Why I Am Stepping Down From a GPS Beis Din

By Steven Pruzansky

After seven years as head of the Bet Din L’Giyur (the conversion court) in Bergen County, under the auspices of the Beth Din of America and the Gerus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by the RCA in 2007, I have decided to resign from the Bet Din. I sent this missive to my supervisors:

“After much deliberation, I have decided to resign as Rosh Bet Din of the RCBC and step down from the Bet Din itself, effective immediately.

It has been spiritually rewarding to serve in this capacity for the last seven years. I am extremely proud of the professionalism, sensitivity, integrity and fidelity to Halacha of the RCBC Bet Din that I and my colleagues established, and that successfully brought more than 100 gerei Tzedek tachat kanfei hashechina.

In the current climate, with changes to GPS protocols contemplated, it is an appropriate time for new leadership.

I wish you all continued hatzlacha.”

In the current cynical climate, I must append the following. Lest anyone gets the wrong impression, and at the risk of sounding silly and self-serving, suffice it to say that I am not resigning because of any scandal. There is no scandal, there was no scandal and (I hope!) there will be no scandal. There is no voyeurism, no embezzlement, no tomfoolery, no abuse, no drug use, no illegal gun possession, no pending arrest, no past arrest, no insensitivity or meanness of spirit, no unpaid parking tickets, and nothing untoward of any kind. It shouldn’t have to be said – no one is perfect, of course – but I try to lead a respectable life.

So why resign, especially as our Bet Din has been held to be a model of professionalism, efficiency, and faithfulness to Torah and derech eretz?

Well, it was and is. We adhered scrupulously to the protocols that were established, and I even served on the committee that established the standards that were then approved by the RCA Executive Committee. We never met any candidate (male or female) alone; indeed, I never did anything alone but always with at least two other colleagues. What happened in DC is simply unthinkable in our context: none of us had a key to the mikveh, we were always there with other women when a female convert was there. It never even dawned on us to meet a convert privately, put them to work in an office, charge them money for our services, meet them outside a formal session of Bet Din, and establish a social or financial relationship with them. Unthinkable – as were the other allegations pending in DC.

We always tried to treat each convert with the utmost sensitivity, sincerity and compassion. For sure, not every candidate became a convert. It is not easy to turn someone away, but fortunately, most of those who ultimately did not convert dropped out themselves. And that is quite understandable. It takes an enormous commitment – a transformation of one’s life – to become a religious Jew. They simply saw that it was not for them, or, on some occasions when there was (or was to be) a Jewish spouse, the Jewish spouse could not commit to living a Torah life.

Most converts – especially those who wish to marry a Jew – tend to exaggerate their readiness for conversion. (Only about 15% of our candidates were non-Jews in a relationship with a Jew.) Most of the other adults were simply non-Jews turned on to Torah. Occasionally they too would try to hasten the process but once they became aware of the breadth of knowledge required by a convert, they would accede. Many said, in one form or another, “I want to get this right. I want to be ready.”

That is what made the moment of giyur so special, so inspiring and so memorable. There were not a few times when the candidate (especially a woman) came to receive her name and our blessing after the immersion, and broke down in tears. Tears of joy and thanksgiving, not tears of abuse and maltreatment. I would share only with my colleagues letters, cards (some people actually put pen to paper) and emails of gratitude from many of our converts for the process, the way they were treated, for the immense spiritual pleasure they now enjoy. Those notes would be a welcome contrast to the open season against rabbis now in full force. I would share them, even anonymously, but for their self-serving nature.

So why resign?

The GPS system that has worked so well for us is about to change. No matter that the system worked quite well, making the conversion process difficult but eminently attainable to the committed, protecting rabbis against abuse by powerful layman (“Convert my future daughter-in-law or you’ll be out of a job!”), and standardizing the requirements for conversion. The latter is the most important consideration, because conversion is not a rabbinical contrivance to decrease the intermarriage rate or facilitate marriages but it is an entrée into the Jewish nation, G-d’s chosen people. It is not a personal, private act of the converter and the convert, but a formal and heartfelt welcome to the Jewish people. It is an act with profound consequences for our nation, and for the convert who now shares our destiny and fate.

We have our rules for citizenship like any nation does, and ours requires, first and foremost, Kabbalat hamitzvot (acceptance of the commandments). Living a full Jewish life requires study, and the policy was always that, aside from rare cases that required special consideration, the minimum period of study was one year. This immediately deflected from the rabbi pressure to perform a quickie conversion. The candidate was tested, informally but regularly, and was expected to be an observant Jew before immersion, the final stage. That always was a sticking point – in the past not every rabbi insisted on a full acceptance of mitzvot, preferring to turn a blind eye or deaf ear. Most candidates accepted the one-year period (the US requires a five-year residency requirement for citizenship!) and most understood that it was because conversion was a momentous act. One recent candidate explained that she first went to a non-Orthodox conversion school, and realized there were no expectations for her at all. Finish the class, and you’re in the club. She intuitively knew that could not be right, and came to our Bet Din.

Beyond that, candidates were always told that the pace of conversion was up to them, and it depended on two factors: knowledge and commitment. The more they grew in knowledge and the deeper in commitment, the closer they were to conversion. It was and is a reasonable approach.

On the other hand, once or twice candidates came and said that they are getting married in six weeks, and one party needed to convert. They were not observant, did not wish to be, and they were not accommodated. The serious among them, of course, postponed their weddings, waited, went through the system, and established Torah homes. Beautiful. As it should be.

The GPS system did not fail in DC; a person failed. That person allegedly breached every norm in our protocols. There is an impulse – quite common on one side of the political divide in America – that if someone breaks the law, what is needed is a restatement of the law, or another law. But if laws stopped criminals, there would be no criminals. We have plenty of laws.

The GPS system has always had its detractors, inside and outside the RCA, and those detractors are exploiting this crisis to change the system. (Those who have obsessively focused on the Rabbanut angle always missed the point, and Israel is now dealing with its own conversion crisis with issues regarding standards that are not dissimilar to ours.) Thus, the RCA has just appointed a committee “that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions on women. Is there a role for women to play in “suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse”? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in “review[ing]” the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.

There are members of the committee who have never liked the GPS guidelines, and do not follow them. There are very few members of the committee who were part of the original committee, which entirely consisted of Rabbis. Of course, they will have to water down the standards – they’ll call it a “revision” and an “improvement” – but I fear we will not be far from the old days of quickie conversions with little true commitment. That, by the way, still happens, and a few RCA rabbis acting outside the GPS system still perform those.

I will be delighted to be proven wrong. But I don’t think I will be, and therefore it is time to get out. I do not wish to be coerced to apply standards and guidelines that, to my thinking, may not comport with the requirements of Torah, and the makeup of the committee will almost ensure that outcome, however it is presented.

Much of the impetus for these changes is media-driven, as the RCA is trying to overcome the bad publicity of the DC scandal. I, for one, refused to be tarred with that brush. Let one person stand trial for his crimes. Jews have always opposed the notion of collective guilt. Why does every Bet Din in the country have to change their successful practices just because one person in one Bet Din allegedly violated every guideline in our handbook?

Additionally, it would be far better for the RCA leadership now to focus on its own potential mishandling of this matter, as the media has highlighted. I serve on the RCA’s Executive Committee but know almost nothing about the inner workings or decision-making of the RCA. Questions have been raised – in the media, especially – as to what did they know, when did they know it, whom did they inform and what did they do about it? I have implicit trust in my colleagues but those questions deserve answers.

