Monday, December 05, 2016

A Chasidic Rebbe’s Approach to the Internet

R' Boruch Meir Yaakov Shochet - the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe
The great ‘Internet Asifa’ held back in May of 2012 and attended by tens of  thousands of mostly right wing Orthodox Jews still reverberates in my mind. Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, an American Rosh Yeshiva and popular motivational speaker got up at that gathering and introduced the keynote speaker, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, ZTL of Bnei Brak by quoting a passage from Rabbenu Yona’s Shaarei Teshuva. He said that when the multitudes of Israel gather and decisions are made by the leaders for action, anyone who separates himself from the group has no portion in Olam Haba.

After which Rav Wosner said that it is forbidden for anyone to have the internet. That ruling was back pedaled a few days later to exclude those that desperately need it for work and even then only with filters. But the sentiments remained the same. The internet was defined as evil and to be avoided at almost all cost.  Chasidic Rebbes like those of Satmar had no use for these exceptions. They forbade it completely. One of the 2 Satmar Rebbes boycotted the event because they had heard that the internet wouldn’t be entirely banned. (Nonetheless, it seems that most Satmar Chasidim seem to ignore the ban.) 

Although Rabbi Wachsman told people they would lose their eternity by not listening to Rav Wosner, most non Chasidic American rabbinic leaders have taken a far more rational and practical approach to the internet. But among much of the Charedi world in Israel and among Satmar like Chasidim even in America there is still an extreme contempt for it.  I believe that’s because of the far greater isolation that exists.

This is old news. What is not old is the emergence of a saner Chasidic voice in Israel whose views reflect the more rational approach that the rest of Orthodoxy subscribes to.

In fact there is not much daylight between what I have said in the past and what Rav Boruch Meir Yaakov Shochet, the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe said about it recently. I don’t know much about the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe other than I have heard of him. But According to an article in the Jewish Press His words not only echo mine, it’s almost as if he has read my blog on these issues. Here, from the Jewish Press is what he said about the internet and smart phones: 
1. According to Torah one cannot prohibit something which may also be used for positive ends.
2. As technology is becoming more advanced every day, it makes no sense to issue frequent prohibitions which would surely be eliminated by new prohibitions following the next innovation. This belittles the image of today’s sages and results in fighting symptoms rather than the real problem.
3. A rabbinical decree which the people are unable to abide by is no help at all. A high percentage of Haredim are using the Internet, and turning a blind eye on the problem is bound to cause harm. The Internet cannot be prohibited, much like the use of a car–which may result in an accident, cannot be prohibited.
4. Finally, the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe is by no stretch of the imagination a liberal, emphasizing that he only permits using the Internet through massive filters, and also pointing out that just the way some people should not be allowed to drive a car, some Chasidim should not be permitted to own a smartphone. 
I believe that most Modern Orthodox rabbis would agree with this approach. Especially when children are in the picture.

Why has it taken so long for this view to emerge among the right wing? The culprit in my view is isolation. You cannot effectively deal with the real world if you are not really living in it. This applies to the myriad of issues facing the Orthodox world. Not just devices which carry the internet. You must be part of the real world in order to understand what you are dealing with. 

In all too many cases elderly leaders that are unfamiliar with the things they are asked to comment upon end up making mistakes – which later have to be corrected when they become better informed. As was the case with Rav Wosner who had to back pedal on his total ban on the internet at that gathering. 

Relying on others who themselves are isolated or have agendas of their own to tell you what it’s like ‘out there’ and then ruling based on that can lead to tragedy. This is not to impugn the integrity of those leaders. It is to highlight the necessity of living in the real world in order to make informed decisions about it. And not to rely on others whom you believe have the best of intentions. But may in fact intentions that are not so honorable.

I also have to wonder why an American Rosh Yeshiva like Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman didn’t realize this enough to hold back on the kind of dire spiritual consequences he implied would happen for those who did not follow Rav Wosner. An elderly Rav from Bnei Brak who lived for decades in a bubble called Bnei Brak and therefore had little if any real life experience in the rest of the world during that time. Did he believe that Rav Wosner had Ruach HaKodesh? And no matter what he said - it was Daas Torah? Clearly Rav Wosner did not use Ruach HaKodesh if he had to back pedal a day or two later. And how does all this impact the Charedi view of Daas Torah?

Well, at least there is one Chasidic Rebbe in Israel that realizes what most of the rest of us do. He didn’t rely on Ruach HaKodesh. He used his God given mind - and used common sense on this issue. Hopefully more right wing rabbinic leaders – even the more extreme Chasidic ones - will come around. When they do, it is just a shame it will have taken so long.

Hat Tip: RYS

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Gadol Cards - a Bad Idea

R' Moshe Feinstein's Gadol card (Lehrhaus)
One might think the idea of collecting baseball cards is a frivolous undertaking. Even for young people. Are there not getter ways of spending one’s time and money than collecting cards with pictures of popular sports figures on one side and their statistics on the other? The answer is that of course there are better ways of doing that. But that doesn’t mean that doing so has no value at all.

What if there were cards that had pictures of Gedolim on them? Would that be a worthy enterprise? Would it be better or worse to collect them than to collect baseball cards? In my view it would be worse.

But wouldn’t they be educational? That ‘stats’ on the back could be a list of he Seforim they had written or the Yeshivos they founded… or even movements they founded. Like the TIDE  movement of Rav Samson Rephael Hirsch. Isn’t collecting Gadol cards a better use of a child’s propensity to collect, accumulate, and trade than it is baseball cards?

