The recent “news” story about a bar mitzvah boy in Dallas who celebrated the milestone of obligation to observe the Torah’s laws by entertaining family and guests by dancing on a stage with a bevy of Las Vegas-style showgirls reminded me of an article several years ago in The New York Times about such crass missing of the Jewish point.
It introduced something that has become de rigueur in some bar and bat mitzvah circles, something called “motivators.”
While perhaps not on the level of the Dallas debauchery, what the article described was sad enough. It highlighted the profession of a young non-Jewish gentleman from the Virgin Islands clad in a form-fitting black outfit, who “regularly spends his weekends dancing with 13-year-olds… at bar mitzvahs,” according to the report. His is a “lucrative and competitive” profession – he is a “party motivator.”
Such folks are paid to attend bar mitzvahs and other events to make sure “that young guests are swept up in dancing and games,” according to the article. The Caribbean crooner was described as smiling ecstatically at one bar mitzvah “as he danced to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez songs with middle school students” … Read More >>
I must confess that I’m a hardened skeptic when it comes to most “inspirational” stories. Unless something has been attested to by unimpeachable witnesses or otherwise documented (and that doesn’t mean it appeared in an inspirational book), I tend to take such accounts with more salt than my doctor would likely approve of.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be value, even great value, in a tale, whether or not it ever happened.
Take the story of the “Baal HaTanya,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of what today is known as Chabad Chassidus, and his encounter with the miser.
A large sum of money, the story goes, was needed to redeem a groom being held for ransom. Along with two venerated Chassidic luminaries of the time, the young man who would become the Baal HaTanya undertook to raise the sum, and they went to the only man in town wealthy enough to underwrite the cause. Unfortunately, though, the fellow was known as a terrible miser.
True to his reputation, when he answered the knock on his door and was presented with the situation, the wealthy man responded by handing the rabbis a single penny. The Baal … Read More >>
Chumros, or efforts to go beyond the letter of Jewish religious law’s requirements, have gotten a bad name over the years. And it is true, some stringencies can be unwise, even counterproductive. Some are even silly.
I recall a letter to the editor of a now-defunct Jewish magazine whose writer was deeply upset that an advertisement for a dairy product in an earlier issue had run face-to-face with one for a meat product. Many readers, I’m sure, like me, first thought it was meant as a joke. But it wasn’t Purim time and it didn’t carry any indication of wryness or satire. The writer was serious, and, of course, deeply misguided.
But when a stringency is adopted, either by a community or an individual, for a good reason, it should not be resented or mocked. Sometimes a person may feel a need to draw a broader circle than the next guy’s around something prohibited; sometimes a particular era or community will require the adoption of special stringencies. Generally, chumros present themselves in realms like kashrus or the Sabbath, in the form of refraining from eating or doing even something technically permitted. Other stringencies, though, consist of adopting as one’s … Read More >>
A reporter recently asked me whether I thought Jewish women could be experts in Jewish law. “Of course,” I responded without hesitation.
The journalist was one of the horde of heralds who practically fell over one another a few weeks ago to celebrate – I’m sorry, report upon – the recent graduation of three women from a school whose aim is to place them in synagogues as rabbis, if not quite to call them that.
I elaborated on my response by citing the examples of my own wife and daughter. (We have several, all of them knowledgeable Jews, but I had in mind our youngest, about to be married but for now still at home.) “When I have a question, for instance, about what bracha, or blessing, to make on a food,” I explained, “they are the ones I ask.”
The reporter seemed surprised to hear that there could be questions about blessings. So I elaborated on the fact that much of an entire tractate of the Talmud deals with blessings on food and other things, and that there is a wealth of complex halachic material relating to the proper blessings a Jew is to make on different … Read More >>
A new book, “The Anatomy of Violence,” suggests that “the seeds of sin are brain-based,” at least in a sense. Its author, psychologist Adrian Raine, isn’t speaking of sins like gossip or tax evasion but rather violent crime. And he makes the case that such criminalities may have biological roots, and that “neurocriminology” may provide society with ways of curbing crime.
