The teaser e-mail alert from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency read: “Hasidim for Iran”; and the headline of the linked article, about a Neturei Karta member arrested for allegedly spying for Iran, was: “Haredi Israeli charged with spying for Iran.”
Well, yes. But one has to wonder if, say, a “progressive” anti-Zionist Reform Jew had allegedly offered his services to an enemy of Israel he would be similarly described by his religious affiliation. And we certainly (and thankfully) didn’t see headlines back in 2008 about Bernie Madoff reading: “Jew Accused of Bilking Thousands of their Savings.”
The accused spy, who reportedly visited the Iranian Embassy in Berlin in 2011 expressing his wish to replace the Israeli government with one controlled by gentiles and saying he was willing to murder a Zionist, did indeed wear the sort of clothing associated with charedim. And he’d probably call himself one. But just like a psychopath who happens to be a doctor is hardly a representative example of his profession, neither is a charedi who aids a murderous regime (assuming the fellow is guilty as charged) anything more than an outlying grotesquerie.
That seems to fly over some heads, like that of the … Read More >>
Chumros, or efforts to go beyond the letter of Jewish religious law’s requirements, have gotten a bad name over the years. And it is true, some stringencies can be unwise, even counterproductive. Some are even silly.
I recall a letter to the editor of a now-defunct Jewish magazine whose writer was deeply upset that an advertisement for a dairy product in an earlier issue had run face-to-face with one for a meat product. Many readers, I’m sure, like me, first thought it was meant as a joke. But it wasn’t Purim time and it didn’t carry any indication of wryness or satire. The writer was serious, and, of course, deeply misguided.
But when a stringency is adopted, either by a community or an individual, for a good reason, it should not be resented or mocked. Sometimes a person may feel a need to draw a broader circle than the next guy’s around something prohibited; sometimes a particular era or community will require the adoption of special stringencies. Generally, chumros present themselves in realms like kashrus or the Sabbath, in the form of refraining from eating or doing even something technically permitted. Other stringencies, though, consist of adopting as one’s … Read More >>
Could there possibly be anything else to say about the George Zimmerman trial that hasn’t already been said?
After all, the supporters of Mr. Zimmerman, who killed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida last year, have made clear all along their belief that Mr. Martin assaulted Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, and that the latter shot his alleged assailant in self-defense. Of course, as everyone knows now, the jury found no reason to endorse a different scenario.
And defenders of Mr. Martin have, both before and after the verdict, made their own, different, version of the happening known – that the teenager was an innocent victim of a trigger-happy, racist cop-wannabe who targeted Mr. Martin because of the color of his skin.
Pundits have since tirelessly trumpeted their convictions, either that the verdict was a triumph of justice or a travesty thereof.
But there is indeed something else to say about the case, and it may well be the most important thing to say. And that is: No one alive but George Zimmerman actually knows what happened that night. And so “taking sides” on the subject is the height of ridiculousness.
Somehow, that self-evident fact seems to have … Read More >>
The lack of a sense of humor may not totally disqualify one from being a good teacher, but in, as they say, my humble opinion, it comes close.
I had recent occasion to watch the recorded presentation of an Israeli professor who seemed, regrettably, humor-impaired. That he exhibited no sense of cleverness wasn’t so terrible. That he failed, though, to even recognize humor – in this case a poignant pun – was.
The lecturer was soberly providing his audience what it had come to hear, namely a scholarly assault on the contemporary “Ultra-Orthodox” world and its leaders. And, as has become de rigueur, in his effort to portray the charedi world as hopelessly close-minded, he invoked the famous dictum of the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) that “chadash assur min haTorah” – “what is new is forbidden by the Torah.” But he presented it as some sort of absurdly pilpulistic application, not seeming to realize – or, certainly, not communicating – that it was, in fact, ingenious wordplay.
