What Azoulay Meant About Reform Jews

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

When Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay, recently appeared on Galei Zahal Radio to address Jewish conversion and religious standards in Israel, media and political figures picked up on a half quote found within a small segment of his interview, and had a field day. “Reform Jews aren’t Jews,” blared the headlines — never mind that he said otherwise, repeatedly, in that same segment.

Why ignore the context, content, and intent of his remarks? The American Reform Movement is pressuring Israel to change its religious standards to match their own; MK Azoulay was responding to this pressure. He said that Reform Jews aren’t simply Jews, but Jews who erred. They have strayed from the path of Torah, he explained, and he implied that they are at risk: “We must truly be concerned that every Jew returns to the lap of Judaism, and we will receive everyone with love.” Every Jew is welcome — but American Reform standards, he maintained, don’t belong in Israel.

This is not, as some might wish to believe, Azoulay’s opinion because he is an Orthodox Rabbi. It is simply because Azoulay is an Israeli.

Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was … Read More >>


Agudath Israel Statement on Jonathan Pollard Parole

With much joy and gratitude to Hashem, Agudath Israel of America warmly welcomes the announcement that Jonathan Pollard will be released on parole November 21, 2015.

Agudath Israel has advocated over the course of decades for Mr. Pollard’s release, both on legal and humanitarian grounds. His freedom is long overdue.

We understand that Mr. Pollard wishes to move to Israel and establish residence there. We respectfully call upon President Obama to take whatever executive actions may be necessary to allow for this to happen.

May Yehonasan ben Malka’s health improve, and may he live and thrive for many productive years to come.

A Worthy, Timely Truth

It’s intriguing – to be truthful, depressing – that as we prepare to focus on our galus and its causes we in the Orthodox world are witnessing acrimony born of true chinom, nothingness.

The sort of sentiments and language that are regularly being employed by opponents of the Iran agreement against anyone who isn’t convinced that it is “evil” or “insane” or “dangerous” is deeply wrong. (Maybe there is corresponding rashness from the deal’s supporters. I just haven’t encountered any.)

What seems lost on some is the fact that the issue isn’t “Israel’s security” against (take your pick:) “America’s needs” or “Obama’s worldview” or “hopeless naiveté.” It is “Israel’s security” against “Israel’s security.”

That is to say, whether Israel’s security, along with that of the rest of the free world, is better served by an imperfect agreement (as all agreements must be) or by no agreement. Reasonable, sane, and not evil people can disagree with that. But they cannot – or, at least, should not – heatedly denounce those who see things differently from themselves just because… they see things differently from themselves. That is chinom.

The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so … Read More >>

Faigy Mayer, o”h

A thought on the untimely and tragic death of Faigy Mayer, o”h, is here.

Recent Articles on Two Different Kinds of Evolution

A piece I wrote in response to a a review of Marc Shapiro’s most recent book (and, to an extent, to the book itself) can be read here.

And one about my personal reluctance to accept speciation is here.

The Peril of Pluralism in Israel

A piece I recently wrote about Minister Azoulay’s imprecise comments, and the larger issue of “religious pluralism” in Israel, is in Haaretz here .

Supreme Court Vs. Supreme Being

Some thoughts of mine about the recent Supreme Court decision redefining marriage are posted here.

A Magical Encounter

Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting. “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind. As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry. I laughed and said, “I wish!” The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers. What aptitude we have lies in … Read More >>

Gay Marriage Decision Interview

I was interviewed by phone on a Jewish cable television program last week about the recent US Supreme Court gay marriage decision. The interview, along with one of a Conservative movement representative, can be heard here.

Reaching for the Truth

All of us can, at most, “Strive for Truth” [It’s a borrowed title], and so I appreciate Rabbi Shafran’s clarification of his position. And to the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been a back & forth discussion/argument of this nature on Cross-Currents in over a decade, much as different authors often disagree. The more one reads Cross-Currents, the more the reader recognizes that the Orthodox are hardly the monolith they are often portrayed to be; a debate of this nature just makes this as explicit as possible, and thus where Rabbi Shafran and I emphatically agree is that this is a positive dialog for several reasons.

I see no reason to depart from Rabbi Shafran’s enumeration of my points, and I’ll let people respond to both articles in the comments below.

