I, You, and He/She: A Conjugation Lesson

The real losers in the recent Israeli election — in addition to anti-Netanyahu Obama and Herzog— were the Israeli pollsters. The pre-election polls several days before the election (Israeli law wisely does not permit public polling within three days of an election) were far off the mark, showing Herzog/Livni to be at least four seats ahead. To top this off, the exit polls initially declared that the election was too close to call, when in fact it was an overwhelming Netanyahu victory, akin to a landslide.

The pollsters have spent the post–election weeks crying into their matzo-ball soup, trying to explain away why they went wrong: the electorate was undecided until the end; had polling been permitted until election day they would have been more accurate (but what about the exit poll errors?); the campaign was a volatile one, with daily ups and downs.

The miscalculation of the pollsters was for me a delight. It underscored the importance of each individual, and the uniqueness of am Yisroel. Just as the Jewish people are not subject to the ordinary rules of historic logic — we should have evaporated and disappeared millenia ago together with the empires of Assyria … Read More >>


RFRA Battles and Us

The controversy surrounding the passage by the Indiana legislature of a RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) should be a great concern to all Torah Jews. Agudath Israel of America played a major role in the passage of a federal RFRA statute in 1993. That legislation gained unanimous passage in the House and the support of 97 senators in the Senate, before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since then 20 states have passed their own RFRA statutes, and another 11 have judicially extended similar protections under their state constitutions. Yet suddenly RFRA statutes are culturally anathema.

The federal RRFA statute came in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the so-called peyote case. Smith effectively reversed Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and its progeny. In the latter case, the Supreme Court ruled that South Carolina could not deny unemployment benefits to a woman whose religious beliefs prevented her from being “available to work” on Saturday. Justice Brennan, one of the Court’s leading liberal lights, enunciated a two-part test for state infringements on the exercise of religion: (1) the state would have to enunciate a “compelling state interest” for the infringement and (2) demonstrate … Read More >>

Evtach Vilo Efchad

The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over. Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone. Questions were asked and responses recounted. Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read. Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel. Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a … Read More >>

Muddy Study

Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing? He trained a flea to jump on command. In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump. The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap. The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart. After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data. Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates … Read More >>

You Can Make a Difference!

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

It is common knowledge that in Israel today, there is an ongoing battle for the definition and future of Judaism in the Jewish state. Will Torah standards be preserved, and funding for Torah study be maintained or increased, or, ch”v, will the very meaning of the word “Judaism” – and critical matters such as conversion, marriage, divorce, Shabbos and Kashrus – be watered down to the most liberal of American definitions?

What is far less known is that in addition to increasing Tefillah/prayer and Torah study, there is a bit of hishtadlus activity, requiring little expense and effort, that each of us can do to help, to make a difference.

There is an organization today with direct impact upon the way both private donations and Israeli government funding are spent – hundreds of millions of dollars – on encouraging immigration, settlement in Israel, and Jewish services in Israel and abroad.

Its decisions affect whether the shlichim sent by the Israel Jewish Agency to communities around the world are observant or not, the type of conversion encouraged by those and other representatives of Israel, the nature of the “Jewish” education provided to thousands in the former … Read More >>

What We Mean When We Talk About Fire Safety And Jewish Observance

An article I wrote about the blaming of the recent horrific fire in Brooklyn on Sabbath-observance appears in Haaretz here. You may need to register (free of charge) on the site to access it.

May we hear only happy news from all Jewish communities.

Persian Diversion

It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zari responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.

“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If – if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.” We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).

(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash – apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be … Read More >>

Mishloach Manos from the Rebbetzin

The “Ayelet HaShachar” organization, which is the arm of the Wolfson Foundation that focuses on raising awareness of Yiddishkeit in small towns and kibbutzim, arranged for Rebbetzins of several leading lights of the Charedi community to deliver Mishloach Manos to the bereaved mothers and widows of IDF soldiers who fell in the recent Tzuk Eitan operation in Gaza.

