A Response to My Critics

My post on Noah Feldman’s recent essay in the New York Times provoked an unusually large number of responses — most critical of my post and many unflattering on a personal level. I was travelling in the United States during most of this flurry of responses, and only had a chance to read them in dribs and drabs. A fuller reading, however, only confirmed my initial impression: I did not recognize myself or anything I wrote in most of the comments, which were mainly of a tone that has made this an increasingly unsatisfying forum in which to participate. That I may not have perceived all my many failings is itself not so surprising — no one recognizes his own blemishes — but, in truth, I did not recognize them even after having them pointed out to me in such detail. Continue reading → A Response to My Critics

Odds and Ends

1) When Mishpacha published last week’s post “On Making Money” they wisely decided to edit out most of the lawyer jokes. I considered doing the same, and unwisely decided that given that I am a member of the club — three years of law school, two years of major firm practice — readers would cut me a little bit of slack. As I thought I made clear, had I not decided to move to Israel and spend my days irritating readers of Cross-Currents, I would probably have lived out my days practicing law as well.

In any event, I appreciate all those who wrote to let me know that not all lawyers are shysters and that many professionals are very generous. I’m grateful as well to those who clued me in on the fact that there are dishonest businessmen, and that there are many good reasons why a frum Jew might prefer the professions to business. I never knew any of those things.

Generalizations when used to make judgments about individuals are odious. But that does not mean that general comparisons have no place. Not all smokers die young; nor do all non-smokers live to a ripe … Read More >>

Grisha’s Choice

A few days ago, I posted a piece about Grigory Perelman, the Jewish mathematician who solved the Poincaré conjecture. One of our readers, a Russian-Jewish mathematician of considerable attainment himself, sent me a private communication, essentially saying that Americans could not possibly understand what Soviet Jews had to go through. His reconstruction of the probable cause for Perelman’s decision turns the story from one about intellectual integrity to one about Jewish heartache and pride. As all of us engage the new reality of mounting world-wide anti-Semitism, his letter is a poignant reminder of how Jews lived while locked in a vise-grip of hatred. At the request of the author, I had to delete many details, since there could still be nasty consequences to friends and relatives living in Russia. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but Russian hatred of Jews is alive and well.

I am afraid that Grisha’s words in the end of the article — why he gave up the medal — can be understood only by a well-informed mathematician who lived in Russia and knows something about the West as well.

Many people here know about anti-Semitism in Soviet mathematics but relatively few people know how discoveries — at all levels – of Jews, and then of other non-ethnic-Russian mathematicians too – were stolen by “big men.” For example, a famous problem was settled by a young Jewish undergraduate student who submitted his paper to a Soviet journal. His paper was kept there for two years — exactly the time his referee needed — with full knowledge of the editors — to publish these results under his own name. The real author was denied any access to mathematics — graduate schools didn’t take Jews at that time. Finally he found an obscure job — I think at a telephone station in a small Ukrainian town.

Yet too many people knew and talked about that. So, two years later, they published the paper of the young Jew who “also” obtained these results. The thief got all possible recognition, prestigious foreign prizes — and was allowed to travel abroad to collect them. Many people know his name because of “his” brilliant result. As far as I know, the young man was unable to obtain a graduate mathematical education. His famous paper remained his only publication. Only 16 years later, well after the USSR ceased to exist, he published three more papers, all of them in US journals. Yet in his best years he had to do something else, not mathematics. Continue reading → Grisha’s Choice

Viennese Pastries vs. Pickled Herring

On May 30 I posted below some sketchy thoughts (“American versus Israeli haredi sector”) I had in my initial reaction to a Jerusalem Post op-ed by Elliot Jager “American haredi triumph” . There were quite a few comments by people who read my blog entry and this stimulated me to write a more formal essay, which appeared in the Opinion section of the Jerusalem Post today (24 b Iyar, 2 June) as US Haredim versus Israeli and subtitled: Viennese Pastries versus Pickled Herring. (BTW the Post was very fair and added a complimentary photograph of Ponivezh yeshiva students in heated debate). In the essay I try to respond to and incorporate some of the issues the Cross-currents comments raised and I want to express my appreciation here for the feedback.

Emunah Peshutah Response to a Reader

Reaction from readers posted and not shows that the words of R Simcha Zisel of Kelm (see “A Torah Rationalist’s Manifesto,” Feb. 24) struck a responsive chord.

One reader may have supplied the answer to his own cri de coeur. How can we expect to win the battle for our childrens minds and souls, if we dont challenge and fortify them with DAAS Torah, as opposed to a rationalist-rejecting emphasis on emunah peshuta (simple belief) alone?!

I would turn the question upon my questioner. Can we expect to win the battle for our childrens minds and souls without fortifying them with much emunah peshutah?

Dont get me wrong. The path I have chosen for myself and for my children involves a huge component of embracing rationalism. Living in an open society (whose few remaining barriers and mechitzos grow more porous by the day), I dont know if there is much of a choice.

