The Chofetz Chaim Video: The Rosetta Stone

At long last, Hollywood has finally contributed something to Torah. A collection of Fox Movietone newsreels from the silent film days is preserved and housed at the University of South Carolina. One item dating to 1923 preserves footage of Torah personalities attending the first Agudah Knessia Gedolah in Vienna. Remarkably, it includes footage of the Chofetz Chaim himself (of whom photos are rare), as well as other Torah personalities, the sight of which should quicken the heart of any Torah Jew.

Several of those shown perished before the War. Some survived. At least four were martyred by the Nazis.

A century makes a huge difference. Five of the eighteen personalities held doctorates. A good number were Germans, who still constituted a strong, distinct group within Agudah. One of those (Rabbi Leo Jung) was at one point a candidate for the presidency of Yeshiva University.

At least among the non-Chassidim, the couture stands out. Most look quite spiffy and dapper. (As one of my sons remarked, “and that was before Charles Tyrwhitt.”)

The Chofetz Chaim seems uncomfortable with the camera, and Hashgacha helped out. His facial features remain indistinct. Someone tries to cover the lens … Read More >>

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ISIS and Jewish Experience: A Reaction to Atlantic

You don’t need me to tell you that Graeme Wood’s 10,000 word treatment of ISIS in the March Atlantic may prove to be a game-changer. Hard-hitting, detailed, well-researched, it is going to be a lightning rod for commentary and debate. And frum Jews will comprehend it a bit better than most.

No one outdoes the President in misunderstanding ISIS. He did it again today at a high-level three day conference on global terrorism. The folks at ISIS “are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists,” he said. Nothing, says Wood, could be further from the truth. ISIS is all about religion, and a religious leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has assumed a role not seen in many centuries.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

In other words, the language, aspirations, traditions of Islam saturate the soil over which the blood of those executed daily flows. Westerners don’t get, not just because they are into Pollyanna … Read More >>

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Creativity Restored: the Mesoras HaRav Chumash

R. Yisroel Salanter, it is said, decried the fact that derush had turned the corpus of Chazal from an instructional form into a plaything for rhetoricians. Every rov found pesukim and midrashim to be infinitely pliable, capable of taking whatever shape he wanted. They became springboards ready to launch any thought that met his fancy. But if Torah texts could mean anything, R. Yisroel lamented, then they effectively meant nothing. If you didn’t like what a rov said about some passage, just saunter down the street and a different rov would likely assure you that the words meant the polar opposite. Whatever lesson – or lessons – HKBH and Chazal had in mind when they wrote what they did were lost to the surrounding static.

Perhaps the conservatism, the cautiousness we observe in new works on Chumash and Chazal are part of a corrective to R. Yisroel’s observation. Perhaps people reasoned that it was more important to showcase the words of the Sages themselves than their own verbal pyrotechnics. Maybe that is why we see lots of works citing lots of other, earlier works, but not very much genuine creativity.

Or so it seems. While studying Netziv, … Read More >>

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Klal Perspectives – The Next Issue

Readers are always weighing in on ideas for future issues of KP. The editors take them very seriously. In the last few weeks in particular, a number of people contacted me offline with ideas that I thought had considerable merit. I encouraged them to put them in an email, and I would forward them to the full board. I have no recollection of who they were.

I don’t think anyone did! And here we are, ready to decide on our next issue. If you were one of those people, now is the time!

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Klal Perspectives: New Issue on the Ben-Torah Baal-HaBayis

It wasn’t so long ago that when people spoke about the issues bnei Torah faced in the workplace, they meant how to deal with the power lunch at a treif restaurant, and the hand proffered by a female executive.

Things have changed, and not for the better. We had the vocabulary to deal with the old issues. Various positions emerged; none of them upset existing protocols or deeply-held beliefs.

Not so today. The angst faced by working bnei Torah has no easy antidote. Baalei batim struggle to keep afloat financially, attempting to satisfy the demands of an Orthodox household that far exceed the earning power of most couples. At the same time, the self-image of the ben Torah which had been so inextricably bound up in earlier years with the quantity and quality of learning takes a merciless beating as there just isn’t enough time to go around between responsibilities of earner, husband, father, and community member.

