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 >>


More on the Charedi Draft

I had this as a comment to Rabbi Landesman’s post, but Rabbi Adlerstein encouraged me to elevate it to a post unto itself. He did say that Rabbi Landesman may go “a second round” as well — so let me say now that much as I might wish to continue, it is already known in the Menken house that my study, which is the one room that is my sole responsibility to clean, is also the last to be ready for bedikas chametz. Should Rabbi Landesman wish to have it, I’ll have to surrender the last word.

Nonetheless, what Rabbi Landesman appears to have overlooked is that the problem of the day is neither motzi dibat ha’Aretz nor motzi dibat ha-medinah, but rather, motzi dibat ha-haredim l’dvar HaShem, the bad-mouthing of the Charedim who, on advice of their Gedolim, continue not to go into the Army. Rabbi Landesman seems to level no criticism against those who reside outside our world yet critique it (often in the most bizarre fashion) at every occasion, including the present one — on the contrary, he only seems to find fault with those of us in Chutz L’Aretz who presume to defend the … Read More >>

An Atzeres Tefillah

It is with good reason that the huge gathering in response to the Shaked Committee Report was styled as an atzeres tefillah (a prayer gathering), and not as a protest. Even in moments of high tension, when the Torah community feels under threat, what we say and how we say it matters. The rules of cost-benefit analysis do not cease at fateful times; they become ever more important. And that is why we need the clear da’as of the elders of the generation.

In every chareidi history of American Jewry’s responses to the Holocaust, one event always merits special mention l’gnai (for criticism) – a mass protest called by secular Jewish organizations in the mid-1930s calling for a boycott of German products. Those histories cite credible reports that Hitler, ym”sh, was enraged by the protests and thereby strengthened in his determination to exterminate the Jewish people from the face of the earth. (At a later stage, Agudath Israel of America was the only Jewish organization to circumvent the British-declared boycott of Nazi-held territory in order to send packages to starving Jews in Poland and elsewhere.)

Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz relates in In Their Shadows a lesson the Chazon Ish taught … Read More >>

Pondering the Prayer Gathering

The article below appeared last week, on March 11, in Haaretz. It is republished here with that paper’s permission.

The weather in Manhattan on Sunday – a few degrees above freezing – wasn’t as pleasant as Jerusalem’s a week earlier. But that didn’t stop an estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews from turning out to participate in an American counterpart to the mammoth prayer gathering that had filled the Holy City’s streets the week before.

Many American haredim live in communities far removed from New York, and thus couldn’t participate. Still and all, an ocean of black hats stretched about a mile along, fittingly, Water Street, a major thoroughfare at Manhattan’s tip. Traffic reporters were beside themselves, direly warning drivers to abandon all hope of entering lower Manhattan, and reporters in truck buckets high above the crowd shouted down to us earthlings that they couldn’t spy an end to the mass of humanity.

And, as was the case at the Israeli happening, a broad spectrum of haredim was represented.

There were Jewish businessmen and professionals from throughout New York and New Jersey, yeshiva and kollel students from places like Lakewood and Baltimore, chassidim of varied stripes, even including Satmar, a … Read More >>

The Beit Shemesh Elections – One Chareidi Perspective

by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

It seemed to us, the residents of Beit Shemesh, as if the whole world stood still to follow the elections. Politicians from Netanyahu on down all made statements and took sides (strictly on party lines: everyone against the Chareidim). As they put it, the entire future of Beit Shemesh — and of Israel for that matter — depended on the outcome. This was the final hope for Beit Shemesh, they declared. Would it be a forward-looking city welcoming to all, or yet another (backwards, intolerant, impoverished) Chareidi stronghold?

What happened that pit this usually easygoing, peace-loving, heavily-Anglo city against itself in some cataclysmic, no-holds-barred struggle for survival? And why did some consider the outcome an awe-inspiring kiddush Hashem while others called it a disgrace to all the Torah is supposed to hold dear? We all know there are hotheads and troublemakers among us — on both sides of the fence — but in all honesty, I think all of us here know that the vast majority of us are proud of our city and proud of the fact that we live in peace and harmony 99.9% of the time. To most of us Beit Shemesh … Read More >>

Megillas Lester

Haman

“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 >>

Ultra-Cation

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 “Building” of Children Destroys

Reading the news of the “Million Man Atzeres,” that was the statement of our Sages that came to mind. “The ‘destruction’ of elders builds, [while] the ‘building’ of children destroys” [Megillah 31b].