Both genetic makeup and prenatal environment, Dr. Raine asserts, are factors that can presage a criminal mind. On the most basic level, it has long been clear that there is a correlation between certain “accidents of birth” (or of life) and proclivity to crime. Being born male rather than female, for instance, makes it much more likely that one will become a mugger or murderer. And certain types of damage to the brain have long been observed to yield changes in behavior, sometimes including a proclivity to violence.
Likewise, more mundane things, like an expectant mother’s smoking or consumption of alcohol (not to mention even more severe chemical insults to the brain of a fetus, like exposure to lead or use of other drugs), can contribute to the likelihood of eventual bad behavior on the part of … Read More >>
I was recently privileged to spend the good part of a week on the tree-studded rural campus of my alma mater, Yeshivas Ner Yisroel (the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, according to the sign at its entrance). As always, visiting the place where I studied some forty years ago was an enthralling experience.
There have been changes, to be sure, at Yeshiva Lane, the winding private road that is the yeshiva buildings’ address. What was the main study hall in my day now serves the yeshiva’s high school division; and a magnificent newer beis medrash stands where, in the 1970s, an old house occupied by a faculty member’s family sat on a hill. New housing has risen up for faculty and married kollel students – there is a long waiting list of kollel-fellow families living “in town” (that is to say, Baltimore and its suburb Pikesville) who are anxious to move onto the yeshiva campus. (Kollel fellows who can no longer afford to be engaged in full-time Torah study understand that their campus apartment or townhouse should be offered to a full-time kollel fellow’s family.)
Torah life and study, and children, permeate Yeshiva Lane. Students and staff members walk to … Read More >>
It might not be quite up there with the first day of spring or grandchildren, but one of the undeniably wonderful gifts the Creator has bestowed on mankind is the ripe avocado.
The buttery consistency, the unique pastel coloration, and the divinely subtle taste all combine to make it truly a fruit to be thankful for. I have a few slices each morning, joined by lettuce and tomato on toast; a wondrous, nutritious and flavorful start to the day.
And most every time I open one of the fruits and gently rock the point of a sharp knife into its pit before easing it out, I think back at how clueless I was as a teenage yeshiva boy in Israel forty-odd years ago.
I had never eaten – or even seen – an avocado at that point. If supermarkets in my childhood’s Baltimore even stocked the fruit, my mother had never bought one. We did fine on Jewish food, the Eastern European kind, and had our share of American fare too. But exotic fruits weren’t part of my family’s culinary offerings.
Then, suddenly, in a new and very different clime, avocados were everywhere. I didn’t find much beyond tomatoes … Read More >>
The thought, a staple in the writings of the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953), is best known to people unfamiliar with his thought and writings from a famous and evocative paragraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson mused, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Rav Dessler, who wrote poetry too but was above all a keenly incisive philosophical thinker, explains that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.
That we are inured to the magnificence of the stars in the sky is unfortunate. We city dwellers can still capture some of the grandeur of Emerson’s “city of G-d” if we journey to less light-polluted places. I recall the shock I felt as a young … Read More >>
Some unwarranted criticism that was lobbed last week at several Orthodox writers greatly disturbed this one.
The target of one volley – though the shots widely missed their mark – was Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, one of the preeminent representatives of the charedi world. He was harshly criticized in a magazine editorial for a column he penned in a different magazine wherein he sought a silver lining in the current political disenfranchisement of charedi parties in the Israeli government coalition.
Rabbi Rosenblum suggested that the current situation “affords new opportunities to meet our fellow Jews on the individual level” and that now that they know that “we no longer threaten them” in the political realm, “they may be more open… to getting behind the stereotypes that fuel the animus” against charedim in Israel. “On a one-to-one basis,” he suggested, “we can show them what Torah means to us, what we are prepared to sacrifice for it, and what it might mean for them as well.”