Thus, I have no interest in serving in a system in which I have no input in the policies of that system, am not consulted on them, and might not agree with them. Why resign in a huff after the policies and changes are announced?! Be not a martyr after the fact, but a ro’eh at hanolad – anticipate what will happen. That is what I have done.

There is a second reason as well. Earlier I described the sheer majesty of the moment of conversion –the birth of a Jewish soul. For me and I’m sure my colleagues, that made all our efforts worthwhile – all the time we invested on a volunteer basis (we never earned a nickel from conversions), the nights and weekends that were devoted to helping people realize their spiritual dreams.

Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din.

It needs to be said that the most uncomfortable situation I encountered in gerut was not the woman in the mikveh; she is concealed such that only the top of her head was visible. My most uncomfortable moments were when an adult male had to lie on a table with his private parts exposed so the Bet Din could witness the hatafat dam brit (a quasi-circumcision). And yet, no man – not a single one – ever complained about the process because each knew that it was a small price he had to pay (a requirement) for membership in an eternal people. A little perspective is in order. Not everything in life has to be vulgarized.

It is as if every rabbi is now a suspect, every rabbi needs a chaperone, and no rabbi can be trusted.

I have no interest in living as a suspect. I refuse to have my integrity and character impugned, nor to be defined in the public eye because of one miscreant.

Note that I have no illusions that this is some major moment in my life or anyone else’s. There is no earth-shattering news here. The heavens will not shed tears. I subscribe to de Gaulle’s adage that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” I too will be replaced. Don’t cry for me, Evita Peron.

But we are living in a toxic environment for rabbis (generally; not locally where I live, thank G-d). The distrust is embarrassing and unbecoming. If I cannot be trusted to behave like a normal, decent human being, then I am unworthy of serving on a Bet Din. Let someone else do it. If people wish to presume that rabbis are corrupt and suspect, so in the words of our Sages (Masechet Sanhedrin 37b), “Mah lanu v’la’tzara ha’zot?” – that is to say, why do we need this headache?

Frankly, I am hard-pressed to understand why any non-Jew would convert to a religion whose spiritual leaders are so distrusted.

There is much to do, much that needs to be done, in the world of Torah and for the Jewish people. My days are full, thank G-d. I’m lucky to be able to make a contribution in other ways, foremost in the kehilla where I am privileged to serve, and look forward to doing so.

I leave conversion to others – others that I know serve the Jewish people with great devotion, distinction and honor, and do deserve the trust of those they serve.

Rabbi Steven Pruzanksy is Rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck, NJ, and author of the newly released “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Gefen Publishing).

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Looting the Kodesh

by Avrohom Gordimer

Looters have invaded sacred space; the plane in crisis has been hijacked.

Obviously, the Orthodox community must act with extreme care, meticulousness and scrutiny pursuant to the recent startling allegations of highly immoral crimes involving mikveh and conversion on the part of a well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) took immediate action, and so have mikveh associations and synagogues. Undoubtedly, the entire scope of necessary responsive actions that may be needed remains to be seen and would have to be implemented comprehensively and with thorough deliberation.

All steps taken need to be done with the goal of securing the system, protecting all users, and restoring a sense of utmost safety and privacy, rather than with an eye toward dismantling the system and redefining it. Sadly, this has not fully been the case.

Moreover, and seldom discussed, is the need to fortify the atmosphere of sanctity that pertains to mikveh and conversion such that these two holy institutions are not associated with anything base or crass. When a reputation has been unjustifiably sullied, it needs to be restored; when a mitzvah has been publicly associated with lewdness, the import and sacred image of the mitzvah needs to be elevated.

Unfortunately, the recent grave allegations of immoral crimes relating to mikveh and conversion have been used by the Left Fringe as a means to further an agenda that debases rather than safeguards these sanctified institutions.

One leading Open Orthodox rabbi has used the mikveh and conversion allegations to call for the ordination and acceptance of women rabbis ; other top brass rabbis of Open Orthodoxy have used this crisis as an opportunity to lobby for the dismantling of conversion standards, arguing against unified conversion oversight and protocol in favor of every individual rabbi being able to conduct conversions as he sees fit – and this can include employing standards that are considered invalid by virtually every beis din and legitimate rabbinic body, including the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. (Proponents of this “conversion autonomy” approach often adopt the position, contrary to the consensus of the greatest of poskim of today and yesteryear, that conversion does not require Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos/Acceptance of the Mitzvos by the prospective convert. Rather than requiring that a conversion candidate demonstrably commit to lead a life of complete halachic observance, many proponents of the conversion autonomy approach seek for the rabbi overseeing the conversion to decide on his own whether or not Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos will be part or the protocol. One of the founders of the Open Orthodox rabbinate, who is also one of the primary spokesmen for the conversion autonomy approach, has lobbied fiercely for the discarding of centralized conversion standards and in favor of conversion without Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos. Imagine the havoc that this would wreak for converts and for Orthodoxy as a whole.)

Aside from the above Open Orthodox endeavors endangering the integrity of conversion on a comprehensive scale, there is a radical view of mikveh and of modesty in general which has become embedded in Open Orthodoxy and which threatens to compromise the sanctity of mikveh and further erode matters of personal privacy. This seems very strange, and it is indeed incredibly odd, but this phenomenon must be addressed, as it can damage that which we seek to and must protect.

On September 3 of this year, Yeshivat Maharat, along with Drisha Institute and ImmerseNYC, held a symposium about mikveh. The event was billed as an effort on the part of the new “mikveh movement” to “reclaim and reframe” mikveh use, including tevillah (immersion) for non-traditional purposes, such as to mark school graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, the completion of medical treatments, and all sorts of personal milestones. Many graduates and students of Yeshivat Maharat are actively involved in promoting unconventional mikveh use, and the September 3 event was the natural manifestation of a goal already common to that group.

One of the featured speaks was “Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, director Mikveh Shmaya: An educational and ritual mikveh in Israel”. Dr. Ner-David operates an independent mikveh in an Israeli community, where all types of immersions are authorized and conducted, including invalid ones (such as tevillah by women in the middle of menstruation and tevillah for the conversion of children adopted by active homosexual partners). Dr. Ner-David opposes the modesty restriction of nighttime-only immersion by women, and she has a focus on non-gendered and transgendered immersion. Her appearance at the September 3 event, co-paneled by the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat and a Yeshivat Maharat student who works for ImmerseNYC, should send the red flags shooting up.

ImmerseNYC, led by a female Reform rabbi, promotes unconventional mikveh use. The organization has no halachic standards or Orthodox affiliation, and its presence at the September 3 event raises further questions about Open Orthodoxy’s claim to Orthodox status. The ImmerseNYC mandate includes:

Our mikveh will be a place where gay men can immerse for their wedding anniversary.

Aside from the new “mikveh movement” abandoning Halacha and Mesorah (tradition), its promotion of tevillah by all people for all sorts of occasions means that single people, both male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, will be ever present at mikva’os; the sense of privacy and modesty at mikveh that married women seek and require is sure to be thereby undermined (even with separate mikveh use hours for men and women).