Among the participants: Rebbetzin Kolodetzky (daughter of R’ Chaim Kanievsky) Rabbanit Yosef (wife of the Rishon Letzion) Rabbanit Yosef (wife of youngest brother R’ Moshe) Rabbanit Lau (wife of the current Chief Rabbi) Rebbetzin Ezrachi (wife of Rav Baruch Mordechai, Rosh Yeshiva of Ateres Yisrael) Rebbetzin Zohar (wife of R’ Uri) Rebbetzin Rabinowitz (wife of Rav of Kotel) Rebbetzins of Ger, Sanz, Erloi, Slonim, Boston.

Here is Rebbetzin Kolodetzky reading her inscription to Mrs. Pomerantz, mother of Daniel Pomerantz HY”D, 21, Golani Brigade.

Dear Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO. The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.” Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.”

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover. But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks. If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary … Read More >>

Will the Real Dov Lipman Please Stand Up?

Doron Beckerman’s detailed response to Dov Lipman notwithstanding, Lipman’s reaction to recent statements by Benjamin Netanyahu gives rise to more basic questions.

In his guest post to the Emes VeEmunah blog, MK Lipman insisted that the criminal sanctions against yeshiva students were not at all critical to the law, but were simply necessary for the law to pass scrutiny by the Supreme Court:

There was one issue which they took issue with regarding the law. They were against the “criminal sanctions.” …

The Yesh Atid platform did not have this component as part of the law. We knew it would be an issue for the haredi world even if it was just theoretical but there will never be police entering yeshiva dormitories and arresting the boys. So why was it included?

The government attorneys explained that the reason why we were writing a law to begin with was because the Supreme Court demanded that the Knesset pass a law with “equality.” If there was no clause in the law which mentioned the possibility of a full draft if the goals were not met, the law suits which would come on the heels of the law’s passage would … Read More >>

Sense and Centrifuges

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is:

a) A bald political move to shore up support for his candidacy in imminent Israeli elections.

b) A misguided attempt to meddle in American partisan politics and embarrass President Obama

c) A straightforward effort to express sincere concerns about the Iranian danger, and the conviction that any negotiations with Iran are inherently misguided.

My guess? A bit of “all of the above.”

There’s no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu’s presenting himself as a prophet before the legislature of the superpower ally of Israel (if not as leader of the Jewish People itself, a mantel he’s been donning of late) will help him in his reelection bid. Or that he has often seized opportunities to express his dislike of Mr. Obama. (Yes, it’s mutual; kamayim hapanim lapanim… “As water reflects a face, so the heart of a man to a man.” – Mishlei, 27:19.)

But only a hardened cynic would assume that Mr. Netanyahu’s concern about Iran is a guise, that his disdain for negotiations isn’t sincere. It surely is.

But is it right?

For those who insist on seeing Mr. Obama as, at best, insufficiently concerned with Jews or Israel, … Read More >>

Metzitza Bipeh

C-C readers are probably aware of the fact that a tentative agreement was reached yesterday between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and an association of mohelim and Orthodox representatives with regard to the practice of metzitza bipeh.

An article of mine that appeared in Haaretz yesterday on the ostensible tie between the rite and the cold sore virus (which can be dangerous to babies) can be read here.

A Response to MK Lipman

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, in a guest post on the Emes VeEmunah blog, presents his perspective on Yesh Atid’s efforts toward integrating Charedim into the IDF and the Israeli work force. The post, coming as it does from a position of government authority, deserves some scrutiny. I intersperse some quotes from the post along with my comments.

(1) “Just to clarify, the law says that if the goals are not met, then a full draft will apply to haredim just like the rest of Israeli society with the elite masmidim not having to serve. It doesn’t mention jail. It doesn’t mention arresting yeshiva boys. It says the regular draft will apply. Since for the rest of Israeli society, failure to show up when drafted is a criminal offense, the same would apply to haredim in that situation.”