The Yesh Atid [There is a Future] party has no future, because it does not understand our past. This is why the other quote that came to mind is from a more proletarian source — reading that Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy (of Yesh Atid) said that “thousands of chareidim will be inducted into the IDF and begin doing their part,” the line that came unbidden to my mind was “Oh Mickey, what a pity, you don’t understand!”

It really is a pity. Levy does not understand how the Jewish people managed to survive for 2000 years without a land to call our own, something no other nation in history has done. This was only due to our following the Torah, and the voice of Torah sages in each generation. If they think there is a substitute, they should read the Pew Report and ponder the imminent collapse of heterodox Judaism in America and worldwide. Do they really think that simply by assembling Jews in … Read More >>

Much Ado About “Ultra”

The Forward recently published an article of mine about the term “Ultra-Orthodox.” You can read it here .

A response to it, by Professor Samuel Heilman, is here .

And, finally, a rejoinder is here.

What the ASA’s Boycott Taught (Reminded) Me

by Rabbi Akiva Males

In the closing months of 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities. This move is part of a much larger effort in the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement intended to isolate Israel. In the aftermath of this academic boycott, many of Israel’s supporters rightfully voiced our hurt feelings, disappointment, and/or strong disagreement with the ASA’s offensive maneuver.

In January, before my wife and I traveled to visit family in Israel, I read an important article in The NY Jewish Week by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin which reminded me of a crucial yet simple concept. As supporters of Israel, we need to find responsible ways to express our outrage with the ASA. At the same time, we also need to recognize the many American universities who found the strength to resist joining in this boycott.

It is not enough to scream “gevalt” when we have been wounded. We also have to call out “thank you” to those who are our friends, to those who stood up for truth, to those who have refused to have their educational institutions seduced by the all too common siren song of anti-Israeli behavior. We … Read More >>

Unpublished Heroes

I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?

I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.

As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.

The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.

I was 14.

To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my … Read More >>

Tempest in a Tefillin-Bag?

Of the slew of recent articles celebrating the idea of girls wearing tefillin two were particularly notable. One, because of how revealing it is of its author’s attitude toward halacha; the second, because it holds the seeds of a worthy lesson.

In Haaretz, feminist Elana Sztokman (upcoming book: “The War on Women in Israel”) asserted that “the crude, sexist responses within Orthodoxy to girls wearing tefillin” only “reflect men’s fears and prejudices.” And that her brand of “religious feminism is not about… women who are angry or provocative.”

She dismisses those who have noted that the Shulchan Aruch (technically, the Rama) criticizes women’s wearing of tefillin as just “try[ing] to make their objections rooted in halakha,” and she cites in her favor the halachic authority of the founder of a school described elsewhere as representing the “co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism.” That authority, Ms. Sztokman announces, has “unravel[led] the halakhic myths… about women and tefillin.”

What’s more, she continues, fealty to the halachic sources about the issue only shows how “some men think about women’s bodies and their roles in society” and “how deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions are in Orthodox life.”

And to think that … Read More >>

Unravelling Tefillin-gate

(The subject of this article has been well covered by other writers in this space, and I apologize if posting it here is the equivalent of a fifth wheel on a cart. But I think it may add some additional food for thought. The piece appeared in Haaretz this week and is offered here with its permission.)

Unlike some in the traditional Orthodox community, I empathize with the young women in two modern Orthodox high schools in New York who asked for and received permission to don tefillin during their school prayer services. They have, after all, seen their mothers wearing the religious objects and simply wish to emulate their parents’ Jewish religious practice. Carrying on the traditions of parents is the essence of mesorah, the “handed-down” legacy of the Jewish past.

None of us has the right to assume that these girls aren’t motivated by a deeply Jewish desire to worship as they have seen their mothers worship. Even as to the mothers’ motivations, I can’t know whether their intention is pure or homage to the contemporary and un-Jewish idea that “men and women have interchangeable roles.” Most of our acts, wrote the powerful thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer … Read More >>

Who, Really, Are the Orthodox?

