Social Injustice

The following essay currently appears on the New York Jewish Week website.. (My regular weekly essays appear in the Wednesday edition of Hamodia.)

It was Albert Camus’ insight that bad things often result from ignorance, and that “good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

He could have been writing of the good souls whose desire for social justice has impelled them to smear members of the East Ramapo School District board for increased public school class size and cuts in school programs and extracurricular activities like sports and music.

A Jewish group, Uri L’Tzedek, is among the critics of the board, and contends that the majority “fervently Orthodox” members of the school board have been unfair to the primarily African-American, Haitian and Hispanic public school student population. In the pages of the New York Jewish Week, a founder of the group, Rabbi Ari Hart, amplified its objections in passionate terms (“East Ramapo’s Children Are Suffering”). Unfortunately, passion is no replacement for understanding.

Rabbi Hart claims to have conducted a “careful review of the facts” and to have spoken to “leaders from the Jewish and non-Jewish community.” But he apparently didn’t speak … Read More >>

And Now For Something Completely Different

This is worth posting just because of the “conventional wisdom” that the Charedim are an overwhelmingly serious bunch. That, and the guy’s name is Yankel.

Megillas Lester


“It’s the best Jewish movie I’ve ever seen, and it has no competition” — such was my daughter’s trenchant review of the awesome Megillas Lester. While that isn’t strictly true, of course (there have been children’s movies like “Agent Emes” around for a while, and I’m sure she has seen them), the claims that this movie is “raising the bar” on quality frum entertainment are, for once, no exaggeration at all.

I’m sure this was a major gamble. As much as Emes Productions (who provided financial backing) may claim to specialize in “low budget” films, the acting, animation and production costs were probably far above anything done for our community thus far. I hope it pays off financially, because the result is a very high quality product — keyn yirbu, our community will undoubtedly demand more on this level.

Chananya (CJ) Kramer of Kol Rom Multimedia has been a creative and comedic genius for a long time. When, as a camp counselor, he was assigned the job of waking campers each morning, he put together a brilliant series of mock radio interviews (with himself as all characters) to be played over the camp loudspeakers. And everyone woke … Read More >>

Masquerading As Feminism

On Purim, Jewish men, to varying degrees, imbibe strong drink, and Jewish women do their best to keep them safe and anchored in civilization. The holiday thus may not seem very female-centered. But it is.

Not just because its hero is a heroine and the holy book about the historical event it commemorates is named after her, but because Megillas Esther verily revolves around femininity.

The pliable, preposterous monarch we meet at the Megillah’s start is a poster child (or, perhaps better, poster adolescent) for male chauvinism. His 180-day drinking party, as the Talmud describes it, was a bacchanal of arrested-development “good ol’ boys” acting like louts, and entailed the debasement, and eventual execution, of his queen.

And the next action of the foolhardy king was to organize the antithesis of true respect for women: a beauty contest.

And Achashverosh, of course, ends up being manipulated by a woman, our reticent, modest heroine Esther, and led by her to dispatch the Jews’ mortal enemy, saving her people from his evil plans.

But there’s a good deal more here, too, although it’s a good deal more subtle. Mordechai, the Midrash teaches us, was miraculously able to physically nurse the baby … Read More >>


It was gratifying to see that a recent essay of mine in the Forward stimulated thoughtful responses.

I had made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.” I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most charedim.

What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “charedi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-charedi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any charedi Jew (not to mention that some charedi Jews are far from fervent).

I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to charedim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.

After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The charedi subset of Chassidim could simply be called Chassidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…

One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College … Read More >>

The Anarchy Option

My interest in the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi was roughly equivalent to my interest in the recently concluded International Kennel Club dog show in Chicago. Which is to say, nil.

But a “Jewish” issue that trailed in the snow behind the Sochi shenanigans was amusing. At least, initially. Pondered a bit, it was a reminder of something disturbing.

An ice dancer named Charlie White, who, with his partner, won a gold medal at the competition, was roundly celebrated by the media for his accomplishment, and by the Jewish media for his accomplishment… and Jewishness.

Despite the latter assertion, though, the skater’s mother apparently notified the Detroit Jewish News, the original reporter of Mr. White’s Jewish credentials, that neither she nor her son is a member of the tribe.