The Chasam Sofer, venerated by Orthodox Jews to this day, was a strong opponent of the nascent Reform movement of his day, which had begun to attract adherents in … Read More >>
A reporter recently asked me whether I thought Jewish women could be experts in Jewish law. “Of course,” I responded without hesitation.
The journalist was one of the horde of heralds who practically fell over one another a few weeks ago to celebrate – I’m sorry, report upon – the recent graduation of three women from a school whose aim is to place them in synagogues as rabbis, if not quite to call them that.
I elaborated on my response by citing the examples of my own wife and daughter. (We have several, all of them knowledgeable Jews, but I had in mind our youngest, about to be married but for now still at home.) “When I have a question, for instance, about what bracha, or blessing, to make on a food,” I explained, “they are the ones I ask.”
The reporter seemed surprised to hear that there could be questions about blessings. So I elaborated on the fact that much of an entire tractate of the Talmud deals with blessings on food and other things, and that there is a wealth of complex halachic material relating to the proper blessings a Jew is to make on different … Read More >>
The very same thought occurred to me and to one of my daughters the night of July 4. I was walking home from Maariv (evening services) in Staten Island; my daughter was looking out into her back yard in Rockland County.
The thought? That fireworks are amazing. But nowhere near as amazing as fireflies.
In consultation with rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement:
Public remarks attributed in the media to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of Britain, as well as his comments in a recent pamphlet he published, are dismaying, deeply misguided, and harmful to both Jewish unity and Jewish integrity.
The rabbi bemoans “the world of inward-turning, segregationist Orthodoxy.” He portrays the multitude of Jews who came together to celebrate the Siyum HaShas nearly a year ago – an event that captured the hearts, minds and souls of countless Jews, and the reverent wonder of much of the non-Jewish world – as representative of such an “extreme.”
Rabbi Sacks sees Jews who choose to “embrace Judaism and reject the world” as parts of a phenomenon he calls “worse than dangerous” and “an abdication of the role of Jews and Judaism in the world.”
Rabbi Sacks’ sentiments are not only inaccurate but un-Jewish and uncouth.
Portraying the “ultra-Orthodox” world as detached from awareness of, and interaction with, the larger world betrays an astounding ignorance of reality. Not only are charedim in the workplace and the “outside world,” but … Read More >>
A new book, “The Anatomy of Violence,” suggests that “the seeds of sin are brain-based,” at least in a sense. Its author, psychologist Adrian Raine, isn’t speaking of sins like gossip or tax evasion but rather violent crime. And he makes the case that such criminalities may have biological roots, and that “neurocriminology” may provide society with ways of curbing crime.
Both genetic makeup and prenatal environment, Dr. Raine asserts, are factors that can presage a criminal mind. On the most basic level, it has long been clear that there is a correlation between certain “accidents of birth” (or of life) and proclivity to crime. Being born male rather than female, for instance, makes it much more likely that one will become a mugger or murderer. And certain types of damage to the brain have long been observed to yield changes in behavior, sometimes including a proclivity to violence.
Likewise, more mundane things, like an expectant mother’s smoking or consumption of alcohol (not to mention even more severe chemical insults to the brain of a fetus, like exposure to lead or use of other drugs), can contribute to the likelihood of eventual bad behavior on the part of … Read More >>
A single mother living in the Midwest with her three young children, she’s deeply unhappy because of the news she received the other day.
Although Cindy does some sales work from her computer at home, her income is insufficient to cover the monthly mortgage payments for her small home and food and clothing for her family. Until now, though, she has managed to make ends meet, with the help of various social safety-net needs-based programs like WIC and food stamps.
Earlier this week, though, Cindy, and hundreds of thousands of others like her, received word that the government is ending those programs. Budgetary concerns were one reason given but the letter Cindy received also noted that she could still qualify for some of the benefits she was receiving if she found and accepted a full-time job. “When citizens like you, Cindy,” the personalized form letter explained, “are a regular part of the workforce, it benefits not only you and your family, but the economy as a whole. And that is something that every loyal citizen should appreciate!”