Well, no. There are far better ways of educating our young about the value of our great religious leaders than to put their picture on a trading card with a small list of their accomplishments on the back. It might even be harmful.

But this did not stop that phenomenon from happening. There is a fascinating and informative article by Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff, Academic Director of HTC in the latest issue of Lehrhaus. He tells us about the history of Gedolim cards  The genre was invented by an ultra Orthodox Jew by the name of Arthur Shugarman. And the first set of Gedolim cards were produced in 1980 by the Youth Division of Agudath Israel of America.

One can guess who made it into the original 35 card series. They consisted of black and white pictures of European greats that were in some way connected to Agudah.  The stats on the back were written in ways that were compatible with the Agudah philosophy. This resulted in a least one descript tion of a past great religious figure. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was described as follows: 
“(He) Met the formidable challenge to the very basis of Jewish living posed by the ‘modern era’ with the religious philosophy of ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz.’ This maxim was the proclamation of the sovereignty of the Torah within any given civilization…” 
This completely ignored Rav’ Hirsch’s positive view of the great non Jewish figures whose views he publicly extolled as compatible with Jewish philosophy… a key component of Torah Im Derech Eretz!

Presenting a distorted picture of great rabbinic figures on the back of a trading card for purposes of furthering your own agenda is not that different that writing a biography about that same person that omits truths about them which are incompatible your Hashkafos.

Not only is omitting the truth a problem, that these cards do not include other great  rabbinic figures is another sin of omission.  By omitting great rabbis whose Hashkafos they do not approve of, they reinforce the antipathy they some of their Mechnchim express about these great figures in the classroom. After all if Rav Soloveitchik is not on a card, he cannot possibly be a Gadol. Nor can any  religious Zionist Rabbonim. Or Centrist Rabbonim.  

Agudah might argue that they have a right to say who is and isn’t a Gadol for their own constituents. This is true.  But when applied to trading cards that are widely distributed it contributes to that notion far beyond their own membership. 

The Gadol card also makes the very idea of a Gadol into someone that larger than life; someone that is beyond human; someone that should be worshiped and idolized like baseball heroes.

Ironically building up selected rabbis as icons via trading cards also has an opposite effect. It cheapens the very idea of what a Gadol is supposed to be. They are reduced to a form of currency by collectors assigning trading value to them. Is Rav Moshe really worth a Rav Gifter and a Rav Ovadia?

It is for these reasons that I am opposed to Gedolim cards. And yet I am not opposed to baseball cards. In an ironic twist of fate, the speakers at this year’s Agudah convention which focused on normal behavior had one speaker telling parents that it was OK for a young student to follow baseball in his leisure time.  In that vein there is nothing wrong with collecting baseball cards… and learning some stats about the players.

The genie may be out of the bag. I don’t know if you can still buy Gadol cards. But whether you can or not, I can still have an opinion about them. And it is not favorable. If they are available, I would urge parents to as much as possible - discourage their children from owning them.

Friday, December 02, 2016

It’s Mad Dog!

Retired Marine General James 'Mad Dog' Mattis
If one is pro Israel, one might actually be ‘mad’ at the President-elect for choosing retired Marine General James Mattis as his Secretary of Defense. That’s because of comments he had made in the past blaming Israeli settlements on the West Bank for all of our problems in the Middle East. He even went so far as to use the ‘A’ word (apartheid) in describing the direction Israel is heading. Which is the term first used by another ‘James' - former President Jimmy Carter in his infamously one sided book, Peace, Not Apartheid

Pro Palestinian groups have latched on to that phrase. To say that people who use that phrase in connection with Israel are biased against Israel would be a gross understatement. Not to mention an insult to those people who suffered real Apartheid in pre Mandela South Africa. And yet our next  Secretary of Defense has used it!

Frankly I am not too worried about Mad Dog’s comments. He may very well be prejudiced against Israel, I don’t know. Thankfully, he will not be Secretary of State. That would be of far greater concern for us. It would make the Trump Administration's point man on foreign affairs a worse choice for Israel than either of President Obama’s two choices. 

The President-elect knows his own limitations on foreign affairs and would need to rely on his advisers more than past Presidents have. General Mattis would have the ear of a man that could put Israel’s very existence in danger by urging him to push for peace between Palestinians and Israelis without guaranteeing Israel’s security needs. Even the Obama Administration realized the importance of doing that. 

But as Secretary of Defense, his duties will be to carry out the defense of our country as dictated by the President - advising him on military tactics and strategies. Not to advise him on foreign policy. 

Although he will have a high cabinet position and will no doubt state his opinion on foreign policy matters too, he will only be one voice. Trumps very pro Israel National Security Adviser - former General Mike Flynn will be there to counter him. Same thing his choice of the very pro Israel, Mike Pompeo to head the CIA. As will his very pro Israel Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Not to mention members of his family like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump whose advise he is known to highly value. And there is Trump’s top lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew that supports Israel’s right to establish settlements. Trump has referred to him as his chief adviser on Israel.

One of his most important foreign policy advisers will be his Secretary of State. The current people Trump is considering are Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Bob Corker, and David Petraeus.  The first three are about as pro Israel as anyone can be. I don’t know what Petreaus’s position on Israel is but I have not heard anything negative about it.  

My guess is that even though Trump was impressed with Petreaus (and the preferred choice by Mattis) I don’t see him having so many former generals determining his foreign policy decisions. He’s already got 2 high up on the totem pole. 