1) My point was that there seemed no need for Rabbi Shafran to wander down this road, especially considering the tenuous ground upon which his arguments stand. What is the purpose of demonizing Oren? Instead of being a brilliant historian and dedicated public servant, all of a sudden he’s a right-wing nut job attacking Obama just to sell books, and Kafui Tov for not … Read More >>

I’m Afraid It Is So. Sorry.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Yaakov Menken, below offers kind words about me, for which I thank him; and takes strong issue with my defenses of President Obama’s Israel record against some of the attacks on him by members of the Jewish community – for which I also thank him. I know from e-mails I’ve received that, while I am not alone in my appreciation of the president, neither is Rabbi Menken in his criticism of him. And I think that respectful dialectic is the key to better understanding of issues, in the study of political matters no less than in, lihavdil, the beis medrash.

First off, let me state unequivocally that my defense of the president is not a simple reflection of the obligation we Jews have, in golus, as we are, to respect our governmental leaders. That obligation is indeed real, but it is peripheral to my stance. My position is born of examination of facts and critical thinking. My conclusions might be wrong, but I have only the mind Hashem has granted me to employ.

I also wish to make clear that I write on this issue as an individual, not in my “day job” as an … Read More >>

Say It Isn’t So, Rabbi Shafran

Rabbi Shafran is someone I have admired for decades. His witty, moving, and inspirational biography of the journey of a Jewish convert, Migrant Soul, emerged when I was still a yeshiva student, and when he became Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, I knew the organization was in good hands, and it has been so. I agree with what he writes most of the time, certainly on issues affecting the charedi community.

One of the few things I can neither agree with — nor even comprehend — is Rabbi Shafran’s service to the Obama Administration as its chief charedi apologist. Time and again, his arguments in this one area seem, to me, to stretch the limits of credulity in search of a way to show that Obama is actually much more pro-Israel, pro-religion, and/or simply pro-common-sense than he so consistently appears to be.

This week has proven no exception, and it is, for me, a bridge too far. As many have already pointed out, Michael Oren is brilliant, dedicated, loves both Israel and the United States, is an historian with an impeccable record of attention to detail, and, finally, is no “Ally” of Netanyahu — on … Read More >>

Non-Crime of Omission

I have to admit that there was one assertion in Michael Oren’s recent book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” that disturbed me greatly. As I wrote two weeks ago, I found his book’s main points, which he outlined in essays for Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, to be factually incorrect. But I was taken aback by Mr. Oren’s description of how President Obama left Israel off a list of countries the president lauded for aiding Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010. That omission – especially considering Israel’s prodigious role in rescue and recovery efforts after that disaster – seemed to contradict my positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.

On pages 132-133 of his book, Mr. Oren writes how his “foreboding only deepened” when Mr. Obama, on January 15, three days after the earthquake struck, made an official statement in which he announced that American personnel were on the ground in Haiti and that “help continues to flow in” as well from “Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others.” Israel’s omission from the list, Mr. Oren writes, made him feel “like I had been … Read More >>

Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism

The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.

It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:

The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.* The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se). And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.

The … Read More >>

Oren Gets Ornery

It’s axiomatic that diplomats must be, well, diplomatic. That might explain why Michael Oren, a current member of the Knesset (Kulanu) but who served as ambassador of Israel to the United States from 2009 until 2013, kept his disillusionment with President Barack Obama under wraps until now.

In a Wall St. Journal op-ed to promote a new book he’s written, Mr. Oren has accused Mr. Obama of, if not quite in the WSJ headline-writer’s contention, “abandon[ing] Israel,” at least (in Mr. Oren’s actual words) “abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America.”

A serious charge, though, in its own right.

Mr. Oren acknowledges that “contrary to many of his detractors, Mr. Obama was never anti-Israel” and “significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish State.” The president, moreover, “rushed to help Israel in 2011 when the Carmel forest was devastated by fire.”

Presumably the ex-ambassador appreciates, too, Mr. Obama’s swift and strong warning to Egyptian authorities in 2011 that they had better protect mob-besieged Israeli embassy guards in Cairo. And the president’s informing the Arab world in his 2009 Cairo speech that the U.S.-Israel bond is “unbreakable.” As well as things like the administration’s condemnation of the … Read More >>

Thoughtless Jewish Jeers

I’m trying to understand the sort of mindlessness that expressed itself in the jeering of Treasury Secretary Jacob (“Jack”) Lew by some Jews at a recent gathering.

The third Jerusalem Post Annual Conference which took place in Manhattan on June 7 and featured Israeli and American officials and journalists, was convened with the hope of garnering international attention. It succeeded, if only in the widespread reportage of the way some in attendance reacted to Mr. Lew’s measured and accurate words.

Applause ensued when he told the crowd that the U.S. continues to consider Israel’s security a top priority as it negotiates a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities and that “we must never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.”

The Treasury Secretary then explained how the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran were intended to pressure that country to agree to negotiations about limiting and monitoring its nuclear program, and that they succeeded. The first murmurs from the crowd were heard then.

