The following essay was written for Haaretz and appeared on its website recently under a different title. I share it here with that paperâs permission.
Thereâs a striking irony in the fact that Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays among American Jews.
Cynics have contended that itâs Chanukahâs proximity to the Christian winter holiday, with all the latterâs ubiquitous glitz, baubles and musical offerings, that has elevated Chanukah â seen by some as a âminorâ celebration, since itâs a post-Biblical commemoration â to the pantheon (if a Greek word is appropriate here) of popular Jewish observances.
In fact, though, Chanukah is not minor at all; a wealth of Jewish mystical literature enwraps it, and laws (albeit rabbinical in origin) govern the nightly lighting of the holidayâs candles and the recital of Al Hanisim (âFor the miraclesâ) in our prayers over Chanukahâs eight days.
As to whether many American Jews are enamoured of Frosty the Snowman, well, itâs an open question. Me, I prefer my winter nights silent.
But onward to the irony, which is not only striking but significant.
I recall hearing a Reform rabbi on a public radio program a couple … Read More >>
Following the time-honored if somewhat irritating tradition of speechmakers who begin by announcing that they are departing from the scheduled topic, I informed those present that instead of focusing on the mediaâs coverage of Orthodox Jews, I would make my presentation on cloud seeding.
The venue was Agudath Israel of Americaâs recent 91st national convention, which took place this past weekend at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in New Jersey, where thousands converged to hear words of inspiration and admonition from some of the Orthodox worldâs guiding elders.
And, for some of the attendees, to hear words of lesser gravity from people like me, at various smaller sessions. Still, the Sunday morning one in which I participated, along with Rabbi Labish Becker, the sessionâs chairman; respected educator Rabbi Aaron Brafman and accomplished attorney Avi Schick; drew close to 500 souls.
A few voices in the back of the hall demanded that I repeat myself, for surely they had misheard. So I did, but, before puzzlement could turn to consternation, I launched into a pretty funny joke. No, Iâm not going to repeat it here. If youâre really curious, you can get the CD from email@example.com .
But I will … Read More >>
Celebrated attorney Alan Dershowitz has petitioned Israeli President Shimon Peres to intervene in what Haaretz characterizes as âthe case of the apparent blacklisting of Rabbi Avi Weiss by Israelâs Chief Rabbinate.â That is to say, the conclusion of the Rabbinate that Rabbi Weissâs conversion standards are markedly beneath their own.
Mr. Dershowitz wrote Mr. Peres that the rabbi at issue is âone of the foremost Modern Open Orthodox rabbis in Americaâ (no argument there, although âOpen Orthodoxy,â as has been well revealed, is a misnomer) and â the lawyerâs apparent coup de grĂ˘ce â âone of the strongest advocates anywhere for the State of Israel.â
The attorney goes on to bemoan the âchasm between the Jews of the United States and the religious institutions in Israelâ which he characterizes as âbaseless religious tyranny.â
As to Mr. Dershowitzâs authority to pronounce on matters religious, some earlier words of his:
âI amâŚ certain that the miraculous stories that form the basis of most religious beliefs are myths. Yet I respect the Bible and enjoy reading and teaching it. Indeed, I find it even more fascinating as a human creation than as a divine revelation. I consider myself a committed … Read More >>
While those of us here south of the border (the Canadian one, that is) were focused on our own local elections, a Chassidic woman candidate in a Montreal borough was busy making history.
