The Second Son

A Pesach-themed piece I penned for the Forward appears here

Chag kasher visame’ach to all Cross-Currents readers, and all of Klal Yisrael!

AS

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Our Soulless Society

Back in 2005, The New York Times asked a number of contemporary thinkers what idea that is taken for granted these days they think will disappear “in the next 35 years.”

Professor Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Orwellian-named “Center for Human Values,” responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.” That view, he explained, will “collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments.”

It’s been less than ten years since that prediction but the professor is already being proven a prophet.

The Journal of Medical Ethics is a peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of bioethics, established in 1975. A scholarly paper that appeared in its pages in 2012 has, for some reason, been receiving new attention. It deserves it.

It was titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” and was written by two academics, members of the philosophy departments of, respectively, the University of Milan and the University of Melbourne.

Its authors’ summary reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that 1) both fetuses and newborns do not have … Read More >>

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Pondering the Prayer Gathering

The article below appeared last week, on March 11, in Haaretz. It is republished here with that paper’s permission.

The weather in Manhattan on Sunday – a few degrees above freezing – wasn’t as pleasant as Jerusalem’s a week earlier. But that didn’t stop an estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews from turning out to participate in an American counterpart to the mammoth prayer gathering that had filled the Holy City’s streets the week before.

Many American haredim live in communities far removed from New York, and thus couldn’t participate. Still and all, an ocean of black hats stretched about a mile along, fittingly, Water Street, a major thoroughfare at Manhattan’s tip. Traffic reporters were beside themselves, direly warning drivers to abandon all hope of entering lower Manhattan, and reporters in truck buckets high above the crowd shouted down to us earthlings that they couldn’t spy an end to the mass of humanity.

And, as was the case at the Israeli happening, a broad spectrum of haredim was represented.

There were Jewish businessmen and professionals from throughout New York and New Jersey, yeshiva and kollel students from places like Lakewood and Baltimore, chassidim of varied stripes, even including Satmar, a … Read More >>

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Masquerading As Feminism

On Purim, Jewish men, to varying degrees, imbibe strong drink, and Jewish women do their best to keep them safe and anchored in civilization. The holiday thus may not seem very female-centered. But it is.

Not just because its hero is a heroine and the holy book about the historical event it commemorates is named after her, but because Megillas Esther verily revolves around femininity.

The pliable, preposterous monarch we meet at the Megillah’s start is a poster child (or, perhaps better, poster adolescent) for male chauvinism. His 180-day drinking party, as the Talmud describes it, was a bacchanal of arrested-development “good ol’ boys” acting like louts, and entailed the debasement, and eventual execution, of his queen.

And the next action of the foolhardy king was to organize the antithesis of true respect for women: a beauty contest.

And Achashverosh, of course, ends up being manipulated by a woman, our reticent, modest heroine Esther, and led by her to dispatch the Jews’ mortal enemy, saving her people from his evil plans.

But there’s a good deal more here, too, although it’s a good deal more subtle. Mordechai, the Midrash teaches us, was miraculously able to physically nurse the baby … Read More >>

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Ultra-Cation

It was gratifying to see that a recent essay of mine in the Forward stimulated thoughtful responses.

I had made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.” I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most charedim.

What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “charedi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-charedi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any charedi Jew (not to mention that some charedi Jews are far from fervent).

I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to charedim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.

After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The charedi subset of Chassidim could simply be called Chassidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…

One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College … Read More >>

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Much Ado About “Ultra”

The Forward recently published an article of mine about the term “Ultra-Orthodox.” You can read it here .

A response to it, by Professor Samuel Heilman, is here .

And, finally, a rejoinder is here.

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The Anarchy Option

My interest in the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi was roughly equivalent to my interest in the recently concluded International Kennel Club dog show in Chicago. Which is to say, nil.

But a “Jewish” issue that trailed in the snow behind the Sochi shenanigans was amusing. At least, initially. Pondered a bit, it was a reminder of something disturbing.

An ice dancer named Charlie White, who, with his partner, won a gold medal at the competition, was roundly celebrated by the media for his accomplishment, and by the Jewish media for his accomplishment… and Jewishness.