The Vaad Ha-Giyur (Conversion Committee) of International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) is comprised of several individuals who have been featured in these articles due to their notably unOrthodox positions and actions. (One such person is the chancellor of a non-Orthodox rabbinical school and ordains women as rabbis, and another one is the founder of Open Orthodoxy, who likewise ordains women and who called a woman to the Torah in a makeshift men’s minyan this past Simchas Torah. Judging by the composition of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur, it is no wonder why IRF conversions are deemed to be of concern to so many halachic authorities.) One particular member of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur serves as the chairman of the Department of Halacha at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). This same rabbi is the rav ha-machshir (kosher certifier) and posek (halachic decisor) for the mikva’os of Mayyim Hayyim, a Boston-based operation of the new “mikveh movement”. The mikva’os affiliated with Mayyim Hayyim were constructed under the direction of a Conservative rabbi, and a YCT graduate who leads a liberal Orthodox congregation in the Boston area serves as the local supervisor for these mikva’os. Several Yeshivat Maharat leaders serve as Mayyim Hayyim faculty.
Given the high-level YCT/Yeshivat Maharat involvement with Mayyim Hayyim, one would expect it to maintain Orthodox standards. Well:

Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim are initially selected by a team of social workers and psychologists. They attend a seven-week course taught by Jewish educators from Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative backgrounds using a curriculum reviewed and edited by community rabbis, mikveh experts and Jewish educators.

Mayyim Hayyim, which boasts no formal Orthodox affiliations (although dozens of non-Orthodox congregations and organizations extend their endorsement thereto), hosts conversions of all denominations, and it recommends use of its mikveh system for all personal milestone events, including coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Mayyim Hayyim has retained a Reform female cantor for musical accompaniment upon tevillah as desired, and its educational programming is likewise non-Orthodox:

Come learn from Rabbis Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah and David Lerner of Temple Emunah.

– yet the ongoing kashrus of the mikva’os of Mayyim Hayyim is certified and actively maintained by the YCT rabbinate, and several Yeshivat Maharat leaders serve on the Mayyim Hayyim faculty.
Common halachic consensus calls for the converting beis din (rabbinic court) to be present for the tevillah of all converts, including female ones. (See Yoreh Deah 268:3.) The beis din does not view the tevillah, but it must be on-site in order for the conversion to be valid, as with all other parts of the actual conversion process. According to common halachic consensus, lack of the presence of a beis din can render the conversion invalid. Despite this halachic consensus in this most weighty area of Jewish personal status, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat has announced that he is writing a teshuva (halachic responsum) that will allow tevillah in the absence of an on-site beis din, as “A power hierarchy (favoring men) exists. Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.” This maverick halachic practice would challenge the norm, split the community, and result in untold cases of questionable Jewish status, but Open Orthodoxy has no problem with that. Is performing a conversion that will be rejected by mainstream Orthodoxy a service to the convert? The rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat ought to think hard about this one.

Open Orthodox “mikveh movement” endeavors grossly undermine the sanctity and privacy of mikveh and fly in the face of current efforts to protect and fortify such; the Open Orthodox responses to the recent Geirus (conversion) issue likewise jeopardize the stability of conversions worldwide. Mikveh and Geirus have been looted and hijacked to further the Open Orthodox agenda, despite the extreme damage thereby caused.

A Cross-Currents article published this past July noted that the boundaries of modesty and traditional values were being trampled upon by Open Orthodox rabbinical education, as Open Orthodox rabbinical students were taught about marital sex by a female sex therapist, and the students entertained topics such as “Saying Kaddish for a Gay Partner” in other rabbinical school classes. Prior to Yom Kippur of this year, the YCT rosh yeshiva delivered an incredibly provocative lecture:

Listen to Rabbi Dov Linzer’s shiur exploring the topic of the erotic imagery surrounding the Kohen’s Gadol’s entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, with a brief look at the encounter God has with the Temple on Sukkot.

In this lecture, we are told that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) performed a symbolic act of sexual intercourse upon entering the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim (Holy of Holies) on Yom Kippur, that the Paroches (Curtain of the Holy of Holies) represented the curtains of a bedroom relating to the sexual act, and that the Ketores (Incense) burned in the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim was associated with an aura of sexual seduction. While it is true that the metaphoric physical connection between Hashem and the Jewish People as depicted in some Torah sources is representative of an immense chibah (endearment) between Hashem and His People, with the sources applying physical references in order to make this chibah relationship understandable to man and appreciated for its intensity (and such is the foundation of Shir Ha-Shirim/Song of Songs), the YCT rosh yeshiva, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction, with his focus and language more interested in a suggestive, physical, graphic erotic act than in the chibah. In his lecture, the YCT rosh yeshiva debases the subject and entertains his audience with the bold implication that, “Guess what? There is a lot of sexual stuff in the Yom Kippur Avodah (Service). Let’s talk about this erotica and get into the graphic imagery of it. It is ‘kosher sex’…” The referenced recording of this lecture speaks for itself.
When religion degenerates into nivul peh (sexually suggestive discussion), debasing that which is spiritually sublime and desecrating that which is holy, all begins to erode and lose its sense of sanctity and venerability. Religion becomes a heathen orgy, directed to the service of self rather than being a form of submission to the Divine. And respect for the Divine is also thereby fatally compromised.

Case in point: Explaining God’s message to the Jewish People on Shmini Atzeres of “Kashah alay p’raidaschem” – “Your departure from Me at the conclusion of Sukkos is difficult; please remain with Me for one extra day for a private celebration,” one well-known Open Orthodox rabbi from Riverdale, who refers to himself as non-denominational and who serves on the Yeshivat Maharat advisory board, described why the Creator seeks for B’nei Yisroel to remain with Him to celebrate a final day of Yom Tov:

It’s funny to talk about God’s wants and needs… But that’s clearly what we want to say as a community about God: God has issues, like all of us.…There’s something very compelling about God having issues. Yes, we need God on these holidays, but God needs us, too.

Yes, shockingly, this Open Orthodox rabbi assigns emotional impairment to Hashem (!). Not only is this highly blasphemous and utterly nonsensical, but it reveals Open Orthodoxy’s cavalier stance toward that which is Most Holy: play loose with it and feel free to bring it down, for everything goes and the Kodesh can be debased.

No, Open Orthodox attitudes had nothing to do with the recent stunning alleged crimes of immorality, but yes, Open Orthodox attitudes and actions seriously impede the community’s attempt and need to restore a palpable sense of sanctity and sacred dignity to the Torah’s most private institutions.

As we depart from Parshas Noach, in which “ki hishchis kol basar es darko al ha-aretz” – “all forms of life defiled their ways on the earth” through deviation from their holy and natural charge – let us move forward and embody the example of Avrohom Avinu (Abraham our Forefather), whom Rav Soloveitchik explained represented total and unqualified submission to the Divine charge, and through whose holy path was the world redeemed.

