A Little More about Snakes

I’m going to add a tidbit of my own to R’ Avi Shafran’s post below. I remember Prof. Robert Liebman’s class, Sociology 241, “The Social Basis of Individual Behavior.” He pointed out during a lecture that each language and culture has different words with different levels of complexity. What regular people call “snow” is subdivided by skiers into six words — and by Inuits into twenty-two different types.

Some things, however, are universal across cultures. The word that drew the most consistent, positive reactions across all cultures, he said, was “mother.” And the word that drew the most negative reaction? “Snake.”

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What The Forward Publishes

When I wrote a few tweets about what happened in Baltimore, I expected a few nasty responses — but drew one from a new source, a man calling himself @HeathenHassid. I recognized his name; he was the author of a particularly vitriolic piece in The Forward, one which basically said any Chassid exposed to the secular world will inevitably abandon Chassidism (never mind that he can’t identify even one of his own siblings, who presumably are numerous and were equally exposed, who abandoned it with him).

So I responded, both because I enjoy a good debate and wanted to learn more about him. And when I pointed out to him that by leaving Chassidism for “liberal Judaism,” he was in effect boarding a sinking ship, he had this reply:

@ymenken @AhavatYisraeI What boat? Where did I say I'm Jewish? I left that lifestyle for reality. I'm not a child, I prefer the truth.

— Ari Mandel (@HeathenHassid) May 6, 2015

So The Forward, which refused to publish the work of Orthodox Rabbis who want to help liberal Jews to stay Jewish, was happy to publish the work of an atheist who … Read More >>

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The Need for RFRA

While Rabbi Shafran outlined so well the failure to protect religious freedom from the gay marriage agenda, the headlines are piling up fast and furious to show us why legislation to protect our rights is so badly needed — and the Obama administration is clearly leading the charge.

In oral arguments in favor of same-sex marriage being a national right, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explicitly said that as a result, religious universities would be unable to function in accordance with their own beliefs:

Not satisfied with that answer, Justice Alito brought up the Bob Jones case, where the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. He asked if the same would apply to a college or university that opposed same sex marriage.

“You know, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli said. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It’s going to be an issue.”

And today we read of a criminal investigation of two ministers operating a for-profit wedding chapel, because they can only consecrate the … Read More >>

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Baltimore Take-Aways

Here in Baltimore, we’re buckling down the hatches and hoping to weather the storm. Unrest is expected in “the Northwest” but no one is quite sure what that means. Schools all dismissed early and it’s been recommended that children stay indoors. So far, it’s a snow day in April; iy”H it will remain so.

I’m sure some of what I say here will be controversial, but here are my opinions on the facts as I know them.

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

People who have nothing to hide have no problem making eye contact with a police officer, and certainly they don’t respond to eye contact by bolting. This has nothing to do with “running while black,” and everything to do with “running from a cop.”

It is the responsibility of the Baltimore Police to keep public order. Especially in a high crime area, the fact that Gray went running off at top speed was an extremely good reason to detain him, start a conversation and find out why he was running away.

Then, upon detaining him, there was ample reason to bring him into custody. He was carrying a switchblade, which which is apparently … Read More >>

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A Foreign Fire

Last night was the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, of Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, my wife’s grandfather. The Hertzbergs were amazing people — they took Holocaust refugees into their homes, treated them like children, and helped them go on to lead productive lives here in America. Someone pointed out to me not long ago that as a result of their efforts, there are hundreds of sincere, active Jews in Baltimore and beyond who otherwise would have been lost.

As the Rav of his shul, Rabbi Dovid Katz shlit”a, pointed out last night, Rav Hertzberg would also speak truth to power. He was fired from rabbinic posts for being too honest — until a group of devoted followers created a synagogue, named for his father Avraham zt”l, and set him up as their Rabbi.

At a time when it was extremely unpopular to do so, Rav Hertzberg drew lessons like this one, from this week’s Torah reading. It refers to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the High Priest, who went outside what G-d had commanded — and were killed as a result. Reading the passage, one could think that it was a cruel or capricious … Read More >>

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Will the Real Dov Lipman Please Stand Up?

Doron Beckerman’s detailed response to Dov Lipman notwithstanding, Lipman’s reaction to recent statements by Benjamin Netanyahu gives rise to more basic questions.

In his guest post to the Emes VeEmunah blog, MK Lipman insisted that the criminal sanctions against yeshiva students were not at all critical to the law, but were simply necessary for the law to pass scrutiny by the Supreme Court:

There was one issue which they took issue with regarding the law. They were against the “criminal sanctions.” …

The Yesh Atid platform did not have this component as part of the law. We knew it would be an issue for the haredi world even if it was just theoretical but there will never be police entering yeshiva dormitories and arresting the boys. So why was it included?