Mindy Pollak, a chassidic woman (from the Vizhnitz community) was elected â the first chassidic person to do so â to the Montreal borough council of Outremont, where there have been running tensions for years between non-Jewish residents and the growing number of Orthodox Jews living there. Her opponent, journalist Pierre Lacerte, had supported a borough councilor widely considered anti-chassidic (if not anti-Semitic) in the latterâs attempt to undermine the construction of an eruv and new shuls in the neighborhood. According to one report, supporters of Mr. Lacerte went knocking on doors without mezuzahs, distributing flyers and announcing that âWeâre here to talk about the Jews.â
Ms. Pollakâs political ally and friend was, and is, Leila Marshy, a filmmaker of Arab ancestry who describes herself as a âmilitant Palestinian.â
An article in the Globe and Mail before the recent election quoted Ms. Pollak as saying that âif we focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us, then we can work toward … Read More >>
As someone with a well-honed sense of wonder, who delights at the sight of a blue jay (even though several of them regularly greet my wife and me outside the window during autumn breakfasts) and who, walking to Maariv each night, surveys the constellations and planets with awe (and feels a frisson at the occasional shooting star), I might be expected to marvel as well at modern communications technology.
And I do, at least to an extent. The rapid advance from dedicated word-processing machines (How futuristic was that StarWriter I bought in the 1980s! It had a five-line screen!) to computers, and then to more powerful computers â and the invention of e-mail and the Internet (thank you, Mr. Gore!) and smartphones â has been nothing short of astounding.
And yet, unlike blue jays and shooting stars, the state of personal tech today often leaves me grumpy. E-mail, for instance, for all its convenience and efficiency, seems to have only increased workloads. The Internet, for all the good that it may have to offer, presents so much that is the opposite of good â not just fraud and panderings to the lowest human instincts but avalanches of ill will … Read More >>
A lengthy op-ed in the New York Times today by one Susan Katz Miller celebrates intermarriage and the raising of children of intermarrieds in both Jewish and non-Jewish traditions. Her family âcelebrates Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Passover and many ShabbatsâŚ We also celebrate All Saintsâ Day and All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.â
Ms. Katz and her Episcopalian husband want their children âto feel equally connected to both sides of their religious ancestry.â
âPerhaps,â she writes, âhaving been given a love for Judaism and basic Hebrew literacy in childhood, they will choose at some point in their lives to practice Judaism exclusively. That would be good for the Jews. Or perhaps they will choose to be Christians or Buddhists or secular humanists who happen to have an unusual knowledge of and affinity for Judaism. That would also be good for the Jews.â
Neither, however, would be good for the Jews. Ms. Katz, âthe granddaughter of a New Orleans rabbi,â was âraised Reform Jewishâ by her own âEpiscopalian mother andâŚ Jewish father.â
Times, indeed, are strange. Geraldo Rivera and Stella McCartney (Paulâs daughter) are halachically Jewish. But Susan Katz Miller is not.
The essay below was written for, and published by, Haaretz.com. I offer it here with that paper’s permission — and with my apologies to readers who may feel that enough has been written about its subject already.
And with gratitude to Rabbi Pinchas Lipschutz, Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein for having blazed the important trail of revealing what needed to be revealed here.
The perils of religious self-definition became amusingly apparent in the recent Pew survey of American Jews. One category of âJewsâ was âJews by affinityâ â Americans lacking any Jewish parentage or any Jewish background who simply choose to call themselves Jews; more than one million people so identified themselves. Similarly suspicious are the surveyâs self-described âOrthodox,â fully 15% of whom reported that they âregularly attend servicesâ in a non-Jewish place of worship, 24% of whom handle money on the Sabbath and 4% of whom say they erect holiday trees in their homes in December.
In a recent op-ed, Rabbi Asher Lopatin insists that the âOpen Orthodoxâ movement whose flagship institution, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he now serves as president has every right and reason to call itself Orthodox â indeed … Read More >>
We cannot see the tens of thousands of mazikin, or âharmersâ (often translated as âdemonsâ), that the Talmud teaches surround us always (Berachos 6a). Were they visible, says Abba Binyamin, they would utterly terrify us. The same, of course, is true about the tens of thousands of spores, bacteria and viruses that constantly seek to invade our bodies.
The latter are held off, if we are alive and healthy, by an unbelievably complex biological network we call the immune system.
