological climate, I do not see too many Conservative Jews gravitating to Orthodoxy.

But still. As the Conservative movement continues to slide to the left, our doors continue to remain open. For those who want to live a meaning full Jewish life, I see very little alternative other than a commitment to observe the Torah as it has been handed down to us and applied to the times (including our own) throughout Jewish history.

There was a  time when a Conservative rabbi saw one of his congregants becoming Orthodox as a positive thing. I know of some formerly Conservative Jews who were influenced to be more observant via their experience at the movement’s summer camp program, Camp Ramah. They eventually gravitated to Orthodoxy - to the cheer of their counselors and/or rabbis.  But I am afraid that this phenomenon is decreasing. How could it not when they are going in the opposite direction?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Role Model for All of Us

Rav Yaakov Edelstein (left) with Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Mishpacha)
I have had little patience for the way some of the right wing Charedi rabbinic leadership in Israel actually leads. Not because I don’t respect them as major Talmidei Chachamim with few peers. I actually do respect them for that.  But because their views on many issues are the opposite of mine and because of their sledgehammer approach to getting their way. I have felt that many of the positions they have taken are harmful to the very thing they are dedicated to – the preservation and perpetuation of a Torah society. I am not going to go into details of those views here. I’ve done so more times than I can count!

I have also felt that in recent times the way they have handled things has done more to divide us than unite us.  While I realize that was not their goal, that seems to be the result. That is even true among some the moderate Charedi leadership in some instances. (Although I am absolutely convinced that they all firmly believe they are acting in the best interests of the Jewish people.)

This has caused much of the non Charedi world in Israel to see Charedi Jews in a mostly negative light. They see Charedi leaders concerned only for their own community’s welfare with a seemingly callous disregard for anyone else.

It was therefore hard for me to imagine someone like Rav Yaakov Edelstein existed in our day. He has proved this characterization wrong. His life was dedicated to both the Charedi Hashkafa and an unmitigated love of all of Klal Yisroel.

There is no question about his Charedi credentials nor his values with respect to the Klal. I had no idea this man even existed let alone to what he dedicated his life. Which was recently described by Mishpacha Magazine in a memorial tribute to him upon his passing. He embraced every Jew regardless of their level of observance.

He was not just all talk. He was all action. He lived his life dedicated to that premise. Ahavas Yisroel was his raison d’etre. He lived for his fellow Jew. And they knew it.

Rav Edelstein was the Rav of Ramat HaSharon, a mostly secular and upscale suburb of Tel Aviv. He served them in that capacity for 67 years. 67 YEARS! If one looks at his appearance it would seem highly unlikely that a town like this would ever hire him as their rabbi – let alone give him an almost 7 decade tenure. But that is the case. This is a man that consulted with the Chazon Ish and followed all of his directives. He was a founding student at Ponevezh. His brother, Rav Gershon Edelstein is one of the most respected Charedi leaders in Israel. Thousands of students flock regularly to this Rosh Yeshivah of Ponovezh.

And yet this is a description of how Rav Yaakov Edelstein’s town responded to their loss of this great man: 
While the Torah world has keenly felt the loss of Rav Yaakov Edelstein — who passed away three weeks ago on 25 Shevat — none are more broken than the residents of the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon… 
Deputy mayor of Ramat HaSharon, Yaakov Koretzky, one of Rav Yaakov Edelstein’s many Baalei Teshuvah, described him as follows: 
Rav Edelstein was like our eved (slave). He was bound heart and soul to the community, to the residents, the students, everyone. He worked for us. He davened for us. He thought about us and worried for us. He was our spiritual father and we’re now just beginning to understand what we lost. I used to meet Pinchas the shoemaker, who’s been here as long as the Rav, and he would tell me, ‘Koretzky, we have to get the Rav new shoes. Look, his shoes are falling apart.’ People didn’t realize how the Rav would walk all over town in service of the community.  
That he had reached so many secular Jews is a testament to not only Rav Edelstien which assures his legacy... it is a testament to what Israel could really look like if there were more like him.

