The President Is Not Mad

I thank my friend Rabbi Menken for a vivid demonstration of American democracy at its best. He took Natan Sharansky’s Town Square Test and emerged with his head still perched atop his shoulder blades. We are very fortunate to live in a country that tolerates dissent, even in the extreme.

Dissent happens even in the pages of Cross-Currents. I dissent. In the extreme.

The President is not mad. He is not an imbecile. He is not evil.

I have no doubt that he has the interests of America foremost in mind, as do many others who worked on the accord, and those who continue to defend it.

I do believe, as a layperson with no great insight or insider information, that the Iran deal is a poor one. I will work, along with other Americans, to persuade our legislators to push back against it. I believe that the short-term threat is not to Israel, but to the United States. The Iranians may actually slow progress towards the bomb for a few years to achieve relief from the crippling sanctions the West imposed. The greatest immediate threat is to countries other than Israel, which will feel the effect … Read More >>

Tisha B’Av: For Whom Do We Mourn?

How the city still sits solitary! Some two thousand years later, transformed into a bustling metropolis, the city and her people still sit and mourn alone.

Many revile her today more intensely than the Roman conquerors of antiquity. Many do not, but that does not relieve the loneliness of her mourning on the night of Tisha B’Av. Who can encompass a fraction of her sustained pain of two millennia of isolation, contempt, wandering, insecurity, savagery, auto-da-fes, ghettos, and gas chambers? Her friends might offer sympathy, but only those who experienced the consequences of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh and the exiling of the Shechinah, who chronicled her suffering with quills dipped in blood, can understand.

And so it will be until the Temple is restored and the Divine Presence returns to its appointed place.

Tisha B’Av must remain an intensely private day of mourning, not to be shared with anyone else. It flows from Jewish aspirations, and Jewish disappointments.

Or so it would seem. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, however, thought differently. If we comprehended the purpose and function of the Beis HaMikdosh, the world would be mourning with us.

It is for this “Galus Shechinah,” this “Exile of … Read More >>

The Future of Judaism in America: What Would You Say?

Patheos has become the leading portal on the web for thought from the world of religion – the good, the bad, and the ugly. A short while ago, the editors sent a challenge to particular people in their virtual Rolodex:

The early May Pew Research report on religious trends in America has kindled a firestorm of commentary—attacking and defending, challenging and lamenting, gloating and grieving. But is it telling us anything new? In 2010, Patheos conducted a summer-long Future of World Religions conversation in which religion experts, practitioners, leaders, sociologists, and the faithful of many traditions weighed in on the prospects of religious belief.

Now, five years later, Patheos revisits this conversation focusing particularly on the Future of Faith in America. While global religious trends may push the futures of different religious traditions in certain directions, the Pew Report indicates unique trends for the American context with its shifting moral expectations, new definitions of family, and ongoing conflicts regarding personal and religious liberties. Where is faith going in America? What will be the religious landscape in five more years? How will a growing “spiritual but not religious” population or the emerging Atheist movements shape the contours of belief?

…

The Pew Christian Report: What It Means For Them And For Us

First Pew came for the Jews; then Pew came for the Christians.

Martin Niemöller didn’t really say that – but he could have. The famed Pew study of Jewish religious life and attitudes (Pew1) that sent shock waves through the Jewish community a few years ago has now done the same for Christians (Pew2). There are huge implications for them – and for us as traditional Jews.

Pew2 demonstrates that more Christians continue to live in the US than any other country in the world. About seven out of ten Americans call themselves Christian. But Pew2 found that that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, while the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points. Losses are severe among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Among Christians, only Evangelicals, the Christian groups that place that make the greatest demands of doctrinal conformity (e.g. biblical inerrancy) emerged from Pew2 feeling good about themselves. Their absolute numbers may have actually improved. Mormons held their own; Muslims … Read More >>

Tikvah Fund Institute for Women

It is a woman’s prerogative, they say, to change her mind. The same ought to hold for a women’s program. Happily, the Tikvah Fund, the group that is responsible for the most intellectually stimulating week of the year for me, is exercising that option. After first deciding to defer the special summer program for frum women this year, Tikvah changed its mind. There will indeed be a female counterpart to the now highly competitive men’s program this August, and registration is now open..

“Women, Men and the Future of Marriage in America” would be a great topic to double down on at any time; the recent Supreme Court decision makes it a front-burner topic for all thinking Jews. Like other Tikvah Fund programs for the observant community, the program allows treatment of this topic in a manner unachievable elsewhere. It brings together recognized Torah personalities, icons of the secular world with academic, legal, and media background, committed Torah Jews who can bridge the two worlds, and provides the venue and the time for the participants to pursue issue in depth.