Well, yes. In other words, the law says that Yeshiva boys beyond those elite masmidim are subject to arrest and prison. I don’t understand what this clarifies. Perhaps it does clarify one issue: There is no mechanism in place for determining who those “elite masmidim” are.

It is also the case that MK Lipman has little to no appreciation of the … Read More >>

Fruitful Conversations About Fruitful Continuity

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner & Rabbi Yaakov Menken

In a recent editorial in The Forward (“Be Fruitful and Multiply — Please?”, Dec. 12), Jane Eisner sets aside the Pew Report’s alarming statistics regarding non-Orthodox intermarriage and assimilation to focus upon fertility, which she terms “an even more fraught issue.” Yet it is unclear why she believes the decline in childbearing to be the dominant cause of the diminution of the non-Orthodox community, nor why begging women to have more children will contribute significantly to a reversal.

[This response was initially accepted for publication in The Forward itself, but subsequently they decided not to print it. We believe this an unfortunate decision both for The Forward and its readership.]

Eisner correctly states that non-Orthodox fertility hovers around 1.7 children per family, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. But Zero Population Growth will not preserve a Jewish community whose children are deserting it. The Pew Survey reports that fifty percent of married Reform Jewish adults have a non-Jewish spouse, and children of intermarriage are much less likely to be raised as Jews. Even beyond that, one-third of young Jewish adults raised as Reform Jews now classify … Read More >>

Ignore Headlines — and Be a Mensch

In February, 2001, I penned a piece for Moment Magazine that caused quite a ruckus.

I had titled it “Time to Come Home,” and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative Jewish congregations. I made the case that the Conservative movement’s claim of fealty to halacha was hollow and that the movement essentially took its cues from whatever non-Jewish society felt was acceptable or proper.

The issue of same-sex relationships, I contended, would prove my point. At the time, the movement hadn’t yet rejected the Torah’s clear prohibitions in that area. I predicted that, as the larger societal milieu was coming to embrace such relationships as morally acceptable, the Conservative movement would follow suit in due time.

(It did, of course, rather quickly. In 2006, the movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same gender and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. But the accuracy of my prediction is not my topic here.)

I pleaded that Conservative Jews who truly respected the concept of halacha should join their Orthodox brothers and sisters, and “come home,” as per the piece’s title.

… Read More >>

Wedded Bling

Do the price of an engagement ring and cost of wedding have anything to do with how strong a marriage will prove to be? Two Emory University economists recently studied that question. They noted that the multibillion-dollar wedding industry sends the subliminal message that large amounts of money spent on getting married can help assure successful marriages. However, the researchers found, the evidence suggested that, if anything, relatively inexpensive weddings are associated with lower likelihood of divorce.

Correlation, it is famously and accurately said, does not necessarily imply causation. It has been noted, for instance, that per capita consumption of cheese in the U.S. correlates closely with the number of people who died by becoming entangled in their bedsheets. And mathematical proficiency generally correlates with shoe size (children’s feet, after all, being smaller than those of adults).

So it’s wise not to put too much emphasis on the recent research, which was based on a survey of nearly 3,400 people who answered 40 questions, much less to extrapolate from it to the observant Jewish community.

But still.

The researchers’ conclusion – “We find that marriage duration is either not associated or inversely associated with spending on the … Read More >>

Football Fever

In this season of playoffs and super bowl, the thoughts of red-blooded Americans center on the most vital topic of the day: football. Even if we normally consider less crucial matters such as relationship with others or with Gd, the media tells us what really matters: who defeated whom, with its heroes and winners. A look at some of the heroes:

— Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens running back, savagely battered his fiance in an elevator. Reinstated after a three- game suspension, he was given a standing ovation when he appeared on the field. (Had he fumbled a ball, of course, he would have been booed.)

— Adrian Peterson, mainstay of the Minnesota Vikings, was suspended for mercilessly beating his young child.