If Trump were wise, Mitt Romney would be his best option since it would lend credence to his stated goal of uniting the country to chose a man so clearly opposed to him during the campaign. It may upset his supporters. But it doesn't really matter that much anymore since he will be the President now without them. It is far more important to the President-elect to try and unite the country than it is to pander to his voting base. Besides there are plenty of things he can do to satisfy them on the domestic front. Like what he just did at Carrier persuading them to keep 1000 jobs in Indiana that were earmarked to go to Mexico.

So why did Trump choose the pro Palestinian Mattis? He didn’t chose him because of his foreign policy  views. He chose him because of his military skills. Mattis has been compared to General George S. Patton. His nickname ‘Mad Dog’ indicates a Patton like determination to win battles. In that context he once made the following statement: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Which fits in very nicely with Trump’s campaign promise to bomb the (expletive deleted) out of ISIS

It therefore makes sense to look for a Patton like general to head the Defense Department. Like Patton, he will take Trump’s resolve to destroy ISIS and do whatever it takes to get the job done. That he is pro Palestinian will have nothing to do with his obligation to serve at the pleasure of the President and carry out his orders. That is what Patton did during World War II despite evidence that he may have been an antisemite.

So as much as I would like it to have been someone else, I don’t think those of us that support Israel and see its security as the most vital component of any peace deal – need to worry.

As Trump fills up his cabinet, It is becoming clear that aside from Mad Dog, the people advising on him on foreign policy will be very friendly to Israel. Much more so than any recent administration. On the other hand, This is Donald Trump – the most unconventional and unpredictable President in American History by miles! You never know what can happen with a guy like that in office.

Ultimately our fate is in God’s hands. And God help us!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Are School Vouchers on the Horizon?

VP-elect Mike Pence, President-elect Donald Trump & Betsy DeVos (Forward)
As I said during the campaign, I agreed more with Trump’s stated positions on many issues than I did with Clinton’s - but I still felt that he was incompetent and grossly unfit to be President for a variety of reasons. And perhaps even a dangerous choice to be the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger.

But as I also said after the election, now that he has been the choice of the majority of each state’s voters (in most states) resulting in 306 electoral college votes, President-elect Trump will be our 45th President. We therefore have no choice but to give him a chance to prove to those of us that voted against him – that we were wrong.

Another thing I said is that I never thought the real Trump was the Trump we saw during the campaign. I believe now (even more than I did during the campaign) that his campaign rhetoric and antics were just tactics to get elected. And they worked. Who the real Trump is – we are beginning to find out by the choices he’s already made for some cabinet portions – and the choices he’s considering for other cabinet positions.

One of the things that Trump seems to favor is school choice. The woman he chose as Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos, an advocate of school choice. Which is what school vouchers are all about.

School vouchers allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice instead of the local public school (as the system currently operates – for the most part). They are given government vouchers that will help pay for their child’s education directly to that school.

If this were to somehow become the law of the land, the tuition crises all those of us that send our children to religious day schools and high schools face - would practically disappear. 

Many argue that the voucher program as applied to a religious school is a violation of the ‘establishment clause’ of the first amendment. I can hear the argument. But only if the money is used for religious studies. If it is used for secular studies, I see no contradiction. 

And neither does the state of Indiana that has a voucher program. My daughter and her family recently moved to South Bend and are the beneficiaries of their voucher program. Their tuition is substantially lower than it was when they lived in Skokie and sent their children to one of the Chicago day schools. 

When they lived here - like everyone else in Chicago, their tuition payments were backbreaking. Not so in South Bend. Imagine if the voucher program were brought to places like New York and Chicago. What a blessing that would be for us and every other parent – Jew and non Jew alike – that would have the opportunity to find and afford the school best suited for their child instead of the public school in their neighborhood. Which they are ‘forced’ to send their children to because of the limited finances of most parents!

Under past administrations – both Republican and Democratic, vouchers were rejected in capitulation to teachers unions whose first priority is to secure the teaching jobs of their members leaving the actual education their their students in second place.

Unions have been crying that vouchers would destroy free public education. Well, it hasn’t done so in Indiana. There is no reason to believe it will do so in New York or Chicago. What it probably will do is increase the level of education provided in those public schools so that they can compete with the private schools parents with vouchers will be able to afford to send their children to. 

Some teachers will no doubt lose their jobs in such heightened competition. But those are the teachers that shouldn’t be teaching our children anyway. These incompetent teachers are the ones whose jobs the teachers unions protects! I believe they end up doing so at the expense of their students’ education. It is no secret that the education at some inner city schools is practically non existent.  A voucher program would go a long way to eliminating those schools.

I see only a plus coming out of this. As Rabbi Avi Shafran says in a Forward article, we Jews ought to be happy with Mrs. DeVos as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Instead of being a lapdog to teachers unions, Mrs. Devos – it seems will be putting students first ala a voucher system like the one in Indiana. And hopefully tuition paying parents like us will be beneficiaries of that in a major way.

Rabbi Shafran wrote that oped to counter the absurd assertions made by Forward columnist, Jay Michaelson. Who said that Mrs. Devos has an agenda to ‘Re-Christianize America’. I’m not so sure that would sit well with her boss, Mr. Trump. All of whose grandchildren are Jewish. Or his Orthodox Jewish daughter, Ivanka. Or some of his top advisers who are Jewish. Besides as Rabbi Shafran notes - the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has funded programs that would counter any kind of objective to Re-Christianize America.