I’m sure, for example that he followed the Charedi Hashkafa that is opposed to army service for young Chardim. I am also sure he supported government funding for Yeshivos and Kollelim. I’m sure that he supports full time Torah study for all Charedim for as long as possible without the ‘burden’ of additional secular studies. Mostly positions with which I disagree. These are the kinds of issues that have divided – and continue to divide the country. And I doubt that his Charedi views were not known by the secular Jews that he served. And yet he was a beloved figure despite such hard core Charedi views.

Imagine what Israel would look like if there were more people like him! Imagine if the Charedi leadership would embrace the secular Jew the way he did. Imagine if the Charedi world would look at Rav Edelstein as their role model instead of someone like Rav Shmuel Auerbach. 

I’m not saying there wouldn’t be differences of opinion between Charedim and the rest of Israeli people. There surely would be. Those important issues will not go away even under the most ideal of relationships. But if the Charedi world would learn from the pleasant ways of Rav Edelstein, those differences might be respected instead of disparaged - right along with the people that have them.

If only they would see the world through Rav Edelstein’s eyes - oh what a different world it would be.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Trump, Antisemitism, Liberal Jewish Leaders, and the Media

Liberal Jewish leader- J street head, Jeremy Ben-Ami (Jerusalem Post)
Most people that read this blog regularly know that I am no fan of the President. I am as thoroughly disgusted by his rhetoric and behavior as are his political enemies to the left. As I am embarrassed by his tweets that are often simply retaliations against those that have criticized him. Or designed as a distraction from some of the more serious issues that plague him.

The left is out to get him. That is not arguable. It is what all this focus on his ties to Russia is all about. That Trump somehow conspired with Russia to undermine the election… or that his agenda with Russia is based on personal gain is ridiculous. But that is exactly what the left is seeking to determine. They will leave no stone un-turned in the hopes of finding dirt on him. I will be shocked if the find even a grain of truth to those suspicions. They certainly haven’t yet. And not for a lack of trying.

I am not going to go into a whole litany of his shortcomings. They are obvious and I’ve done that so many times, that it would bore most people. The short version is that he continues to be an embarrassment to this country.

That said, most people also know that I support some of his polices. I wish he would just stick to discussing them instead of making ridiculous accusations about his phones being tapped during the campaign at the behest of the last President.

That is at best highly unlikely if not an outright lie. Although there might actually have been some surveillance of his campaign by intelligence agencies based on suspicions that the Russians were influencing the election, his accusation that Obama did tap his phones implying a political motive has pretty much been discredited.

Isi Lieber has penned an oped in the Jerusalem Post that makes a lot of sense. He expresses much of my own thinking a lot better than I ever could have. The subject is antisemitism and who he feels is responsible for it. It is us. Or at least our left side: 
 (T)he crass political exploitation of their Jewish identity by American leaders of purportedly “nonpartisan” mainstream Jewish organizations is unprecedented. Today, in what must be described as self-destruction, a substantial number of irresponsible leaders of the most successful and powerful Jewish Diaspora community seem to have gone berserk, and are fueling antisemitism. 
This has nothing to do with free speech No one denies anyone that right. Least of all me.  But that does not minimize the damage these people do with their irresponsible characterizations and exaggerations of antisemtism and who they accuse of fomenting it.

Leiber calls it a ‘self-induced collective breakdown’. The left is filled with ‘progressive’ Jews.   And they are in full blown anti Trump mode. Not because of his rhetoric. But because of his politics. And they are taking advantage of his considerable shortcomings to capitalize on it. Blaming him for the so-called increase in antisemitism. As I have already said, there is no increase in antisemitism. Only an increased amplitude on the part of the racist fringe groups that have always been there.