Despite the latter assertion, though, the skater’s mother apparently notified the Detroit Jewish News, the original reporter of Mr. White’s Jewish credentials, that neither she nor her son is a member of the tribe.

After some research, the paper discovered that the gold medal winner’s only Jewish connection was a Jewish stepfather; it apologized for its original reportage.

The Reform movement wouldn’t at present consider Charlie’s connection to the Jewish people sufficient to automatically qualify him as Jewish in its eyes. But it has long accepted a “patrilineal” definition of “Jewishness” – that is to say that, contrary to halacha, it … Read More >>

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Minyanim and Meta-Halacha

The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “Partnership minyan is an innovation too far.” It is reproduced here with Haaretz’s permission.

What educators call a “teaching moment” is presented by the issue of “partnership minyanim,” prayer groups that aim to provide Orthodox Jewish women greater opportunity to participate in services.

Although halakha is distinctly male-centered in the realm of communal prayer (as in the requirement of ten men to establish a minyan, a quorum permitting the recital of certain prayers), “partnership minyanim” jury-rig prayer services so that women lead parts that arguably may not require a man.

The teaching moment is about how halakha works.

Differences of opinion are part and parcel of not only the Talmud but some contemporary halakhic issues; different conclusions may be made by different poskim, or halakhic decisors.

But a truth that tends to draw fire but remains a truth all the same is that not every rabbi is a qualified decisor. Few, indeed, are.

The most trenchant text here may be a Talmudic aphorism in Tractate Nedarim.

“[What might seem] constructive [advice] of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive [advice] of … Read More >>

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The Devil’s In The Daydreams

One would be forgiven, especially were one an optimist, for imagining that recent reports of the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s donation of $400,000 to a Teheran Jewish hospital might signal something positive about Iran’s current leadership. With Purim within sight, the idea of good news coming out of Persia is an enticing one.

Our theoretical optimist would also likely have been gratified by the words of the hospital’s director, Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh, who said the Iranian leader “is showing that we [Jews], as a religious minority, are part of this country, too.”

But the Iranian leader’s smiles, largesse and (to flashback several months) Rosh Hashana good wishes to the world’s Jews were lopsidedly outweighed by another recent report, this one provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

(MEMRI, the single most valuable news source for happenings in the Arab and Muslim worlds, does not profess or evidence any political stance; it simply translates and makes available speeches, media reports and other information, positive and negative alike, that aren’t otherwise accessible to the English-reading public.)

The report included a video clip and transcript of a broadcast aired on Iran television’s Channel 1 on February 6. … Read More >>

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Unpublished Heroes

I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?

I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.

As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.

The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.

I was 14.

To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my … Read More >>

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Tempest in a Tefillin-Bag?

Of the slew of recent articles celebrating the idea of girls wearing tefillin two were particularly notable. One, because of how revealing it is of its author’s attitude toward halacha; the second, because it holds the seeds of a worthy lesson.

In Haaretz, feminist Elana Sztokman (upcoming book: “The War on Women in Israel”) asserted that “the crude, sexist responses within Orthodoxy to girls wearing tefillin” only “reflect men’s fears and prejudices.” And that her brand of “religious feminism is not about… women who are angry or provocative.”

She dismisses those who have noted that the Shulchan Aruch (technically, the Rama) criticizes women’s wearing of tefillin as just “try[ing] to make their objections rooted in halakha,” and she cites in her favor the halachic authority of the founder of a school described elsewhere as representing the “co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism.” That authority, Ms. Sztokman announces, has “unravel[led] the halakhic myths… about women and tefillin.”

What’s more, she continues, fealty to the halachic sources about the issue only shows how “some men think about women’s bodies and their roles in society” and “how deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions are in Orthodox life.”

And to think that … Read More >>

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Unravelling Tefillin-gate

(The subject of this article has been well covered by other writers in this space, and I apologize if posting it here is the equivalent of a fifth wheel on a cart. But I think it may add some additional food for thought. The piece appeared in Haaretz this week and is offered here with its permission.)

Unlike some in the traditional Orthodox community, I empathize with the young women in two modern Orthodox high schools in New York who asked for and received permission to don tefillin during their school prayer services. They have, after all, seen their mothers wearing the religious objects and simply wish to emulate their parents’ Jewish religious practice. Carrying on the traditions of parents is the essence of mesorah, the “handed-down” legacy of the Jewish past.