The Torah faculty will be led by Miriam Kosman, a well-known author (including the acclaimed Circle, Arrow, … Read More >>

SCOTUS on Same-Gender: What It Means; What It Doesn’t

1) It is not true that five members of the Supreme Court conspired to do an end-run against the will of the public and the sense of the Constitution.

Well, maybe the Constitution, if you accept Justice Scalia’s remarks. What is certainly true, however, is that to the contrary, SCOTUS mirrored a new reality in public opinion, which came to embrace full marriage rights and recognition for gays. The Court did not impose this; it demonstrated the prediction of the gemara of a time in which leadership would follow rather than lead, where pnei ha-dor ke-penei ha-kelev. This means, according to some, that the dog that seems to be leading by running ahead of the person following at the end of the leash in fact pauses at every fork in the road, looking back to its master for direction. It was the American people whose attitude changed, with a rapidity that startled most of us. Five justices of the High Court, who might have moved more cautiously as they did in the past, were now free to find the will of the people within the Constitution. The people led here, not the Court.

2) It does not mean that …

Michael Oren’s New Book and the Mendacity of the Media

What, should Cross-Currents be the only one out there not to review Michael Oren’s new book before it even hits the stores? Especially after one of our readers, Stefanie Argamon, was nice enough to get Random House to send me not just one, but two review copies?

While the publisher may have been overly generous in my case, the overall strategy worked. The tell-all memoir by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States has been garnering lots of news stories for its take-downs of both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Michael Oren is now a member of Knesset in a centrist party, and can get away with taking jabs at those with whom he disagreed during his tenure in the diplomatic corps. Those whom he targets in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide are now scrambling for damage control.

The reviewers to date have been most interested in the political conflicts, giving the readers what they want to hear. I spotted a few pages that I thought would interest our readers, and be ignored by other reviewers. This anecdote as well targets something many of us loves to hate:

Only once, when an op-ed …

R Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l – The Last Word

We gave more space to the petirah and the life of Rav Lichtenstein than anyone else we’ve covered in Cross-Currents, chiefly because we reasoned that our readers knew less about him than they did about others. I thought that we had said just about all that we were going to say – especially after some rather heated exchanges – until I chanced upon a contribution by some of his talmidim a number of years ago, in celebration of his 80th birthday. It was so moving, I had to share it. It will be an appropriate Last Word from those closest to him. It is in Hebrew, with occasional lapses into English. (Subtitles provided for those who have difficulty with that language.)

There’s a Reason Hashem Invented Capitalism

The real haters won’t be satisfied until all the men close their gemaros. But for others – the majority of Israelis, I am led to believe – if families are self-sufficient and not on the national dole, they will be happy.

Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat is apparently in the latter group. Following his speech at the Temech conference (inspired by Agudath Israel) earlier today for charedi women entrepreneurs, the mayor (himself a successful entrepreneur) had this to say to Eli Kazhdan, the CEO of a company that outsources English-speaking skilled labor to the West:

Eli, you can live in Jerusalem 50 years, but until you come to a Temech event, you don’t really get the feel of what’s happening on this front. For me, these aren’t 600 Haredi women entrepreneurs. These are 600 entrepreneurs, who happen to be Haredi and happen to be women.

[As for Eli (son of Israel Prize recipient and Harvard and Hebrew U prof David Kazhdan) Kazhdan’s outsourcing venture, I’ve got to think about what’s worse when calling Microsoft tech support – trying to figure out what language the person in India is speaking, or having someone yell into the phone, “Mah atah, metumtam?”]

When Hate (of Israel) Turns To Love

When a group of Israeli students at Harvard secured funding for the Harvard Israel Trek, they opened up the opportunity to fellow students of all backgrounds. Fifty were selected from 300 applicants. One Oliver Marjot, a sophomore medieval history student from Guilford, England, joined expecting the Trek to be a confirmation of his “European certainty of your arrogant oppression.”

That’s not what happened. His eyes opened, his heart turned to verse. Here are excerpts from his poetic mea culpa:

I came to you, Israel, wanting to hate you. To be confirmed in my reasonable European certainty of your arrogant oppression, lounging along the Mediterranean coast, facing West in your vast carelessness and American wealth. I wanted to appreciate your history, but tut over the arrogant folly of your present. I wanted to cross my arms smugly, and shake my head over you, and then leave you to fight your unjust wars. I wanted to take from you. To steal away some spiritual satisfaction, and sigh and pray, and shake my head over your spiritual folly as well.

