Why Can’t They Be Like Me?

The current crisis in Eretz Yisrael constitutes an extended educational seminar on two topics: what is Torah, and what does it mean to be a student of Torah?

At the outset, let’s dispense with those issues on which there is little or no essential dispute. No one argues that people who aren’t interested or capable of learning full-time must do so anyway. The many programs that have been providing training and placement for thousands of men in the Torah community over the past many years should make this abundantly clear.

There are also those who have little or no interest in learning full-time but perhaps remain enrolled in yeshivah for other reasons, such as to avoid the responsibility to earn a living or the possible stigma associated with leaving the yeshivah. Although this group, whose numbers are not known, is often invoked by supporters of the drafting of bnei Torah, it is disingenuous to do so. The central debate is not over their fate, and pointing to them is simply an attempt to change the subject or tar all bnei Torah with their disrepute.

The essential issue is this: What of the many, many thousands of bochurim and yungeleit who fiercely love Torah, genuinely live Torah, and wish to remain immersed in its full-time study? The conflicting positions on this question are well known. Less appreciated, however, are the beliefs that underpin these positions, which make all the difference in the world.

Here’s what Torah Jews have always believed, and from rich experience, know to be true:

That limud haTorah is the greatest mitzvah and a never-ending one, incumbent, in the Rambam’s words, upon “poor and rich, the healthy and the afflicted, the young and the old and feeble … until the day one dies.” It’s intended to fill every available waking moment of the Jewish man (with accommodation obviously made for attending to one’s material needs). And for good reason, because, as the Chofetz Chaim puts it in explaining the verse (Devarim 32:47) “Ki lo davar reik hu mikem, ki hu chayeichem”: Torah isn’t just one aspect of life, nor even the primary one. Torah is life itself.

That limud haTorah is life’s supreme joy, enthralling in its brilliance and depth, and that the longer and further one explores its vast expanses, the more enraptured he becomes, wanting for naught but to drink deeply of its Divine wisdom forever; that studied properly, it is immeasurably ennobling of one’s character, helping to tame ego and bodily drives alike; that it is a balm for the soul and an elixir for the body, literally good for what ails one; that it is the life force not only of the cosmos, bestowing material and spiritual blessing on all they contain, but of all the other mitzvos as well.

And above all, we have always regarded as our individual and national heroes those who merit remaining in the beis medrash long-term through their and their families’ single-minded determination and surpassing love of Hashem and His Torah. How else to describe those who forego promising careers and material comforts to instead toil in Torah with such intensity that, as Dr. Akiva Tatz wrote of his first months in yeshivah, “I’d come home daily more deeply exhausted than I had been as an intern, if that is possible to imagine … the intellectual level demanded in yeshivah learning makes university study pale into insignificance….”

To be a neheneh miyegi’a kapav, an honest, G-d-fearing working man, punctilious in mitzvah performance and daily Torah study, has always been the lot of most Jews, and a truly noble one it is. But Jews never confused the fulfillment of their individual mission, based on their particular needs and limitations, with the objective truth that the more Torah, the better, and that there can be no greater good fortune — whether it is mine or my Jewish brother’s — than to “sit in Hashem’s house all the days of one’s life.”

Continue reading → Why Can’t They Be Like Me?

At the Lemonade Stand

In an opinion piece in the Jewish Week, the three co-authors of the recent study of New York’s Jewish population cheerfully report on why their findings are so promising:

Much has been written about the somewhat surprising results from the “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.” Probably the most noted developments were the explosive growth of the haredim, the sharp surge in poverty, and the increasing number of non-denominational Jews.…But…we were most struck by the incredible — and expanding — diversity of New York Jewry in so many dimensions.… This diversity is healthy. It makes this community stronger and more interesting. It provides individuals with multiple stimuli and options for Jewish living.…

Along with all this diversity in age, ideology, national origin, culture and social class comes diversity in approaches to life, Jewish life and Jewish engagement.… To some, the sheer diversity translates into polarization and disunity. To us, the diversity poses a remarkable opportunity: to enhance personal and communal creativity, to build patterns of mutual enrichment, to celebrate difference while building bridges across difference.  Ultimately we can develop a new model of Jewish collectivity that celebrates diversity while seeking integration