Langerhans cells on our skin keep tiny potentially lethal invaders out.
The enzyme lysozyme in mucus breaks down the cell walls of malign bacteria, as do tears and saliva.
An astounding menagerie of protein molecules we call antibodies, moreover, is produced by the white blood cells born in the marrow of our bones, each product designed (yes designed; thereâs a Designer here) to disable a specific bacteria, virus or toxin. Lymphocytes, one such product of our bone marrow, attack a broad array of the bacterial and viral agents that are capable of causing us great harm.
And the system contains a vital control subsystem governed by the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA), a molecule present on the surface of … Read More >>
The other day, waiting to board a bus, I was moved to think about empathy.
Unfortunately, the prod came in the form of the opposite, crass selfishness. A young woman approached the group of us waiting to step up into the vehicle and insinuated herself at the front of the long line. She had no visible physical impairment, made no request for anyoneâs permission, offered not even a perfunctory âexcuse me.â She seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that other people occupied the universe at the time, some even in her immediate vicinity.
I could read the minds of my fellow future passengers. Their faces telegraphed my own mental reaction: Who does she think she is? How would she like it if someone cut before her in a line? Yes, she would probably reply in puzzlement. âBut thatâs not whatâs happening. I am the one cutting in here, not someone else cutting in before me.â The lady, in other words, was empathy-impaired.
âMy sins I recount today,â as the waiter, just released from prison, told Pharaoh. I recall myself as a small boy armed with a magnifying glass on a sunny day, incinerating individual ants out of sheer curiosity. … Read More >>
A rejoinder to my recent essay on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and “Open Orthodoxy” was published here . Below is my response to that posting, written in my capacity as Agudath Israel of America’s spokesperson.
I am grateful to Dr. Ben Elton, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, for his rejoinder to my recent posting about that institution and âOpen Orthodoxy,â in which I asserted that neither can lay claim to the adjective âOrthodox,â at least not if words are to have meanings.
My gratitude derives from the fact that Dr. Eltonâs words help clarify the issue. Although he writes that he is âbemusedâ by my critique of his invocation of the Wurzburger Rav as an example of Chovevei Torahâs approach, his explanation of his bemusement can allow us to better understand whether that revered Torah personality would indeed approve of the inclusion of non-Orthodox Jewish clergy in training rabbis, which YTC proudly embraced at its recent presidential installation.
Dr. Elton is correct that there was indeed a difference of opinion between the Wurzburger Rav (Rav Yitzchok Dov Halevi Bamberger) and Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch regarding whether the rabbis of the Orthodox community of Frankfurt could remain part of … Read More >>
I unintentionally shocked a Jewish journalist several months ago. I had invited the non-Orthodox reporter to Agudath Israel of Americaâs offices to introduce her to the organizationâs various divisions and projects, and to some of my colleagues. But later, conversing with her about various issues, something I said â although to me it was entirely unremarkable â seemed to take my guest aback.
She had brought up the topic of abortion rights. I noted that Orthodox Jews donât regard the issue as one of ârightsâ but rather of right â that is to say, our obligations to our Creator. Odd as it still seems to me now, my guest reacted as if a new lens on the world had suddenly opened before her. She wasnât about to suddenly adopt the Orthodox paradigm, Iâm quite sure. But she admitted that she hadnât ever considered its contrarian conceptual source â the idea that we are here on earth not to reach our own conclusions and assert our rights but rather to accept G-dâs will and serve Him. Suddenly, she seemed to understand why the Orthodox approach to a number of contemporary issues was so different from her own and that of … Read More >>
Agudath Israel of Americaâs recent statement regarding the ostensibly Orthodox âYeshivat Chovevei Torahâ took that institution to task for crossing a particularly bright red line by inviting non-Orthodox Jewish clergy to make presentations at a âroundtableâ entitled âTraining New Rabbis for a New Generationâ at its installation of a new president.