I didn’t realise you were broken as well as wealthy, fragile as well as strong. I didn’t realise that you suffer … Read More >>

A Different Approach to Internet Safety For Teens


I found the approach towards internet safety for teens that the Kiryat Arba/Hebron Ulpana High School for Girls champions refreshing and even inspiring. It is very different from what our haredi schools do in the US, which take fewer chances and concentrate power in the hands of the school and authority figures. The Kiryat Arba approach puts far more trust in the student. It would be wonderful to learn which approach has greater success. (Because the populations are so different, finding out would not necessarily mean that the “better” approach should be exported to the other locale.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. The US approach teaches students the need for fences and boundaries, and that sometimes they need to be placed in the hands of others. The Kiryat Arba approach teaches young people to make responsible decisions, and builds their confidence.

Which ever way readers favor, the list of safety rules (beyond the primary stipulation – use of an effective filter – which they do not even count on their list of ten “dibros” of safe surfing is a delight to read. It includes such ideas as keeping sifrei kodesh near the keyboard, as a … Read More >>

What OU Kashrus Looks Like From the Inside

Last week’s essay on kashrus supervision attracted far more attention than I would have anticipated. I sensed that misinformation abounded about the OU, the people who work in kashrus, and their halachic standards. The comments that came in showed the usual mix. Some people really got the point; others really missed it. Many of the comments provided useful insight about the OU and other agencies, as well as opening sidebar conversations that were fruitful.

In short, we’re at a teachable moment. So I leaned on our own Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – who just happens to be a rabbinic coordinator for the OU, specializing in cheese. (Maybe that’s why he smiles so much!) He, in turn, did some very informal intelligence-sharing, trying to put things in perspective. This is what he came up with::

Much heated and vibrant discussion was generated by the exchange of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Mr. Yoel Gross and a host of online commenters regarding the perceived differences and features of OU kashrus protocol and the kashrus protocol of the “heimishe hashgochos”. In truth, there is a great need for both reliable national kashrus agencies as well as for smaller kashrus agencies that service specific kehillos … Read More >>

Better than the OU?

Food for thought.

In an interview in Mishpacha’s current issue, the co-owner of First Choice baby foods tells of his impetus for starting his business:

I’m a chassidishe guy – I got married at 19. We had a baby, and when we went to the grocery store, my wife took the Beech-nut jar off the shelf – that’s all they had. I said, “Let’s try to get one with a better hechsher. You get water with a hechsher, salt with a hechsher – why not this?”

My opinion may not count. I have been known to buy water without a hechsher. But when faced with the choice of competing hechsherim, I will usually prefer the OU insignia to that of a mom-and-pop outfit.

It’s been decades since I last heard OU kashrus characterized as run by a bunch of modernish rabbis who spend most of the day mixed swimming with their wives who don’t cover their hair, and got semicha through a multiple-choice test. It wasn’t true back then, and it is certainly not true today.

Having had many friends who worked in kashrus, I’ve heard all the stories – the good, the bad, the ugly. I … Read More >>

The Spirit of Conservatism

Defining things by what they aren’t is almost always unsatisfying. Negative definitions can be useful in distancing us from what we need to reject, but they don’t tell us much about the alternatives.

Applied to G-d Himself, the Rambam tells us in Moreh Nevuchim that we have no alternative to negative statements. The shortcomings of our comprehension and of human language do not allow us to speak of what He is, only of what He is not. If we wish to grow close to Him, we will have to focus on manifestations of His essence – Torah and Creation – rather than His essence itself.

For too many Jews who cannot agree on any affirmative set of principles of Judaism, the one definition that works for them is a negative one. Jews don’t believe in Jesus. The spectacular failure of such a belief system needs no elaboration; it is evident in the growing debris from the self-destruction of the non-Orthodox communities of the Diaspora, which too often could come up with no more compelling a definition of Jewishness than a statement of what it isn’t.

It should be vastly unsatisfying, then, that a growing number of Jews have broken … Read More >>

From the Mother of the Meah Shearim Attack Victim

[Sometimes it is good to hear what it feels like from the people closest to the event. Thanks to Dr Moshe Shoshan for the translation.]

It has been a stormy Shabbat for us as we have gone back and forth between a desire to crush and destroy the rioters and the understanding that they represent only a crazy minority in the chareidi community.