It’s got all the stock buzzwords: “multiple … Read More >>

A Multi-vocal Conversation

I’ve been trying to gather information, from 6,000 miles away, in order to form some opinions on what appears to be a complex situation in Beit Shemesh. I’m still in the midst of absorbing what I’ve read and heard, so for the most part, I’ll let some others doing the talking for now. To gain a broader perspective, I’ve been reading widely, giving equal time, you might say, to Hamodia and Ha’aretz, the newspaper of Israel’s liberal, secular elites. Gideon Levy, an Ha’aretz columnist who sits on its editorial board, writes:

As expected, the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox, all of them, went beyond all proportion. But we can relax: The scandal of the week will quickly die down. The trendy word “exclusion” will return to its obscurity…. It was an artificial fuss: The signs had been there for years until the television cameras captured them. The spitting incident was shameful, but the scandal was overdone.… The fury that erupted on Monday in Beit Shemesh, with one policeman injured and two ultra-Orthodox men arrested, broke out only because the media showed up. This incident too will be forgotten. I was there. Eggs splattered around me, and the ultra-Orthodox shouted “Nazi, … Read More >>

Dishonesty in the Service of Animus

The seemingly insatiable appetite of the Forward for anti-Orthodox scandal-mongering has claimed its latest prey, Touro College, a “Jewish-oriented institution that reaches out especially to Orthodox students” (never mind that a full 32% of its student body is “minorities,” and that in 2007 the college opened a medical school in Harlem, specifically to improve medical care in that community and increase the number of “minorities” practicing medicine).

According to the paper, the college “came under pointed questioning by curriculum experts after the Forward revealed that it granted academic credits for an online course put together by a pro-Israel advocacy group, ” known as Jerusalem Online U. As one reads further, however, it becomes clear that the course didn’t exactly “[come] under pointed questioning by curriculum experts.” Rather, one Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, “reviewed the course syllabus on the Forward’s behalf.”

And what did the good professor find? That “[i]f Touro College has pretentions to be a serious academic institution, this is not a course that students should get credit for.” Zachary Lockman offering expert opinion on the impartiality of an academic course on the Middle East?! This … Read More >>

Can't Get No Traction

In my last post, I quoted the late director of the American Reform movement in Israel, David Forman, as stating that Reform’s “inroads into Israeli society have been marginal at best.” Back in 2005, the same gentleman estimated the number of dues-paying Reform Jews in Israel to be about 5,000, and, rest assured, there hasn’t been a dramatic uptick since then. Indeed, Forman added that “while it is convenient for us to blame our unequal treatment by the government for our limited numbers . . . it is highly doubtful that if we were granted full rights tomorrow our membership would grow significantly.” This, despite the millions that have been poured by American donors into building the biggest, most modern edifices for the heterodox movements and running the most sophisticated ad campaigns for religious pluralism that money can buy. So, why is that with all that, the heterodox have gained so little traction in Israel?

I believe I have at least one of the answers to that question, one that is well illustrated by the recent blowup over conversions. As much as religion and relations between the religious and secular communities are incendiary topics in Israel (although, it … Read More >>

Silly Season, Part 2

As the controversy over the Israeli conversion bill heated up, in other corners of the Jewish world, too, ‘twas the season to be silly. In a New York Times opinion piece so rife with howlers that a “Corrections” note of several paragraphs would not suffice, a Jewish magazine editor suggested that future historians would wonder why “as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map, did custodians of the 2,000-year-old dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?”

It’s good the writer is concerned enough about the Iranian nuclear threat to make the rather strange connection between it and, of all things, the Israeli conversion controversy. Perhaps her next article can muse about what future historians will say about why the American Jewish establishment and its constituents — including her magazine’s readership — who are an important part of Barack Obama’s liberal base and are, even as his popularity plummets, still among his staunchest financial and political backers, failed to object strenuously — or at all — to his reconciliation to the reality of an Iranian bomb.

…

Silly Season Is Here Again

It’s silly season again in the Jewish world. In other words, yet another fight has broken out over conversions in Israel, and ostensibly smart people have taken to saying some truly risible things.

In one corner, we find David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, reviving an old chestnut, one I’d thought had been laid to well-deserved rest years ago, but is apparently hardier than I assumed. His argument: When Hizbollah bombed a Buenos Aires Jewish center, killing scores, all that mattered for the terrorists was that the victims identified as Jews; likewise, there were no separate Nazi box cars, ghettoes and barracks for different Jews based on degree of Jewishness. Ergo, anyone with a sustained hankering for kasha varnishkes or Israeli folk dancing has a moral right to join the Jewish people.