None of us has the right to assume that these girls aren’t motivated by a deeply Jewish desire to worship as they have seen their mothers worship. Even as to the mothers’ motivations, I can’t know whether their intention is pure or homage to the contemporary and un-Jewish idea that “men and women have interchangeable roles.” Most of our acts, wrote the powerful thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer … Read More >>

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Wealth Management 101

A fantastic recent essay in the New York Times brought to mind a fantastic Talmudic narrative. The latter [in Tamid 32b] describes the would-be world-conqueror Alexander the Great approaching the gates of the Garden of Eden. When denied entry (insufficient righteousness the grounds), he asks for, at least, a souvenir and is given an eyeball (or, perhaps, a skull’s eye-socket).

Seeking to somehow gauge the odd gift, he places it on one pan of a scale, with gold and silver in the other pan. The precious metal pan rises. And it continues to do so, no matter how much gold and silver he adds. Asking the rabbis accompanying him what is happening, they explain that the eye represents the impetus for human desire; it is that which sees and wants, and is never satisfied. He is skeptical but the rabbis then prove their point by placing some dirt, a reminder of the reality of mortality, atop the eye. Its pan then rises high, outweighed by, unconcerned with, oblivious to, all the precious metal.

All of us have likely desired to possess something we don’t. But I have always been confounded by the spectacle of very wealthy people consumed … Read More >>

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The Road to Heil

If ever there were a question to inspire ambivalence it might be whether the current push in Israel to outlaw the word “Nazi” and Holocaust-era German symbols is a good idea.

On the one hand, the word and symbols are often used these days to score political points, to just insult someone with whom the user disagrees or in the ostensible service of humor. Placards of Yitzchak Rabin’s image in a Nazi uniform were brandished in demonstrations before his assassination; and, more recently, religious Jewish children were dressed in concentration camp garb to protest government budget cuts. A long-into-reruns popular American television show included a character, the irascible owner of a food stand, who nom de tv was “the soup Nazi.” Talk about trivialization.

But there’s another hand, too, at least to many minds: Outlawing speech is not something to undertake lightly. And just where does one draw the line between speech that’s just impolite or crude, and speech that is so depraved as to merit being criminalized? Forbidding the shouting of “fire!” in a crowded theater is understandably worthy of penalization; calling someone a soup Nazi, well, somewhat less so.

And then there is the question of … Read More >>

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A Note of No Great Consequence

Over the years I have written a few short stories and poems, only one of which I have shared with the public (in a book I published in 1981). I’ve decided to post some of that material on my website, rabbiavishafran.com, under the category “fiction.” So far, only one story, for children (sort of), is posted there, but I hope to edit and post others in the near future.

You can find the current posting here . If you have any interest in future fiction postings, please feel free to monitor the “fiction” category on the site every so often.

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Aggravated Journalism

Hella Winston was surprised that her name appeared at the bottom of the recent New York Post report about the murder of Brooklyn businessman Menachem Stark, indicating her “additional reporting” to the story. She had not written any of the article – and certainly not its tasteless, insensitive headline (which implied that an unlimited number of people surely wished the Chassidic businessman dead) or the article’s incendiary opening words: “The millionaire Hasidic slumlord…”

She had nothing to do, either, with the rest of the ugly piece, which was rife with unnamed “sources” and unsubstantiated innuendo. (It went so far as to dredge the cesspool of a rabidly anti-Orthodox blog to find what it apparently deemed a journalistic gem– an anonymous posting opining that the victim’s “slanted shtreimel on his head gives his crookedness away.”). She had not seen the article before its publication.

Ms. Winston, a sociologist by profession, had simply been contacted by the article’s main writers, she says, and provided them a small piece of information of no great consequence. Needless to say, the Post’s odious offering deeply hurt the murdered man’s wife, children and community. And I have no doubt that Ms. Winston is herself pained … Read More >>

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Obama and the (Orthodox) Jews

(The article below appeared earlier this month in Haaretz. I share it here with that paper’s permission.)

The gabbai at the shul I usually attend on Shabbos is something of a comedian. When I was recently called to the Torah, he offered the traditional “Mi Sheberach” and added a blessing for “ha-president” – which he quickly qualified by adding: “Not Obama – the president of the shul.”