They tried to lynch my little boy, who happens to be 21 and an officer in the Givati infantry brigade.

What tears my heart out is the fact that no one came to his defense. Twelve noon, Meah Shearim, a place bustling with life. But no one remembered the mitzvah “לא תעמוד על דם רעיך ” “Stand not idly by as you neighbors blood is spilt.” A mitzvah deoraita.

Men women and children watched the lynching and none of them offered any aid or a place to hide from the hooligans.

I am trying to use this experience to somehow bring change and hope.

I am searching for people from the chareidi world who want to create dialog. I am searching for the silent majority who stood by when son was attacked. I want to give … Read More >>

Tikvah Institute For Yeshiva Men – Second Season

We are excited to announce that applications are now being accepted for this summer’s Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men.

Buoyed by a dream last year, we launched a program aimed at some of the best and brightest of the yeshiva world. We were not sure at first whether we would find enough applicants to make the Tikvah Institute worth running. Our optimism paid off, BH. We were swamped with applicants, and acceptance became quite competitive.

It was a diverse bunch when measured by age, geography, learning background, and prior exposure to secular disciplines. What participants shared proved more important. All had spent serious time learning in yeshivos and identified with the yeshiva world. All were bright and intellectually curious. Most importantly for the objectives of the program, all shared the conviction that the Torah speaks to the broader concerns of communities and nations, both Jewish and non-Jewish. While the ordinary avodah of the yeshivah man must focus on mastering more Shas and poskim, applicants looked to bein hazmanim to explore elements of Torah that broaden the mind and prepare one for a life of potential leadership within the Torah community.

We’re ready for the second iteration of … Read More >>

Reflections of a Non-Talmid

It was not the small number of personal interactions with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that made the greatest impression upon me. To be sure, I could detect greatness, humility, lomdus. But I wasn’t around them long enough for them to change who I was.

It was not even some of his remarkable writing – although I certainly gained from it. His piece arguing for the existence of a morality dwelling outside of Torah texts continues to be the platform of discussion of the subject, which ever side you are on. His long monograph comparing and contrasting arguments for and against secular study remains the seminal modern treatment of the subject. (Scrupulously fair, in my reading he does a better job explaining the latter than the former.) The honesty of a Tradition article a few years ago blew me away. It asks painful questions (and provides no answers) as to whether our romanticized views of marriage and intimacy are really consistent with Torah texts, or the product of our desire to be PC. Even more important to me was his response in a Jewish Action forum about reasons for belief. (Genius that he was, his honesty made him forego an … Read More >>

Happy Birthday to a Great Country: Haaretz vs. the Meshech Chochmah

I still don’t understand why my friends at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles urged me some time ago to attend a small reception for Avi Shavit and his then-current book, My Promised Land. Even one of my colleagues on this blog recommended going to the reception. The book had succeeded in generating much discussion. Its author, a veteran Haaretz journalist, was amply credentialed to write an update on the Jewish State, its successes, failures, and challenges. In person, he demonstrated that he knew his material, and was personally engaging, fair-minded, and accessible. At the time, participating seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Over the next months, I slowly read the book. Then I changed my mind.

My Promised Land reads like a tell-all expose – for a nation, rather than an individual. Shavit takes aim at a slew of impressions we grew up with about the vastly outnumbered innocent good guys prevailing over the demonic bad guys. He destroys their innocence – and ours. People liked the book for one of two reasons. Critics of Israel loved it for exposing the warts, bursting the bubbles, and taking Israel down a few notches, gleefully using the material … Read More >>

Dew-ey Wins!: Tal, Explained

While ancients waxed poetic about dew, most of us city folk only think about it when it fogs our windshields early in the morning. That changes, of course, on the first day of Pesach when we sing its praises in Tefilas Tal and ask HKBH that it should always descend as a blessing.

Determining what that blessing is, however, can be challenging. If you thought that dew – the condensation of water vapor on cooler surfaces – provides plants with water in much the same way as rain does, think again – at least according to contemporary authorities. Tanach and the siddur had much more positive things to say about dew than today’s botanists. The customary wisdom for many years was that dew might provide potable water for survivalists, but did nothing for plants. To the contrary, they claimed. Plants did not and could not assimilate the dew-moisture, while it did promote the growth of plant diseases! In the familiar refrain le-brachah v’lo le-kelalah, we had the latter part figured out, but were clueless about the former.

The Torah, of course, makes no mistakes. There has to be a berachah in tal, even if we don’t understand it. … Read More >>

Askanim For Hire?