Well, says Cindy to herself somewhat bitterly, I don’t. The state of the economy is important, but improving it isn’t … Read More >>
My first encounter with the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, the late president of Agudath Israel of America and the man who hired and mentored me as the organization’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call offering praise and criticism.
It was the mid-1980s, and I was a rebbe, or Jewish studies teacher, in Providence, Rhode Island at the time. Occasionally, though, I indulged my desire to write op-eds, some of which were published by the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.
One article I penned in those days was about the bus-stop burnings that had then been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel.
Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods began to display images that were, to put it genteelly, not in synch with the religious sensibilities of the local residents, for whom modesty was a high ideal and women were respected for who they were, not regarded as means of gaining attention for commercial products.
Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were either spray-painted or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a synagogue for every burned bus-stop shelter. It was not … Read More >>
I was recently privileged to spend the good part of a week on the tree-studded rural campus of my alma mater, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, according to the sign at its entrance). As always, visiting the place where I studied some forty years ago was an enthralling experience.
There have been changes, to be sure, at Yeshiva Lane, the winding private road that is the yeshiva buildings’ address. What was the main study hall in my day now serves the yeshiva’s high school division; and a magnificent newer beis medrash stands where, in the 1970s, an old house occupied by a faculty member’s family sat on a hill. New housing has risen up for faculty and married kollel students – there is a long waiting list of kollel-fellow families living “in town” (that is to say, Baltimore and its suburb Pikesville) who are anxious to move onto the yeshiva campus. (Kollel fellows who can no longer afford to be engaged in full-time Torah study understand that their campus apartment or townhouse should be offered to a full-time kollel fellow’s family.)
Torah life and study, and children, permeate Yeshiva Lane. Students and staff members walk to … Read More >>
New York’s tabloids and international news services alike took note of a New Jersey court appearance by Nazi admirer Heath Campbell, who named his first-born ‘Adolf Hitler’ (yemach shemo – although Mr. Campbell neglected to add that phrase to the name) and has had all four of his children removed from his home in the wake of violent incidents there.
The proudly fascist dad, who is seeking to have his children returned to him, appeared in court in an authentic World War II Nazi uniform, complete with medals, knee-high boots and an armband sporting a swastika.
“I want my children back,” Campbell told the Daily News. And I want my grandparents back. My uncles, aunts and cousins too.
A number of years ago I shared the essential thought in the essay below with subscribers to my mailing list at the time. But I believe it’s a thought worth repeating, for the benefit of new readers, and worth re-pondering for the rest of us.
My wife and I recently accompanied our second son to the chuppah. It was an elating experience, understandably, and the sight of the new couple recalled to me the unsettling, if simple, observation of the Netziv.
The Netziv – an acronym meaning “pillar,” by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known – noted that the first marriage in history differed in an essential way from all the matrimonial unions that came to follow. Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created as a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the “forming” of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation. The word often translated “rib” is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean “side,” and so should be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side … Read More >>
It might not be quite up there with the first day of spring or grandchildren, but one of the undeniably wonderful gifts the Creator has bestowed on mankind is the ripe avocado.
The buttery consistency, the unique pastel coloration, and the divinely subtle taste all combine to make it truly a fruit to be thankful for. I have a few slices each morning, joined by lettuce and tomato on toast; a wondrous, nutritious and flavorful start to the day.
And most every time I open one of the fruits and gently rock the point of a sharp knife into its pit before easing it out, I think back at how clueless I was as a teenage yeshiva boy in Israel forty-odd years ago.
I had never eaten – or even seen – an avocado at that point. If supermarkets in my childhood’s Baltimore even stocked the fruit, my mother had never bought one. We did fine on Jewish food, the Eastern European kind, and had our share of American fare too. But exotic fruits weren’t part of my family’s culinary offerings.