I interjected “yes, Obama.” Nearby congregants gasped.

They shouldn’t have. The Mishneh teaches us that Jews should pray for the government, as governments are what prevent people from acting on their worst instincts. For many years, every American Orthodox synagogue included a special prayer for the president and vice president, a practice that, for some reason, has fallen into disuse.

But beyond the Jewish obligation to express hakaras hatov, “acknowledgement of the good,” to the leaders of their lands, I believe that the current occupant of the White House well deserves our special good will.

That is not, I know, the common stance in the Orthodox world. I have been puzzling over that fact for five years.

A registered Republican since I could vote, I shared in the skepticism and concern … Read More >>

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Storied Lives

I used to have a chavrusah, or study partner, with whom I learned Torah annually.

Yes, annually.

Usually for about an hour or two.

In a different city each year.

The text we studied was rather complex and challenging – the exquisitely concise (and often exquisitely confounding) glosses of the 18th-century Torah luminary known as the Vilna Gaon to the Shulchan Aruch’s section on the laws of mikva’os, or ritual baths. That complex material was a major focus of my study-partner’s analysis for many years. I was just “tagging along.” Once a year.

The reason for the infrequency of that study partnership was that my partner, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg – a formidable Torah scholar, writer and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News – lives in Denver, and I reside in New York. We would meet, though, each year at a gathering of Jewish journalists sponsored by an organization that held its annual get-together in one of various cities across the country.

When Reb Hillel would arrive at the convention hotel, one of the first things he would do was to contact me to arrange a good time to sit and study a bit. I well recall … Read More >>

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Agudath Israel Condemns NY Post’s Lack Of “Basic Human Dignity”

The New York Post crossed a line today, even for a paper specializing in the sensational, with its offensive front-page cover and equally offensive coverage of the vicious murder of a young Hassidic father of eight, Menachem Stark, Hy”d.

The paper demonstrated the poorest taste by choosing to focus on anonymous accusations rather than on the human tragedy of a wife and family’s sudden and terrible loss, and on their, and their community’s, grieving. Particularly at a time when Jews have been attacked on New York streets and are regularly vilified by hateful people around the world, the tabloid has demonstrated unprecedented callousness and irresponsibility.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect very much from a medium like the Post, but one should, we think, be able to expect some basic human decency in the wake of a family’s terrible personal loss.

Agudath Israel of America and its constituents, along with decent people of all religions and ethnicities, extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Stark’s widow and children.

We, further, commend the New York City Police Department for its active pursuit of leads to Mr. Stark’s murderers, and pray that they be apprehended and brought to justice swiftly.

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Where Are The Red Carpets?

The letter below appears in today’s (Jan 2) New York Times:

To the Editor:

I’m neither an “Israel right or wrong” person nor a supporter of what has come to be called “the Palestinian cause.” But one question keeps coming back to me when I read about objections to decisions by Jewish campus groups not to invite speakers hostile to Israel: Where is the push for Arab campus groups to roll out their red carpets to unabashed defenders of the Jewish state?

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN New York, Dec. 30, 2013

The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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A Lesson From Limmud

Even now that the recent much-celebrated Limmud gathering in the historic cathedral town of Coventry, West Midlands, England has concluded, the celebration continues, at least in many Jewish media.

The popular Jewish event, which attracts people from all segments of the Jewish universe (and some, like the Reverend Patrick Morrow, who led a Limmud session at this year’s, from the non-Jewish one), is always loudly lauded as an opportunity to access a broad gamut of theologies and practices that have Jewish devotees.

But this year’s Limmud conference, at least to the media, was particularly exultation-worthy, as one of the attendees was Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the current chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, the first person holding that position to grace the proceedings with his presence.

Much, unsurprisingly, was made of that first. Rabbi Mirvis was warmly welcomed by those in attendance, and his speech was parsed by the press with the determination of high school teachers seeking puns in Shakespeare, in a quest to find hints of disdain on the rabbi’s part for the religious leaders of the more traditional Orthodox British community, who made clear that the rabbi’s attendance at Limmud was ill-advised.