We need look no further than the parshah we just read to find evidence of the potential for abuse of power. The Netziv takes note of the pasuk (Vayikra 4:22) dealing with the chet of the Nasi. He asks why the word beshgagah / unintentionally is left dangling till the end. Should it not have immediately modified the action of the Nasi? He concludes that the pasuk can/should be read as: When a ruler sins and commits one of the sins that ordinarily we would not expect to be done by anyone even unintentionally….

Such is the power of leadership and authority. Where there is too little, there is anarchy and too much room for the reign of personal subjectivity. Where there is a surfeit of authority, there is room for abuse.

Such abuse can be intentional, but it can be just as potent when unintentional – or someplace in between. For various reasons, parts of the Torah world moved in recent decades to a preference for tighter control by a smaller number of people, often at a great distance from their geographical location, and hence lacking a hands-on awareness of their special circumstances. Some found comfort in this, … Read More >>

Yosef Huttler, z”l

Rabbi Yosef Huttler, Cross-Currents’ poet laureate, took his artistry to a more discriminating audience when he entered the Yeshiva Shel Maaloh a few days ago.

I knew Yossi over a long period of time, beginning with the time he learned Yoreh Deah in our beis medrash. I saw him develop the different facets of his personality: rov, attorney, husband, father, and, in the last few years, long-suffering patient. I saw and appreciated his keen discernment, his understated genius, and his enormous emunah.

I loved his poetry, which would have been sufficient reason to publish it. Yet, there was more to it than that. Rav Herzog, zt”l, explained why the Torah sees itself as shirah, song (Devarim 31:19). Generally, only a physicist can appreciated an esoteric presentation of cutting-edge physics. A dentist might enjoy a good chidush in dentistry; a zookeeper can catch the interest of another zookeeper. People outside particular disciplines will not ordinarily get excited about conversation in those fields.

Music, R. Herzog observed, is different. It speaks a universal language; it has instant appeal to everyone. So does Torah, he said. Everyone can enjoy it, without special preparation.

Interestingly, the word shirah does not only … Read More >>

Pesach Shiur Now Available

A bit more somber than usual. We live in somber times. May Hashem soon bring the geulah we so desperately long for.

Some thoughts on magid from R. Hutner, RSRH, R. Soloveitchik, and the new Beis Shaar.

Annual Pre-Pesach Shiur For Women

My annual shiur for women on aspects of the treatment of the baalei machshavah of the Haggadah will take place BEH this Wednesday at noon on the third floor of the headquarters of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. For security reasons, potential participants need to pre-register if they are thinking of attending. Email [email protected] No charge.

As in the past, I hope to post it online later that day.

Who Won?

Before you dismiss this as naive, ask yourself whether you wouldn’t prefer that more people would write and think this way than what you witnessed during the election.

And whether the accolades to the “Nation” are not in fact consistent with both the thought of Chazal – and recent history.

From Rav Aviner, question as to who won:

The answer is simple: The Nation, because all of the political parties are good. They all love the Nation of Israel. They all love the Land of Israel. They all love the State of Israel. And they all love the spirit of Israel. But no one possesses all of the truth, all of the justice and all of the integrity. Hashem, in His kindness for His Nation, spread the talents and good qualities among the entire Nation of Israel and among all of the political parties. Everyone is required to find which party has the most positives and the least negatives. No one can claim that his party has it all. And if someone thinks that his party does have it all, he is dangerously close to “Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred.” “Sinat Chinam” is hating for no reason. Then why … Read More >>

Election Inversion

Here in the US, we’ve come to expect an escalation of dirty campaigning and inattention to facts as campaigns drag on. Ironically, as we get closer to the Israeli election, some truths have emerged in the UTJ (“Gimmel”) election material. A number of commercials were quite good. My favorite:

The subtlety in the contrast between the kollel man and the working man is impressive – as well as the upbeat message that they are united by a common respect for the authority of Torah leadership. More impressive is the takeaway, which would seem to include the tacit message that “working charedi” is not an oxymoron. The fact that UTJ has taken to both YouTube and Facebook to troll for votes is also a concession of sorts. In the desperate hunt for votes, some images of the campaign will be impossible to completely erase after the last ballot box is stuffed – including the likelihood of an increasing role for women in the future.

Of course, the message is a mixed one from its inception. Just a short while ago MK Moshe Gafni insisted that he does not represent working charedim, who are not properly charedi.[Postscript – There is … Read More >>