I would even go a step further and ask, Would a Re-Christianized America be such a bad thing? I sure don’t think so - provided the first amendment to the constitution remains inviolable. And I don’t really see anyone in government – even the most devout Evangelical Christian – ever suspending the first amendment. Which is a founding principle of this country.  Couldn’t the United States use a little more religion these days?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Sholom Rubashkin (Cutting Edge News)
I was critical. Outraged even! Sholom Rubashkin seemed to lend credence to the false stereotype of a money hungry Jewish fraudster, I thought. Here was a bearded, recognizably Orthodox Jew doing what antisemites of the world suspect all Jews of doing – given the chance: Cheating the government out of lots of money while caring little about the welfare of his workers.

Rubashkin borrowed $27 million from a bank using inflated collateral. When his business went bankrupt, he did not have the assets he claimed as collateral to pay them back. That was a federal crime and he was tried in a federal court. Prosecutors asked for a 25 year sentence. This Chabad father of 10 got a 27 year sentence in a federal prison. Which does not allow for parole. The judge in the case, Linda Reade, said that his ‘lying’ in court and unrepentant manner deserved 2 extra years in prison beyond what prosecutors asked for. All of which was explained in her sentencing memorandum.

I had mixed emotions about this event at the time. One may recall that this all started with a raid by federal immigration officials of his Postville, Iowa Kosher meat processing plant, Agriprocessors. Hundreds of illegal aliens were arrested. There were allegations of employee abuse. Organizations like PETA accused them of mistreating the animals they slaughtered. This resulted in Agriprocessors going bankrupt. The allegations of employee and animal abuse were never proven and probably never will be since prosecutors decided not to prosecute Rubashkin after he was convicted of the fraud charges.

At the time I had suspected that Mr. Rubashkin was one of those people that takes advantage of circumstances and did not run his business in a way that would – let us say - be a Kiddush HaShem. And for that, I thought he should lose his business. With 20/20 hindsight, I am not so sure I was right about that. Although it was clear that he did commit the crime it seems clear from a variety of sources that he had every intention of paying back the illegal bank loan. He believed his business would eventually generate enough money to do that.

Not only that - even after he went bankrupt he tried to sell Agriprocessors whose assets were estimated to be worth $68.6 million. He had several potential buyers offering him well over the amount of his loan. But government interference prevented that from happening. From the Wall Street Journal
(E)vidence that the prosecutors hid and that Mr. Rubashkin’s attorneys found over the past few years proves that the prosecutors stymied the bankruptcy trustee from making a sale to prospective buyers at a reasonable price. Instead, they warned that buyers would forfeit the business if any member of the Rubashkin family maintained a connection to the firm, although no other family member had been charged. 
True, a crime was committed.  But it is ludicrous to say Rubashkin intended to defraud the government from the outset. Nonetheless the bank lost $27 million. And he was responsible for it. So he was punished. But the punishment he got was grossly unjust. A nearly 30 year sentence is a near life sentence for a first time offender of a white collar crime of an  illegally obtained loan where there was never any intent to not repay it.

At the time a lot of people (including me) thought the punishment did not fit the crime. Even one of his biggest detractors felt that way. There was more than one letter by respected past and present public officials asking the judge to be lenient in sentencing him. She ignored them and instead threw the book at him and then some… outlining her reasons in a sentencing memorandum. Which - if read out of context seemed to justify the sentence.

Agudah  went to bat for Rubashkin. Nathan Lewin, a high profile attorney, was hired to find ways to overturn the verdict upon appeal. He was unsuccessful. Shalom Rubashkin now sits in a federal prison having served 7 of those 27 years.

For me, this is a clear injustice. Whatever one might say about this Lubavitcher Chasid, there is no possible way that his sentence was just. Rubashkin was not an evil man. Far from it.  Everything I had heard about him from people that new him personally suggested that he was a good and decent man who did many kindnesses in his life. At worst they said he got in over his head, never wanting a career as a businessman – having left a career as an educator at his father’s behest.

So why am I bringing all this up now? Isn’t it old news? Yes it is. But it remains an injustice that should be corrected. Not only do I think so… so too does an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Rubashkin more than paid his debt to society for the crime he has been convicted of. It’s time to let him out. And is for the President of the United States to pardon him. Considering that President Obama has pardoned more criminals than any other President in history, one more pardon – which would be more than just – won’t hurt him.

Aside for the moral issue there are also questions about prosecutorial misconduct. I am not a lawyer, but the authors of that WSJ editorial are. Charles B. Renfrew served as was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa and James H. Reynolds served as a U.S. District Court judge in the Northern District of California. Here is what they said: 
Under federal mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines for bank fraud, an offender’s sentence is directly linked to the loss incurred by the bank that was defrauded. The prosecutors’ meddling meant that the bank incurred a $27 million loss. This enabled the prosecutors to seek a staggering life-in-prison sentence for Mr. Rubashkin, which they later lowered to a still unacceptable quarter-century. The prosecutors concealed their role by soliciting false testimony from Paula Roby, counsel for the bankruptcy trustee, who said that the prosecutors did not interfere in the bankruptcy sale process. At sentencing, the prosecutors misled the court into believing this meddling never happened, a fact that was only recently discovered. 
A lot of people have said about this case that we shouldn’t be spending our political capital on this criminal. Let him rot in jail where he belongs. I have a major problem with this attitude. Because when a man, any man is treated unjustly, we cannot idly stand by and watch it happen. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.  Justice, Justice you shall pursue the Torah tells us (Devorim 16:20). This is our mandate. Rubashkin has more than paid a legitimate price for his crime.  Justice in this case means getting this man out of jail and back to his family. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The New and Improved Moderate Agudah?

Image from Facebook 
563 likes. And 229 shares. That’s how many likes and shares Mrs. Suri Weinstock got on her Facebook post (re-posted on Cross Currents). I don’t know what the record is for shares and likes are for a Facebook post by a non celebrity. But I do know nothing I ever posted on Facebook got anywhere near those numbers.