[i] http://morethodoxy.org/2014/10/24/and-the-lord-god-said-youre-not-about-sex-by-yosef-kanefsky/
[ii] Oct. 21 Facebook post by senior YCT administrator and http://morethodoxy.org/2014/10/29/the-torah-value-of-decentralized-power-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/ The author of the latter argues that Geirus should be decentralized, following the lead of the Biblical prophetic system, in which each prophet was independent, and Shmuel the Prophet chastised the Jewish People for seeking a king, who would be vested with centralized powers. This example forms the author’s case against a centralized Geirus system. However, the author’s argument is sorely lacking, for while it is true that the prophetic system is largely “decentralized”, the legal- judicial system in Judaism is anything but. The three-tiered legal-judicial system, comprised of Beis Din Ha-Gadol, Sanhedrin Ketanah and Beis Din shel Sheloshah Semuchim (Supreme Rabbinic Court, Large-Scale Rabbinic Court and Lower Rabbinic Court), with the first of the three the ultimate arbiter and final authority and each of the prior maintaining a hierarchy over each of the latter, consists of total centralization. This is how legal systems need to operate, and Geirus is indeed a legal procedure that far better fits into the beis din example than into the prophetic one (although obviously the personal/spiritual aspect of Geirus is at core of a true convert’s motivation and drive). Open Orthodoxy has spoken out on countless occasions in favor of rabbinic autonomy in Geirus (see, e.g., http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/end-the-chief-rabbinates-monopoly/ and http://www.jewishideas.org/minhamuvhar/conversion-crisis), yet it has failed to speak out in favor of maintaining Geirus standards that assure the concert’s acceptance as Jewish.
[iii] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Conversion/Contemporary_Issues/Leniency_in_Orthodoxy.shtml
[iv] https://www.facebook.com/yeshivatmaharat/photos/a.10150930021566089.414490.99505536088/10152378671576089/?type=1&theater
[v] http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mikveh-and-the-single-woman/
[vi] http://immersenyc.org/about-us/
[vii] http://immersenyc.org/community-mikveh/
[viii] http://www.internationalrabbinicfellowship.org/sites/default/files/International-Rabbinic-Fellowship-Vaad-HaGiyur-Members.pdf
[ix] http://cdnyeshiva.org/faculty/administrative-faculty/
[x] http://www.jidaily.com/LPd , http://www.jta.org/2013/06/17/default/what-does-an-orthodox-ordination-certificate-look-like
[xi] http://forward.com/articles/178749/as-first-maharats-graduate-roles-for-orthodox-wome/?p=all
[xii] http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/207640/the-rabbinate-as-taught-to-me-by-avi-weiss/?#ixzz3Gn483Fcv
[xiii] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/About/Kashrut
[xiv] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/resources/faculty
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/About/Organizational-Members
[xvii] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/Using-the-Mikveh/Life-Transitions
[xviii] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/Using-the-Mikveh/Musical-Accompaniment
[xix] http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/Events-Classes/Many-Waters
[xx] http://www.jta.org/2014/10/27/news-opinion/united-states/orthodox-yeshiva-argues-for-greater-privacy-in-conversions
[xxi] http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2014/07/27/open-orthodoxy-and-the-rebirth-of-the-conservative-movement/
[xxii] https://www.facebook.com/YCTRabbinicalSchool, https://www.facebook.com/YCTRabbinicalSchool
[xxiii] In another pre-Yom Kippur discussion, an Open Orthodox rabbi from Riverdale argued against the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, as it is used to promote “homophobia”:
I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/the-canteen/2014/10/02/promises-for-my-gay-children-reflections-of-an-orthodox-rabbi-for-yom-kippur/
It should be noted that this rabbi, who was one of the first people ordained at YCT, is married to a cantor (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/the-canteen/author/aviorlow/page/2/), and that a current YCT rabbinical student is married to a student enrolled in Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (http://www.mishkanhaam.org/beresheit/about/leadership/rabbieducation-director/). As noted in an earlier article (http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2014/07/27/open-orthodoxy-and-the-rebirth-of-the-conservative-movement/), a recent YCT graduate, who is now a rebbe there, is married to a Conservative rabbi.
[xxiv] V. Rashi on Vayikra 23:36
[xxv] http://wonderingjew.forward.com/207476/left-out-then-lingering-hoshana-rabba-and-shemini/
[xxvi] Bereshis 6:12 with Midrash and Commentaries

Rabbi Gordimer is a kashrus professional, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On the contrary, he sells it short, as the field of computer science has since its inception. If AI isn’t as scary as he imagines, it’s not because of what a sentient computer could do, but because it can only happen with a sentient computer.

Professor Alan Turing of Manchester University is often referred to as the “father of the modern computer” without much exaggeration. He and his peers changed our world – but they believed that the field of computer science would progress in a very different way. Whether or not anyone envisioned a global information network, enabling you to read this article on a handheld wireless device, they certainly believed that by the end of the last century, computers themselves would “awaken,” and add information on their own initiative. While the relevant field is usually called artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness is arguably more accurate; the intent was to produce a computer able to demonstrate creativity and innovation.

Turing needed an impartial way to determine if a computer was actually thinking. He proposed, in a 1950 paper, that if a teletype operator were unable to determine after five minutes that the party at the other end was a computer rather than another human being, then the computer would have passed the test. Turing proposed development of a program that would simulate the mind of a child, which would then be “subjected to an appropriate course of education” in order to produce an “adult” brain.

With all the phenomenal developments in the field of computer science, we are but marginally closer — if, indeed, we are closer at all — to developing a “child brain” than we were then. “Eugene Goostman,” recently declared to have passed the Turing Test during a competition at the University of Reading, was simply a chatbot programmed with evasive answers. It presented itself as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (who spoke English as a third language) not because it possessed the faculties of a young teenager, but to cover for its many errors and fool the assessors. Deceptive programming isn’t the intelligence Turing had in mind.

But “Goostman” was also in no way unique. Since 1990, inventor Hugh Loebner has underwritten an annual Turing contest at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. And every year, all of the contestants are programs intended to fool the judges, and nothing more; the creativity or passion comes not from the silicon, but only from the programmers behind them.

As it turns out, Turing was preceded by over a millenium in determining his standard of human consciousness. The Rabbis of the Talmud stated the following, in Sanhedrin 65b:

Rava made a man. He sent him before Rebbe Zeira. [R. Zeira] spoke to it, but it did not answer. R. Zeira said, “are you from the scholars? Return to your dust!”

What the teacher Rava created was a Golem, an artificial humanoid that certain righteous individuals were purportedly able to create via spiritual powers. Much like a robot, it could obey commands and perform tasks – but it could not engage in conversation. The Maharsha explains why Rava’s Golem was unable to properly answer R. Zeira:

Because [Rava] could not create the power of the soul, which is speech. Because [the Golem] did not have a neshamah [soul], which is the spirit that ascends above, [but] only the life spirit which is also in animals, which descends below, [R. Zeira] said to it, “return to your dust.”

What this Talmudic passage and commentary tell us, then, is that creating an artificial consciousness isn’t nearly as simple as Turing imagined it to be. The Maharsha essentially tells us that intelligent speech is a manifestation of the soul invested in human beings — not something that programmers can simply drum up with several pages of well-written code. When Turing wrote that “presumably the child brain is something like a notebook … rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets” — he was making an assumption that, today, seems positively foolish.

Yet without any true progress towards development of artificial thought, many in the research community remain undeterred even today. Ray Kurzweil, now Director of Engineering at Google – and one of the great innovators and thinkers in computer science – predicts we’ll achieve this goal in 15 years, simply because technology progresses exponentially. An article in Princeton Alumni Weekly recently stated, regarding a prominent professor of psychology, that “if the brain is just a data-processing machine, then [Professor Michael] Graziano sees no reason we cannot create computers that are just as conscious as we are.”

That “if,” of course, is simply a restatement of Turing’s invalid assumption. Today’s supercomputers already process information more rapidly than we do, have larger memory banks, and of course have essentially perfect recall. Computers can see well enough to drive vehicles and hear and transcribe speech. But they cannot find meaning in what they see, nor respond as humans do to what they hear.

On the contrary, the failure to produce a semblance of a thinking computer should be causing a lot of second thoughts about the nature of human consciousness itself. We have proven that the brain is not simply a data-processing machine. When our most dedicated thinkers are unable to produce human thought, or even make substantive progress after decades of effort, are we perhaps not fools to imagine it developed by accident?

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Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his justly famous essay on Sukkos (“Bitul HaYesh”) brings a Midrash that compares our entry into the sukkah to a mini-galus. The Midrash explains why the mitzvah of sukkah follows Yom Kippur: Perhaps the Jewish people have been decreed for galus, exile, (or an extension of the current galus). And if so, perhaps HaKadosh Baruch Hu will accept our leaving our fixed abode to live in the sukkah for seven days in lieu of a full-scale exile.