It’s rare that I simply refer to another article, but “I am Orthodox, and Orthodox is me” speaks for itself. I think the piece is stronger because the writer is both relatively unknown, and a woman. She truly speaks for us all when she says “those stereotypes about ‘the Orthodox’ are talking about me.”

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 >>

Where is “Moving Traditions” Moving People?

If you’ve been following the saga of the “Women of the Wall” and the “Women for the Wall,” you know that WOW is doing everything it can to bolster its numbers and coverage. W4W has made them into a non-story, by expressing with eloquent silence that far more Israeli women oppose them than stand with them (by a margin of hundreds, if not thousands, to one), and simultaneously completely getting rid of the rambunctious young men who previously did such a great job of playing into WOW’s hands and PR efforts.

Most recently, a group called “Moving Traditions” shipped three teenage American girls off to Israel to join WOW. Needless to say, they knew little of the issues — one of them had not even heard of WOW prior to the contest that earned her a ticket. They were also kept from any contact with women representing the other side of the story, which resulted in W4W leader Ronit Peskin writing an open letter to one participant.

Ms. Peskin posted a comment to the Facebook wall of Moving Traditions, indicating that she had written this letter. Moving Traditions basically laughed off the idea that she might be able … Read More >>

A Lesson From Limmud

Even now that the recent much-celebrated Limmud gathering in the historic cathedral town of Coventry, West Midlands, England has concluded, the celebration continues, at least in many Jewish media.

The popular Jewish event, which attracts people from all segments of the Jewish universe (and some, like the Reverend Patrick Morrow, who led a Limmud session at this year’s, from the non-Jewish one), is always loudly lauded as an opportunity to access a broad gamut of theologies and practices that have Jewish devotees.

But this year’s Limmud conference, at least to the media, was particularly exultation-worthy, as one of the attendees was Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the current chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, the first person holding that position to grace the proceedings with his presence.

Much, unsurprisingly, was made of that first. Rabbi Mirvis was warmly welcomed by those in attendance, and his speech was parsed by the press with the determination of high school teachers seeking puns in Shakespeare, in a quest to find hints of disdain on the rabbi’s part for the religious leaders of the more traditional Orthodox British community, who made clear that the rabbi’s attendance at Limmud was ill-advised.

Aside from celebrating and … Read More >>

The iPhone and the Get

by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It is well known that the Gedolim of both Eretz Yisroel and America are rightly concerned about the devastating effects of exposure to pornographic images through rapidly developing technologies. And there is no question that even filtered access to the internet has no guarantees that a person may fall or stumble into the abyss. The internet and Smartphones are clearly a game-changer in terms of nisyonos, spiritual challenges to Klal Yisroel.

And as in many other venues in Judaism, organizations have arisen in order to assist in combating this new scourge. In Eretz Yisroel, these organizations are known as Amutahs, roughly equivalent the 501 C3 organization in the United States. Some organizations are of questionable legitimacy, but the vast majority of these organizations are genuine and justifiable.

Not everyone, however, will agree with the approach and mindset of those people who are involved in the day to day running of the organization. In order to gain a more universal legitimacy the people who run such organizations attempt to get letters of approbation and approval from leading Rabbis.

There may be another dynamic as well. Some of the people who run these organizations, well … Read More >>

Letter to the Editor of the NY Jewish Week

Below is the text of a self-explanatory letter to the editor of the New York Jewish Week; it is published in this week’s issue of that paper.

December 21, 2013

Editor:

Rori Picker Neiss (op-ed, December 15) is “shocked” at my response to your reporter, who asked me for the rationale of esteemed rabbinical authorities’ opposition to pre-nuptial agreements focused on a future divorce. I explained that “there is a concern that introducing and focusing on the possible dissolution of a marriage when it is just beginning is not conducive to the health of the marriage.”

Ms. Picker Neiss contends that such focus is already introduced, in the traditional ketubah. I don’t know what version of the ketubah she is citing but the time-honored, halachically mandated one contains no mention whatsoever of divorce.

The pledge of support that the ketubah references remains in place in a case of divorce, or of the husband’s death. But that is simply a peripheral implication of the ketubah, which simply lists the husband’s obligations to his wife.

And so to compare the ketubah to the “prenup” used by some today is comparing apples to aufrufs.