Mrs. Weinstock wrote about her experiences at this year’s Agudah convention. What she wrote was not all that much of surprise to me. Although one might think so because of some of the criticism I’ve had over the years. But it was a surprise to Mrs. Weinstock to hear so many things that resonated with her in a very positive way.

Agudah’s constituents are mostly moderate Charedim. That’s why it is not so surprising to me that many of its speakers spoke in moderate tones.  Agudah is led by American Charedi rabbinic leaders that understand they live in an American culture and must in some way address it in ways that are compatible to it. Even though they might look down on it as a whole.

This is in contrast to the Charedi culture in Israel which is far more isolationist than the Charedi culture in America. Moderation there does not rule the day. Which is why we so often hear extreme statements coming out of Charedi leaders in Israel.  Which may be why Mrs. Weinstock wrote the following opening lines: 
I must admit that I was surprised by how not extreme, normal, and positive they were! Here I was, literally surrounded by some of the undisputed gedolei hador, listening to incredibly holy people, and a part of me was expecting to hear things like, “You are awful and not frum enough and it’s causing people to get cancer!,” etc
There is also the way Charedi educators indoctrinate their students which is also apparent from Mrs. Weinstock’s comments: 
Let’s just say this was not the way the topic of tznuis was approached in school when I was a kid. 
What generated this response? The following message from a speaker at the convention: 
When Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi was asked how a woman can encourage her daughter to dress b'tzanua, she said "You must speak about tznius, *b'tzanua.* Be gentle and positive, and tell her she is beautiful and holy. And whatever you do, STOP telling her she is causing others to sin! STOP!! Tell her she is holding up the world and elevating the spiritual plane of the Jewish people with her tznuit and mitzvot! And don't you DARE tell her she is causing people to sin!!" She literally screamed this at us! She said when you are constantly talking about your daughter's body or your son's eyes, you are not handling the matter b'tzanua, and are missing the point, all the while creating damage. 
First it should be noted that her reference to Agudah’s rabbinic leadership as ‘undisputed gedolei hador’ and use of the phrase ‘Daas Torah’ places her squarely in the Charedi camp. Phrases like these are typical of the Charedi camp and atypical of the Modern Orthodox camp. But Mrs. Weinstock is clearly what I call a Moderate Charedi. They believe in ‘normal’. Instead of hearing the extremes one hears out of the Charedi camp in Israel, she in fact heard speaker after speaker advocate what most of us would consider within the range of normal behavior. Here are some more examples: 
Rebbetzin Leah Feldman, wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, when a woman asked how much she should sacrifice for her husband’s learning, as it was leaving her to feel neglected: The Rebbetzin didn’t need a second to think, before saying that a woman must tell her husband that she needs his time and attention! And it’s too bad if his learning has to wait a little! She said something along the lines of “You matter and your relationship matters! 
When Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei in Far Rockaway, addressed someone's concern that his son wants to follow sports, he said that you have to raise your kids to be normal. If they are good kids who go to yeshiva, and have a good family, and they want to follow sports a little -- relax!  
Rabbi Bender implored us all to learn to live with each other with kindness and decency. He made it clear that if you block someone's driveway because you wanted to make it to Mincha, your tefilla wasn't worth much. He and others said you should knock on the doors of your Non-Jewish neighbors when you move into a new town, and introduce yourself and find your common ground. Be nice; be a good neighbor. Do what Rav Pam's Rebbetzin did and hand out candy on Halloween. 
The issues discussed by these speakers are the same as many that are discussed here. Usually as a criticism for not thinking or behaving in ways advocated by these speakers. That there were many speakers that urged adoption of  the kind of moderate attitude that I often advocate is indicative of the fact that too many of their constituents don’t have this attitude. It is gratifying to see that American Charedi leaders advocate attitudes that - while not necessarily identical to my own - are nevertheless very ballpark on many issues.

Although she didn’t say so, the surprise at the convention that Mrs Weinstock said she experienced speaks to the values she was taught by her teachers versus the values she should have been taught as per Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. It raises the question about why Charedi educators have been veering off message. 

Are Charedi teachers still teaching their students Tznius as Mrs. Weinstock was taught? If so, then Agudah would do well speak to Torah U’Mesorah officials and ask them to require new guidelines for teaching Tznius along the lines of Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. And put an end to the way it has been taught before. It would make for a far better world.

Finally, I want to say that it was refreshing to see the speakers at this convention not harangue people about the evils of the internet or smartphones; or how bloggers are ruining Judaism; or about the defacto infallibility of ‘Daas Torah’. And instead take a far more moderate tone in addressing their constituents. I applaud them for it. Moderation is after all already a fact of life among most Charedim. 

Hopefully the moderation expressed this year by Agudah will begin a new era of Achdus between wider swaths of Orthodox Jewry where - despite disagreements - mutual respect will rule the day. Maybe next year they can have a Rosh Yeshiva from Yeshiva University address their convention. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Truth? …or Lies and Embellishments?

It appears that Yeshiva World News has taken down the story about the Orthodox Jewish businessman and the South Korean Diplomat.

I don’t know why they did this. But I suspect it might be because there has been some doubt cast on the veracity of that story. If in fact it did not happen and the entire thing is a hoax, then what happened here is troubling on many levels.

First let me say that if indeed this story is a hoax I do not believe the Orthodox Jewish businessman is at as fault. His reputation as an honorable man precludes any deliberate participation in this. What is troubling is that someone may have made up the story and put it out there as fact. Do we need hoaxes to make us look good? Is there not enough of us that do good in the world that we need to make up stories? 