Trump is continually described as an antisemite despite the unprecedented number of Jews at the highest levels of government in his administration. Despite his warming of relations with Israel. And despite having an observant Jewish daughter that underwent an Orthodox conversion.

And it is the left leaning progressive Jews that are screaming the most. Many of whom are heterodox rabbis that believe that Tikun Olam is all there is to Judaism. And for these mostly non observant Jewish leaders it is Israel; its prime minister; the settlements; and the ‘occupation’ that are to blame for all the woes of the Palestinian people. The same Palestinians - most of whom would prefer Jews go back to ‘where they came from’ (ala  former UPI reporter, Helen Thomas) so they can have ‘their land’ back.

It is no mere coincidence in my view that the left has so many non observant Jews in it. The rabbinic leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements are leading the charge.That’s what happens when the Mitzvah of Tikun Olam is the only one that is sacrosanct. They want to fix the world of the underdog. And Palestinians clearly are the underdog of the moment. Blaming right wing Jews is a no brainer for them.

Unfortunately some of these Trump hating progressive Jews are Open Orthodox rabbis ordained by YCT. (Like Shmuley Yaknlowitz who has pulled some pretty stupid stunts to make his Trump hating point.)

These mostly non observant liberal rabbis and their constituents see the politically conservative perspective as an archaic vestige of the past. Orthodox Jews to their right are seen as selfish, unenlightened, and primitive. And not having the high moral convictions that they do. That misguided  - and frankly insulting approach blinds them to the reality.

Most of the mainstream media is clearly part of the liberal establishment. They have been egged on by Trump’s foolish obsession with them. To say that Trump has been unkind to the media is an understatement. His constant negative rhetoric about them (not the least of which was the ridiculous and incendiary comment they are the enemy of the people) makes it hard for me to believe that reporting about him is unbiased. 

They can’t stand him. And it shows. They hardly hide it. One can see it in almost every TV reporter that covers him.  Every roll of the eye; every smirk; the ridicule in their voices; and even the contempt… it’s all there for anyone to plainly see. I see it every day. And they get away with it because Trump is an easy target. He has given them plenty of ammunition and they are thrilled to use it. They are capitalizing on it.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being a Trump loving right wing fanatic, I will repeat here what I’ve said many times. I did not vote for him. I voted for his opponent even though I thought she was a terrible candidate. And I don’t regret it. I do lean right, but I also have some liberal views. I am certainly no Rush Limbaugh.

But I see an unprecedented focus by the left on ‘getting Trump’. And I therefore feel compelled to defend him. Because I am absolutely convinced that the unprecedented animus Trump faces now is either entirely political or personal. The only criticism of him that isn’t - is from Republicans who are in the unfortunate position of having to agree with their political opponents on certain issues. (Although some of the animus from the right might be personal. Like that of John McCain. I can’t really blame him.)

Point is - the truth is buried among all of this ‘antitrumpism’. There are distortions galore for political and personal reasons. I feel obligated to tell it the way I see it. I am happy to see Isi Lieber do so by nailing the people that are really responsible for the increase in antisemitism. Someone has to ferret out the truth about what is really happening in the world because the mainstream media is incapable of doing so right now. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nothing to Gain Except a Chilul HaShem

Not the way to win friends and influence people
The recent arrest of a Charedi draft dodger has once again brought out threats of retaliation and disruption by his fellow Charedim. According to an article in the Forward they have threatened to disrupt a marathon scheduled for this Friday in Jerusalem. Not all Charedim. Just followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach who told his followers to resist the draft on every level. Including refusing to obey the law requiring young people to register. This is in contradistinction to his rival, R. Aharon Leib Shteinman who urges his followers to obey the law and register.

Many people on the right would say that this is a Milchmes Mitzvah - a holy war between 2 giants. And that a mere mortal like me has no right to state his views on the matter. But I disagree. B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav. In matters where God’s name is desecrated, one may not impart honor to a Rav.

