A little match on Yom Yerushalayim

In honor of Yom Yerushalayim, which was celebrated yesterday, I lit a small match in a great darkness. Before I explain, some background:

Every day I listen to a local Miami radio station, WIOD, which is a completely schizophrenic station. It has twelve hours a day of conservative talk radio. But it also has, every half hour, the standard liberal news, from the CBS network. So the talk show hosts are all very pro-Israel, for example, while the news is more like al-Jazeera.

I’ll give you an example of liberal-skewed news I heard on WIOD, just to give you the flavor of what I hear every day.

The day the new pope was elected, the news described him as “unbending in his views on abortion and gay marriage, but not a trained actor like his predecessor.” No other information, nothing about his being scholarly, speaking many languages, etc.

The subtext was clear: like John Paul II, the new pope is hidebound, Neanderthal and fascist, but unlike John Paul, he doesn’t hide his viciousness under a patina of charm and affability because he’s “not a trained actor.” The knives were out.

I called the radio station to complain. “Look, I’m not a Catholic, I’m an Orthodox Jew, but it seems to me you’ve been very disrespectful to your thousands of Catholic listeners. If I were a Catholic I would certainly be offended.”

Does it help that I make these calls, these little protests? Continue reading → A little match on Yom Yerushalayim

Follow-up to “Empathy”

In my recent “empathy” post, I wrote:

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

In a previous post, I had written:

Indeed, there is something pornographic about the obsessive study of the gruesome details of the Holocaust, without context, without history, without a sense of the whole flow of Jewish life through the centuries.

Juxtaposing these two quotes of mine, “Chana” commented:

So apparently whites can understand blacks, and men can understand women, but secular Jews would have no grasp on an Orthodox Jewish view of life/ understanding the Holocaust. Even though claiming only blacks or women can understand themselves would undercut our common humanity.

But apparently we don’t “undercut our common humanity” if we say that secular Jews cannot understand Orthodox Jews or that Jews who understand the Holocaust without a sense of history are indulging in something “pornographic” and “obsessive.”

I would claim that you are not being consistent in your definition of common humanity.

On the one hand I say that men can understand women, white people can understand blacks, because we share a common humanity. On the other hand, I say that secular Jews do not understand religious Jews. To my correspondent, this seems to be a contradiction. Perhaps the answer is that whites and blacks, men and women are all human — but secular Jews are not human? No, that can’t be right.

But maybe there’s another answer? Is there some other way to resolve this apparent contradiction? Continue reading → Follow-up to “Empathy”


I would like to second what Eytan Kobre wrote so movingly in his post “As Thyself” :

There is a Jewish angle to this topic as well; specifically, regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns….

The empathy of our greats didn’t, and doesn’t, issue forth from within gated compounds and phalanxes of handlers and acolytes….Theirs, instead, is a caring rooted in a deep love of both humanity in general and of Jews in particular….

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

Gedolim rise to an exceptionally high level of refinement, but all humans Continue reading → Empathy

Reading the Times with my coffee

Well, time for something a little lighter than my usual fare. Let’s read the New York Times this morning for our amusement and enlightenment.

From an article about a new dinosaur exhibit:

The final section is, appropriately, on the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago. Much is made, of course, of the asteroid or comet that struck Earth at that time and contributed to a mass extinction of life. But other things were going on, including global climate change….

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE killed the dinosaurs!? So it was the Republicans. I suspected it all along. They wouldn’t sign the Kyoto Treaty, and look what happened. Well, maybe we should all vote Democratic next time and see if we can bring the dinosaurs back.

Yom HaShoah

Every year, I mark Yom Hashoah by discussing with my 12th grade Jewish history students (Bais Yakov of Miami) why we don’t do Yom Hashoah. The discussion is slightly subversive, in that by having this discussion on Yom Hashoah I am sort of observing the day I don’t observe.

So, what do I tell them?