Astonishingly, the writer of those words was pilloried for that sentiment, and misrepresented, too, as having asserted that “the hatred secular Israelis have toward charedim is the fault of the hated rather than the … Read More >>
One thing I was not prepared to find when I scanned the op-ed page of The New York Times this past Friday was reference to the perennial dilemma of what bracha, or blessing, to make on Crispix, the breakfast cereal whose morsels each consist of one side rice and one side corn. (No authoritative decision was offered; two separate blessings are the recommendation I’ve seen in more reliable sources).
That oddity (for the newspaper, that is; the Crispix question has been revisited numerous times in the Shafran home) was mentioned in the context of an article by columnist David Brooks entitled “The Orthodox Surge.”
Despite the nervous-making title – when I think “surge,” hurricanes and armies come to mind – the piece was a welcome respite from the sort of coverage of the Orthodox Jewish community more commonly found in the media. Orthodox-related happenings regarded as news fit to print usually consist of actual or alleged criminal acts committed by individuals in the community, or practices the paper’s readers are likely to find socially illiberal or bizarre. Even reportage of wonderfully positive happenings, like the gathering of 90,000 Jews this past summer at MetLife Stadium to celebrate Talmud-study, … Read More >>
Like the repeatedly pummeled victim of depraved bullies who decides it might just be best to stay away from the schoolyard during recess, Israel recently opted to not show up to be judged by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body with venerated members like Congo, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Malaysia and Qatar.
The UN body and a number of individual countries, including the United States, pleaded with Israel to not be the first country to refuse to appear for an HRC “Universal Periodic Review.” But the Israeli government, in its chutzpah, decided to just say no to presenting itself for assault yet again by a group that has demonstrated a deep and troubling fixation on one political dispute in a world in which, elsewhere, authorities routinely amputate body parts, blithely murder citizens, incarcerate innocent people without trial and look the other way as human beings are enslaved and sold like sides of beef.
The New York Times, predictably, did its own huffing, munificently conceding that the HRC is “not without faults” but asserting all the same that the Middle East’s only stable and free democracy was showing “an unwillingness to undergo the same scrutiny as all other … Read More >>
Well-informed, they say, is well-prepared; and knowledge is power. An exception, though – at least in the judgment of some – seems to be when Jewish women in Israel are contemplating ending their pregnancies.
When an Israeli magazine announced it would bestow an award on a group called Efrat, “pro-choice” advocates (seldom have “scare quotes” been so appropriate) howled in outrage.
Efrat provides women with information about abortion, as well as financial support for mothers-to-be who are under economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies. The group’s detractors characterize it as preying on women at an emotionally vulnerable time.
Efrat, however, does not parade with offensive placards in front of medical facilities like some American groups. Nor does it seek to shame women in any way. Its goal is simply to advance “a woman’s right to free choice,” by providing expectant women who want it with accurate information about medical matters and the development of the lives growing within them; it also offers needy such women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term things like food packages, cribs and strollers. The group claims that, since its founding in 1977, 50,000 babies were born as a result of … Read More >>
Even with protective cover from Senator Charles E. Schumer – as determined a defender of Israel as there ever was – and even speaking only for myself, I hesitate to address the overwrought reaction in some corners to President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. I don’t want to be labeled an anti-Semite too.
Not that there wasn’t or isn’t cause for some concern about Mr. Hagel. He is famously on record as having once referred to AIPAC as the “Jewish lobby,” and in the past questioned the wisdom of too hastily employing military force against Iran. But such things – you might want to sit down – do not an anti-Semite or unconscionable isolationist make.