In my view Rav Auerbach, who has long ago departed from the pleasant ways of the Torah reflected by his saintly father, feels that violating the dictates of a revered religious leader 20 years his senior; recognized by other great Charedi leaders (like R’ Chaim Kanievsky) as the leader of the generation - is a great idea. That he causes a lot more harm than good does not apparently occur to him. (Of course - he probably feels that the opposite is true.)

One can debate whether the tactic used by Rav Auerbach will better accomplish the mutual goal he has with Rav Shteinman of exempting their Bnei Torah form army service. One can also debate whether that is even a good idea on such a mass scale. But this is not about either of those issues.

It is about the Chilul Hashem of obviously religious Jews acting like hooligans and wild animals. It is about the wisdom of disrupting a public that in any case has no sympathy for draft dodgers. And in far too many cases see the entire Charedi world in Israel in the most negative light with little redeeming value. Even among many observant Jews like those in the religious Zionist camp. Can they be blamed for seeing them that way when their own children serve in the military and put their lives on the line every day protecting their people?

Of course I’m sure that Rav Auerbach thinks he’s creating a Kiddush Hashem with such public resistance. But he’s not. If he were, Rav Shteinman would be right there along side him urging his followers to do the same thing.

Instead he and his followers increase whatever enmity already exists between the Charedi world and the non Charedi world. They are driving the wedge between them even deeper. It isn’t just his followers that by their behavior look bad. They make all Charedim look bad. I doubt that the secular world even realizes that there is a virtual war between these two factions. A war so strong that there has been physical encounters between them where people got hurt. This is one reason that Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak has lost its luster in recent years. Despite its reputation for high quality Torah study, its new reputation is one of discord, fighting and injury!

I therefore cannot protest Rav Auerbach’s approach enough. He accomplishes nothing towards his goal and instead drives people away from Judaism. When a secular Jew sees this behavior and the reasons they give for it, he will run the other way. If this is Torah, they want nothing to do with it. They will say that all these people care about is themselves and the money they get from the government. Everyone else can go to hell.

This is the attitude that Rav Auerbach generates. The damage done is incalculable. Which is why I consider it to be such a Chilul HaShem. (His father must be rolling in his grave. Many times over!)

How ironic it is that his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach every action was a Kiddush HaShem. There are so many stories of the lengths to which he went to avoid a Chilul HaShem. Thus making his every move a Kiddush HaShem. I cannot conceive any way he would have approved of what his son, R’ Shmuel is doing!

Instead of distancing our non observant brothers and sisters form Judaism with disgusting behavior like this, they should be engaging with their secular neighbors using the pleasant ways of the Torah.

Although there are some Israelis that are anti religious, it is rather well established that most Israelis are not. They are in fact traditional. While not observant on an Orthodox level they are still observant of many Mitzvos. For example I believe that most Israelis actually fast on Yom Kippur. And I’m sure they all have a Pesach Seder. Most are probably proud of their Judaism. R’ Auerbach would do well to have some positive engagement with these people. And encourage their religious observances and their pride in Judaism with the kind of behavior his father was so famous for.

Instead of wasting time with protests like these that inconvenience the public and drive people away from observance, Rav Auerbach should be doing the opposite. Instead of encouraging discord in Israeli society,  he should encourage harmony. As things stand now, he is driving Jews away from Judaism and doesn’t seem to care.

If I were Rav Shteinman I would call for a counter protest this Friday and invite the secular world to join him. Maybe that will send him the message he really needs to hear.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

MbP - Knowledge is Power Revisited

A typical Bris ceremony (NY Daily News)
Although the issue has been somewhat dormant, it has not gone away. The procedure known as Metzitza B’Peh (MbP) is still going on. With pretty severe consequences should things go wrong.

For those not familiar with the procedure, MbP  a term meaning ‘drawing out by mouth’. Circumcision ( Bris) is a Halachic requirement for all male Jews except in cases where the procedure would be life threatening. If healthy the Bris is performed when a baby is 8 days old. The foreskin of the baby is surgically removed by a trained and qualified individual called a Mohel.