Nothing could work, short of changing the way we have been taught to think for many years. But we are suspicious of such change – rightfully so. We understand the human capacity for rationalization, for developing intellectual castles in … Read More >>

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Something To Laugh At

Unless you are Yair Lapid, looking back at the failure of your overreach.

Many people, even inside the charedi world, secretly hoped that Yair Lapid’s insistence upon addressing the issue of charedi un- and under-employment would provide the impetus that was not coming from within. Those hopes quickly soured when he demonstrated too much naked hostility to the community, and too little understanding of what could and could not work (no pun intended).

Some apologists for Israeli charedim argued that change, albeit slow, was already upon the community, with more and more people looking for vocational and academic training to support their families. They pointed to the programs and institutions sprouting all over the charedi landscape. Those, they said, would flourish, unless the community would perceive an organized attack on its principles, in which case it would unite in resistance and backlash. While much of Lapid’s program was positive and provided positive and healthy impetus for change, he went too far by pushing for criminalization of draft offenses. He also made some statements that went beyond the goal of getting charedim into the work place, but spoke of integrating charedim within the rest of society by changing … Read More >>

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Cross-Currents Enters World Politics

Which is the last thing I wanted or expected. I have avoided commenting on purely political issues, whether domestic or global. I’ve tried to be true to Cross-Current’s original self-imposed mandate of focusing on such issues only insofar as they illuminate Torah life, or where Torah thought can illuminate them. I do plenty of the pure politics and advocacy at my day job, and I try not to mix office and home.

So when I wrote a short while ago about Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s extraordinary remarks at Al-Azhar, my intention was only to draw a parallel between his concern for the image of his faith with what should be our parallel concern. And there I left it.

The message from David Benkof, a frum writer for The Daily Caller was therefore quite surprising to me. He had noticed the piece, and the editors were a bit miffed that Western press had ignored what to us seemed like an extremely important statement. Would I, they ask, tweak the piece for publication at The Daily Caller? And could I do it in about an hour or so?

My colleague and mentor Rabbi Abraham Cooper and I then scrambled to … Read More >>

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Interesting Dialogue in Dialogue

Sometimes, you just have to use strong words.

I imagine that was the intention of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, in a critical conversation that he had with someone described as “the president of one of the largest secular Jewish organizations in America, as he relates the encounter in the new issue of Dialogue. Some gvir told Rav Feldman that the poor bloke (whom we shall refer to as SF, for secular fellow) was in free-fall in the aftermath of Gaza, and needed “urgently to talk to a Rabbi.”

How could it be, asked SF, that a bunch of primitive terrorists could send thousands of rockets into Israel, thwart the full effectiveness of one of the most capable military machines in the world, and then get the world to label Israel as the aggressor for simply attempting to defend herself?

Rav Feldman’s answer must have been devastating to SF’s world view. He cited Devarim 32:21 הם קנאוני בלא אל כעסוני בהבליהם ואני אקניאם בלא עם / They angered Me by believing in a non-god; I will anger them through a non-nation. “Israel is founded on belief in a non-god,” Rav Feldman told him, by which he explains … Read More >>

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Sisi’s Remarkable Statement

We knew that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has it in for the Muslim Brotherhood, and has taken strong steps to suppress it. We did not expect the president of the most populous Arab country to call for a religious revolution against Muslim extremism, and back it up with specific programs through his religious ministry.

Western media ignored the statement in droves. We shouldn’t.

Speaking before Al-Azhar and the Awqaf Ministry on New Year’s Day, 2015, in connection with Mohamed’s upcoming birthday, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] … Read More >>

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A Bit of Clarity on State Conversions

When R Avrohom Sherman issued a long psak in 2008 questioning the procedures of Israel’s “special beis din” for conversion, he set off a heated debate that has not gone away. Can a beis din undo a conversion years after it supposedly went into effect? If it could, would converts ever have closure, or would they live in fear that some new court would one day decide that they weren’t really Jewish? You can draw a straight line between the arguments of those days and recent attempts by Americans associated with Orthodox far-left/neo-Conservative groups to undo the Rabbanut’s control of giyur, even in the pages of the New York Times.