The most eloquent and straightforward defense of YCT came in the form of a posting at âThe Times of Israelâ by a student of the institution, Dr. Ben Elton.
While graciously ârespect[ing]â the âright of the Agudah to object to cross-denominational activityâ (even citing Lord Jonathan Sacks in concurrence, as Rabbi Sacks has written that âpluralism and Orthodoxy are mutually exclusiveâ), Dr. Elton asserts that the Wurzberger Rov (Rav Yitzchok Dov Halevi Bamberger), by taking a different position from that of Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch on the secession of Orthodox Jews from the larger, government-sanctioned pan-Jewish community in Frankfort, is a model for a more inclusive attitude.
The Wurzberger Rovâs permitting of Frankfortâs Orthodox Jews to remain part of the official Jewish community of the city, Dr. Elton contends, âinevitably meant recognizing the status of [the cityâs] non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, perhaps even paying for their upkeepâŚâ
Unfortunately … Read More >>
Under siege by some of his countrymen for seeming to have acknowledged the Holocaust, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to walk that Chihuahua back at a forum this week sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society. Asked to clearly state his stand on the issue, he chose to condemn âcrimes by the Nazis during World War II [including the killing of] a group of Jewish people.â
Another âdefining downâ of historical fact also recently appeared, this one emanating from a more respectable source, the New York Times, in a video on its website. The background clip accompanied a print report about Jews who ascend the Har Habayis, or Temple Mount, thereby passively challenging the Muslim authorities to whom Israel has ceded oversight of the ancient Jewish holy site. Those overseers forbid Jews from praying openly there; some of the Jewish visitors, apparently, dare to do so silently.
The second of the two holy Jewish national temples that stood on the mount for centuries, of course, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It was more than 600 years later, after the Islamic empire spread to the Holy Land, that a small mosque was … Read More >>
âIt was all her fault,â the first man, referring to the first woman, told their Creator, establishing the principle of cherchez la femme in the very first week of history.
In a more precise translation of the Hebrew verse in Beraishis, which Jews the world over will be focused on soon as we begin the public reading of the Written Torah anew, what Adam said was: âThe woman whom You provided to be with me, it was she who gave me of the tree and I ate.â
No wonder that the rabbis of the Talmud branded Adam, for those words, an ingrate, a âdenier [literally, âturner-overâ] of a favor.â
What is intriguing and may be significant is the word Adam used for âwhom,â asher. It is a common word, and can mean either âthatâ or âwhoâ or âwhom.â But it is often contracted to a single letter, shin, appended to the word that follows.
In at least one place where it isnât so shortened is in the Creatorâs words to Moshe Rabbeinu, announcing the production of a second pair of Ten Commandment Tablets, to replace the ones âasher shibarta,â âthat you shattered.â
While that phrase may seem to telegraph … Read More >>
If you’re insomniac, you can visit rabbiavishafran.com and click on “Yom Kippur” or “Sukkos” at the right of the homepage (under “categories”) and read various thoughts I’ve committed to writing over the years about those holidays.
And you can read a recent (last week’s) issue of my weekly newsletter “An Observant Eye” by clicking the following link: AOE #17.
To subscribe to the newsletter, click here
And, most important, a g’mar chasima tova to all Cross-Current readers.
I had always thought that I knew the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (or Mayence), whose poignant prayer-poem âUânsaneh Tokefâ is solemnly recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Several years ago, though, I discovered something about the account that I had overlooked, and was struck by the irony it holds.
The liturgical poem, of course, pictures the scene of the new yearâs Divine judgment of all mortals, with the Ultimate Judge opening the book of their deeds, in which âthe signature of every manâ is inscribed and which âwill read itself.â The judgment is pronounced: âwho will live and who will die,â and how; who will âlive undisturbed, and who in turmoilâ; âwho will be laid low, and who raised high.â It is a chilling passage to recite â and the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung only adds to its poignancy, sending chills down any spine connected to a functioning head. And the prayerâs final words, âBut repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree,â chanted loudly by the entire congregation, are a font of inspiration to be better in the coming days of the year just arrived.