It seems, however, that there are some people that feel that way. Are they’re right? Are our sinners more prevalent than our saints? 

After examining the story more closely, it does seem a bit odd that the thing the South Korean diplomat praised was Mr. Werdiger’s accommodation to his Jewish employees religious practices. While that is a wonderful thing for a religious businessman to do, I’m not really sure why a South Korean diplomat would see that in the same light observant Jews do. Surely letting his staff Daven Mincha everyday is not something a South Korean diplomat would consider all that valuable a contribution to mankind.

That Mr. Werdiger treated an employee (the diplomat’s daughter) with respect and dignity should also not be something all that out of the ordinary. How else should an employer treat their employees? It may be true that many businessmen don’t treat their employees well. But singling out someone who does for so much praise – to the point of trying to reimburse his daughter's employer for the fair wages he paid her seems like a highly unlikely event. Just as unlikely is the fact that a UN ambassador would vote contrary to his nation’s policies based on his daughter’s personal observations about one individual.

I should have read the YWN story more carefully before I re-posted it on my blog and then praised it as a Kiddush HaShem. My usual skepticism about stories like this gave way to a desire to report a feel-good story about a Jew whose behavior was something to emulate. We need role models like this. There are far too many among us that are the opposite of role models. And they’re the ones that get all the media attention.

According to Matzav (where it is still posted) this story was told by a popular speaker at the Agudah Convention and just like YWN, Matzav says they verified the story. The question first arises - why would a story told as truth by a respected religious figure need to be verified in the first place? Don’t they trust him? If he said it happened, should we doubt it? 

And if it is not true, what exactly was the verification that Matzav relied upon? And if it never happened, why was it told as truth in the first place? What is gained by a religious figure passing off a fairly tale as truth?

If this is a hoax or embellishment as I now suspect it might be, I have to wonder why a respected religious figure would pass it off as truth? I can’t answer the question. But I can speculate based on how the Charedi world treats its historical religious figures in the bios they write about them. There too they lie. Not about the things they mention. But about those they don’t - leaving out what they know to be truthful but believe to be unflattering information about them. 

This is not disputed by them. It is actually touted by them as a plus. They feel such embellishments of a Torah giant will inspire their readers.  Charedi publishers like Rabbi Nosson Scherman have made it abundantly clear that the truths of history don’t matter to them. Only the positive inspiration derived of them do. If one needs to lie by omission in order to accomplish that - that is what will happen at ArtScroll. 

Thus in an ArtScroll biography - great religious figures will be born great. God forbid we make them human via actual truth that they were not born great but became great. No. it would be disparaging to say anything negative about a past Gadol. What - after all - is to be gained by telling the world that Rav Aharon Kotler read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ as a youth?! Better to leave out that information. They’ll just say that Rav Aharon Kotler was pure Torah - cradle to grave.

As I said, I don’t know if that was the reason a popular Charedi personality would lie or embellish a story if that is indeed what happened here. But if it is and he made it up to inspire his listeners - that would not be inconsistent with the ways bios are treated in the Charedi world. 

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with using a fictional story to impart inspiration or positive values. Provided it is clearly labeled as fiction. That’s what Aesop’s Fables do. But once a fable is cited as fact, the lesson is not learned after the truth comes out. The opposite happens.

That said, I still hope the story is true, even though I am now very skeptical of it. Because in the alternative, no one comes out looking good here. A good man’s reputation (Shlomo Werdiger) will be unfairly tarnished for his possible participation it this. The popular Charedi personality that told this story as fact will be discredited. And the rest of the world will laugh at us if or when they hear about it. Turning a remarkable story that if  true is a Kiddush HaShem - into a Chilul HaShem if it isn’t.

Postscript 
I received the following note from someone I trust (It was actually an email he received and forwarded to me). This seems to corroborate the original contention that the story in question is true and helps explain why YWN took down the post. In light of the questions raised above, that this actually happened is even more remarkable.
This morning I spoke with Mr. Sol Werdiger regarding the story about the Korean diplomat Mr. Joon,  his daughter who worked for Mr. Werdiger,  and how positively Mr. Joon's daughter found working for Mr. Werdiger, and the net result that Mr. Joon never voted against Israel in the UN.
Mr. Werdiger told me that the story is absolutely true!  He said the reason why he had YWN take the story down is because some in Korea were upset to learn what Mr. Joon had done and that it might affect Mr. Joon's career in the future.  (Mr. Joon is returning to Korea soon.)
So here we have an accurate story about how Jews behaving properly as Orthodox Jews can make a real Kiddush HaShem.
Hopefully there will be more true stories that cast Orthodox Jews in a positive light.  Sadly,  there are too many that do just the opposite.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sol Werdiger: A Walking Kiddush HaShem

Sol Werdiger  and Oh Joon (YWN)
One of the things that bother me the most in the Jewish world is the tremendous amount of Chilul HaShem that all too many Orthodox Jews are responsible for. It sometimes seems like there is a never ending stream of miscreants. And that pains me greatly. 

We can’t be a light unto the nations if those of us who are so obviously observant are seen as devious crooks.  Which is why I so strongly and quickly condemn it.  Let those who might base their animosity towards us by virtue of these stories know that we are not all like that. Not all religious Jews are crooks or deviants.  Only the very few among us are and they deserve the punishment they get.

Every once in a while, there is a story published about those among us that do live up to the Torah’s mandate to be a light unto the nations. It has happened more than once in recent times where a religious Jew showed what Jewish ethics really all about.