One victim of pitched debate is the truth. Just how good or how bad were the procedures of the special court? Eventually, some of the truth emerges. We now have a pithy, simple summary of the seriousness of the candidates of that court by someone who is no believer in halachic process, from a recent article in the Jerusalem Post:

Hiddush director and Reform rabbi Uri Regev said it would require “extreme detachment from reality not to know that the majority of converts from the immigrant community from … Read More >>

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How G-d Relates to Non-Jews

The challenge by a reader to what I wrote earlier deserves more prominent attention than a comment to his comment:

Your article really encompasses the larger question of how a Jew is to understand God’s relationship with non-Jews. A traditional belief you and I are both familiar with has it that God relates to Jews on an individual level (hashgacha pratis) but to non-Jews on a general level. Really? How are we to square that, then, with the numerous statements of Christian writers down through the centuries in which they described feeling God at their side? That, at certain great moments in their life, they knew God was with them? These statements – and I’ve heard them often, simply from Christian friends and acquaintances – put the lie to the belief that God only intervenes personally with Jews.

I believe that this “traditional belief” is inaccurately understood. There are classic sources that speak of Hashem relating to Jews with hashgacha pratis, unlike his relationship with non-Jews. This cannot (or may not) mean what you imply it means.

Can there be prayer without hashgacha pratis? Isn’t tefillah – at least petitionary tefillah – a request that Hashem intervene directly … Read More >>

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A Chanukah Message From the LAPD

Letters from the LAPD that come personally addressed, rather than to “Occupant” will rarely precipitate shows of glee in the recipient. But every rule has its exception. The envelope I received just before Chanukah is too good not to share. We will excuse the spelling errors, and cherish the thought that went into this card. Yet another demonstration of what a bracha this country is to those of us still stuck in galus. (Michael Downing is just behind the Chief of Police in the LAPD hierarchy.)

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How To Explain Hilchos Geirus To The Skeptic

Thought experiment in three parts: How would you explain the essence of being Jewish, or the Jewish mission, to an interested outsider to the halachic community – Jewish or non-Jewish? After you formulate your answer, try your hand at another question. How would you explain the need for exacting legal detail in the admissions process to the Jewish people, a.k.a geirus. Now, in what may be the hardest exercise, how would you get both of those answers to coexist with each other – in more minds than your own?

Despite both of us quite often disagreeing with each other, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo and I have remained good friends over the years. So I can admit to being jealous of his masterful treatment of the three questions. To be sure, some of us might use slightly different ways of expressing similar thoughts, but we can all gain from the humanity, sensitivity, and effectiveness of his approach.

What follows is his essay, as it appeared on his website. It is republished here with permission.

What makes one a Jew? Being born to a Jewish mother? Converting to Judaism? Not really. It is living by the spiritual order of … Read More >>

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Finding G-d

“Where is G-d?” After stumping his Chassidim, the Kotzker is reported to have answered his own question: “Wherever you will let Him in.” This profound and beautiful approach only works for those who are thoroughly convinced of His existence, and mildly familiar with the methods for inviting Him in. What are others to do? Some thoughts on recent attempts, and a consideration of where we differ. ********************************************************************* What could be better, I thought, than a take-down by Jack Miles of the whole lot of New Atheists – and in the pages of The Atlantic, no less. Jack Miles recently finished editing The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and might therefore know a thing or two about belief. His Atlantic essay, “Why G-d Will Not Die,” is taken from his postscript to that compendium, and is therefore his last word on the state of religion after pondering the rich assortment of faith-systems. Alas, his argument could not knock a one-legged agnostic stork off his perch. It does contain, however, some delectable tidbits and one-liners.

The story begins with a younger author delighting in the words of arch-atheist (and Israel-hater) Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes … Read More >>

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Sometimes, We Get It Right

Kudos to the residents of Itamar. One of the most beautiful gestures I can remember in recent memory. Residents of Har Nof last week found this note and the accompanying gift of a chocolate bar left for them.