At least not to reasonable eyes. Unfortunately, some tend to the visceral rather than the rational in such matters, prisoners of their own preconceptions. Despite the clear and ample evidence to the contrary, they just can’t stop pegging the president as less than committed to Israel’s wellbeing, and can be counted on to shoot at anything that moves if Mr. Obama set it into motion. So Mr. Hagel was immediately judged by some as bad for Israel, if for no … Read More >>
Most people, asked if there was any specific Jewish connection to the recent horrific murder of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, would probably respond “Noah Pozner,” one of the six-year-old casualties.
There’s another Jewish connection, though, or at least an imagined one, to the massacre. Even while the slaughtered innocents were still being prepared for burial, neo-Nazi websites began to assert, on the sole basis of their operators’ fevered imaginations and an ugly sort of wishful thinking, that Adam Lanza, the mass murderer, was a Jew.
Or at least, the bloggers claimed, a half-Jew (although from which half the evil emerged was left unclear).
One site proffered evidence, too: The name “Adam,” it explained, is exclusively used by Jews. (How clueless we’ve all been about, among others, Adam Smith and Adam Clayton Powell.)
An Iranian website, Qodsna.com, quickly joined the contemptible chorus, adding the accusation that the notoriously self-censoring Western media, which had provided nary a word about Mr. Lanza’s alleged Jewish parentage, had actively conspired to hide it. The article was revealingly titled “The Common Roots of the Palestine and Sandy Hook Crimes.” (A second article on the … Read More >>
Similar advertisements abound, but this one took the cake.
I’ve always been simultaneously amused and saddened by pitches for “high-end timepieces,” more accurately known as overpriced wristwatches.
Amused, because the most intricate Swiss movements consisting of scores, if not hundreds, of near-microscopic moving parts are no better (and often worse) at keeping accurate time than simple quartz or digital watches available for less than a thousandth the price. And saddened, by the thought that there are actually people out there whose self-image is so fragile (and whose understanding of money’s worth is so distorted) that they actually waste large amounts of cash for such status symbols.
Enter now, in the ad I saw, the French luxury goods house Hermès. It is presenting marks—pardon, discerning fashion-conscious folks—with the opportunity to purchase a truly revolutionary timepiece, one that can… make time stand still.
This is not a joke, or at least it’s not being presented inaccurately. The ad copy, in its entirety, reads:
La montre Hermès reinvents time and set it to the tempo of your desires.
Press on the pushbutton and suspend time.
Beneath the dial, time continues to run within the heart of the mechanism.
Another push on … Read More >>
Students of Daf Yomi will reach it on the seventh day of Chanukah, “it” being a particularly trenchant mishna in Mesechta Shabbos, considering that the following day, “Zos Chanukah,” is identified in the Jewish mystical tradition as the last echo of the Days of Judgment that began with Rosh Hashana.
It’s easy to overlook this particular passage’s implication, but it’s one that is fundamental to life. On the surface, the mishna (73a) deals simply with categories of forbidden actions on Shabbos, including mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melacha of “writing.”
The designation of forbidden actions on the Sabbath is determined by which acts were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle. Where exactly was writing used? The Talmud (ibid, 103b) explains that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate which beams were to be placed where. (My sukkah and I’m sure many other sukkos benefit from a similar component-designation system.)
And erasing? Well, that, Rashi on the mishna explains, derives from the need to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.
Now think: the builders probably … Read More >>
It might seem a sacrilegious thought but it’s entirely true: Your vote doesn’t count. When was the last time you heard of an election, even for a local office, decided by one vote? A school board single vote might be crucial. But anything on the order of a city-wide election—all the more so a state-wide contest, and even more still, a national one—has never turned on a single ballot.
Yes, yes, if everyone felt that way and chose to not vote, the system wouldn’t work. But that is a retort, not an argument. In the end, your personal vote, qua vote, carries no determinative weight.
Please don’t get me wrong. It is important, even imperative, for Orthodox Jews in America to vote. Foremost, because it is a privilege afforded us by the wonderful country in which we live; gratitude for our freedoms and opportunities mandates that we not ignore the gift of citizenship. And then there is the importance of our communities being seen by elected officials as reliable voters; when public servants face decisions, communities perceived as electorally active more readily command the attention of the deciders.