The government attorneys explained that the reason why we were writing a law to begin with was because the Supreme Court demanded that the Knesset pass a law with “equality.” If there was no clause in the law which mentioned the possibility of a full draft if the goals were not met, the law suits which would come on the heels of the law’s passage would … Read More >>

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Fruitful Conversations About Fruitful Continuity

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner & Rabbi Yaakov Menken

In a recent editorial in The Forward (“Be Fruitful and Multiply — Please?”, Dec. 12), Jane Eisner sets aside the Pew Report’s alarming statistics regarding non-Orthodox intermarriage and assimilation to focus upon fertility, which she terms “an even more fraught issue.” Yet it is unclear why she believes the decline in childbearing to be the dominant cause of the diminution of the non-Orthodox community, nor why begging women to have more children will contribute significantly to a reversal.

[This response was initially accepted for publication in The Forward itself, but subsequently they decided not to print it. We believe this an unfortunate decision both for The Forward and its readership.]

Eisner correctly states that non-Orthodox fertility hovers around 1.7 children per family, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. But Zero Population Growth will not preserve a Jewish community whose children are deserting it. The Pew Survey reports that fifty percent of married Reform Jewish adults have a non-Jewish spouse, and children of intermarriage are much less likely to be raised as Jews. Even beyond that, one-third of young Jewish adults raised as Reform Jews now classify … Read More >>

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An American Hero Named Elimelech

Have you ever heard of Elimelech Goldberg? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. [Dr. Elimelech Goldstein, the volunteer medical director of Hatzalah of Baltimore, is a friend and former roommate, but that’s another story entirely.] But if you’re familiar with the Orthodox community, you’ve surely heard of the Chai Lifeline organization, and their incredible Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Rabbi Goldberg was, for many years, the director of that camp; his first daughter, Sarah, passed away at age 2 after fighting leukemia, so he had a powerful bond with children fighting illness. And he is also a black belt in a style of martial arts… one that you’ve probably never heard of either. But that’s relevant, so bear with me please.

A South Korean man named Kwang Jo Choi was a leading instructor in Tae Kwon Do, which is probably more familiar (and if not, it’s the South Korean version of Karate). He moved to North America in order to find orthopedists to help with injuries suffered as a result, which, he learned, were caused by the way he was performing martial arts. So he created a new style, called Choi Kwang Do, … Read More >>

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The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state … Read More >>

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Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On … Read More >>

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The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance. The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much … Read More >>

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Much Ado About Something

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like … Read More >>

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Death of an Icon

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are … Read More >>

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When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a … Read More >>

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Hamas Terrorism in 140 Chars

Aiming missiles at my daughter is a symptom of nothing but the desire to murder Jews. #Israel #Hamas #Gaza

— Rabbi Yaakov Menken (@ymenken) July 8, 2014

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“No Haredim Enlisting Anymore”

Yair Lapid can provide actions in support of unity, not just words, by working with the Haredi community instead of against it. … Read More >>

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Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali in 140 Chars

Sometimes it really can be expressed in a single comment to Twitter — in this case, by Rabbi Steven Burg, Eastern Director of the Wiesenthal Center:

The world does not understand that this is not political for Jews. This was deeply personal. We all loved #EyalGiladNaftali

— Rabbi Steven Burg (@stevenburg) June 30, 2014

Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a is said to have remarked that the three boys got a tremendous zechus, merit, because of all the hisorerus and chizuk that happened — throughout all of Klal Yisrael. May the achdus, the unity, stay with us.

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The PCUSA and the Banality of Evil

Most who voted for the PCUSA divestment are not anti-Semitic, but the action itself clearly was. … Read More >>

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Andrew Dice Clay on Josh Orlian

If there’s ever someone you wouldn’t expect to be praised on Cross-Currents, it would have to be Andrew Dice Clay. He was banned for life by MTV and from many radio and television programs for his use of foul language and “politically incorrect humor” — one of the cast members of Saturday Night Live refused to appear during the episode in which he made a guest appearance. In terms of “defining deviancy down” when it comes to language and references in the media, he exceeded even Howard Stern.

But he provides an interesting footnote to the appearance of Josh Orlian on America’s Got Talent, as previously discussed by both Rabbi Adlerstein and myself. In contrast to Howard Stern, who I have since been told has a non-Jewish mother, Andrew Clay Silverstein grew up in a Jewish family in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.