Ms. Picker Neiss is entitled to embrace the … Read More >>

What Were They Thinking?

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, whose dispatches are widely reproduced both here in the United States and abroad, reported today on British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis having become the first sitting British chief rabbi to address the annual Limmud conference, a gathering of multi-denominational and non-denominational Jewish leaders and laymen. By attending and being featured as a speaker, the JTA informs us, he was “defying the opposition of prominent haredi Orthodox rabbis in England.”

Fair enough. Those charedi leaders have a longstanding and principled opposition to Orthodox rabbis participating in “multi-denominational” panels, rosters and such, since doing so perforce promotes the notion that all “rabbis are rabbis,” equals in belief and scholarship, and that all self-defined “Judaisms” are part of the Judaism of our ancestors.

But the JTA report puts it thus:

“The critics had said the conference, which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life, represented a danger to British Jewry by suggesting it was acceptable for observant Jews to associate with less or non-observant Jews.”

How a Jewish news agency can think for even a moment that charedi Jews – with their innumerable and rabbinically-endorsed outreach organizations and efforts, personal friendships and study-partnerships with “less … Read More >>

Opening a Dialogue

When the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, Rav Aharon Feldman shlit”a, called to offer me a review copy of the journal Dialogue, there could only be one answer, of course. But having read it, all I can say is — get it. All the rest is, as they say, commentary [no, no slight intended to the journal by that name]. Each article deserves to be called “required reading” in Jewish thought.

The introductory article is a speech given to Israeli generals by Rav Feldman, explaining in detail the Chareidi worldview, its view on Torah learning, and why the idea of a draft or other mandatory service outside yeshiva poses an existential threat. Then a section of five articles, entitled “A Call to Spiritual Arms,” discusses “the seeming dissonance between the external and internal manifestations of Yiddishkeit in our community and its members’ lives.” Rav Feldman discusses those who are “observant” without being truly religious on the inside, a phenomenon otherwise known as “Orthopraxy,” and how to escape it. Eytan Kobre, perhaps best known for his acerbic wit and dismantling of the heterodox in the pages of Mishpacha, here looks inwards at the trends towards Orthodox conspicuous consumption and otherwise … Read More >>

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 … Read More >>

Why the Radical Politics of WoW’s Leaders Matter

Is it merely a coincidence that so many of Women of the Wall’s leaders have numerous close associations with radical, anti-Israel groups? Or could it be that WoW is a useful vehicle for advancing an anti-Israel narrative that leaves Israel increasingly isolated internationally? Is concealing that agenda the reason why WoW tried to suppress the story of its leaders’ ties to fringe anti-Israel NGOs?

In early November, journalist Rachel Avraham posted a story at Jerusalem Online, the English-language website of Channel Two News, detailing the connections between WoW, vice-chairwoman, Batya Kallus and chairwoman Anat Hoffman and various anti-Israel groups.

As program director for the Moriah Fund, Kallus helps facilitate funding for such groups as Adallah, Ir Amin, Yesh Din, and Mossawa. Adallah rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and has been active in promoting Israel Apartheid Week on North American campuses and in the dissemination of the Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead. The Goldstone Report cited “evidence” provided by Adallah 38 times.

Yesh Din categorizes Israel as an apartheid state and supported Turkey’s position after the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel naval commandos attempting to interdict the Gaza Flotilla … Read More >>

Seeing Privilege As A Pain

Sometimes a first-person account is just so sad you could cry. And when the writer seems oblivious to the sadness, well, then it’s sadder still.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently offered a piece written by a Jewish woman explaining her and her husband’s decision to forgo having children.

“As a Conservative Jew raised in the Midwest,” she writes, “I always assumed I’d have kids…. In my mind, being a grown-up meant having children.”

During her college days, she stopped in at the Brown University Hillel House and met a young man. Eventually they began to date.

When marriage came up, they discussed how “religiously” to raise their children, and found that they had different opinions. Her partner wanted to observe the Sabbath but she did not. And, if they each did his or her own thing she feared the “inevitable” questions their children would have about their mother’s level of observance.

Then, she writes, “It occurred to me that our potential problems would vanish if we just skipped parenthood.” Problem – at least if she could get her boyfriend on board – solved.

As it happened, after the young man became her husband, he began “losing his religion.” … Read More >>