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.


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 >>

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 >>

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 >>

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 >>

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.

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 >>

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 >>

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.

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 >>

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 >>

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.

Ignore Headlines — and Be a Mensch

In February, 2001, I penned a piece for Moment Magazine that caused quite a ruckus.

I had titled it “Time to Come Home,” and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative Jewish congregations. I made the case that the Conservative movement’s claim of fealty to halacha was hollow and that the movement essentially took its cues from whatever non-Jewish society felt was acceptable or proper.

The issue of same-sex relationships, I contended, would prove my point. At the time, the movement hadn’t yet rejected the Torah’s clear prohibitions in that area. I predicted that, as the larger societal milieu was coming to embrace such relationships as morally acceptable, the Conservative movement would follow suit in due time.

(It did, of course, rather quickly. In 2006, the movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same gender and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. But the accuracy of my prediction is not my topic here.)

I pleaded that Conservative Jews who truly respected the concept of halacha should join their Orthodox brothers and sisters, and “come home,” as per the piece’s title.

… Read More >>

Wedded Bling

Do the price of an engagement ring and cost of wedding have anything to do with how strong a marriage will prove to be? Two Emory University economists recently studied that question. They noted that the multibillion-dollar wedding industry sends the subliminal message that large amounts of money spent on getting married can help assure successful marriages. However, the researchers found, the evidence suggested that, if anything, relatively inexpensive weddings are associated with lower likelihood of divorce.

Correlation, it is famously and accurately said, does not necessarily imply causation. It has been noted, for instance, that per capita consumption of cheese in the U.S. correlates closely with the number of people who died by becoming entangled in their bedsheets. And mathematical proficiency generally correlates with shoe size (children’s feet, after all, being smaller than those of adults).

So it’s wise not to put too much emphasis on the recent research, which was based on a survey of nearly 3,400 people who answered 40 questions, much less to extrapolate from it to the observant Jewish community.

But still.

The researchers’ conclusion – “We find that marriage duration is either not associated or inversely associated with spending on the … Read More >>

Womens Lib Haredi-Style

An article of mine on an often-ignored aspect of the high poverty/low employment rates of haredim in Israel was published by the Forward this week. The paper chose its own title for the piece, a somewhat misleading one, but, well, so it goes. You can read it here.

Zoned Out

Challenging “pre-owned” and “correctional institution” for first place in the delicate euphemism rankings is “sensitive urban zones.”

That phrase, having barged into the news cycle in recent weeks, is the translation of “Zones Urbaines Sensibles,” a designation long used in France to describe neighborhoods characterized by high unemployment, high rates of public housing and low educational attainment, many if not most of the areas populated for the most part by Muslim immigrants.

It was the characterization of such areas in Western Europe as “no-go zones,” first by Fox News and then by Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, that propelled “sensitive urban zones” into the news.

After terrorism analyst Steve Emerson contended on Fox News that “There are actual cities [in Britain] like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” British Prime Minister David Cameron waxed apoplectic, and the network apologized repeatedly. Similar claims about “no-go” neighborhoods in France prodded Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to announce that the City of Light would be suing Fox. “The image of Paris,” she huffed, “has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.”

A day after those apologies, Mr. Jindal told CNN that “In … Read More >>

Out of Borough Experience

Back in the fall, a candidate for the New York State Assembly made construction of major new housing in Borough Park the centerpiece of his campaign. A New York City councilman heartily endorsed that same goal. Currently, a developer is planning to build 13 six-story edifices in the neighborhood that will provide nearly 130 new apartments.

To those of us who don’t live in southern Brooklyn, efforts that will add to the population density and vehicular traffic there (an area some of us call Borough Double-Park) seem to border on irrationality. But of course, to residents who wish to see their married children settle in the neighborhoods where they were raised (and to those children who wish to live near their parents), new housing is an urgent priority.

No one lacking the requisite rebbishe credentials should arrogate to suggest to others how they should make decisions as important as where to live. But, having just spent a warm, memorable and inspiring Shabbos in Cincinnati, Ohio, I’d like to at least share a few impressions of that small but vibrant kehillah; and some others about some others.