Thus sukkah is, at some level, an antidote for exile. Rabbi Dessler explains how. Our current galus came about for the sin of sinas chinam, senseless hatred. From a materialistic perspective, which views the world as a limited pie, anyone else’s gain of a larger piece inevitably comes at everyone else’s expense. The primarily relationship between people is as competitors.

Leaving behind the security of our normal dwelling for an insecure, temporary dwelling, forces us to give up some of our reliance on the material and place our trust in Hashem. That move from a material to a spiritual perspective in turn allows us to see our fellow Jews as joined to us in a common spiritual enterprise, in which each one’s advance helps pull up the other, rather than as competitors over a limited pie.

If Sukkos is – at least from this perspective — an antidote to animosity and division between Jews, the Sukkos issue is an appropriate occasion to take up once again the subject of kiruv. Jewish unity comes through a common attachment to Torah. In Rav Saadia Gaon’s famous formulation, we are a nation by virtue of Torah: Only the Torah can ultimately provide us with the sense of common purpose.

A WELL-RESEARCHED ARTICLE in Mishpacha recently posed the question: “Is the Door Closing on Kiruv?” Echoing a point about which Marvin Schick has been shrying gevalt for nearly thirty years, the article notes that at the most basic level the pool of Jews to mekarev, draw close, is rapidly diminishing. As a friend who is the rav of a community that is home to a major research university told me nearly twenty years ago, if you meet a college student with a Biblical first name and a Jewish last name – e.g., Sarah Rosenberg – he or she is almost certainly not Jewish. The Biblical first name serves as kapparah (atonement) for marrying out.

And even when a college student is halachically Jewish, we have already reached the point where he or she is more likely to have only one Jewish parent. That means that such Jewish identification as that young person possesses is far more attenuated than a generation ago. A vague sense of Jewish identity and that being Jewish might be in some yet unknown way be important can no longer be assumed.

To the demographic challenge, author Sara Glaz added others based on interviews with some of the leading figures in kiruv. For one thing, it is harder than ever to gain the undivided attention of the plugged-in generation, whose minds are inevitably elsewhere or nowhere. And the rapid implosion of the Conservative movement has reduced what was traditionally the largest feeder pool for kiruv in the United States.

Finally, it is ever harder to persuade young people to take time off for prolonged study at Israeli ba’al teshuva yeshivos and seminaries. Many students now graduate college with loan obligations in the tens of thousands of dollars and facing a job market in which one out of four Americans between 25 and 54 is not employed. Yeshiva or seminary studies are simply too big a risk for all but the most committed, wealthiest, or those with the very best transcripts.

As an empirical matter, it is clear that the major institutions in which the ba’al teshuva movement was born – Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach, Neve Yerushalayim et al – find it increasingly difficult to fill their batei medrash or classrooms.

And as one who writes regularly about the “shallowing” effect of constant connectivity, I find it entirely plausible that part of the explanation lies in the difficulty of gaining the attention of those who are constantly maintaining their public personae in cyberspace. The odds are necessarily long against any particular young person dramatically changing his life and going against his peer group. And even more so when that decision involves trading in a present filled with a cornucopia of sensory pleasures for a very uncertain future about which he or she can have little real sense in advance. In general, only someone of considerable depth could contemplate, much less make, such a decision.

BUT WITH ALL THESE PROBLEMS, I have rarely talked to someone involved in campus kiruv who did not feel overwhelmed by the demands on his or her time or who felt that they were achieving nothing. I have spoken a number of times over the years for the MEOR program at the University of Pennsylvania and on other campuses, and the room has always been filled and the audience largely attentive.

A woman who served with her husband as one of the campus couples at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for two years recently wrote me about their experience. She can count six students who grew to full observance in their home, including two who married one another, with the husband currently learning in Telshe-Chicago Yeshiva. And she is still in touch after some years break with fifteen or so other students, who know that she cares about what is happening in their lives, even if they are not presently growing in mitzvah observance. She accounts them as successes as well.

I recently spoke to a young man who had just returned from eight months or so working with other young Israelis at kiosks in American shopping malls. He described working eleven hours a day and trying to initiate conversations with hundreds of people daily. Of those, perhaps 150 engage for any period of time, and of those three purchase anything. So why would anyone take on such an unpleasant job? I asked. “Because at the end of the month, the ones who are good at it can make $7,000-$8,000 a month,” he replied.

My informant was far too sensitive for high-pressure sales or taking advantage of vulnerable marks, and made only a fraction of that. But perhaps the experience of his less scrupulous colleagues serves as a moshol for campus kiruv: It is hard to get anyone to listen, and much harder to get them to buy. But the reward of doing so is very great indeed.

MY OWN GUESS is that kiruv in America is not coming to an end, but rather developing new models and targeting different age groups. The major kiruv institutions of Eretz Yisrael will, at least in the near future, probably not maintain their formerly dominant role in the world of kiruv. And that will prove disorienting for all, particularly the high (but diminishing) percentage of kiruv professionals who began their learning in these yeshivos.

As a consequence, there may well be fewer young men proceeding from Ohr Somayach to being avreichim in Mir Yeshiva and fewer ba’alos teshuvos whose goal is to marry them. But that is only one model of ba’al teshuva, even if it is the one with which most of us are most familiar.

In the last few years, I have spent time in at least three thriving communities – in the suburbs of Atlanta, Denver, and Toronto – where I did not meet a single congregant who grew up religious, and I have been in many congregations in which ba’alei teshuva and geirim constitute the majority. The Orthodox community of Dallas has more than doubled over the last twenty years, largely due to the DATA outreach kollel, and Aish-St.Louis had a powerful impact on that city. (This list is illustrative, not exhaustive.) The growth in these communities has been almost entirely internal, and few, if any, of the ba’alei teshuva had the opportunity for full-time yeshiva study.

Jews are, and will continue, to come closer to Torah, but they are as likely to be families with young children as college students. That process of community building through families will be more labor intensive and require developing ongoing personal relationships over years. For every family that achieves full mitzvah observance, there will be others who simply like the rav or the warmth of an Orthodox shul. Just as in time-lapse photography, the results in any time frame may not be numerically impressive, but over time entire communities have been built.

The manner in which last year’s Shabbos Project in South Africa has caught the imagination of Jews in communities around the world demonstrates that there are still plenty of Jews interested and willing to explore further.

THE GREAT VISIONARY of the modern kiruv movement, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, always insisted that no matter how many full-time professionals were employed in kiruv their efforts would have to be augmented by thousands of regular Jewish families. Project Inspire, which promotes the message that every Orthodox Jew has a role to play in kiruv, is the fulfillment of Reb Noach’s vision. In just a few short years, the annual Project Inspire convention has grown larger than many events on the Torah calendar for decades.

Kiruv workers regularly list Torah families, whether in Lakewood or Lawrence as one of their greatest resources. In Lakewood, students discover that Torah lived at its most intense does not feel like something alien. And in Lawrence, they learn that a full Torah life is no contradiction to their career aspirations. Today’s college students are not the searching backpackers of the heady early days of the ba’al teshuva movement. They need role models with whom they can identify. That is why talks by prominent Orthodox professionals, in a wide range of fields, are a staple of the college Maimonides programs.

And it is good that the entire Orthdoox world is awakening to its responsibility in this area. On Rosh Hashanah, we lifted our voices loud in song envisioning a world in which Hashem reveals Himself in His full glory to “let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker, and every molded thing that You are its Molder.” But those words describe not just an ideal vision; they pose a challenge to each of us: What are we doing to help our fellow Jews recognize their Maker, or at the very least to arouse their curiosity about Torah?