First I ask them if they know why this particular date was chosen, and by whom. Only a few do. The answer: this date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it was chosen by the Israeli government. The secular Zionists who founded the modern State of Israel thought that the Holocaust was shameful and embarrassing–to the Jews. Why had weak and pale Jews gone like sheep to the slaughter? The feeling of shame and humiliation was so strong that for decades after the war, survivors in Israel would not talk about the Holocaust. I’ve heard the same about survivors in America and Canada.

The only thing that redeemed Jewish honor, the Zionists thought, was the courage and strength of the Jews who battled German soldiers in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Were all the other Jews cowards and weaklings? Were the young men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto the only Jewish heroes? Continue reading → Yom HaShoah

Reading the Times with my coffee

Well, time for something a little lighter than my usual fare. Let’s read the New York Times this morning for our amusement and enlightenment. Continue reading → Reading the Times with my coffee

Death Watch

Remember how the feminists crowed when they won — in Roe vs Wade — the right to kill unwanted babies? Little did they suspect that the same logic would produce a right to kill unwanted wives!

If you want to see the utter moral bankruptcy of the feminist movement — and of the larger “liberal” enterprise — just look at who is lining up on which side in the Terry Schiavo case. Who sides with a husband hell-bent on killing his wife? And I do mean hell-bent! And who is trying to protect the unwanted wife, and moving heaven and earth to save her life?

The genuine liberals, the classical 19th century liberals, are all in the Republican Party now.

While public opinion shapes law, it is also the case that law shapes public opinion. In 1973, all fifty state legislatures had laws against abortion –laws which reflected the popular will at that time. Unable to win what they wanted in the state legislatures, the liberals turned to the Supreme Court to make an end-run around the democratic process. I use the word “liberal” in its modern sense, of course, to mean “illiberal.”

At the time, the majority of Americans clearly considered abortion to be immoral, but thirty years of abortion-on-demand has changed public opinion. Nowadays even many religious Jews consider mass killing to be just the price we have to pay for freedom. Too bad, so sad, shrug. Continue reading → Death Watch

Wendy Shalit and her critics

Two weeks ago, Wendy Shalit had a much-discussed article in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, decrying the way Orthodox Jews are routinely pilloried in modern Jewish-American fiction. One of the writers she mentioned, Tova Mirvis, responded in the Forward, with an article that was critical and condescending towards Shalit. Shalit’s reply to Mirvis and to her other critics can be read in the Jewish World Review.

Full disclosure: I am both a friend and a fan of Wendy Shalit’s. I loved her book, A Return to Modesty, and I knew when I read it that she would be religious some day.

I wrote a letter to the NY Times to tell them how pleased I was that they ran Shalit’s article, and I also wrote a letter to the Forward to argue with Mirvis. The NY Times did not print my letter, the Forward did, but not online. Here are both letters. Continue reading → Wendy Shalit and her critics

Do chareidim use their heads?

In my 300-page book about the Slifkin affair, of which only a few pages will ever be written, I said that I would try to answer a few questions. Two that I want to tackle today are: What is the nature of da’as Torah — Torah authority? And, a related question: Who or what are the gedolim, the Torah luminaries of the generation?

When I first posed these questions, one of my correspondents hastened to point out that I am not qualified to answer them. The rejoinder, from another correspondent, was that it is perfectly possible for a woman to be a scholar.

While I appreciate this vote of support, the fact is, my first correspondent is right. I am not qualified to answer the questions I posed. I am not a scholar. Therefore, you can ignore what I say, or if you wish, you can write me angry letters, in fact I quite enjoy those. (The only thing I really hate, as a teacher, is when my students fall asleep during my lectures.)

To start with a very loose translation: da’as Torah is Torah authority or Torah opinion — teachings, attitudes and opinions on matters that are not, strictly speaking, halachic questions. Gedolim are, literally, “the greats,” the greatest Torah authorities of one’s age.

