Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur. What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own. After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace. In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people. There … Read More >>

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Tziddukim would be happy this year

If there were any Tziddukim left, they’d be happy this year. You can read why in a Shavuos piece I wrote for the Forward, here.

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Yale Scientists’ Interesting Conclusion

Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

See here to read about a related observation.

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Anybody Out There?

A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.”

This search is nothing new. Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” … Read More >>

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A World of Wastage

The recent rioting in my home town Baltimore brought two memories to mind. One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place. (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.) But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores. Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions. Not only the self-evident … Read More >>

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Inform or Incite

Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television. Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad. And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence. A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews. Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect … Read More >>

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Shooting From The Heart

Although blacks constitute approximately 13% of the American population, the FBI reported in 2013 that 38.5% of people arrested for violent crimes were African-Americans.

Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks – or, at very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.

And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.

So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable. The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.

And last … Read More >>

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Evtach Vilo Efchad

The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over. Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone. Questions were asked and responses recounted. Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read. Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel. Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a … Read More >>

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Challenges to Tranquility

An article of mine about dealing with change appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit. You can read the piece here.

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1984?

My rumination for the Forward on the contemporary state of religious rights — like that of citizens to disapprove of relationships — can be read here.

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Muddy Study

Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing? He trained a flea to jump on command. In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump. The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap. The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart. After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data. Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates … Read More >>

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The Seder Is A Mother

The Forward published an essay I wrote about the “maternal” essence of the Pesach Seder. You can read it here.

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And In Third Place…

And so the horse trading begins.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has gotten down to the nitty-gritty business of cobbling together a government coalition. Particularly attractive stallions, thankfully, will be the religious parties, the Prime Minister’s “natural partners,” as he calls them, although, apparently unnaturally, he jettisoned them the last time around. Their being in Bibi’s good graces (for now) is happy news.

What many may not see as happy news is the remarkable fact that, after Likud and the Zionist Union (Hamachaneh Hatzioni), the third largest winner of votes was… the “Joint List” (Hareshima Hameshutefet) – the new Arab party, comprised of four previous Arab parties.

No one is concerned that the Joint List’s 13 seats will make it an attractive partner to a Likud-dominated government – or, for that matter, any government. Nor would the Joint List itself consider being part of either. Its very essence is oppositional.

The genesis of the Joint List, though, holds some irony; and its success, perhaps, something positive.

The impetus for the joining together of the four Arab parties, representing utterly disparate, contradictory, ideologies – communism, feminism, Islamism, and Palestinian nationalism was legislation passed last year raising the electoral threshold from … Read More >>

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What We Mean When We Talk About Fire Safety And Jewish Observance

An article I wrote about the blaming of the recent horrific fire in Brooklyn on Sabbath-observance appears in Haaretz here. You may need to register (free of charge) on the site to access it.

May we hear only happy news from all Jewish communities.

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Persian Diversion

It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zari responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.

“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If – if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.” We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).

(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash – apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be … Read More >>

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The Differences We Make

In Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy. I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than twenty-five years ago, and so it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home. It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

… Read More >>

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A Hint of What We Daven For Daily

A wedding took place last week. The bride and groom weren’t members of Klal Yisrael, so it wasn’t a Jewish wedding. And yet, at least in a way, it was.

It took place in a Muslim country that I won’t identify; the authorities there do not look favorably on Jews or on citizens who communicate with Jews, like the groom and his mother, who long ago decided that the Jewish mesorah is true. Long ago, she abandoned the Christianity into which she was born, and has tried mightily, and with some success, to convince her husband, a Hindu, to forsake the idols and rites of his own upbringing and join her in her acceptance of Torah. Talk about a complicated family dynamic.

“Tehilla,” as I’ll call her, has not converted to Judaism. She and her two adult sons are “Bnei Noach,” non-Jews who have accepted the Torah’s truth and who cherish Klal Yisrael.

There are similar non-Jews in Australia, Asia, Europe and here in the United States (a good number of them, for some reason, in the south). Many confront formidable societal obstacles, although Tehilla, considering where she lives, likely faces more than most.

“Tehilla” is an appropriate … Read More >>

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Faithless Ferocity

Earlier this month, a newly-married couple and the wife’s sister, upstanding citizens and model university students, were murdered by a neighbor of the couple’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A heinous crime, to be sure, and it reverberated particularly loudly across the country and around the world. Because the victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were Muslims with Middle-Eastern roots; and the alleged murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, a middle-aged white man.