The Sages of Talmud require that the Bris include Metzitza as a preventative measure. Without which it would endanger the health of the baby. They required the Mohel to draw out the blood from the circumcision wound. Although not mentioned in the Talmud, the procedure that was developed and deemed best was direct suction by mouth of the circumcision wound. Thus the term ‘Metztiza B’Peh.

Chazal were likely dealing with bacterial infection. Removing the blood to prevent that was the way they dealt with it. Until 18th century Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek gave us the microscope, no one had any idea that microscopic entities known as bacteria even existed. But Chazal did see a problem and dealt with it the best way they knew how. There was no more efficient way for them to draw out as much blood as possible from a wound than sucking it out directly by mouth.

Although we now know that bacteria is the cause of infections to open wounds and how to deal with them efficiently via sterile procedures and antibiotics, the Halacha of Metzitza still stands. While the actual circumcision is valid without it – Metzitza is still a Halachic requirement.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the Chasidic world insists that MbP is the only legitimate way to draw out the blood and that it is part and parcel of the actual Bris. And point to centuries of doing it that way to no ill effect that they knew of.

Most of the Charedi Mohelim perform MbP seeing it as at least a preferable if not required method of Metzitza. I believe that most parents are not even aware of the procedure or at least not consciously aware of it during the Bris. Which is celebratory event with many guests followed by a festive breakfast type meal.  They also do not thinkof MbP when theyl choose a Mohel. The look instead at the overall reputation and experience.  

There are some (mostly those that are Modern Orthodox or Centrist) that will use more sterile means of drawing out the blood like a sterile pipette of a piece of gauze. But many if not most Charedi Mohelim will not perform a Bris if asked to not do MbP. Which I believe means that MbP is by far the most widely used procedure for Metzitza while many  parents are not aware of it. Or if they are are not familiar with its dangers. Or I some cases - consider this danger to be negligible and actually refer MbP.

The fact the MbP is so prevalent is why the herpes virus is still occasionally found in babies post circumcision. Part of the problem is that the herpes virus may be present in the Mohel but be asymptomatic. He will not be aware of it.  And even though the vast majority of Mohalim may rinse their mouths with some antiseptic mouthwash or alcohol immediately before performing MbP, the danger still exists even if it is minimized.

The city of New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a effort to honor the religious rights of those who believe that MbP is a Halachic requirement and still reduce the possibility of herpes infection – required signed consent in all cases where MbP was to be used.

This was vigorously fought as an infringement of religious freedom by the Chasidic community and the Agudah. In an effort to respect their religious rights to the extent they were asking for, Mayor Bloomberg’s successor Bill DeBlasio withdrew the signed consent requirement. A compromise was reached. If a baby was found to have herpes immediately after a circumcision, the Mohel would be tested. If he had the virus he would be banned from doing any circumcision for life.

The problem with that compromise is that it is an after the fact compromise. It only works after the baby gets infected. I understand all the arguments made by MbP proponents. Mostly having to do with the chances of a baby getting herpes by an infected Mohel being statistically very small. But to the baby who ends up with it, those chances rise to 100%. I personally find that unacceptable.

Last week the NY Daily News reported that since DeBlasio’s election, 6 cases of neonatal herpes infection have been linked to an infected Mohel:  
One unidentified baby was rushed to the hospital 15 days after undergoing the ancient ritual, known as metzitzah b'peh, which involves cleaning the circumcision wound by oral suction.
That’s when the newborn developed a rash on his genitals, buttocks, inner thigh and ankle, according to a city Health Department alert issued to all medical personnel Wednesday morning.
“We literally heard about this case at some point in the afternoon yesterday,” Mayor de Blasio told reporters at an unrelated event. “We’re right now in that process of identifying the mohel (who performed the procedure), and we expect full cooperation from the community.”  
It would seem that unless he is identified quickly the requirement for that community to identify the Mohel is being honored in the breach.