The story behind the … Read More >>
Itâs easy for many of us Orthodox Jews to look down our noses on our fellow members of the tribe who express their Jewishness only on the âHigh Holidaysâ and yahrtzeits, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism canât, after all, be âcompartmentalized.â Itâs an all-encompassing way of life.
There are, though, even Orthodox Jews, living what seem to be observant Orthodox lives, doing, at least superficially, all the things expected of a religious Jew â eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing the de rigeuer head-covering of his or her community â who also seem to religiously compartmentalize, who seem to leave G-d behind in shul (if they even think of Him), who seem to not realize that the Creator is as manifest on a Tuesday in July as He is on Yom Kippur.
Which explains how it is that an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices or abuse a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how one can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously. Or, for that matter, how he can address his Maker in … Read More >>
Just a short note to let readers know that I have posted several “oldie but goodie” (at least I hope they’re worthy) essays about Rosh Hashana on my website.
If you want to peruse them, just go to rabbiavishafran.com and click on “Rosh Hashana” in the “Categories” list.
Or just click here.
Ksiva Vachasima Tova to you and yours,
Even as Al Jazeera America â the new offshoot of the Qatar-based news organization â was making its broadcast debut recently on cable carriers in the United States, its parent organization back on the Arabian peninsula featured a commentary by former Muslim Brotherhood official Gamal Nassar, in which he claimed that the Egyptian military (and currently political) leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is a Jew. He didnât mean it as a compliment.
Mr. Nassar cited an Algerian newspaper (âAll the slander thatâs fit to slingâ?) to the effect that Mr. Al Sisiâs uncle was âa member of the Jewish Haganah organizationâ and that the nephew âis implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.â
The Al Jazeera commentator helpfully added that âWhoever reads The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the writings of [the Jews], including those who were writing in the U.S., realizes that this plot was premeditated.â
Maybe itâs not fair to visit the sins of the father â Al Jazeera in Arabia â so to speak, onto the son â Al Jazeera America. The latter organization claims to be âa completely different channel fromâŚ all of the other channels in the Al Jazeera Media Networkâ … Read More >>
A lengthy piece at the online magazine Tablet describes ânew Jewish ritualsâ that âoffer comfort to women who have had abortions.â It begins with the story of a woman who, as a young graduate student, terminated two of her pregnancies and years later came to realize that a âspiritual, ritual wayâ of âmarking the decisionâ to end the lives of her unborn children âwould have helped in resolvingâ uncomfortable feelings she had experienced.
The woman discovered a group, Mayyim Hayyim, that utilizes a mikveh for that express purpose. A liturgical rite, written by three women â a poet, a psychologist and a rabbi â asks the Creator for help âto begin healing from this difficult decision to interrupt the promise of life.â
According to Mayyim Hayyimâs executive director, Carrie Bornstein, âOftentimes itâs helpful for people to say, âIâm going to move to the next stage of my life, whatever that might bring, and Iâm not going to let that experience define me or take me over.â â
Another âpost-abortion ritualâ was devised by a graduate student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Yet another is in a book edited by four female Reform rabbis.
Actually, … Read More >>
The recent ânewsâ story about a bar mitzvah boy in Dallas who celebrated the milestone of obligation to observe the Torahâs laws by entertaining family and guests by dancing on a stage with a bevy of Las Vegas-style showgirls reminded me of an article several years ago in The New York Times about such crass missing of the Jewish point.