So by all means vote! But no matter how … Read More >>
In slow but clear Hebrew and with an endearingly wry smile, the elderly Jewish lady recalls a trip to America one summer with her sister. At a bank, she recounts, the teller, a young woman, said to her. “Oh, you have numbers on your arms! Yours ends with a ‘4’ and hers with a ‘5’!” That’s cool!”
The bubbeh’s smile widens and her eyes seem to twinkle as she recounts her response to the girl. “You’re right,” she quietly told her in English. “It’s cool… It’s from another epoch of our life. It’s cool.”
The testimony is offered in a documentary film, “Numbered,” whose US premiere is scheduled for later this month at a Chicago film festival. The film’s focus, however, is not so much on the cluelessness of young Americans but rather on the attitudes of different tattooed survivors to the memory-marks they carry day-in, day-out on their arms. And on the recent trend among some young Israelis who seek to perpetuate a connection to the Holocaust and the Jewish people by tattooing their own arms with numbers borne by concentration camp inmates.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, such tattooing was introduced … Read More >>
A time-travelling housefly, transported back to the mid-1980s and spending a Sunday afternoon lazing high on the wall of an ornate living room in a stately home on the fashionable East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, would behold an unusual sight.
Below him would be a group of Jewish children, ages ranging from around three to eight, each holding a stuffed animal. The matron of the house, a meticulously-dressed lady of a certain age and the manor’s sole permanent resident, would preside, beaming, over the gathering, and ask the children to put their furry companions on chairs arranged around a table brimming with kosher cookies, chips, and candy.
The fly would be witnessing one of Mrs. Dorothy Fox’s “stuffed animal parties” (at which festivities whatever the animals didn’t eat would become fair game for their caretakers). After refreshments, Mrs. Fox, a divorcée of many years and someone whose love for children was joyfully reciprocated by the little ones, would take the crew of kids and creatures for a tour of her back yard, which was graced with statues and other interesting things. Leveraging even her name to please her young visitors, Mrs. Fox would encourage them to edit it … Read More >>
Olivewood is beautiful. It reminds me of Eretz Yisrael and little carved camels; it has a delicate, calming hue. And silver, well, it is pure and shiny and smooth, and brings sefer Torah ornaments to mind. The esrog boxes made of ornately carved olivewood and elegant, glimmering silver are most fitting containers for holding an objet d’mitzvah. My personal preference, though, is cardboard.
Not any cardboard, that is, but my cardboard, the white heavy-paper stock box in which an esrog of mine, many years ago, was packed when I bought it. These days, the standard-issue boxes tend toward illustrated green affairs. The old-fashioned white ones were more bland, but also better canvases on which a child’s imagination could assert itself.
And so my old esrog box—or at least its panels, re-attached now to a more sturdy modern box, covering up the garish green—is unique. Its sides and top feature a young child’s rendering in colored markers of, respectively, an esrog and lulav; a sukkah; a smiley-face;and (inexplicably but endearingly) a turtle whose shell is a sukkah covered with schach). The artists are now either mothers or “in shidduchim,” but some of us like, on occasion, to time-travel. We look … Read More >>
[This is an Ami Magazine "News Commentary" piece -- one of several features I write for the publication.]
An umbrella group of institutions engaged in Jewish-Christian relations and the Anti-Defamation League both issued statements recently that were harshly critical of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the respected posek (halachic authority), Rosh Yeshiva, and Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York. In a dvar Torah posted to the web, Rabbi Schachter had decried missionary activity in Eretz Yisrael and the efforts of some Orthodox-ordained rabbis to affirm Catholic claims to “a covenantal connection” to Eretz Yisrael.