Neither my wife nor I had ever been to Cincinnati before, and the … Read More >>

We’re Not Kidnappers

A piece I wrote for a Forward blog, in reaction to a mother’s lament over her newly-Orthodox daughter’s described rejection of her parents can be read here.

Exodus Exegesis

Some interesting thoughts about Yetzias Mitzrayim that have been bouncing around in my head for a number of years can be read here.

Private Matters

It comes as something of a revelation to many to confront the Rambam’s treatment of kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of Hashem’s name” for the first time. One definition of the concept in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 5:10 – perhaps its most essential one, has nothing to do with readiness to give up one’s life or to act in a way that presents a good image of a Jew to others.

To be sure, that the Torah commands us to be willing to perish rather than violate certain commandments (or any commandment – even custom – in certain circumstances) is well-known to most Jews with a modicum of Jewish knowledge. And the understanding that living an upstanding life, exemplifying honesty and sterling demeanor, is also a form of kiddush Hashem is likewise widely recognized. The Gemara in Yoma (86a) famously describes various amora’im’s examples of such projection of Jewish personal values, labeling them kiddushei Hashem.

What is surprising is the Rambam’s statement that kiddush Hashem is something that can be accomplished as well entirely in private. In fact, particularly in private.

“Anyone who violates, willingly, without any coercion, any of the precepts of the Torah…” reads the Rambam’s psak, “has … Read More >>

Greed Is Gross

The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday. At least 23 people were killed; an Al Qaeda affiliate is the suspected culprit.

Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban insurgents.

But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China. At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year.

The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.

Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times. The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course. It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human … Read More >>

Bricks for Bombs

A driver, reportedly shouting an Islamic slogan, rammed a vehicle into pedestrians in the French city of Dijon last Sunday, injuring twelve people.

Understandably, the attack (and several subsequent ones in France) brought back memories of this past autumn’s spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Israel. Although they seem to have abated in Israel (despite much Palestinian social media encouragement that they continue), the devil’s brew of blood-lust and creativity in some Arab and Muslim hearts continues to boil apace.

Spewed from the cauldron recently was one Yasmin Sha’aban, who, according to the Shin Bet, was planning to carry out a suicide attack in Israel. She intended to receive a permit (“for medical reasons”) to travel from Jenin, where she lived, into Israel proper. There, she hoped to disguise herself as an expectant Jewish woman, with explosives hidden under her clothes, and create as much carnage as she possibly could.

That plot, baruch Hashem, was interrupted by Israeli security forces; Ms. Sha’aban and several compatriots were taken into custody. It turned out that her friends had also planned to bomb a bus carrying soldiers and to kidnap a soldier.

The perennial question returns: How to discourage such … Read More >>

Letter in NYT Book Review

A slightly edited version of the letter below appears in the current New York Times Book Review:

Editor:

In reviewing “Living the Secular Life,” Susan Jacoby misunderstands the argument of those who maintain that the idea that there can be “good without God” is absurd.

The question isn’t whether an atheist can live an ethical life; of course she can. And believers can do profoundly unethical things. But an atheist has no reason to choose an ethical life. “Good deed” or “bad deed” can have no more true meaning for him than good weather and bad weather; right and wrong, no more import than right and left. If we are mere evolved apes, even if evolution has bequeathed us a gut feeling that an ethical life is preferred, we have no more compelling reason to embrace that evolutionary artifact than we are to capitulate to others, like overeating in times of plenty. If dieting isn’t immoral, neither is ignoring the small voice telling us that whacking our neighbor on the head and stealing his dog is wrong.

Only a psychopath, Ms. Jacoby contends, could disagree with the Golden Rule. The evidence presented by the large number of people convicted … Read More >>

Leaf Bag Lesson

An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves. Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame. The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.

Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup. (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)

A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.

I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.

Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine … Read More >>

Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah. The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy.

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed. Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs. In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all … Read More >>