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 >>

Terror Comes to Our Door

Pesukei d’zimra are not yet over, and I’m crying. Without my even realizing it, the tears have been welling up in my eyes and now they are coming down my cheeks. My first reaction is embarrassment. My second is to try to figure out exactly what I’m crying about. I wish I were crying for the ten Jews already known dead [it will later turn out to be 18], for ten Jews who went from life to death in less time than it takes to blow out a match. That, at least, would be a madrega.

But I’m not crying for them – at least I’m not crying for them alone. I’m crying for myself, for the knowledge that I will never again feel safe here, that I will never again be able to send my children on a bus or to school or Machane Yehudah without going through a hundred calculations first. (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Jewish Observer, April 1996.)

Those words were written in the aftermath of the second straight early Sunday morning suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s No. 18 bus in Adar 5756 (February 1996). But I was wrong. I had underestimated the human power of forgetting. Eventually, … Read More >>

Unknown Unknowns

Should you ever find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room with a military-uniformed classical string ensemble segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach concerto to an equally impressive (if less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” it can only mean one thing: you’re at a White House Chanukah party.

I know, because during the George W. Bush administration, on behalf of Agudath Israel, I attended several of the yearly gatherings, which brought together assorted Jewish personalities, politicians and organizational representatives. One of the times when my wife didn’t accompany me, a major supporter of Agudath Israel was my guest.

I discovered then (aside from the fact that nothing compares to home-made potato latkes) that Mr. Bush is a mentch.

As we stood in the long line for the ritual photo-op with the president and first lady, my guest asked me if I minded if he alone stood next to the first couple for the photo. Having already garnered the souvenir before (along with a presidential seal paper hand-towel from the White House restroom, now hanging on our own bathroom wall), I didn’t. And so, when it was our turn, I stepped back to allow my guest … Read More >>

Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel. He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state. Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood. The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.” And yes, that didn’t happen. (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.) But … Read More >>

Strong and Subtle Slanders

The New York Jewish Week was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ, recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many…towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis. He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the Jewish Week contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and … Read More >>

Pair of Pieces in Haaretz

Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie responded to a piece of mine that appeared recently in Haaretz.

The piece I had written is at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.626373

and his response at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.627494

I hope to offer a counter-response in coming days.

Do We Care About a Jewish Israel?

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner

Opponents of traditional Torah values are trying to change the face of Judaism in Israel, and have laid out their plans in full detail. Are we listening? Are we going to respond? Are we going to protect the Mesorah and Kedusha of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael?

Discussions in Israel today – in the media, in the halls of Knesset, and at the highest levels of government – threaten the religious status quo in Israel as never before. If passed into law, bills currently being forwarded will expand the divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in Israel and worldwide.

These changes are frequently not the result of internal pressure for change; rather, American groups are demanding change, and the Israeli government is responding to that pressure. And Orthodox American Jews, those who would protect tradition and oppose deviations from eternal Jewish values, are largely absent from the dialogue.

Proposed legislation will permit public transportation, and allow malls, movie theaters, and restaurants to open on the Shabbos. Another change (which recently passed through Knesset committees and the Cabinet, and does not require a full Knesset vote) removes the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions to Judaism, … Read More >>

Statement from Agudath Israel of America on this morning’s massacre of mispallelim in Har Nof

This morning’s barbaric murder in Har Nof, Jerusalem of four Jews has left all caring people reeling – the tears are pouring this morning and our hearts are full of pain.

This vicious attack on people wearing tallis and tefillin and immersed in tefilla is ugly testimony to the depth of evil faced by Jews in Israel and the world over, in the form of brutal terrorists who revel in the killing of innocents.

The celebration of the murders in Gaza and elsewhere reiterates the despicable nature of those who wish the Holy Land to be Judenrein.

When cold-blooded murderers attack a makom Torah u’tefila in the Eretz Ha’kodesh, it is incumbent upon all of us to strengthen ourselves in Torah and tefila on behalf of our dear brethren in the Eretz Ha’kodesh. Imahem anachnu b’tzara.

We are mispallel that those who were injured in this brutal attack have a refuah shlaimah.