There are a number of ways to respond to Mr. Harris, such as testing the logical limits of his position by asking if he knows how to spell unmentionable phrases like Jews for Jesus – but, honestly, there’s other silliness to cover, so we’ll have to suffice here with saying this: No thanks, we’d prefer not to hand the ultimate authority for defining … Read More >>

Quite Unconventional

When you attend a convention over Shabbos and several days later you still feel your neshama tingling, you know that what you experienced was rather . . . unconventional.

That captures the experience my wife, our daughter and I shared the Shabbos before last at the inaugural convention of Project Inspire (PI) in Stamford, Connecticut. PI describes itself as a grassroots movement with the goal, simply stated yet hugely ambitious, of nothing less than helping unify the Jewish people by strengthening the bond we all share: our relationship with HaKadosh Boruch Hu and His Torah. The project’s chosen means to that most noble of ends is to motivate those of us already Torah observant to reach out and draw close, one by one, Jews estranged from Torah, while energizing our own spiritual lives at the same time.

If there was one weekend program on the packed communal calendar not to be missed, this was surely it. No, not because it featured a truly stellar cast of presenters, both world-class Talmidei Chachamim and many of the Kiruv world’s finest talents, along with deluxe accommodations and sumptuous catering iber’n kop, as they say.

The convention’s uniqueness was that while …

Of Cartoons and Coldhearted Cowardice - Part 2

Of all the Forward has done to bully those from whom it has no fear of a fatwa, nothing compares with what it has written editorially in the wake of Sholom Rubashkin’s conviction, as he faces a potentially life devastating sentence: precisely nothing. The issue here is not whether Mr. Rubashkin committed crimes; a federal court found that he did, and most fair-minded people agree that if so, he owes a debt of penance and reasonable incarceration for those deeds.

But the Forward has a special connection to Mr. Rubashkin’s case, which makes its utter silence in the face of the truly Draconian aspects of his imprisonment and sentencing all the more deeply disturbing.

Just last week, the paper featured a piece entitled “One Journalist’s Jewish Journey,” by the young reporter whose investigative coverage played a large role in the unraveling of the Agriprocessors’ meat processing plant and the Postville, Iowa, community that had developed around it. In it the reporter, who is no longer with the Forward, looks back at his time at the paper, as he progressed from ignorance of all things Jewish, the product of a “barely Jewish home,” to becoming more comfortable with … Read More >>

The Triumphalism Meme and Its Uses

Amidst all the controversy that Rabbi Landesman’s recent post sparked, one particular statement of his failed to receive the attention it deserves. He wrote that he is “deeply concerned by the chareidi triumphalism often voiced on this blog as well as other chareidi media outlets which loudly proclaim how ‘goodly are our tents’ – a statement that I am not certain is consistent with the facts on the ground.”

My comments here will address the charge of triumphalism on the assumption that the Orthodox community indeed has much to feel good about, along with, as well, quite a bit to be concerned about within its ranks. I’ll set aside, however, what I find to be the more astonishing part of R. Landesman’s statement — that he’s not certain the verse “how goodly are your tents” comports with the current Orthodox reality — and leave it to the readers to decide whether they share R. Landesman’s perception of that reality.

First, let’s define triumphalism; then, in Part 1, we’ll take a bit more circumspect view of claims of triumphalism; and, in a coming Part 2, we’ll discuss when and under what circumstances one might rightfully celebrate his community’s … Read More >>

Of Cartoons and Coldhearted Cowardice - Part 1

This week, the New York Times’ token center-right columnist, Ross Douthat, had an important piece on the contradictory notions of censorship in contemporary society. Reading it through Jewish lenses, though, one can see its implications for our own society as well.

Back in 2006, when the appearance of cartoons caricaturing Islam’s founder, Muhammad, sparked worldwide riots, the scriptwriters of an entertainment program with well deserved notoriety for its offensive language and willingness to ridicule anyone and anything, tried to run an episode featuring its own animated images of Muhammad. The channel airing the program, however, blacked out these images.

Two weeks ago, these same writers got their revenge with another episode lampooning the censorship of their work, this time featuring Muhammad speaking from inside a U-Haul trailer and a mascot’s costume. This prompted an Islamic website to post a column predicting the writers would end up like Theo van Gogh, a Dutch artist murdered in 2004 for his stinging critiques of Islam, alongside a photo of van Gogh’s corpse. The host channel’s response was swift in coming: the very next episode, intended to feature similar “non-appearances” by Muhammad, was purged of every last reference to him and the … Read More >>

Sounds of Silence

I’ve been following with interest the back-and-forth between two veteran Torah activists who both have done so much for other Jews over their careers, R. Yaakov Menken and R. Dovid Landesman, and I’m amazed at a couple things: 1) To date, neither the latter writer nor any commenter has put forward a refutation of what the resident of Emanuel has written, nor have they even claimed to know the situation as first-hand as she does. She may not be ultimately shown to be correct, but, in the interim, can they not bring themselves to offer even a provisional retraction and utter the words:”I’m sorry, I may have mistakenly besmirched an entire community of fellow Jews”?