After some research, the paper discovered that the gold medal winner’s only Jewish connection was a Jewish stepfather; it apologized for its original reportage.

The Reform movement wouldn’t at present consider Charlie’s connection to the Jewish people sufficient to automatically qualify him as Jewish in its eyes. But it has long accepted a “patrilineal” definition of “Jewishness” – that is to say that, contrary to halacha, it … Read More >>

Minyanim and Meta-Halacha

The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “Partnership minyan is an innovation too far.” It is reproduced here with Haaretz’s permission.

What educators call a “teaching moment” is presented by the issue of “partnership minyanim,” prayer groups that aim to provide Orthodox Jewish women greater opportunity to participate in services.

Although halakha is distinctly male-centered in the realm of communal prayer (as in the requirement of ten men to establish a minyan, a quorum permitting the recital of certain prayers), “partnership minyanim” jury-rig prayer services so that women lead parts that arguably may not require a man.

The teaching moment is about how halakha works.

Differences of opinion are part and parcel of not only the Talmud but some contemporary halakhic issues; different conclusions may be made by different poskim, or halakhic decisors.

But a truth that tends to draw fire but remains a truth all the same is that not every rabbi is a qualified decisor. Few, indeed, are.

The most trenchant text here may be a Talmudic aphorism in Tractate Nedarim.

“[What might seem] constructive [advice] of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive [advice] of … Read More >>

Reb Meir Schuster zt”l – An Appreciation

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

It is a sad day for the Torah world because of the loss of this great, great man.  Rav Meir Schuster zatzal passed away today after a debilitating illness.  This man was singlehandedly responsible for bringing more people closer to Avinu sh’bashamayim than entire outreach organizations.  Without exaggeration, many tens of thousands of people came to Torah observance because of the actions of this man.

The greatest insight into this man was perhaps a shailah that was presented to Rav Elyashiv zatzal, when Reb Meir had lost his father.  According to the Torah, the period of mourning lasts for three days.  Chazal extended this period to seven days.  Rabbinic extensions of halachos are universally observed in Judaism.  Chazal tell us  (based on Koheles 10:8) regarding Rabbinic enactments – “Kol HaPoretz Geder yeshacheno nachash – anyone who breaks the fence (on a Rabbinic law) deserves that a snake should bite him.”  Yet, here things were different.  Every day that Rabbi Meir Schuster was not at the Kosel, the wailing wall, was a day that Jewish people would not get a chance to be brought to Torah-true Judaism.  Should he sit … Read More >>

On Cancer, Satmar, and Make Up

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

Recently, Yeshiva World News reported that one of the Rebbes of Satmar has been reporting an increase in cancer in his community rachmana litzlan.  While no one can vouch for the accuracy of what was actually said, it seems that after some examination they (it is unclear who else was involved) concluded that it might possibly be due to a breach of tznius in their community – highlighting that it may be the wearing of excessive make-up.  To this end, a new Vaad was created accompanied with a solicitation for funds.

It is this author’s opinion that such declarations are often counter-productive for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it shortchanges the beauties of Torah Judaism, whose great commentators have offered fascinating insights into illness.  Secondly, it is terribly insulting to a very fragile group of people that are looking toward Rabbinic leaders for solace and instead receive a brutal slap in the face.  Thirdly, it may be a manifestation of a “blame something or some-one” mentality which diverts resources and attention from addressing other problems.

Recently this author was asked by a person who had experienced a tragic loss in his family to … Read More >>

Moonlighting in Halacha


This past week a terrible tragedy occurred in Scotland regarding a medical doctor.  It seems a doctor who was moonlighting did not inform his hospital that he was working another job.  On account of his over-tiredness, he did not check that a patient was overmedicated.  Nor did he check on the patient.  The patient died, unfortunately.  This incident highlights an important point in halacha.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that last year seven million American workers were working multiple jobs.  Out of a total employed workforce of 144 million in this country that means that one out of 20 people at work are actually working double jobs.   The question is: Are there any obligations from a halachic perspective that these workers have to their day-job employers?  Indeed, is having the extra job permitted in the first place?

It is also interesting to note what types of jobs most people have as their second job.  Some babysit, others bartend.  Some cater.  And many run an internet website (more on this as the article progresses).