It happened again. Only this time the Kiddush HaShem resulted in an immediate tangible result. A result that was an unintended consequence of his actions. Which makes the Kiddush HaShem even greater since there was no ulterior motive for what Sol Werdiger did. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Not for any personal or communal gain. The story by Rabbi Dovid Saks has apparently gone viral on social media. From YWN
This past weekend I heard an amazing story: Mr. Sol Werdiger, CEO of Outerstuff, a company that produces sports apparel, received a phone call from Mr. Oh Joon, the South Korean UN Ambassador asking to meet him for lunch at a Kosher restaurant in Manhattan.
Although Sol did not know the purpose of the meeting he agreed to meet with Mr. Joon.
When they met, Mr. Joon told him the following, “I have always heard negative stereotypes about Jews and Israel and I took it at face value. Then, my daughter took an internship working on design in your company. Throughout the year, she has been telling me how wonderful it is to work at your company.”
Mr. Joon continued, “There are four areas which stood out and impressed my daughter.
1) Everyday, at 1:30 p.m., no matter what was going on at the office, all the men including those from neighboring offices, retreated into a room to pray with sincerity and calm.
2) Every Friday the office shuts down early in the afternoon in preparation for your holy Sabbath and is closed on the Sabbath – this includes all workers no matter which faith or religion they maintain.

3) My daughter observed that each petitioner for charity – and there were many – were treated with respect and left with a check in hand.

4) My daughter was treated with the utmost respect and dignity.”
Because of the amazing experience and lessons the company taught his daughter, Mr. Joon took out his checkbook and was ready to write a check returning all his daughter’s earnings! Mr. Werdiger wouldn’t hear from it. “Your daughter worked and earned her salary and rightfully deserves her pay, I will not accept any remuneration.”
Then the Ambassador relayed the most amazing thing. “As you know, I have voting privileges at the UN. Because of my renewed appreciation of the Jewish people, I abstained from voting on resolutions against Israel on three occasions. At one resolution I was the ninth vote needed to pass the motion and resolution against Israel and because I abstained, it did not pass!”
Mr. Werdiger told me that no one at the office had any idea that this girl was the daughter of an Ambassador and no one ever imagined what type of impact their typical conduct at work had on her or how this impacted the votes against Israel. 
Mr. Werdiger happens to be the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America.  Which speaks highly of their lay leadership if he is typical of them.

This story should be read by everybody. I am happy to be able to report some good news for a change. With all that’s going on in the world right now, it just feels good that there are Sol Werdigers in the world. And there are probably a lot more like him that always behave in ways that are a Kiddush HaShem - but do not get any media attention. This time one of them did. And I could not be happier about it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Is a Two State Solution Possible?

Prof. Eid Ahmed, Head of Surgery at Hadassah Hospital
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein in his latest contribution to CrossCurrents has praised the way Arabs and Jews get along at Hadassah Hospital. In fact he went so far as to note: 
It was a shock to some people there, that after a while they had their favorite Arab physician or nurse, whom they preferred at times over some of the Jewish staff.  
I was not surprised to see him say that. A few years ago there was a segment on 60 Minutes that showed exactly that kind of atmosphere. Arab and Jewish doctors would get along as equals without the slightest hint of any animosity. It was as though there were no Arab-Israeli conflict at all.

The message of that show was that this is what Israel could look like if this attitude would spread. The idea was that if it exists in this hospital it could exist anywhere. It was inspiring to see the potential Hadassah represented.

I recall an additional example of that from another hospital in Israel:  Shaare Tzedek. The life of  young woman that was critically wounded in a suicide bombing a few years ago was saved by one of their Arab surgeons. Yet another inspiring and hopeful event.

I thought Israel could look like this if only all that Arabs and Jews interacted with each other the way these doctors, nurses, and their patients did.

But the reality is not ike that. As we have all learned the hard way. Not that all Arabs  are terrorists. Nor do they all hate us. But there is probably a lot more hatred out there than love. Enough so that when some of the more aggressive Islamist type Arabs commit any form of terror (which has again reared its ugly head in the form of numerous arsonist fires in Israel) far too many of them cheer. One need not search too long to find a YouTube video showing Burka draped Muslim women on the West Bank celebrating a  terrorist attack against Israel (or the US as was the case immediately after 9/11).

The reason for this is unfortunately all too easy to see. Arabs as a matter of culture preach and teach hatred of Israel, and ‘the Jews’. They do it from cradle to grave in all forms: Schools mosques, political leaders, news media, and entertainment. That kind of indoctrination takes a great deal of ‘deprogramming’ to overcome. I guess medical school and nursing school do a fairly decent job of doing that – when combined with the actual experience of treating patients in the dual cultural atmosphere of a hospital.

There has been some renewed talk of reviving the peace process by the incoming Trump administration.  If I understand correctly, Donald Trump has said that he would like to give it a shot. And he is said to be considering his son in law, Jared Kushner for the job.

I have been saying for some time now that I don’t think it’s possible under current conditions. They cannot let go of the hate. It permeates the thinking of all those that have the greatest influence on their culture (as mentioned above). The violence that generates has made Israel’s security needs impact very negatively on the lives of its Arab residents on the West Bank. A peace deal under these conditions is impossible. I therefore don’t see how anyone – even the great ‘dealmaker’ can ever change the current unfavorable conditions into favorable ones.

Unless maybe we can turn all Israelis and Arabs into either doctors, nurses, or patients and turn the country into one big hospital.

I guess what I am really saying is that if anyone is going to try and make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be a good idea to look at what’s going on in places like Hadassah. And then figure out how to spread that to the entire population.