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Winter High

The wishes of “git vinter!” customary in some communities after Shemini Atzeres might put some people in mind of fall’s end weeks hence, and give them a chill. Not me.

I’m decidedly in the minority when it comes to the seasons of the year (as I am, as an aficionado of early morning, when it comes to the times of the day). While I’m thrilled with the onset of each new season, appreciating the changes that I didn’t fully experience during the several years I spent in California, winter is my favorite season.

Not that I like shoveling snow any more than anyone else. But there’s something about the rolling in of a massive cold front that – how can I say it? – warms my heart (if not my hands). To me, the frigid cold is exciting, inspiring. Besides, watching snow fall from a warm place through a window and running chilled hands under a warm stream of water are distinct pleasures of their own.

What’s more, winter is symbolic of childhood.

You didn’t know that? Neither did I, at least until I found the thought in the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Beraishis 26:34); it is also in his sefer Ner Mitzvah.

The Maharal assigns a stage of human life to each of the year’s seasons. We might naturally associate nature’s awakening in spring with childhood, the heat of summer with petulant youth, autumn with slowed-down middle age and cold, barren winter with life’s later years.

The Maharal, however, describes things differently. He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer’s warmth and comfort to represent our productive middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of young adulthood. And winter, to evoke… childhood.

It is certainly counterintuitive. Winter is, after all, stark, empty of vibrancy, activity and growth. Childhood is, or should be, full of joy, restlessness and development.

But the superficial image, in the Maharal’s mind, betrays the reality. When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven’t appeared suddenly out of nothingness. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months; the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer’s mercury was falling. The evidence of life that visibly presents itself only with the approach of Pesach was preparing its case since Chanukah. In the deadest days of deepest winter, bundle up and venture outside to look at the barren trees’ branches. You’ll see the buds, biding their time but clearly there, ready to explode with vibrant green life when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life’s potential. And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day and congeal into an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype? When chaos and bedlam may seem to be the operative principles but when potential is at its most powerful? “The Child,” after all, as the poet William Wordsworth famously put it, is indeed “father of the Man.” Every accomplished person was once an unbridled toddler.

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, in Devorim (20:19). Even though the passuk’s context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end (“Is a man a tree of the field?”), other Rishonim, like the Ibn Ezra, read the passuk as making a straightforward comparison. And the sifrei nistar similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words. Man is, in some way, a tree of the field. There is sap rising in each of us, we all have leaves to put forth.

Sukkos is behind us; Chanukah, not so far off. When we put away the latter’s menoros and wicks, and winter progresses, we might find ourselves thinking about Tu B’Shvat, a few weeks in the future; and then, the harbinger of spring, Purim, when we will celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless situation into a joyous one. Esther was a bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

We’re all buds, too, each of us in his or her our own way. We all have potential yet to be realized. And winter, laid out in white before us, reminds us of that fact, of the Maharal’s lesson about the periods of the year – that much more important than what season of life we may think we’re in is the yet-unrealized potential we carry.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Fixing The Damaging Messages We Are Teaching Women And Girls

by Leslie Ginsparg Klein

“Orthodox women should have a job, not a career.” That is the message that frum girls are hearing at home and throughout their education. I’ve heard it repeated by my students, graduates of Bais Yaakov high schools and seminaries, who use it as a guiding principle. Words are powerful and words have significance. These words, and their implicit meaning, are damaging to women and our community. I implore parents and educators to stop using them.

In Pirkei Avos (1:11), the Mishnah warns us of the importance of being meticulous in the language that we use, particularly when we are in a leadership role. “Chachamim hizharu bidvareichem,” (Scholars, be careful with your words.) Rav Hirsch explains that this warning is directed at teachers and those who are guiding others in life. They need to take care not to use language that is “inaccurate, vague or ambiguous and may inspire erroneous views.” I fear this is exactly what is happening today with regards to guiding girls and women in their professional choices.

Why does it matter whether we call work a job or a career? What do people mean when they make that differentiation? Within sections … Read More >>

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Viewing One Another with a Favorable Eye

Just before Rosh Hashanah, Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, one the three murdered yeshiva students, issued a video message through Aish.com to the entire Jewish people. She recounted very briefly the torture of the18 days of searching for her son and Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaer: The parents knew almost from the beginning that their sons had almost certainly been murdered, and yet they maintained stoic countenances, filled with faith, throughout. Their nobility awed the entire nation.

Her message, however, was not about what the parents suffered or about the irreparable hole in their hearts. Rather she focused on those “amazing hours” of which it was said, “We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves.” She likened those days to a flash of lightning on a dark and gloomy night that illuminates the way forward: “We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”

Mrs. Fraenkel knows that it is not all kumbaya moments ahead of us, and that we will return to old patterns – indeed we already have. Yet, she insists, … Read More >>

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Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration. A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” at Neila’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan. But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me. I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister.

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.” (And, I’d add, even for some who may believe in … Read More >>

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The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance. The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much … Read More >>

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Why I Love Rav Shmuel – And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless

There is no contradiction. Anyone who finds one has targeted a straw man.

I have had the benefit of association with three generations of Kamenetskys. They have never, ever let me down when I have turned to them for guidance and insight.

The short but meaningful times I spent with both Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l provided the bases of a lifetime of confidence in the halachic system, and in the concept of emunas chachamim.

Making the transition from a fairly black yeshiva to teaching at a West Coast institution with the name YU just would not have happened without Rav Yaakov reassuring me that it was a good move. I am still in awe of the precision and focus of a man well into his eighties, late at night, as I drove him from Brooklyn to his home in Monsey. Watching and listening to him provided unshakeable evidence that mussar could work – that the visions of R Yisrael Salanter and the Alter of Slabodka were no pipe dream.

Lehavdil bein chaim le-chaim, Rav Shmuel continued the trademark smile of his father, as well as copious advice, to me and to all my … Read More >>

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What’s (Shabbos) App?

Yielding to the many who have asked for my take on the now-infamous Shabbos app, here is the quick and dirty version:

It does not do what its developers say it does – “The Shabbos App will give all Yidden a way to keep Shabbos with all the chumrahs.” Not only does it fail to address all or many chumros, it does not address many issues of ikkar ha-din. By that I mean real, normative issurim. We don’t even have to go to “spirit of Shabbos” halachos, which also happen to be binding.

For some people, using the app will be worse than texting without it.

The notion that a time-delay turns an action into a grama is wrong on two counts. Grama is still forbidden mi-derabbanan – not as a chumra. And there is little to support the notion that a delay in an action manifesting its desired consequence makes it a grama.

Without providing much detail, consider the melachah of tzeidah according to the Rambam (Shabbos 10:22), where temporarily causing a deer to freeze out of fright is chayav mi-dorayso when it delays a hunting dog (after a delay!) to seize it. Or removing oil from … Read More >>

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Malignancies

There’s nothing remotely funny, of course, about rabid Islamists beheading innocent Westerners they have kidnapped (or their fellow Muslims, for that matter).

Yet, there is something bizarrely droll about the characterization of such slaughter, and in particular its filming and the dissemination of the resultant videos, as a “recruitment tool.” According to experts like Peter Neumann, who directs a center for the study of political violence in London, that is the videos’ goal, based on past successes in attracting new recruits.

What I found almost humorous was the unthinkability (to put it mildly) of any group of normal human beings seeking adherents by murdering people on camera. Can you imagine the Mormon Church cutting off the heads of gentiles (its name for non-Mormons) in order to attract worshippers? The Republican party, to entice independents? The Rotary Club, to garner new members? The local Jewish Federation, to lure donors? You get the droll.