A person who is steeped in Torah learning and scholarship is assumed to have an extra dimension of wisdom and perhaps of Divine inspiration. A great Torah scholar acquires a certain feel for what the Torah would say about issues that arise in the course of time, but that are not explicitly written in the Torah. This intuition or “feel” is “da’as Torah.”

To give an example of the difference between halacha and da’as Torah: a rabbinic scholar might issue a halachic ruling on whether a particular woman should have an abortion. Da’as Torah would weigh in on the public policy question of whether Jews should be generally pro-choice or pro-life.

The distinction between halacha and da’as Torah is not always as black and white as this, but for our purposes, my rough definition of da’as Torah will serve.

Religious Jews have an obligation to follow not only the limited halachic rulings of the gedolim, but also the broader guidelines of da’as Torah. In theory, we all agree on that. That is, we all agree that a Torah weltanschauung should guide our life choices. In practice, whether we actually seek or follow rabbinical guidance depends on a host of other factors.

Now the silken threads of the cobweb multiply: Who decides which individuals count as gedolim? And what counts as da’as Torah? And does “following da’as Torah” apply only to outward conformity, or does it also demand internal intellectual assent? Is it enough to consult your own local rabbi, or do you also have to obey the pronouncements of other rabbis? In your own country? In Israel? We Jews are very good at asking questions. We are also champs at arguing among ourselves, and at leaving questions open while we yell at each other.


The immediate issue that prompts these maunderings is, of course, l’affaire Slifkin. Here we have a man in the chareidi camp, who has written a number of popular (and IMO excellent) books about the interface between science and Torah — and over here we have a group of rabbanim, some very well-known and widely respected, issuing a cherem against the entire Slifkin opus. Books that were formerly considered kosher are now found to be treif, according to da’as Torah, or so it would seem. Hold that thought, we’ll get back to it. Continue reading → Do chareidim use their heads?

My 300-page book: the NY Times and the Yated

The other day I promised to write a 300-page book about the Slifkin business. Chapter 1 explained why I have not yet written it and probably never will. However, I will try to write at least a small part of the unfinishable book.

This is Chapter 2.

Today’s lesson, friends, is about one of the questions I posed on Monday: What is the difference between the Yated Ne’eman and the NY Times?

One of those papers is a chareidi newspaper published in Jerusalem and New York. The other could be called the ultimate anti-chareidi paper, although for such a behemoth, chareidim are just barely noticeable mosquitoes, to be flicked away with a finger.

Now, let’s summarize a recent article, and try to guess in which newspaper it appeared. It goes something like this:

A group of experts, scholars in their field, are aghast to discover that someone who talks like them and looks like them is in fact an imposter. Claiming to be a scholar in the same field, he says and writes things that they know to be untrue. They mobilize their forces to prevent him from teaching or writing his heretical views. They are motivated by a deep commitment to truth, and they fight to prevent false and misleading ideas from being disseminated. Their biggest worry is that innocent children may be taken in by the imposter and accept false information — and worse, may lose respect for the genuine scholars and experts in the field.

Give up? Continue reading → My 300-page book: the NY Times and the Yated

My 300-Page Book on the Slifkin Affair

Chapter One: Why I haven’t written it yet

Every day someone forwards me another little dig from the blogosphere about the conspicuous silence of Cross-Currents regarding the Slifkin business. The writers assume that we contributors must be under a Ban of Squelch forbidding all discussion of this dicey yet juicy subject.

In fact, the case is just the opposite: we are under pressure to write SOMETHING, and write it NOW. Some people can’t write a word under pressure. Me, I’m one of those people who can easily write all too MANY words–but they aren’t any good. When I got up to page nine of my Slifkin Opus, I began to sense that my readers might not want to read QUITE that much. Besides, the more I write, the more I write stuff that is repetitive, dull, banal, and obvious. The introduction alone is four pages long.

If you don’t believe me that I’ve written pages and pages (mostly drivel), send me an email, I’ll be happy to send you all nine pages.