[Hat tip (figuratively speaking) to Dovi Adlerstein, Dallas]

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R. Eliyahu Stewart, z”l

Seldom do maspidim capture the essence of a person as well as they did on Thursday when they eulogized Rav Eliyahu Stewart z”l, a home-grown Angelino who was beloved to thousands. In an hour and a half of hespedim, no one needed to exaggerate his accomplishments. They stood proudly on their own. No one needed trivial filler to round out his life story. There was no time for that; the richness of his achievement didn’t allow for it. His rov of many years, and a succession of family members, spoke of someone who loved people, loved learning, and loved presenting Torah to talmidim. The massive number of people who essentially spent their rare holiday afternoon at his levaya was impressive testimony that the love was reciprocated.

Perhaps one element was missing, through no ones fault, from the hespedim – the perspective of a friend. Maybe I am looking for catharsis. Maybe the shock, the grief, the void draws me to the keyboard, but I am driven to share some thoughts as someone who lost a decades-long friend and confidante.

The parallels to the life of Yaakov Avinu would be compelling even if Reb Eliyahu had not died during … Read More >>

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Message From the Har Nof Widows

[loose translation:] We turn to acheinu Bnei Yisrael wherever they may be. Let us all come together to increase the rachamei Shomayim shown to us! Let us all accept upon ourselves that we will increase love and brotherhood – between each person and his fellow, between community and community, between major group and major group.

Our request is that every individual should see to it to accept upon himself on Erev Shabbos Parshas Toldos, to sanctify this coming Shabbos as a day of ahavas chinam. It should be a day that we refrain from all kinds of divisive conversation, lashon hora, and rechilus.

This will be a great uplift to the souls of the heads of our families who were slaughtered for the holiness of His Holy Name.

May Hashem look from above, see our affliction, wipe away our tears, and say, “Enough!” to our sorrow. May we merit to see the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily in our days – Amen, Amen.

Signed with a broken and crushed heart: Chayah Levine and family Breina Goldberg and family Yaakovah Kupinsky and family Bashi Twersky and family

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Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg – CNN Hero, and Mine

In a large mosque in Detroit hangs a plaque honoring Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. That will give you just an inkling of the Kiddush Hashem that Rabbi G (as he is affectionately called) has created for decades in cities, hospitals, universities, and corporate installations throughout the US and abroad. He has now made the final cut in the annual CNN Heroes competition. Making it to the top ten contenders will itself bolster the image of the frum Jew as people read his amazing accomplishments while viewing his bearded visage crowned with a large black yarmulke.

Like Avraham Avinu whom the Torah describes as “vayakam…me’al pnei meiso,” R Goldberg took the loss of his infant Soro Basya to leukemia as a signal to move on to even greater accomplishment. Coupling his background in the martial arts with his huge reservoir of compassion and empathy, R Goldberg developed a program that teaches children to manage their pain, while giving them a sense of meaning and purpose as they then teach these techniques to others – including corporate executives. He has been featured in dozens of stories on network television and magazines like People. (The most recent coverage was in The … Read More >>

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Why I Love Rav Shmuel – And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless

There is no contradiction. Anyone who finds one has targeted a straw man.

I have had the benefit of association with three generations of Kamenetskys. They have never, ever let me down when I have turned to them for guidance and insight.

The short but meaningful times I spent with both Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l provided the bases of a lifetime of confidence in the halachic system, and in the concept of emunas chachamim.

Making the transition from a fairly black yeshiva to teaching at a West Coast institution with the name YU just would not have happened without Rav Yaakov reassuring me that it was a good move. I am still in awe of the precision and focus of a man well into his eighties, late at night, as I drove him from Brooklyn to his home in Monsey. Watching and listening to him provided unshakeable evidence that mussar could work – that the visions of R Yisrael Salanter and the Alter of Slabodka were no pipe dream.

Lehavdil bein chaim le-chaim, Rav Shmuel continued the trademark smile of his father, as well as copious advice, to me and to all my … Read More >>

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What’s (Shabbos) App?