And then the all-too-serious question presents itself: What does it say about a cause that it attracts people by means of the gleeful shedding of innocent blood? And a corollary: What does it say about the people so attracted?

It is fashionable to seek to “understand” forces … Read More >>

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The Waning Strength and Influence of American Jewry – Including Orthodoxy

By Avrohom Gordimer

The Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project: A Portrait of Jewish Americans created shockwaves, as the shrinkage of (non-Orthodox) American Jewry and its impact and role were ominously documented and further forecast. Far fewer Jews, far less support for the State of Israel, far less religious affiliation and practice, and an overall disappearing American Jewish public presence are starkly indicated and are already occurring. Unless non-Orthodox Jewry returns to its traditional posture and makes a radical, sweeping commitment to intra-marriage and fortification of Jewish identity, its termination as a major religious-ethnic group is almost certain. This would obviously not only mean the effective end of American non-Orthodox Jewry, but it could also mean the end of significant American support for the State of Israel – a support that has been largely precipitated by elected officials seeking to secure the Jewish vote and responding to lobbying efforts on the part of large American Jewish organizations, representing sizeable Jewish political and financial support.

Despite the acutely negative predictions, non-Orthodox leadership has failed to take the necessary steps to attempt to salvage the situation. While a return to Torah observance, values and lifestyle would be the primary … Read More >>

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Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future. But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all. And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime. And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance? It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past. The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be. But it might well hold a deeper thought, that … Read More >>

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On The Derech To Rosh Hashanah

Life is full of exceptions. So while I generally am uneasy about cross-posting (no pun intended), sometimes a piece is so important that you want a portion of the mitzvah of spreading it around. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s advice about unexpected guests in shuls for the Yomim Nora’im clearly qualifies.

[Sometimes there are less objective reasons for making exceptions. Because I have been unable to come down from the high of spending a week with the participants in the Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men last month, whenever I find a trumpet sounding its success, I have a hard time putting it down. Earlier today, Gil Student published a new one on Torah Musings, by one of our participants, Shmuel Winiarz. He captured a good part of the magic.]

Back to the first compelling cross-post. Rabbi Horowitz speaks to an issue that is far more common than we would like to believe. I have observed the scene myself, but never had the insight to do something about it, as he did in his release earlier today:

Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom … Read More >>

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School News

The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.

In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”

Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with … Read More >>

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From Volozhin to Sanz, Gush Etzion to Talmon – A 5774 Retrospective

by Reuven Ungar

The following is written in memory of the boys and chayalim, may Hashem avenge their blood, who sanctified His Name. May their memory be a blessing.

Introduction: The outgoing year included events that gripped the collective Jewish People in a profound way. The following is an attempt to to reflect upon these events under the prism of Volozhin, highlighting the relevance of the flagship yeshiva of Lithuanian Jewry upon contemporary events. There is a pattern in the works- unity and the connection of the generations.

I Volozhin

The mere mention of Yeshivat Volozhin, Etz Chaim, founded by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, disciple of the Gra, generates the following associations: Torah Lishma, mastery of Torah, devotion to Torah, of the Torah shelo tehe muchlefet. Jewish leadership and love of The Land of Israel. Rav Chaim, the Netziv, the Beis HaLevi and Rav Chaim Brisker. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

Although the physical doors have been closed, the Tree of Life of Volozhin flourishes. It has survived the Czar and the Bolsheviks, the 60’s and post-modernism.

It is perpetuated in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan … Read More >>

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When Orthodox Jews Boycott Israeli Produce

The article below appeared in Haaretz last week.

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many … Read More >>

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A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a,“ and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate … Read More >>

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Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939. There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker. He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland … Read More >>

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In Brief:

The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

-- 7:12 pm

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state persisted until detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang, proved in 1964 that the universe was expanding from a beginning point.

If anything, Pope Francis merely recognized that physicists have come to agree with the Biblical account. The Big Bang theory was proposed by Monseigneur Georges LeMaitre, a Catholic priest, and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared it entirely consistent with Catholic belief.

But in actuality, the theory doesn’t belong to Monseigneur LeMaitre, either. The Ramba”n [Nachmanides] on Genesis 1:1 states that the universe began as a single point of pure energy, having the power to form all matter. If one reads it without knowing it’s the Ramba”n, it sounds like a clear lay description of the Big Bang.

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Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg – CNN Hero, and Mine

-- 2:28 am

In a large mosque in Detroit hangs a plaque honoring Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. That will give you just an inkling of the Kiddush Hashem that Rabbi G (as he is affectionately called) has created for decades in cities, hospitals, universities, and corporate installations throughout the US and abroad. He has now made the final cut in the annual CNN Heroes competition. Making it to the top ten contenders will itself bolster the image of the frum Jew as people read his amazing accomplishments while viewing his bearded visage crowned with a large black yarmulke.

Like Avraham Avinu whom the Torah describes as “vayakam…me’al pnei meiso,” R Goldberg took the loss of his infant Soro Basya to leukemia as a signal to move on to even greater accomplishment. Coupling his background in the martial arts with his huge reservoir of compassion and empathy, R Goldberg developed a program that teaches children to manage their pain, while giving them a sense of meaning and purpose as they then teach these techniques to others – including corporate executives. He has been featured in dozens of stories on network television and magazines like People. (The most recent coverage was in The Forward, where you can get more details.) He has managed to build up his chesed project while also serving as the camp rabbi at Camp Simcha for many years, rabbi emeritus of Young Israel of Southfield, Daf Yomi magid shiur, and clinical professor at a Detroit medical school.

With all the tarnishing of the image of the frum Jew in the last years, R Goldberg’s candidacy affords us a wonderful opportunity to burnish it in the eyes of millions. Which is why I intend, B”N, to vote for him twice a day (once by email; once by Facebook; this is both allowed and encouraged by the rules) at the official site. I encourage you to do the same – for the sake of all the kids that he will reach with the prize money, and for the purpose of providing a glimpse of the deracheha darchei noam that a Torah Jew can bring to our troubled world.

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“Personal Torah”

-- 10:25 pm

A recent announcement by a respected Conservative rabbi has been trumpeted widely as evidence of his heroism. My take is somewhat different, and was published, to the periodical’s credit, by the Forward. You can read it here

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Yom Kippur Shiur Available For Download

-- 11:27 pm

My annual Yom Kippur shiur is available for download. It was given earlier today to a gathering of women in Los Angeles, and comes in three sections, for reasons explained, within the shuir. The first is a large part of the Nesivos Shalom’s section Avodas Hashem, reduced to a list of bullet points. The middle section is a hodgepodge of shorter vertlach on Yom Kippur and teshuva. The last part is a maamar of Pachad Yitzchok.

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Letter in NYT

-- 9:03 pm

To the Editor:

Dr. Barron H. Lerner concedes that it was proper for medicine to abandon the medical paternalism that had doctors make “life-and-death decisions for patients by themselves,” but he asserts that doctors should be “bolder and more courageous,” seeing “their duty not simply as providing options” but as ensuring “the most appropriate care,” even if that means “saying no to specific demands.”

To be sure, patients and their families need to be well informed about treatments and prognoses. But it is not a doctor’s role to make ultimate decisions for his patients.

Dr. Lerner doesn’t like interventions that have “little or no chance of succeeding.” No one, though, has yet succeeded in surviving life indefinitely. And decisions about when, if ever, to give up on it are the province of patients and their religious advisers, not graduates of medical schools.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
New York, Sept. 19, 2014

Other letters on the topic can be read here.