Then, suddenly, in a new and very different clime, avocados were everywhere. I didn’t find much beyond tomatoes … Read More >>
I really must avoid spicy foods – even my wife’s scrumptious jalapeno pepper-laced cornbread – before retiring at night. The recipe’s great, but for someone approaching 60, it’s a recipe, too, for indigestion-fueled nightmares.
The scene: the Kotel Maaravi, or “Western Wall” in Jerusalem. The time: some future point, may it never arrive, when Anat Hoffman’s vision of the holy place has been realized.
Ms. Hoffman, of course, is the famously melodramatic chairwoman of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” who has orchestrated countless demonstrations (with adoring media and bevy of cameras in tow) in the form of untraditional prayer services at the holy site; who has reveled in being arrested for her provocations by Israeli police; and who is celebrated by temple clubs and coffee klatches across the United States as the Jewish reincarnation of Rosa Parks. She recently told a Jewish newspaper in California that the Wall should become, in effect, a timeshare. “For six hours a day,” she explained, “the Wall will be a national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”
Those “others,” in Chairman Hoffman’s hope, will presumably include not only the group she leads (and which she characterizes as … Read More >>
The thought, a staple in the writings of the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953), is best known to people unfamiliar with his thought and writings from a famous and evocative paragraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson mused, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Rav Dessler, who wrote poetry too but was above all a keenly incisive philosophical thinker, explains that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.
That we are inured to the magnificence of the stars in the sky is unfortunate. We city dwellers can still capture some of the grandeur of Emerson’s “city of G-d” if we journey to less light-polluted places. I recall the shock I felt as a young … Read More >>
It’s a story I tell a lot, since, well, its point comes up a lot. Blessedly, my audience, at least judging from its response, hadn’t heard it before.
The psychiatrist asks the new patient what the problem is. “I’m dead,” he confides earnestly, “but my family won’t believe me.”
The doctor raises an eyebrow, thinks a moment, and asks the patient what he knows about dead people. After listing a few things – they don’t breathe, their hearts don’t beat – the patient adds, “and they don’t bleed very much.” At which point the psychiatrist pulls out a blade and runs it against patient’s arm, which begins to bleed, profusely.
The patient is aghast and puzzled. He looks up from his wound at the slyly smiling doctor and concedes, “I guess I was wrong.”
“Dead people,” he continues, “do bleed.”
I interrupted the laughter with the sobering suggestion that it’s not only the emotionally compromised victims of delusions, however, who see the world through their own particular lenses. Most of us do, at least if we have strong convictions. And the yields of those sometimes very different lenses are the stuff of conflict.
My brief presentation took place … Read More >>
A discomfiting feeling crept over me as I watched the fellow remove his head.
Well, not his head – though that would have been discomfiting too, even more so. This was just a costume head, that of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster. The scene: a small island of concrete in the middle of lower Broadway in Manhattan, where a moment before, Mr. Monster had been happily (at least his expression seemed to say so) posing with a pair of happy children (their expressions left no doubt), the latter’s parents pointing their phones at the photogenic performer and progeny.
My discomfiture arose from discordance, the jarring contrast between the friendly furry face, now dangling from a hand, and the entertainer’s actual own face, heavily stubbled and sneering. Grumbling and angry, he was clearly not enjoying his job.
It might be a professional hazard. A year or so later, an Elmo in Times Square began shouting anti-Semitic rants (with his head on, so to speak) and blocking traffic before being arrested. Another Cookie Monster in the same area stands accused of shoving a 2-year-old when he deemed his mother’s tip insufficient for his services. (“He was using words that … Read More >>
Some unwarranted criticism that was lobbed last week at several Orthodox writers greatly disturbed this one.
The target of one volley – though the shots widely missed their mark – was Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, one of the preeminent representatives of the charedi world. He was harshly criticized in a magazine editorial for a column he penned in a different magazine wherein he sought a silver lining in the current political disenfranchisement of charedi parties in the Israeli government coalition.