There is a fascinating Tosefta in Bava Metzia (8:2) which tells us that a worker is not permitted to perform his own … Read More >>

Wealth Management 101

A fantastic recent essay in the New York Times brought to mind a fantastic Talmudic narrative. The latter [in Tamid 32b] describes the would-be world-conqueror Alexander the Great approaching the gates of the Garden of Eden. When denied entry (insufficient righteousness the grounds), he asks for, at least, a souvenir and is given an eyeball (or, perhaps, a skull’s eye-socket).

Seeking to somehow gauge the odd gift, he places it on one pan of a scale, with gold and silver in the other pan. The precious metal pan rises. And it continues to do so, no matter how much gold and silver he adds. Asking the rabbis accompanying him what is happening, they explain that the eye represents the impetus for human desire; it is that which sees and wants, and is never satisfied. He is skeptical but the rabbis then prove their point by placing some dirt, a reminder of the reality of mortality, atop the eye. Its pan then rises high, outweighed by, unconcerned with, oblivious to, all the precious metal.

All of us have likely desired to possess something we don’t. But I have always been confounded by the spectacle of very wealthy people consumed … Read More >>

The Road to Heil

If ever there were a question to inspire ambivalence it might be whether the current push in Israel to outlaw the word “Nazi” and Holocaust-era German symbols is a good idea.

On the one hand, the word and symbols are often used these days to score political points, to just insult someone with whom the user disagrees or in the ostensible service of humor. Placards of Yitzchak Rabin’s image in a Nazi uniform were brandished in demonstrations before his assassination; and, more recently, religious Jewish children were dressed in concentration camp garb to protest government budget cuts. A long-into-reruns popular American television show included a character, the irascible owner of a food stand, who nom de tv was “the soup Nazi.” Talk about trivialization.

But there’s another hand, too, at least to many minds: Outlawing speech is not something to undertake lightly. And just where does one draw the line between speech that’s just impolite or crude, and speech that is so depraved as to merit being criminalized? Forbidding the shouting of “fire!” in a crowded theater is understandably worthy of penalization; calling someone a soup Nazi, well, somewhat less so.

And then there is the question of … Read More >>

Aggravated Journalism

Hella Winston was surprised that her name appeared at the bottom of the recent New York Post report about the murder of Brooklyn businessman Menachem Stark, indicating her “additional reporting” to the story. She had not written any of the article – and certainly not its tasteless, insensitive headline (which implied that an unlimited number of people surely wished the Chassidic businessman dead) or the article’s incendiary opening words: “The millionaire Hasidic slumlord…”

She had nothing to do, either, with the rest of the ugly piece, which was rife with unnamed “sources” and unsubstantiated innuendo. (It went so far as to dredge the cesspool of a rabidly anti-Orthodox blog to find what it apparently deemed a journalistic gem– an anonymous posting opining that the victim’s “slanted shtreimel on his head gives his crookedness away.”). She had not seen the article before its publication.

Ms. Winston, a sociologist by profession, had simply been contacted by the article’s main writers, she says, and provided them a small piece of information of no great consequence. Needless to say, the Post’s odious offering deeply hurt the murdered man’s wife, children and community. And I have no doubt that Ms. Winston is herself pained … Read More >>

Obama and the (Orthodox) Jews

(The article below appeared earlier this month in Haaretz. I share it here with that paper’s permission.)

The gabbai at the shul I usually attend on Shabbos is something of a comedian. When I was recently called to the Torah, he offered the traditional “Mi Sheberach” and added a blessing for “ha-president” – which he quickly qualified by adding: “Not Obama – the president of the shul.”

I interjected “yes, Obama.” Nearby congregants gasped.

They shouldn’t have. The Mishneh teaches us that Jews should pray for the government, as governments are what prevent people from acting on their worst instincts. For many years, every American Orthodox synagogue included a special prayer for the president and vice president, a practice that, for some reason, has fallen into disuse.

But beyond the Jewish obligation to express hakaras hatov, “acknowledgement of the good,” to the leaders of their lands, I believe that the current occupant of the White House well deserves our special good will.

That is not, I know, the common stance in the Orthodox world. I have been puzzling over that fact for five years.