On Shabbos I mentioned Josh Orlian’s AGT appearance, and my reaction to it, while speaking at a Kiddush. I was seated across from a corporate entertainer and comedy magician named Avi Frier, who is also the former publisher of the Florida Jewish News. Honestly, I didn’t know the “corporate” part or what … Read More >>

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Defining Deviancy Down

With Dad’s advice and encouragement, and young man introduced himself as a stand-up comic — and then proceeded to deliver a series of truly filthy jokes… while wearing a kipah. How should we respond to this? … Read More >>

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Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Did a Frothing Press Help Serve the Truth?

According to those in the know, Mayor Bill de Blasio was to have delivered his greetings and departed with his press entourage before the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, rose to address the assembled at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner. Instead, the mayor was running late, Rav Perlow’s speech was moved up, and both hizzoner and his press ended up with front row seats. And in a departure from his norm at the annual dinner, the Novominsker chose to address an urgent Inyana D’Yuma instead of delivering more general remarks.

To judge from the coverage that resulted, one could be forgiven for thinking that Rav Perlow had ascended the podium and called for open warfare.

The press reached into its bag of stereotypes and pulled out a familiar caricature of “angry” charedim, though the antipodal video is available for all to see. The Forward said that Rav Perlow’s “fiery” speech “stunned” the dinner, and quoted an anonymous “Jewish leader” as claiming the comments of the Rosh Agudath Israel were “divisive,” along with other adjectives which would besmirch the Rebbe’s kavod to even repeat. [What sort of “leader” … Read More >>

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An Evil Report

My D’var Torah this week made a rare crossover into current events, in a way that I thought appropriate for Cross-Currents.

In this week’s reading we learn about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an. As is clear from the consequences, their evil report, and the Children of Israel’s reaction, became their greatest sin in all their time in the Sinai desert — and it was initiated by “leaders of the Children of Israel” [Num. 13:3]. Even among the Generation of the Desert, those who heard the Voice of G-d at Mt. Sinai, those who set this in motion were on an exalted spiritual level. How could this have happened?

After they went through the land of Cana’an, these great men came home very discouraged. They knew that the Children of Israel had sinned previously, especially with the Golden Calf. They saw that the inhabitants were giants, and it would take open miracles for Israel to be victorious. So they concluded, erroneously, that Israel was no longer worthy of that level of protection — that G-d’s promise was not unconditional, that they would lose.

So what did they do when they returned? Did they go to … Read More >>

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Please Pray and Learn

If you don’t know, three Israeli students in a Yeshiva High School were apparently kidnapped on Thursday night. Their names are Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah.

Please learn and pray for their speedy return.

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Why Kids’ Clothing Harms Women

Why? Well, I can’t claim it makes sense. My impression is that if you’re The Forward, everything oppresses (Orthodox) women.

As acknowledged by Footsteps, an organization helping people leave the “ultra-” Orthodox community, women are much less likely to leave Torah observance than men (in a TV interview, the head of Footsteps said only one-third of its clients are women). But as demonstrated by Deborah Feldman, Leah Vincent and Frimet Goldberger, they are much more likely to provide fictionalized depictions of their past lives and communities after they do.

Even so, this article is an amazing journey into the realm of illogic. Its basis is a single anonymous phone call to a store in Lakewood selling “trendy” clothing, berating them for advertising depicting a seven or eight-year-old boy dressed according to current fashion — which, in all honesty, outfits him as a Ringling Bros. employee. Be that as it may, the caller was outraged, not amused, and she threatens a boycott if the store won’t stop wasting their money trying to market clown costumes to the Orthodox Jews of Lakewood.

Which, to Frimet Goldberger, “continues a cycle in which women perpetuate their own victimhood.” I wish … Read More >>

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Learning Torah Is Equal to them All

On Shavuos, many of us will stay awake throughout the night, learning until we daven k’vasikin (pray at dawn). But as we finish our final cup of coffee and pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge for a moment that for many this is a weekly practice. And we should ponder, further, how unique this makes our nation.

During my first year in college, a lighthearted op-ed in the town newspaper complained that it was difficult to hire a student babysitter due to frequent breaks and vacations: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving weekend, winter vacation, reading period, post-exam break, and the list goes on. I responded with a letter to the editor, co-signed by my roommates, arguing the importance of independent research and our other efforts outside the classroom.

All of that was true, of course. But as I continued my college career, I slowly learned things covered neither in class nor the student handbook. Rules such as “9 am classes are for freshmen,” “the weekend begins on Thursday evening,” and “you need to be on the field by 4:30″ were as important as any published by the school. Our schedules were augmented by sports, theater, music, the school newspaper, … Read More >>

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