I dont celebrate this state of affairs without equivocation. There is much to be commended about emunah peshutah, a commodity which is seriously abraded by the process of robust, critical thinking that many of us celebrate.

First of all, there is a …

Righteous Gentiles

Righteous Gentiles

The following is an except from a letter I received from a gentleman in Canada.

What is a Noachide allowed to study? I have heard about three answers to this question. I have read the greater part of the book The Path of the Righteous Gentile, in which the author states that a Noachide is allowed to study all of the Written Torah but only parts of the Oral Torah. Apparently this views states that only those sections that deal directly to the seven Noachide laws are permitted for study. Halachah would then be off limits.

The second view I have heard is that Noachides are only to study the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Anything after that is given specifically for the Jewish people.

The third view is that Noachides are allowed to study all materials that are available to Jews. The only difference being that a Noachide may not study anything simply for it’s own sake.

If I were allowed to have a preference I would vote for the third view. However, I suspect that view number one is the correct one. I could provide you with links to where I found these various views … Read More >>

Non-Orthodox Dialogue

Ah, for when life was simpler!

One of our readers, Shalom Simon, stuck it to me regarding my post on the grand debate at Harvard Law School. He asked whether the event (which had received approval from personages otherwise opposed to interdenominational gatherings) had really smacked of legitimizing any heterodox movement. If not, should we not rethink the usual hands-off policy to such gatherings?

This is what I responded:

Dear Reb Shalom,

I used to believe as you do. To a large extent, I still do. I am acutely aware of how many opportunities we miss by refusing all forums in which heterodox leaders share the platform. Not only do we turn down some of our only chances for being able to convey authentic Torah to people, but we perpetuate the stereotype eagerly dished out regularly by Reform and Conservative rabbis that the Orthodox do not believe anyone else to be Jewish. See – they won?t even sit down with us!

Moreover, the practice of shunning all religious edifices outside our community was not universally embraced. Rav Gustman, Z”L, held strongly that we should try hard to gain entrance to non-Orthodox establishments so that we could speak our … Read More >>

Reply to Professor Kamenetz

Dear Prof. Kamenetz,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Indeed, I had read only Jeff Jacoby’s briefer citation of your remarks, not the fuller version. Having now read it, I am not sure that I would say anything different.

There is much that you say that I fully agree with. At other points, I am not so sure.

I can tolerate models in which a world is created in such a way that natural disasters are part of the esssential design. (You can see the Maharal’s explanation of one such model in my book on his Be’er Hagolah.) When these disasters erupt, they may or may not be intended as “punishment,” “warning” or anything else I can think of. One thing is certain, though. If they are part of the world, it is a world that He designed, and in His Omniscience fully understood the consequences of His actions, down to the last casualty. I believe as you do that the most important reaction is to help heal the suffering. I have no way of knowing whether you share my belief that if enough people had, at some point in time before the tsunami, done enough to elevate … Read More >>

Response to comments on “Bullseye”

Fatheringay-Phipps is quite worked up about about my opposition to the name Yishmael and has done research to prove that the name was in long-time use among the Jews. He may be right, but in today’s day and age, I don’t think it’s a good idea. As for the name Elishama, I don’t think it is weird, and he can always call himself Eli, except for when he is being called to the Torah. I do have one question for our esteemed commentator. What kind of name is Fotheringay-Phipps for a good Jewish boy?


Last week, under the title Conversions and Hebrew Names, I posted an edited selection from my archive of correspondence with my readers, in which I presented the remarks of one correspondent and invited comment. This week I am posting my response. The idea of posting correspondences was well-received by visitors to the site and by fellow contributors, and I will gladly offer more selections in the future. Names of correspondents will, of course, be omitted. I have decided to name the archive One People, Many Voices, so that I will not need to explain what I am doing in the future. I will just begin by saying, Here is another selection from One People, Many Voices.

The following is the rest of the exchange from which I quoted last week:

I agree, I began, that Yishmael would be inappropriate, since Yishmael is a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. It is true that there was a great Tanna named Rabbi Yishmael, but that is just the exception that proves the rule. In fact, one cannot help but wonder why indeed he had such a name. There must be a story to it. Continue reading → Bullseye

Conversions and Hebrew Names

When I was asked to sign on as regular contributor to this Website, I was honored, pleased and also a little baffled about which topics to address. Most pieces that appear here are current events-driven. But since I am more inclined to read books than newspapers, by the time I hear about an issue it has more often than not long since passed away. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the email correspondences I have conducted with numerous readers over the last two years covering a wide range of topical Jewish issues.

A little while ago, I received the following email from a gentleman whose name I shall not disclose.

I am currently reading and enjoying your book One People, Two Worlds. It is extremely helpful to my growth in Judaism.

I am thirty-eight and am going through a non-Orthodox conversion. I have come to this decision after two years of study, contemplation and prayer. Raised in a different religion, I stopped practicing at the age of twenty. Two years ago, I joined a friend at Yom Kippur services and, particularly during the Kol Nidre, had a sense for the first time in … Read More >>