Aside from celebrating and … Read More >>

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Letter to the Editor of the NY Jewish Week

Below is the text of a self-explanatory letter to the editor of the New York Jewish Week; it is published in this week’s issue of that paper.

December 21, 2013

Editor:

Rori Picker Neiss (op-ed, December 15) is “shocked” at my response to your reporter, who asked me for the rationale of esteemed rabbinical authorities’ opposition to pre-nuptial agreements focused on a future divorce. I explained that “there is a concern that introducing and focusing on the possible dissolution of a marriage when it is just beginning is not conducive to the health of the marriage.”

Ms. Picker Neiss contends that such focus is already introduced, in the traditional ketubah. I don’t know what version of the ketubah she is citing but the time-honored, halachically mandated one contains no mention whatsoever of divorce.

The pledge of support that the ketubah references remains in place in a case of divorce, or of the husband’s death. But that is simply a peripheral implication of the ketubah, which simply lists the husband’s obligations to his wife.

And so to compare the ketubah to the “prenup” used by some today is comparing apples to aufrufs.

Ms. Picker Neiss is entitled to embrace the … Read More >>

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What Were They Thinking?

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, whose dispatches are widely reproduced both here in the United States and abroad, reported today on British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis having become the first sitting British chief rabbi to address the annual Limmud conference, a gathering of multi-denominational and non-denominational Jewish leaders and laymen. By attending and being featured as a speaker, the JTA informs us, he was “defying the opposition of prominent haredi Orthodox rabbis in England.”

Fair enough. Those charedi leaders have a longstanding and principled opposition to Orthodox rabbis participating in “multi-denominational” panels, rosters and such, since doing so perforce promotes the notion that all “rabbis are rabbis,” equals in belief and scholarship, and that all self-defined “Judaisms” are part of the Judaism of our ancestors.

But the JTA report puts it thus:

“The critics had said the conference, which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life, represented a danger to British Jewry by suggesting it was acceptable for observant Jews to associate with less or non-observant Jews.”

How a Jewish news agency can think for even a moment that charedi Jews – with their innumerable and rabbinically-endorsed outreach organizations and efforts, personal friendships and study-partnerships with “less … Read More >>

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The Fact of the Matter

Several weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Detroit (well, Oak Park, a suburb, and a solvent one), where two of our daughters and their husbands and their children live.

Oak Park, and Southfield, which abuts it, are home to a wonderful, vibrant and multifaceted Orthodox Jewish community. The two neighboring cities, within walking distance of each other, boast (figuratively speaking; the residents are a modest bunch) an abundance of shuls and shteiblach, a large and flourishing yeshiva and Bais Yaakov, a yeshiva gedola, a Kollel – and all the requisite kosher shopping and dining amenities to boot. And housing, to put nice icing on a scrumptious cake, is extremely affordable.

One of the cake’s delectable ingredients is a “Partners in Torah” night of study that takes place each Tuesday night at Beth Yehudah, the local yeshiva, where Jews of all stripes learn Torah for an hour with study-partners from the Orthodox community. Hundreds of pairs of men, on one side of a large room, and women on the other, delve into Jewish texts together. It’s an inspiring sight (and sound).

Our recent trip, though, didn’t include a Tuesday, so we missed that weekly event. … Read More >>

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Too Little Information

At the Sheva Brachos festivities this past summer for the marriage of our youngest daughter, my wife and I heard many wonderful things about our newest son-in-law. Friends and relatives spoke about his impressive Torah scholarship, his modesty, his sterling character. We had already known all that, although it was good to hear all the same. One testimonial, though, particularly impressed me; it was offered by one of the new husband’s brothers-in-law, who, in a short speech, recounted a long-ago lively Shabbos table discussion at his in-laws’ home.

Each member of the family, it seems, had vociferously put forth his or her perspective on some now-forgotten topic. Except, the speaker recounted, for our new son-in-law. When asked by one of the others for his opinion on the matter, the reticent family member’s simple response was: “I don’t have enough information to have one.”

I smiled broadly inside (probably outside too). If only, I mused, more of us were so thoughtful. Instead, our times seem to foster a diametric approach, that all of us must have opinions, with or without the assistance of facts. Call it a Contemporary Commandment: Thou shalt leave no issue uncommented upon.

And so, opine we … Read More >>

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