A Place Called Doubt

The term “botched execution,” much in the news of late because of the case of convicted murderer Clayton Darrell Lockett, might seem to imply that the condemned prisoner has remained alive. Mr. Lockett, however, died, at least indirectly as a result of the lethal three-drug cocktail administered to him on April 29. His death was technically due to a heart attack, after he showed signs of life and even tried to speak at a point when the drugs should have conclusively dispatched him and the official execution was halted.

It turns out that the intravenous line sending the drugs into his body might at some point simply have slipped out (his body was covered during the procedure) but his protracted death has brought the subject of lethal injection as a means of execution – and the death penalty itself – into the global spotlight.

Considering that the crime for which Mr. Lockett was sentenced to death was the shooting and burying alive of an acquaintance, it’s hard to argue that, even if Mr. Lockett had an unnecessarily protracted painful death, it was devoid of some measure of justice – to the degree justice can be attained in this world.

… Read More >>

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Bias Vs. Backbone

A sports team owner’s base racism was all the talk of the world town last week. But a more subtle – and thus more dangerous – prejudice has been on public display, too, of late. It was largely ignored, however, likely because the bias revealed was against charedi Jews.

The opportunity for expressing the bias was the situation in the Monsey-area East Ramapo school district, whose public schools service a largely minority population but where there are many yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. And a prominent salvo in the recent bias-barrage was fired by New York Times columnist Michael Powell, who pens a column in the paper highlighting people against whom the writer has rendered his personal judgment of guilt.

His villains in an April 7 offering titled “A School Board That Overlooks Its Obligation To Students” were the Orthodox Jewish members of that entity, which is charged with overseeing the workings and government funding of all schools in the district. Of the approximately 30,000 school children in the district, roughly 22,000 are in yeshivos; the remaining 8,000 are in public schools.

Mr. Powell began his piece by lamenting the laying off of assistant principals, art teachers and a band … Read More >>

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Jungle Jurisprudence

Tommy, a resident of Gloversville, New York, filed a lawsuit in a New York state court last year against Patrick and Diane Lavery for what he claims was his unlawful detention in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.” Actually, to be more precise, the lawsuit was filed on Tommy’s behalf, by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), as he is a chimpanzee.

Legal action was initiated at the same time on behalf of Kiko, a chimp in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, primates in a research facility at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The NhRP asked the court to declare Tommy, then 26, “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

In October 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of five orcas, accusing the theme parks owning them of violating the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The suit was dismissed by a judge in the U.S. District Court for Southern California who wrote in his ruling that “the only reasonable interpretation of the 13th Amendment’s plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to nonpersons such … Read More >>

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The Secular Sky Is Falling!

This article appeared under a different title in Haaretz earlier this week and is posted here with the paper’s permission.

Well, it won’t be long now before Israel institutes penalties for watching television on the Sabbath and declares a religious war against the Palestinians. At least that’s what a cursory – or, actually, even a careful – reading of a recent New York Times op-ed might lead one to conclude.

In the piece, Abbas Milani, the head of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, and Israel Waismel-Manor, a University of Haifa senior lecturer, argue that Iran and Israel might be “trading places,” the former easing into a more secular mode, the latter slouching toward theocracy.

Whether the writers’ take on Iran has any merit isn’t known to me. But their take on Israel is risible, and the evidence they summon shows how clueless even academics can be.

The opinionators contend that the “nonreligious Zionism” advanced by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s is “under threat” today by “Orthodox parties” that “aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy.”

The irony is intriguing. It was none other than Ben-Gurion who pledged, in a 1947 agreement with the Agudath Israel World … Read More >>

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The (Almost) Rude Jewish Man

Time was when you saw a person talking to himself you assumed he was deranged or at least a little off. These days, of course, prattling people wired up or Bluetoothed are commonplace. The unhinged are well camouflaged among the masses.

The middle-aged woman in the elevator didn’t even have anything in or clipped to her ear; she was holding an actual, physical cellphone near the side of her face. And so, when she said, once, and then again, “Which is the way out?” I wondered to whom she was speaking and what topic was being discussed.

It was the end of a workday in downtown Manhattan, and only the woman, whom I hadn’t ever encountered before, was in the elevator when it stopped at my floor. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but had little choice. So I started to imagine what might have yielded her repeated, somewhat urgent-sounding question. A tax problem? (April was imminent.) A troubled relationship? Some existential crisis?

Following elevator etiquette, I faced the door. But, for some reason (in retrospect, probably siyata DiShmaya), I turned briefly in the woman’s direction. It was a good thing I did. Phone or not, she had been talking, … Read More >>

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Social Injustice

The following essay currently appears on the New York Jewish Week website.. (My regular weekly essays appear in the Wednesday edition of Hamodia.)

It was Albert Camus’ insight that bad things often result from ignorance, and that “good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

He could have been writing of the good souls whose desire for social justice has impelled them to smear members of the East Ramapo School District board for increased public school class size and cuts in school programs and extracurricular activities like sports and music.

A Jewish group, Uri L’Tzedek, is among the critics of the board, and contends that the majority “fervently Orthodox” members of the school board have been unfair to the primarily African-American, Haitian and Hispanic public school student population. In the pages of the New York Jewish Week, a founder of the group, Rabbi Ari Hart, amplified its objections in passionate terms (“East Ramapo’s Children Are Suffering”). Unfortunately, passion is no replacement for understanding.

Rabbi Hart claims to have conducted a “careful review of the facts” and to have spoken to “leaders from the Jewish and non-Jewish community.” But he apparently didn’t speak … Read More >>

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The Second Son

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

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

AS

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Our Soulless Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pondering the Prayer Gathering

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

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

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

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

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

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Masquerading As Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ultra-Cation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Much Ado About “Ultra”

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

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

And, finally, a rejoinder is here.

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The Anarchy Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Minyanim and Meta-Halacha

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

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

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

The teaching moment is about how halakha works.

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

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

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

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

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The Devil’s In The Daydreams

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

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

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

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

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

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Unpublished Heroes

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

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

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

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

I was 14.

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

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Tempest in a Tefillin-Bag?

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

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

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

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

And to think that … Read More >>

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Unravelling Tefillin-gate

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

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

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

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Wealth Management 101

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

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

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

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The Road to Heil

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

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

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

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

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A Note of No Great Consequence

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

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

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Aggravated Journalism

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

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

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

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Obama and the (Orthodox) Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Storied Lives

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

Yes, annually.

Usually for about an hour or two.

In a different city each year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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