It introduced something that has become de rigueur in some bar and bat mitzvah circles, something called âmotivators.â
While perhaps not on the level of the Dallas debauchery, what the article described was sad enough. It highlighted the profession of a young non-Jewish gentleman from the Virgin Islands clad in a form-fitting black outfit, who âregularly spends his weekends dancing with 13-year-oldsâŚ at bar mitzvahs,â according to the report. His is a âlucrative and competitiveâ profession â he is a âparty motivator.â
Such folks are paid to attend bar mitzvahs and other events to make sure âthat young guests are swept up in dancing and games,â according to the article. The Caribbean crooner was described as smiling ecstatically at one bar mitzvah âas he danced to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez songs with middle school studentsâ … Read More >>
A lengthy piece in the New Republic asserts â or, more accurately, hopes â that âan unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism.â The latter word, of course, is intended to refer to traditional Orthodox Judaism.
Heavy on anecdotes about charedi crazies harassing sympathetic women, the piece, titled âThe Feminists of Zion,â details how demographic changes in Israel have brought the decades-old peaceful co-existence of secular and charedi Jews to something of a head. The âonce-tiny minorityâ of charedim ânow comprises more than 10% of the population,â it informs. And it warns that âas their numbers have increased, so has their sway over political and civil life.â
That sway has resulted in things like âan increase in modesty signs on public boulevards and gender-segregated sidewalks in Haredi neighborhoods,â not to mention âgender-separated office hours in government-funded medical clinics and de facto gender segregation on publicly subsidized buses,â among other affronts.
In 19th century America, there was much anxiety about the âYellow Peril,â the pernicious effect that Chinese immigrants were imagined to have on the culture of the union. During the Second World War, the phrase was applied to Japanese Americans (iceberg, Goldberg, what … Read More >>
I must confess that Iâm a hardened skeptic when it comes to most âinspirationalâ stories. Unless something has been attested to by unimpeachable witnesses or otherwise documented (and that doesnât mean it appeared in an inspirational book), I tend to take such accounts with more salt than my doctor would likely approve of.
But that doesnât mean there canât be value, even great value, in a tale, whether or not it ever happened.
Take the story of the âBaal HaTanya,â Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of what today is known as Chabad Chassidus, and his encounter with the miser.
A large sum of money, the story goes, was needed to redeem a groom being held for ransom. Along with two venerated Chassidic luminaries of the time, the young man who would become the Baal HaTanya undertook to raise the sum, and they went to the only man in town wealthy enough to underwrite the cause. Unfortunately, though, the fellow was known as a terrible miser.
True to his reputation, when he answered the knock on his door and was presented with the situation, the wealthy man responded by handing the rabbis a single penny. The Baal … Read More >>
Two recent articles in the New York Times conveyed as informative a picture of Palestinians and Israel as might be imagined. One, on August 4, profiled the âculture of conflictâ nurtured by West Bank Palestinians, focusing on Arab teenagersâ delight in throwing large stones at Israel soldiers and Jewish residents of nearby communities, and younger boysâ games imitating their eldersâ activities.
âChildren have hobbies,â one teen, Muhammad, is quoted as explaining, âand my hobby is throwing stones.â
When a 17-year-old, arrested for his stone-throwing, was released in June after 16 months in prison, the article reports, âhe was welcomed like a war hero with flags and fireworks, women in wedding finery lining the streets to cheer his motorcade.â
The second Times piece, the next day, described how, in its headlineâs words, âDoctors in Israel Quietly Tend to Syriaâs Wounded.â
Most Syrian patients âcome here unconscious with head injuries,â said Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director general of one of the hospitals, the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. âThey wake up after a few days or whenever and hear a strange language and see strange people,â he continued. âIf they can talk, the first question is, âWhere am I?â â
âI … Read More >>
The teaser e-mail alert from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency read: âHasidim for Iranâ; and the headline of the linked article, about a Neturei Karta member arrested for allegedly spying for Iran, was: âHaredi Israeli charged with spying for Iran.â
Well, yes. But one has to wonder if, say, a âprogressiveâ 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) didnât see headlines back in 2008 about Bernie Madoff reading: âJew Accused of Bilking Thousands of their Savings.â
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 heâd 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 >>