The New York Post reports the following: 
The city is zero for six in garnering full cooperation from the Hasidic community in rooting out mohels involved in neonatal herpes cases, but Mayor de Blasio says he still needs to evaluate whether a deal with the community is “working effectively or not.” 
Last week, health officials said just 2 of 6 mohels had been identified and that — rather than being tested — they were simply advised not to continue with the practice, known as metzitzah b’peh. 
Apparently the compromise worked out with the DeBlasio administration was never taken seriously by the Chasidic community. They probably want to protect the livelihood of the Mohel. But I have to wonder how the parents of those infected babies feel about that? I wonder if they even knew of the dangers their baby faced – remote though they may have been? I also wonder how many of those parents would opt out of MbP and instead use the more sterile procedures that most Poskim say are sufficient to satisfy the Halacha?

In my humble opinion, the requirement of signed consent forms ought to be re-instituted. I see nothing about that law that interferes with a parent’s right to have the procedure performed on his baby. What it does do, however, is inform that same parent about the potential danger and allows them to choose a safer one. Wouldn’t this be a win/win for everyone?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Orthodox Schools as the Model for Public Education

Agudah leaders recent meeting with Secretary DeVos in Washington DC
Sometimes we Jews are our own worst enemies. Even those of us that are Orthodox tend to be critical of praise from the outside. We may see it as an error. Or based on ignorance. Or as biased and undeserving praise.  But if I had to guess, I’d say a lot of the criticism of such praise is self centered - based on our own personal, religious or political biases.

I recall one case in particular. It was right here in Chicago. Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov (HSBY) was the subject of spectacular review of high schools in America.

US News and World Report is rather well known and respected for their university and professional school ratings. Back in 1999, they decided to do the same thing for high schools. They ended up by saying that of the over 1000 schools that participated in the study Hanna Sacks was one of six best high schools in the country. To say that this  was quite an accomplishment is an understatement. Especially when one considers their modest budget.

The study’s designer and author, Dale  Mezzacappa attributed HSBY’s success mostly to its principal at the time, Dr. Shani Bechhofer. Among the many parameters used to make that evaluation was the students per capita taking AP courses (advanced placement). Something Dr. Bechhofer strove for and accomplished very quickly.

You would think that the Orthodox community of Chicago would have been very proud of that achievement. I certainly was. But you would be thinking wrong. There was at least one right wing rabbinic leader that was upset that a religious school was being touted for its success in secular studies instead of religious studies. He did not think much of that accomplishment.

Then there were the parents of the highly touted Orthodox Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA). They felt that the recognition given to HSBY was a joke. For them ICJA  was far and away a superior school. HSBY was after all only a Bais Yaakov. Everyone understood that its religious studies program was all that really mattered to them. Secular studies were at best a distant second. 

The Academy’s curriculum on the other hand was a college preparatory program from the word go. Secular studies were taken far more seriously by these college bound students and their parents who sought Ivy League educations for them post high school. Why did HSBY do so well compared to ICJA? The administration and parents of Ida Crown explained that they did not participate in the study. Had they done so, they would have blown  HSBY away.  

Perhaps. We will never really know. But as noted there were over 1000 schools that did participate. I can’t believe they were all on the lower rung of the educational ladder. There had to be some schools that were thought of by their parents and administration the same way ICJA parents and administration did about theirs. HSBY and 5 other beat them all.

I understand why Academy parents would be in shock and disbelief. But that does not make HSBYs high raking any less valid. But don’t ever say that to an ICJA parent.  They completely rejected HSBYs ranking. (I wonder though if they reject that magazine’s university rankings?)