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Jewish Action – Fall Issue

-- 3:30 am

Ask six frum Jews (of various genders) what they recommend as Elul reading, and you should get about 57 opinions, right? Jewish Action tried this, and the results are published in the Fall issue.

As one of the respondants, I was delighted to see that half of us went with recognized works of major baalei machshavah, which was the route that I described as working best for me. Within that group, only two seforim were chosen by more than one respondant: Sifsei Chaim, and Nesivos Shalom.

This provides a great opportunity for unvarnished self-promotion of my own adaptation of Nesivos Shalom (for those who are just not going to use the Hebrew original, which is the best way to go). Just in case anyone has forgotten.

You can order easily online here or on Amazon. It comes with a great cover.

Nesivos-Shalom-cover

 

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Burdened By The Times?

-- 2:45 pm

by Lawrence Reisman

I must confess that I read The New York Times regularly. Outside of the Middle East, I find the coverage to be fairly complete, in line with my biases, and even willing to contradict my preconceived notions now and then. More often than its detractors give it credit for, it will report when the liberal platitudes are simply not working. But enough of defending The Times. When it comes to Israel and the Mideast, I find its biases annoying. Mostly though, I live with them. I can see through what they’re saying, and I have no trouble finding alternative sources of information. So, most of the time, I live with it.

There comes a time when the biases of The Times are too much, even for me. In a recent review of Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September (about the 1979 Camp David accords), the reviewer started off with the following:

On March 11, 1978, 11 Palestinian militants came ashore in Zodiac boats north of Tel Aviv and set about murdering as many Israelis as they could with guns and grenades. They hijacked a taxi and two buses; 38 were killed, including 13 children. The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed.

Please notice how those who “set about murdering as many Israelis as they could,” are referred to as “militants.” All right, it’s not politically correct to use the word “terrorist” anymore, or maybe it is? Further on in the article, praising the author for showing Menachem Begin in a less negative light than he would like, the reviewer refers to Begin as a “former terrorist.” So an Israeli leader, about to abandon his vow never to give up the Sinai and make peace with Egypt is a “former terrorist,” while those who massacred (The Times’s word) 38 Israelis are only militants? The obvious and unabashed double standard is too much for even me.

I have written The New York Times Book Review calling attention to this linguistic imbalance. I would appreciate it if others would as well.

Lawrence M. Reisman is a certified public accountant and attorney working in New York City. His articles on Jewish subjects have been published in the New York Jewish Week, the Long Island Jewish World, The Jerusalem Report, and The Jewish Observer.

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How Technological Machers Limit Consumption To Their Kids

-- 12:17 am

This article in the New York Times is not to be missed. Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids have iPads.

The money quote from Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired regarding his five children, aged 6 to 17:

My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.

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Two For Elul

-- 11:23 pm

Two poetic images from Cross-Currents’ resident poet, Rabbi Yossi Huttler

Yemei Ratzon(Elul) – Tefilin, Mezuzos, Neshomos

Casings and bodies
opened up
S/scribe scrutinizing
sacred letters within
for imperfections and omissions
judging the living
parchment whether so flawed
to be consigned genizah
or repairable enough
to merit longer life

Altarnate

running to You
ensnared by thickets
of my own gnarling
still deem me worthy
even a mere substitute
offering

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The Israeli Seminary Scandal

-- 4:28 am

We’ve stayed out of it, because we had nothing particularly insightful to add. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, who has been a fearless crusader against abuse in general, does have some special insight, and has been very much involved in the unfolding of the story. A few paragraphs taken from his recent blog post are so critical that they must be spread far and wide:

1) As nashim tzidkaniyos (righteous women) who, at great personal risk, did the right thing to protect others from what had happened to them?

2) As troublemakers and m’saprei lashon ha’ra (gossip-mongers), who ruined the career of Rabbi Meisels and jeopardized the very existence of the seminaries?

3) Or they are not mentioned at all – basically, “Let’s-Not-Spoil-the-Party-by-discussing-sordid-things-like-this.” (In the month of Elul, no less)

My dear friends, we at Project YES feel very strongly that the only responsible position for the leadership and faculty of these seminaries (and all seminaries) is to take option #1.

We propose that option #2 and even #3 are unacceptable as they send a very dangerous message — should current or future students have their boundaries violated, the wisest and safest route for them, would be to remain silent.

This is the quintessential “teachable moment” to educate our innocent and sheltered young ladies about hilchos yichud and their right to personal space. They also need to be taught that it is not a violation of hilchoslashon ha’ra to speak up, if these boundaries are violated in any way. Quite to the contrary, they should be informed that they are obligated to do so – and assured that they will be supported unconditionally when they do so.

Giving the young ladies messages contrary to these — either by commission or omission — after such a public scandal occurred, will create a toxic and unsafe environment for them both physically and spiritually.

We write these lines to encourage the current leadership of these seminaries, and to the educators in all high schools and seminaries, to convey these critical messages to their students, and to empower the parents of the students to insist that they do.

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27 Comments

Nothing Like a Compliment

-- 5:30 pm

As part of my recovery from the removal of a polyp from one of my vocal chords, I’ve been doing a course of voice training to prevent any recurrences. Much of the training in proper speech habits involves reciting a series of nonsense syllables – e.g., boom, bom, bam, bem, beem.

In a recent session, after reciting the above series, my therapist expressed his approval of the manner in which I had avoided straining my vocal chords. I found myself smiling in response to the compliment.

That smile gave me pause. I’m 63 years old, not an infant forming his first syllables. I’ve been regularly engaged in some form of public speaking since my bar mitzvah drashah. And I have not led a life bereft of all forms of positive feedback or felt a desperate craving for such.

Yet here I was smiling to myself at the smallest compliment for properly mouthing five nonsense syllables. My reaction brought home once again the incredible power that lies in even the smallest compliment and how much we should make use of that power.

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Responses to the Shidduch Proposal

-- 4:03 am

Besides abandoning CC for two weeks while running the Tikvah Program for Yeshiva Men (reaction coming later) and a few days of decompression at Mammoth, I waited to see if readers of Mishpacha would pick up on the flaws I spotted in the original piece. They didn’t – at least the ones that the magazine agreed to publish. So here are my own quibbles:

1) No one is to blame, but the accolades to Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz understated just how much good he does. It could be that Angelenos, closer to the action, have a better understanding of just how generous he is, how hard he (and his wife) try to help other Jews, and how unassuming he is in the terrific work he does. Readers should know that the description in Mishpacha was not exaggerated.
2) I think that the proposed solution runs the risk of ameliorating one crisis by adding to a different one – one that Mishpacha is less likely to write about. As it is, those encouraged to defer even thinking about parnasah plans during their years of learning often wake up to the cruel realization that they have positioned themselves out of range to do anything in life that is suitable to their personalities and interests. By the time they begin to explore parnasah, the education many need is beyond achieving, because it requires time and money, and they have several children to support. This has led to desperation, friction with spouses, and general unhappiness for too many people waking up to realize that they just cannot make ends meet.

If yeshiva men marry at younger ages as proposed, they will likely have even larger families by the time they consider employment, and even fewer of them will have the flexibility to seek academic or vocational training while someone else is supporting the family. More of them will be trapped as permanently undereducated and underemployed.

I have my doubts about the marriage readiness of twenty-year old men, but even if I can be pleasantly surprised, I can’t see how it can work without allowing and encouraging them to at least think of hatching a game plan for future employment, and understanding what will be necessary to enter the market.

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38 Comments