— Ray Lewis, former star of the Ravens, was exonerated from murder charges although the evidence clearly pointed to him as the murderer ( a la O.J. Simpson).

— Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons quarterback commanding a long term contract for 90 million, was jailed for two years for killing dogs in a gambling operation.

— Alex Hernandez, former tight end for Boston Patriots, is in prison awaiting trial for premeditated murder.

— New Orleans Saints players were … Read More >>

Womens Lib Haredi-Style

An article of mine on an often-ignored aspect of the high poverty/low employment rates of haredim in Israel was published by the Forward this week. The paper chose its own title for the piece, a somewhat misleading one, but, well, so it goes. You can read it here.

Zoned Out

Challenging “pre-owned” and “correctional institution” for first place in the delicate euphemism rankings is “sensitive urban zones.”

That phrase, having barged into the news cycle in recent weeks, is the translation of “Zones Urbaines Sensibles,” a designation long used in France to describe neighborhoods characterized by high unemployment, high rates of public housing and low educational attainment, many if not most of the areas populated for the most part by Muslim immigrants.

It was the characterization of such areas in Western Europe as “no-go zones,” first by Fox News and then by Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, that propelled “sensitive urban zones” into the news.

After terrorism analyst Steve Emerson contended on Fox News that “There are actual cities [in Britain] like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in,” British Prime Minister David Cameron waxed apoplectic, and the network apologized repeatedly. Similar claims about “no-go” neighborhoods in France prodded Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to announce that the City of Light would be suing Fox. “The image of Paris,” she huffed, “has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced.”

A day after those apologies, Mr. Jindal told CNN that “In … Read More >>

Out of Borough Experience

Back in the fall, a candidate for the New York State Assembly made construction of major new housing in Borough Park the centerpiece of his campaign. A New York City councilman heartily endorsed that same goal. Currently, a developer is planning to build 13 six-story edifices in the neighborhood that will provide nearly 130 new apartments.

To those of us who don’t live in southern Brooklyn, efforts that will add to the population density and vehicular traffic there (an area some of us call Borough Double-Park) seem to border on irrationality. But of course, to residents who wish to see their married children settle in the neighborhoods where they were raised (and to those children who wish to live near their parents), new housing is an urgent priority.

No one lacking the requisite rebbishe credentials should arrogate to suggest to others how they should make decisions as important as where to live. But, having just spent a warm, memorable and inspiring Shabbos in Cincinnati, Ohio, I’d like to at least share a few impressions of that small but vibrant kehillah; and some others about some others.

Neither my wife nor I had ever been to Cincinnati before, and the … Read More >>

We’re Not Kidnappers

A piece I wrote for a Forward blog, in reaction to a mother’s lament over her newly-Orthodox daughter’s described rejection of her parents can be read here.

Greed Is Gross

The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday. At least 23 people were killed; an Al Qaeda affiliate is the suspected culprit.

Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban insurgents.

But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China. At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year.

The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.

Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times. The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course. It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human … Read More >>

Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah. The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy.

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed. Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs. In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all … Read More >>

Punditry With Prudence

“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”

The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture. I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.

The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs. I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all. We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree … Read More >>

A Halachic Query of Jordanian King Abdulla II

Dear King Abdullah,

I’m quite sure you don’t remember me. I was part of a sizable group of Jewish leaders, clergy, politicians and organizational representatives whom you, along with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, invited to a gala lunch in a posh Manhattan hotel nine years ago.

To jog your memory, though, I was the fellow with the beard and black hat, and whose lips you may have noticed quietly moving when you entered the room. I was reciting a Jewish blessing that is to be pronounced when one sees a king. It goes “Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” It is, for obvious reasons, not a common blessing to make, and I was happy to have the occasion to invoke it.

I remember well your address to the crowd. Its essence was your hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other’s religious beliefs. Your message was a vision, of a human race unified by its members’ recognition of the worth and dignity of one another. We, you may remember, applauded loudly and enthusiastically.

We learned, too, … Read More >>