Which brings me to an article in Times of Israel: 
There was a meeting last Wednesday between the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and Agudath Israel’s lay leaders. From the Times of Israel:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Orthodox Jewish schools as a model for publicly funded education.
“I applaud Agudath Israel for their leadership and commitment to providing their community with access to educational options that meet the academic and religious needs of their families,”
“I look forward to continuing to work with Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish community and all who believe that every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education,” she said. 
This will no doubt generate derision from the left. Even from parents that send their children to Orthodox schools. Their disdain for Mrs. DeVos will override common sense. The comments may go something like this:“Getting a compliment from this no-nothing is worthless.” She is a religious fanatic that wants to destroy public education as we know it. If she gets her way, the poorest kids in the worst neighborhoods will be left out in the cold with no education at all. She is so ignorant that if she says Orthodox Jewish Education is a model for public school education – then the exact opposite must be true.

I obviously do not agree. While she may have no experience in public school education, that does not invalidate her views. Those views have the backing of people that do have some experience in public school education. But without the vested interests of teachers unions. Besides, as I said. Its common sense.

She and they see public school education as a failure that needs to be replaced. While there are many good public schools in this country, the inner city is not where you will find them. There has to be some responsibility for that laid at the feet of a public school system that has been in place for decades.

Parents ought to be able to decide what kind of education will be the best fit for their children. Sending them to a one size fits all public school system is not the way to achieve that. School choice is. This is based on a principle cited in Proverbs: Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko. One must teach a young person at his level. Public education is not a practitioner of that ancient and wise principle.

Orthodox Jewish day schools and high schools have been pretty successful in educating the children of Orthodox Jews. At least those with good secular studies programs like the above-mentioned Hanna Sacks did in 1999.The fact that they are private allows them to choose the curriculum that suits their own needs; the needs of their community; and the needs of  society in general.  What better model for school choice than an Orthodox school?

Giving public school parents vouchers so they can choose which school to send their children will provide unprecedented opportunities for those inner city children.  Instead of remaining uneducated, illiterate, and unskilled – and turning to a life of crime that so many of them do - they will have a chance to to get good jobs, become contributing members of society, better citizens, and better parents.

Some will attend college prep schools; some religious schools; and some vocational or trade schools. Each according to their own skills and needs.  Based on input from parents, professionals, and the students themselves they will be able to choose a school that is a good fit for their needs instead of the one that just happens to be close to their homes.

Those who continue to believe the status quo is just fine, and that it just needs a little tweaking have been saying that forever to an ongoing and utter failure of most inner city schools. It’s time to try something else. And the Orthodox model might just be the right one to emulate.

Monday, March 13, 2017

What Will it Take to Stop Them?

Charedi soldier hung in effigy in Meah Shearim (Forward)
Disturbing. Disgusting. Sickening. Despicable. These are but a few adjectives that came to mind when I once again read about what happened in Meah Shearim.  A dummy dressed in an IDF uniform was hanged in effigy. Once again.

This is nothing new. The Israeli Defense Forces has always been seen by much of the Charedi world as a den of iniquity to be avoided at all cost. An enterprise they saw as designed with the purpose of transforming every Israeli going through it into the kind of Jew that is antithetical to the traditional observant Jew. Whose values are Torah values. Charedim saw Israel’s founding fathers as a group of Godless Jews whose purpose was to socially engineer a change from the image of the ghetto Jew into the fighting Jew.

Passivity is how they perceived the Jew in Jewish history. Which culminated in the Holocaust. They saw Jews passively being led to the slaughter until 6 million of them perished. Many of the Zionist founders therefore placed little value on the Torah other than of historical value.

A social engineering experiment is how the Charedi world saw (and in some cases still see) the IDF. It didn’t help that women were drafted. Nor did it help that a casual attitude about sex dominated so much of the IDF culture. While I think this phenomenon is overstated, I do believe it exists.

They did recognize that it was also a defense force (as the name indicates) trained to protect all of the Jewish people living in Israel. Nonetheless it was shunned with a disdain usually reserved for our worst enemies because of the above-mentioned issues.