And then, when he asserted that Iran’s movement toward a nuclear weapon had been arrested for now, and that an agreement, if one is signed, would thwart the outlaw nation’s suspected designs, the booing began in ugly … Read More >>

Our Children are Children Too

A response in the New York Jewish Week to American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who wrote an earlier op-ed in that paper opposing NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to grant some relief to parents of nonpublic school children, can be read here.

Who’s In Charge?

Some of us can remember when taking a plane was a pleasant experience, even exhilarating. Those days, of course, are long gone.

It used to be – if “good old days” syndrome hasn’t played with my memory – that only well-dressed and genteel folks flew, and that airport and airline personnel were uniformly polite and helpful. These days, air travel is a largely unpleasant affair. Airports are crowded; cabins, even more so. Seats are too close together, and fellow passengers, as a result, occasionally surly. Professional staffs can be less than congenial. Flight delays are frequent. And then there are the “security measures.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, was established, and eventually made part of the DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, also created at that time.

Among the TSA’s 60,000 employees are the people who make passengers take off their shoes (good thing the “shoe bomber” hadn’t swallowed the explosives instead), pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, “pat down” shoeless passengers. They’re the folks who confiscate your water bottles.

And who, it turns out, according to a secret DHS “Red Team” report, managed to miss a good number of … Read More >>

Knowing Half the Story

The video is horrifying. A bus driver, with just a few kids left on his route, stops at the side of the road. He throws a kid’s bag out the door onto the grass, and orders the kid off — and drives away, with other kids screaming how he can’t leave a child blocks away from home, or simply sobbing in distress.

Unsurprisingly, the school district demanded the driver be fired for this horrific act of cruelty.

Then the bus company released video of its own, showing the lead-up to this incident. Not only was one kid kicking and punching another, but a second, burly eighth-grader used his hockey bag to strike the driver while the bus was on the road. He had jeopardized the life of the driver and every student on that bus. Afterwards, the first kid, who had directed his fists towards another student, kept up a running diatribe against the driver for another mile or so — at which point the driver had had enough, and threw the kid and his bag off the bus.

As predictably as was its first reaction, the school district changed its tune. It apologized to the bus … Read More >>

Bias Ne’eman

By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias. But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.” And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg. The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” … Read More >>

Ramapo School Board Bashing Spills Onto NYT Op-Ed Page

The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.

The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group. And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.

The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.

The facts:

* State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

* East Ramapo’s demographics — approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools — and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it … Read More >>

Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur. What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own. After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace. In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people. There … Read More >>

What The Forward Publishes

When I wrote a few tweets about what happened in Baltimore, I expected a few nasty responses — but drew one from a new source, a man calling himself @HeathenHassid. I recognized his name; he was the author of a particularly vitriolic piece in The Forward, one which basically said any Chassid exposed to the secular world will inevitably abandon Chassidism (never mind that he can’t identify even one of his own siblings, who presumably are numerous and were equally exposed, who abandoned it with him).

So I responded, both because I enjoy a good debate and wanted to learn more about him. And when I pointed out to him that by leaving Chassidism for “liberal Judaism,” he was in effect boarding a sinking ship, he had this reply:

@ymenken @AhavatYisraeI What boat? Where did I say I'm Jewish? I left that lifestyle for reality. I'm not a child, I prefer the truth.

— Ari Mandel (@HeathenHassid) May 6, 2015

So The Forward, which refused to publish the work of Orthodox Rabbis who want to help liberal Jews to stay Jewish, was happy to publish the work of an atheist who … Read More >>

Inform or Incite

Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television. Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad. And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence. A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews. Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect … Read More >>

Baltimore Take-Aways

Here in Baltimore, we’re buckling down the hatches and hoping to weather the storm. Unrest is expected in “the Northwest” but no one is quite sure what that means. Schools all dismissed early and it’s been recommended that children stay indoors. So far, it’s a snow day in April; iy”H it will remain so.

I’m sure some of what I say here will be controversial, but here are my opinions on the facts as I know them.

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

People who have nothing to hide have no problem making eye contact with a police officer, and certainly they don’t respond to eye contact by bolting. This has nothing to do with “running while black,” and everything to do with “running from a cop.”

It is the responsibility of the Baltimore Police to keep public order. Especially in a high crime area, the fact that Gray went running off at top speed was an extremely good reason to detain him, start a conversation and find out why he was running away.

Then, upon detaining him, there was ample reason to bring him into custody. He was carrying a switchblade, which which is apparently … Read More >>