Instead, I’m sorry to say, the response is vaguely reminiscent of Joe McCarthy back in the days of HUAAC, when upon being conclusively refuted regarding one purported Commie, the senator moved on without missing a beat to the next name on his blacklist of hundreds. A little intellectual honesty here would go some ways toward making this a more productive discussion.

2) Echoing R. Menken, I marvel at how the hours tick away and the days pass since R. Menken first challenged R. … Read More >>

The Micronesia Principle

To mark the just-concluded week-long visit to Israel of the presidents of Micronesia and Nauru, I republish below a piece that appeared in Hamodia in 2004.


A fabulous name which, if it didn’t already exist, would simply have to be invented. Perhaps as the moniker of an exclusive island retreat for top Microsoft executives. Maybe as a medical term describing a very minute memory lapse. Or, can’t you just see it in some children’s storybook as the name of an enchanted kingdom populated by the Little People?

Yet, in reality, Micronesia is none of these things. It is, instead, the name of what is quite obviously a courageous little country that cares not what others think, not even what the whole world thinks, only about doing what is just and true. That is why each time Israel is brought before the bar of justice for one of its manifold perceived sins against the Palestinians or, indeed, the world community, there is a literal handful of countries that unfailingly support the Jewish state. One of these is the United States; another is Micronesia, which, though once a territory under U.S. stewardship, now charts its own foreign policy … Read More >>

Of Anthropology and Apathy

“You have to wonder what they’ll come up with next.”

With that snide introduction, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that 20 Israeli hotels catering to an Orthodox clientele have signed a “modesty code” committing them to unplug in room televisions and block views of the pool. Was this move the result of boycotts, protests, and implied or overt threats of some sort?

Apparently not. The report notes only that senior rabbis directed a committee they had establishedto compose a list of vacation venues appropriate for the Orthodox public. Lo and behold, a little over a month later, these resorts considered their economic self-interest and decided that, as we say on these shores, “the customer is king.” Five of the hotels are under religious ownership and will be accommodating their observant guests’ wishes year round, while the other 15 sites have agreed to uphold the new standards only during particular periods when Orthodox patronage is at its heaviest.

From the snarky lead-in line quoted above and a later reference to the hotels “bowing to haredi pressure,” it’s obvious that all of this really bothers the JTA reporter. But it’s difficult to understand how this is any different from the “pressure” … Read More >>

My (non-deductible) contribution

An e-mail arrived today from the president of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency appealing for money to enable the agency to stay afloat. I must admit that as a free subscriber to JTA’s daily news bulletin, I felt a twinge of guilt upon reading the letter’s postscript stating that while it is “JTA’s mission to offer content for free, . . . it is not free to produce. We need everyone who relies on JTA to pitch in. . . . ” And so, I’ve decided to contribute in my own way, by posting at least once each week regarding some aspect of the JTA’s news coverage.

I trust my observations will pay great dividends to the agency in enabling it to fulfill its stated role as the “Global News Service of the Jewish People,” and will, ultimately be worth far more to its staff than the paltry monetary sum I’d otherwise be contributing. I take as my starting premise that as a self-described “Global News Service of the Jewish People,” the JTA is committed to a rigorously objective and non-partisan approach to its reporting, in both religious and political terms. So, here goes:

A June 15 news …

Gates of Wisdom

Last week’s news of a healthy 14% first-quarter profit for Apple Computer stood out as a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. The company’s strong sales were due largely to the continuing popularity of its innovative iPhone. But there’s at least one well-to-do American who isn’t buying it, literally.

His name? Bill Gates, and his demurral isn’t due to lack of funds, but, precisely because the Microsoft founder is ultra-wealthy. I do not refer here to Mr. Gates’ considerable monetary fortune, which, despite dwindling by tens of billions during the past year, still qualifies him for the top spot on Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. I use the prefix “ultra”, instead, in the way it is often used in the media to label many people who are near and dear to us – or, indeed, often are us. In this usage, “ultra” is nothing more than a code word for “extremist.” Come to think of it, perhaps it would be kinder if we’d just refer to Bill as being “fervently” wealthy.