The suspected killer turned himself in to authorities and was duly indicted. And while authorities said that their preliminary investigation indicated that a dispute over a parking space in the apartment complex where the victims and the alleged killer lived was the proximate cause of the murders, a multitude of Muslim voices wasted no time seizing on the tragedy as an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Members of the victims’ family were the first to make the charge. One tweeted, “My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being muslim [sic]. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don’t exist. #MuslimLivesMatter.”

Personal grief can cloud judgment, and it’s understandable that a relative of the murdered young people might assume religious prejudice motivated their … Read More >>

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Lichovod Purim

An article I wrote about how Purim is a celebration of how Divine irony vanquishes mortal iron, appears in the Forward today. You can read it here.

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Dear Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO. The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.” Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.”

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover. But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks. If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary … Read More >>

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Sense and Centrifuges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is:

a) A bald political move to shore up support for his candidacy in imminent Israeli elections.

b) A misguided attempt to meddle in American partisan politics and embarrass President Obama

c) A straightforward effort to express sincere concerns about the Iranian danger, and the conviction that any negotiations with Iran are inherently misguided.

My guess? A bit of “all of the above.”

There’s no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu’s presenting himself as a prophet before the legislature of the superpower ally of Israel (if not as leader of the Jewish People itself, a mantel he’s been donning of late) will help him in his reelection bid. Or that he has often seized opportunities to express his dislike of Mr. Obama. (Yes, it’s mutual; kamayim hapanim lapanim… “As water reflects a face, so the heart of a man to a man.” – Mishlei, 27:19.)

But only a hardened cynic would assume that Mr. Netanyahu’s concern about Iran is a guise, that his disdain for negotiations isn’t sincere. It surely is.

But is it right?

For those who insist on seeing Mr. Obama as, at best, insufficiently concerned with Jews or Israel, … Read More >>

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Metzitza Bipeh

C-C readers are probably aware of the fact that a tentative agreement was reached yesterday between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and an association of mohelim and Orthodox representatives with regard to the practice of metzitza bipeh.

An article of mine that appeared in Haaretz yesterday on the ostensible tie between the rite and the cold sore virus (which can be dangerous to babies) can be read here.

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Doubt Thyself

For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread respect – and $10 million a year). The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account). But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.

As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire. She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.

Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a … Read More >>

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In Praise of Brainwashing

A reference to a Shabbos seudah as “brainwashing.” An attempt by a flag-draped man to enter a Montreal Jewish day school. And a pre-school morah’s report. All took place recently and, together, helped me better understand something fundamental about life.

The cynical reference to Shabbos was from a woman quoted in a book. Sadly, she had left the Jewish observance of her childhood behind.

“My father was always tired and so was my mother,” she explained to the author. “They were fighting. We were fighting. And so there was not that kind of love and joy that makes the brainwashing really stick.”

The brainwashing.

On the very day that quote appeared in a book review, a man draped in a flag of Quebec tried to enter a chareidi Jewish day school, Yeshiva Gedola, in Montreal, claiming that he wanted to “liberate” its students.

Wisely, the school’s staff did not allow the fellow into the building. One staff member said “When I answered through the intercom, the man told me: ‘I want to talk to the children because they are imprisoned in this school… I want to liberate the children’.”

Liberate the children.

Two people with a similar … Read More >>

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Thanks (I Think), NYT

I can’t say with any certitude that my repeatedly bugging of the New York Times’ public editor (who sent the criticism to a different department — which never responded to me) had anything to do with it. Or that my opinion piece last year (at http://hamodia.com/2014/08/06/ugly-times/ ) did.

But I’m happy to report that the “Times Journeys” offering of a tour to Israel with the theme “The Israeli-Palestinian Conundrum” seems to no longer feature Hanan Ashwari (who David Harris once said “is to truth what smoking is to health”) as one of its resident experts for the tourists. (The come-on is at http://www.nytimes.com/times-journeys/travel/israeli-palestinian-dialogue/ .)

But it never hurts to be a squeaky wheel (and to encourage others to squeak along); sometimes one may get the grease. One thing is certain: every proper hishtadlus is worth the time and trouble.

And thanks, New York Times, if you did, for taking the criticism seriously.

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