I understand the opposition on that level. But I do not understand focusing only on the negative while practically ignoring the positive. I hasten to add, however, that there are many Charedi leaders that do recognize IDF’s primary function and have publicly said so. But there are plenty that see only evil.

However, no matter how much they look at the army that way they do not generally make an issue of it. Unless their young are threatened with being inducted into it as was the case a few years ago under the last governing coalition. Then they had massive rallies in opposition. They objected on two counts. First because of the primacy of Torah study they believed that every young Charedi should continue to be exempt from Army service. Especially since that was granted to them during the early years of Israel’s existence. And second they feared all the above mentioned consequences in any case.  While I was in profound disagreement with them, I understood their perspective.

(As far as I am concerned every Shul, Yeshiva, or Beis HaMedrash – Charedi or otherwise - should be saying the prayer to protect the IDF. This practice was instituted in Yeshivas Brisk by Rav Ahron Soloveichik. But that is a subject of another discussion.)

In recent years, things have changed considerably in the IDF with respect to the Charedi world. The army now has Charedi units that try to accommodate – not only basic religious observance, but even the special needs of Charedim. The IDF considers them to be a vital component of the army. That takes care of their 2nd concern but not their first. 

The first has been taken care of recently too by the new governing coalition. They have bascilly restored the status quo ante where Charedim were pretty much left alone. Although they do have to register for the draft.

Most Charedim under the leadership of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman  are now satisfied with this new arrangement. Young Charedi Jews are advised to register for the draft and then continue in their full time Torah study. Unfortunately there is still a Charedi faction under the leadership of Rav Shmuel Auerbach that tells young Charedi students not to register even if they are jailed for failing to do so. That there are now Charedi units are of no consequence to them. The IDF is Treif/Pasul. Period.

I should add that even those that see positive value in Charedi IDF units see them only for Charedim that are weak in Torah study or in their Yiras Shomayim (fear of heaven). This is how Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman put it a few years ago. But neither side supports hanging a Jewish soldier in effigy.

Which brings me to a 3rd faction. Whose leadership  tends toward the Eida HaCharedis. Those that hung an IDF  soldier in effigy oppose the Charedi units just as strongly the regular IDF. This has become evident in a number of ways in the last few years. Such as hanging up posters depicting caricatures of Charedi soldiers in the IDF that would make Nazi Germany propagandist and publisher, Julius Streicher proud! Not to mention incidents where these soldiers were physically attacked when coming into these neighborhoods in IDF uniforms. Hanging a Jewish soldier in effigy is just more of the same.

Even if they are a renegade bunch of so-called delinquents that is unsupported by Eida leadership - that it keeps happening strongly suggests that are at least in sympathy with their message if not their methods.  Because if they weren’t we’d know about it. Their leaders have a bully pulpit in the Eida HaCharedis. I do not recall any condemnations by them. Certainly not strong ones. If there were strong condemnations, I missed them. Nor have they done anything to prevent it from continually happening.

I would never suggest not protecting a fellow Jew, no matter how much they hated their protectors. I would therefore still defend their borders against any assault by our enemies. But I admit that the thought has crossed my mind. If the IDF actually withdrew and decided not to protect them against an attack, since they don’t see the IDF as protectors anyway - that might just wake them up if God forbid it ever happened.

I think that in their heart of hearts they must realize that the IDF will continue to protect them no matter how much hatred they express toward them. Which allows them to act in this despicable manner.

Short of removing IDF protection, I don’t see them changing their colors. Throwing them in jail (if they are ever even caught) will just embolden them and make their resolve stronger. Surely their leaders will intercede on their behalf if they are thrown in jail.

So it seems that they will continue to behave this way with impunity. Which impels me to speak out and condemn them with every fiber of my being. And so too should the rest of the Charedi world. Including the Eida. Without even a hint of apologetics. Because that will surely undermine any condemnation no matter how strong. Alas, I doubt that will ever happen.