I am just going to cut to the chase: I can see what bothered the gedolim about Slifkin’s writing, and why some of them thought it necessary to issue a cherem. I don’t think people of such great stature in the Torah world can be dismissed, ignored, or treated with disrespect. But my sympathies lie mostly with Slifkin, whom I consider a friend and an intellectual ally. I could EASILY write a 300-page book, half of which would be a passionate defense of his writing and criticism of the cherem against him; the other half would be a defense of the gedolim and a critique of Slifkin’s writing. But finally, I would have to come down on his side. Continue reading → My 300-Page Book on the Slifkin Affair

Unchanging Orthodoxy, Constantly Evolving

Here [with thanks to Shira Schmidt] are the two main things wrong with Orthodoxy:

  1. It is ossified, petrified, will not acknowledge new information, scientific discoveries or social changes, refuses to change with the times.
  2. It is hypocritical, since it changes constantly and yet claims not to change. It accuses Reform and Conservative of playing fast and loose with tradition, yet does the exact same thing itself. It has evolved so far from what it was originally that a Second Temple Jew would not recognize it as Judaism — heck, a 19th century shtetl Jew would not recognize it! — yet criticizes the heterodox movements for evolving in just the same way. Just because they have stepped up the pace of evolution a bit, Orthodoxy hypocritically accuses them of being inauthentic.

Actually, there are elements of truth to both of these images of Orthodoxy. Its combination of resistance to change and flexibility within certain parameters is what has given Judaism its longevity — 3000 years and counting.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that I felt ambivalent about making a party for my daughter’s bas mitzva, because the very idea of a bas mitzva party was a Reform innovation. I was taken to task for denigrating Reform when we Jews need unity in the face of common enemies.

So then I said,

The ones who changed the status quo are the ones who cracked the facade of unity, not the ones who kept on doing faithfully what we had always done!

Shawn Landres took issue with this: Continue reading → Unchanging Orthodoxy, Constantly Evolving

Correspondence about my daughter’s bas mitzva

I wrote the other day about my daughter’s upcoming bas mitzva. (Jan. 4, if you want to look for it.) I want to thank all the people who wrote to say mazal tov, and also those who had kind words for my maiden effort at this blog-spot.

I would also like to clarify one point about the bas mitzva party I’m planning for my daughter tomorrow night, G-d-willing: when I call it a “fancy” party, that’s only in comparison to what we used to do for a bas mitzva, which was nothing. I am basically making a birthday party, with all 40 girls in her class and a few more from the neighborhood. No printed invitations, live music or catered meal!

Now I would like to respond in some detail to one particular letter that was posted in response to mine–the only negative feedback I received.

Here’s what Moishe Potemkin had to say:

I just wanted to express my disappointment with this post. We’ve just finished an exchange wherein Rabbi Menken et al attempt to convince us that the Orthodox dispute with Reform Jews is not personal, and lo, we get this declaration that Reform Jews are … Read More >>

Why is my daughter having a bas mitzva?

My baby’s bas mitzva is coming up in a few days. She’s going to have a really nice party with all her friends, G-d willing. All these pretty little 12-year-old girls will be coming in their Shabbos dresses, and my little girl is going to be a princess. I’m proud of her, and I love her to distraction, but–here comes the ambivalence. A great big bucket of it.

Ambivalence minor: I really, really liked having a little baby to snuggle up to, and I mourn the loss of those sweet baby days. I waited a long time before G-d saw fit to send me my three long-awaited babies–and Baruch Hashem for them, every day–but in a minute they grew up. Now they are 16, 14 and 12. If you’ve ever been at the receiving end of Teenager-Mouth, you won’t be surprised to hear this confession: I want my sweet babies back.

Ambivalence major: I know something that most chareidim don’t seem to know or have chosen to forget. The whole idea of a bas mitzva party is a Reform invention. Or maybe Reconstructionist. I think the first bas mitzva in America was that of Mordechai Kaplan’s daughter. (He … Read More >>