What makes Bill ultra, I mean, fervently wealthy, is not, however, his extreme wealth. I invoke the term after reading a news report … Read More >>

Brace For Impact — In Advance

Anyone looking for a takeaway lesson from the amazing tale of US Airways Flight 1549 would do well to ponder the striking opening line of an Associated Press piece on the episode: “Chesley Sullenberger spent practically his whole life preparing for the five-minute crucible that was US Airways Flight 1549.”

The article goes on to relate that the story’s hero got his pilot’s license at 14 and was named best aviator in his class at the Air Force Academy. He then embarked on a 29-year airline piloting career, mastering glider flying along the way, and had studied air disasters, even starting a firm that taught companies to apply to other fields the latest safety advances in commercial aviation.

But “Sully” hadn’t just gained, through decades of experience and study, the technical expertise that he needed, when the unthinkable happened, to skirt numerous potential calamities and land that plane safely in the Hudson. With a degree in psychology from the Air Force Academy, he had actually studied how airline crews react in crises precisely like the one in which he found himself on the afternoon of January 15, 2009.

Only that kind of serious premeditation could have led to … Read More >>

The Watching

Morning dawns.

It is Sunday, but not just any Sunday morn – it is the dawn of the Hallowed Day. America a secular land? Hah! Silly Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al – sacred devotion is so very much alive in America.

There are, of course, those who are deeply faithful throughout the year, who perform the Ritual of the Watching and all the ancient rites attendant thereto each Sunday, in Temples throught the land. The most pious of these even make the Pilgrimage to the Sanctum Sanctorum itself and partake of the sacred parking-lot Feast that precedes it. But on this Hallowed Day, we are all, men, women and children, part of — to coin a phrase — a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”

Rise, then, with alacrity, tend to what chores need be done, for the afternoon cometh speedily, when all thine work need have already been done. And there is much to be done in anticipation of the Watching.

Much of the beloved work has been done in advance, of course, and pity those foolish souls who’ve waited until the Hallowed Day to prepare; do they not know for what it is we … Read More >>

When The Wall Came Tumbling Down

As the dust settles on this year’s election season, it’s worth reflecting on one aspect of the campaign that holds particular relevance for the Jewish community: the way in which the principle of separation of church and state, a longtime sacred cow of Jewish communal life, was unceremoniously put out to pasture.

For many decades now, the secular Jewish establishment and non-Orthodox religious movements have invoked the Constitution’s Establishment Clause to fight tooth-and-nail against government aid to yeshivos. Yet, along came a candidate named Barack Obama and the tantalizing possibility of a liberal Democratic rise to power, and, suddenly, this hallowed concept disappeared from the collective American Jewish consciousness.

This year’s Democratic convention was so suffused with religious content that it could have been mistaken for a camp revival meeting, except that this one featured even more rabbis than pastors. Then again, it was that convention’s nominee, Barack Obama, who told a Greenville, South Carolina church last year that he is “confident that we can create a kingdom right here on earth,’ and asked the congregation to “pray that I can be an instrument of G-d.” Hillary Clinton, for her part, told a campaign forum that “you … Read More >>

Barry and the Supremes

Trying, as always, to do my small part to ensure media objectivity, I present below an e-mail exchange I recently had with a JTA reporter on a topic that ought to rank very high on the issues agenda of Orthodox Jewish voters when casting their ballots this November: the nominations that the respective candidates are likely to make for vacancies on the United States Supreme Court.

Given that a) the Court’s decisions, and those of other federal courts, play a significant role in setting the moral tone in this country, and b) Justice Stevens is 88 and by January 2009 five other justices will be from 69 to 75 years old, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this topic. There’s a great deal to say about this, but let’s begin with the following exchange:

Dear Eric,

Now that you’ve returned from covering the nominating conventions, I’m hoping you’ll be kind enough to respond to an e-mail letter I sent you a few weeks ago regarding a piece you wrote for JTA entitled “Obama, McCain Spar Over Supreme Court.”

You contrasted McCain’s statement at the Saddleback forum that he wouldn’t have nominated any of the current four … Read More >>

Handmaiden of Spirituality

Nothing puts some scientists in a good mood like finding evidence that, at least to their minds, diminishes man’s unique qualities or standing in the universe. Discovering human-like tendencies in the great apes or dolphins, discerning a hint of some form of life on Mars – anything will do, so long as it has the desired effect of “proving” that we’re not that all that special. The always unspoken corollary is, of course, that, hence, the Creator couldn’t possibly be interested in what us li’l old, not-very-special beings do with our lives.

