Rabbis with Answers


The JTA ran an article recently about the development of new web sites to answer questions from Jews around the world. Our own JewishAnswers.org features prominently, of course, though the article missed what I consider JewishAnswers’ greatest advantage: by using technology to distribute the questions, we have a network of over 60 participating rabbis and educators. The result is a wonderful collaborative effort involving dozens of different Jewish outreach organizations.

Worse than that, though, the JTA called upon Samuel Heilman to put the most negative possible spin on the altruistic efforts of over 100 people overall (even though some are paid for their efforts, the true “money quote” comes from Rabbi Yosef Carmel, dean of the Eretz Hemdah Institute: “The connection between money and mitzvot is not good”).

Heilman explained the dearth of non-Orthodox sites as the nature of the different movements. “The Orthodox rabbinate is much more willing to tell people what to do,” Heilman said.

I don’t mind criticism when it is informed and fair, but when it comes to anything involving the Orthodox community, especially the charedi community, Samuel Heilman can be relied upon for commentary as ignorant as it is bigoted. If one has any doubt in this particular case, browsing JewishAnswers should resolve it immediately.

Because JewishAnswers is published in blog format, a visit to the home page brings up the most recent twenty answers published. Currently, 85% have no instructive content whatsoever. They cannot be construed as telling anyone to do anything, unless you call “You can browse their stuff” (for further information) “telling people what to do.”

The other three are responses to requests for information — from a woman wanting to know how to light candles, from a groom on preparing for his wedding, and from a woman with fertility problems on appropriate prayers. What sort of sick individual would call recommending some prayers to a distressed woman, or advising a nervous groom about approaching his intended’s father for his blessing, “telling people what to do?”

That’s not Heilman’s sickness, though. He never checked the site. He never checked AskMoses or any of the others, either, all of which are similar in content and intent. His sickness is that he is so bigoted against the Orthodox (though he is observant himself) that when confronted with the contrast between “the dearth of non-Orthodox sites” and the plethora of Orthodox ones, he is compelled to offer a completely uninformed and innaccurate explanation that casts Orthodox responsiveness and generosity in as sinister a light as he can manage.

Consider how few young Jews today get a strong Jewish education. They are often embarrassed to walk into a synagogue and demonstrate to a Rabbi how little they know. The Internet is now the first recourse when young people seek out information on a topic — so the development of informational Jewish web sites can make the difference between sparking interest and helping close the information gap, or losing that young Jew forever.

Once again, it is the Orthodox leading the fight to save the Jewish future. But you’ll get anything but that from Heilman and his well-worn axe.

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Bob Miller
8 years 10 months ago

See Marvin Schick’s recent analysis of Dr. Heilman’s approach.

Jewish Observer
8 years 10 months ago

1. “The Orthodox are more willing than others to tell people what to do.”

2. “you’d do well to check the facts.”

There should be no doubt about Dr. Heilman’s Orthodoxy

Bob Miller
8 years 10 months ago

Why let facts get in the way of a good argument?

Baruch Horowitz
8 years 10 months ago

I heard Dr. Heilman in two recent radio interviews, and I don’t think that he means any menace towards the right-wing. As a member of Modern Orthodox society, I feel that Dr. Heilman can and should offer suggestions on how to strengthen Modern Orthodoxy(however one defines that). Some Modern Orthodox organizations are indeed engaged in this. I was futher gratified that there was an exchange in a recent Jewish Observer issue between Rabbi Shafran and Dr. Heilman; I think intramural dialogue in Orthodoxy is healthy and important, and should be done as much as is feasible.

Regarding the use of the word “fundamentalists”, while it might be useful in strictly academic classification and nomenclature(see quote below from Dr. Heilman), nevertheless, the academia needs to be sensitive to the overtones and implications of the usage of language in ordinary communication. The Associated Press’ AP Stylebook, for example, recommends that the term fundamentalist should not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. Similarly, while one psychologist writing in the Jewish Observer some time ago identified parents as the primary cause of “kids at risk”, others noted that the causes were complex. Even if the first psychologist was correct, the Jewish imperative to judge favorably and compassionately needs to come through, even in an objective, scholarly analysis.

Dr. Heilman mentioned on an interview on the OU’s “Around the Dining Room Table”(primarily focused on the future of Modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to analyzing Charedim):

“… there is a kind of family resemblance between the outlook that this kind of Orthodoxy has and both Christian and Islamist fundamentalism…[fundamentalism]is not always a useful word, it’s a word that gets people’s attention.”

However, in the popular mind, the word(whether quiescent or active) is associated with Islamic terrorists, so it should not be used at all. Furthermore, as noted in the Jewish Observer, people using the term would be hard-put not to apply the term towards the Chafetz Chaim or other Gedolie Torah, who had some awfully “fundamentalist” positions regarding secular education! Finally, some definitions(from Wikepedia) would apply equally to Modern Orthodoxy(“anchoring life in the authority of the sacred” or “beleiving the Torah to be the authentic and literal word of G-d”).

The Neturie Karta or those who physically attack or demonstrate against Gedolim they disagree with are indeed “fundamentalists”, because they allow their single concern to outweigh all other concerns in a “black and white” manner, while ignoring nuance, balance, and Halacha and Mussar. While I might be unhappy about the arguable trend of seeing things in black and white that leads to banning books, I don’t think that it would be appropriate or fair to call this “fundamentalism”, because this is being done out of legitimate Halachic or hahkafic concerns, whether I personally agree with them or not.