A registered Republican since I could vote, I shared in the skepticism and concern … Read More >>

Agudath Israel Condemns NY Post’s Lack Of “Basic Human Dignity”

The New York Post crossed a line today, even for a paper specializing in the sensational, with its offensive front-page cover and equally offensive coverage of the vicious murder of a young Hassidic father of eight, Menachem Stark, Hy”d.

The paper demonstrated the poorest taste by choosing to focus on anonymous accusations rather than on the human tragedy of a wife and family’s sudden and terrible loss, and on their, and their community’s, grieving. Particularly at a time when Jews have been attacked on New York streets and are regularly vilified by hateful people around the world, the tabloid has demonstrated unprecedented callousness and irresponsibility.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect very much from a medium like the Post, but one should, we think, be able to expect some basic human decency in the wake of a family’s terrible personal loss.

Agudath Israel of America and its constituents, along with decent people of all religions and ethnicities, extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Stark’s widow and children.

We, further, commend the New York City Police Department for its active pursuit of leads to Mr. Stark’s murderers, and pray that they be apprehended and brought to justice swiftly.

Too Little Information

At the Sheva Brachos festivities this past summer for the marriage of our youngest daughter, my wife and I heard many wonderful things about our newest son-in-law. Friends and relatives spoke about his impressive Torah scholarship, his modesty, his sterling character. We had already known all that, although it was good to hear all the same. One testimonial, though, particularly impressed me; it was offered by one of the new husband’s brothers-in-law, who, in a short speech, recounted a long-ago lively Shabbos table discussion at his in-laws’ home.

Each member of the family, it seems, had vociferously put forth his or her perspective on some now-forgotten topic. Except, the speaker recounted, for our new son-in-law. When asked by one of the others for his opinion on the matter, the reticent family member’s simple response was: “I don’t have enough information to have one.”

I smiled broadly inside (probably outside too). If only, I mused, more of us were so thoughtful. Instead, our times seem to foster a diametric approach, that all of us must have opinions, with or without the assistance of facts. Call it a Contemporary Commandment: Thou shalt leave no issue uncommented upon.

And so, opine we …

The Peril of Pluralism

The essay below appeared under a different title in Haaretz earlier this week. I share it here with that paper’s permission.

Those of us who believe that the Torah, both its written text and accompanying Oral Law, were bequeathed by G-d to our Jewish ancestors at Sinai, and that its commandments and prohibitions remain incumbent on Jews to this day, obviously hope that Jewish movements lacking those beliefs remain marginal forces in Israel.

But that’s a hope born of the perspective of a particular belief-system (albeit the conviction of all Jews’ ancestors until two centuries ago). Leaving such blatant subjectivity aside, though, would the growth of non-Orthodox Jewish theologies be a boon or a bane to Israeli society qua society?

The answer may lie in the example of the United States, where the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as less popular groups like Reconstructionism and Humanistic Judaism, had and have free rein to lay claim to Jewish authenticity. And here in the American diaspora, the results of the Jewish Pluralism experiment? Decidedly banal.

On the one hand, Jews who, for whatever reason, choose not to embrace the demands of a traditional (in this context, Orthodox) Jewish life have … Read More >>


Odd that the Torah-portion about the death of Yaakov Avinu is called “Vayechi.” After all, the word means “And he lived.” And, differently voweled, the word can mean “And he will live.” And especially odd, because Yaakov didn’t die.

At least that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (Taanis, 5b) asserts, although his listeners asked sarcastically, “Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?”

Unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded with the prophet Yirmiyahu’s assurance, “And you, fear not, my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, and tremble not, Yisrael. For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity.” That verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Yaakov with his descendants. And so, the sage concluded, “just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be.”

As abstruse Talmudic passages go, this one would seem a good example. Rabbi Yochanan’s proof is as unconvincing as his contention was bewildering. And yet, the traditional word for dying (vayomos) is strangely absent from the account of Yaakov’s… whatever. Instead, an unusual and somewhat vague word (vayigva) is employed. And there are Midrashic narratives, too, that imply Yaakov’s life after … Read More >>


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 >>

Little Is Much

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 >>

A Time for Stringencies

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 Modest Jewish Proposal

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 >>

There’s A Will

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 >>

Seize The Avocado

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 >>