Over half a century ago, Rav Eliyohu Dessler noted the fascinating contradiction inherent in these efforts to diminish man’s stature. On the one hand, men of science are responsible for the technological advances that have given modern society its sense of hubris and invincibility, based on a belief that science can conquer all problems and solve all mysteries if given enough time. Scientists, who are accustomed to enjoying near-universal credibility and adulation, are also often not, on a personal level, the most obsequious of people. In particular, they have little patience and open-mindedness towards those who challenge scientific orthodoxy, as global warming “heretics” and alternative medicine practitioners … Read More >>

See No Evil

Forget four-dollar-a-gallon gas, the sundry financial crises, and the various looming threats posed by Russia, China, et al. One issue alone – the prospect of a nuclear-armed, apocalyptic Iran – dwarfs all else at present as the singular issue of ultimate consequence for us as Americans and, more acutely, as Jews. The consensus across the Israeli political spectrum and among many thoughtful observers in this country is that an Israeli strike against Iranian facilities sometime this coming autumn is a fait accompli; speculation revolves primarily around how events will unfold in the aftermath of such attack.

Can any reader recall another moment in the Nuclear Age as pregnant with threat as this one? Not even the Cuban missile crisis, when we were arrayed against a coldly pragmatic, albeit evil, Politburo, compares. What quality of character, then, ought Americans insist their leader possess, above all others, at such a defining juncture, at this moment of historical moments? My answer: the ability to recognize evil, and the resolve to act to vanquish it.

We can forgive Barack Obama his supercilious, humorless persona. We can even suffer his self-aggrandizing quest for the brass ring at the expense of the American … Read More >>

Jack Is Back

We didn’t stop him the last time around when his victim was Conservatism, as I had presciently recommended, and lo and behold, JTS’s Jack Wertheimer is back on the attack against the non-Orthodox, this time with What Does Reform Judaism Stand For? in this month’s Commentary.

Something must be done about that man, if only by having him join the roster at Cross-Currents, so that his incisive pieces can be written off as just so much Orthodox triumphalist, exclusivist tripe, which can’t quite so easily be done now that he’s the JTS Provost publishing in Commentary.

Perhaps I’ll have other occasion to comment at greater length on the article, but for now I’ll suffice with one comment. He writes:

In a remarkable statement issued last summer, Rabbi Yoffie distinguished the Judaism practiced by Reform from other forms of Judaism in these words: “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Here, at last, is a candidly non-inclusive position. What it suggests is that in today’s Reform, red lines continue to exist to the Right: for a rabbi or a … Read More >>

Judaism as Counterculture

What do Senator Joseph Lieberman, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and attorney Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea have in common? For one, they have each come under severe verbal abuse and public rebuke for the principled policy positions they have taken.

And, interestingly, each is also an observant Jew.

Although it’s not the sort of proposition one can prove conclusively, it’s fair to speculate that their personal lives are not unrelated to their demonstrated willingness to stake out unpopular positions that they regard as morally correct and stand by them at significant personal cost.

The saga of Senator Lieberman’s transformation from Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000 to his current status as pariah of his party is well-known. What is given less recognition is just how strikingly unusual it is for a career politician to have risked and endured what he has – humiliating electoral near-defeat and ostracism – and yet remain steadfast, indeed, defiant, in support of the national security policy of a deeply unpopular president with whom Lieberman disagrees on almost everything else. If an updated edition of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage were to be issued, Joe Lieberman would … Read More >>

This is War!!! (or at least a strenuous disagreement)

Below I share with you (with very minor changes) the e-mail letter I sent today to Dina Kraft, a JTA reporter, responding to her article on the JTA website regarding the controversy over the ruling of an Israeli beis din revoking a conversion performed many years ago. I hope to share with you any further correspondence between us in this matter as well.

Please note that I am entirely unfamiliar with the facts and opposing positions in this case. But, then, my letter isn’t really about this case, but about how journalists striving for objectivity, balance and moderation ought to go about their tasks.

Dear Ms. Kraft,

I read with interest your 5/6/08 article on the JTA website regarding the controversy over a rabbinic court ruling revoking a convert’s 15 year old conversion, and I have several questions and comments to which I would appreciate your response:

1) You write that the ruling is “prompting thousands of converts in the country to worry if their conversions to Judaism are at risk of being revoked.” How do you know this?

And, since the ruling at issue was based, as you write, on the convert’s acknowledgement “that she … Read More >>