Yielding to the many who have asked for my take on the now-infamous Shabbos app, here is the quick and dirty version:

It does not do what its developers say it does – “The Shabbos App will give all Yidden a way to keep Shabbos with all the chumrahs.” Not only does it fail to address all or many chumros, it does not address many issues of ikkar ha-din. By that I mean real, normative issurim. We don’t even have to go to “spirit of Shabbos” halachos, which also happen to be binding.

For some people, using the app will be worse than texting without it.

The notion that a time-delay turns an action into a grama is wrong on two counts. Grama is still forbidden mi-derabbanan – not as a chumra. And there is little to support the notion that a delay in an action manifesting its desired consequence makes it a grama.

Without providing much detail, consider the melachah of tzeidah according to the Rambam (Shabbos 10:22), where temporarily causing a deer to freeze out of fright is chayav mi-dorayso when it delays a hunting dog (after a delay!) to seize it. Or removing oil from … Read More >>

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Yom Kippur Shiur Available For Download

My annual Yom Kippur shiur is available for download. It was given earlier today to a gathering of women in Los Angeles, and comes in three sections, for reasons explained, within the shuir. The first is a large part of the Nesivos Shalom’s section Avodas Hashem, reduced to a list of bullet points. The middle section is a hodgepodge of shorter vertlach on Yom Kippur and teshuva. The last part is a maamar of Pachad Yitzchok.

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On The Derech To Rosh Hashanah

Life is full of exceptions. So while I generally am uneasy about cross-posting (no pun intended), sometimes a piece is so important that you want a portion of the mitzvah of spreading it around. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s advice about unexpected guests in shuls for the Yomim Nora’im clearly qualifies.

[Sometimes there are less objective reasons for making exceptions. Because I have been unable to come down from the high of spending a week with the participants in the Tikvah Program For Yeshiva Men last month, whenever I find a trumpet sounding its success, I have a hard time putting it down. Earlier today, Gil Student published a new one on Torah Musings, by one of our participants, Shmuel Winiarz. He captured a good part of the magic.]

Back to the first compelling cross-post. Rabbi Horowitz speaks to an issue that is far more common than we would like to believe. I have observed the scene myself, but never had the insight to do something about it, as he did in his release earlier today:

Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom … Read More >>

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Jewish Action – Fall Issue

Ask six frum Jews (of various genders) what they recommend as Elul reading, and you should get about 57 opinions, right? Jewish Action tried this, and the results are published in the Fall issue.

As one of the respondants, I was delighted to see that half of us went with recognized works of major baalei machshavah, which was the route that I described as working best for me. Within that group, only two seforim were chosen by more than one respondant: Sifsei Chaim, and Nesivos Shalom.

This provides a great opportunity for unvarnished self-promotion of my own adaptation of Nesivos Shalom (for those who are just not going to use the Hebrew original, which is the best way to go). Just in case anyone has forgotten.

You can order easily online here or on Amazon. It comes with a great cover.

 

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Travels In Israel and the Tochachoh For Moderns

Visiting Israel always yields delights and surprises. Sometimes they come instantly; sometimes they take reflection. Usually, in my experience, they involve taxi drivers. On my recent trip, I found new understanding of the tochachoh that we read last Shabbos. The insight was inspiring, but frightening.

The brief trip combined the bar-mitzvah of a grandson with some professional work, and a bit of time for some judicious sight-seeing. My friend Harvey Tannenbaum of Efrat was eager to show some of the places in the news of the last months. I gladly accepted the invitation, heeding my own recent suggestion that one way of promoting achdus was to cross the invisible boundaries that separate sub-communities from each other. (I would also travel to Mercaz HaRav for a Thursday night mishmar shiur by my mechutan and partner in the bar-mitzvah, R Mordechai Willig, that began at 12:30AM and drew about 70 talmidim, all of whom stayed eager and attentive, but that is not for this essay.)

Harvey is a Mekor Chaim parent. His son, Simcha, is a senior in the exclusive Dati Leumi high school from which two of the three murdered teens Hy”d left the night they were abducted. Makor Chaim, … Read More >>

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How Technological Machers Limit Consumption To Their Kids

This article in the New York Times is not to be missed. Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids have iPads.

The money quote from Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired regarding his five children, aged 6 to 17:

My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.

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