Our hearts go out to the families, particularly the almanos and the 26 innocent yesomim who lost their fathers – true kedoshim, holy men killed because they were Jews, who died with Jewish prayers on their lips.

May the families of the murdered, … Read More >>

Status (Quo) Update

ITEM: In the wake of the shooting in Jerusalem of political activist Yehuda Glick, allegedly by an Islamic Jihad member who was killed by police after he fired at them, and the subsequent closing of the mosque on Har HaBayis to Muslim worshippers for several hours, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain the “status quo” at the site.

ITEM: Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel is indeed “determined to maintain the status quo” at the holy site.

Status Quo: A Latin phrase meaning the existing state of affairs. The related phrase often intended by “status quo” is status quo ante, or, “the state of affairs that existed previously.”

It is unfortunate, in fact tragic, that a mosque occupies the site where the Beis Hamikdash stood and will one day stand again. But the state of Israel respects the understandable 1967 decision of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the Six Day War, when Yerushalayim was reunited, to cede control of access to Har HaBayis to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf, or religious trust. Even to the point of prohibiting Jewish prayer on the site, in seeming violation of at least the spirit … Read More >>

Sefer Torah Abuse

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated. If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day. I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant. Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” they had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media. “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear. By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place – perhaps the only … Read More >>

Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

Part of a message from the Medical Society of the State of New York to local physicians reads as follows:

“Strategies to limit the potential for [Ebola] transmission… should be based on the best available medical, scientific and epidemiological evidence; be proportional to the risk; balance the rights of individuals and the community…”

One has to wonder whether strategies to limit the potential of the transmission of other viruses, like New York City’s strategy of regulating ritual circumcision, are similarly “proportional to the risk.”

Or do religious practices for some reason enjoy less protection than secular ones?

“Personal Torah”

A recent announcement by a respected Conservative rabbi has been trumpeted widely as evidence of his heroism. My take is somewhat different, and was published, to the periodical’s credit, by the Forward. You can read it here

The “Shabbos App” is a Farce

It is true that the “Shabbos App” has attracted a great deal of attention and discussion. Personally, I am waiting for the prankster to come forward and explain that this was all designed to make Orthodox Jews look bad by demonstrating their focus on … what, precisely, I’m not sure. Probably that we care about Shabbos at all, and are distressed by those teens in many communities who are unable to set aside their phones when required by Halacha. But we’ll get to that eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that this whole thing is a farce, and of course we have yet to see anyone pony up $49.95 to get their (non-working) copy and prove me right or wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Rabbosai, you’ve all been fooled.

Let’s look at the evidence, which falls into four basic categories: the announcement, the website, the video, and the backers.

The Announcement They claim they’ll release it in February. If it takes that long to build this (which it shouldn’t), there’s no need to start marketing it so far in advance. The promised final version will cost $49.95, which is extraordinarily high for an app, much … Read More >>

When Orthodox Jews Boycott Israeli Produce

The article below appeared in Haaretz last week.

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many … Read More >>

Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939. There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker. He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland … Read More >>

Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like … Read More >>

Kidneys, Cash and Caring

Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story. Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.

The organs in question are kidneys. Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.

But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one. The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.

The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral. Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, … Read More >>

Much Ado About Something

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like … Read More >>

The End is Near

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming. It should also, however, be inspiring.

For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred. That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think.

Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?

Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?

Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name. But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack. They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a … Read More >>

Enemies, Real and Imagined

1) Hamas is evil.

2) Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

3) Anti-Israel sentiment is usually simple Jew-hatred in (not very good) disguise.

4) The United States needs to be fully supportive of Israel.

5) It has been.

Some would take issue with that last sentence. They are wrong. And it behooves Klal Yisroel, which is meant to be imbued with the concept of hakaras hatov, to recognize that fact.

Over the past six years, some have come to imagine that the current occupant of the White House is some sort of adversary of Israel.

Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason, as some apparently do. But for those of us who (even though we expected the worst, considering some of the baggage he brought to Pennsylvania Avenue) have carefully observed him, he has proven himself more than worthy of Jewish respect.

Yet he was pounced upon, after his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world for, well, the simple decision to address that world; and for basing the state of Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust. What seemed to be … Read More >>