What about the extremist Kahane types from the religious Zionist camp who have a similar hatred of all Arabs? They need to be dealt with as well. I may be naive but I truly believe that if there would be no Arab animosity to us, they would stop their hateful ways to them as well. I will never forget a PBS documentary from the 80s. It was about settlers in Chevron. They clearly wanted to get along with the Arabs of that area. It was the Arabs of Chevron that wanted the Jews out. (That is now the case more than ever. I don’t think that any Jews should be there under those conditions. But that is the subject of another post.)

The point is that even hard core settlers just want to get along with their Arab neighbors. That these communities have produced the Baruch Goldsteins and Yigal Amirs of the world is a direct result of that hatred. Hate generated violence just breeds more hate generated violence. Especially when the antagonists are in such close proximity. And often it is the innocent that suffer the most.

I have said many times that the components of a future peace settlement are already there. We kind of know what a peace settlement would look like. It would probably look kind of like ‘Oslo’. What about Jews that still want to live in places like Chevron? If there is no hatred - a very important ‘if’ - I think they should be able to at some point in the future, although they will have to live under Palestinian rule. But unless the hatred can be eliminated - as it has been in the abovementioned hospital setting – it cannot and must not happen. And as things stand now, I don’t think it’s even possible.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016 - A Lot To Be Thankful For

Victory celebration with my family at "The Great Escape"
A lot has happened since last Thanksgiving. Some of it beyond belief. Like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. And Donald Trump winning the White House. The former is something we Cub fans surely appreciate and are thankful for on this – the day of Thanksgiving. Even though we are constantly pinching ourselves to see if we’re awake. The latter – well I think the jury is still out on that one.

I will however say that some of the problems that many of us worried about have shown to be nothing to worry about. Trump has backpedaled or even reversed himself on some things.  I still believe we should take a wait and see attitude.

But this post is not about Trump. Or the Cubs. It is about my own gratitude to God and country for the privilege of living in this great land. The land of the free and the home of the brave. It enables me to live like a Jew – any kind of Jew I want to be - without worrying about persecution.  As Chicago Jewish News editor and publisher, Joseph Aaron, is constantly saying - Jews have never had it so good. I have every reason to believe that our religious freedom will continue into the future.

That said, I can’t predict what will happen. You never know. But it would be an ‘earthquake’ of unprecedented magnitude if Jews were to be persecuted in America in the foreseeable future. Of course earthquakes do happen. But I for one do not live my life in fear of the unlikely.

What I am most grateful for, however, is my family. The love of my life, Annie, and I both believe that our children are the best children anyone could ever ask for. Each highly accomplished in their own way with a highly developed character to boot. Devoted to their families; to their careers; and to their community. And yet they still find time for their parents.

I was the beneficiary of some of that time in a major way earlier this month when I reached age 70. Those that know me – know that I am not a big fan of birthday celebrations. Reaching a certain age comes automatically. You don’t do anything. It just happens. I therefore do not see any real reason to celebrate it. I tend to ignore them. My children have learned not to bother me with birthday gifts. Nor to make a fuss about it. Which is just the way I like it. But this year they rebelled. I had no clue what was about to happen.

My wife and children had been planning this for months behind my back. On November 8th I got my first gift. Which was a 25 minute video tribute to me from my wife, my children, their spouses and all of my grandchildren. I could not believe what they were saying about me. I didn’t realize the kind of respect and warmth they have for me. Even if some – maybe most of the things they said were exaggerated. Nontheless, it was truly the best gift I could have gotten. True or not, it expressed a feeling by them about me that is otherwise unable to be measured.

I thought, ‘How great are my kids for going to all that trouble!’ And how great it was that my very busy daughter, Rivkie, took the time and trouble to initiate, direct, edit, and complete this project. Needless to say, it must have taken her hours upon hours of time over the course of months to do it. I don’t know how she did it or where she found the time. But she did. Wow! 

I thought that was it. But I was wrong.

Friday night heralded in a huge birthday party attended by my wife Annie; all of my children, their spouses, and those of my grandchildren that could make it in. My son Meyer and his wife Dini came in from Israel. My daughter Sari and her husband Elie came in from South Bend with most of their children. My daughter Tovi and her husband Neil and their most of their children were there. And my daughter Rivkie, her husband Micah and all of their children were there. (The party was at their house.) Also in attendance was my brother Jack and his wife, Ann  and my sister-in-law Ruthie and her husband Perry.

A book of tribute and clever sayings about me or my habits was laid on the table in front of me that had an entry from each member of my entire family – including my extended family members (...including all of the above plus my nieces,nephews, and some of their children.) 

We had a big meal.  There were two birthday cakes. One was a giant glazed donut from the bakery accompanied by lots of sugar glaze commissioned by my wife (inside joke) and the other was a traditional birthday cake. I thanked everyone that night speaking from the heart about just how much my family means to me. (I think they already knew that). I truly felt the love that night.

The next day my daughter Tovi had us over for a huge family Shabbos meal (Neil makes a mean Cholent!) But the celebration did not end there. Motzoi Shabbos Annie and I, my four children, and their spouses went to ‘The Great Escape’ which is kind of like playing a real life game of Clue. We were all supposed to find clues that would tell us how to unlock the room we were trapped in. We had an hour to do it - and we did it! The evening ended off with a wonderful Melave Malka meal at Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed – a kosher restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview area.

I will never forget my 70th birthday. On this day of Thanksgiving I can think of no better way to celebrate it than to thank God for giving me the most wonderful family one could ever ask for.