In the process, he noted how the “official Catholic response” to the Zionist movement was a negative one, and how the position of the Vatican to this day is that Jerusalem should be an “international city.” And he noted Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l’s strong opposition to the establishment of religious bonds with Christian clergy—and how “shameful” it is that some claiming to be disciples of “the Rav” have disregarded or misrepresented his words. Rabbi Schachter is recognized as, in the words of the New York Jewish Week, “a leading disciple” of Rab Soloveitchik, whom the paper calls “a towering … Read More >>
The noise, news, deception and demagoguery that emanate from political conventions tend to intoxicate some Americans to break out their own flags and flyers and root loudly for their guy (and against the other guy). Parts of the Jewish community are no different, and excitedly join the fray. Inherent worriers that many of us are (and subject as we are to the Tochacha’s prediction that even the rustling of a leaf will sometimes terrify us), we may feel we’ve spied danger around this or that candidate’s corner.
That is our prerogative, of course, each of us according to his own degree of paranoia (and, as a member of the tribe once famously said, even paranoids have real enemies).
One thing we must take care to avoid, though, is hopping on any of the various bandwagons whose loudspeakers blare that this or that candidate is the enemy of mankind, Satan incarnate, a closet Communist, or a Nazi well-disguised. Our mesorah guides us to treat the leaders (and, presumably, would-be-leaders, for leaders they may yet be) of the countries where we dwell, with deference and honor. We can disagree with policies, of course, and even be critical. But we are … Read More >>
Some reporters have punished me over the past few years, for doing something they don’t like—asking that they pose their questions by e-mail.
Some background: As the media liaison for Agudath Israel of America, I regularly receive inquiries from members of the press about an assortment of issues, mostly about Agudah policies or initiatives but about all manner of things Jewish as well.
Although there are responsible journalists out there, competition for “eyeballs” tends to color, and often distorts, much reportage.
During my early years on the job I freely spoke with any and all reporters, confident that what I thought was my openness and good will would force my inquisitors to treat me, and our community, fairly. I was in for a surprise.
The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn’t been sufficiently clear or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were—are you sitting down?—not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (at least in their heads), on a quest to get some words from … Read More >>
In his editorial last week, Ami’s editor Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter raised an important point about religious Jews’ presidential election priorities.
An interview he conducted earlier this summer included assertions about President Obama that, were they true, would properly earn the president the opprobrium of Jews concerned with Israel’s wellbeing (all Jews, one hopes).
While reasonable people can certainly think that a Republican president would be better for Israel, I subsequently pointed out that the assertions that appeared in Ami were unsubstantiated.
Now Rabbi Frankfurter has now chosen to level a new charge against the president, about his “social agenda,” which Newt Gingrich informed (or told) Rabbi Frankfurter is to create a “very, very secular America, in which religion can exist for about one hour a week.”
That alleged “ongoing effort to chase G-d out of the public sphere” (Rabbi Frankfurter’s words) began (in Mr. Gingrich’s) “with the Supreme Court decision on school prayer in 1963.” When Mr. Obama was two years old (the little rascal).
My defense of Mr. Obama on the issues of Israel and national security were never aimed at promoting his candidacy, but simply an effort to respect truth, and to urge the shunning of over-the-top … Read More >>
Like pretty much all publicity, the heavy reportage of the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium earlier this month was something of a two-edged sword. Over the weeks since the Siyum, awareness of the event likely inspired many Jews to undertake Daf Yomi and legions of others to aspire to a greater degree of Jewish study and observance. It also brought the very idea of Torah study to the attention of large numbers of our fellow Jews who may have, in reading or watching reports about the Siyum, for the first time confronted Torah study as a real-life ideal.
All the reportage of the Siyum and Daf Yomi, however, also provided grist for some grumbling mills.
“The question is how much depth does one really get into with a Daf Yomi kind of approach,” sniffed Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It’s breadth over depth,” he pronounced, explaining helpfully, and risibly, to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency how “the Conservative approach to Jewish study tends to be more depth-oriented.”
And then there was Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary, who penned an opinion piece for the Wall … Read More >>