Rabbi Rosenblum suggested that the current situation “affords new opportunities to meet our fellow Jews on the individual level” and that now that they know that “we no longer threaten them” in the political realm, “they may be more open… to getting behind the stereotypes that fuel the animus” against charedim in Israel. “On a one-to-one basis,” he suggested, “we can show them what Torah means to us, what we are prepared to sacrifice for it, and what it might mean for them as well.”
Astonishingly, the writer of those words was pilloried for that sentiment, and misrepresented, too, as having asserted that “the hatred secular Israelis have toward charedim is the fault of the hated rather than the … Read More >>
It’s difficult to know whether shock-jock Michael Savage is in fact the actual person whose Bronx-accented ranting emanates daily from radios across the country, or whether that voice belongs to an adopted persona, a cantankerous, rude and hilariously self-aggrandizing misfit who seeks to capitalize on an assortment of angers lurking in the dark corners of listeners’ souls.
Certainly the fact that the former Michael Weiner adopted the name “Savage,” of all things, and that the portly 70-ish fellow introduces his program with abrasive headbanger music more suitable to a pierced punk rocker than a political pontificator would seem to argue for the alter ego case. So would optimism about the human condition: It would be disturbing to know that such an abrasive person was in fact real.
Already disturbing is the fact that the fellow (or his affected persona) has Jewish admirers. Those fans apparently figure that someone who voices fury for terrorists, bashes Israel-bashers and claims to stand up for traditional morals not only can’t be all bad but must be all good. No logic there, of course, but no one ever claimed that fandom is fettered by reason.
And so some Orthodox Jewish admirers of Mr. … Read More >>
A short personal observation about the Sharansky plan is here.
Back in 2009, I was troubled by the reaction of many of my friends to President Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world.
I had shared the same concerns they had about Mr. Obama during his first campaign for the presidency – his Chicago politics background, his attendance of a church headed by a rabid racist, his association with other distasteful characters, the suddenness of his rise to political prominence. But after his election (which happened somehow, despite my vote for his rival) I tried to focus not on the past but the present. And I found his Cairo speech pleasantly surprising.
That he chose to address the Islamic world in itself did not disturb me. Were I in his position, I reflected, were I a person of color who lived in a Muslim environment as a child and now the leader of a free world plagued by Islamic extremism, I would have made the same choice, seized the golden opportunity to try to reach the Muslim masses with a message of moderation.
And, continuing my thought experiment, I imagined myself saying much what the new president did. He spoke of Islamic culture’s accomplishments, extended a hand of … Read More >>
Amid the ongoing avalanche of political conversions, punditry and testimonials on behalf of redefining marriage was a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by a professor of biology, David George Haskell.
The professor’s contribution to the effort to bring public pressure on the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears two cases concerning the meaning of marriage was to note that some plants, lichen, snails and bees do not mate in ways that we would characterized as male-female pairs. In fact, Dr. Haskell informs us, even apes in the rainforest may form same-sex bonds.
Of course, that hardly constitutes “nature’s case for same-sex marriage,” the title that ran above the professor’s piece. At least not if society wishes to continue to disapprove of things like thievery, murder and cannibalism, all easily spotted in the wild. (There’s a reason, after all, it’s called the wild.)
To be fair, Dr. Haskell’s true target (despite his piece’s misleading title) is only the argument that, as the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone wrote, marriage should be “founded in nature.”
That’s a straw man, though, and one that might benefit from a lit match. What is or is not “natural,” at least from … Read More >>
Response to my proposed weekly by-subscription PDF offering, “An Observant Eye,” was sufficiently strong to justify my undertaking the project, and I’m happy to announce that the first issue will be e-mailed to subscribers, with Hashem’s help, on April 11.
More information about the special newsletter and a subscription link can be obtained here.
Two words — often offered pro forma but here truly heartfelt — for all those who encouraged me to commit to this project and backed their encouragement with subscriptions: Thank you.
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear. Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.
On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.” It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.
Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us? “Had He not given us the Torah.” Enough? What are we saying?
Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the … Read More >>